Ginsberg is the one person in American poetry whose name belongs alongside the prominent and influential writers of almost every mid-20th-century literary movement, including beat poetry, confessional poetry, the san francisco renaissance, and even the new YORK school. However, he is most well known as the central figure among the Beats, and he lived and worked intimately with Jack kerouac, Gregory corso, Peter Orlovsky and William S. Burroughs. Ginsbergs controversial poem howl (1956) was published by Lawrence ferlinghetti, who subsequently defended the poem in the infamous obscenity trial that secured its place, and its poet's place, in literary history. At one time or another, Ginsberg knew well or was at least acquainted with almost everyone writing poetry of any consequence, from the first public performance of Howl at San Francisco's Six Gallery to the end of his life. When Howl was published, it boasted an introduction by William Carlos WILLIAMS, and Ginsberg likewise subsequently championed the work of all his friends. His tireless efforts to publish the work of others as well as his own poems, as Ezra pound had done among his circle, is responsible for much of the impact of Beat writing on American literature and culture. Without Ginsberg, although the Beat sensibility would have developed, there would be no cohesive Beat Generation as we recognize it today.
Ginsberg was born in Newark, New Jersey, to politically active Marxist parents. Louis Ginsberg was a published and anthologized poet. By the time Allen was four, when the family relocated to Paterson, New Jersey, Naomi Ginsberg had been hospitalized following a nervous breakdown. His formative years, laid the foundations for a life of political activism and literary production because his parents modeled these values for him; his childhood also predisposed his development as a man of extraordinary tolerance and exploration because of his mother's mental instability and his parents' openness to new and liberal ideas. Most explicitly, these factors are found in KADDISH, Ginsberg's eloquent mourner's cry for his mother. Ginsberg graduated from Columbia University with a B.A. in 1949, and he returned as a visiting professor for 1986-87. He was a distinguished professor at Brooklyn College, the City University of New York, late in life, and cofounded (with Anne waldman) the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at the Naropa Institute, in Boulder, Colorado. Ginsberg's many awards and honors include being elected King of May by university students in Prague (1965), an American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award for literature (1969), a National Book Award (1974) for The Fall of America, election to the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1992), and the French medal of the Chevalier de LOrdres des Arts et Lettres (1993).
Ginsberg's neoromanticism traces its American lineage from Walt Whitman through Hart crane, but it reaches back to England's William Blake for the origins of its mystical and visionary impulses. His early poems adhered to the conventions of traditional poetry, including rhyme, as it was practiced by his father. But while he was at Columbia, his life and his work were expanded and transformed more by experiences outside the academy than those inside the classroom. It was during his student days that he met Kerouac and Burroughs, who likewise were students at Columbia; he also met Neal Cassady, with whom he had his first homosexual relationship and who served as muse for both Ginsberg and Kerouac. In 1948 Ginsberg experienced an auditory encounter with William Blake, beginning with a voice external to himself reciting the poem "Ah! Sunflower," from Blake's 1826 Songs of Experience. In subsequent days he also experienced visions which he connected with Blake, and thus he began his very long experimentation with hallucinogenic drugs in the attempt to recapture his Blakean vision and to explore the far reaches of eternity. In 1953 he turned his attention to Buddhism. Many writers on both coasts did, but Ginsberg and Gary snyder are the most notable of those who made genuine philosophical and ideological commitments for a lifetime. With the addition of this final component part of his equation, Ginsberg was fixed as a gay Marxist Buddhist Jew, visionary political poet, and activist. His writing and his life clearly proclaim and embrace each and all of these aspects of his self.
Ginsberg's one-time friend, Norman Podhoretz, remembers "the amazing virtuosity that enabled [Ginsberg] to turn out polished verses in virtually any style" (26) during his Columbia days; what came after, however, seemed to Podhoretz "hysterical and unmodulated" (27). In spite of this general complaint, the former friend admires the metrical rigor, cleverness, and the imaginative originality of Howl and some of the other poems of that period (27) (see prosody and free verse). Along with incorporating the pacing and language of common speech advocated by Williams and Pound into contemporary verse, Ginsberg looked to and utilized Whitman is experimentation with line length; as his consciousness expanded thanks to Buddha and Blake, so too did his poetic constructions. In spoken performance, Ginsberg's, long lines demand careful breath control to be delivered in rhythmic fullness, similar to what Charles olson prescribed in his formative 1950 essay "Projective Verse" (see ars poeticas), but in form they owe more to Whitman and Kerouac. For Ginsberg, poetry became a physical undertaking, as well as an emotional, intellectual, and spiritual one; the presentation and reception of the work requires all facets of the human in the same way that production of the work does. Ginsberg's poetry, at every stage of the process and product, is concerned with the whole person—body, mind, and spirit. The result is a poetry that possesses not only a wildness in its all-inclusive scope but also a control in its dependence on conscious attention to rhythm and image.
Ginsberg not only traveled endlessly, giving readings, he also recorded stylistically diverse performances, from Blake to punk, both spoken and sung. Among the recorded treasures is his first performance of "America" (1956) given on the same night in 1956 that he gave the first full reading of Howl. Ginsberg said of "America," which neither he nor Kerouac thought "was much of a poem," that it consists of "one-liners in different voices, sardonic schizophrenic, the tone influenced by [Tristan] Tzara's Dada manifestos" (n.p.). Nevertheless those "one-liners" are a kind of Ginsberg manifesto. The voice, however "sardonic schizophrenic" it may be, is a voice madly in love with its country at the same time as it is demon-strably disappointed and angry with it. This voice anachronistically insists that "Sacco & Vanzetti must not die," prophetically declares its "ambition is to be President despite the fact that [it is] a Catholic," and historically catalogues American political impulses and actions, from communism to capitalism to racism. It is a voice that never forgets to whom it is speaking. And then, suddenly, it realizes that America is not some external entity but that each American is America, that each is responsible for what America does inside and outside its borders. Every line is dense with events and ideologies grounded in the collective American consciousness, and the poem is propelled from line to line with the relentless and legendary American energy expressed in Ginsberg's scattergun approach to national documentary.
One of Ginsberg's "Cosmopolitan Greetings" (1994) is the maxim "Candor ends paranoia." Certainly there is no more open and honest poet than Ginsberg, living or dead. Freedom resides in the truth, available to everyone, because "Ordinary mind includes eternal perceptions." Ginsberg's entire adult life was engaged in advocacy, and, as Barry Miles has said, his "greatness as a writer is partly the result of the enlargement of sympathy that he demands for society's victims" (533).
To some, Ginsberg's graphic sexual references border on pornography, but no one comes to Ginsberg for discretion and decorum. Readers come to him for the freshness and relief of his daring and for "a big artistic tipsy kiss" ("City Midnight Junk Strains" ).
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