A brief introduction to the Beat Generation

James Garside

“First Thought, Best Thought.” — Allen Ginsberg
“You are a genius all of the time.” — Jack Kerouac
“Language is a virus.” — William Burroughs

A friend asked me for some links to stuff to do with the beats to help her with a creative writing lesson plan. I got a little carried away, so thought I’d share them here too.

Classroom resources / exercises we’ve used in the past include:

Though in both cases you checked and edited slightly for language used. So definitely do that again before using them.

THE ABOVE TWO PIECES ARE ALL YOU NEED to teach students about the beats and get them hooked in a creative writing workshop.

That said, here’s some more links and background information on the beats.

The three who count are Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs. All have colourful language, sexual content etc and I’d especially steer clear of Burroughs’ work, for younger students, due to its graphic violence and crude humour.

The main thing to convey to students is their approach to writing, and that a group of friends basically encouraged each other into pretending that they were great writers, by believing in and supporting each other, until they became great writers.

Wikipedia has ‘good enough’ bios and overviews:





And info about their most famous works:




On the Road is the most beloved of older and more rebellious students for obvious reasons.

Jack Kerouac

Kerouac.net: http://kerouac.net

Jack Kerouac — Writing Lesson: https://youtu.be/J7IeCEvT_CM

Excerpt from On the Road: http://writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/88/onroad.html

Allen Ginsberg

Allen Ginsberg.org: http://allenginsberg.org

Etc: http://www.poetryarchive.org/poet/allen-ginsberg

Etc: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/allen-ginsberg

The film ends with this genuine footage of the real Allen Ginsberg performing ‘Father Death Blues’ towards the end of his life: https://youtu.be/Ew6ef3nE-E4 (This breaks my heart every time I see it, I’ve been known to cry just watching it, and this is the exact version of the song that I want playing at my funeral)


Whilst I’d steer clear of teaching Burroughs’ work to young students it’s worth teaching them about 1) cut-up techniques and 2) the third mind (two heads are better than one)

There’s lots of different methods and stuff written about this, but best not get hung up on the details.

For example:




One of the core concepts from the book though is that when you put two artists together (or two minds) their collaboration becomes greater than the sum of its parts (as though created by a third mind)

THIS is very inspiring to groups of students for obvious reasons.

Other Stuff

Naropa University has The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics in Jack’s honour: http://www.naropa.edu/academics/jks/about.php

And Saving the Best for Last

Naropa’s audio archives are AMAZING and include recordings of class lessons taught by Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, including ones devoted to Jack Kerouac: https://archive.org/details/naropa?&sort=-downloads&page=2

There’s a LOT of audio there. A small selection was released as ‘First Thought, Best Thought’ on CD. But it’s a great place to point students to if they want to be taught creative writing by William Burroughs and poetry by Allen Ginsberg!

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NCTJ-qualified British independent journalist, author, and travel writer.


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