Week 4 - Whitman, Ginsberg and Kerouac

Research and Writing Assignments: Note-taking to support working thesis

Bedford Guide: Read Chapters 4 & 5, Gathering information from sources

Movie: Walt Whitman, Voices and Visions ; Dizzy Gillespie clips

Literary Reading: Whitman, "Leaves of Grass": Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" and other poetry, Begin "On the Road"


Lecture 4

At this very moment, we are deep in the midst of the 50th Anniversary of Allen Ginsberg's water-shed poem, "Howl". Ginsberg first read this poem on October 6, 1955 in San Francisco, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the box store owner, poet and publisher, sent him a note that contained the same message that Emerson had sent to Whitman when he read "Leaves of Grass, "I greet you at the beginning of a great career." (www.citylights.com) This literary and emotion tie between Ginsberg and the beat generation and their literary predecessor, Walt Whitman, was solidified in that moment, if not before.

That Ginsberg and company had the need of a role model, father figure, literary antecedent, is significiant. They appeared to be doing something new--breaking rules, shouting out, being emotional and raw in a way that most American poetry was not. Their subject matter, style, personal ways of being together and apart, seemed to break rules. They wanted more, however, they wished a kind of cultural legitimacy which harkening back to earlier American models could give them. Across the decades, they chose Whitman as their guide.

A rebel in his own day, (Walt Whitman, Voices and Visions-available as video at NSCC library and elsewhere) Whitman embodied the sound, sense and sensibility these rebels were looking for. Whitman was an odd-man out in his own time. He had a difficult childhood and an adulthood that did not follow the mold. Homosexual, often solitary, but seeking the company of others, Whitman worked a great deal of his adult life on his own flowing poem, "Leaves of Grass". Use the links given here to read both "Howl" and portions of "Leaves". They should give you an idea of the open line, open subject matter and kind of sensitivity to spoken language of the mid-19th and mid-20th centuries that these poems celebrate.

These poems are a part of the picture of what makes On the Road the novel that it is. They show, like the novel and the lives of the people who were a part of the Beat Generation, that the writer and, hopefully, the reader as well, need to open to the meaning of life, the relationships between and among people, the celebrations of a kind of heightened awareness brought on by drugs, religious ritual, meditation, or simply an awareness of the intense joys of life. These writers struggled to know those moments of intensity and convey them to the readers and listeners. Music was connected to this--whether Whitman's celebration of the operatic mode,or the Beats acknowledgement of the rhythm and coolness of the jazz of their era.