Jennifer Love

 6/01/01

No Girls Allowed: Women Poets and the Beat Generation
by: Jennifer Love
MA Candidate -- English Literature
MFA Candidate -- Creative Writing/Poetry
Chapman University
Orange, CA

 

I see the girl Joyce Glassman, twenty-two, with her hair hanging down below her shoulders, all in black like Masha in The Seagull—black stockings, black skirt, black sweater—but, unlike Masha, she's not in mourning for her life. How could she have been, with her seat at the table in the exact center of the universe, that midnight place where so much is converging, the only place in America that's alive? As a female, she's not quite part of this convergence. A fact she ignores, sitting by in her excitement as the voices of the men, always the men, passionately rise and fall and their beer glasses collect and the smoke of their cigarettes rises toward the ceiling and the dead culture is surely being wakened. Merely being there, she tells herself, is enough. From Minor Characters, Joyce Johnson.

In Joyce Johnson's conclusion to her memoir, Minor Characters, this vision of herself as a young woman seeking her place among the writers and artists of the Beat Generation encapsulates the experience of a number of woman writers and poets during this highly male-centered literary era. The courage it took for these women to be there at all in the repressive and conservative 1950s and the excitement they experienced at having secured a "seat at the table" coexisted with the knowledge that they remained set apart and were generally seen and heard less than their male contemporaries. Given the nature and history of both American culture at the time and Beat writing in general, such an outsider status should not be surprising. Alice Notley takes the argument even further in her discussion of Joanne Kyger's poetry and includes literary movements in general: "Poetry movements are generally man-made; women seen in light of such movements always appear secondary" (95).
Despite the fact that these women may have been dismissed in the past, current interest has ensured that their work has begun to appear in anthologies, and academia has begun to include them in classes on and studies of the Beat Generation. Who were some of these women and how and why did they become Beat in a literary movement that centered on and emanated from the lives and works of three male writers? From a personal perspective as a woman writer I found myself increasingly drawn to this question and in the pages that follow, I hope to give one version of an answer by looking briefly at 1950s American culture and the Beat movement in general and then turning to the lives and works of several individual women poets to understand their response to the emerging Beat culture and the ways in which they attached themselves to the Beat movement, incorporating and reinventing Beat ideologies in their own terms and making invaluable contributions to the publishing and proliferation of Beat writings. Read more by downloading the entire article...


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