Women of the Beat Generation in 3 Easy Steps

Hello, Beatsters!  Our first guest post comes from Jackie M. of Jackie Mania!

Please giver her a warm welcome!

Women of the Beat Generation in Three Easy Steps

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One of the things I most often hear when I bring up my love of the women of the Beat Generation is, “Wow! I didn’t know there were any female writers of the Beat Generation!” So, first, I want to give you an (incomplete) list of the women who were writing at this time:

Diane di Prima
Joyce Johson
Hettie Jones
Anne Waldman
ruth weiss
Elise Cowan
Hettie Jones
Lenore Kandel
Denise Levertov
Mary Fabilli
Joanne Kyger
Anne Waldman

What I most admire about these women is that they took a great personal risk in becoming a writer. These were not people who lived within a financially secure household (no matter how simple) like the Brontës, Dickinson, or Austen, or with an inheritance like Virginia Woolf (which I am not faulting — I would love to have today’s equivalent of 500 pounds a year so that I could create an infinitesimal fraction of what Woolf has given us).  These women refused the white picket fence, labor-saving devices, and 2.5 children of the 1950s to write without a safety net; they were supposed to be wives and mothers, period. It was an enormous risk, as at this time, many women who didn’t “behave” were sent to mental institutions. (I wish I were kidding: see Elise Cowen). They were the brave foremothers of the women who set out to change the world in the 1960s and beyond, and we owe them a great deal.

Next, beg, borrow, or steal Woman of the Beat Generation by Brenda Knight, and inhale it. It’s a wonderful book filled with history, biographical information, photographs, and excerpts of work from most of the women listed above.

Knight writes:

“In many ways, women of the Beat were cut from the same cloth as the men: fearless, angry, high risk, too smart, restless, highly irregular. They took chances, make mistakes, made poetry, made love, made history. Women of the Beat weren’t afraid to get dirty. They were compassionate, careless, charismatic, marching to a different drummer, out of step. Muses who birthed a poetry so raw and new and full of power that it changed the world. Writers whose words weave spells, whose stories bind, whose vision blinds. Artists for whom curing the disease of art kills.”

Finally, pick the writer that most intrigues you, and read everything she has written that you can get your hands on. This is what I did with Diane di Prima. You can read her biography on wikipedia, but I want to tell you about what she means to me, and I want most of all to let her work speak.

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I think I was introduced to Diane Di Prima through the Feminist movement, and not the Beat movement. I remember being wowed by the writing from someone who shared a very similar Italian American background as me. The power struggles, the warmth that was sometimes suffocation, the ideas of what a woman was and was not. My grandfather even had blue eyes.

April Fool Birthday Poem for Grandpa

Today is your
birthday and I have tried writing these things before,
but now in the gathering madness, I want to
thank you for telling me what to expect
for pulling no punches, back there in that scrubbed Bronx parlor
thank you
for honestly weeping in time to innumerable heartbreaking
italian operas for
pulling my hair when I
pulled the leaves off the trees so I’d
know how it feels, we are
involved in it now, revolution, up to our
knees and the tide is rising, I embrace
strangers on the street, filled with their love and
mine, the love you told us had to come or we
die, told them all in that Bronx park, me listening in
spring Bronx dusk, breathing stars, so glorious
to me your white hair, your height your fierce
blue eyes, rare among italians, I stood
a ways off looking up at you, my grandpa
people listened to, I stand
a ways off listening as I pour out soup
young men with light in their faces at my table, talking love, talking revolution
which is love, spelled backwards, how
you would love us all, would thunder your anarchist wisdom
at us, would thunder Dante and Giordano Bruno, orderly men
bent to your ends, well I want you to know
we do it for you, and your ilk, for Carlo Tresca,
for Sacco and Vanzetti, without knowing
it, or thinking about it, as we do it for Aubrey Beardsley
Oscar Wilde (all street lights shall be purple), do it
for Trotsky and Shelley and big/dumb
Eisenstein’s Strike people, Jean Cocteau’s ennui, we do it for
the stars over the Bronx
that they may look on earth
and not be ashamed.

I remember being deeply affected when reading about how di Prima felt when she first read Ginsberg’s HOWL:

“The poem put a certain heaviness in me, too. It followed that if there was one Allen there must be more, other people besides my few buddies writing what they spoke, what they heard, living however obscurely and shamefully, what they knew, hiding out there and there as we were — and now, suddenly, about to speak out. For I sensed that Allen was only, could only be, a vanguard of a much larger thing. All the people who like me, had hidden and skulked, writing down what they knew for a small handful of friends — and even those friends claiming it “couldn’t be published” — waiting with only a slight bitterness of the thing to end, for man’s era to draw to a close in a blaze of radiation — all these would now step forward and say their piece. Not many would hear them, but they would, finally, hear each other. I was about to meet my brothers and sisters.”

I bet you didn’t know it went down like that. di Prima was writing what she spoke and heard at the same time, not because of, Ginsberg and Kerouac. It was in the air.

