Allen Ginsberg was arguably the most influential poet of the second half of the twentieth century. He was, with Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs, one of the leading figures of the Beat Generation of American writers, which alone would have guaranteed his fame. His public activity extended far beyond the composition of verse, however. Ginsberg was an ardent spokesman and publicist for the radical new writing of the 1950s and 1960s; he was an outspoken political dissident, critical of the abuses of power by governments of all stripes; he was the co-founder and director of the Naropa School of Disembodied Poetics in Boulder, Colorado; he was an early and highly influential gay rights advocate. And one of the most controversial aspects of his career, in the eyes of critics and his fans, was Allen Ginsberg’s music. Untrained in composition or performance, Ginsberg was nonetheless a highly enthusiastic singer who, in the face of doubt and criticism, persevered to produce a small body of work that was well received, if poorly distributed, and quickly out-of-print.
Ginsberg grew up entertaining dreams of a career as a lawyer or writer, but apparently without giving a thought to becoming a musician. He enjoyed a wide variety of music ranging from Beethoven and opera, to George Gershwin, to Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. Like his close friend Jack Kerouac, he was a fan of jazz in the late 1940s and early fifties, and later recalled listening to Symphony Sid’s all-night radio show of non-stop bebop stars like Charlie Parker, Ben Webster, Lennie Tristano and Lester Young. It was in the middle 1950s when “Howl,” a poem that captured the anger and discontent of his entire generation, made Ginsberg famous. He followed it up with other influential works, including poems like “America,” “Sunflower Sutra,” “Kaddish,” and “Wichita Vortex Sutra” which were not overtly musical, but whose rhythms were based on Ginsberg’s breath, much like the lines blown by a sax player. In 1954, traveling in Mexico, Ginsberg built his own set of log drums which he suspended from a tree and played. Bary Miles, in his biography Ginsberg, quotes one of Allen’s letters of the time: “People come from miles around to hear my drumming. It really goes over big.”
He discovered chanting as an aid to meditation in 1963, and chanted regularly from then on, both in private and at his public readings. In 1965 during one of Ginsberg’s visits to Los Angeles, Phil Spector, who had produced hit singles for girl groups like the Ronnettes and the Crystals, offered not only to record an album of Ginsberg’s chanting, but to make it a hit of it as well. The offer came at atime when Ginsberg was beginning tothinkseriously about the connections between popular music and poetry. Bob Dylan, a great admirer of Ginsberg’s poetry, had proven time and again that one could write intelligent, even poetic song lyrics and still have hit records. The success of British invasion groups like the Beatles and Rolling Stones, only solidified Ginsberg’s conviction that poetry could reach far more people through music and records than through traditional vehicles such as little magazines and books.
His first musical project involved setting some poems of William Blake to music. Ginsberg’s interest in Blake went back as least as far as his student time at Columbia University. More significantly, though, Blake had been the center of a powerful, life-altering experience that Ginsberg had had in 1948. Depressed and aimless, Ginsberg was in his room reading Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, when a voice that he took to be Blake’s began reciting two Blake poems, “The Sick Rose” and “The Little Girl Lost.” Ginsberg experienced a deep, sudden insight into the eternal beauty of every detail of the world,” eternity in a grain of sand” as Blake had written in “The Tyger.” The Blake vision set in motion, over the course of more than two decades, experiments by Ginsberg with drugs, religion, meditation, chanting and otherforms of altered consciousness.
Ginsberg knew that Blake had sung these “songs” himself. No record of Blake’s melodies survived, however, so Ginsberg set about writing his own, based on the sound of the words in the poems. He set “The Grey Monk” —a Blake poem not included in the Songs—to
Began writing poetry as university student in the 1940s; experienced the voice of William Blake in a series of powerful visions, 1948; made first important impact his initial reading of Howl at the Six Gallery, October 13, 1955; “Kaddish” published, 1959; met Bob Dylan, 1963; began chanting to meditate as well as at his readings, 1963; set Blake’s “The Grey Monk” to music, 1968; released Wm. Blake’s Songs of Innocence & Experience, MGM Records, 1970; recorded group of songs with Bob Dylan, 1971; John Hammond recorded First Blues for Columbia Records but label refused to release it, 1976; Folkways released album of songs recorded by Harry Smith, 1981; performed on “Ghetto Defendant” on the Clash’s Combat Rock, 1982; First Blues released on John Hammond Records, 1982; “Capitol Rock” single with Denver band The Gluons released in Rocky Mountain states, mid-1980s; Collected Poems published, 1984; released The Lion For Real, 1989; released Holy Soul Jelly Roll —Poems And Songs (box set), 1994.
