Irwin Allen Ginsber was an American poet and one of the leading figures of the Beat Generation in the 1950s. He vigorously opposed militarism, materialism and sexual repression. Ginsberg is best known for his epic poem "Howl", in which he celebrated his fellow "angel-headed hipsters" and harshly denounced what he saw as the destructive forces of capitalism and conformity in the United States. This poem is one of the classic poems of the Beat Generation. The poem, which was dedicated to writer Carl Solomon, opens:
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...
In October 1955, Ginsberg and five other unknown poets gave a free reading at an experimental art gallery in San Francisco. Ginsberg's "Howl" electrified the audience. According to fellow poet Michael McClure, it was clear "that a barrier had been broken, that a human voice and body had been hurled against the harsh wall of America and its supporting armies and navies and academies and institutions and ownership systems and power support bases." In 1957, "Howl" attracted widespread publicity when it became the subject of an obscenity trial in which a San Francisco prosecutor argued it contained "filthy, vulgar, obscene, and disgusting language." The poem seemed especially outrageous in 1950s America because it depicted both heterosexual and homosexual sex at a time when sodomy laws made homosexual acts a crime in every U.S. state. "Howl" reflected Ginsberg's own homosexuality and his relationships with a number of men, including Peter Orlovsky, his lifelong partner. Judge Clayton W. Horn ruled that "Howl" was not obscene, adding, "Would there be any freedom of press or speech if one must reduce his vocabulary to vapid innocuous euphemisms?"
In "Howl" and in his other poetry, Ginsberg drew inspiration from the epic, free verse style of the 19th century American poet Walt Whitman. Both wrote passionately about the promise (and betrayal) of American democracy, the central importance of erotic experience, and the spiritual quest for the truth of everyday existence.J. D. McClatchy, editor of the Yale Review, called Ginsberg "the best-known American poet of his generation, as much a social force as a literary phenomenon." McClatchy added that Ginsberg, like Whitman, "was a bard in the old manner – outsized, darkly prophetic, part exuberance, part prayer, part rant. His work is finally a history of our era's psyche, with all its contradictory urges."
Ginsberg was a practicing Buddhist who studied Eastern religious disciplines extensively. One of his most influential teachers was the Tibetan Buddhist, the Venerable Chögyam Trungpa, founder of the Naropa Institute, now Naropa University at Boulder, Colorado. At Trungpa's urging, Ginsberg and poet Anne Waldman started a poetry school there in 1974 which they called the "Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics". In spite of his attraction to Eastern religions, the journalist Jane Kramer argues that Ginsberg, like Whitman, adhered to an "American brand of mysticism" that was, in her words, "rooted in humanism and in a romantic and visionary ideal of harmony among men."He lived modestly, buying his clothing in second-hand stores and residing in downscale apartments in New York’s East Village. Ginsberg's political activism was consistent with his religious beliefs. He took part in decades of non-violent political protest against everything from the Vietnam War to the War on Drugs. The literary critic Helen Vendler described Ginsberg as "tirelessly persistent in protesting censorship, imperial politics, and persecution of the powerless." His achievements as a writer as well as his notoriety as an activist gained him honors from established institutions. Ginsberg's book of poems The Fall of America won the National Book Award for poetry in 1974. Other honors included the National Arts Club gold medal and his induction into the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, both in 1979. Ginsberg was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1995 for his book Cosmopolitan Greetings: Poems 1986–1992.
Ginsberg was born into a Jewish family in Newark, New Jersey, and grew up in nearby Paterson.
As a young teenager, Ginsberg began to write letters to The New York Times about political issues, such as World War II and workers' rights. While in high school, Ginsberg began reading Walt Whitman, inspired by his teacher's passionate reading.
In 1943, Ginsberg graduated from Eastside High School and briefly attended Montclair State College before entering Columbia University on a scholarship from the Young Men's Hebrew Association of Paterson.In 1945, he joined the Merchant Marine to earn money to continue his education at Columbia.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.
Relationship with his parents
His father Louis Ginsberg was a poet and a high school teacher. Ginsberg's mother, Naomi Livergant Ginsberg, was affected by a rare psychological illness that was never properly diagnosed. She was also an active member of the Communist Party and took Ginsberg and his brother Eugene to party meetings. Ginsberg later said that his mother "made up bedtime stories that all went something like: 'The good king rode forth from his castle, saw the suffering workers and healed them.'" Naomi's mental illness often manifested as paranoid delusions. She would claim, for example, that the president had implanted listening devices in their home and that Louis' mother was trying to kill her. Her suspicion of those around her caused Naomi to draw closer to young Allen, "her little pet," as Bill Morgan says in his biography of Ginsberg, entitled, I Celebrate Myself: The Somewhat Private Life of Allen Ginsberg.She also tried to kill herself by slitting her wrists and was soon taken to Greystone, a mental hospital; she would spend much of Ginsberg's youth in mental hospitals. His experiences with his mother and her mental illness were a major inspiration for his two major works, "Howl" and his long autobiographical poem "Kaddish for Naomi Ginsberg (1894–1956)".
