- 70 years old
- Born Jun 03, 1926
- Died Apr 05, 1997
- United States
an American Beat poet. Ginsberg is best known for Howl (1956), a long poem about the self-destruction of his friends of the Beat Generation and what he saw as the destructive forces of materialism and conformity in United States at the time.
Ginsberg was born into a Jewish family in Newark, New Jersey. He grew up in nearby Paterson. His father Louis Ginsberg was a poet and a high school teacher. Ginsberg's mother, Naomi Levy Ginsberg (who was affected by epileptic seizures and mental illnesses such as paranoia) was an active member of the Communist Party and often took Ginsberg and his brother Eugene to party meetings. Ginsberg later said that his mother "Made up bedtime stories that all went something like: 'The good king rode forth from his castle, saw the suffering workers and healed them.''
As a teenager, Ginsberg began to write letters to The New York Times about political issues such as World War II and workers' rights. When he was a junior in high school, he accompanied his mother by bus to her therapist. The trip disturbed Ginsberg and he mentioned it in his long autobiographical poem "Kaddish for Naomi Ginsberg (1894-1956)." This and other moments from his childhood dealing with his paranoid mother end up in the poem. While in high school, Ginsberg began reading Walt Whitman; he said he was inspired by his teacher's passion in reading.
In 1943 Ginsberg graduated from Eastside High School and briefly attended Montclair State University before entering Columbia University on a scholarship from the Young Men's Hebrew Association of Paterson, (1949). While at Columbia, Ginsberg contributed to the Columbia Review literary journal, the Jester humour magazine, won the Woodberry Poetry Prize and served as President of the Philolexian Society debate club.
In Ginsberg's freshman year at Columbia he met fellow undergraduate Lucien Carr, who introduced him to a number of future Beat writers including Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and John Clellon Holmes. They bonded because they saw in one another excitement about the potential of the youth of America, a potential which existed outside the strict conformist confines of post-WWII McCarthy-era America. Ginsberg and Carr talked excitedly about a "New Vision" (a phrase adapted from Arthur Rimbaud) for literature and America. Carr also introduced Ginsberg to Neal Cassady, for whom Ginsberg had a long infatuation. Kerouac later described the meeting between Ginsberg and Cassady in the first chapter of his 1957 novel On the Road. Kerouac saw them then as the dark (Ginsberg) and light (Cassady) side of their "New Vision." Kerouac's perception had to do partly with Ginsberg's association with Communism (though Ginsberg himself was never a Communist); Kerouac called Ginsberg "Carlo Marx" in On the Road. This was a source of strain in their relationship since Kerouac grew increasingly distrustful of Communism.
In 1948 in an apartment in Harlem, Ginsberg had an auditory hallucination of William Blake reading his poems "Ah, Sunflower," "The Sick Rose," and "Little Girl Lost" (later referred to as his "Blake vision"). Ginsberg was reading these poems at the time, and he said he was very familiar with them; at one point he claimed he heard them being read by what sounded like the voice of God but what he interpreted as the voice of Blake. He had at that moment pivotal revelations that defined his understanding of the universe. He believed that he witnessed then the interconnectedness of the universe. He looked at lattice work on the fire escape and realized some hand had crafted that; he then looked at the sky and intuited that some hand had crafted that also, or rather that the sky was the hand that crafted itself. He explained that this hallucination was not inspired by drug use, but said he sought to recapture that feeling later with various drugs.
Also in New York, Ginsberg met Gregory Corso in a bar and introduced him to the rest of his inner circle. In their first meeting Corso said he'd been fantasizing about a woman who lived across the street from him. The woman just happened to be Ginsberg's girlfriend during one of his forays into heterosexuality. It was also during this period that Ginsberg was romantically involved with Elise Cowen.
In 1954 in San Francisco, Ginsberg met Peter Orlovsky, a young man of 21 with whom he fell in love and who remained his life-long lover, and with whom he eventually shared his interest in Tibetan Buddhism.
Also in San Francisco Ginsberg met members of the San Francisco Renaissance and other poets who would later be associated with the Beat Generation in a broader sense. Ginsberg's mentor William Carlos Williams wrote an introductory letter to San Francisco Renaissance figure head Kenneth Rexroth who then introduced Ginsberg into the San Francisco poetry scene. Ginsberg also met there three accomplished poets and Zen enthusiasts who were friends at Reed College: Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, and Lew Welch.
He met Michael McClure at a W. H. Auden reading where they struck up a conversation about Blake. McClure was planning a poetry reading at the Six Gallery where Robert Duncan's play "Faust Foutu" had previously been performed. But McClure handed the duties off to Ginsberg. Ginsberg advertised the event as "Six Poets at the Six Gallery." One of the most important events in Beat mythos, known simply as "The Six Gallery reading" took place on October 7, 1955. The event, in essence, brought together the East and West Coast factions of the Beat Generation. Of more personal significance to Ginsberg: that night was the first public reading of "Howl", a poem that brought world-wide fame to Ginsberg and many of the poets associated with him.