Awards: National Book Award for Poetry, The Fall of America, 1974;Gold Medal, National Arts Club, 1979; member American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.
music in summer 1968. His plan to set more of Blake’s work to music was given impetus when Paul McCartney asked Ginsberg to do something for the Beatles’ new label, Apple Records. Ginsberg returned to his farm in upstate New York and, using an old pump organ, set about composing melodies for 19 Blake poems.
It was slow going. Ginsberg had no background or knowledge about composition, musical notation, or singing. “Ironically,” wrote Michael Schumacher in his Ginsberg biography Dharma Lion, “his initial problem as a songwriter was not an inability to write melody, instead it was a lack of faith in his own capacity to write lyrics. The Blake poems provided him the lyrics—and the confidence.” Ginsberg’s friend Barry Miles, who was witness to the recording of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, came to assist with the recording. They worked all of June and July of 1969 on the project, eventually settling on eleven settings for the album, including “Ah Sunflower!” and “The Sick Rose,” the two poems that had figured in Ginsberg’s 1948 Blake visions.
Later Ginsberg would connect the visions and the recording sessions: “The mantra chanting all through the ’60s deepened my voice so it sank deeper and deeper into my body,” he wrote for the set Holy Soul Jelly Roll—Poems And Songs (1949-1993). “In ‘Nurse’s Song’ from the Blake record … my voice finally settled into some approximation of the voice I heard in 1948… Sort of like experiencing what I would be like in the future.” The album was released on MGM Records to favorable reviews, which encouraged Ginsberg to record another record’s worth of material that was, unfortunately, never released.
In 1971, Bob Dylan heard Ginsberg improvising song lyrics at a reading. Impressed, he suggested recording together, which they did overtwo sessions in November of 1971 at the Record Plant in New York City. Ginsberg spent the first session getting comfortable with the setting and the musicians. The second session produced “CIA Dope Calypso” about covert government drug trafficking in Southeast Asia, “Going To San Diego” about Richard Nixon and the upcoming Republican National Convention, “Many Loves” about some of the men with whom he had had relationships, and “Whozat Jimmy Berman.” Two takes of “September on Jessore Road,” a song inspired by Ginsberg’s experience of poverty in India, were also recorded. But much to his disappointment, neither track was usable. It didn’t look like the other tracks would fare much better though. They went into a can and sat on a shelf for years before they were finally released.
In 1976, Ginsberg gave tapes of the 1971 sessions, along with a copy of his book First Blues, to John Hammond, the producer at Columbia who had discovered Leadbelly, Robert Johnson and scores of other brilliant musicians. Hammond liked what he heard and organized a session in June. The album they made included eight new songs along with three from the sessions with Dylan. Columbia executives were upset with Ginsberg’s explicit references to homosexuality in some of the songs, however, and refused to release the record. The record, First Blues, would eventually be issued in 1983 on John Hammond’s own label. Confusing Ginsberg’s discography, Folkways released a completely different album in 1981 underthe same title. That record was recorded by ethnomusicologist and eccentric, Harry Smith, in his room at New York’s Chelsea Hotel in the mid-1970s.
Ginsberg’s song writing tailed off in the 1980s, but he remained interested in the latest pop music trends. Attracted by their radical protest songs, Ginsberg visited the Clash backstage before one of their shows in New York in 1981. When they asked him to read a poem to the crowd, he offered instead to sing a song he had written with them. They spent ten minutes rehearsing then performed “Capitol Air,” a song in which Ginsberg rejects both capitalism and communism. He was pleased at the enthusiastic response he got from the crowd. Six months later he visited the Clash again, this time in the studio, and was asked by Joe Strummerto look over and tighten up some of their new song lyrics. Ginsberg also provided the “voice of God” which appeared on the song “Ghetto Defendant” on the Clash album Combat Rock. Although he was not writing songs as much as he had earlier in his life and his recording had petty much stopped, Ginsberg never stopped singing, accompanied by his harmonium, at readings. He would also recruit local talent as back-up musicians when he traveled. The arrangement led to a recording of “Birdbrain” with the Denver band the Gluons, which was released in Colorado in the mid-1980s.
