The Beat Generation was a group of writers from the United States who came to prominence in the years following the Second World War. The writers of this generation found themselves questioning both the politics and culture of time, rejecting the conventional way of life of the 1950s and instead creating their own sub-culture. The so-called ‘Beat’ culture centred on experimentation with narcotics and alternative sexuality interest in unconventional Eastern religions such as Buddhism and an outright rejection of materialism.
By defying traditional methods of writing the Beat Writers believed that it would inspire people to begin to think differently about life in America. In an interview with Trent Harris conducted in 1979, Allen Ginsberg, a notable figure of the Beat generation, quoted Plato by stating that “when the mode of the music changes, the walls of the city shake”. The Beat writers were a social force who intended to inspire change and Ginsberg believed that by introducing a new rhythm for people to hear, by defying traditional writing methods, it would prompt a new way of thinking which in turn would affect external political forms.[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J-H_WCL6GrE%5D
Ginsberg was of the belief that your “first thought” was your “best thought” as it resulted in authentic and fearless writing. He viewed it as a way of “telling the truth”. Ginsberg rejected the traditional meter of iambic pentameter and instead adopted the varying rhythms of everyday speech. Ginsberg was also influenced by the Buddhist form of meditation known as shamatha during which one’s main focus is on one’s breathing. Ginsberg believed that it led to a calming of the mind and a sharper awareness of imagination and thought. He was of the opinion that modern poetry should reject prescribed rhythm and meter and instead should record true life experience.
Ginsberg and other Beat poets used the new poetic form in order to share Eastern philosophy, inspire sexual freedom and encourage opposition to the situation of American society in the 1950s. The new poetic form was a way for the modern poet to challenge the conformity and conservative nature of the so-called “Silent Generation” of the 1950s.
Sunflower Sutra, a poem written by Ginsberg in 1955, was inspired by the free verse style of writing. The sunflower in Ginsberg’s poem is representative of America, a place that has been blemished, ruined and devastated by the thoughtless work of society. Ginsberg uses natural imagery to depict the industrial blight, they sit “surrounded by the gnarled steel roots of machinery.” The image of the sunflower elicits a memory of one of the most important artistic movements of Ginsberg’s career which occurred when Ginsberg was a young man living in New York. One day while reading Ah! Sunflower he experienced an auditory hallucination of William Blake.
The poem is a reflection on the American dream of industry and materiality and how it has tarnished the environment around him. Ginsberg, however, transforms the sunflower into a symbol of perfect beauty and shows how America has the ability to redeem itself and become beautiful once more. Ginsberg saw himself in line with the Romantic poets and aimed to show this beauty to a country he believed had been left to rot and decay.
Ginsberg reflects on the corrupt nature of industry and corporation and the brutality of warfare stating how these things are intrinsically bad however the people of America have the ability to seek redemption, people to Ginsberg are but “beautiful golden sunflowers”. The message of the poem is one of hope and Ginsberg highlights how the American people “are not skin of grime…we’re all golden sunflowers inside”.
The Beat generation believed that their writing could inspire a cultural revolution and it is clear that they had a large influence on change in Western culture in both the 1950s and 1960s.