Beat Revival: Examination of Beat Poetry's Thematic and Stylistic Resurrection through Ani DiFranco's Words

Jen Lee

The Beats were a generation of artists who had been pushed down and enlightened.  They were beaten and beatific, and they shared their experience with the American public.  As Kerouac explained when first defining the outlook of the beat movement, to be beat was "a weariness with all the forms, the conventions of the world" (Keroak Qtd. in Campbell 452).  The beats broke from traditional forms and conventions; they were unembarrassed by overt sexuality or the inclusion of harshly realistic descriptions in their works: two characteristics that varied greatly from the idealism otherwise found in wartime popular culture. This was a group of poets and authors who would primarily become known for their use of surrealist imagery and political commentary.  They questioned an American ideal that left little room for their identities or their discontent.  Now, over forty years after their first examinations of the American "norm," their stylistic influence can still be found in American art forms.  ani difranco, a singer, songwriter, lyricist, and spoken word poet, demonstrates this everlasting influence through her poetic lyrics.  The origins of her record production, the imagery she uses, her political and social commentary, and her examination of social norms all exhibit an influence that the original beats has left on America's artists.   ani difranco embodies what it means to be "beat" in the aftershock of the social change incurred by the beat poets.  Her attitude is that of the disillusioned cynic who, in spite of the political terrors and injustices of this era, sustains enough hope to fight back and spread social awareness.

It was forty-seven years ago that, lacking other venue for his friends' (and his own) poetry, Lawrence Ferlinghetti began a small, non-profit, San Francisco-based book publisher: City Lights Books (Angel 24-5). No book publishers would risk editions of works such as Allen Ginsberg's "Howl," but this reluctance was not reflective of public tastes. Though controversial and much berated by the established literary world, the beats' written style was well received by others who, like them, were dissatisfied with the American mainstream. This generation stood terrified by an ever increasing popular culture, new war technologies, and the growing trend of conformity fueling and fueled by the McCarthy hearings. This generation could no longer confine itself to the American "norm," and it reacted with a new style of art that reflected both dissatisfaction and need for a change.

A similar scenario resonates in ani difranco's emergence into the music world. She is a bisexual feminist who has little difficulty expressing her attitudes about America's "norm": one that is politically conservative, male-dominated, and continuously in denial of what it considers "confused" or "immoral" sexual minorities. Since the release of her first album, ani difranco, in 1990, she has released seventeen albums under her own label, Righteous Babe Records. Although she received many offers from major record labels, she refused to sign any, and has, consequently, been able to retain complete creative control of her work, while developing an even stronger fanbase that respects and admires her independence. Much as City Lights had begun, ani difranco launched the independent Righteous Babe Records in 1995 at the age of twenty-four (O'Connor par. 2). Her production company has done well predominantly issuing difranco's own work and that of other artists who, like her, have an audience that the majority of record production companies continue to deny.

What may be partially responsible for difranco's success through Righteous Babe Records is her use of surrealism; it is a recurrent connection between difranco's work and her beat predecessors. Inspired by the French Impressionists, the beat poets adapted surrealism to their writing, juxtaposing unconnected images to create new meanings. Though this device can initially be confusing to the unaccustomed reader, the resulting descriptions that surreal imagery create can be stronger--both more precise and concise--than they would otherwise be. Gregory Corso's "third degree sofa," ("Marriage" 12) Allen Ginsberg's "angelheaded hipsters," ("Howl" 3) and Lawrence Ferlinghetti's "supermarket suburbs" all exemplify this tactic ("3" 14). These images are used to describe discomfort when meeting a fiancé's parents, the beauty of beat rebels, and the suburban sprawl of the 1950's, respectively.

