Ginsberg, Allen (1926-1997)

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Ginsberg, Allen (1926-1997)

The poet Allen Ginsberg, an iconoclast in both his politically charged writing and unconventional lifestyle, epitomized the anti-establishment "Beat" movement of the 1950s and 1960s. In the midst of a generation shaped by the aftermath of the Holocaust and the atomic bomb, mass conformity, the hysteria of McCarthyism, and government censorship of personal liberties and civil rights, Ginsberg became a popular voice of artistic defiance. In American popular and academic culture, Ginsberg's influence as a poet, musician, artist, professor, and agitator has continued to grow even after his death. Bearing unofficial titles such as the "father of the Beat Generation," the "prophet of the 1960s," and the "guru of the counterculture movement," Ginsberg remains a cultural icon of one of America's most socially and politically turbulent eras.

Along with other Beats like Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs, Ginsberg embraced Eastern philosophies and African American culture, experimented with various drugs, used the raw materials of life as the basis for his art, and subverted numerous societal and middle-class conventions in order to achieve spiritual, political, and sexual liberation. The opening lines of Ginsberg's Howl, the poetic manifesto of Beat attitudes and Ginsberg's most widely known work, exemplifies the gritty nature of his poetry: "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." Because of its graphic sexual references, Howl, became the subject of a 1957 obscenity case that resulted in a landmark acquittal of the poem's publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti of City Lights Books. The trial's notoriety pushed Ginsberg into the public spotlight and ensured his status as a popular poet, an indelible symbol of Beat defiance, and a lasting representative of the rebellious spirit of the 1960s.

Despite his reputation as a boisterous nonconformist, Ginsberg grew up shy. He was born in New Jersey on June 3, 1926, to Louis Ginsberg, a moderate socialist and an accomplished lyric poet, and to Naomi Ginsberg, a radical communist during the Depression, who suffered from psychotic delusions until her death. Ginsberg discovered the poetry of Walt Whitman in high school, which sparked his interest in becoming a poet. However, upon his father's advice, he entered Columbia University in the mid-1940s with the intent of becoming a labor lawyer. At Columbia, he joined a circle of friends that included Kerouac, Burroughs, and Neal Cassady. They exposed him to Manhattan's varied subcultures and fostered his artistic, philosophical and sexual development; each of them would contribute greatly to the Beat movement a decade later.

Ginsberg eventually changed his major to literature and after receiving his bachelor's degree in 1948 was hired as a market researcher in New York City. During this time, Ginsberg experienced a vision of William Blake and awoke, in his own words, "into a totally deeper real universe." He introduced himself to fellow New Jersey poet William Carlos Williams, whose poem about Paterson, New Jersey, moved Ginsberg greatly; Ginsberg would eventually incorporate Williams's broad narrative style into his own poetry. Ginsberg quit his job and left New York in 1953, traveling to Cuba and Mexico. Bearing a letter of introduction from Williams, he arrived at San Francisco in 1954 to meet Kenneth Rexroth and the group of poets, writers, artists, filmmakers, and avant-gardists who would later be at the core of the Beat movement. It was here that Ginsberg composed and first read Howl as part of the Six Gallery reading in October 1955.

Not since Brook Farm (a transcendentalist utopian community established in Massachusetts in 1841) had an American cultural-literary group enjoyed such cohesion as the Beat and counterculture movements. At the center of the community was Ginsberg—who coined the term "flower power" in 1965—promoting free love, LSD, and group living in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district, the national epicenter of counterculture. He also stood out as a major figure in Vietnam War protests. He was arrested in 1967 in an antiwar demonstration in New York City along with Dr. Benjamin Spock, the famed child psychologist.

In the post-Vietnam War years, Ginsberg's reputation as an agitator grew even more widespread when countries such as Cuba, the former Soviet Union, and Poland deported him for speaking against communism and the persecution of homosexuals while he attempted to establish residency. Within the United States, he participated in the antinuclear, environmental, and gay liberation movements in the 1970s and 1980s. During the first term of the Reagan administration, the FBI placed him on a list of people deemed "unsuitable" as government paid speakers abroad, a list on which black leader Coretta Scott King, feminist Betty Friedan, and consumer advocate Ralph Nader also appeared.

Ginsberg wrote more than forty books of poetry in his lifetime, working up to his death in 1997. His uncensored free-verse style produced as much controversy among academics as his profanity did among the government authorities. However, despite the stones of disdain and censorship thrown in Ginsberg's path, Howl has become required reading on college campuses throughout the United States, and his Fall of America won the National Book Award in 1972. He was also a member of the American Institute of Arts and Letters.

Ginsberg's love for poetry inspired him to take an active and highly public role in its promotion. In 1974, he helped found the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at the Naropa Institute, the first accredited Buddhist college in the Western world, located in Boulder, Colorado. He also taught English at Brooklyn College in New York. During the 1970s and 1980s, Ginsberg recorded spoken words and songs, and sometimes toured with popular musicians such as the Clash, and Bob Dylan, who cited Ginsberg as one of the few literary figures he could stand. In the 1990s, Ginsberg made more recordings, collaborating with artists such as Paul McCartney and Phillip Glass. Ginsberg also had a talent in photography; he depicted his subjects—many of whom were people—with great depth of character, expressing visually what he achieved poetically. In 1996, his photographs were displayed in "Beat Culture and the New America: 1960-1965," an exhibition organized by the Whitney Museum of Art, suggesting that Ginsberg's anti-establishment life and work had, near the end of his life, become fully embraced by the country's most entrenched cultural institutions.

—Nancy Lan-Jy Wang

Further Reading:

Ginsberg, Allen. Howl and Other Poems. San Francisco, City Lights, 1956.

Holmes, John Clellon. Nothing More to Declare. New York, Dutton, 1967.

Kramer, Jane. Allen Ginsberg on America. New York, Paragon House, 1969.

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Ginsberg, Allen (1926-1997)

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