Allen Ginsberg

Beat Poet

Author of "Howl" Was One of the Holy Trinity of the Beat Generation


This Knol written by Jon Hopwood
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Allen Ginsberg was one of the Trinity of Beat Generation writers revolutionized American letters in the mid-1950s and 1960s (the other two members being Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs, both of whom were close friends of his). His poem "Howl" and Kerouac's 1957 novel On the Road were the two gospels that launched the Beat movement, or more properly, introduced it to mainstream culture. (Both writers, plus Burroughs, were featured in the other's works.) "Howl," by attacking the negative values of consumer society that were destroying the sensitive and the creative, was a major indictment of the conformity that flourished during the Eisenhower years' negative human values.

The man who would become one of the most famous and influential American poets of the second half of the 20th Century was born Irwin Allen Ginsberg on June 3, 1926, in Newark, New Jersey, to a Jewish family. He was raised in Patterson, New Jersey by his father Louis Ginsberg, a poet, and his mother Naomi Levy Ginsberg, a high school teacher. The young Ginsberg learned compassion and how to deal with non-conformists and irrational behavior (traits that would serve him well in his relationships with other Beat figures, particularly his close friend Kerouac, who was a terrible alcoholic who drank himself to death at the age of 47) by dealing with his mother's mental illness, for which she was frequently institutionalized. Naomi Ginsberg's was a member of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) and took Ginsberg and his older brother Eugene (who grew up to be a labor law (who grew up to be a labor lawyer) to CPUSA meetings. Naomi inculcated a radical social consciousness that would never desert young Irwin Allen, as she "made up bedtime stories that all went something like: 'The good king rode forth from his castle, saw the suffering workers and healed them.'"

Ginsberg's other masterpiece, the poem "Kaddish" (full title: "Kaddish for Naomi Ginsberg (1894-1956)" relates how, as a high school student, he accompanied his mother on a visit to her therapist. The trip to his mother's shrink was painful, as the poem relates, and pain was part of the complicated relationship he had with his mother, and later, such friends as Kerouac and Neal Cassady, and with society at large until the 1960s. As a young man, Ginsberg knew he was a homosexual but tried to go straight, often with the urging of his own psychiatrists. He tried dating women and had sexual relationship with the opposite sex, but his orientation was primarily gay, and he finally freed himself of society's pressure to conform to the heterosexual idea by the late 1950s, emerging in the 1960s as a proponent of gay liberation (among other issues of the time he tackled, including the War in Vietnam). The teenage Ginsberg used his flair for writing for penning letters to the editorial page of "The New York Times" while still a teenager. Ginsberg read and admired the poetry of Walt Whitman (who likely was gay, historians now believe), but when he entered Columbia University as a scholarship student in 1943 (after briefly attending Montclair State University), he matriculated in the pre-law department, intending to follow his brother into practice as a labor lawyer. As a freshman, he became acquainted with Lucien Carr, who introduced him to Kerouac and William S. Burroughs. He also met Gregory Corso at the time and introduced him to Kerouac and the others. In time, Corso would become famous as a Beat poet.

Through Kerouac, Ginsberg would meet Neal Cassady, who was the man whom Kerouac modeled Dean Moriarity in "On the Road" after, and fell in love with him. While Cassady would allow Ginsberg to have sex with him, the romantic feelings weren't reciprocal, though Ginsburg would remain infatuated with Cassady for a long time. (Ginsberg also was infatuated with Kerouac early on, but the bisexual Kerouac wanted them to remain friends, though he was not adverse to occasionally having sex with Ginsberg at various times throughout his life.)

After being arrested as an accomplice of the thief Herbert Huncke, who had been storing stolen good in his apartment, Ginsberg spent eight months in a mental institution associated with Columbia. It was there he met Carl Solomon, the son of the publisher of Ace Books (which would publish Burroughs first novel, the paperback original "Junkie" in 1953), whom is the Carl referred to in "Howl."

He studied poetry informally under William Carlos Williams while the old poet was writing his epic poem "Paterson" about Ginsberg's home town. After attending a reading by Williams, he wrote a letter to him in which Ginsberg included some of his own poems, which like his father's poetry, used rhyme and metered and included archaic pronouns like "Thee." Williams despised Ginsberg's work, telling him that, "In this mode [poetry] perfection is basic, and these poems are not perfect." Williams was attracted by the exuberance of Ginsberg's prose as contained in the letter, even including it in a later part of "Paterson." Taking on the young Ginsberg, who after his adventuresome education with Kerouac, Burroughs, and Huncke had abandoned his idea of becoming a lawyer, Williams taught Ginsberg to eschew the old masters and speak with his own voice and the voice of the common people. In accordance with Williams' own mantra "No ideas but in things," the older poet taught Ginsberg to focus on strong visual images.

Ginsberg effected a shift from formalism to his later spontaneous style under the influence of Williams teaching, as is evident in early poems such as "Bricklayer's Lunch Hour" and "Dream Record." Ginsberg's poetry also was strongly influenced by Kerouac and the beat and cadence of jazz music that Kerouac was a master of delineating in prose and poetry. He also was strongly influenced by both modernism and romanticism, particularly by William Blake. (Prone to visions, Ginsberg considered himself to have inherited the visionary poetic mantle handed down from the English poet and artist Blake.) Walt Whitman was a major influence, as were the Surrealists Antonin Artaud and 'Andre Breton'; the Symbolist Arthur Rimbaud, Hart Crane; Franz Kafka; and Herman Melville. Until the day he died, Ginsberg maintained that his biggest poetical influence was Kerouac.

