Authors: Allen Ginsberg

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

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

Biography

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)

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Allen Ginsberg

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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.

Author Works Poetry: Howl, and Other Poems, 1956, 1996 Empty Mirror: Early Poems, 1961 Kaddish, and Other Poems, 1958-1960, 1961 The Change, 1963 Reality Sandwiches, 1953-60, 1963 Kral Majales, 1965 Wichita Vortex Sutra, 1966 T.V. Baby Poems, 1967 Airplane Dreams: Compositions from Journals, 1968 Ankor Wat, 1968 Planet News, 1961-1967, 1968 Scrap Leaves: Hasty Scribbles, 1968? The Moments Return, 1970 (art by Robert LaVigne) Ginsberg’s Improvised Poetics, 1971 Bixby Canyon Ocean Path Word Breeze, 1972 Iron Horse, 1972 The Fall of America: Poems of These States, 1965-1971, 1972 The Gates of Wrath: Rhymed Poems, 1948-1952, 1972 Open Head, 1972 First Blues: Rags, Ballads, and Harmonium Songs, 1971-1974, 1975 Sad Dust Glories: Poems during Work Summer in Woods, 1975 Mind Breaths: Poems, 1972-1977, 1977 Mostly Sitting Haiku, 1978 Poems All over the Place: Mostly Seventies, 1978 Plutonian Ode: Poems, 1977-1980, 1982 Collected Poems, 1947-1980, 1984 White Shroud: Poems, 1980-1985, 1986 Hydrogen Jukebox, 1990 (opera libretto, music by Philip Glass) Collected Poems, 1992 Cosmopolitan Greetings: Poems, 1986-1992, 1994 Making It Up: Poetry Composed at St. Marks Church on May 9, 1979, 1994 (with Kenneth Koch) Selected Poems, 1947-1995, 1996 Death and Fame: Poems, 1993-1997, 1999 Nonfiction: The Yage Letters, 1963 (with William Burroughs) Indian Journals, 1963 Indian Journals: March 1962-May 1963—Notebooks, Diary, Blank Pages, Writings, 1970 Gay Sunshine Interview, 1974 Allen Verbatim: Lectures on Poetry, Politics, Consciousness, 1974 Visions of the Great Rememberer, 1974 To Eberhart from Ginsberg, 1976 As Ever: The Collected Correspondence of Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady, 1977 Journals: Early Fifties, Early Sixties, 1977, 1992 Composed on the Tongue: Literary Conversations, 1967-1977, 1980 Allen Ginsberg Photographs, 1990 Snapshot Poetics: A Photographic Memoir of the Beat Era, 1993 Journals Mid-Fifties, 1954-1958, 1995 Deliberate Prose: Selected Essays, 1952-1995, 2000 Family Business: Selected Letters between a Father and Son, 2001 (with Louis Ginsberg) Spontaneous Mind: Selected Interviews, 1958-1996, 2001 The Letters of Allen Ginsberg, 2008 The Selected Letters of Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder, 2009 Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg: The Letters, 2010 I Greet You at the Beginning of a Great Career: The Selected Correspondence of Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg, 1955-1997, 2015 First Thought: Conversations with Allen Ginsberg, 2017 Edited Text: Poems for the Nation: A Collection of Contemporary Political Poems, 2000 Miscellaneous: Beat Legacy, Connections, Influences: Poems and Letters by Allen Ginsberg, 1994 Straight Hearts' Delight: Love Poems and Selected Letters, 1947-1980, 1980 (with Peter Orlovsky) Book of Martyrdom and Artifice: First Journals and Poems, 1937-1952, 2006 Bibliography Aronson, Jerry. The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg. Video. New York: First Run Icarus Films, 1993. An entertaining and informative documentary film. Caveney, Graham. Screaming with Joy: The Life of Allen Ginsberg. New York: Broadway Books, 1999. A documentary of Ginsberg’s zealous life and the Beat poets with more than 150 photographs and illustrations. Ginsberg, Allen. The Letters of Allen Ginsberg. Edited by Bill Morgan. Cambridge, Mass.: Da Capo, 2008. This collection contains 165 letters that Ginsberg wrote to literary critics, journalists, and other writers, including Jack Kerouac. This is a fascinating book for those interested in the Beat poets. Ginsberg, Allen. Spontaneous Mind: Selected Interviews, 1958-1996. Preface by Václav Havel. Introduction by Edmund White. Edited by David Carter. New York : HarperCollinsPublishers, 2001. A generous selection of interviews that provide an introduction to Ginsberg’s intentions as artist and public figure. Hyde, Lewis, ed. On the Poetry of Allen Ginsberg. