by Christopher Anderson
Visiting Assistant Professor of Writing & Literature
It all began a few minutes before Beat Generation class. Midterms approaching, and I was trying my best to avoid administering a formal test. I think they’re a real drag.
We’d been reading selections from Allen Ginsberg and a few other poets associated with the Beat Generation. Everyone had come to life when discussing Ginsberg’s “Howl,” a poem of mad bravery that may have sparked a revolution. We read about this bearded hipster, a man who began his life with the cards stacked against him. His mother was on a downhill path toward the insane asylum and lobotomy. McCarthy was hunting down communists and paranoia permeated the culture (Allen had attended Communist Part meeting with his mother as a child). The Bomb had recently been dropped on Japan, a ghost that would haunt everyone. Even worse, young Allen Ginsberg was gay. In 1940’s America. You do the math.
After fighting to understand the confusions that made up his life, as well as a brief stint of his own in a mental hospital, Ginsberg had to make a choice: Follow his mother into the depths of insanity, or come out—all the way out, in every possible way, and embrace this mad world. The result was “Howl,” a poem that began “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving, hysterical naked…,” a poem that addressed the overwhelming pressures weighing on him, and everyone he knew. And for the rest of his life Ginsberg lived that way—open, free, naked (often literally), possessed of a desire to simply change the world.
I think we can all recognize something essential in this story. We all have a desire to break free from the pressures of society and family, of history and government. Today, we live in a time of mounting absurdity—the Iraq war, the Patriot Act, Britney Spears. Terrorists! Dorm life! And so I asked my class to write their own Beat poems. They didn’t have to be good; they only had to be honest. I wanted to know what they had to howl about.
Here are a few of those poems. I am pleased by their honesty and purity, a warts and all approach to channeling anger into a more righteous place. We had our own beat reading for our mid-term, and it was wonderful.
You say you want a revolution? Perhaps it begins right here.
Beth Ann Miller