She has written over 40 books. Her poems are about magic, and food, and love, and beaches, and mountains, and politics, and Keats, and wolfish women, and THE ONLY WAR THAT MATTERS IS THE WAR AGAINST THE IMAGINATION (I couldn’t agree more). We are lucky enough to still have her with us (although, sheesh, we are so hard on our prophets. A visionary writer like Diane di Prima can work so hard yet not earn enough money to take care of her health. Remember what I said about these writers not having a safety net? War against the imagination indeed.).

Here is my sketch, my briefest of outlines, my fragments, my very much filled with love introduction to the Women of the Beat Generation. I hope it inspires you to add one of these groundbreaking women writers to the Kerouac, Burroughs, and/or Ginsberg you’re reading for the Beats of Summer event.

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-images: hipstagram photos I took of my collection of books by female Beat writers.
-group 1, l to r: Joyce Johnson, from the cover of Minor Characters, a pile of Beat Books, Elise Cowen, from that famous photograph with Allen Ginsberg, via Women of the Beat Generation.
-group 2, l or r, Diane di Prima from the back of Revolutionary Letters, Diane di Prima from the front of Memoirs of a Beatnik,  Diane di Prima, snapped from inside Women of the Beat Generation.
-group 3, l to r, piles and piles and piles of books!
-excerpts and poems, in order of appearance:
-Women of the Beat Generation by Brenda Knight, p. 3-4
-April Fool Birthday Poem for Grandpa by Diane di Prima, from Revolutionary Letters, p. 5-6
-Memoirs of a Beatnik by Diane di Prima, p. 176

22 Comments on “Women of the Beat Generation in 3 Easy Steps

  1. What a wonderful post!!! I’m reading Dance the Stars down, set BEFORE Beatsters but it’s about a woman alone during World War 1. It made me wonder how women could survive on their own with no apparent financial means. What could they do to support themselves? This post really points out how hard women had to work just to be heard and to live independent of others. Bravo!! And I also appreciate learning about new and wonderful authors/poets:)


    • mommasez – There were always incredible women who bucked the mainstream throughout time, but I think one of the times it was particularly hard was the 1950s. There was just so much pressure for “normal” and the stakes were high (institutions, electric shocks). War time represented freedom for many women because men were away at war, and jobs that were normally not open to them became available.

      I couldn’t find a reference to your book — do you have a link or an author? I am very interested in WWI and WWII books about women. Thanks!


  2. Thanks so much for this fantastic post, Jackie! I’ve always been curious about the women of the Beat Generation, but now I’m downright fascinated, and I can’t wait to learn more. This post was especially timely, I just finished reading “Howl and Other Poems” by Ginsberg. It was incredible, and di Prima’s response to it so very appropriate and understandable (I say this speaking myself as a minority, and a -I think- creative one at that).


    • Have you seen the HOWL feed on twitter? @HowlTweeter
      All of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, One Line Every Hour, Over and Over

      I never tire of reading it 🙂


  3. I know next to nothing about the Beat Generation, but this was an interesting, informative post. Thanks for sharing your passion, Jackie! 🙂


    • I tend to love some Beat writers and really dislike others, but I’m absolutely enamored by their movement – their quest for freedom, their rage against capitalism and corporatization, their love of life and self. It’s like a gritty (somewhat self-involved) new-Whitmanesque movement. I sometimes feel I was born in the wrong generation – seems that all life and care have gone out of folks. We’re so distracted by technology that we never “move” to acheive anything or rebel against anything anymore, even when we all know things are going wrong. I guess I envy those who stood up (or sat-in) and said ‘Enough!’


  4. I love this post so much. You’ve absolutely inspired me to read the women of the Beat generations–their voices deserve to be heard. Thank you.


  5. What a great post! I’ve read several books by Joyce Johnson and she’s a wonderful writer. I feel that maybe the women of that age are less confined by the description of “beat” than the men might be, and so it’s easier to judge their writing without it being coloured by our perceptions of what beat should be. Definitely check out “Women of the Beat Generation” – great book.


    • I love Joyce Johnson. I was going to include some musings about her too, but then my post became a novel 😉 I recently read In the Night Cafe and was so moved by it. Really perceptive and beautifully written (but many hard emotional truths).


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  7. Thank you for the introduction, Jackie! The names are all new to me. I love the di Prima poem. I’ll be looking for more of her work.


    • Pieces of a Song is a good place to start — a selection of her earlier work. I hope you get your hands on it, and enjoy it!


  8. Thanks for posting this. These women deserve more attention!

    I’d also add Carolyn Cassady to the list. Even though she wasn’t seeking out to be a writer at that time, she did write, keeping up correspondence with Kerouac, for instance. She has also published a memoir.


  9. You have already said it, but I didn’t know there were any women writers of the Beat Generation! A very informative post with beautiful poetry and cool pics. I hope to check them out some day


  10. You know, of all the Beat authors I’ve read I’ve never read a female one. For shame! I’m bookmarking this post for future reference.


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