Poets on Film: 5 Signs You Might Be a Beat Poet Trapped in a Biopic

Would you rather be reading Yeats and smoking cigarettes than going to class? You might be a genius, or you might be trapped in the sexy, stylish, and bewildering Kill Your Darlings (2013).

Poets on Film is a semi-regular feature of PopPoetry, a poetry and pop culture Substack written by Caitlin Cowan. You can learn more about it here. Check out the archive to see other TV shows, movies, and films whose intersections with poetry I’ve covered. If you like what you read and want it in your inbox, subscribe so you won’t miss a post!

I’m always looking for comments and suggestions for future posts, and today’s post about the 2013 film Kill Your Darlings was requested by reader Siddhi Shah. Thank you for the recommendation, Siddhi! If there’s a piece of pop culture the features poetry or poets that you’d like to see me cover, leave a comment and I just might do it! :)

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From left to right, Dane DeHaan as Lucien Carr, Michael C. Hall as David Kammerer, Elizabeth Olson as Edie Parker, and Daniel Radcliffe as Allen Ginsberg in Jordan Krokidas’s Kill Your Darlings (via Empire)

You know the Beats. Even if you don’t know the Beats, you know them:

  • The names: Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs

  • The works: On the Road, Howl, Naked Lunch

  • The stereotype: Drugs & cigarettes, jazz, turtlenecks, bongos, dark glasses

The Beat poets are often conflated with the “beatnik” stereotype that cropped up in mainstream media in the decade or two following their initial activity. At a time of rigid conformity, the Beats arose at a time when a counterculture was developing In some ways, the Beats were the harbingers of the mass counterculture that would take hold in America in the 1960s.

Some of the scorn aimed at the Beats was undoubtedly an attempt to quash the ideals that the movement stood for. But the drugs and sex and boundary crashing of their lifestyle were equally upsetting to the mainstream, too. As Matt Theado wrote in his book The Beats: A Literary Reference

The writers who spawned the multifaceted Beat Generation phenomenon spoke for the disaffiliated youth who were coming of age in the late 1940s and 1950s, an era marked by global warfare, the atomic bomb, mass industrialization, suburban sprawl, decaying spiritual values, and a loss of individual identity. These writers both identified the malaise and pointed the way out—through heightened perception and spiritual epiphany. That message was lost on much of the public, though, as the Beats were ensnared instead in the trappings of their lifestyle.

So, too, are we ensnared in the idea of the Beat lifestyle. In the 1990s, cartoons like Doug were teaching young me how to hate and deride the ludicrous beats through the character of Judy Funnie.

So trenchant are our ideas about what the Beats were that they’ve come to stand in for all poets regardless of the time period. What I mean by that is the stereotypical image of a poet is one who is beating bongos, TALKing like THIS, and possibly sporting a beret.

Kill Your Darlings, the 2013 film starring Daniel Radcliffe as a young Allen Ginsberg, had a big job to accomplish, then, in attempting to portray the Beats as they really were, stripped of stereotype.

The film is pretty good, and features a Marie Antoinette-style treatment in which the Beats break into the Columbia library at night to the sounds of TV on the Radio’s “Wolf Like Me.” It’s exciting. The young actors give the material their all, and for the most part seem like real people. But there are still some tropes and stereotypes that feel played up or played out, but even these are interesting inclusions to think about as writers, readers, and viewers.

Signs You Might Be a Beat Poet Trapped in a Biopic

1. You talk about writing more than you actually write.

Granted that actual writing doesn’t make for riveting cinema (do you want to watch DanRad scribble quietly in a notebook for 120 minutes?), I would have loved to see even more of the poets’ work on display in the film rather than their manifesto-making. But Kill Your Darlings centers on the 1944 murder of David Kammerer—ten years before Ginsberg would pen “Howl.” The Beats are still in school or flunking out of it, trying to become who they are.

But there’s so much Beat lifestyle and so little Beat poetry on display in the film that I was thankful when Burroughs (played to weird perfection by an unnerving Ben Foster) finally points out that they’re spending far more time talking about their artistic principles than actually creating art.

2. You’re pissed at your elders.

In the scene above, watching Ginsberg question his professor’s distaste for free verse is highly satisfying. Watching the Beats hate on old-timers like Ogden Nash is similarly beautiful and well-deserved, too. Youth movements have, at their core, a hated of the old order, and these actors play that feature up well.

The movie’s title is derived from a piece of advice that issued not only from teachers at Columbia in the 1940s but from actual human beings now in the year of our lord 2021. The phrase “kill your darlings” is an often repeated nugget of writing advice that’s actually pretty terrible. It’s related, at its core, to the idea that writing requires pain and suffering. If you like something, that must mean it’s bad. Kill all sentiment. Destroy feminine feeling down to its core of masculine logic and reason. This was anathema to the Beats, but proved to be a cheeky title for a film in which Lucien Carr (portrayed by a manic, DiCaprio-esque Dane DeHaan) kills his former lover.

