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Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997)


American poet and diarist, a highly visible figure with Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs in the beat generation literary movement, that burst into prominence in the 1950s. Allen Ginsberg's poem Howl (1956) is one of the most significant products of that movement. However, before the radical work he underwent a long apprenticeship in traditional rhymed and metered lyrics.

I saw the the best minds of my generation
destroyed by madness, starving hysterical
dragging themselves through the negro
streets at dawn looking for an angry fix
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient
heavenly connection to the starry dynamo
in the machinery of night.

(from Howl!)

Allen Ginsberg was born in Newark, New Jersey. His parents, second-generation Russian-Jewish immigrants, were left-wing radicals interested in Marxism, nudism, feminism, all modern ideas. Louis Ginsberg (1895-1976), his father, was a teacher and poet, whose work appeared such publications as the New York Times Magazine. During Ginsberg's mother, Naomi (Levy) Ginsberg, was diagnosed as suffering from paranoia; she was institutionalized, eventually lobotomised, and she died in an asylum in 1956. Her tragic life is the subject of Ginsberg's poem 'Kaddish', which was written in one 40-hour session as a compensation of her funeral service, where there weren't enough male mourners present for the rabbi to read the funeral elegy, the kaddish. The poem begins with Ginsberg's sense of loss and moves on to document his mother's life and death. "O mother / what have I left out / O mother / what have I forgotten / O mother / farewell".

During the Depression era, when the family lived in Paterson, Ginsberg found the poems of Walt Whitman. "Where are we going, Walt Whitman? The doors close in an hour. / Which way does your beard point tonight?" (from 'A Supermarket in California')

After graduating from a public high school Ginsberg decided to study law. He won a scholarship from the Young Men's Hebrew Association of Paterson to Columbia University, where he changed his major to English. Ginsberg became a star student, but also gained fame in the off-campus underground, making friends with Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs. For a period he dated Elise Cowen. None of her poetry was published in her lifetime. She committed suicide in 1962 by jumping out of the window of her parents' living room in Washington Heights, New York.

An important person in  Ginsberg's life was Neal Cassady, whose enormous sexual appetite helped Ginsberg to accept his own homosexuality. In 1943 he met and fell in love with his fellow student Lucien Carr. In the aftermath of a murder investigation, in which Carr was convicted, Ginsberg was ordered to undergo a psychiatric counseling. He was suspended for a year from the university. Before receiving his B.A. from Columbia University in 1949, Ginsberg worked as a welder in the Brooklyn naval yards, dishwasher, night porter, and in other odd jobs.

Ginsberg's troubles with the law continued. His flatmate, the writer and hustler Herbert Huncke, used their house as a repository for stolen goods. They were arrested after a car chase; Ginsberg's name was found on papers left in the stolen car. Ginsberg pleaded insanity – he had heard in his East Harlem apartment a disembodied voice reciting Blake's Songs of Innocence And Experience – and he spent eight months at the Columbia Psychiatric Institute.

After returning to Paterson, Ginsberg met the writer William Carlos Williams and the young poet Gregory Corso. Ginsberg also began to experiment with peyote; later he campaigned for the liberation of American anti-drug laws and become with Timothy Leary and Ken Kesey a central figure of the psychedelic movement. Ginsberg's drug poems include 'Mescaline,' Lysergic Acid' and 'Laughing Gas'.

Before devoting himself entirely to poetry, Ginsberg worked for a short time for Newsweek and as a market research consultant in New York and San Francisco (1951-53). In San Francisco Ginsberg took a room near Lawrence Ferlinghetti's bookstore and started to compose Howl!. William Carlos Williams, his mentor, said that Ginsberg had finally found his voice. Howl!, which gained immediate fame on October 7, 1955, at a poetry reading at the Six Gallery in San Francisco, was published by Lawrence Ferlinghetti's City Light Press, with a foreword by Williams: "Hold back the edges of your gowns, Ladies, we are going through hell."

The police seized the entirely printing on the grounds of obscenity: Ginsberg's loudly declared homosexuality was explicitly expressed in the book. The matter went to trial and Ginsberg used his fame in the publication of Kerouac's On the Road (1957) and Burroughs's Naked Lunch (1959). The poet Joanna McClure, who had attended the historical reading, befriended Ginsberg. With her husband Michael she founded a press in their basement in San Francisco.  

