The Beat Poets

If you think about Europe in the 60's, things that come to mind are the era of rock & roll, student protests and the liberalisation of society. You think about the Beatles, the sexual revolution and the extensive use of mind-expanding substances. All these have their root in a movement that started in the America of the 50's and eventually became part of European culture itself. Reason enough to learn from our neighbours across the Atlantic and bring back some hipness to our old continent.

Photo: (C) Allen Ginsberg Estate
Hal Chase, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William
Burroughs in New York City, 1944 or 1945.

Imagine you are at another one of those "hippie"-theme parties. Dressed in stonewashed jeans and a rainbow t-shirt, with a pair of John Lennon lenses on your nose. You are swinging to Jimi, Jim and Janis, mimicking the kind of fun (most of) your grandparents enjoyed in the 1960s. Now, imagine yourself at a different kind of party. People wear colourful skinny tights, vintage hats and scarves, you are "swinging" to indie music and almost everyone has a pair of thick black Ray-Ban glasses on their noses – these people are called hipsters. You have now attended two different parties with origins in the same term: "hippie". But the group of people who first started the party were the beatniks.

The beatniks were the outcasts of American society during the 1950s, and no one documented their time better than Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs – the most prominent poets of the Beat Generation. They represented a whole generation in opposition to American postwar conformities and mainstream values. What they longed for was a "New Vision"; the freedom to raise the potential of American youth. And free they were, the Beatniks, practising alternative forms of sex, experimenting with all sorts of drugs and trying out all religions ending with "–ism". But most of all they wrote free; free prose and poetry which ultimately helped to liberalise what could be published in the United States, and more importantly who young men and women could be in the United States.

So, whether you already consider yourself a true fighter for peace, love and the land of green, green grass, or whether you think you will see yourself more clearly through Allen Ginsberg's thick-rimmed glasses (he wore the Ray Bans because he actually couldn't see..), these are the Beatniks' Beat-tricks:

Beat trick #1: Enrol at an elite university

Having landed places at some of the United States' most legendary universities, Ginsberg, Kerouac and Burroughs were what their parents and teachers would call "promising young men". But one by one they left (or were kicked out of) the classroom; Ginsberg (partly) left in frustration over the Columbia English department's lack of a course on Walt Whitman. Kerouac got kicked out from the same university for arguing with his football teacher, who kept him on the bench. Burroughs did actually graduate from Harvard law. So even though you'll only stay there for a semester or two, enrol at the university, get what you want, and drop out. Argue with your professors, provoke your classmates, and when you finally decide to leave, do so with a statement, such as writing small messages on your dorm window. Convinced that the cleaning lady at his dorm was an anti-Semite who left his window dirty on purpose, Ginsberg wrote "F**k the Jews" on the glass and got expelled. Maybe "F**k the people who write "F**k the Jews" on their f**king window" will do it for you?

Photo: (C) Allen Ginsberg Estate
William Burroughs and Jack
Kerouac in 1953.

Beat trick #2: Create a salon or a small "commune"

Get together with some of your acquaintances – these people don't necessarily need to be your friends yet – and have regular late night intellectual conversations where you discuss serious topics such as "How to burn school books – matches or lighters?", "How to take global warming seriously?" and "New [Euro]Vision". It is important to have both genders represented at the commune. The Beats were four men and two women in a one-bedroom apartment on Hudson River, but don't think that was an uneven number; in the era of the Beats, sharing was caring...

Beat trick #3: Cross your social limits

The Beats moved in a circle of exiles, criminals and runaways – no, I am not talking about investment bankers or Silvio Berlusconi  – people living in the Times Square underground where life was at its roughest and most honest. The reason for this: they were curious (and in need of drugs). Use your curiosity to explore a new environment. You don't necessarily have to go "down in the gutter", but join a group of people who will get your hands a little dirty. How about visiting that pub you never dared to enter which offers "Thai massage" in the basement? If that is a bit much to ask, be brave and go to a house party where you don't know anyone. Or just put a nasty joke as your Facebook-status and see where it takes you. And if everything fails, get drunk with your parents and their friends and play spin the bottle. You might end up with some information you wish you never knew, and the next family-gathering will probably be a bit awkward, but on the bright side – it runs in the family, so you'll know where you're headed! Remember, there are many safe ways to access the unsafe. And even more unsafe ones, but E&M will refuse any liability.

Beat trick #4: Drink coffee

"I wrote that book on COFFEE", Kerouac remarked after it was insinuated that he wrote On the Road on Benzedrine (an amphetamine). He went on to recommend coffee for writing over other drugs. Not exactly dropping a bomb there, Kerouac's comment still symbolised the Beats' use of coffee and other "coffees", because there was a lot of "coffee" at the "coffee house" on Hudson River, and studying like the Beat-poets means studying with hallucinations.

However, there are also drug-free ways to achieve such effects:

  • Stress: For example, ask Sarah Palin a question about politics and you will see the classic symptoms of stress. Or you can sign up for a job for which you are by no means qualified (like the former president of the United States... and Sarah Palin).
  • Sleep deprivation and/or exhaustion: Down-prioritise your own health by doing the PPP: Play, party and pass out.
  • Meditation (see Beat trick #6)
  • Hearing loss is sometimes said to cause musical hallucinations. Attending a Slipknot concert might give you a buzz between the ears, while Hannah Montana will probably do the same for others.
  • If you suffer from migraines, you already have a good starting point.
Photo: (C) Allen Ginsberg Estate
Allen Ginsberg in 1953

Beat trick #5: Never revise a text after it is written

Make yourself a cup of "coffee" and sit down with your laptop, or go old school and grab a pen or a couple of post-its then start writing whatever comes into your head how do your hands feel sweaty cool like prunes what does the room you are sitting in smell like summer winter fall coffee how much coffee have you had today how do YOU feel cool calm and collected or nervous angry or in love when you don't have (coffee) anything more to write stop you have just written free prose

Note: Kerouac is said to have written On the Road in the form of a completed manuscript in a 3-week period. His wife at the time claimed he would sweat through several t-shirts a day. So keep a clean top ready and maintain a sufficient use of deodorant.

Beat trick #6: Chant like you mean it!

Allen Ginsberg said that it was chanting for 20 minutes which got him up in the morning. The feeling begins in the pit of your stomach and rises up to the chest. You articulate what you are feeling through soothing words and sounds like "mmmmm" and "hmmmm", or even "mhmh". However, if you wish to achieve these sounds in other ways, you might as well grab that cosy tool from your bedroom drawer or just put your mobile on "vibrate". Like prayer, chant may also be a component of group practice, so feel free to practise chanting together in your commune. But be careful; people who are not familiar with the power of chant might think you are sexually harassing them.

These are the six main ingredients of the cultural recipe which changed American literature, contributed to the biggest youth revolution in history and continues to inspire young men and women all around the world. In the 1960's these ideals swept over Europe like a giant wave and changed the minds of a whole generation. You might wonder why it wasn't here that they started, but the answer is simple: the story of Ginsberg, Kerouac and Burroughs wouldn't have worked in Europe. Nonetheless, our Beat tricks do and if they don't, well, then you know what to do: just beat it!

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