Blowing: Poetry Meets Music in the Writing of the Beat Generation

image credit: TheUsher / sxc.hucopyright TheUsher /

PROCEDURE: Time being of the essence in the purity of speech, sketching language is undisturbed flow from the mind of personal secret idea-words, blowing (as per jazz musician) on subject of image.
–Jack Kerouac (1953), quoted from The Essentials of Spontaneous Prose

In the history of art and literature, poetry and music have always had a very close (almost indistinguishable) relationship. As early as medieval times, minstrels set tales and poems to the sounds of music to create a new form of artistic and social expression. In the 20th century, however, times began to change and the marriage of poetry and music played a pivotal role in creating a subculture of American youths whose feelings of alienation and anti-conformity drove them to search for something authentic in a world strangled by post World War II capitalism. By the early 1950s, the small group of talented writers known as the Beats began toying with African American jazz rhythms in their poetry for the aesthetic and authenticity they saw in the underground movement; however, their use of jazz rhythms goes far beyond the realm of poetic experimentation and borders on a pre-Civil Rights Movement expression of race relations. In a time when the civil rights movement had not yet reached its peak, the Beats embraced a radical social movement, molded it, made it their own, and broke through the established ideals our country spent years fighting to preserve. Radical in virtually every aspect, the art form that resulted from the Beats’ experimentation with jazz changed the landscape of traditional poetics as well as the sociological landscape of post World War II America.

For Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and other writers of the Beat Generation jazz music served as a model for the type of writing Kerouac described as “spontaneous prose.” According to Charles D. Malmgren, “[Kerouac] calls for a highly personal and confessional narrative, one scribbled down without correction and at a high speed in a quest for spontaneity and, consequently, authenticity…” (61). Jazz music in its rawest forms requires musicians to play off of one another with no specific direction or form. It is Charlie Parker playing off Dizzie Gilepsie who in turn plays off Joe “Philly” Jones and Charlie Mingus. The spontaneity these and other jazz musicians used to create new and freer music is what intrigued the poets of the Beat Generation–especially Jack Kerouac. As seen by the epigraph to Mexico City Blues, Kerouac wanted to be considered a “…jazz poet blowing a long blues in an afternoon jam session on Sunday.” How ever traditional Kerouac’s verse forms appear on the pages of a book, the rhythms of his language break all traditional senses of meter, rhyme, and concrete imagery. In the 228th Chorus of his Mexico City Blues Kerouac writes

	Praised be I, writing, dead already &
		    dead again-- 
		Dipped in ancid inkl
			    the flamd
	       	    	of T i m
		the Anglo Oglo Saxon Maneuvers
		Of Old Poet-o's

Although the language (ancid inkl, the flamd of T i m, and Anglo Oglo Saxon) seems like childish gibberish, Kerouac’s tendency to transform free thoughts into free forms creates the authenticity and rhythms he borrows from jazz music. Kerouac’s desire to create rhythms out of spontaneous thoughts propelled him beyond the traditional sense of poetic rhythms, and although poets such as William Carlos Williams and Gertrude Stein experimented with rhyme and language, Kerouac took their ideas one step further when he understood the capacity in which simple jazz rhythms could articulate the kind of thought process he was so eager to put to paper.

Although the rhythms of jazz music played a large part in the forms the Beats were using for their poetry, it was not the aesthetics of rhythm alone that fueled their interest in jazz music. On the other side of the spectrum from Jack Kerouac laid the writings of Allen Ginsberg who, in a completely radical way, sought to capitalize on the sociological aspects the jazz scene created for the Beats. As stated by Robert Holton, “In their virtual deification of jazz greats such as Charlie Parker, the Beats turned away from the aesthetic traditions of white America; and in their adoption of a slang based on a style of ‘hip’ African-American speech, they articulated a radically redefined relation both to the dominant white community and the black community” (267). In his classic poem Mexico City Blues to Allen Ginsberg’s Howl Allen Ginsberg writes about “angelheaded hipsters” who “sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz” (qtd. in Hoover 131). For Ginsberg it was not the rhythms of jazz (although they do show up with the repetition of “who” in virtually every line) that drew him to blend the forms into something new; for him it was the complete idea of a “Jazz society” that cemented his relation to the music. Not only was he utilizing the rhythmic patterns of breathing heard in the “blowing” of a jazz musician, but he was also mocking the establishment by embracing virtually every aspect of the jazz counterculture. He was describing in his own way what Norman Mailer described in his 1957 essay as “The White Negro” (Holton 266). For the Beats, the notion of racial difference was nonexistent. They embraced, and lived the lifestyle they were writing about. They were, as Allen Ginsberg states:

…the best minds of my generation…
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry
dynamo in the machinery of night (qtd. in Hoover 131)

In their deepest convictions to emulate the sounds, rhythms, and mood of the jazz counterculture, the Beats blasted a ten foot hole through the establishment that they were a part of and still felt alienated from. From Jack Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues to Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, the sounds of jazz music resounds with the blowing of Charlie Parker always in the back of readers’ minds. The Beats, in their quest for spontaneity and authenticity, capitalized on a form of art not readily accepted by American society–namely the jazz counterculture; “In doing so,” according to George and Starr, “the Beats were able to ridicule the authorities, debunk the myths, expose the hypocrisies, and, thus, delegitimate the culture of domination” (qtd. in Holton 268). Jazz served as a platform, both artistically and socially, for the Beats; it was the means by which they created a new form of poetics under their own control, and it was the means by which they spoke out against a world they felt had long since forgotten them.

Works Cited

Ginsberg, Allen. “Howl.” Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology. Ed. Paul Hoover. New York: Norton, 1994. 131-135.

Holton, Robert. “Kerouac Among the Fellahin: >On the Road to the Postmodern.” Modern Fiction Studies. 41.2 (1995): 265-283

Kerouac, Jack. “The Essentials of Spontaneous Prose.” The Portable Beat Reader. Ed. Ann Charters. New York: Penguin, 1992. 57-58.

—. Mexico City Blues. New York: Grove, 1959.

—. “228th Chorus.” Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology. Ed. Paul Hoover. New York: Norton, 1994. 78.

Malmgren, Carl D. “On the Road Reconsidered: Kerouac and the Modernist Tradition.” Ball State University Forum. 30.1 (1989 Winter): 59-67.