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Lesser Known Giants
Women of the Beat Generation

Lesser Known Giants
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"[A] woman from the audience asks; 'Why are there so few women on this panel? Why are there so few women in this whole week's program? Why were there so few women among the Beat writers?' and [Gregory] Corso, suddenly utterly serious, leans forward and says: 'There were women, they were there, I knew them, their families put them in institutions, they were given electric shock. In the '50s if you were male you could be a rebel, but if you were female your families had you locked up. There were cases, I knew them, someday someone will write about them.'"

—from Stephen Scobie's account of the Naropa Institute tribute to Ginsberg, July 1994 (Women of the Beat Generation p. 141)
Movements, peoples, and their influences disappear without a written history. Most women of the Beat generation—besides those like Carolyn Cassiday and Joyce Johnson who wrote memoirs—sat in obscurity for a time, and still do for those who only look at the surface of the Beat movement.

Women in Beat scene were generally used as dehumanized muses, to sleep with, or as someone to leave in their constant struggle for movement. Barbara Knight's collection Women of the Beat Generation and Girls Who Wore Black from Ronna C. Johnson and Nancy M. Grace attempt to change the narrative, shedding light on the lesser known female writers who played a significant role in the literature. Diane Di Prima, Denise Levertov, and Anne Waldman among others made their names by developing their own beatific writing style rather than by hanging around and writing memoirs of the times. 
Di Prima was a Brooklyn born poet who fit the Beat mold perfectly. She lived in Greenwich Village, moved to San Francisco, was both Beat and Hippie, practiced Buddhism and other Eastern philosophies, and was a highly prolific writer, publishing over 40 books. Knight dubbed her "Poet Priestess," and quoted her waxing poetic: 

I think the poet is the last person who is still speaking the truth when no one else dares to. I think the poet is the first person to begin the shaping and visioning of the new forms and the new consciousness when no one else has begun to sense it; I think these are two of the most essential human functions. (Women of the Beat Generation p. 123)

Hettie Jones was important not only as a writer, but as a publisher who ran Totem Press alongside fellow Beat Amiri Baraka. Totem published many Beat writers, including Di Prima. Jones published her own memoir of growing up in Beat culture, How I Became Hettie Jones, along with more than 20 books of poetry, prose, and experimental visual writing.

Anne Waldman, born 1945, was a later permutation of the Beats. After a productive career of writing, performing, and editing various magazines and anthologies, she became director of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, carrying the Beat torch to subsequent generations. Read an interview of Waldman by Nancy M. Grace.

Poet Elise Cowen makes an appearance in Knight's book, representing the tragic and common story of women who attempted to break out of the rigid role 1950s American society imposed upon them. After dropping out of school and exerting her own independence, she was put into a mental institution, which strained her depression. She jumped out of a window at age 29, ending her life. Only a small collection of her poetry was recovered, as her family burned most of her writing after her death.

The Lady is a humble thing
Made of death and water
The fashion is to dress it plain
And use the mind for border (Women of the Beat Generation p. 164)

Read more about Cowen in On the Margins of Cool: Women Poets of the Beat Generation by Megan Keeling.

In revisiting the Beats as a touchstone for great American literature, one has to come at it from an evolving lens, not purely celebrating it for yesterday's reasons, but continually challenging its legitimacy. Famous Beats Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg made a timeless impact on literature and culture as we know it, but equally important is the story of those who did not find their way into the literary canon and why.

By Thad Higa

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