What’s Beat?

On my recent travels through Asia I have been reading Barry Miles’ biography of Allen Ginsberg, and for some reason I’ve been pondering the meaning of the word “Beat” and of the very definition of “Beat Generation.” It’s something I did back when I began Beatdom and wanted to explain what Beatdom was and meant and yet in recent years I’ve just come to ignore these questions. 

Yet, they tough, valid questions. Knowing what “Beat” means and who the “Beats” were is important not only in studying the past, but in considering our own place here in the present.

So please take a look at my little essay, “What’s Beat?”, which I have labelled as a page, rather than a post, and let me know what you think.

5 Comments to “What’s Beat?”

  1. i think it reminds me of my article in issue 7.
    i guess i am influential. haha.
    We are a Generation of Beats. This Generation has more longevity than any other generation to date. I am 53 years old. I know Beats who are 20-something and the beginning of the movement is 50 years on. We are an ageless generation. Our heroes are infinite. They are both dead and alive. They are gone but they teach us. A succession of anti-authoritarian voices have been lifted (for this, our generation) since the 1950s.
    i like the piece but want to add that the generation didn’t just start in 1957. it seems that all of these writers shared a common history of what they read, too. like voltaire and rabelais and rimbaud and baudelaire and on into the 20th century. i think Beat is also defined by a new diversity of intellectualism that split generations. being born the same year ‘on the road’ came out, i saw how the whole world went from black and white and god and country to eastern influenced, colourful hippie-ism and there was this whole world of hidden authors that you could not find in the library or that they didn’t teach in school, even though it is centuries old classic material. opening the door to a ‘new room’ in the library, the beats not only defined their own situation but showed how it fit into the whole consciousness of the universal mind.
    and they appealed to the universal mind because what you read was like they were talking to you, reaching out and saying live now before it is all gone, live.
    also with the definitions, both neal cassady and allen ginsberg would have been considered Beats in the 50s but in the 60s, cassady was a Beat until he died while ginsberg could definately have been more aptly called a hippie at that point in time, like at the love in. it is so hard to put a finger on it in so little space. good thing there is Beatdom, huh?

    • Yes, I wanted to show that there could be limits… but that those limits aren’t necessarily correct. It’s very possible to look at the Beat Generation as a period in history, confined to a handful of people, that really started and ended more than fifty years ago. But of course there’s more to it than that. The Beat spirit is still alive, yes, through magazines like Beatdom, as well as in the attitudes and art of people around the world.

      It’s interesting what you say about Ginsberg. He certainly became a part of the hippie movement, which might lend credence to the thought that the Beat Generation was a definite period that ended, or at least melted into subsequent countercultures.

  2. impresive essay David, I totally agree with your understanding of the term ‘beat’, here is my understanding of the word:

    The origin of the word Beat is said to be obscure, but the meaning is too clear to the whole of America. In the drug world ‘beat’ meant ‘robbed’ or ‘cheated’ , while the jazz musicians and hustlers used it as a slang term meaning down and out, or poor and exhausted . Allen Ginsberg remembered first hearing the word ‘beat” “the original street usage” in Huncke’s speech , which meant “exhausted, at the bottom of the world, looking up or out, sleepless, wide-eyed, perceptive, rejected by society, on your own,streetwise”) It was Huncke who introduced the word to William burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. The word acquired historical resonance when Jack Kerouac used this word in a conversation with a fellow writer to John Clellon Holmes, saying, “ So I guess you might say we’re a beat generation.”

    Ginsberg, gave a new twist to the word when he added the expression ‘wide eyed’ to the definition, thus labelling it with a mystic insight into the nature of things. By ‘wide eyed’ he meant, something or someone ‘receptive to vision’, one who can see clearly beyond the hallucinating reality which was present before him.

    Jack Kerouac, however visualized a different significance of the word ‘Beat’. He saw in it spirituality and ‘a vision’, he insisted that the term ‘Beat’ never meant “ Juvenile delinquents” but rather it meant “ characters of a special spirituality who didn’t gang up but were solitary Bartlebies staring out the dead wall window of our civilization” (4,xviii) he took the term ‘bartlebies’ from Herman Melville’s story about a non-conformist American named, “Bartleby the Scrivener”. He clamed that the term had much deeper connotations which had spiritual significance and had a sort of mystery attached to it. It is said that Kerouac discovered the spiritual aspect of the term in 1954, when he went to a Catholic church back home in Massachusetts. On hearing the melodious ‘holy silence’ in the church he could make a liaison between the terms ‘beat’ and ‘Beatific’. ‘Beatific’ , as term has a very archaic existence, going back to 1639, when it was first used in print in the sense of ‘ beatific vision’ or the “ direct knowledge of God enjoyed by the blessed in heaven” . The recent connotation of the word can be found in Webster’s collegiate dictionary, where it is defined as something “possessing or imparting beatitude; having a blissful or benign appearance: saintly angelic” . “ the point of Beat is that you get beat down to a certain nakedness where you are actually able to see the world in a visionary way” wrote Ginsberg, “which is the old classical understanding of what happens in the dark night of the soul”

  3. haha…bartleby – i would prefer not! great reference!!

    i think huncke is the first one on record to use the word ‘Beatdom,’ which is where that confusion lies.

    also, i left william blake, a key player in Beat thinking, out of the first reply.

    i think it has no beginning or end…lord buckley even made jesus and adam and eve into Beats…ha…it is like a shooting star and it is there to catch if you can see it, if you have trained your eyes to see such things…

  4. O Yes..William Blake how can we forget the ‘Blake Experience’ of Ginsberg and Sunflower sutra..Ginsberg experienced the mystical state of “universal consciousness” several times.To communicate his experience to others, became his primary aim as a poet. He saw himself at the time as a poet with a mission: to set people free from their slavery to the material world and its insane demands, the worst of which was that they deny their common, universal humanity in their daily lives, that they deny the finality and holiness of existence. He developed out of his “Blake experience” a theory of poetry as a means to altering the audience’s thought processes, so that the infinite and eternal would become visible…

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