Spoken Word: American poets of the 1960s

  • American author Jack Kerouac gestures expansively as he reads poetry at the Artist’s Studio in New York City, Feb. 15, 1959.  
  • American writers Jack Kerouac (left) and Lew Welch collaborate on a poem, which is typed by Gloria Schoffel in the apartment of her and her soon-to-be husband, photographer McDarrah, in New York City, Dec. 10, 1959. 
  • A view of beatnik dive, The Gas House. 
  • American poet and singer Maya Angelou wears a red dress while dancing next to a fire in a promotional portrait taken for the cover of her album, “Miss Calypso.”
  • Poet Langston Hughes in Harlem. 
  • Beatniks at City Hall protesting against closing of Greenwich Village coffee houses, 1960. 
  • Author William S. Burroughs sitting at a crude table with typewriter.
  • Gregory Corso (R) and other Beatnik poets during a poetry reading party. 
  • Beatnik night club, 1960. 
  • Portrait of American poet Allen Ginsberg in his apartment as he poses with his pet Siamese cat balanced on his back, New York City. 
  • Robert Cordier, Sylvia Topp, Bill Godden, Gloria Schoffel, James Baldwin, Howard Hart, Norman Mailer, Lester Blackiston and others gather to discuss “The Funeral Of The Beat Generation,” in New York City, Jan. 23, 1961. 
  • Television journalist Danny Meenan interviews photographer Fred W. McDarrah, and others, on a stoop on MacDougal Street in New York City, for Mike Wallace’s Beat Generation documentary, April 30, 1960. 
  • Writer James Baldwin standing in front of a microphone and performing at the Salute to Freedom benefit concert in Birmingham, Ala., on August 5, 1963. 
  • Poet Allen Ginsberg (R) singing to a small group of hippies on the beach in Chicago, Ill., during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. 
  • American novelist, poet and short story writer Charles Bukowski at his apartment in Hollywood, Calif. 
  • Poet and activist Amiri Baraka, lower right, speaks to a rally of Puerto Ricans in Newark, NJ’s Military Park. 
  • Portrait of the poet Amiri Baraka, formerly known as LeRoi Jones, in profile, Pittsburgh, Pa. 



The political climate of 1960s America was at once explosive and lyrical. The decade endured the height of the civil rights movement, the brunt of the Vietnam War, sexual liberation, the growth of the Beat Generation, Bob Dylan, the Beatles, and the assassinations of John F. Kennedy (1963), Malcolm X (1965) and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1968).

It was a time when poetry and revolution went hand in hand – and each supported and fortified the other –  as they still do in many of the world’s politically upturned societies. 

The Beat Generation, later referred to as the Beatniks, rose to prominence in the 1950s and surged through the 1960s—calling to question materialist culture, social constructs surrounding sexuality, drugs and religion, reinventing style and explicitly portraying the human condition—before incorporating into larger counterculture movements.

Famous American civil rights poets like Naomi Long Madgett “prayed and slaved and waited and sung.”

“You’ve bled me and you’ve starved me but I’ve still grown strong/You’ve lashed me and you’ve treed me/And you’ve everything but freed me/But in time you’ll know you need me and it won’t be long,” she wrote.

 Langston Hughes declared, “I, too, sing America.”

Maya Angelou, remembered more widely as a poet than a dancer, wrote about female sexuality and dancing “like I’ve got diamonds at the meeting of my thighs” in her poem-turned-anthem, “Still I Rise.”

On World Poetry Day, we look back at American poets like Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, James Baldwin, Charles Bukowski and Amiri Baraka. They are seen here gathering, performing and rebelling throughout the decade. 

For more feature photography, go to msnbc.com/photography