This is an attempt at definition. Whatever you think of the so-called Beat Writers, or the Beat Generation--their affect on American or world culture, or their literary importance--it is useful to narrow the meaning of the term 'Beat Writer' in the interests of accuracy and pertinence.
The term Beat Writer has been mangled and misused and expanded to include dozens and dozens of poets and prose writers, most of whom never had any connection with the "movement" itself, and many of whom do not in any clear sense exhibit any of the aspects of Beat. Who may be considered as a true Beat?
There are several problems in defining Beat. First, the term was invented before there was either a literature, or anything like a social or literary group, to which it could refer. Wikipedia states that the term Beat Generation was invented by Jack Kerouac in 1948, and that this was codified by the novelist John Clellon Holmes, in an article he published in 1952. (Holmes published a novel, Go, in 1952, about the Beat Generation, but he is only peripherally considered himself to be a Beat Writer--perhaps only a documentarian).
The term Beat Generation is reminiscent of the phrase The Lost Generation, coined by Gertrude Stein ["You are all a Lost Generation"] to describe those (mostly American) writers and artists who had been drawn to Europe following WWI, in the 1920's. It is not altogether clear what "Beat" was originally intended to mean, or to describe, but its associations usually include modern jazz (circa the late 1940's and 1950's), the low life associated with a rather shabby bohemianism and/or illegal drug use, lower-class disenfranchisement (dignified or voluntary poverty), and poetic inspiration ("beatific" possession, youthful romantic indulgence of a type associated with French literary figures such as Verlaine, Baudelaire, Rimbaud).
In attempting to define what a Beat Writer may be, one must be careful not to assign to it specifically either a geographical or thematic element. There is no single event or group, in time, which can be used as a baseline for taxonomic inclusion.
Jack Kerouac, the single most important figure in the group, grew up in Massachusetts, went to Columbia, and then dropped out. His first novel, The Town and the City, published in 1950, is in style and substance an emulation of Thomas Wolfe. His next work, On the Road, written in 1951 (originally begun in Quebecois [French dialect] and revised and expurgated before eventually being published in altered form in 1957), provides the context and tapestry of the Beat identity, and is a roman a clef--in its original form--of the semi-fictional life Kerouac imagined he was living, or would like to have lived, during those years. Kerouac traveled around a good deal during the 1950's, and met and socialized with other figures who would eventually qualify for inclusion in the movement. Several other of Kerouac's novels document his further adventures, and those of friends and acquaintances whom he had known; but On the Road is the key work in the Beat movement phenomenon.
The second key figure in the Beat movement, is William S. Burroughs, an unusual and unlikely progenitor. The child of well-off Missourians, he attended Harvard (graduating in 1936), and spent most of his adult life wandering from situation to situation, experimenting with sex, crime, drugs, writing and art. He published the novel Junky, in 1953, as a dime-store dos-a-dos paperback original, a verite expose of the life of a drug addict, under the pseudonym William Lee. While living in Tangier, Morocco, 1954-58, he wrote what would, with the help of Allen Ginsberg and Kereouac, become the novel The Naked Lunch . The Naked Lunch, together with Burroughs's close ties to the key figures Ginsberg and Kerouac, place him squarely in the inner circle of the Beat movement.
The third crucial figure in the movement is Allen Ginsberg. Growing up in New Jersey, Ginsberg attended Columbia, and encountered Burroughs, Gregory Corso, and Lucien Carr, among others. In 1954, in the San Francisco Bay Area, Ginsberg would meet his life partner, Peter Orlovsky, compose his signature poem Howl (at the Caffe Mediterraneum in Berkeley), and read it, at the Six Gallery, in 1955. Also reading there that night were Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, Philip Lamantia, and Michael McClure. Simply on the basis of their participation at this reading--though for other reasons, as well--all of these other four figures belong in the Beat canon. Snyder and Whalen had attended Reed College in Oregon, together, and had migrated to the Bay Area at the same time--both of them had been influenced by Kerouac, as well as by Eastern culture and Buddhism (as had Kerouac). McClure had come to San Francisco from Kansas, and after first attempting to be a painter, settled on an original poetic style whose beatific themes and content fit in well with the Beat consciousness.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti arrived in San Francisco in 1953, and shortly thereafter co-founded the City Lights Bookstore and publishing venture (City Lights Books). Many of the early titles which Ferlinghetti published in his "Pocket Poets Series" would tend to be associated with the Beat movement, but only a handful actually qualify (Ginsberg, Corso, Ferlinghetti, Lamantia, Kaufman, Norse, Hirschman, Orlovsky, Kerouac); Duncan, Levertov, Patchen, Rexroth, O'Hara, etc., are not Beat writers, though books of theirs appeared in the Pocket Poets series. Hirschman, Norse, Kaufman, Lew Welch (a close associate of Snyder's), and Lamantia (a late canonical American Surrealist), Selby, Wieners, are Beats. Though peripherally associated with the Bay Area Beat figures, Meltzer, Loewinsohn, Bremser, Micheline, and Kyger are not Beats. Jack Spicer, Robert Duncan, The White Rabbit group, are not Beats.
