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Allen Ginsberg Biography | Poet

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Irwin Allen Ginsberg (June 3, 1926 – April 5, 1997) was an American Beat poet born in Newark, New Jersey. Ginsberg is best known for Howl (1956), a long poem about the Beat Generation and the state and feeling of the United States at the time.


Ginsberg was born into a Jewish family in Newark, New Jersey. He grew up in nearby Paterson. His father Louis Ginsberg was a poet and his mother was a high school teacher. Ginsberg's mother, Naomi Levy Ginsberg (who was affected by epileptic seizures and mental illnesses such as paranoia[1]) was an active member of the Communist Party USA and often 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.'"[2]

As a teenager, Ginsberg began to write letters to The New York Times about political issues such as World War II and workers' rights. [2] When he was a junior in high school, he accompanied his mother by bus to her therapist. The trip disturbed Ginsberg and mentioned it in his long autobiographical poem "Kaddish for Naomi Ginsberg (1894-1956)."[1] The main subject of the poem, however, was his mother's death. While in high school, Ginsberg began reading Walt Whitman.

In 1943 Ginsberg graduated from high school and briefly attended Montclair State University before entering Columbia University on a scholarship from the Young Men's Hebrew Association of Paterson. (1949).[3] In his freshman year 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. Carr also introduced Ginsberg to Neal Cassady, with 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.[1]

Also in New York, Ginsberg met Gregory Corso in a bar and introduced him to the rest of his inner circle. In their first meeting Corso said he'd been fantasizing about a woman who lived across the street from him. The woman just happened to be Ginsberg's girlfriend during one of Ginsberg's sporadic forays into heterosexuality.

In 1954 in San Francisco Ginsberg met Peter Orlovsky, a young man of 21 with whom he fell in love and who remained his life-long lover, and with whom he eventually shared his interest in Tibetan Buddhism.

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 Williams wrote an introductory letter to San Francisco Renaissance figure head Kenneth Rexroth who then introduced Ginsberg into the San Francisco poetry scene. Ginsberg also met there three accomplished poets and Zen enthusiasts who were friends at Reed College: Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, Lew Welch.

He met Michael McClure at a W. H. Auden reading where they struck up a conversation about Blake. McClure was planning a poetry reading at the Six Gallery where Robert Duncan's play "Faust Foutu" had previously been performed. But McClure handed the duties off to Ginsberg. 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 5, 1955. Rexroth was the Master of Ceremonies. Readers included: Whalen who read his poem "Plus Ca Change"; McClure who read his poems "Point Lobos: Animism" and "For the Death of 100 Whales"; Gary Snyder who read "A Berry Feast"; and Philip Lamantia, an American Surrealist poet and friend of Andre Breton who helped introduce Ginsberg to Surrealist poetry, read the poems of his dead friend John Hoffman. Most importantly 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.

Though "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 50's and early 60's. 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 the dissatisfaction with the term "Beat Generation" came from the mistaken identification of Ginsberg as the leader. Ginsberg never claimed to be the leader. He did, however, claim many of the writers with whom he'd become friends in this period shared many of the same intentions and themes. Some of these friends include: Bob Kaufman; LeRoi Jones before he became Amiri Baraka, who, after reading "Howl", wrote a letter to Ginsberg on a sheet of toilet paper; Diane DiPrima; poets associated with the Black Mountain College such as Robert Creeley and Denise Levertov; poets associated with the New York School such as Frank O'Hara and Kenneth Koch.

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, Rod McKuen, and Bob Dylan.

In 1965 Ginsberg was deported from Cuba for publicly protesting against Cuba's anti-marijuana stance and its penchant for throwing homosexuals in jail, but also for an alleged remark referring to revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara as "cute."

The Cubans sent him to Czechoslovakia, where one week after being named the King of a May Day parade, Ginsberg was labeled an "immoral menace" by the Czech government because of his free expression of radical ideas and was then deported. Many important figures from Communist Bloc countries such as Vaclav Havel point to Ginsberg as an important inspiration to strive for freedom.

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 via complications of Hepatitis. He was 70 years old.



Ginsberg's poetry was strongly influenced by Modernism (specifically Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot and most importantly William Carlos 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 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.

He studied poetry under William Carlos Williams, who was then in the middle of writing his epic poem Paterson about the industrial city near his home. Ginsberg, after attending a reading by Williams, sent the older poet several of his poems and wrote an introductory letter. Most of these early poems were rhymed and metered and included archaic pronouns like "Thee." Williams hated the poems. He told Ginsberg later, "In this mode perfection is basic, and these poems are not perfect."

Though he hated the early poems, Williams loved the exuberance in Ginsberg’s letter. He included the letter in a later part of Paterson. 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."

Other influences include Antonin Artaud, Andre Breton, Hart Crane, Christopher Smart, Franz Kafka, Herman Melville, and Jack Kerouac, who Ginsberg always maintained was his biggest poetical influence.

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). The phrases "eyeball kick" and "hydrogen jukebox" both show up in "Howl" as well as a direct quote from Cezanne: "Pater Omnipitens Aeterna Deus."

Ginsberg's principal work, "Howl", is well-known to many for its opening line: "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness". The full title is "Howl for Carl Solomon." Solomon was a Dada and Surrealism enthusiast (he introduced Ginsberg to 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." Moloch, to whom the second section is addressed, is a Levantine god to whom children were sacrificed. Ginsberg may have gotten the name from the Kenneth Rexroth poem "Thou Shalt Not Kill,” a poem about the death of one of Ginsberg's heroes, Dylan Thomas. But Moloch is mentioned a few times in the Torah and references to Ginsberg's Jewish background are not infrequent in his work. Ginsberg said the image of Moloch was inspired by 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.

He also made sure to emphasize that Moloch is a part of all of us: the decision to defy socially created systems of control – and therefore go against Moloch – is a form of self-destruction. Many of the characters Ginsberg references in "Howl”, such as Neal Cassady and Herbert Huncke, destroyed themselves through excessive substance abuse or a generally wild lifestyle. The personal aspects of "Howl" are perhaps as important as the political aspects. Carl Solomon, the prime example of a "best mind" destroyed by defying society, is associated with Ginsberg's schizophrenic mother: the line "with mother finally *******" comes after a long section about Carl Solomon, and in Part III, Ginsberg says "I'm with you in Rockland where you imitate the shade of my mother." Ginsberg later admitted that the drive to write "Howl" was fueled by sympathy for his ailing mother, an issue which he wasn't yet ready to deal with directly. He dealt with it directly with 1959's "Kaddish."

"Howl" was considered scandalous at the time of its publication due to the rawness of its language, which is frequently explicit. 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 social importance.

Ginsberg's spiritual journey began early on with his reported spontaneous visions, and continued with an early trip to India and a chance encounter on a New York City street (they both tried to catch the same cab) with Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, 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. Music and chanting were both important parts of his live delivery during poetry readings. He often accompanied himself on a handheld organ called a harmonium, and was often accompanied by a guitarist. Attendance to his poetry readings was generally standing room only for most of his career, no matter where in the world he appeared.

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).

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