Howl! is a long, free-verse poem, reminiscent of Walt Whitman and influenced by the American Trancendentalists. It exemplifies Ginsberg's poetics of spontaneous composition with attention paid to the natural wanderings of the mind and the rhythms of breathing. "All you have to do," Ginsberg once stated, "is think of anything that comes into your head, then arrange in lines of two, three or four words each, don't bother about sentences, in sections of two, three or four lines each." From the beginning, the work was designated to be read aloud. Howl! became one of the symbols of the liberation of American culture in the 1950s from an academic formalism and political conservatism. Influenced by the mysticism and poetics of Blake, Howl! celebrated and lamented with Old Testament rhythms the casualties of capitalism and consumer society, and in particular the lives of bohemians, his friends. The final part, 'Footnote to Howl' is a hymn of praise: because of human love, the world is holy, despite the nightmare. The work was dedicated to Carl Solomon, a disciple of Artaud, whom Ginsberg met while at the Columbia Psychiatric Institute.

After the death of his mother, Ginsberg signed onto a ship sailing to the Arctic Circle. It marked the beginning of his travels both at home and abroad. Trips to the far East and India with his lover Peter Orlovsky inspired the collection The Change (1963). From the position of Beat Generation spokesman, Ginsberg continued as one of the central characters of the counter-culture in the 1960s. With Jack Kerouac and Peter Orlovsky he visited William Burroughs in Tangier. Burroughs stayed in his room eating hashish with a young Moroccan boy. When he once tried to call Paul Bowles, who had settled permanently in Tangier in 1947, Jane Bowles happened to answer to phone . "This is Allen Ginsberg, the bop poet," he said. "The what?" asked Jane.

Ginsberg lectured at universities, opposed the Vietnam War, marched against the C.I.A. and the Shah of Iran, and was arrested in the riots during the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. Cuba deported him after he protested at the regiment's treatment of homosexuals and called Che Guevara ''cute''. The students of Prague elected him 'The King of May' – he was soon deported by the Czech authorities. Ginsberg's turning to Buddhism and a follower of guru Chögyam Trungpa affected deeply his poetry and world view. After Kerouac's death he helped to found the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics of the Naropa Institute, a Buddhist university, and also taught there.

Among Ginsberg's major collections in the 1960s are Kaddish and Other Poems (1961), Reality Sandwiches (1963), which includes 'The Green Automobile', a fantasy about Neal Cassidy, and Planet News (1968), echoing the anti-war demonstrations and 1960s radicalism. In the 1970s appeared First Blues (1975), Poems All Over the Place (1978). In 1972 Ginsberg won the National Book Award for The Fall of America. Some of his talks on poetry and politics were published in Alle Verbatim (1974).

In the 1970s Ginsberg was jailed for his part in an anti-Nixon protest, he toured with Bob Dylan, and campaigned on ecological issues. He wrote 'Plutonium Ode' to be read aloud at a public demonstration in Colorado and was arrested again. In the 1980s he opposed Reagan's covert policies in Nicaragua, worked as a visiting professor at Columbia (1986-87), and taught at Brooklyn College. His 800-page Collected Poems 1947-1980 was came out in 1984.

Journals, Early Fifties Early Sixties appeared in 1977 – throughout his life Ginsberg kept scrapbooks, cuttings files, journals, notebooks, and other records of his life and activities. This journal was an account of Ginsberg's trip to South America in the footsteps of Burroughs to find the hallucinogen yagé. Selected Gay Poems and Correspondence (1978) was a collection of poems and letters, exchanged between Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky. In Plutonian Ode (1982) Ginsberg returned to the peaceful protest outside a plutonium bomb trigger factory, in which he succeeded with his friends to stop a train carrying nuclear waste. Ginsberg died in 1997 of liver cancer at the age of 70. The plans for a MTV Unplugged performance with such musician as Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney were never realized. Ginsberg's personal archives are collected at Stanford University.