Poets of The New York School (O'Hara, Berrigan, Waldman, Carroll) are not Beats. Charles Bukowski is not a Beat. D.A. Levy is not a Beat. Writers associated with Black Mountain College, The Black Mountain Review, Origin Magazine, Evergreen Magazine, Grove Press books, Olympia Press Books, etc., are not Beat by definition. J.P. Donleavy is not a Beat. Nabokov is not a Beat. Ken Kesey, despite his associations with Neal Cassidy, Allen Ginsberg and his rural Oregon background (which he shares with Snyder), and his interest in drugs and the counter-culture, is not a Beat--he belongs, with Richard Brautigan, to a later generation (perhaps the Psychedelic, or Flower Generation).
The Beat movement is a phenomenon whose time-line runs from 1948 to approximately 1960. Those Beat writers included in the Allen Anthology--Corso, Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg, Kerouac, Lamantia, McClure, Orlovsky, Snyder, Welch, and Whalen--had all completed work which was clearly Beat in meaning or inspiration by that time. Adam, Broughton, Blaser, Gleason, etc., are not Beats.
In limiting the definition of Beat, it's important to restrict the list to those who both produced work central to the meaning of Beat as a literary style, as well those who had clear social or professional connections to each other or to specific events. The San Francisco Renaissance, for instance, intersects or overlaps with Beat, but the two movements aren't synonymous. Claims are often made for overlap with Black Mountain, but there is no clear connection. Though Ginsberg and Burroughs and Kerouac all spent time in New York, attempts to connect them to others there during this period, don't work. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, published in 1962, is a watershed event, signaling a shift both in cultural and literary consciousness. The 1960's were in many respects a realization and flowering of the ideas and tendencies in the avant-garde of the 1940's and 1950's--and the Beats could rightfully claim that many of their inspirations, and criticisms of American life, had brought about important intellectual, political and artistic developments in that, and subsequent decades, but their period of important work was complete by 1960.
It often seems convenient, for various reasons, to imagine that the Beat movement continued through the 1960's, and even into the 1970's. Those wishing to claim an association with the Beat movement, or to co-opt later figures as continuations of Beat spirit or inspiration, usually have a poor sense of actual literary history. For instance, none of the poets included in Paul Carroll's Young American Poets anthology are Beats--because none of its contributors (except perhaps Kenward Elmslie--certainly no Beat!) had written anything before 1960. It's almost as if the concept of Beat is so pervasive, in its descriptive or adjectival sense, that it's applied without any discrimination whatsoever.
I often think that the true canon of Language Poetry is to be found in the early work of John Ashbery, Michael Palmer, Clark Coolidge, Larry Eigner, Jackson Mac Low and Robert Grenier, and that by the mid-1970's, that movement, such as it was, had really ended. What those in the Grand Piano project were doing, or thought they were doing, is probably "Post"-Language School work. Literary criticism and literary history usually identify what is actually happening about 10 to 20 years after the fact--sometimes even longer. What are the "canonical" works of the Language School? If you take away Ashbery's Rivers and Mountains, Tennis Court Oath and Three Poems, Palmer's Blake's Newton and Circular Gates, Coolidge's Ing, Space and The Maintains, Eigner's another time in fragments, Mac Low's Stanzas, and Grenier's Dusk Road Games, Water Farmer and A Day at the Beach, what's left?
It strikes me that the work that Kerouac, Burroughs, Ginsberg, Snyder, Whalen, Ferlinghetti, Corso, McClure, Lamantia and Welch all did after 1960 is interesting, fun, and different, but it does nothing to refine or modify our sense of Beat. That's because by 1960-62, what we think of as Beat had run out of steam. Each decade lays the seeds of later developments. The Sixties as a creative decade spawned the Conservative reaction of the 1980's and 1990's. What Barrett Watten refers to as "the turn to language" in the early 1970's resembles an introspection, an introversion, largely in reaction to the physicality, the indulgence and erotic sublimation of the Sixties. The reaction to that tendency, in turn, can be seen in the work and history of succeeding decades. We've just turned the corner at the end of the first decade of the 21st Century.
Silliman's Alphabet has just been published. Am I living in the past, or does it seem like an anti-climax? Its first published sections are as far away from us, in time, now, as we were, in 1970, from Robert Duncan's early work (from the 1940's). Sometimes we forget how fast the ground is moving under our feet.