|Born:||June 3, 1926
Newark, New Jersey
|Died:||April 5, 1997 (aged 70)
|Occupation(s):||poet, activist, essayist|
|Literary movement:||Beat, New American Poets, Postmodernism|
|Magnum opus:||Howl, Kaddish|
|Influences:||Neal Cassady, Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso, William S. Burroughs, William Blake, Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, Percy Shelley, John Keats, Ezra Pound, Christopher Smart, Arthur Rimbaud, Antonin Artaud, James Joyce, Jean Genet, Franz Kafka, Herman Melville, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Hart Crane, William Shakespeare|
|Influenced:||Bob Dylan, LeRoi Jones, Robert Lowell, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Andrei Codrescu, Saul Williams, Beau Sia, Jacob Ehrlich, Jim Morrison, Michael Savage, Bono|
Irwin Allen Ginsberg (June 3, 1926 – April 5, 1997) was an American poet, most famous for being a founding member of a major literary movement and an activist for human rights issues. Among his other lifetime passions were world travel, photography, songwriting, and teaching.
Ginsberg is best known for Howl (1956), an epic poem about the self-destruction of his friends of the Beat Generation and what he saw as the destructive forces of materialism and conformity in the United States at the time. His work embodies the countercultural Beat spirit, as he was able to bring attention to those subjects that were often taboo or found to be untraditional in poetry.
Allen Ginsberg was born in Newark, New Jersey. Both of his parents belonged to the 1920s New York literary counterculture, their political ideals heavily influenced Ginsberg. His father, Louis, was both a teacher and poet; his mother, Naomi, suffered from poor mental health for most of her lifetime.
Naomi was also supported the American Communist Party, and often took Allen to party meetings. Ginsberg later said that his mother's bedtime stories often held the same premise: "The good king rode forth from his castle, saw the suffering workers and healed them." Both her mental health and her social ideology had a tremendous impact on Ginsberg's world perspective. As a teenager, Ginsberg wrote letters to The New York Times about political issues such as World War II and workers' rights.
As a teenager, Ginsberg began reading poetry. He became acquainted with and enamored of Walt Whitman’s work, and named Edgar Allan Poe as his favorite poet. Upon graduating high school in 1943, Ginsberg had aims at obtaining a scholarship to Columbia University and pursuing labor law. He attended Montclair State University briefly, before entering Columbia University in 1949 on a scholarship from the Young Men's Hebrew Association of Paterson. He began his studies with the initial intent to become a labor lawyer. While at Columbia, Ginsberg contributed to the Columbia Review literary journal, the Jester humor magazine, won the Woodberry Poetry Prize and served as president of the Philolexian Society, the campus literary and debate group.
As a student at Columbia, he befriended William S. Burroughs, Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac, all members of the eventual Beat movement. Also around this time, Ginsberg experienced an auditory hallucination of William Blake reading his poems "Ah Sunflower," "The Sick Rose," and "Little Girl Lost." He refers to this experience his "Blake vision,” and late often pointed to it as an influential moment in his life and his work, which redefined his understanding of the universe. He believed that he witnessed the interconnectedness of the universe. He looked at lattice work on the fire escape and realized some hand had crafted that; he then looked at the sky and intuited that some hand had crafted that also, or rather that the sky was the hand that crafted itself. He explained that this hallucination was not inspired by drug use, but said he sought to recapture that feeling later with various drugs.
In 1954 in San Francisco, Ginsberg met Peter Orlovsky, who remained his life-long companion, and with whom he eventually shared his interest in Tibetan Buddhism.
Ginsberg's spiritual journey began early on with his spontaneous visions, and continued with an early trip to India and a chance encounter on a New York City street with Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche (they both tried to catch the same cab), a Tibetan Buddhist meditation master of the Vajrayana school, who became his friend and life-long teacher. Ginsberg helped Trungpa in founding the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado.
Ginsberg was also involved with Hinduism. He befriended A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the founder of the Hare Krishna movement in the Western world, a relationship that is documented by Satsvarupa Gosvami in his biographical account Srila Prabhupada Lilamrta. Ginsberg donated money, materials, and his reputation to help the Swami establish the first temple, and toured with him to promote his cause. Ginsberg also claimed to be the first person on the North American continent to chant the Hare Krishna mantra. He was mourned by the Hare Krishnas upon his passing in 1997.
Music and chanting were both important parts of Ginsberg's live delivery during poetry readings. He often accompanied himself on a harmonium, and was often accompanied by a guitarist. Attendance at his poetry readings was generally standing room only for most of his career, no matter where he appeared.
Allen Ginsberg died April 5, 1997, surrounded by family and friends in his East Village loft in New York City. He succumbed to liver cancer via complications of hepatitis. He was 70 years old. Ginsberg continued to write through his final illness, with his last poem "Things I'll Not Do (Nostalgias)" written March 30.
