I have always wondered whether I should have studied English at university. I read quite a lot and when I’m not reading, I feel guilty. Surely that’s a good start. I’m not particularly well versed in Shakespeare, but my spelling’s acceptable and if I don’t know all that much about a certain topic, I can usually blag (or blog – haw haw haw!) that I know a great deal more than I do.
Nonetheless, I expect people who study it to know more than I do, which is why I was so surprised that a friend of mine, now in her second year of studying English, had not heard of the Beat Generation.
I don’t know much about them, but a friend of mine at school was a huge fan of Kerouac’s On The Road and all associated literature. Thus I deduced that they were a bunch of writers post World War Two, who came to prominence in the 1950s along with a cultural phenomenon which they documented. They were known for their experimentation with drugs, sexuality and Eastern religions as well as a rejection of materialism which ran very much against super-consumerist American culture of the Eisenhower age.
In 1955, Howl and Other Poems by the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg was published by City Lights Books. The poem was a three-part piece plus a footnote which described the world as Ginsberg saw it, beginning with the famous lines:
When Ginsberg first recited the poem at the Six Gallery in San Francisco, the performance was hailed as the ‘beginning of a new movement’.
Almost immediately after the poem was published, the owner of City Lights Books, Lawrence Ferlinghetti was arrested and charged for ‘disseminating obscene literature’. The trial which followed was won by Ferlinghetti and effectively ended censorship in American literature forever. The trial, along with various recorded interviews with Ginsberg and excerpts from Howl are what form the basis of the eponymous film, starring James Franco, which I went to see last week with my aforementioned friend in order to introduce her to the Beats.
Franco is going to have to win an Oscar some day soon. The man’s performance was outstanding, and the entire film was a celebration of an art form which, although it doesn’t appeal to me all that much, I appreciated all the more having seen the movie.