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Allen Ginsberg enjoyed a long career as a leading figure in twentieth-century poetry and culture, in part because of his literary works, but also because of his social and political activities. A longtime spokesperson for the country’s disaffected youth, Ginsberg was a prominent figure in the counterculture and antiwar movements of the 1960s, as well as a leading member of the Beat Generation, a group of American writers and artists whose creative efforts and lifestyles represented a vehement rejection of middle-class values. With the publication of “Howl” (1956), Ginsberg stunned critics and readers alike with his innovative and, according to some, obscene verse.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Difficult Childhood
Born on June 3, 1926, in Newark, New Jersey, Ginsberg endured an emotionally troubled childhood that is reflected in many of his poems. His mother, a Russian-born Jew and member of the Communist Party in the United States, suffered from various mental illnesses and was periodically institutionalized during Ginsberg’s adolescence. His father, also of a Jewish, Russian-immigrant background, was a high school teacher and poet whose work frequently appeared in the literary journals of the day. Ginsberg’s home life was marked by his mother’s mental breakdowns, his father’s strict discipline, and his own adolescent confusion and isolation as he became increasingly aware of his homosexuality, which he concealed from both his peers and his parents until he was in his twenties.
Surrounded by Writers
First introduced to poetry by his father, the young Ginsberg read Metaphysical and Romantic poetry extensively. His interest in poetry was furthered by talks with his mentor, the poet William Carlos Williams, who lived in nearby Paterson, where Ginsberg attended high school. After graduation, Ginsberg attended Columbia University. Although he enjoyed the classes he had with instructors Lionel Trilling and Mark Van Doren, both well-known writers and critics, Ginsberg considered the intellectual interaction he had with experimental author and friend William S. Burroughs to be of utmost importance to his development as a writer. In addition to familiarizing Ginsberg with books by significant French authors, Burroughs introduced Ginsberg to Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady. These men, along with several West Coast writers, would later form the heart of the Beat movement, a group of writers who characteristically wrote in the language of the street, about supposedly unrespectable and unliterary topics.
In the summer of 1948, Ginsberg had a profound mystical vision while reading the works of William Blake. Ginsberg felt that this experience had allowed him to penetrate the mysteries of the universe. In later years, Ginsberg tried to recapture the experience in writing, seeking to attain higher states of visionary awareness. This desire for a mystical state of being prompted him, along with his Beat friends, to experiment with an assortment of drugs. When their indulgences resulted in Ginsberg’s being arrested as an accomplice to theft, Ginsberg entered a plea of insanity and subsequently spent eight months in a mental institution. There, he met Carl Solomon, who both challenged Ginsberg’s academic theories about poetry and strengthened his understanding of contemporary poetry’s potential for expressing political resistance.
Howl Is Heard
After graduating from Columbia in 1949, Ginsberg remained in New York City and worked various jobs. In 1954, he moved to San Francisco, where the Beat movement was developing through the activities of poets Kenneth Rexroth and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Ginsberg first came to public attention with the publication of Howl and Other Poems, a reflexive lamentation on the moral and social ills of the post-World War II era. His public reading of “Howl” to a spellbound audience in San Francisco demonstrated the power of his work as an oral medium and set standards for poetry readings throughout the United States.
In 1957, Howl became the subject of a landmark obscenity trial. Because of its graphic sexual language, the San Francisco Police Department arrested Ferlinghetti, the publisher, for distributing obscene material. The ensuing trial attracted national attention as such distinguished literary figures as Walter Van Tilberg Clark and Mark Schorer spoke in defense of Howl. Schorer testified that Ginsberg’s use of crude language is not gratuitous, but necessary to capture the rhythms of ordinary speech. The testimony eventually persuaded Judge Clayton W. Horn to rule that Howl was not obscene, and Ferlinghetti was acquitted. The qualities cited in its defense helped make Howl the manifesto of the Beat movement.
Ginsberg followed Howl with Kaddish and Other Poems (1961). “Kaddish,” a poem similar in style and form to “Howl,” is based on the traditional Hebrew prayer for the dead and tells the life story of Ginsberg’s mother. During the 1960s, however, Ginsberg attracted more attention for his political activism than for his poetry. He helped organize antiwar demonstrations and advocated ”flower power,” a strategy in which protestors would promote such positive values as peace and love in opposition to the death and destruction caused by the Vietnam War. Ginsberg was arrested at a protest in New York City in 1967 and was subdued with tear gas at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. He was again arrested in 1972 for demonstrating against President Richard Nixon at the Republican National Convention in Miami. These experiences inform much of Ginsberg’s work of the 1960s and early 1970s, including Planet News (1968), a collection of poems that are considered impressionistic collages of that era.
In 1970, Ginsberg’s interest in Eastern religions eventually led him away from drugs to the teachings of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a Buddhist abbot from Tibet. In addition to taking courses at Trungpa’s Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, Ginsberg taught poetry classes there. As his works increasingly revealed the influence of Eastern philosophy, meditation, and yoga, Ginsberg formally committed to the Buddhist faith in 1972. Two years later, Ginsberg and fellow poet Anne Waldman cofounded the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics as a branch of Trungpa’s Naropa Institute.
Keeping the Beat
Throughout the 1980s, Ginsberg kept the Beat flame burning by giving readings to enthusiastic audiences across the United States. In the 1990s, he explored the unification of words and music and composed several poems that he often performed as songs. In addition to showing Ginsberg’s ongoing desire and capacity for experimentation, his songs complement a lifetime of active involvement with opening up the self to the world through a radical redefining of the language of poetry.