When he was in junior high school, he accompanied his mother by bus to her therapist. The trip deeply disturbed Ginsberg — he mentioned it and other moments from his childhood in "Kaddish". His experiences with his mother's mental illness and her institutionalization are also frequently referred to in "Howl". For example, "Pilgrim State, Rockland, and Grey Stone's foetid halls" is a reference to institutions frequented by his mother and Carl Solomon, ostensibly the subject of the poem: Pilgrim State Hospital and Rockland State Hospital in New York and Greystone State Hospital in New Jersey.This is followed soon by the line "with mother finally ******." Ginsberg later admitted the deletion was the expletive "fucked." He also says of Solomon in section three, "I'm with you in Rockland where you imitate the shade of my mother," once again showing the association between Solomon and his mother.
Naomi died in 1956, and she did not have a kaddish at her funeral because there were not ten Jewish men present. Ginsberg tried to have one performed for her, but was unable to since the two companions with him, Jack Kerouac
and Peter Orlovsky, were not Jewish.Ginsberg received a letter from his mother, responding to a copy of "Howl" he had sent her, after Naomi had died. It admonished Ginsberg to be good and stay away from drugs; she says, "The key is in the window, the key is in the sunlight at the window -- I have the key -- Get married Allen don't take drugs -- the key is in the bars, in the sunlight in the window".In a letter she wrote to Ginsberg's brother Eugene, she said, "God's informers come to my bed, and God himself I saw in the sky. The sunshine showed too, a key on the side of the window for me to get out. The yellow of the sunshine, also showed the key on the side of the window."These letters and the inability to perform the kaddish ceremony inspired Ginsberg to write "Kaddish" which makes references to many details from Naomi's life, Ginsberg's experiences with her, and the letter, including the lines "the key is in the light" and "the key is in the window".
New York Beats
In Ginsberg's freshman year at Columbia he met fellow undergraduate Lucien Carr, who introduced him to a number of future Beat writers, including Jack Kerouac
, William S. Burroughs, and John Clellon Holmes. They bonded because they saw in one another an excitement about the potential of American youth, a potential that existed outside the strict conformist confines of post–World War II, McCarthy-era America. Ginsberg and Carr talked excitedly about a "New Vision" (a phrase adapted from Arthur Rimbaud
) for literature and America. Carr also introduced Ginsberg to Neal Cassady, for whom Ginsberg had a long infatuation.Kerouac later described the meeting between Ginsberg and Cassady in the first chapter of his 1957 novel On the Road. Kerouac saw them as the dark (Ginsberg) and light (Cassady) side of their "New Vision." Kerouac's perception had to do partly with Ginsberg's association with Communism. Though Ginsberg was never a member of the Communist Party, Kerouac named him "Carlo Marx" in On the Road. This was a source of strain in their relationship, since Kerouac grew increasingly distrustful of Communism.
In 1948 in an apartment in Harlem, Ginsberg had an auditory hallucination while reading the poetry of William Blake
(later referred to as his "Blake vision"). At first, Ginsberg claimed to have heard the voice of God, but later interpreted the voice as that of Blake himself reading Ah, Sunflower, The Sick Rose, and Little Girl Lost. Ginsberg believed that he had 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.
Also, in New York, Ginsberg met Gregory Corso
in the Pony Stable Bar. Corso, recently released from prison, was supported by the Pony Stable patrons and was writing poetry there the night of their meeting. Ginsberg claims he was immediately attracted to Corso, who was straight, but understanding of homosexuality after three years in prison. Ginsberg was even more struck by reading Corso's poems, realizing Corso was "spiritually gifted." Ginsberg introduced Corso to the rest of his inner circle. In their first meeting at the Pony Stable, Corso showed Ginsberg a poem about a woman who lived across the street from him, and sunbathed naked in the window. Amazingly, the woman happened to be Ginsberg's girlfriend from one of his forays into heterosexuality. Ginsberg was living with the woman and took Corso over to their apartment, where the woman proposed sex while Corso was very young. He fled in fear. Ginsberg introduced Corso to Kerouac and Burroughs and they began to travel together. Ginsberg and Corso remained life-long friends and collaborators.
Shortly after this period in Ginsberg's life, he became romantically involved with Elise Nada Cowen after meeting her through Alex Greer, a philosophy professor at Barnard College that she had dated for a while during the burgeoning Beat generations period of development. As a Barnard student, Elise Cowen extensively read the poetry of Ezra Pound
and T.S. Eliot
, when she met Joyce Johnson and Leo Skir, among other Beat players. As Cowen had felt a strong attraction to darker poetry most of the time, Beat poetry seemed to provide an allure to what suggests a shadowy side of her persona. While at Barnard, Cowen earned the nickname "Beat Alice" as she had joined a small group of anti-establishment artists and visionaries known to outsiders as beatniks, and one of her first acquaintances at the college was the beat poet Joyce Johnson who later portrayed Cowen in one of her books Come and Join the Dance, which expressed the two women's experiences in the Barnard and Columbia Beat community. Through his association with Elise Cowen, Ginsberg discovered that they shared a mutual friend, Carl Solomon, to whom he later dedicated his most famous poem "Howl". This poem is considered an autobiography of Ginsberg prior to 1955, and a brief history of the Beat Generation through its references to his relationship to other Beat artists of that time.
