Spoken Word: American poets of the 1960s

by Rebecca Sanchez

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.