Ginsberg and the Beat Generation


Anne Waldman and Kunga Tenzin Dorji in conversation with Pragya Tiwari


Louisa Tomlinson, ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival Blog Editor


Moderator journalist Pragya Tiwari described the Beats as ‘larger than life characters, with a courageous commitment to absolute freedom, abandon and a quest for honesty.’ The Beats have long fascinated poetry lovers, jazz afficionados, wanderers, hedonists and spiritual seekers alike. Figures like Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Gary Snyder, Niel Cassady and Jack Kerouac have taken on almost mythic status in Western culture. Their wide appeal is perhaps in part due to their paradoxical nature as people and as writers. They were irreverent yet devoted, equally fascinated by gritty realism as high spiritual vision, as quick to reference epic Greek poetry as jazz solos.

Cultural activist, iconic poet and professor Anne Waldman stressed the importance of contextualising some of the wilder aspects of the Beats in the geopolitical and personal factors that shaped them. They lived in a post World War II society, against a backdrop of McCarthyism, technological progress, secularism, poverty, patriarchy, homophobia. Many underground sub-cultures were springing up: ‘it was a time of experimentation, people were looking for something to break through the grey doldrums’. Waldman pointed out that on a personal note, Ginsberg’s mother suffered from serious mental illness, which gave him a deep empathy for the suffering and fragility of people, evident throughout his work.

The Beats are famous for breaking as many writing conventions as social conventions. Waldman traced Ginsberg’s poetic lineage to the Bardic roots of transcendental poets like Whitman and Blake, and their tradition of visionary Songs. She described Ginsberg’s writing style as about ‘breaking out of official verse forms, breaking certain kinds of decorums,’ and moving subject matter towards a style of ‘confessional epiphany’. He abandoned formal syntax and grammar in favour of free association and the natural phrasing of the breath, playing on the dual meaning of the latin word ‘to breathe’ (‘inspirer’) in his writing, believing that the act of inspiration was deeply connected to breathing.

Waldman read from Part II of Ginsberg’s Howl, in which he uses the repetition of ‘Moloch’ at the beginning of each line to hold the ‘beat’. She explained that Moloch was a symbolic deity for Ginsberg, representing ‘the destroyer eating up the world,’ that still holds great relevance today. She described how Ginsberg had discovered mantra during his visits to India, and introduced it to America as a form of political activism, using it to calm the crowd during the Chicago riots. ‘Mantra is an incredible power and force, even if it doesn’t have semantic power.’ She urged the audience to keep protesting: ‘Protest has its potency and we must continue. I know how long it takes for things to change, you have to stay with it. But we don’t have much time. Climate change is the big one.’

Ginsberg famously referred to Waldman as his ‘spiritual wife,’ and it was she who introduced him to Buddhism, which became a huge influence on his spirituality and his writing. Asked what else she felt she had brought to Ginsberg, she responded, ‘I opened Ginsberg up to women, people of colour, another generation.’

Waldman is famous for her embodied style of performance poetry but views herself equally as a performance poet and a page poet. She said her poetry draws deeply on ‘ideas of Indian ritual, oral and verbal explorations, spiritual ceremonies, invocations, themes of life and death,’ and revealed that as a young poet, Ginsberg had encouraged her to use her ‘vibrato voice’ to transmit the power of invocation in her performances.  To prove the point, she shared a thrilling extract from her poem, Fast Speaking Woman, with the spellbound audience:

woman never under your thumb, says
skull that was a head, says
bloodshot eyes, says
I’m the Kali woman the killer woman

women with salt on her tongue
fire that cleans
fire that catches
fire burns hotter as I go

Bhutanese journalist, musician, poet, actor Kunga Tenzin Dorji explained that he was active across so many artforms because Bhutan had only opened up to the world in the 1960s. As such ‘The Bhutanese are just coming to their own. It’s a free for all, and we are all sharing with each other.’

Dorji spoke movingly about his father, who he said had typically spent seven hours a day in Buddhist prayer and meditation. He recalled how his father used to make his children repeat mantra on long train journeys, and described the legacy of ‘Buddhist discipline’ as a huge gift: ‘When you’ve repeated a mantra, it does have an affect.’ Dorji read some moving extracts of Buddhist poetry, observing that ‘It doesn’t have the fire and vim of Anne Waldman’s poetry, because this is Buddhist poetry. It is a lot more staid, a lot more sober.’


Photo Credit: Chetan Singh Gill


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