Next I will show
Dead Poet's Society
, an inspiring movie starring Robin Williams as a teacher at a rather stuffy private school. His love of poetry becomes dangerous, or is at least perceived as dangerous, as it incites his students toward self-expression and to "travel to the beat of a different drum." They see Williams as their Captain because he teaches them Whitman's poem, "O captain! My Captain!" and they do not want to, like their parents, "lead lives of quiet desperation" and find when they come to die that they are already dead. For young men in the late 1950's who had not yet discovered the beats and for whom the name Allen Ginsberg meant nothing, this was heady stuff.
Anne Charters in her book
The Portable Beat Reader
says that the "word beat was primarily in use after World War II by jazz musicians and hustlers as a slang term meaning down and out, or poor and exhausted. Allen Ginsberg remembered first hearing the word beat to mean exhausted, at the bottom of the world, looking up or out, sleepless, wide-eyed, perceptive, rejected by society, on your own, streetwise.
In a June 1959 article in
"The Origins of the Beat Generation", Jack Kerouac explained that the linguistic root of the word "beat" also carried connotations of beatitude or beatific. When the term beat generation began to be used as a label for all young people it became a synonym for anyone living as a bohemian or acting in a rebellious manner.
I was fortunate to have Allen Ginsberg as a professor at City College in New York, a school I was forced to attend after I dropped out of college and my parents refused to support my education anymore. To a young radical, trying to make sense of the late sixties, early seventies, listening to Ginsberg was pretty much a dream come true.
"Howl", Ginsberg's great opus speaks powerfully for his generation. Ginsberg screams that the crazy people are right. They are right about the corrupt government, sexuality, poverty, and many other things. "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the Negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix…" We will read and analyze this poem, making sense of what we can.
Kenneth Koch in his book
Sleeping on the Wing
says that Ginsberg was a poet who responded to the social and political world in his poetry and that in "Howl" written in 1956 he had written an entirely different kind of poem about sick, crushed, and desperate people who were also brilliant and artistic who wanted to find beauty and meaning in ordinary normal American life. They couldn't so they turned to alcohol and drugs, much like Tupac and rap.
Sleeping on the Wing
, by the way, is a great source for teacher because it contains an excellent choice of poems for high school students and it has a page or two of explanation about them, biographical information about each poet, and suggestions for writing. It has been my bible for many years.
Students will also read an interview with Kerouac on his interpretation of "beat" generation and analyze some of his poetry and Buddhist philosophy. A good movie to accompany this section is
. It traces the life of Ginsberg, Kerouac and Gregory Corso and helps explain why white people began to question their superiority in the world. It also began the movement toward seeing music as dangerous and inciting passion is it sexual or political.
Girl from Impanema
gave musical validation to the feelings of the time.
This was clearly a time when the music of the time helped create and define the era. The beat of modern jazz was a necessary element for understanding the importance and place of the beat poets. For example, Dave Brubeck's
The beats sort of naturally lead me into the sixties rock music. In particular Bob Dylan, the poet laureate of 60's. I might as well end with something that is so near and dear to my heart. If I have to listen to their music than they will have to listen to mine!