While it’s true that leaving something in your poem or story or blog post solely because it pleases you is not quite reason enough, the darker notions skulking around in the advice to “kill your darlings” absolutely has to do with the idea that if you like something it is because it—and by extension, you—are deficient in some way. So yeah, stick it to the man on this one.

3. The amount of drugs in your body is just… dear god.

Oh, the drugs and boozing in this flick. There isn’t that much artistic license being used here, I’d venture, as the Beats were known for their drug use. (How did Kerouac bang out the first draft of On the Road in three weeks? Why, drugs, of course!) We’re not just talking whiskey and weed: we’re talking about Burroughs lying in a bathtub with a tank of nitrous oxide strapped to his face.

Drug use was one of the aspects of Beat culture that critics of the time simply could not get over. In a 1958 review titled “The Know-Nothing Bohemians,” famous Beat-hater Norman Podhoretz scorned the Beat belief that “a diffuse, generalized and unrelenting enthusiasm is the mark of great sensitivity and responsiveness,” calling it “an idea that comes from taking drunkenness or drug-addiction as the state of perfect emotional vigor.”

I take a more two-minded approach to this aspect of the Beat Generation: their drug use was experimental and libertine and wild and almost brave but it was also dangerous and dumb and destructive and possibly not as enlightened as they thought it was. More than one thing can be true.

4. Writing takes precedence over everything else in your life.

This is a film, not a documentary, so I’m self-administering a grain of salt, here, but there was something unnerving about the way the film cut from Carr in a prison cell to Ginsberg leisurely writing in a bar. It’s almost as if all experience is mere material for these writers.

The climax of the film, which I won’t spoil, isn’t really about the murder. It’s about something that Ginsberg writes about his experiences. As a writer, this is very cool. I’ve definitely done things while thinking to myself “I’m totally going to write about this,” and I’ve met writers who willingly admit that they have done and do things so that they can write about them. But as, I dunno, a humanoid creature… it feels icky to draw a clean line from someone’s death to the personal growth someone experienced as a writer because of it. It feels vaguely exploitative in a way that reminds me that I am trapped in a Beat biopic.

5. The women around you are only here to sleep with you.

The decision to have Elizabeth Olson featured as part of the main cast is smart, because the Beat movement, for all its gritty significance, was notoriously hostile to women. But her role is very limited, though she’s magnetic in the few scenes she does have.

This movie doesn’t pass the Bechdel test, that’s for sure. But in a sad way, this is true to the harsh reality of the Beat Generation: women occupied a second-class status, even in a literary movement centered on disrupting the status quo like the Beats. See the Pop Palate Cleanser below for more.

I plan to tackle the 2012 On the Road film in a future post, as well as the movie Big Sur. Are there other portrayals of this generation that you know of or would like to see covered at PopPoetry? Leave a comment and let me know!

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Pop Palate Cleanser

The late Diane di Prima was a noted Beat poet, activist, and teacher. Often called a “rare” female Beat poet, di Prima’s work is not as well known as that of her male contemporaries, but this has more to do with the climate of her time than the import of her work.

The male Beats, for all their talk of liberation and getting down to the “bedrock of consciousness,” largely replicated the patriarchal values of previous generations. They were misogynistic and, for the most part, understood the women in their circles as sex objects, girlfriends, and wives first and poets second. In other words, they were no different than other men of their generation.

And though male Beats may have experienced a new freedom in their transgressive lifestyle, women like di Prima were not able to achieve the same kind of freedom on the basis of their sex. As Danielle Dumaine writes in “Sex, Memoir, and the Women of the Beat Generation,” di Prima “spent years hustling for work in offices and bookstores to pay rent in those tenements, accepted countless donations of food and money from family, and underwent an emotionally fraught abortion; labor and experiences that belied the imagery of the Beats as easy-going vagabonds.”

The author of more than 40 books of poems, including poetry, a short story collection, and two memoirs. In the 1990s, feminist scholars sought to excavate the work and legacies of female Beats from beneath the mountain of praise heaped on men like Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Burroughs. But as Dumaine reminds us, “In a way, di Prima’s [memoir] also prefigured the interest in memoirs by Beat women that bubbled up in the 1990s, with books by Joyce Johnson, Carolyn Cassady, and Hettie Jones.”

Hear di Prima read and get to know her a bit in the short film The Poetry Deal:

If you’re looking for more female Beat writers, check out Bustle’s “7 Female Beat Writers to Read Instead of Jack Kerouac,” which highlights Di Prima’s Loba and Memoirs of a Beatnik, as well as work by Joyce Johnson, Carolyn Cassady, and others.

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Remember when I wrote about the dangers of relatability as a so-called virtue in poetry? This is what the endgame looks like, and it sucks. You are not here to be relatable, and the push for relatability is, mainly, a cover for things like racism, sexism, bigotry, and, here, anti-semitism: