Allen Ginsberg (1926–1997)

Mid-20th-century America was still stuck in the taboos and shibboleths of its past when poet Allen Ginsberg came to its attention in 1956 with his poem “Howl,” full of words never seen–or allowed–in print before. Even D. H. Lawrence’s novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, was still banned in Boston–and in the United States–for its story of adultery. When “Howl” was published in San Francisco by City Lights Books, it too was banned for obscenity, and the book, its author, and its publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, went to trial. Such was the lot of the Beat poets of whom Ginsberg was the unofficial spokesman, to be the outliers of the society with which they were profoundly disillusioned and “beat.” Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso, Ginsberg, and others hung out in San Francisco with poet and publisher Ferlinghetti at his City Lights bookstore and wrote about their bohemian lives in new, graphic, and not always socially acceptable ways. Ginsberg wrote freely of homosexuality and used sexually charged language in “Howl,” but the court, asked to rule on whether Ginsberg’s writings were obscene, concluded that its literary merit trumped the charges of obscenity.

What had happened to the language of literature in the hands of the Beats toppled it from its sacrosanct place on a pedestal into the everyday world of the street and the beat, the radical, and the down-and-out. Ginsberg said Walt Whitman was to blame, adopting Whitman’s free verse line of strung-out sentences and parallel clauses with piled-up adjectives, to create a new American idiom and proclaim a Beat manifesto of disillusionment:

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

The poetry of Allen Ginsberg, particularly Howl and Kaddish, embodied the val-ues and aesthetic of the Beat generation of American writers in the 1950s and 1960s.

The poetry of Allen Ginsberg, particularly “Howl” and “Kaddish,” embodied the values and aesthetic of the Beat generation of American writers in the 1950s and 1960s. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Ginsberg and his fellow Beat poets were 10 years ahead of what was going to happen when the 1960s exploded in a defiance of the established and the conventional. But if, as Ezra Pound had said, “Artists are the antennae of the race,” they already knew what was coming and were making sure it happened. Older contemporaries like Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, and Marianne Moore had been writing a formal, precise kind of poetry in a heightened language free of personal reference. New Criticism with its emphasis on objective analysis was in command. When Lowell discovered Ginsberg’s work, however, he gradually turned to a more confessional mode, one which younger poets Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath were to make their own. It was becoming clear that the language of literature was being transformed into something more personal and informal. Yet in the powerhouse rhetorical line of Allen Ginsberg, such poetry of the self could be declaimed from the housetops if need be. It was not yet the rant of rap but it was rap’s granddaddy.

Ginsberg had another mentor in poetry besides Whitman. He became friends with William Carlos Williams, a doctor and a poet in Rutherford, New Jersey, near Ginsberg’s hometown of Paterson. Williams was also seeking a fresher, more American idiom than that bequeathed by earlier poets, pursuing poetry on his own time and immersed in writing an epic poem about Paterson. It was Williams who helped Ginsberg break away from the formal poetic tradition he was trying to emulate in his early poetry. He encouraged him to “listen to the rhythm of your own voice”–that colloquial, idiosyncratic, relentless, comedic speech that came to be recognized as Ginsberg-esque.

“No ideas but in things,” advised Williams, lately of the Imagists and Ezra Pound, and his pupil Ginsberg proceeded to pile those things up in his poetry: “backyard green tree cemetery dawns” and “teahead joyride neon blinking traffic light” accrued in unusual juxtapositions like “hydrogen jukebox.” He may also have picked up the technique of combining such disparate things from studying haiku, an Ezra Pound influence via Williams. Ginsberg said that he was looking for the “eyeball kick” he found in the paintings of Cezanne as the eye moved from one contrasting color to another. His juxtapositions were an attempt to reproduce that in words, a striking and distinctive trait of his poetry.