In a similar manner, difranco uses phrases like, "the sunset has more colors than my sock drawer ever dreamed of," and "your bones have been my bedframe/ and your flesh has been my pillow" ("tiptoe" 10; "both hands" 24-5). The image of the "[bone] . . . bedframe" with a "flesh . . . pillow" intensifies to this relationship in a total of 13 words. Rather than a lengthy sermon on the subject of physical and emotional passion, difranco melds unlikely pairs together to depict a sense of security, sensuality, and emotions. This exactly follows beat tradition. Ginsberg's description of a "neon fruit supermarket" in "A Supermarket in California," is meant to create the lively energy of a busy, pulsing supermarket: the "neon fruit" being, of course, vibrant, alive, and fresh (2). These images are created to enhance meaning. The phrasing of both poets creates strong, surreal imagery that often uses personification, metaphor, and other poetic devices.

Another literary usage of the surreal image occurs in the renovation of clichés or commonly repeated adjective phrases. This technique aligns itself highly with the surrealist creations for which the beats became known. Inherent to the alteration of any cliché is a "startle factor." The expected meaning is juxtaposed with one that differs, usually entirely so, and the resulting outcome is an image at once entirely separate from the cliché and altogether more potent. While this is not completely unknown in beat poetry, it is not a trademark. In "15," Ferlinghetti alters "surrealist" to say "he's the super realist" (19). In "Junkman's Obligato," a common song of patriotism is altered to "my country tears of thee," conveying the sadness of a country whose ideal perfect state is far from present in the postwar, nuclear age (28).

This revamping of the trite and cliché is a technique that appears throughout ani difranco's work and for which she is fairly well known among her listeners. Though it has been used before, this alteration of the cliché image or idea, is fairly new to poetry as it has not been used extensively by the manner in which ani difranco adopts it. difranco alters the same phrase as Ferlinghetti for a similar goal in her song "tis of thee." The chorus of this song opens with "my country tis of thee/ to take swings at each other on talk show tv," and later changes slightly to "my country tis of thee/ to take shots at each other on prime time tv" (9-10, 24-5). difranco alters this patriotic song to one of critique. Rather than follow in the anthems of this country, she condemns the increasing absurdity and depravity of its popular culture. Like the beats, she questions the popular culture of her day through the structural combination of expected and unexpected images, metamorphosing that which has become clichéd through its excessive use.

Though the imagery and surreal tactics deployed by both the beats and ani difranco creates a strong connection between their styles, the most blatant lies in the content of these artists' works. The beat generation was an outgrowth of postwar anxiety. This was a generation of Americans who had not only learned the cruelty of which human beings are capable, but they had lived through the first dropping of the atomic bomb. This weapon of mass destruction, a first in recorded history, terrified many Americans, along with the rest of the world. Beat works focus largely on this event, as well as questions of human nature and reactions against a popular culture that, despite growing concerns of atomic death, continued to portray life as simple, happy, and conservatively unquestioning. These factors inspired the political nature found in much of beat poetry. Poems such as Ginsberg's "America" and Ferlinghetti's "4" read as acts of rebellion. The former is an apostrophe to the United States, which both blames and forgives this country for what it is and could be. The latter examines the political propaganda and agenda of politicians, as well as the questionable morality behind the drop of the atomic bomb. Many beat poets question the American government and authority in general, along with a rigid "norm" which was not only difficult to maintain, but impossible for anyone who was not middle-classed, white, married, reproductive, and Christian.

The political agenda of the beats is rather extensive. Among the most recurrent themes one finds a critique of Judeo-Christian religion, along with class issues, which are often raised as commentary on injustice to the poor, and materialism. From Ginsberg, one finds attitudes toward communism in the McCarthy era. His poetry repeatedly discusses the communist meetings his parents took him to as a child and critiques the injustices and imbalances of capitalism with lines such as, "America I used to be communist when I was a kid I'm not sorry" (America 28). Similarly, popular culture is continuously questioned for its rigid and homogenous images and excessive promotion of materialism exemplified by Ferlinghetti's "Christ Came Down." Sexuality is prominent (i.e. Ferlinghetti's aforementioned "penus erectus spear"), and, through Ginsberg and Burroughs, homosexuality is also brought to the public eye with phrases that include describing the best of Americans as dreaming of "cock and endless balls" (11). Another often-silenced aspect of beat politics is feminism, addressed by female beat poets like Diane DiPrima's discussion of womanhood in "The Practice of Magical Evocation." The questioning that is dominant throughout, however, is the recurrent critique of government politics and authority: a unifying theme among all of the beats. This can be subdivided into questions of mass destruction, the corruption and indifference of politicians, and social injustice.