San Francisco Renaissance
In 1954, in San Francisco, Ginsberg met Peter Orlovsky (1933–2010), with whom he fell in love and who remained his life-long partner. Also in San Francisco, Ginsberg met members of the San Francisco Renaissance and other poets who would later be associated with the Beat Generation in a broader sense. Ginsberg's mentor William Carlos William
wrote an introductory letter to San Francisco Renaissance figurehead Kenneth Rexroth, who then introduced Ginsberg into the San Francisco poetry scene. There, Ginsberg also met three budding poets and Zen enthusiasts who were friends at Reed College: Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, and Lew Welch. In 1959, along with poets John Kelly, Bob Kaufman, A. D. Winans, and William Margolis, Ginsberg was one of the founders of the Beatitude poetry magazine.
Wally Hedrick — a painter and co-founder of the Six Gallery — approached Ginsberg in mid-1955 and asked him to organize a poetry reading at the Six Gallery. At first, Ginsberg refused, but once he had written a rough draft of "Howl", he changed his "fucking mind", as he put it. Ginsberg advertised the event as "Six Poets at the Six Gallery". One of the most important events in Beat mythos, known simply as "The Six Gallery reading" took place 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 worldwide fame to Ginsberg and to many of the poets associated with him. An account of that night can be found in Kerouac's novel The Dharma Bums, describing how change was collected from audience members to buy jugs of wine, and Ginsberg reading passionately, drunken, with arms outstretched.
Ginsberg's principal work, "Howl", is well known for its opening line: "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked...." "Howl" was considered scandalous at the time of its publication, because of the rawness of its language. Shortly after its 1956 publication by San Francisco's 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 artistic value. Ginsberg and Shig Murao, the City Lights manager who was jailed for selling "Howl," became lifelong friends.
Continuing literary activity
Though the term "Beat" is most accurately applied to Ginsberg and his closest friends (Corso, Orlovsky, Kerouac, Burroughs, etc.), 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 1960s. A key feature of this term seems to be a friendship with Ginsberg. Friendship with Kerouac or Burroughs might also apply, but both writers later strove to disassociate themselves from the name "Beat Generation." Part of their dissatisfaction with the term came from the mistaken identification of Ginsberg as the leader. Ginsberg never claimed to be the leader of a movement. He claimed that many of the writers with whom he had become friends in this period shared many of the same intentions and themes.
Later in his life, Ginsberg formed a bridge between the beat movement of the 1950s and the hippies of the 1960s, befriending, among others, Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey, and Bob Dylan. Ginsberg gave his last public reading at Booksmith, a bookstore in the Haight Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco, a few months before his death.
In 1986 Ginsberg was awarded the Golden Wreath by the Struga Poetry Evenings International Festival in Macedonia, as the second American poet since W.H. Auden
. At Struga he met with the other Golden Wreath winners, Bulat Okudzhava and Andrei Voznesensky. 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 Knight of Arts and Letters).
With the exception of a special guest appearance at the NYU Poetry Slam on February 20, 1997, Ginsberg gave what is thought to be his last reading at The Booksmith in San Francisco on December 16, 1996. He died April 5, 1997, surrounded by family and friends in his East Village loft in New York City, succumbing 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 on March 30.
Ginsberg is buried in his family plot in Gomel Chesed Cemetery.
Style and technique
From the study of his idols and mentors and the inspiration of his friends—not to mention his own experiments—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 did not 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 accidentally. 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 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. Whitman is often compared to Ginsberg because their poetry sexualized aspects of the male form — though there is no direct evidence Whitman was homosexual.
Many of Ginsberg's early long line experiments contain some sort of anaphora, repetition of a "fixed base" (for example "who" in "Howl", "America" in America) and this has become a recognizable feature of Ginsberg's style. He said later this was a crutch because he lacked confidence; he did not yet trust "free flight". In the 1960s, after employing it in some sections of "Kaddish" ("caw" for example) he, for the most part, abandoned the anaphoric experiment.
Several of his earlier experiments with methods for formatting poems as a whole become regular aspects of his style in later poems. In the original draft of "Howl", each line is in a "stepped triadic" format reminiscent of Williams (see Ivy Leaves for example). He abandoned the "stepped triadic" when he developed his long line, but the stepped lines showed up later, most significantly in the travelogues of The Fall of America. "Howl" and "Kaddish", arguably his two most important poems, are both organized as an inverted pyramid, with larger sections leading to smaller sections. In America, he experimented with a mix of longer and shorter lines.