Despite his personal enthusiasm for music, Ginsberg had often gotten mixed reactions from audiences when he sang or chanted at readings. His voice was ordinary at best, and his harmonium provided just a simple background drone, not a true musical accompaniment. Preparing for his 1989 release The Lion For Real, Ginsberg asked friends, poets and musicians, how to approach the project. According to Michael Schumacher, vocalist Marianne Faithfull suggested “Maybe you shouldn’t sing….” In response Ginsberg returned to a strength he had developed over the years, reading his poetry. Shorter works from all phases of his career are accompanied by musicians like Arto Lindsey, Bill Frisell, Marc Ribot, and G.E. Smith. Martha Bustin, writing in Rolling Stone, called The Lion For Real “an artful, affecting presentation of Ginsberg’s work…. a virtual Ginsberg primer.”
In the last years of his life, Ginsberg combined his reading with music on other recordings. He made “The Ballad of the Skeletons” with Philip Glass, Paul McCartney and Marc Ribot; the Kronos Quartet accompanied him on a reading of his landmark poem, “Howl.” Ginsberg’s recorded work was called “the most substantial offering of recorded works by any poet in history” by Schumacher. An enormous four-CD overview of it, entitled Holy Soul Jelly Roll—Poems And Songs, was released by Rhino Records in 1994.
Howl and Other Poems, Fantasy-Galaxy Records #7013, Berkeley, CA., 1959.
Kaddish, Atlantic Verbum Series #4001, New York, NY., 1966.
Wm. Blake’s Songs of Innocence & Experience, MGM/Verse CTS 3083, 1970.
First Blues: Rags, Ballads and Harmonium Songs, Folkway Records FSS 37560, 1981.
First Blues, John Hammond Records W2X 37673, 1982.
The Lion for Real, Great Jones/Island Records CCD6004, 1989.
Holy Soul Jelly Roll—Poems And Songs, Rhino Records, 1994.
Miles, Barry, Ginsberg: A Biography. Simon & Schuster, New York, 1989.
Schumacher, Michael. Dharma Lion: A Critical Biography of Allen Ginsberg, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1992.
Billboard, July 2, 1994; October 26, 1996.
Rolling Stone, March 8, 1990.
Additional material provided by Bob Rosenthal and Peter Hale.
—Gerald E. Brennan
The American poet Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) was one of the most celebrated figures in contemporary American literature. He was a leading member of the "Beat Movement" and helped lead the revolt against "academic poetry" and the cultural and political establishment of the mid-20th century.
Allen Ginsberg was born on June 3, 1926, in Newark, New Jersey, to Russian-Jewish parents. He had an emotionally troubled childhood that was later reflected in his poetry. His mother, Naomi, suffered from various mental illnesses, and was periodically institutionalized during his adolescence. Contributing to Ginsberg's growing confusion during these years was his growing awareness of his homosexuality, which he concealed from both his peers and his parents until he was in his twenties.
Ginsberg enrolled at Columbia University with the intention of becoming a lawyer. At Columbia, he fell in with a crowd that included writers Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs, as well as Lucien Carr and Neal Cassaday. Around the time he was a student at Columbia, Ginsberg got into some trouble with the police. His apartment was used as a base for a robbery, and in order to avoid being charged as an accomplice, he pleaded insanity. He ended up spending several months in a mental hospital.
After graduating with a bachelor of arts from Columbia in 1948, Ginsberg worked as a market researcher in New York and then migrated to San Francisco, where he became a principal figure in the "Beat Generation" literary movement. The Beat movement was an American social and literary movement originated in the 1950s where artists, derisively called "beatniks," expressed their alienation from conventional society by adopting a style of seedy dress, detached manners, and a "hip" vocabulary. Generally indifferent to social problems, they advocated sensory awareness that might be induced by drugs, jazz, sex, or the disciplines of Zen Buddhism. Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems (1956), along with Kerouac's On the Road ultimately became the "Beat" movement's twin scriptures.
Howl's raw, graphic language dealt with human discontent and despair, moral and social ills, Ginsberg's homosexuality, and his mother's communist beliefs. Many traditional critics were astonished. While some commentators shared the attitude of Walter Sutton, who considered Howl "a tirade revealing an animus directed outward against those who do not share the poet's social and sexual orientation," others echoed the opinion of Paul Zweig, who argued that the poem "almost singlehandedly dislocated the traditional poetry of the 1950s." The publisher, poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, became a defendant in an obscenity trial, but was later acquitted after testimony led Judge Clayton W. Horn to rule that Howl was not obscene. Still, leading literary and popular journals typically complained that Howl was vulgar and undisciplined. Another critic complained that "Ginsberg made it seem like anybody could write poetry.
