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Ann Charters Ginsberg, Allen (3 June 1926-6 Apr. 1997), poet, was born in Newark, New Jersey, the younger son of Louis Ginsberg, a high school English teacher and poet, and Naomi Levy Ginsberg. Ginsberg grew up with his older brother Eugene in a household shadowed by his mother’s mental illness; she suffered from recurrent epileptic seizures and paranoia. An active member of the Communist Party-USA, Naomi Ginsberg took her sons to meetings of the radical left dedicated to the cause of international Communism during the Great Depression of the 1930s.
In the winter of 1941, when Allen was a junior in high school, his mother insisted that he take her to a therapist at a Lakewood, New Jersey, rest home, a disruptive bus journey he described in his long autobiographical poem “Kaddish.” Naomi Ginsberg spent most of the next fifteen years in mental hospitals, enduring the effects of electroshock treatments and a lobotomy before her death at Pilgrim State Hospital in 1956. Witnessing his mother’s mental illness had a traumatic effect on Ginsberg, who wrote poetry about her unstable condition for the rest of his life. Graduating from Newark’s East Side High School in 1943, Ginsberg later recalled that his most memorable school day was the afternoon his English teacher Frances Durbin read aloud from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” in a voice “so enthusiastic and joyous . . . so confident and lifted with laughter” that he never forgot the image of “her black-dressed bulk seated squat behind an English class desk, her embroidered collar, her voice powerful and high” (quoted in Schumacher, p. 17). Despite his passionate response to Whitman’s poetry, Ginsberg listed government or legal work as his choice of future occupation in the high school yearbook.
Attending the college of Columbia University on a scholarship, Ginsberg considered his favorite course the required freshman great books seminar taught by Lionel Trilling. Later Ginsberg also cited the renowned literary critics and biographers Mark Van Doren and Raymond Weaver as influential professors at Columbia. But Ginsberg’s friends at Columbia were an even greater influence than his professors on his decision to become a poet. As a freshman he met undergraduate Lucien Carr, who introduced him to William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, part of a diverse (and now legendary) circle of friends that grew to include the Times Square heroin addict Herbert Huncke, the young novelist John Clellon Holmes, and a handsome young drifter and car thief from Denver named Neal Cassady, with whom Ginsberg fell in love. Kerouac described the intense encounter between Ginsberg and Cassady in the opening chapter of his novel On the Road (1957). These friends became the nucleus of a group that named themselves the “Beat Generation” writers. The term was coined by Kerouac in the fall of 1948 during a conversation with Holmes in New York City. The word “beat” referred loosely to their shared sense of spiritual exhaustion and diffuse feelings of rebellion against what they experienced as the general conformity, hypocrisy, and materialism of the larger society around them caught up in the unprecedented prosperity of postwar America.
In the summer of 1948, in his senior year at Columbia, Ginsberg had dedicated himself to becoming a poet after hearing in a vision the voice of William Blake reciting the poem “Ah Sunflower.” Experimenting with drugs like marijuana and nitrous oxide to induce further visions, or what Ginsberg later described as “an exalted state of mind,” he felt that the poet’s duty was to bring a visionary consciousness of reality to his readers. He was dissatisfied with the poetry he was writing at this time, traditional work modeled on English poets like Sir Thomas Wyatt or Andrew Marvell whom he had studied at Columbia.
In June 1949 Ginsberg was arrested as an accessory to crimes carried out by Huncke and his friends, who had stored stolen goods in Ginsberg’s apartment. As an alternative to a jail sentence, Ginsberg’s professors Van Doren and Trilling arranged with the Columbia dean for a plea of psychological disability, on condition that Ginsberg was admitted to the Columbia Presbyterian Psychiatric Institute. Spending eight months in the mental institution, Ginsberg became close friends with the young writer Carl Solomon, who was treated there for depression with insulin shock.
In December 1953 Ginsberg left New York City on a trip to Mexico to explore Indian ruins in Yucatan and experiment with various drugs. He settled in San Francisco, where he fell in love with a young artist’s model, Peter Orlovsky; he took a job in market research, thinking that he might enroll in the graduate English program at the University of California in Berkeley. In August 1955, inspired by the manuscript of a long jazz poem titled “Mexico City Blues” that Kerouac had recently written in Mexico City, Ginsberg found the courage to begin to type what he called his most personal “imaginative sympathies” in the long poem “Howl for Carl Solomon” (Original Draft Facsimile Howl, p. xii). As his biographer Bill Morgan stated, in the poem “Allen finally accepted his homosexuality and stopped trying to become ‘straight'” (Allen Ginsberg and Friends, p. 31).
