Allen Ginsberg was as renowned for his poetry readings as for his poetry itself, although his work had an important impact upon his own and subsequent generations and reached a wide readership. He was at the center of the 1950s Beat Movement that included William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, and Gregory Corso. He was probably the best known American poet of the second half of the century.
Ginsberg was born in Newark, New Jersey, and grew up in nearby Paterson. His father Louis was a high-school teacher and locally well-known poet who wrote in a formal vein, but had associated with the avant-garde New York school of the 1920s. Louis was the author of three books of poetry, his posthumously published Collected Poems (1992) running to over 400 pages. Naomi Ginsberg, Allen's mother, was a Russian immigrant whose family left in 1905 to avoid a pogrom. Naomi, a committed communist, suffered from severe persecution paranoia for much of her adult life, for which she had to be hospitalized, and her suffering, and death - confined in Pilgrim State Hospital - is the subject of one of her son's best known poems, Kaddish.
Allen Ginsberg attended Columbia University, where he was briefly suspended in 1945 as the result of allowing Kerouac to spend the night in his dormitory room. His early poetry at Columbia was in the vein of such seventeenth-century poets as Sir Thomas Wyatt and Andrew Marvell. But his most important literary education came from his growing friendship with Kerouac, Burroughs, and other radical writers centered in New York's Greenwich Village. Yeats, Baudelaire, and Blake were the key figures informing the Romantic sensibility of the group. In 1948, the year in which he graduated from Columbia, Ginsberg had a mystical vision which he later recalled many times as central to his growth as a writer, and which he particularly associated with William Blake.
Ginsberg's late 1940s poems also owe a good deal to Whitman, but his work became more concrete, less visionary, and the language of his poems more contemporary, as a result of his response to the work of William Carlos Williams. Ginsberg wrote to Williams in the late 1940s, while the older poet was completing the later books of his long poem Paterson, and Williams included two of these early letters in book IV of the poem, and a later letter from Ginsberg in book V. Writing from Paterson, the 23-year-old Ginsberg told Williams in the first of these letters: "I know you will be pleased to realize that at least one actual citizen of your community has inherited your experience in his struggle to love and know his own world-city, through your work, which is an accomplishment you almost cannot have hoped to achieve." Williams was never comfortable with the visionary and chant-like side of Ginsberg's poetics, but he went on to write the introduction to Ginsberg's Empty Mirror: Early Poems, which remained unpublished until 1961, and to Howl and other Poems (1956), the book that made Ginsberg famous.
Upon graduating from Columbia, Ginsberg worked as a local journalist, and also in the merchant marine, spent some time in Mexico, and in 1954 moved to San Francisco, where such writers as Kenneth Rexroth, Robert Duncan, and Gary Snyder were part of the city's active poetry scene; Lawrence Ferlinghetti opened the City Lights bookstore in June 1953, and Ruth Witt-Diamant founded the San Francisco Poetry Center at the end of 1954 - both important meeting places for poets.
For a few months Ginsberg worked as a market researcher, but his company closed down its San Francisco office in May 1955. In August of that year Ginsberg began writing "Howl," returning to his long, Whitmanlike lines, combining them with the visionary intensity that he brought from his interest in Blake, and the concrete detail and contemporary focus that characterized his short poems written under the influence of Williams.
Ferlinghetti published Howl and other Poems as number 4 in his Pocket Poets series, and Ginsberg began reading the poem on the West Coast, where it was received with great enthusiasm. Richard Eberhart wrote an influential review in The New York Times on September 2, 1956, identifying
Ginsberg as a major new poet, and noting of "Howl" that it "has created a furor of praise or abuse whenever read or heard." On the other hand, John Hollander in the Partisan Review called the book a "dreadful little volume," "a very short and very tiresome book," and deplored its "hopped-up and improvised tone." The book's success was helped greatly by further controversy when the police unsuccessfully prosecuted it as obscene in August 1957. The American Civil Liberties Union took up the defense. By the end of the trial there were more than ten thousand copies of Howl in print.