Though he had intentions to be a labor lawyer, Ginsberg wrote poetry for most of his life. His admiration for the writing of Jack Kerouac inspired him to take poetry more seriously. In 1954, Ginsberg moved to San Francisco. Though he took odd jobs to support himself, in 1955, upon the advice of a psychiatrist, Ginsberg dropped out of the working world to devote his entire life to poetry.
He studied under William Carlos Williams, who guided his development and introduced him to other prominent area poets including Kenneth Rexroth and Michael McClure. With the help of Rexroth, Ginsberg and McClure organized a poetry reading at the new “6” Gallery. The result was "The Six Gallery reading" on October 7, 1955. The event, in essence, brought together the East and West Coast factions of the Beat Generation. Of more personal significance to Ginsberg: that night was the first public reading of Howl, a poem that brought world-wide fame to Ginsberg and many of the poets associated with him. An account can be found in Kerouac's novel The Dharma Bums, describing collecting change from each audience member to buy jugs of wine, and Ginsberg reading passionately, drunken, with arms outstretched.
An important figure when considering inspiration for Howl is Carl Solomon. The full title is Howl for Carl Solomon. Solomon was a Dada and surrealism enthusiast (he introduced Ginsberg to Antonin Artaud) who suffered bouts of depression. Solomon wanted to commit suicide, but he thought a form of suicide appropriate to dadaism would be to go to a mental institution and demand a lobotomy. The institution refused, giving him many forms of therapy, including electroshock therapy. Much of the final section of the first part of Howl is a description of this.
Ginsberg used Solomon as an example of all those ground down by the machine of "Moloch." Ginsberg said the image of Moloch was inspired by peyote visions he had of the Francis Drake Hotel in San Francisco which appeared to him as a skull; he took it as a symbol of the city (not specifically San Francisco, but all cities). Moloch has subsequently been interpreted as any system of control, including the conformist society of post-World War II America focused on material gain, which Ginsberg frequently blamed for the destruction of all those outside of societal norms.
Howl was considered scandalous at the time of its publication due to the rawness of its language, which is frequently explicit. Shortly after Howl and Other Poems were published in 1956 by City Lights Bookstore, it was banned for obscenity. The ban became a cause célèbre among defenders of the First Amendment, and was later lifted after Judge Clayton W. Horn declared the poem to possess redeeming social importance. The work became one of the most widely read poems of the century, translated into more than 22 languages.
In 1957 Ginsberg left San Francisco, and after a spell in Morocco, he and Peter Orlovsky joined friend Gregory Corso in Paris. Corso introduced them to a shabby lodging house above a bar at 9 rue Gît-le-Coeur that was to become known as the Beat Hotel. They were soon joined by William S. Burroughs and others. It was a productive, creative time for all of them, and it was also a time when Ginsberg began to experiment with drugs as tools for inspiring creative energy. In Paris, Ginsberg finished his epic poem Kaddish, Corso composed "Bomb" and "Marriage," and Burroughs (with Ginsberg’s and Corso’s help) put together Naked Lunch, from previous writings. This period was documented by the photographer Harold Chapman, who moved in at about the same time, and took pictures constantly of the residents of the 'hotel' until it closed in 1963.
While Howl remains Ginsberg's most legendary work, Kaddish perhaps equaled Howl in epic scope and accomplishment. Written as an elegy, it was intended to be a tribute to his mother, and in it Ginsberg recounted their relationship and the emotional impact that her mental troubles had on him and his family.
In the 1960s, Ginsberg's work became increasingly politically driven, and though he continued to publish his work, his poetry became somewhat overshadowed by his activism. He introduced to Vietnam War protesters the idea of "flower power," whereby protest took the form of promoting values of happiness, love, and peace. Ginsberg also played a key role in ensuring that a 1965 protest of the war—which took place at the Oakland-Berkeley city line and drew several thousand marchers—was not violently interrupted by the California chapter of the notorious motorcycle gang—the Hell's Angels—and their leader, Sonny Barger.
His advocacy work extended also to gay rights. Ginsberg was an early proponent of freedom for men who loved other men, having already in 1943 discovered within himself "mountains of homosexuality." He expressed this desire openly and graphically in his poetry. He also struck a note for gay marriage by listing Peter Orlovsky, his lifelong companion, as his spouse in his “Who’s Who” entry. Later homosexual writers saw his frank talk about homosexuality as an opening to speak more openly and honestly about something often before only hinted at or spoken of in metaphor.
A collection of his later poetry, including a set of poems written after he was diagnosed with liver cancer, was published as Death and Fame: Poems, 1993-1997. One reviewer from Publishers Weekly hailed the volume as "a perfect capstone to a noble life" and said "there has never been an American poet as public as Ginsberg."