In October 1955 Ginsberg read the first part of his new poem in public for the first time to tumultuous applause at the Six Gallery reading in San Francisco with the local poets Kenneth Rexroth, Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, and Philip LaMantia. Journalists were quick to herald the reading as a landmark event in American poetry, the birth of what they labeled the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who ran the City Lights Book Store and the City Lights publishing house in North Beach, sent Ginsberg a telegram echoing Ralph Waldo Emerson’s response to Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass: “I greet you at the beginning of a great career. When do I get the manuscript?” Later Ginsberg wrote that “in publishing ‘Howl,’ I was curious to leave behind after my generation an emotional time bomb that would continue exploding in U.S. consciousness in case our military-industrial-nationalist complex solidified into a repressive police bureaucracy” (Original Draft Facsimile Howl, p. xii). Early in the following year Howl and Other Poems was published with an introduction by William Carlos Williams as number four in the City Lights Pocket Poets Series. In May 1956 copies of the small black-and-white stapled paperback were seized by the San Francisco police, who arrested Ferlinghetti and Shigeyoshi Murao, his shop manager, and charged them with publishing and selling an obscene and indecent book. The American Civil Liberties Union took up the defense of Ginsberg’s poem in a highly publicized obscenity trial in San Francisco, which concluded in October 1957 when Judge Clayton Horn ruled that Howl had redeeming social value.
During the furor of the trial, Ginsberg left California and settled in Paris with Orlovsky, who was to remain his companion for the next forty years. Living on Ginsberg’s royalties from Howl and Orlovsky’s disability checks as a Korean War veteran, they traveled to Tangier to stay with Burroughs and help him assemble the manuscript later published as his novel Naked Lunch (1959). In 1958 Ginsberg returned to New York City, still troubled by his mother’s death in the mental hospital two years before, haunted by the thought that he had never properly said goodbye to her. Using various drugs to explore his painful memories of their life together and confront his complex feelings about his mother, Ginsberg wrote his greatest poem, “Kaddish for Naomi Ginsberg,” modeling his elegy on the traditional Jewish memorial service for the dead.
Continuing to experiment with various psychedelic stimulants to create visionary poetry, Ginsberg traveled to South America, Europe, Morocco, and India with Orlovsky in 1962. It was the most important trip of his life. Staying in India for nearly two years, he met with holy men in an effort to find someone who could teach him a method of meditation that would help him deal with his egotism and serve as a vehicle for heightened spiritual awareness. On a train in Japan, Ginsberg recorded in his poem “The Change” his realization that meditation, not drugs, could assist his enlightenment. He returned to North America in the fall of 1963 to attend the Vancouver Poetry Conference with Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Robert Creeley, Denise Levertov, and many other poets who felt that they formed a community of nonacademic experimental writers.
In 1968 Ginsberg received wide coverage on television during the Democratic National Convention when he and the members of the National Mobilization Committee who were against U.S. participation in the war in Vietnam confronted the police in Chicago’s Grant Park.
The poet stayed on an impromptu stage and chanted “Om” in an attempt to calm the crowds being brutally attacked by tear gas and billy clubs. Ginsberg’s courage, his humanitarian political views and support of homosexuality, his engagement in Eastern meditation practices, and his charismatic personality made him one of the favorite spokesmen chosen by a younger generation of radicalized Americans known as “hippies” during the end of this turbulent decade.
In the early 1970s Ginsberg’s serious, bearded image with black-rimmed glasses, a tweed jacket, and an “Uncle Sam” paper top hat became a ubiquitous poster protesting the Vietnam War. In 1971 Ginsberg met Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who became his meditation teacher at the Naropa Institute, a Buddhist college in Boulder, Colorado. Three years later, Ginsberg, assisted by the young poet Anne Waldman, founded a creative writing program called the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa. Ginsberg taught summer poetry workshops there and lectured during the academic year at Brooklyn College as a tenured distinguished professor until the end of his life.