Already suffering from diabetes and chronic hepatitis, Ginsberg was diagnosed with liver cancer early in the spring of 1997. Soon after hearing this news, Ginsberg wrote twelve short poems, finishing them only one day before he had a stroke and lapsed into a coma. He died on April 5, 1997, in New York City. Ginsberg’s posthumous publications include Death and Fame: Poems, 1993-1997, which contains those last twelve brief poems, and Deliberate Prose: Selected Essays, 1952-1995, a collection of over 150 essays.
Works in Literary Context
Despite Ginsberg’s unconventional beliefs and unconventional literary style, he was immeasurably influenced by such established poets as Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, and William Blake. Like that of Whitman, Ginsberg’s verse is characterized by the raw, spontaneous language of experience. While much of Ginsberg’s work is reminiscent of Williams in that both focus on the commonplace details of everyday life, Ginsberg’s lyric improvisations are the result of his experiences with hallucinogenic drugs, the teachings of Zen Buddhism, and visions—the notion of which was inspired by religious visionary poet Blake. When Howl was published, Ginsberg drew attention not only as a literary sensation, but also as an icon for the counterculture of his generation, especially with the publicity of the Howl obscenity trial.
Politics and Protest
A major theme in Ginsberg’s poetry—indeed, his life—was politics. Echoing his libertarian political convictions, Ginsberg’s poetry reflects his belief in individual expression over traditional structure. Scholar Kenneth Rexroth calls this aspect of Ginsberg’s work ”an almost perfect fulfillment of the long, Whitman, Populist, social revolutionary tradition in American poetry.” In a number of poems, Ginsberg refers to the union struggles of the 1930s, popular radical figures, the McCarthy Communist hunts, and other leftist elements of the American political scene. In ”Wichita Vortex Sutra,” Ginsberg attempts to end the Vietnam War through a kind of magical, poetic evocation. Similarly, he endeavors to eradicate the dangers of nuclear power through the magic of a poet’s breath in ”Plutonian Ode.” Other poems, including ”Howl,” although not expressly political in nature, nonetheless carry strains of strong social criticism.
Works in Critical Context
Critical evaluation of Ginsberg’s work has varied considerably. According to some critics, Ginsberg is one of the most influential poets of his generation and occupies a prominent position in American literature. Says scholar James Campbell: ”No one has made his poetry speak for the whole man, without inhibition of any kind, more than Ginsberg.” While some critics have praised Ginsberg’s unstructured form and his exploration of controversial subject matter, others have considered his skill overrated, arguing that Ginsberg became famous not so much because of his work, but because of his political protests, advocacy of drug use and homosexuality, poetry readings, and collaboration with rock bands. Critic Bruce Bawer, for example, calls Ginsberg ”the father of a generation of Americans to whom ‘culture’ is a word most often used immediately following the word ‘drug.”’ No matter the diverse opinions about his poetry and his notorious reputation, most critics acknowledge Ginsberg’s contribution in introducing and legitimizing experimental poetry to a wider audience.
”Howl,” a long-line poem in the tradition of Walt Whitman, is an outcry of rage and despair against a destructive, abusive society. Reviewer Kevin O’Sullivan declares the poem ”an angry, sexually explicit poem . . . considered by many to be a revolutionary event in American poetry.” The poem’s raw, honest language and its ”Hebraic-Melvillian bardic breath,” as Ginsberg calls it, stunned many traditional critics when it was first published. Poet James Dickey, for instance, refers to ”Howl” as ”a whipped-up state of excitement” and concludes that ”it takes more than this to make poetry. It just does.” Critic Walter Sutton deems ”Howl” ”a tirade revealing an animus directed outward against those who do not share the poet’s social and sexual orientation.”
Other critics have responded to ”Howl” more positively. Poet Richard Eberhart, for example, calls ”Howl” ”a powerful work … [that is] a howl against everything in our mechanistic civilization which kills the spirit. . . . Its positive force and energy come from a redemptive quality of love.” Academic Paul Carroll judges it ”one of the milestones of the generation.” Appraising the impact of ”Howl,” critic Paul Zweig notes that it ”almost singlehandedly dislocated the traditionalist poetry of the 1950’s,” while reviewer Reed Whittemore recognizes that ”Howl” is one of ”a small number of earth-moving angry poems of this century, poems that poets (and people) who come after have been unable to ignore.”
- Bawer, Bruce. Prophets & Professors: Essays on the Lives and Works of Modern Poets. Ashland, Ore.: Story Line Press, 1995.
- Campbell, James. Syncopations: Beat, New Yorkers, and Writers in the Dark. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 2008.
- Carroll, Paul. The Poem in Its Skin. Chicago: Follett, 1968.
- O’Sullivan, Kevin. Newsmakers 1997 Cumulation: The People behind Today’s Headlines. Edited by Sean R. Pollock. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale, 1997, pp. 493-495.
- Rexroth, Kenneth. American Poetry in the Twentieth Century. Freiburg I’m Breisgau, Germany: Herder,1971.
- Sutton, Walter. American Free Verse. New York: New Directions Publishing, 1973.
- Dickey, James. ”Confession Is Not Enough.” New York Times (July 9, 1961): C15.
- Eberhart, Richard. ”West Coast Rhythms.” New York Times Book Review (September 2, 1956): 7-18.
- Whittemore, Reed. ”From ‘Howl’ to ‘Om.”’ New Republic 163 (July 25, 1970): 17-18.
- Zewig, Paul. ”A Music of Angels.” Nation, vol. 208, no. 10 (March 10, 1969): 311-313.
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