In December 1954, after struggling with his homosexuality, Ginsberg met the 21-year old Peter Orlovsky in San Fransciso and fell in love. Orlovsky was a high school drop-out who had served as an Army medic in the states during the Korean Conflict. He was introduced to Ginsberg by the painter Robert La Vigne. Orlovsky was no stranger to mental illness: his brother Lacifado was mentally ill, and Ginsberg's experience with his own mother made him an ideal mate for the young man, who would also develop into a poet. The two became life partners, remaining together for 43 years (until Ginsberg's death). Their relationship was strengthened by a mutual interest interest in Tibetan Buddhism. Living in a open relationship, Orlovsky would serve his lover as both secretary and companion.

It was in San Francisco that Ginsberg met the members of the San Francisco Renaissance, after he presented a letter of introduction from his mentor William Carlos Williams to Kenneth Rexroth, who saw himself as the head of the Renaissance scene. Rexroth introduced Ginsberg to the San Francisco poets who would become associated with the Beat Generation, such as Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen. He also met Michael McClure at a W.H. Auden reading when they conversed about one of Ginsberg's seminal influences, William Blake. Ironically, though the seminal Beat writers (Ginsberg, Burroughs, Corso, and Kerouac) were New Yorkers or associated with that city, it was in San Francisco that the Beat movement was launched publicly McClure was planning a poetry reading at San Francisco's Six Gallery, but McClure ceded the administrative and promotional duties to Ginsberg, who had been a master of promotion since he was at Columbia. (It was through Ginsberg's efforts that Burroughs had been published in 1953, and he was tireless in his efforts to promote Kerouac.) Advertised as "Six Poets at the Six Gallery," the reading at that night -- which also featured a drunken Kerouac as an enthusiastic audience member in charge of providing the audience with wine - was one of the most important events in the Beat mythos, as "The Six Gallery Reading" of October 5, 1955, launched the Beat Generation as a literary movement into the public consciousness. It was at the Reading that Ginsberg first publicly read "Howl," which would make him famous.

The opening line of Ginsberg's masterpiece "Howl" is famous: "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness." Now considered a classic of American literature, at the time it was published in San Francisco in 1956 by Lawrence Ferlinghetti's City Lights Press (an offshoot of his City Lights Bookstore), it was considered scandalous due to its raw and frequently explicit language. The publication was banned for obscenity, but in a court case involving the First Amendment, the poem was declared not obscene as it possessed redeeming social importance. In addition to his work being charged with obscenity, Ginsberg became notorious for his leftist and generally anti-establishment politics, which were anathema to the government during the Eisenhower 50s. With the rise of the anti-war movement after Lyndon Johnson's reelection in 1964, Ginsberg attracted the attention of the FBI, which regarded Ginsberg as a major security threat. However, he was looked upon as a loose cannon by communist oligarchies, too, being deported successively by Cuba and the Czech government in 1967.

Ginsberg's spiritual journey began early on with his reported spontaneous visions, and then paralleled that of his old friend Kerouac and such new friends as the poet Gary Synder, who spent 13 years in Japan studying Zen Buddhism. Kerouac translated the major Buddhist texts in order to popularize them, while Ginsberg became a follower of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist meditation master of the Vajrayana school. (Ginsberg subsequently co-founded the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, a school founded by Chogyam Trungpa.) During the 1960s, chanting and music both became parts of his poetry readings as he often accompanied himself on a harmonium while being accompanied by a guitarist. He was very popular during his lifetime, and attendance to his poetry readings was generally standing room only.

Though term "Beat" is most accurately applied to Ginsberg and his closest friends (Burroughs, Corso, Orlovsky, and Kerouac), the term "Beat Generation" has become associated with many of the other poets Ginsberg met and became friends with in the late 1950s and early 60s. A key feature of this term seems to be a friendship with Ginsberg (although sometimes the Los Angeles poet Charles Bukowski, who began writing poetry in the 50s, is attributed as a Beat, a label that would horrify the obvious loner; he did not have a personal relationship with Ginsberg). Part of the dissatisfaction with the term "Beat Generation" came from the mistaken identification of Ginsberg as the leader of a movement. Ginsberg never claimed to be the leader, but he did claim many of the writers with whom he'd become friends in this period shared many of the same intentions and themes. If there was a leader of the Beats, that would have been his friend Jack Kerouac, but Kerouac was too lost in his alcoholism, and his psychological problems made him too reactionary in the 1960s, to assume any kind of leadership role. Therefore, what "leadership" role there was devolved onto Ginsberg.

Ginsberg used his notoriety in the 1960s to champion causes, such as Gay Rights and withdrawal from the Vietnam War. Ginsberg formed a bridge between the Beats and the hippies and counter-cultural crowd of the 1960s, befriending Timothy Leary (whom he tripped with therapeutically), Ken Kesey (who used Neal Cassady, Ginsberg's some-time lover, as a bus driver and camp follower), Rod McKuen, and Bob Dylan. He won the National Book Award in 1974 for his book "The Fall of America: Poems of these States, 1965-1971," putting the establishment's stamp of approval on his career. Testifying to his global popularity, in 1993, the French Minister of Culture awarded him the medal of Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres (the Order of Arts and Letters).

Allen Ginsberg died on April 5, 1997, surrounded by family and friends in his East Village loft in New York City. He succumbed to liver cancer that was a result of hepatitis. He was 70 years old.