The Reading List: The Beat Poets

Poetry

Howl and Other Poems by Allen Ginsberg; £6.75

A landmark portrayal of a “generation destroyed by madness” and the downtrodden lives of Ginsberg and his fellow “angelheaded hipsters”, ‘Howl’ is one of the most important poems of the post-war period. The story of the obscenity trial that followed its 1956 publication forms the basis of the new film, Howl, starring James Franco.

Overview

This is the Beat Generation by James Campbell; £16.99

A fascinating cultural history of the movement, this thorough account begins with how the term “beat” was originally coined by Herbert Huncke, then goes on to tell the story of how the three main figures – Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs – came together in 1940s New York against a backdrop of ideas, booze and murder, before relaying their respective literary successes, relationships and internal struggles.

Novel

The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac; £9.99

Having been introduced to Buddhism in the mid-1950s, Kerouac wanted to explore the duality of his Zen life and his hedonistic life. While not nearly as well known as On the Road, The Dharma Bums is yet another tour-de-force novel following two men, and features all the key Beat preoccupations, namely an insatiable appetite for drugs, love and life.

Photography

The Beat Hotel by Harold Chapman; currently out of print

In the late 1950s, much of the group took up residence in a shabby hotel in Paris’s Latin Quarter. It was here that Ginsberg, along with his lover Peter Orlovsky, escaped following the trial; where Burroughs finished Naked Lunch and where the likes of Gregory Corso worked on their poetry. Documenting all this was Harold Chapman, who shot hundreds of portraits of the unconventional family on his Pentax. It’s a treasure worth seeking out.

Women

Girls Who Wore Black by Ronna C. Johnson, Nancy M. Grace; £21.50

The Beat Generation has long been accused of misogyny; their fictional women often treated as objects. In reality, there were other roles to fill than that of the discarded lover. Many of the female figures wrote prose and poetry themselves. This book commemorates some of the women who both inspired and contributed their own work to the Beats’ canon.

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