In his remaining years, publishing steadily and traveling tirelessly despite increasing health problems with diabetes and the aftereffects of a stroke, Ginsberg gave readings in Russia, China, Europe, and the South Pacific. In the bardic tradition of William Blake, who played a pump organ when he read his poetry, Ginsberg often accompanied himself on a portable harmonium bought in Benares for fifty dollars. He was the archetypal Beat Generation writer to countless poetry audiences and to the general public. Unlike Kerouac, who died in 1969, Ginsberg remained a radical poet, the embodiment of the ideals of personal freedom, nonconformity, and the search for enlightenment. As a member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, he unabashedly used his prestige to champion the work of his friends. Two months short of his seventy-first birthday, he died of liver cancer at his home in the East Village, New York City.
The front dust wrapper of this last book is a color photograph of the poet standing in his apartment next to a portrait of Walt Whitman, both white-bearded. The list of the forty most important Ginsberg titles in his posthumously published Death and Fame was gathered by his editors Bob Rosenthal, Peter Hale, and Bill Morgan into the categories of Poetry, Prose, Photography, and Vocal Words and Music. Bill Morgan compiled the 456-page descriptive Ginsberg bibliography, The Works of Allen Ginsberg, 1941-1994 (1995). J. W. Ehrlich edited Howl of the Censor (1961), an account of the 1957 San Francisco trial investigating obcenity in Ginsberg’s poem. Jane Kramer, Allen Ginsberg in America, was an early biography, followed by two full-length biographies: Barry Miles, Ginsberg (1989), and Michael Schumacher, Dharma Lion: A Critical Biography of Allen Ginsberg (1992). Bill Morgan, archivist for the estate of Allen Ginsberg, prepared the biographical text in Allen Ginsberg and Friends (New York: Sotheby’s Catalog for Sale 7351, Oct. 7, 1999).
Thomas Gladysz Allen Ginsberg was born June 3, 1926 and grew up in Paterson, New Jersey. His father, Louis, was a high school teacher and an accomplished lyric poet. His mother, Naomi, a Communist during the Depression, suffered from psychotic delusions. At times, she insisted there were wires in her head with which people could hear her thinking. Coming of age in a household of modest means, Ginsberg’s early life seemed to steer him away from the conventional. He was from a family of Jewish Russian immigrants, his family had ties to the radical labor movement, his mother was insane, and he was a homosexual: four prescriptions in the conventional1940’s and 1950’s for a sense of deep alienation.
Inspired by Naomi’s “mad idealism” to defend the underpriviliged, Ginsberg entered Columbia University as a pre-law student. He later changed his major to literature, and studied under Mark Van Doren and Lionel Trilling. However, more influential in Ginsberg’s artistic and personal development was the off-campus circle of friends with whom he became involved. At its center was Jack Kerouac, a former Columbia student, and the older William S. Burroughs, a sophisticated cosmopolitan hipster who introduced his younger colleagues to Manhattan’s varied subcultures. Ginsberg’s other friends and acquintances from the time included the writers Herbert Hunke, John Clellon Holmes and Lucien Carr (father of bestselling author Caleb Carr) as well as the charasmatic Neal Cassady. Each would emerge as key figures in the Beat movement of a decade later.
In 1945, for reasons now clouded in legend, Ginsberg was expelled from Columbia. Reinstated in 1946, he received his bachelor’s degree two years later. However, nineteen forty-eight was significant for an experience central to Ginsberg’s life as a poet. Living in an East Harlem tenement, Ginsberg heard the voice of William Blake intoning “Ah! Sunflower.” Staring out the window . . . I began noticing in every corner where I looked evidences of a living hand, even in the bricks, in the arrangement of each brick, Some hand placed them there – that some hand had placed the whole universe in front of me . . . . Or that God was in front of my eyes – existence itself was God . . . . what I was seeing was a visionary thing, it was a lightness in my body . . . my body suddenly felt light, and a sense of cosmic consciousness, vibrations, understanding, awe, and wonder and surprise. And it was a sudden awakening into a totally deeper real universe that I’d been existing in. (Paris Review interview)
The search for a “totally deeper real universe” continued for Ginsberg. He remained in New York City until 1953, writing (largely conventional) poetry and supporting himself by working as a book reviewer, market researcher, etc . . . . Deciding to follow Neal Cassady (with whom he had fallen in love) to San Francisco, Ginsberg travelled to Cuba, Mexico and eventually arrived on the West Coast – home to a vibrant, bohemian literary community. (For more on the beginnings of Beat, check out “How Beat Happened,” a superb introduction to Beat Culture by Steve Silberman,) Bearing a letter of introduction from the poet (and fellow Paterson resident) William Carlos Williams, Ginsberg met Kenneth Rexroth, a distinguished man-of-letters and center of what was then known as the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance . Presided over by Rexroth, this active Bay Area poetry community included Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Michael McClure, Gary Synder, Philip Whalen, Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, Josephine Miles, James Broughton, Philip Lamantia and other writers, artists, filmmakers and avant-gardists. In October 1955, Rexroth hosted a reading at the Six Gallery in San Francisco: the poets who read that evening included Synder, Whalen, McClure, Lamantia and Ginsberg in what would be his poetry-reading debut. Cheered on by Kerouac, Ginsberg gave an inspired, first ever reading of “Howl.” I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, 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 who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and . . . .
