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Beat Generation: Where the ladies at?


The Beat Generation is known for its iconoclasm in pushing the genre of literature, and decades after its impetus it’s also quite apparent that it suffered from a staggering lack of diversity in constituent poets, which, as writer Bill Cotter writes for Huck Magazine, comes off like a sausage fest. Yet there were some women involved with the Beat poets, though many of them were institutionalized or otherwise ostracized, some are experiencing the inkings of renown. Cotter is in partial below, in full via Huck Magazine.

Of course there were women. And not just hangers-on and molls and muses and homicides and sexualised shadows, as Ginsberg-Kerouac-Burroughs and their celebrants might have you believe. Instead they were actual people, independent, with literary muscle and verifiable floruits that have left enduring countercultural footprints.

Not women whose writings and biographies are so often cast in light of GKB – Joan Vollmer, Carolyn Cassady, Joyce Johnson – but women with their own incandescence.

In 1994, Gregory Corso, in response to a question essentially asking, ‘Where the hell are the women of the Beat Generation?’ responded thus: “There were women, they were there, I knew them, their families put them in institutions, they were given electric shock. […] There were cases, I knew them, someday someone will write about them.”

And, slowly, lesser-known Beat women are finding champions in the publishing world.

Boise State University’s literary publishing arm, the Ahsahta Press, have issued the poems of one of the generation’s most enigmatic, important and tragic figures, and about whom Corso could easily have been speaking: Elise Cowen.

Born in 1933 and gone by ’62, Cowen’s rhetoric and actions were eminently interlinked with the generation that produced her.

She rebelled her upstanding and better-to-do parents’ plans for her to become a pattern-card of normalcy; she wrote exacting and beautifully bitter poems; she seduced her college philosophy professor; she was afflicted with trench mouth; she listened to Woody Guthrie on acetate 78s; she was a genuine paranoiac; she wore combat boots and toreador pants; she felt a deep propinquity with Ginsberg because they had both spent time in psychiatric hospitals; she once asserted that what this country needs is a lot of good cheap heroin; she believed her cat was insane; she believed that the only morally acceptable way to acquire a book was to steal it.

*Image: Michael McClure (left) with his Beat Generation contemporaries, Bob Dylan (center) and Allen Ginsberg (right) via Las Vegas Weekly