Nevertheless, Ginsberg's triumphant synthesis of sociology and mysticism, Blake and Walt Whitman, and the Bible and Marxism, had found an audience. Declaiming his poems in coffeehouses, jazz clubs, and colleges, Ginsberg (with a thick, untrimmed beard and his balding head heavily fringed with hair) reinforced his dual image: a saint to the underground minority, a freak to the mainstream majority.
Ginsberg's next volume Kaddish and Other Poems 1958-1960 (1961), delved further into his past. Based on the "Kaddish," a traditional Hebrew prayer for the dead, it poignantly expressed the anger, love, and confusion felt towards his mother while rendering the social and historical milieu which informed his mother's troubled life. Some critics considered this piece to be his most important work. John Tytell explained "Kaddish testified for Ginsberg's capacity for involvement with another human in torment, for the acceptance of another's weirdness."
Ginsberg had visions while reading the poetry of William Blake. These visions led him to experiment with drugs, and he took LSD under the guidance of the late Timothy Leary in the 1960s. He said that some of his best poetry was written under the influence of drugs: the second part of Howl with peyote, Kaddish with amphetamines, and Wales - A Visitation with LSD. However, after a trip to India in 1962, where he was introduced to yoga and meditation, he, generally, changed his mind about drugs. He believed that yoga and meditation were far superior to raising one's consciousness, but still believed that psychedilcs could prove helpful in writing poetry.
Ginsberg was a visible political activist in the 1960s and 1970s. He coined the term and advocated "flower power," a strategy in which antiwar demonstrators promoted positive values like peace and love to dramatize their opposition to the death and destruction caused by the Vietnam War. He protested at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago and later testified on behalf of the "Chicago Seven" who were prosecuted on conspiracy charges. Ginsberg was later jailed after demonstrating against President Richard Nixon at the 1972 Republican Convention in Miami. He was also a staunch advocate for gay rights. When asked to describe his social and political views, he simply responded "Absolute defiance." These experiences, as well as his conversion to Buddhism, his concerns about aging, and the anguish over the deaths of close friends Kerouac and Cassaday, heavily influenced Ginsberg's work.
Ginsberg was a survivor, as he outlived enemies like J. Edgar hoover who thought he was a threat to the establishment. He remained durable, and was an icon of American counterculture for four decades. It could be said that if one generation outgrew him, a new one rose to show their interest. In the 1990s, he was a favorite on MTV, and collaborated with the band Sonic Youth and singer Bono of U2.
In later years, Ginsberg's health began to fail. He suffered from cirrhosis of the liver, bouts of hepatitis, diabetes, and Bell's palsy, which left his face partially paralyzed. As he continued his relentless self-promotion and an exhausting schedule, Ginsberg accomplished what few writers attain: his acclaim and celebrity were at their height at his death. He had always said he wanted to die peacefully, and on April 5, 1997, at the age of 70, just days after being diagnosed with terminal liver cancer, he died, surrounded by "close friends and lovers" in his New York apartment. Ferlinghetti stated, "He went the way he wanted to go." Longtime friend and former California lawmaker Tom Hayden told CNN, "Allen was like a prophet of the 1960s." His most recent works before his death were Selected Poems, 1947-1955 and a rock cd The Ballad of the Skeletons.
There are also excellent pieces in his other collections: Empty Mirror (1962); Reality Sandwiches (1963); The Yage Letters (1964), written with William Burroughs; The Marihuana Papers (1966); TV Baby Poem (1968); Planet News 1961-1967 (1969); Ankor Wat (1969); and Indian Journals (1970).
Serious attention to Ginsberg's work is lacking, but Jane Kramer, Allen Ginsberg in America (1969), is a sympathetic, excellent biography. Obituaries which extensively detailed Ginberg's life and his writings appeared in the April 6, 1997 editions of the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. □
GINSBERG, ALLEN (1926–1997), U.S. poet and leader of the mid-20th century "Beat Movement," an aesthetic and political movement marked by its rebellion against the claustrophobic culture and repressive politics of Cold War 1950s America. He was born Irwin Allen Ginsberg in Newark, New Jersey. His mother, Naomi, was a Russian Jewish immigrant and communist whose lifelong battle with mental illness became the focus of his highly regarded poem "Kaddish." His father, Louis, was a Jewish-American socialist, high school teacher, and published poet (see below). Ginsberg attended Columbia University, where he studied with Lionel *Trilling, and during which time he met and established lasting friendships with such future Beat writers as Jack Kerouac, author of On the Road, and William Burroughs, author of Naked Lunch. During this time Ginsberg also had a life-altering vision. While reading William Blake's poem "Ah! Sunflower," he heard Blake speak to him and experienced a profound mystic awareness of the divinity of all creation. His prophetic vision convinced him that he was meant to become an ecstatic poet, writing "open breath poetry" in the mystical, hermetic tradition of Blake and Walt Whitman. While writing his early poems, he worked as a dishwasher, spot-welder, night porter, actor, and market research worker.
