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Ginsberg, Allen


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.)]

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