Last reviewed: June 2017
Beat poet known for his counter-cultural perspective and activism
June 3, 1926
Newark, New Jersey
April 5, 1997
New York, New York
Allen Ginsberg is usually associated with the Beat generation, a literary movement popular with the counterculture of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. He was born into a fairly typical middle-class Jewish family. His father, a schoolteacher, was a poet, but the stability of his home life was shattered by his mother’s periods of mental illness. She was finally institutionalized until her death in 1956. Ginsberg himself spent eight months in Columbia Psychiatric Institute in 1949, and madness, along with visionary hallucinations, became a central image in his poetry. Ginsberg drew on memories of his mother’s illness, as well as his own experience inside the mental institution, for the raw material in “Kaddish” (1959), an elegy for his mother that many critics consider his best work.
While attending Columbia University, Ginsberg met two of the most influential figures of his early years: Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs. Kerouac later wrote On the Road (1957), a central document of the Beat movement. Burroughs, a New York City literary impresario and a homosexual drug addict, later wrote the innovative novel Naked Lunch (1959). Burroughs was then just beginning to experiment with fictional techniques, and his approach of combining spontaneous composition, random associations, and raw confessional autobiographical material appealed to Ginsberg’s need to transform the ecstatic chaos of his life into the controlled substance of art. Their homosexuality was another shared characteristic, and under the influence of Burroughs and the bisexual Kerouac (Ginsberg was temporarily expelled from Columbia when the two were found in bed together), Ginsberg came to regard his homosexuality as an asset rather than a liability, an early example of gay pride. Portrait of Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan by (1975)
Portrait of Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan by (1975)
The relationship between the inchoate madness of experience and the organizing principles of poetry are central themes in Ginsberg’s work. Much of his fascination with the shaping aspect of art is derived from two other notable influences on his style: the eighteenth century English mystic and poet William Blake and the nineteenth century American poet Walt Whitman. From Blake, Ginsberg discovered the power of incongruous apocalyptic images, of disjunctive narrative, and of the juxtaposition of mundane events with extraordinary perception. From Whitman, Ginsberg appropriated the effective use of the long line, the catalog technique of accumulating details, and the craft of weaving scraps of autobiography into the whole cloth of historical myth. Ginsberg acknowledged Blake’s influence in the poem “Sunflower Sutra” (1956). Echoing themes from Blake, “Sunflower” contrasts the natural beauty of the world with human beings’ capacity to corrupt it. The poet’s point of view is distinctly dystopian, lamenting the fall from a prelapsarian Eden into the sewer of contemporary America. In his frequently anthologized poem “A Supermarket in California” (1956), Ginsberg addresses Whitman directly, complaining of the American lack of imagination that converts a vital land of hope and plentitude into a crass commercial wasteland.
After being expelled from Columbia University for scrawling pornographic images in the scum of his dormitory window, Ginsberg set off to see the world, traveling on merchant tankers, picking up menial jobs, and living with friends. He eventually did return to graduate from Columbia, and afterward he accepted a job as a market researcher in San Francisco, but the allure of the other side of San Francisco life, the jazzy bohemian arts scene, was too tempting, and Ginsberg soon joined those who congregated around Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Bookshop, the mecca for the West Coast Beat poets.
When Ferlinghetti published the 1956 poem “Howl” Ginsberg’s career was launched. Along with Kerouac’s On the Road, “Howl” became the most important publication of the Beat movement, a status only underlined when Ferlinghetti was charged with distributing obscene material in publishing it. An extended trial, during which the artistic merits of the poem were thoroughly debated, ended with Ferlinghetti’s acquittal and Ginsberg’s reputation made. In “Howl,” just as Kerouac in his novels attempted to immortalize his circle of friends, Ginsberg portrayed Kerouac and the others as visionary troubadours, “angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection.” The poem is at once a history, an account of the exploits of Ginsberg and his friends, and a portrait of a generation Ginsberg idolized as rebels persecuted by a callous society bent on punishing those who refused to conform to rigid standards of behavior. “Howl,” at once vicious and playful, comical and apocalyptic, manages to summarize the philosophic and poetic sensibility of an entire literary movement while simultaneously extending its audience and creating a new subculture in response to it.
During the 1960’s and 1970’s Ginsberg became a celebrity of sorts. He received the 1965 Guggenheim Fellowship to study poetry, the 1974 National Book Award in Poetry for The Fall of America, and the 1986 Frost Medal from the Poetry Society of America. He was also inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1973.
Ginsberg’s earlier involvement with pacifism and Eastern mysticism, and his experiments with drugs, prefigured, defined, and sustained cultural movements as diverse as that of the “hippies,” the radical political left, and the antiwar movement during the Vietnam conflict. Ginsberg was outspoken in his support for liberal causes, actively working for social and political reforms. In 1994 Stanford University acquired his memorabilia and papers as part of their permanent collection. The following year Ginsberg's collection Cosmopolitan Greetings was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. He died of liver cancer on April 5, 1997, in New York.