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“It’s the beat generation, it’s beat, it’s the beat to keep, it’s the beat of the heart, it’s being beat and down in the world and like old-time lowdown and like in ancient civilizations the slave boatmen rowing galleys to a beat and servants spinning pottery to a beat.”
–Jack Kerouac, excerpt from San Francisco Scene (1965)
The term “Beat” can be used in many ways: “I’m beat, he’s a deadbeat, beat it!” Credited as the first of the Beats to give the term special meaning in writing, Jack Kerouac describes the term as registering for the first time when the heroin addict Herbert Huncke said, “‘I’m beat’ with radiant light shining out of his despairing eyes”(David Sterritt, The Beats ). Allen Ginsberg associated the word with feeling exhausted, “at the bottom of the world, looking up or out, sleepless”(Anne Charters, The Portable Beat Reader ).
Not only indicative of the way the Beats felt cast aside by society for their rejection of mainstream social values—they were both economically poor and perceived as culturally perverse—being Beat also suggests an elevated status. In On the Road (1957), Kerouac defines Beat as “the root, the soul of Beatific” and in Visions of Cody (1960) he would declare that “Everything belongs to me because I am poor,” further strengthening the spiritual exploration of the Beat movement and its ties to Zen Buddhism.
Beat insinuates a multiplicity of meanings, never conforming to a single definition, illustrating the dynamic relationship between the Beat writers and an oppressive society.
poetry, exhibit, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg
Arts and Humanities
ENGL4310, "Definition of "Beat"" (2019). ENGL 4310 – Heart Beats Exhibit. 3.