The poem is both a frontal assault on the reader, with its long lists of lives broken, acts of rebellion, and destructive sexual and cultural oppression, and also an attempt to transcend ordinary consciousness, through accumulation, repetition, lyrical intensity and the breaking of conventional connectives. The aim of the poem's chant-like lyricism is to produce a condition of consciousness and understanding in which logic, reason, and confining social and creative categories are left behind in a visionary celebration of suffering community. Section I displays the cultural breakdown, opening with its famous declaration:
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 night,
Section II offers a series of definitions of "Moloch" to illustrate the pervasiveness of the oppressive force both in the culture and the creative process itself. Section III turns to Carl Solomon, whom Ginsberg had met when they were fellow patients in the late 1940s at Columbia Presbyterian Psychiatric Institute (and who received a not entirely welcome fame from his role in the poem). In this section the poem offers its vision of community: "I'm with you in Rockland" the poem repeats, concluding:
in my dreams you walk dripping from a sea-journey on the highway across America in tears to the door of my cottage in the western Night
Ginsberg added a "Footnote to Howl" which declares "Holy" - and celebrates - many of the poem's characters and values, ending with an assertion of the soul's freedom, or potential freedom, from the forces of "Moloch." The poem's urgency, and the richness of detail with which it portrays its generation of victims, heroes, and outcasts, brought a new frankness to American poetry, including its open celebration of homosexuality and of experiments with drugs. Some of the other poems in the volume are also some of Ginsberg's best known, including "A Supermarket in California" - where the poet records a vision of meeting Walt Whitman - "Sunflower Sutra," and "America." A section of "Earlier Poems" includes some of the tight, short poems written in the vein of Williams.
Ginsberg soon became the perceived spokesman for the Beat generation, and began the world travels that he undertook for the rest of his life, and also his generous career-long efforts on behalf of other poets to use his fame to get their work published. In 1959 he began writing Kaddish, experimenting with heroin, liquid Methedrine, and Dexedrine tablets as a way to explore the painful memories of his mother's suffering. The poem, published in 1961, is a sometimes harrowing tribute and funeral lament for Naomi Ginsberg, who had died in 1956. The long elegy is modeled on the traditional Jewish memorial service for the dead. For some commentators, for whom "Howl" has retreated into being something of a historical document, "Kaddish" remains a powerful personal lament, and Ginsberg's finest sustained poem.
Ginsberg's poetry became somewhat diffuse in the 1960s, although he became if anything an even more prominent figure. He continued to advocate sexual freedom and experimentation with drugs, and became more involved in political activism. His poem "Wichita Vortex Sutra" is an indictment of the war in Vietnam. In this decade Buddhism and the practice of meditation began to play an important role in Ginsberg's explorations of consciousness, eventually replacing drugs, a realization that is recorded in his poem "The Change." In 1974 with poet Anne Waldman he co-founded the "Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics," based at Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa Ripoche's Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, and he began teaching there regularly in the summer. Ginsberg's environmental concerns and anti-nuclear activities are represented in the poems of his Plutonian Ode (1982). His characterization of the title poem, on the volume's back cover, is that it: "combines scientific info on 24,000-year cycle of the Great Year compared with equal half-life of Plutonium waste, accounting Homeric formula for appeasing underground millionaire Pluto Lord of Death, jack in the gnostic box of Aeons, and Adamantine Truth of ordinary mind inspiration, unhexing Nuclear ministry of fear."
In the 1970s Ginsberg's work began to be recognized by the literary establishment. He won the National Book Award for The Fall of America: Poems of These States 1965-1971 (1973), which was dedicated to Walt Whitman. In 1979 he was inducted into the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. In the 1980s he began to publish with Harper & Row, who brought out his widely reviewed Collected Poems 1947-1980 in 1984. He was able to obtain some relief from the necessity of reading tours (he had lived on his earnings as a writer since 1955) when appointed as a Distinguished Professor, teaching one day a week, at Brooklyn College in 1986.
Ginsberg's readings, usually with his own musical accompaniment provided by a portable harmonium, continued to draw large audiences up to the end of his life. Three further books of poems followed the Collected Poems. The title poem of White Shroud (1986) he described as a "dream epilogue to 'Kaddish'" while another poem in the volume, "Written in My Dream by W. C. Williams" showed the continuing importance to Ginsberg of this early mentor. Cosmopolitan Greetings appeared in 1994, and Death & Fame: Last Poems 1993-1997 in 1999, two years after his death from liver cancer.
Was this article helpful?