Ginsberg finally entered the popular imagination with "Howl," which, from his first public reading of the poem in San Francisco in 1955, quickly came to be considered the central spiritual, prophetic poem of his alienated generation. "Howl," with its famous opening line "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked," was both a powerful Lament at the grief and suffering of his fellow artists and visionaries – "angelheaded hipsters" – and a Jeremiad against the dehumanization of the industrialized, tranquilized, repressive culture of Eisenhower and McCarthy's 1950s. "Howl" turned Ginsberg into a well-known public poet and personality, especially after its publication as part of his first book of verse, Howl and Other Poems (1955). Howl involved its publisher in a highly publicized obscenity trial, which only added to Ginsberg's rising fame. He came to specialize in readings of his own works in coffee shops and on college campuses, as well as later playing music with famous rock and folk artists including Bob *Dylan.
Ginsberg's later works include Empty Mirror (1960); Kaddish and Other Poems 1958–60 (1960); Reality Sandwiches 1953–60 (1963); The Fall of America: Poems of These States, 1965–1971 (1973); White Shroud: Poems 1980–1985 (1986); and Cosmopolitan Greetings: Poems 1986–1992 (1995). Stylistically, much of his work is notable for its jazz rhythms and surrealist imagery, and for his candid, vivid descriptions of madness, homosexuality, drug-induced hallucinations, and physical anguish, all illuminated by an exalted Blakean vision of man's perfectibility in innocence. Some of the poems also reveal the author's bizarre, even apocalyptic, sense of humor.
Ginsberg often referred to himself as a "Buddhist Jew," and while he never rejected his Jewish heritage, he did often criticize both American Jews and the State of Israel. In fact, he saw this critique as central to his Jewishness. Ginsberg writes about his Jewish family members, the Holocaust, Israel, and Jewish themes such as memory, loss, and reconciliation in his poems "Visiting Father and Friends," "Jaweh and Allah Battle," "To Aunt Rose," and "Kaddish," his marvelous transformation of the Jewish prayer of mourning and memory into a painfully honest elegy for his dead mother. In his later poem "Yiddishe Kopf," Ginsberg explores the complex nature of his Jewish identity and its roots in Jewish food, history, intellectualism, alienation, and radical political activism. Additionally, his poetic style was greatly influenced by Jewish forms, namely cantorial chanting and Hebraic poetry, with their long lines and anaphoric opening repetitions, as well as being influenced by the prosody of Blake, Whitman, and William Carlos Williams and by American jazz. While many of his works deal with Jewish themes, many more explore his fascination with Eastern religious practices and religious syncretism. His later works Wichita Vortex Sutra (1966) and Planet News (1968) reflect Buddhism's mystical notion of man's oneness with a benevolent universe. Ginsberg also helped establish the Naropa Institute, a Buddhist university in Boulder, Colorado.
In addition to producing important poetic and prose works to the end of his life, Ginsberg also was active in the love-ins, anti-Vietnam War protests, drug experimentation, and gay rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s, becoming increasingly involved in progressive political movements in his later years. He traveled widely, visiting Martin Buber in Jerusalem in 1961 and traveling to every part of the globe. Ginsberg was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1992 and awarded the Chevalier l'ordre des Arts et de Lettres in France. By the time of his death, his poetry had been translated into dozens of languages, and his balding head, black beard, bespectacled face, and patriarchal demeanor had became familiar to millions all over the world. His father, louis ginsberg (1896–1976), was born in New Jersey and published two books of poetry, The Attic of the Past and Other Lyrics (1920) and The Everlasting Minute and other Lyrics (1937), which at their best give literary freshness and color to everyday things.
Midstream, 7:4 (1961); J. Kramer, Allen Ginsberg in America (1969); B. Miles, Ginsberg: A Biography (1989); A. Ginsberg, Journals Mid-Fifties 1954–1958, ed. G. Ball (1995).
[David Ignatow /
Rohan Saxena and
Craig Svonkin (2nd ed.)]