So begins “Howl,” one of the most widely read poems of the century. Ginsberg composed it in what he calls his “Hebraic-Melvillian bardic breath,” a free-verse form whose sources include the poets and writers Christopher Smart, Percy Shelley, Guillaume Apollinaire, Kurt Schwitters, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Antonin Artaud, Federico Garcia Lorca, Hart Crane and William Carlos Williams. In the 1950’s (and into the 1960’s), Ginsberg also used drugs as a means of inducing visionary awareness, such as his Blake experience had provided. Thus, exposed to new influences and literary friends in California – Ginsberg achieved the open-form poetry which sets his work apart from the largely traditional verse of the time.
After the Gallery Six reading – Lawrence Ferlinghetti offered to publish Howl and Other Poems (1956) as part of his City Lights Books Pocket Poet series. In 1957, United States Custom officers and San Francisco police seized the edition, and Ferlinghetti was charged with publishing an obscene book. The trial, in which well known establishment writers like Rexroth, Mark Shorer, Walter Van Tilburg Clark and others testified for the defense, drew local banner headlines and nation-wide attention. By the time Judge Clayton W. Horn delivered the verdict that “Howl” was not obscene, the Beat movement had been given a manifesto of-sorts and Allen Ginsberg was famous. On the road for the next decade – sometimes with Kerouac, Burroughs, Corso and his longtime companion, Peter Orlovsky – Ginsberg roamed the country and the world. Beginning in the early 1950’s, Ginsberg would venture to the Yucatan (where he helped discover a notable Mayan archeological site), to Tangier’s (where he would visit the expatriot community centered around Paul Bowles) and to Europe (where he would live for a while in Paris). Sea voyages as a member of the merchant marine took him to Africa and the Artic. In 1960 he would spend half a year in Chile, Peru, Bolivia and the Amazon region.
Most importantly during this time, Ginsberg exorcised some of his internal demons by writing ‘Kaddish,’ a brilliant long poem about his mother’s insanity and death. Published in book form in 1961, “Kaddish” is a prayer and lament for Naomi Ginsberg. It is also widely regarded as his finest work. The poem gives a seemingly factual account of his mother’s tragic journey through life, from that of a frightened Russian child to a young women in America and onward “toward education, marriage, nervous breakdown, operation, teaching school, and learning to be mad.” A bittersweet epilogue to “Kaddish,” called “White Shroud,” was published twenty five years later. Throughout 1962 and 1963, Ginsberg and Orlovsky toured the Far East. There, Ginsberg came into direct contact with the traditions of Zen Buddhism. His interest in Buddhism and Asian literature had been sparked by his Bay Area friendships with Synder, Whalen and Rexroth. Ginsberg’s interest, which would shape the development of his poetry, has continued to the present.