All of these political themes are raised within ani difranco's songs as they question the world, fifty years after that of the beat generation, that carries many of the same injustices and difficulties. Religiosity couched in critique can be found in phrases like "gods work isn't done by god/ its done by people" and "our father who are in a penthouse" ("up up up up up up" 3-4, "coming up" 1). The latter begins a prayer to a god who is disinterested in those he holds power over, caring only for the power itself. Religion is represented as a greedy dictatorship. This figure of a capitalistic god, also emblematic of those in positions of governmental authority, is described as a cruel overseer throughout the song.

Within this same piece, issues of class and poverty are also raised consistently, as difranco tries to bring attention to the large percentage of people whose voices are muted by the legal system. "coming up" raises issues of class, as the authority figure represented in this song lives in a "penthouse," while the speaker is poor, "soliciting graffiti" as though it is the only thing that she can afford with her "empty pockets" (6, 42). In "garden of simple," the lyricist makes direct reference to Ginsberg's "Howl": "the best minds of my generation/ can't make bail," aligning this reference with issues of injustice and poverty (19-20). Her message is consistently the same: those without money lack the power and influence needed to purchase justice in this warped, American system. As in much beat poetry, lower classed citizens are the unsung heroes of difranco's verses, suffering one injustice after another and may, one day, find the means of fighting back.

The issue of popular culture has already been touched upon in reference to difranco's comments in "tis of thee" and her reference to "poster girl[s]" in "thirty-two flavors." Though commentaries on popular culture can be found in ani difranco's work, they are not as prominent as in that of the beat writers, who intentionally embark on the criticism of a new globalization. The technology to spread consumerism and western culture had not existed to the same degree as it began to within the beats' lifetimes. They were consciously aware of the sudden influence of factors such as product placement and the passing of dominant ideology through cinema. Today, we take much of this for granted, as the majority of Americans cannot remember a time before television. This influence is largely assumed as a general truth. Through her songs, difranco seems to raise popular culture largely as a means of representing those who follow it and assume its ideals as their own. In doing so, such a flock fails to question the social and political environments around them.

Unlike references to popular culture, sexuality is often blatantly visible within difranco's works. The precedence that poets like Ginsberg set with lines such as "endless cock and balls," and Ferlinghetti with "penis erectus . . . spear" has been followed by ani difranco's mentions of explicit sex ("Howl" 11, "18," 12). Topics of one-night stands and same-sex relationships are far from taboo for this musician. Oftentimes, she creates heterosexual relationships in which the female narrator takes control at pivotal moments with lines such as, "when you and I are in bed/ you don't seem so tall" ("fire door" 19-20).

There is often a less critical side to the lovers in her song. "the whole night" and "if it isn't her" focus on lesbian relationships. The former opens with "we can touch/ touch our girl cheeks/ and we can hold hands like paper dolls/ we can try/ try each other on in the privacy/ within new york city's walls" (1-6). Compared to the above-mentioned example, this song has a rather playful and exploratory nature. "if it isn't her" describes a scene of infatuation: an idealistic notion of love at first sight: "standing like john wayne/ she is full frame/ she is center stage/ my imagination is/ rattling in its cage/ i didn't really notice/ when everything disappeared/ but as far as i'm concerned/ if it isn't her it isn't here" (1-9). difranco's manner is often, though not always, more direct than Ginsberg's brief and sometimes ambiguous references to his homosexuality. Though his works make frequent and explicit reference to male genitalia, the context is not usually under the setting of homosexuality. His poem "America" ends with "America I'm putting my queer shoulder to the wheel" (72). He shrewdly identifies himself as gay in this statement of action toward social change; it is a minor part of the piece, and written in a day when the meaning of "queer" was not necessarily synonymous with "gay."