For further reading: Allen Ginsberg in the Sixties by E. Mottram (1972); Naked Angels by J. Tytell (1976); Allen Ginsberg by Barry Miles (1989); Dharma Lion by Matthew A. Schumacher (1992); The Response to Allen Ginsberg, 1926-1994 by Bill Morgan (1996); Beat Culture and the New America, by Lisa Phillips et al. (1996); Women of the Beat Generation by Brenda Knight (1996); Ex-Friends by Norman Podhoretz (1999); Screaming With Joy by Graham Caveney (1999); The Beat Generation by Jamie Russell (2002); I Celebrate Myself: The Somewhat Private Life of Allen Ginsberg by Bill Morgan (2006)

Selected works:

  • Howl and Other Poems, 1956
    - Huuto ja muita runoja (suom. Anselm Hollo, Matti Rossi, Pentti Saarikoski, 1963) 
  • Siesta in Xbalba and Return to the States, 1956
  • Kaddish and Other Poems, 1961
  • Empty Mirror: Early Poems, 1961
  • The Yage Letters, 1963 (with William Burroughs),
  • The Change, 1963
  • Reality Sandwiches, 1963
  • A Strange new Cottage in Berkeley, 1963
  • Kral Majales, 1965
  • Mystery In the Universe, Notes On an Interview With Allen Ginsberg, 1965 (ed. E. Lucie-Smith)
  • Wichita Vortex Sutra, 1966
  •  T.V. Baby Poems, 1967
  • Angkor Wat, 1968
  • Message II, 1968
  • Airplane Dreams, 1968
  • Planet News, 1968
  • Scrap Leaves: Hasty Scribbles, 1968
  • Wales Visitation, 1968
  • Don't Go Away Mad, 1968 (prose screenplay; publ. Pardon Me, Sir, But My Is Eye Hurting Your Elbow?)
  • The Moments Return: A Poem, 1970
  • Indian Journals, 1970
  • Notes after an Evening with William Carlos Williams, 1970
  • Declaration of Independence for Dr. Timothy Leary, 1971
  • Planet News, 1971
  • Improvised Poetics, 1972 (ed. Mark Robison)
  • The Fall of America, 1972
  • Kaddish, 1972
  • The Gates of Wrath: Rhymed Poems 1948–1951, 1972
  • Iron Horse, 1972
  • New Year Blues, 1972
  • Open Head, 1972
  • The Fall of America: Poems of These States, 1973
  • Allen Verbatim, 1974
  • The Visions of the Great Remember, 1974
  • Chicago Trial Testimony by Allen Ginsberg, 1975
  • First Blues: Rags, Ballads & Harmonium Songs 1971 - 1974, 1975
  • Sad Dust Glories, 1975
  • To Eberhart from Ginsberg, 1976
  • As Ever: The Collected Correspondence of Allen Ginsberg & Neal Cassady, 1977 (ed. B. Gifford)
  • Journals, 1977
  • Mind Breaths, 1978
  • Mostly Sitting Haiku, 1978
  • Poems All over the Place, Mostly Seventies, 1978
  • Composed on the Tongue, 1980
  • Straight Hearts' Delight: Love Poems and Selected Letters, 1947- 1980, 1980 (Allen Ginsberg; Peter Orlovsky; Winston Leyland)
  • Plutonian Ode: Poems 1977–1980, 1981
  • Collected Poems 1947–1980, 1984
    - Huudon jälkeen: runoja 1972-1992 (suom. Markku Into, 1999)
  • Many Loves, 1984
  • Old Love Story, 1984
  • White Shroud Poems: 1980–1985, 1986
    - Huudon jälkeen: runoja 1972-1992 (suom. Markku Into, 1999)
  • Hydrogen Jukebox, 1990 (Allen Ginsberg and Philip Glass)
  • Kaddish for Naomi Ginsberg 1894-1956
  • Cosmopolitan Greetings Poems: 1986–1993, 1994
    - Huudon jälkeen: runoja 1972-1992 (suom. Markku Into, 1999) / Luurankohuutoja: runoja 1984-1997 (suom. Seppo Lahtinen et al., 2002)
  • Mind Writing Slogans, 1994
  • Selected Poems: 1947–1995, 1996
  • Illuminated Poems, 1996 (with Eric Drooker, illustrator)
  • Death and Fame: Poems 1993–1997, 1999 (Allen Ginsberg, et al.)
    - Luurankohuutoja: runoja 1984-1997 (suom. Seppo Lahtinen et al., 2002)
  • Deliberate Prose 1952–1995, 2000
  • Spontaneous Mind: Selected Interviews, 1958-1996, 2001 (edited by David Carter)
  • The Book of Martyrdom and Artifice: First Journals and Poems 1937-1952, 2006
  • The Letters of Allen Ginsberg, 2008 (edited by Bill Morgan)
  • The Selected Letters of Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder, 2008 (edited by Bill Morgan)
  • Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg: The Letters, 2010 (edited by Bill Morgan and David Stanford)

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