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1984. This is a wide-ranging collection including critical evaluation from both ends of the spectrum (from extravagant praise to total condemnation), interesting historical information, interviews, and even excerpts from the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s file on the poet. An excellent introduction to Ginsberg’s work. Kramer, Jane. Allen Ginsberg in America. New York: Random House, 1969. A detailed account of two years in the poet’s life, showing him reading at universities, traveling, talking, and working on a variety of projects. Also provides revealing portraits of several other poets and an examination of Ginsberg’s relationship with his father. Landas, John. The Bop Apocalypse. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2001. An illuminating account of the religious aspects and elements of the work of Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Burroughs. Particularly good on the historical dynamics operating in the writers’ lives. Merrill, Thomas F. Allen Ginsberg. New York: Twayne, 1969. An essentially conventional, routine consideration of the poetry written during the first two decades of Ginsberg’s life. Miles, Barry. The Beat Hotel: Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Corso in Paris, 1958-1963. New York: Grove Press, 2000. A narrative chronicle of the Beats in Paris from the “Howl” obscenity trial to the invention of the cut-up technique. Based on firsthand accounts from diaries, letters, and many original interviews. Miles, Barry. Ginsberg: A Biography. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989. An immense compilation of data concerning Ginsberg’s life and work with a very extensive series of appendices and lists, but a book that does not effectively capture the man who wrote the poetry. A posture of objectivity prevents Miles from dealing with some of the most crucial questions of Ginsberg’s creative life, but at the same time, the author’s prejudices and distastes color much of the material. Valuable as research, not interpretation. Molesworth, Charles. The Fierce Embrace. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1979. Contains an excellent chapter on Ginsberg and Robert Lowell which is one of the best critical evaluations of Ginsberg’s work prior to 1979. See also Molesworth’s essay in The Nation, February 23, 1955, pp. 213-215. Morgan, Bill. I Celebrate Myself: The Somewhat Private Life of Allen Ginsberg. New York: Viking Press, 2006. This exhaustively researched full-length biography of Ginsberg is the first to be published since his death in 1997. Author, Bill Morgan, drew upon unpublished letters and journals to provide readers with an extensive history of Ginsberg’s life. The events that unfold are told more as a chronicle than an interpretation of how or why he lived the way that he did. While Morgan veers away from lending his own opinion, he manages to highlight the events in Ginsberg’s personal life that inspired him to write his unique brand of poetry. This biography is indispensable to those wanting to know more about Ginsberg and the Beat Generation. Portugés, Paul. The Visionary Poetics of Allen Ginsberg. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Ross-Erikson, 1978. Basing his study on Ginsberg’s Blakean vision, Portugés provides a good guide to some of the early poetry and puts Ginsberg’s visions into the context of other varieties of mystical experience. Somewhat erratic in focus and not always accurate on factual matters. Schumacher, Michael. Dharma Lion: A Biography of Allen Ginsberg. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992. An incisive linkage of the poet’s life with his writing. Tonkinson, Carol, ed. Big Sky Mind: Buddhism and the Beat Generation. New York: Riverhead Books, 1995. Details the development of the Beat poets' interest in Buddhism and its influence on their writing. Dedicates a chapter to Ginsberg. Tytell, John. "An Emotional Time Bomb: Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" at 60." Antioch Review, vol. 73, no. 4, 2015, pp. 636–46. Literary Reference Center Plus, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lkh&AN=110682617&site=lrc-plus. Accessed 24 Mar. 2017. Provides a brief background on Ginsberg and the inception of "Howl." Analyzes the poem's themes and compares it to other long poems by poets such as T. S. Eliot.

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