Like homosexuality, the issue of feminism is not one for which the beats are reputed. Both of these issues were represented by only a few of the beat participants. This is partly because the close examination of unequal gender roles was not encouraged by the pop culture propaganda of the postwar era. Another limiting factor is the idea that being "beat" implied a certain freedom from conformity that most women did not have the luxury to pursue without consequences more severe than a man would face, as is the overall impression of Joyce Johnson's Minor Characters. Of the beat poetry written by women during that era, Diane DiPrima deals most blatantly with sexuality and gender expectation. Her poem "The Practice of Magical Evocation" speaks directly of the postwar, mainstream expectation that women acted as mere backdrops who are conveniently available for sex: "the female is ductile/ and/ (stroke after stroke)/ built for masochistic calm" (3-7). She goes on to describe women's sexuality in brutal terms: "pelvic architecture functional/ assailed inside & out/ (bring forth) the cunt gets wide/ and relatively sloppy" (12-15). Here, sex is made to sound like a violent act, contrary to the socially enforced pliancy of female nature.

These ideas of violent sexuality, along with hope for breaking gender expectations and examinations of male dominated industries are raised repeatedly in ani difranco's lyrics. "not a pretty girl" focuses on romanticized notions of gender and the way that they do not apply to the speaker's life. "i'm no heroine" discusses the male dominated realm of the music industry and other daily aspects of American female existence. The most striking similarity to the above-mentioned DiPrima lines can be found in "out of habit." The speaker of this piece declares: "my thighs have been involved in many accidents/ and now i can't get insured/ and i don't need to be lured by you/ my cunt is built like a wound that won't heal" (16-19). She raises the same issues of womanhood involving sexual encounters that demean the value of a woman in the eyes of the majority.

Far more prominent, however, than examination of female sexuality by members of the beat generation poets was the issue of the atomic bomb. In many ways, the dropping of the bomb and America's gradual awareness of its destruction helped bring the beat movement to life. Each of the best known among these poets deals with the subject in his own way. Ferlinghetti's "4," Corso's "Bomb," and Ginsberg's "America" all discuss the outrage, disgust, and confusion created by the atomic bomb. "4" describes "nutless nagsaki survivors" (21). In "Bomb," the bomb is "A thunderless God A dead God" (105). Ginsberg's "America" tells this country, "Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb" (5). The overarching image is that of an excess of destructive power without any logical reason, other than governmental agenda, behind it.

This theme is carried through ani difranco's "to the teeth." The song opens with a nightmarish image of where atomic power could take all of humanity: "the sun is setting on the century/ and we are armed to the teeth/ we're all working together now/ to make our lives painfully brief" (1-4). Like the aforementioned beat poets, difranco addresses the issue of a wide scale destruction of which Americans still have a resonant fear. The speaker adds a more contemporary twist, describing children who "confuse liberty with weaponry," an idea brought close to the public eye ever since the Columbine shootings (7). The speaker continues this critique of violence and destruction, and, by the end of the song, proposes rebellion against the mass media, weapons advocates, and even the "weapons manufacturer/ while he's giving head/ to some republican senator" (40-2). This proposal is made in hopes of redeeming our country, and the human race, from the violence toward which it seems inclined. Through the above image, she also touches upon the idea of corrupt politicians. Such allusions to corruption and abuse of power can be found consistently throughout her works, and allow another connection to be made to her beat predecessors.

Among all the recurrent themes found between both ani difranco and the beats, the most prominent is a need for social justice: a goal that these artists collectively struggle toward. Though the most famous among them were limited to the experiences of predominately masculine, white America, the beat poets spoke of inequalities and brutalities along lines of class, religion, race, and some of the now popularized female beats add gender to this catalog. As they had done in the 1940's and 50's, ani difranco touches upon all of these political themes, describing the struggle for social justice within a rigged system and bringing these neglected issues into the public eye. A closer examination of her work illustrates her usage of beat themes and applications of stylistic devices as a means of encouraging the examination of commonly accepted social injustice.