Ginsberg’s mentor, William Carlos Williams, hated most of his early poems. Most of his very early poetry was written in formal rhyme and meter like his father or like his idol William Blake, and included archaic pronouns like "thee." Williams told Ginsberg later, "In this mode perfection is basic, and these poems are not perfect." He taught Ginsberg not to emulate the old masters but to speak with his own voice and the voice of the common American. Williams taught him to focus on strong visual images, in line with Williams' own motto, "No ideas but in things." His time studying under Williams led to a tremendous shift from the early formalist work to the brilliance of his later work. Early breakthrough poems include "Bricklayer's Lunch Hour" and "Dream Record."
Ginsberg's poetry was strongly influenced by modernism (specifically Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Hart Crane, and most importantly Williams), Romanticism (specifically Percy Shelley and John Keats), the beat and cadence of jazz (specifically that of bop musicians such as Charlie Parker), and his Kagyu Buddhist practice and Jewish background. He considered himself to have inherited the visionary poetic mantle handed down from the English poet and artist William Blake, and the American poet Walt Whitman. The power of Ginsberg's verse, its searching, probing focus, its long and lilting lines, as well as its New World exuberance, all echo the continuity of inspiration which he claimed.
Ginsberg also made an intense study of haiku and the paintings of Paul Cezanne from which he adapted a concept important to his work, which he called the "Eyeball Kick." He noticed in viewing Cezanne's paintings that when the eye moved from one color to a contrasting color, the eye would spasm, or "kick." Likewise, he discovered that the contrast of two seeming opposites was a common feature in haiku. Ginsberg used this technique in his poetry, putting together two starkly dissimilar images: something weak with something strong, an artifact of high culture with an artifact of low culture, something holy with something unholy. The example Ginsberg most often used was "hydrogen jukebox" (which later became the title of an opera he wrote with Philip Glass).
Like Williams, Ginsberg's line breaks were often determined by breath: one line in Howl, for example, should be read in one breath. Ginsberg claimed he developed such a long line because he had long breaths (saying perhaps it was because he talked fast, or he did yoga, or he was Jewish). The famous long line could also be traced back to his study of Walt Whitman; Ginsberg claimed Whitman's long line was a dynamic technique few other poets had ventured to develop further. Ginsberg also commonly employed catachresis. For example, from Howl: "secret gas station solipsisms of johns" is perhaps designed to make solipsism (a noun used as a verb here) sound like a sexual act. Another example is "what peaches and what penumbra" from "Supermarket in California" is perhaps designed to make penumbra seem like a fruit or like something you can buy in a supermarket.
Ginsberg claimed throughout his life that his biggest inspiration was Kerouac's concept of “spontaneous prose.” He believed literature should come from the soul without conscious restrictions. However, Ginsberg was much more prone to revise than Kerouac. For example, when Kerouac saw the first draft of Howl he disliked the fact that Ginsberg had made editorial changes in pencil (transposing "negro" and "angry" in the first line, for example). Kerouac only wrote out his concepts of “spontaneous prose” at Ginsberg's insistence because Ginsberg wanted to learn how to apply the technique to his poetry.
Ginsberg developed an individualistic style that's easily identified as Ginsbergian. Howl came out during a potentially hostile literary environment less welcoming to poetry outside of tradition; there was a renewed focus on form and structure among academic poets and critics partly inspired by New Criticism.
Consequently, Ginsberg often had to defend his choice to break away from traditional poetic structure, often citing Williams, Pound, and Whitman as precursors. Ginsberg's style may have seemed to critics chaotic or unpoetic, but to Ginsberg it was an open, ecstatic expression of thoughts and feelings that were naturally poetic. He believed strongly that traditional formalist considerations were archaic and didn't apply to reality. Though some, Diana Trilling for example, have pointed to Ginsberg's occasional use of meter (for example the anapest of "who came back to Denver and waited in vain"), Ginsberg denied any intention toward meter and claimed instead that meter follows the natural poetic voice, not the other way around; he said, as he learned from Williams, that natural speech is occasionally dactylic, so poetry that imitates natural speech will sometimes fall into a dactylic structure but only ever accidentally.
Ginsberg won the National Book Award for his book The Fall of America. In 1993, the French minister of culture awarded him the medal of “Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres” (the “Order of Arts and Letters”). He was named a distinguished professor at Brooklyn College and he also helped found and direct the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at the Naropa Institute in Colorado.
Ginsberg is buried in his family plot in Gomel Chesed Cemetery, one of a cluster of Jewish cemeteries at the corner of McClellan Street and Mt. Olivet Avenue near the city lines of Elizabeth and Newark, New Jersey.
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