Ginsberg's principal work, "Howl", is well-known to many for its opening line: "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked." "Howl" was considered scandalous at the time of its publication due to the rawness of its language, which is frequently explicit. Shortly after its 1956 publication by San Francisco's City Lights Bookstore, it was banned for obscenity. The ban became a cause célèbre among defenders of the First Amendment, and was later lifted after Judge Clayton W. Horn declared the poem to possess redeeming social importance.
Ginsberg claimed at one point that all of his work was an extended biography (like Kerouac's Duluoz Legend). Howl is not only a biography of Ginsberg's experiences before 1955, but a history of the Beat Generation. Ginsberg also later claimed that at the core of Howl was his unresolved emotions about his schizophrenic mother. Though Kaddish deals more explicitly with his mother (so explicitly that a similar line-by-line analysis would be both overly-exhaustive and relatively unrevealing), Howl in many ways is driven by that same emotion. Though references in most of his poetry reveal much about his biography, his relationship to other members of the Beat Generation, and his own political views, Howl, his most famous poem, is still perhaps the best place to start. See Howl
Though "Beat" is most accurately applied to Ginsberg and his closest friends (Corso, Orlovsky, Kerouac, Burroughs, etc.), the term "Beat Generation" has become associated with many of the other poets Ginsberg met and became friends with in the late 1950s and early 1960s. A key feature of this term seems to be a friendship with Ginsberg. (Friendship with Kerouac or Burroughs might also apply, but both writers later strove to disassociate themselves from the name "Beat Generation") Part of the dissatisfaction with the term "Beat Generation" came from the mistaken identification of Ginsberg as the leader. Ginsberg never claimed to be the leader. He did, however, claim many of the writers with whom he had become friends in this period shared many of the same intentions and themes. Some of these friends include: Bob Kaufman; LeRoi Jones before he became Amiri Baraka, who, after reading "Howl", wrote a letter to Ginsberg on a sheet of toilet paper; Diane DiPrima; poets associated with the Black Mountain College such as Robert Creeley and Denise Levertov; poets associated with the New York School such as Frank O'Hara and Kenneth Koch.
Later in his life, Ginsberg formed a bridge between the beat movement of the 1950s and the hippies of the 1960s, befriending, among others, Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey, Rod McKuen, and Bob Dylan.
Ginsberg's spiritual journey began early on with his spontaneous visions, and continued with an early trip to India and a chance encounter on a New York City street with Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche (they both tried to catch the same cab), a Tibetan Buddhist meditation master of the Vajrayana school, who became his friend and life-long teacher. Ginsberg helped Trungpa in founding the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. Music and chanting were both important parts of his live delivery during poetry readings. He often accompanied himself on a harmonium, and was often accompanied by a guitarist. Attendance to his poetry readings was generally standing room only for most of his career, no matter where in the world he appeared.
Ginsberg won the National Book Award for his book The Fall of America. In 1993, the French Minister of Culture awarded him the medal of Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres (the Order of Arts and Letters).
Allen Ginsberg died on April 5, 1997, surrounded by family and friends in his East Village loft in New York City. He succumbed to liver cancer via complications of hepatitis. He was 70 years old. Ginsberg continued to write through his final illness, with his last poem "Things I'll Not Do (Nostalgias)" written on March 30.
Ginsberg is buried in his family plot in Gomel Chesed Cemetery, one of a cluster of Jewish cemeteries at the corner of McClellan Street and Mt. Olivet Avenue near the city lines of Elizabeth and Newark, New Jersey. The family plot, located toward the western edge of the cemetery at the far end of the walk from the third gate along Mt. Olivet Avenue, is marked by a large Ginsberg and Litzky stone, and Ginsberg himself and each family member have smaller markers. Though the grave itself and the cemetery are neither picturesque nor otherwise notable (Ginsberg's grave is located near the rear fence of the flat cemetery, which is in the midst of an industrial area), and it has not become a major place of pilgrimage, there is a steady trickle of visitors as indicated by a handful of stones always on his marker and the occasional book or other item left by other poets and admirers.
It would be unfair to Ginsberg and history to omit mention of his involvement with Hinduism. Ginsberg befriended A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the founder of the Hare Krishna movement in the Western world, a relationship that is documented by Satsvarupa Gosvami in his biographical account based on oral history, Srila Prabhupada Lilamrta. Ginsberg donated money, materials, and his reputation to help the Swami establish the first temple, and subsequently toured with him to promote his cause. Ginsberg also claimed to be the first person on the North American continent to chant the Hare Krsna mantra, several years before the Swami's arrival in New York. Ginsberg was mourned by the Hare Krsnas upon his passing in 1997.