In 1965, Ginsberg went to Cuba as a correspondent for the Evergreen Review but was deported when he spoke against the government’s persecution of homosexuals at Havana University. He then journeyed to the Soviet Union, Poland and Czechoslovakia, where he was again deported after more than 100,000 people in Prague crowned him King of May in 1965. Back in the United States, the F.B.I. placed him on their Dangerous Security List. Throughout the 1960’s, Ginsberg took an active role in the growing anti-war and counter-culture movements. In 1965 he coined the term “flower power.” He was also a moving spirit (along with Synder, McClure and Timothy Leary) behind the first of the hippie mass gatherings, the 1967 Gathering of the Tribes for a Human Be-In held in nearby Golden Gate Park. Later the same year he was arrested with Dr. Benjamin Spock and others for his part in a New York City antiwar demonstration. During the 1968 Democratic Convention, Ginsberg was tear-gassed while trying to induce calm and chanting “Om” at the Yippie Life Festival. At the trial of the demonstration leaders – known as the Chicago Seven, Ginsberg testified for the defense. Ginsberg’s literary efforts during the 1960’s and early 1970’s were many and varied. At the time, poetry was chiefly the written art of academic craftsman. Ginsberg took it out of the study and classroom and onto the podium, becoming a skilled public performer of his poems. His books from this period include Reality Sandwiches (1963), The Yage Letters (with William S. Burroughs) (1963), Indian Journals (1970) and The Fall of America (1972) – for which he was awarded National Book Award. Planet News (1968) constitutes a poetic record of his travels in Eastern Europe, the Indian subcontinent and other parts of Asia as well as the United States. Included in this latter collection is “Wichita Vortex Sutra,” one of the poet’s most accomplished and well known works. It is also one of Ginsberg’s most political works. . . . Kansas! Kansas! Shuddering at last! PERSON appearing in Kansas! angry telephone calls to the University! Police dumbfounded leaning on their radiocar hoods . . .
In 1974, Ginsberg helped found the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at the Naropa Institute, the first accredited Buddhist college in the Western world. Earlier, Ginsberg had met Chogyam Trungpa, a Tibetan Buddhist who had recently arrived in the United States. Trungpa taught full acceptance of sensual experience as the route to enlightenment and “the sacredness of immediate experience, sexual candor, and absence of censoriousnes.” These Buddhist believes echo many notions found in various Beat writings.
With the end of the war in Vietnam, Ginsberg refocussed his political energies on efforts to expose alleged CIA subsidization of drug trafficking; in attempts to reform American drug laws (including testifying before Congress); and in the antinuclear, environmental and gay liberation movements. He has also spoken out against covert action by the United States government, including domestic harassment of the counterculture. Following a pattern set early in his career, Ginsberg has continued to produce and publish work in many fields. The last two decades have seen numerous books and small press editions, including Journals: Early Fifties, Early Sixties (1977), Mind Breaths (1978), Plutonian Ode (1982), Collected Poems (1984), White Shroud (1986), Cosmopolitan Greetings (1994) and Journals Mid-Fifties 1954 – 1958.
These last four titles were published by Harper, and mark Ginsberg’s first publishing agreement with a major publisher.
During the 1970’s and 1980’s, Ginsberg recorded and occasionally toured with Bob Dylan, John Hammond, Sr. and the Clash. In 1994, Rhino Records released Holy Soul Jelly Roll: Poems and Songs 1949 – 1993, a four-disc compilation of the poet’s many spoken word recordings. This multiset disc and its accompanying booklet serve as a kid of “selected works” of Ginsberg’s spoken word recordings. Other recent CD releases have included The Lion For Real (1989) and The Ballad of the Skeletons (1996), as well as collaborative efforts with Philip Glass, Hydrogen Jukebox (1993), and the Kronos Quartet, Howl U.S.A. (1996).
In 1960’s, Ginsberg appeared in some of the most famous experimental films of the decade, including the well known Pull My Daisy. His longtime interest in the visual arts – especially photography, a practice encouraged by his longtime friend Robert Frank – have now been collected in two books, Photographs (1991) and Snapshot Poetics (1993). Ginsberg’s photographs were also represented in a groundbreaking exhibit organized by the Whitney Museum of Art, “Beat Culture and the New America: 1950 – 1965.” Since 1974, Ginsberg has also been a member of the American Institute of Arts and Letters – the highest official recognition he has received. Ginsberg has also been named a Guggenheim fellow, and is currently a Distinguished Professor at Brooklyn College. To date, “Howl” has been translated into some 23 languages, including Chinese, Japanese, Czech, Hebrew, Macedonian, Norwegian and Polish. The just published Selected Poems, 1947 – 1995, chosen by Ginsberg from throughout his long career, collects many of the poet’s well known works – and in the words of Ginsberg, “isolates & points attention to work less known, more subtle, rhetorically wild, beyond ‘Beat Generation’ literary stereotypes.”
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