Ginsberg, (Irwin) Allen
GINSBERG, (Irwin) Allen
(b. 3 June 1926 in Newark, New Jersey; d. 5 April 1997 in New York City), one of the most influential of the Beat Generation poets, whose poem "Howl" became an anthem of the countercultural, antiwar, and pro-drug movements of the 1960s.
Ginsberg was the second of two children born to Louis Ginsberg, a teacher and poet, and Naomi Levy, a Russian émigré who supported the Communist Party and struggled with mental illness. Although his mother's illness made his childhood difficult, Ginsberg excelled in academics and entered Columbia University as a pre-law major at the age of seventeen. Suspended from the university in 1945 for writing vulgarities on a window, Ginsberg avoided the draft for World War II by declaring his homosexuality and joined the U.S. Merchant Marine. He returned to Columbia the following year and received a B.A. degree in 1949.
During and after his years at Columbia, Ginsberg met many of the characters who formed the countercultural Beat Generation, including Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and Carl Solomon. (The Beat Generation comprised a group of American writers in the 1950s and 1960s who rebelled against the establishment values of American culture.) Ginsberg allowed his drug-dealing friends to store stolen property in his Manhattan apartment, and was arrested as an accessory to burglary in 1949. With the help of a Columbia dean, Ginsberg was able to receive eight months of treatment at the New York State Psychiatric Institute of Columbia Presbyterian Hospital rather than serving jail time. After his release he held a number of jobs, but his focus was on writing poetry, some of which he sent to his neighbor William Carlos Williams, a poet who strongly influenced his work. Ginsberg's poetry was first published in 1953, in the annual anthology New Directions. In 1954 Ginsberg moved to San Francisco, where the Beat Movement was taking hold. There he met Peter Orlovsky, another poet, with whom he immediately fell in love and subsequently entered a committed and lifelong, although at times intermittent, relationship.
Ginsberg's career as a poet was launched on 7 October 1955 when he read his poem "Howl" at the Six Gallery in San Francisco. With the opening lamentation that became a rallying cry for the disenfranchised, "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," his reputation was established. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, founder of City Lights Books, had attended the reading and quickly published Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems in 1956. The graphic sexual imagery of the poems prompted the San Francisco Police Department to declare the book obscene. However, in the ensuing trial Judge Clayton Horn deemed the poems not obscene, and "Howl" quickly assumed the status of a manifesto of the countercultural movements.
Drug use contributed greatly to Ginsberg's poetry during the early 1960s, particularly the collection Kaddish and Other Poems (1961), an elegy for his mother, who had died in 1956. With Dr. Timothy Leary, the Harvard scientist and hallucinogen advocate, Ginsberg planned a "psychedelic revolution" to encourage individuals to explore their minds through drug use. However, Ginsberg's advocacy of drugs as a catalyst for creativity was short-lived; a trip to India in 1962 convinced him of the superiority of meditation and yoga to expand the mind.
Ginsberg traveled to many other parts of the world in the 1960s, including Europe and Israel, and encountered much of the same controversy that he had faced at home. In 1965 he was expelled from Cuba and Czechoslovakia for his homosexuality and dissident politics. Prior to his expulsion from Czechoslovakia, however, he was elected "King of May" by thousands of Czech citizens for the annual celebration. In 1967 the Arts Council of Great Britain invited Ginsberg to their international festival. In addition to international travel, Ginsberg ceaselessly toured the United States to read poetry and to participate in political protests. In 1964 he joined the author Susan Sontag in defense of the director Jonas Mekas, who was accused of obscenity for screening Jean Genet's Chant d'Amour; he also fought zoning ordinances designed to prohibit coffeehouses from holding poetry readings. In 1967 Ginsberg helped to organize the "happening," A Gathering of the Tribes for a Human Be-In, in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, at which Leary uttered the sound bite of the decade: "Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out." Later that year, Ginsberg and Dr. Benjamin Spock were arrested for antiwar protests in New York City. At the riots surrounding the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Ginsberg joined Abbie Hoffman and the Yippies (the anarchist Youth International Party) to protest U.S. involvement in the war in Vietnam. The tumultuous decade of the 1960s ended for Ginsberg on his farm in Cherry Valley, New York. He was injured in an auto accident in November 1968 and suffered an attack of Bell's palsy, a condition that causes the facial muscles to weaken or become paralyzed, in April 1969.
Despite the drugs, the travel, and the war protests, Ginsberg remained an incredibly prolific poet during the 1960s. In addition to Kaddish, he published such poems and collections as Empty Mirror (1961), A Strange New Cottage in Berkeley (1963), Reality Sandwiches (1963), The Change (1963), Kral Majales (1965), Wichita Vortex Sutra (1966), TV Baby Poems (1967), Wales—A Visitation, July 29, 1967 (1968), Scrap Leaves, Hasty Scribbles (1968), Messages II (1968), Planet News, 1961–1967 (1968), Airplane Dreams: Compositions from Journals (1968), and Ankor-Wat (1969). The steady stream of vital, exuberant, and raw poetry ensured Ginsberg's reputation as an eloquent spokesperson for his generation. His awards during the decade included a Guggenheim Fellowship and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
After the upheavals of the 1960s, the remaining decades of Ginsberg's life were marked by critical acclaim, enormous productivity, and relative calm. He cofounded the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Politics as a branch of the Naropa Institute, a Buddhist center of learning, in 1974; toured with Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Review in 1975; was awarded the National Arts Club Gold Medal for lifetime achievement in 1979, and was named distinguished professor at Brooklyn College in 1986. He continued to publish throughout his life, including such collections as First Blues (1975), Selected Gay Poems and Correspondence (1979), Mostly Sitting Haiku (1979), White Shroud (1986), and Cosmopolitan Greetings (1994). Ginsberg died of a heart attack in New York City while battling liver cancer, and was cremated.
Although Ginsberg was one of the most influential American poets of the twentieth century, his life almost overshadowed his work, as many fans of the Beat Generation idolized the poets more than their poetry. Ginsberg's "Howl," however, gave voice to the disaffected of the 1950s, as this group rose to prominence in the 1960s. Having refused to countenance injustices wherever he saw them, Ginsberg served as a model of the power of passion in literature and life. As time has passed, many of his viewpoints that were once seen as extremist have become increasingly mainstream.
Ginsberg's archives are at Stanford University, Palo Alto, California; subsidiary holdings belong to the University of Texas at Austin and Columbia University, New York City. Ginsberg's autobiographical writings include The Yage Letters (1963), cowritten with William S. Burroughs; Indian Journals (1970); To Eberhart from Ginsberg (1976); As Ever (1977); Journals: Early Fifties, Early Sixties (1977); Straight Hearts' Delight (1980); Journals: Mid-Fifties (1995); and Family Business (2001). Biographies include Jane Kramer, Allen Ginsberg in America (1969); Barry Miles, Ginsberg: A Biography (1989; rev. ed. 2000); Michael Schumacher, Dharma Lion (1992); Graham Caveney, Screaming with Joy (1998); and Ed Sanders, The Poetry and Life of Allen Ginsberg (2000). Obituaries are in the Washington Post (6 Apr. 1997) and New York Times (8 Apr. 1997).