in a lifetime, a figure so bold and enduring emerges from the shadows to
lead a nation's youth through its turbulence.
On June 3, 1926, poet Allen Ginsberg
was born in
Newark, New Jersey. He came from a family of Russian-Jewish immigrants who
left-leaning radicals interested in Marxism, nudism, feminism, and
nearly any other "ism" across whose path they stumbled. Louis Ginsberg (1895-1976),
Allen's father, was a teacher and a poet whose work appeared in publications
such as The New York Times Magazine.
During Ginsberg's childhood, his mother, Naomi Levy
Ginsberg, began her lifelong struggle with paranoia. Eventually, she was
institutionalized and finally lobotomized. She died in an asylum in
1956. Her life is the subject of Ginsberg's poem, Kaddish, which is
considered among the author's greatest achievements. The poem was
written in one 40-hour session as compensation for her funeral service. It begins with Ginsberg's sense of loss and moves
on to document his mother's life and death.
"O mother / what have I
left out / O mother / what have I forgotten / O mother / farewell".
Ginsberg fell in love with the
poetry of Walt Whitman when he was in high school after hearing his English
teacher read a passage from Whitman's Song of Myself to the class.
He later said that he would never forget his teacher's "black-dressed bulk
seated squat behind an English class desk, her embroidered collar, her voice
powerful and high...so enthusiastic and joyous...so confident and lifted
At Columbia University, Ginsberg planned to take pre-law classes and
become a lawyer like his brother, but he switched his major to English after
taking a Great Books class from critic Lionel Trilling. He hung out
with a group of contemporary poets and artists that included Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady,
and William S. Burroughs. They read poetry to each other, "mellowed out"
on drugs, and had all-night conversations. Sometime in the late Forties,
they began calling themselves "Beats," the precursors to America's Beat
Generation. Some say the term was coined as an abbreviation for
"beatitude," or a state of blessed euphoria. Others insist the word
merely reflected the groups feeling at the time, as though they'd been
beaten down by society and abandoned.
When Ginsberg was twenty-six years old, sitting in his apartment in
Harlem, he suddenly had a vision of William Blake. He told friends
and family that he had found God. He said, "My body suddenly felt
light, and [I felt] a sense of cosmic consciousness, vibrations,
understanding, awe, and wonder and surprise. And it was a sudden
awakening into a totally deeper real universe than I'd been existing in."
Ginsberg wasn't sure that he wanted
to be a poet after he was graduated from Columbia; so he worked as an
apprentice book reviewer for Newsweek magazine for a time before
spending five years at an advertising agency in an office in the
Empire State Building. In 1955, he and his psychiatrist decided that
he would be happier writing poetry.
Ginsberg took six months of unemployment
insurance money and moved to San Francisco, where he slipped into the
contemporary poetry scene that included Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti,
who owned City Lights Bookstore and publishing house. In October 1955, he read his poem,
Howl, to a large
group of people at the Six Gallery in San Francisco. It was a huge
success. The poem was published by Ferlinghetti and included a
foreword by William Carlos Williams:
"Hold back the edges of your gowns,
Ladies, we are going through hell."
The police seized the complete
printing on the grounds of obscenity: Ginsberg openly expressed his homosexuality in the book. Nevertheless, the
poem launched a writing career that lasted for more than forty
"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...."
Ginsberg wrote, "I want to be known
as the most brilliant man in America...who sang a blues made rock stars
weep...who called the Justice department & threaten'd to Blow the Whistle /
Stopt Wars...distributed monies to poor poets & nourished imaginative genius
of the land."
his mother's death, Ginsberg signed onto a ship sailing to the Arctic
Circle, marking the beginning of a lifetime of travel both at home and
abroad. Trips to the far East and India with his lover Peter Orlovsky
inspired the collection, The Change (1963). From the position of
Beat Generation spokesperson, he continued as one of the central
characters of the counter-culture throughout the turbulent Sixties.
To advance his social ideologies, Ginsberg lectured at
several universities, marched against the War in Vietnam and the C.I.A., called for the
overthrow of the Shah of Iran, and was arrested during the 1968 Democratic
Convention riots in Chicago. Cuba deported him after he protested the
regiment's treatment of homosexuals and called Che Guevara ''cute." The
students of Prague elected him The King of May, after which he was deported by the Czech government.
turn to Buddhism and to the teachings of guru Chögyam Trungpa affected his
poetry and world view greatly. After Kerouac's death, he helped found
the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics of the Naropa Institute, a
Buddhist university, where he also taught. Among his major
collections in the 1960s are Kaddish and Other Poems (1961),
Reality Sandwiches (1963), which includes "The Green Automobile," a
fantasy about Neal Cassidy, and Planet News (1968), echoing anti-war demonstrations and 1960s radicalism.
In the 1970s, Ginsberg was jailed for his part in an anti-Nixon protest.
He toured with Bob Dylan and campaigned on ecological issues. He wrote
Plutonium Ode to be read aloud at a public demonstration in Colorado,
where he was arrested again. In the 1980s, he opposed Reagan's covert
policies in Nicaragua and worked as a visiting professor at Columbia
University (1986-87). He also taught at Brooklyn College. His
800-page Collected Poems 1947-1980 was published in 1984.
Allen Ginsberg, who once said,
"Poetry is the one place where people can speak their original human mind.
It is the outlet for people to say in public what is known in private," died
on April 6, 1997.
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