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Allen Ginsberg

Allen Ginsberg

Allen Ginsberg was a well-known, 20th-century American poet, a leading figure among the "Beatniks" of the 1950s. Ginsberg is best known for “Howl," a long, loosely structured poem written in 1956, that spoke to the American consumer society's negative human values. Along with Robert Lowell, Ginsberg was considered to be the catalyst for a great shift in American poetry in the late 1950s.

Early years

Allen Ginsberg was born on June 3, 1926, in Newark, New Jersey. His parents were Louis Ginsberg, a high-school English teacher and poet, and Naomi Levy Ginsberg. The Ginsberg children grew up in a household overshadowed by their mother's mental illness. Naomi suffered from epileptic seizures and paranoia. During the Depression years, she took her sons to meetings of the radical left, which included the Communist Party-USA, of which she was a member.

As a teenager, Ginsberg began to write letters to The New York Times about such political issues as workers' rights during World War II. In 1941, when Ginsberg was a junior in high school, his mother insisted that he take her to a therapist at a Lakewood, New Jersey, rest home. The traumatic bus journey he took with his mother was described in his long autobiographical poem, "Kaddish for Naomi Ginsberg."

Naomi Ginsberg spent most of the following 15 years in mental hospitals, before succumbing to the effects of electroshock treatment and a lobotomy. She passed away at Pilgrim State Hospital in 1956. Her illness exerted a traumatic effect on Ginsberg, and he wrote poetry about her unstable condition for the remainder of his life.

Folliwng graduation from Newark's East Side High School in 1943, Ginsberg attended Columbia University on a scholarship form the Young Men’s Hebrew Association of Patterson. Ginsberg’s favorite course was the required freshman Great Books seminar, taught by Lionel Trilling. In his later years, Ginsberg cited the renowned literary critics and biographers, MarkVan Doren and Raymond Weaver, as influential professors at Columbia.

A beaten generation

Ginsberg's friends at Columbia were a huge influence on his decision to become a poet. As a freshman, he met undergraduate Lucien Carr, who introduced him to a diverse circle of friends that included Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and John Clellon Holmes. Carr also introduced Ginsberg to Neal Cassady, with whom Ginsberg fell in love. The intense encounter between Ginsberg and Cassady was later described by Kerouac in the first chapter of his 1957 novel, On the Road.

Those friends would eventually become the center of a group that named themselves as the "Beat Generation" writers. The term, created by Kerouac, referred to their shared sense of frustration and rebellion against what they experienced as the general conformity, hypocrisy, and materialism of society in prosperous, postwar America.

In the summer of 1948, in his senior year at Columbia, Ginsberg decided to become a poet after hearing a recitation of the William Blake poem, "Ah Sunflower."

Ginsberg experimented with such drugs as marijuana and nitrous oxide, to induce what he later described as "an exalted state of mind." In December 1953, he left New York City on a trip to Mexico to explore Indian ruins in Yucatan, and experiment with various drugs.

Following his Mexico adventure, he settled in San Francisco, California, where he fell in love with an artist's model, Peter Orlovsky, who remained his life-long lover, and with whom he eventually shared his interest in Tibetan Buddhism. In August 1955, inspired by the manuscript written by his friend Kerouac, titled Mexico City Blues, Ginsberg decided to pen what he called his most personal "imaginative sympathies" in the long poem, "Howl for Carl Solomon."

"Howl"

In October 1955, Ginsberg read the first part of “Howl" in public for the first time to thunderous applause at the Six Gallery in San Francisco. Other local poets included Kenneth Rexroth, Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, and Philip LaMantia. The press touted the reading as a landmark event in American poetry, and the birth of what was eventually labeled the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance.

Early the following year, Howl and Other Poems was published with an introduction by William Carlos Williams, as a part of the City Lights Pocket Poets Series. In May 1956, copies of the paperback were seized by the San Francisco police, who arrested publisher and owner of the City Lights Bookstore, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Shigeyoshi Murao, his shop manager.

The two were charged with publishing and selling an obscene and indecent book. The American Civil Liberties Union joined in the fight to defend Ginsberg's poem in a highly publicized obscenity trial in San Francisco. The trial concluded in October 1957, when Judge Clayton Horn ruled that “Howl" had redeeming social value.

A turning point

During the hubbub of the trial, Ginsberg left California and settled in Paris with Orlovsky. The couple lived on Ginsberg's royalties from Howl and Orlovsky's disability checks as a Korean War veteran. In 1958, Ginsberg returned to New York City, and, still troubled by his mother's death in the mental hospital two years before, wrote what is considered to be his greatest poem, “Kaddish for Naomi Ginsberg."

In 1962, Ginsberg traveled to India with Orlovsky on a journey that was to be the turning point in his life. While staying in India for nearly two years, Ginsberg met with several holy men in an effort to find a teacher who could teach him a method of meditation that would serve as an alternative to drugs to help him achieve the heightened spiritual awareness that he had been seeking. His transformation was recorded in the words of the poem, “The Change," that was written on a train in Japan.

Ginsberg with Bob Dylan

Ginsberg's political dimension

In 1968, Ginsberg received heavy press coverage during the Democratic National Convention, when he and the members of the National Mobilization Committee rallied against U.S. participation in the war in Vietnam and confronted the police in Chicago's Grant Park.

Ginsberg's charisma, courage, humanitarian political views and support of homosexuality, as well as his engagement in Eastern meditation practices, formed a bridge between the Beat movement of the 1950s and the hippies of the 1960s. In the '60s, he befriended many in the hippie movement, including Timothy Leary, Gregory Corso, Bob Kaufman, Herbert Huncke, Rod McKuen, and Bob Dylan.

In 1974, Ginsberg, assisted by the young poet Anne Waldman, founded a creative writing program called the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, at Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado. While there, Ginsberg taught summer poetry workshops. He also lectured at Brooklyn College as a tenured, distinguished professor until the end of his life.

The latter years

In his remaining years, Ginsberg continued to publish and travel, despite increasing problems with diabetes and the aftereffects of a stroke. He gave readings in Russia, China, Europe, and the South Pacific, and would often accompany himself on a portable harmonium.

To the end of his life, Ginsberg remained a radical poet, outspoken on the ideals of personal freedom, nonconformity, and the search for enlightenment. As a distinguished member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, he used his prestige to champion the work of his friends without apology.

Ginsberg died of liver cancer at his home in the East Village, New York City, on April 5, 1997.

---- Selected Quotes ----

Quotes by Allen Ginsberg.

Regarding Howl
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of the night.

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