As the title implies, "tis of thee" is a close commentary on the so-called "American way" and the norms and political systems that we take for granted. The narrator opens the poem with an image of legalized social injustice: "they caught the last poor man on a poor man's vacation/they cuffed them and they confiscated his stuff/and they dragged his black ass down to the station" (1-4). The speaker provides an image of systemic segregation of minorities through the legal means of financial inequality. Meanwhile, she describes the willing blindness that most Americans take toward such "problems" that they would rather not acknowledge within their system. This is similar to Ginsberg's description of class in "America": "I say nothing about my prisons nor the millions of underprivileged who live in my flowerpots under the light of five hundred suns" (50). In say[ing] nothing," Ginsberg highlights this group of Americans in his letter to America.

Throughout "tis of the," difranco describes such intentional ignorance, along with injustices that many minorities have faced throughout the history of this country. "above 96th street,/they're handing out smallpox blankets/so people don't freeze" (14-6). Here, she combines past and present. The "smallpox" reference is an obvious historical allusion to the injustices done Native Americans upon European settlement of this country. This image is juxtaposed with the contemporary fact that, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, there is an invisible barrier leading across 96th street. Those south of this line can look forward to exorbitant rent prices in buildings with ostentatious lobbies and penthouse gyms, while those on the other side of the street are fortunate if their heat is working, or their elevators are anything other than broken death traps. New York City is pronounced in its segregation, though more divided by tax bracket than race.

The aforementioned "smallpox blankets" illustrate the surrealist imagery that runs throughout ani difranco's work, demonstrating her connection to beat poetry and strengthening the political messages she puts forth. Here, difranco criticizes her country by changing its national anthem into a sarcastic critique of what this popular culture has become. In questioning pop culture, she follows in the footsteps of beats like Bob Kaufman, who created images such as "on television corners of literary corn flakes and rockwells impotent America" ("On" 5).

The focus on segregation and social injustice experienced by minorities is also a theme that was raised by Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg. In "America," Ginsberg mentions the stereotypes and cruel treatment of African and Native Americans: "That no good, Ugh. Him make Indians learn read. Him need big black niggers. Hah. Her make us all work sixteen hours a day. Help./ America this is quite serious" (66-7). Similar sentiments of the inaccessability of the American dream to minorities can be found in Ferlinghetti's "3" where a speaker describes "disowned indians [. . .] and all the other fatal shorn-up fragments/ of the immigrant's dream come too true/ and mislaid/ among the sunbathers" (20, 22-5).

difranco's rhetorical reversals automatically lead to a questioning of the societal norm. That which many take for granted as correct, stable, and unchangeable, is suddenly transformed. ani difranco herself does not fit easily into any mass-media notions of the American mainstream, and this is quite apparent in much of her work. Within "tis of thee," difranco ends with an image of her exclusion and escape from an unaccepting norm: "i ran away with the circus/'cause there's still some honest work left for bearded ladies" (35-39). This verse is demonstrative of the need to escape. The reference to "bearded ladies" shows the narrator's social categorization as a "freak." Ferlinghetti's "Junkman's Obligato" opens with such an image of retreat from society: "Let's go/ Come on/ Let's go/ Empty our pockets/ and disappear" (1-5). Ginsberg's "Howl" also raises such an image of escape as he writes that "the best minds of [his] generation [. . .] vanished into nowhere Zen New Jersey, leaving a trail of ambiguous picture postcards of Atlantic City Hall" (1-20).

Below this surface level meaning of difranco's circus, an allusion to gender roles also lurks. The narrator identifies with ladies who have beards, an obviously masculine trait, revealing her inability to conform to a ridiculously rigid gender role. difranco's style here differs from that of the female beats, as most of them hadn't the luxury of overt rebellion or critique. Anne Waldman's "Our Past," for example, depicts a traditional relationship in which the woman is abandoned and disappointed. Rather than directly questioning, accusing, or pointing out, Waldman simply recounts a story with little superfluous commentary, allowing the events to speak for themselves.

