Lesson No. 1: Intro to the Beats


Welcome to our first Beats Workshop lesson!  I can’t wait to dive into all this with you and look forward to our time together.

I hope this course will allow us to get inspired by the Beats, educate us further in the groundbreaking work they did, and spur us on in our own work within the spirit of that lineage.

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by

     madness, starving hysterical naked,

dragging themselves through the negro streets at

     dawn looking for an angry fix,

angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient

     heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the

     machinery of night . . .

     —Allen Ginsberg, Howl

Writers should…….“blow as deep as [they] want – write as deeply, fish as far down as [they] want, satisfy [themselves] first, [and] then [their] reader cannot fail to receive telepathic shock and meaning – excitement by same laws operating in [their] own human mind […] [One should] write outwards swimming in sea of language to peripheral release and exhaustion…tap from [themselves] the song of [themselves] blow! – now! – [their] way is your [their] way…”

-Jack Kerouac 

So……..Who were the Beats?

The Beat Poets were a group of Amercan writers post WWII who became well-known in the 1950s.  The community of Beat poets evolved in New York City in the 1940s and then really blossomed in San Francisco and NYC in the 1950s.  The Beats questioned the consciousness that contributed to WWII and the time, wanting to flip both conventional writing and ways of looking at things, sideways, not out of being purely contrary but out of a search for truth.  Many of the writers in this movement were also interested in Eastern spirituality, such as meditation, Buddhism, yogic thoughts, and/or mind-altering drugs.  Both Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg, for example, became very studied in Buddhism.  Hallucinogenics were used by some to achieve new ways of thinking/feeling.

A lot of people feel the hippie movement of the 1960s had a lot to owe to the Beat movement.

We will study the work of several Beats in depth in this workshop, but for a crash-course guide to who was involved and their most known works, think:

  • Anne Waldman (Fast Speaking Woman)
  • Diane di Prima (This Kind of Bird Flies Backward, former Poet Laureate of San Francisco)
  • Jack Kerouac (On the Road)
  • Allen Ginsberg (HOWL)
  • Michael McClure (Ghost Tantras)
  • William S. Burroughs (Naked Lunch)

Kerouac introduced the term “Beat Generation.”  While considering the meaning of being beaten down and down and out, he wanted to use the term with a twist, to characterize the underground art movement as being “on the beat,” or “upbeat,” with connotations in jazz:  “beatitude, not beat up. You feel this. You feel it in a beat, in jazz real cool jazz.”

Music and the Beats/of the Beats

Because the Beat movement came to be in the 1940s and 1950s, it was bathed in a background of the music of the time:  jazz.

I often think of the works of the beats as improvizations in and of themselves.  Like spoken jazz, some of the work of the beats heavily arises out of the moment, as in improv.

Kerouac wrote in his “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose,” one of the few times he wrote about his writing method: “No periods… but the vigorous space dash separating rhetorical breathing (as jazz musician drawing breath between outblown phrases)”

Watching Assignment

For fun, to hear and see some Beatitude, and to catch the vibe, check out the following videos:

http://youtu.be/QzCF6hgEfto  Jack Kerouac on the Steve Allen Plymouth Show (1959)

http://youtu.be/WiwYsYNh3ao  Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Friends (silent NYC film)

http://youtu.be/esU-3IC2J9E   Allen Ginsberg, Mediation Rock

http://youtu.be/JU_smWV3bXw   Anne Waldman, Makeup on Empty Space 

Reading Assignment: Classic Beat Work 

HOWL: Part 1 and 2 (we’ll spend a whole lesson looking at this)

On the Road:  excerpt 

 (don’t worry, we’ll go into lesser known stuff, too 🙂

Writing Assignment

First Thought, Best Thought Exercise:

“If you don’t stick with what you first thought, and to the words the thoughts brought, what’s the sense of bothering with it anyway, what’s the sense of foisting your little lies on others?” – Jack Kerouac 

“Notice what you notice.” – Allen Ginsberg 

“First thought, best thought,” is a saying and philosophy in Zen Buddhism.

Watch this video again: 

http://youtu.be/esU-3IC2J9E   Allen Ginsberg, Mediation Rock

It actually gives a great little meditation primer at the beginning! (and some cool beat work throughout)

Take a moment to sit and connect with your breath (ok, read how to do it first, then try).  This will work as a way to connect to “first thought, best thought.”

If you are sitting in a chair, bring your seat closer to the edge so you’re not leaning on the back of the chair.  Purposefully plant both feet on the floor (you might even want to take your shoes off and be in socks or barefoot so you can really feel your feet connect to the floor).

Sit up tall.  In Buddhist thought (and this could be said to describe Beat poetry), they say:  “Not too tight, not too loose.”  See if you can sit up tall with an alertness that’s not rigid.  Relax your shoulders away from your ears.  Pretend you could get your shoulderblades to touch behind your back (to open the heart) then relax them so you’re not gripping the idea.  Make a decision (and the first thought is the best thought!):  do you want your hands palm-face down on your legs?  Or your hands resting with palms up?  (you might notice the first gesture is more “grounding,” the second is more “receptive”)

Once you strike your shape, connect to breath.  That just means, FEEL your inhale and feel your exhale.  You might want to label “inhale” and “exhale” in your mind.

Sit this way for 5-10 minutes.  Yes, that can feel like forever ! but the idea is to get you into a more *present* space.  If you’re really into it, try for 20 minutes.  (you can set your iphone timer, maybe to a calming bell)


When the session is over, and you’ve used the breath and body to connect you to the present moment (and the different way of thinking/feeling that comes from that….drug free 🙂 pick up a pen and paper.

Yes, I’m challenging you to try this with a pen and paper, old skool style, again to shift consciousness (vs. computers)



For some of us, words might flow.  For others, we might FREEZE at the idea of a free write. 

There is no topic requirement or limit here, though I do suggest you try to keep the pen or pencil moving (even if that means repeating the last sentence until you think of something new)  If you need a topic suggestion, look around your present space and write about what you see.  Maybe you describe, describe, or maybe you notice something and then a memory springs forth.  You can also use your timer for this if you wish (5-10 minutes) OR write til the topic dries itself out.


Revise.  Go ahead and READ it outloud.  To me, the Beats are performative, and rhythmic.  Give it a shot.  Read your work to yourself outloud (really) and see if there’s anything you can cut or tighten so it sounds better.  The sounds have a sense to them all their own.  Trust the sound.  Worry less about actual “sense” and “logic” and more about the feeling of the grouping of words, the impressions you’re creating, the pulsations they create for the speaker and the reader when shared.

I can’t wait to read what you created!


Beat Madness:  I’m curous to hear your initial thoughts of the Beats.  What do you know of them?  What drew you to this course? Please respond below in the discussion/comments section.