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Polina Mackay, Beat Feminisms: Aesthetics, Literature, Gender, Activism

Marietta Kosma
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Polina Mackay, Beat Feminisms: Aesthetics, Literature, Gender, Activism, New York, Routledge, 2021, 172 p. + xiv, ISBN 9780415892711 (hardback), $170.

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1The contribution of women writers to beat literature has been central in revisionist studies since the late twentieth century. Polina Mackay’s Beat Feminisms: Aesthetics, Literature, Gender, Activism extends a long-standing tradition of beat feminist literature, which includes the following works, among others: Women of the Beat Generation (1996), A Different Beat (1997), Girls Who Wore Black (2002), Breaking the Rule of Cool (2004), Out of the Shadows (2015) and Women Writers of the Beat Era (2018). While the book claims to be the first to read women of the Beat Generation “as feminist writers” (x), it is more accurately described as building on and broadening the pioneering work on women of the Beats as a movement by scholars such as Mary Paniccia Carden, Brenda Knight, Ronna C. Johnson and Nancy M. Grace, among others. To that end, Beat Feminisms analyzes the work of three women associated with the Beat movement—Diane di Prima, ruth weiss and Anne Waldman—and that of three feminist artists—Laurie Anderson, Kathy Acker and Patti Smith—through a feminist lens. These women represent three different generations: those born in the 1910s and 1920s, those born in the 1930s but who were linked to the beat movement, and those born after the 1940s who drew inspiration from this movement but were not affiliated with the beat feminists who were born in the 1910s, joining instead the movement through their allegiance to its ideology. Many of these women were isolated from one another and met later in the 1990s, due to their prolonged exclusion from a publishing industry dominated by male editors.

2In the introduction, Mackay analyzes the concept of “shared sociability” by identifying the “mythologies of Beat masculinity and femininity” in the work of male writers (5). By exploring the term “shared sociability,” she tries to challenge the alleged lack of a sense of community among women. She outlines the themes and aesthetics favored by writers such as William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac among others in order to point out the joint visions underwriting Beat texts the better to provide an alternative, feminist “point of entry” into them (1). She discusses a Beat Generation aesthetics grounded in a “shared sociability” and then departs from this point of view by arguing that the male Beats construct self-completion in contrast to what female subjectivity represents (1). Female subjectivity in male beat writing cannot be disassociated from narratives of authorial selfhood which center on the experience of being a man, thus blocking, rather than allowing, access into Beat texts written by women.

3In the next three chapters, Mackay pinpoints the themes favored by writers of peripheral status. She succeeds in placing these multi-genre women writers and performers within a Beat context, while applying second-wave and current feminist theories to twentieth- and twenty-first-century Beat Generations. She engages with di Prima’s work—Earthsong: Poems 1957-1959 (1968), This Kind of Bird Flies Backward (1958), and Dinners and Nightmares (1961)—and weiss’s Desert Journal (1977) to detect intertextual Beat influences while identifying their Beat feminist poetics. More precisely, Mackay demonstrates how these writers develop their Beat feminist poetics through the use of intertextual influences. It might have been useful at this point to incorporate into the analysis some other work of weiss which touches on Beat-related topics such as Can’t Stop the Beat (2011), as that might have helped deepen the reading of the intertextual influences on Beat feminist poetics to posit feminist revision as central to their ethics of belonging.

4After having examined the work of di Prima and weiss, Mackay focuses on women writers who have been influenced by Burroughs such as Laurie Anderson and Anne Waldman. In the final chapter she focuses on Waldman and maps out her development as a feminist writer. First, she explores the poet’s writing of female subjectivity in her earlier work, Fast Speaking Woman (1975). Mackay then shows how Waldman further engages directly with feminism through The Iovis Trilogy (2011), thus establishing for Waldman a link between writing as a woman and being an activist. Mackay places these artists’ “write back” culture at the forefront of her analysis and posits it against misogyny. Instead of being erased by male Beats, she contends, writing back allows these women writers and artists to transcend the “silence / silencing” (xii) to which they were confined. She argues that “a new poetics of gender” thus emerges (136). Mackay analyzes Waldman, Anderson and Smith’s performances as indicative of Beat-influenced conceptions of selfhood and as feminist revisions of the patriarchal model of authorial identity. The study might, however, have provided a “clear[er] link between writing as a woman and being an activist against various forms of oppression” (iii) than Mackay allows. Beyond the display of socio-political engagement, one might have hoped for more concrete examples that would show how Waldman actually enacts activism through text.

5Mackay employs a feminist lens to explore the position of individual writers as well as feminist figures associated with the Beat movement. Their individuality is investigated through the vantage point of writing against mythologies of female subjectivity as they are constructed in male Beat textual productions. These identities have in common aesthetic practices that point out the relevance of gender, activism and feminism in the body of work of the Beats. What renders Mackay’s Beat Feminisms a significant contribution is that it suggests that “women of the Beat Generation [are] feminist writers” who employ “innovative poetics through intertextuality, revision and intervention” (xi). These women, she argues, do more and move beyond the idea of a write-back culture. She further builds on the “drive toward social change” as she expands on the literary as well as on the social parameters of Beat feminism (148). The use of extensive bibliography and an extensive index renders Beat Feminisms a valuable resource for scholars of feminist literature. Mackay further reorients, quite usefully, the conversation towards understanding the Beat as a movement rather than a generation, which bears important consequences for the study of American literature and culture.

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CARDEN, Mary Paniccia. Women Writers of the Beat Era: Autobiography and Intertextuality. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2018.

GRACE, Nancy M., and Ronna C. JOHNSON, eds. Breaking the Rule of Cool: Interviewing and Reading Women Beat Writers. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2004.

JOHNSON, Ronna C., and Nancy M. GRACE, eds. Girls Who Wore Black: Women Writing the Beat Generation. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press 2002.  

KNIGHT, Brenda, ed. Women of the Beat Generation: The Writers, Artists, and Muses at the Heart of Revolution. Berkeley: Conari Press, 1996.

PEABODY, Richard, ed. A Different Beat: Writings by Women of the Beat Generation. London: High Risk, 1997.

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Marietta Kosma, « Polina Mackay, Beat Feminisms: Aesthetics, Literature, Gender, Activism »Transatlantica [En ligne], 2 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 novembre 2023, consulté le 22 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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