After difranco's abnormal, gender-bending image, the speaker moves to ideas of the norm: "it's not the same goin' town to town/since they put everyone in jail/'cept the cleavers and the bradys" (38-9). This shows dissatisfaction with rigid norms, referencing directly the time period and popular culture against which the beats were rebelling. The pop culture figures of "the Cleavers" and the "Bradys" show a plastic reality by which many--even today--compare themselves. This American "ideal" is nowhere near achievable for a sizeable portion of Americans, and yet its residual effects can still be felt. Similar to Corso's critique of marriage through depicting the image of a supposedly ideal marriage, difranco raises unconventional ideas of love, sexuality, and commitment.

ani difranco adopts multiple stylistic devices and themes for which beat poetry is known, and she adapts them to her own voice and social era. She achieves the desired effect of questioning her contemporary popular culture, politics, and society in general. Like the beats, she is unable to fit into the supposed norm and works toward creating a more pliable, malleable average into which she, and many like her can function to create social change and live lives with the freedom this country is presumed to have.

Works Cited

Campbell, James. "Kerouac's Blues." Antioch Review. Spring 2001: 451. Expanded Academic. 2002. Gale Group. 22, Apr. 2002.
Corso, Gregory. "Bomb." The Portable Beat Reader. Ed. Ann Charters. New York: Penguin Books, 1992. 174-178.
---. "Marriage." The Portable Beat Reader. Ed. Ann Charters. New York: Penguin Books, 1992. 174-178.
difranco, ani. "both hands." like i said. Buffalo: Righteous Babe Records, 1993.
---. "coming up." not a pretty girl. Buffalo: Righteous Babe Records, 1995.
---. "fire door." like i said. Buffalo: Righteous Babe Records, 1993.
---. "garden of simple." reckoning & revelling. Buffalo: Righteous Babe Records, 2001.
---. "if it isn't her." imperfectly. Buffalo: Righteous Babe Records, 1993.
---. "i'm no heroine." imperfectly. Buffalo: Righteous Babe Records, 1993.
---. "not a pretty girl." not a pretty girl. Buffalo: Righteous Babe Records, 1995.
---. "out of habit." like i said. Buffalo: Righteous Babe Records, 1993.
---. "the whole night." like i said. Buffalo: Righteous Babe Records, 1993.
---. "32 flavors." not a pretty girl. Buffalo: Righteous Babe Records, 1995.
---. "tiptoe." not a pretty girl. Buffalo: Righteous Babe Records, 1995.
---. "tis of thee." up up up up up up. Buffalo: Righteous Babe Records, 1999.
---. "to the teeth." to the teeth. Buffalo: Righteous Babe Records, 1999.
---. "up up up up up up." up up up up up up. Buffalo: Righteous Babe Records, 1999.
DiPrima, Dianne. "The Practice of Magical Evocation." The Portable Beat Reader. Ed. Ann Charters. New York: Penguin Books, 1992. 360-361.
Ferlinghetti, Lawrence. "3." A Coney Island of the Mind. New Directions: New York, 1993. 13.
---. "4." A Coney Island of the Mind. New Directions: New York, 1993. 14.
---. "15." A Coney Island of the Mind. New Directions: New York, 1993. 30.
---. "18." A Coney Island of the Mind. New Directions: New York, 1993. 33.
---. "Junkman's Obligato." A Coney Island of the Mind. New Directions: New York, 1993. 54.
Ginsberg, Allen. "America." The Portable Beat Reader. Ed. Ann Charters. New York: Penguin Books, 1992. 74-77.
---. "Howl." The Portable Beat Reader. Ed. Ann Charters. New York: Penguin Books, 1992. 62-71.
Kaufman, Bob. "On." The Portable Beat Reader. Ed. Ann Charters. New York: Penguin Books, 1992. 329.
May, Elaine Tyler. Homeward Bound. New York: Basic Books Incorporated, 1988.
O'Connor, Chris. "Righteous Babe: Kicking Corporate Butt with Ani Difranco." eye WEEKLY. 2, Mar. 1995. The Ani DiFranco Home Page.
Waldman, Anne. "Our Past." The Portable Beat Reader. Ed. Ann Charters. New York: Penguin Books, 1992. 422-424.

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