Ginsberg said that William Blake, the 19th-century poet visionary, was another influence on his work, claiming that he had had a hallucination, a “Blake vision,” in which he heard Blake reading his “Ah, Sunflower” poem. Ever after, the sunflower, sometimes gray and pockmarked, sometimes golden, would appear in Ginsberg’s poems, as in “Sunflower Sutra”:

Corolla of bleary spikes pushed down and broken like a battered crown, seeds fallen out of its face

Ginsberg clearly was a writer of passion and imagination, but in the postăWorld War II Eisenhower years he focused on the dark side, and he had found companions–Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Gregory Corso–at Columbia University who shared his outlook. It was Kerouac who called this group the “Beat Generation,” a term he had picked up from the poet Herbert Huncke and used to describe his friends as a beaten-down bunch of nonconformists. They cultivated the label and the attitude, and indeed the whole idea of a Beat Generation eventually took hold in the 1950s as a kind of American subculture, promoted in the press, in film, and even in advertising.

Kerouac explained it in a 1958 Esquire magazine article, “Aftermath: The Philosophy of the Beat Generation”:

The Beat Generation, that was a vision that we had, John Clellon Holmes [novelist] and I, and Allen Ginsberg in an even wilder way, in the late Forties, of a generation of crazy, illuminated hipsters suddenly rising and roaming America, serious, bumming and hitchhiking everywhere, ragged, beatific, beautiful in an ugly graceful new way–a vision gleaned from the way we had heard the word “beat” spoken on street corners on Times Square and in the Village, in other cities in the downtown city night of postwar America–beat, meaning down and out but full of intense conviction. We’d even heard old 1910 Daddy Hipsters of the streets speak the word that way, with a melancholy sneer. It never meant juvenile delinquents, it meant characters of a special spirituality who didn’t gang up but were solitary Bartlebies staring out the dead wall window of our civilization.

Kerouac’s novel, On the Road, was based on several years of hitchhiking road trips and the adventures he had traveling through the United States. He claimed to have written the novel in a kind of spontaneous prose on a single scroll of paper during three weeks in 1951 (partly true). It came to be viewed as the defining work of the Beats, along with “Howl” and William Burroughs’s novel, Naked Lunch, which would also be the subject of an obscenity trial.

Burroughs, a Harvard graduate, had been living in Kerouac’s New York apartment and became part of his group of writers. Their influence as a countercultural force grew as they moved in the early 1950s (except for Burroughs) to San Francisco and connected with writers like Kenneth Rexroth, Gary Snyder, and others.

Meanwhile, Ginsberg had graduated in 1948 with a BA in literature from Columbia, where he studied with literary gurus Lionel Trilling and Mark Van Doren. He spent five years with an advertising agency on Madison Avenue but was ready to give up that world. The convergence of the Beats in San Francisco lured him out there and into writing. It proved to be fertile ground. By 1955, he had completed the poem “Howl” that–along with the obscenity trial it provoked–was to make him famous as a poet. The editor of the Yale Review, J. D. McClatchy, called the poem “the history of our era’s psyche, with all its contradictory urges,” prophetic and prayerful.

Irving Allen Ginsberg had been born in Newark, New Jersey, on June 3, 1926, the second son of Louis and Naomi Ginsberg. He graduated from high school in Paterson, New Jersey, where he had grown up. His father taught high school and was a published poet. His elder brother, Eugene, became a lawyer and published his own poetry under the name Eugene Brooks. Their mother, a Russian émigré brought up as a Marxist, was involved with the local Communist party, often taking her sons to meetings with her. However, she was also frequently in and out of mental hospitals, a crucial element in Ginsberg’s childhood experience and in his poetry. His poem, “Kaddish,” the second of his most important poems, was written to deal with his grief when she died in 1956 and to commemorate her memory.

Ginsberg had joined the Merchant Marines in 1945 so he could continue his studies at Columbia University. He had had several girlfriends, but in San Francisco he met Peter Orlovsky, who became his lifelong partner. Ginsberg, after the “Howl” obscenity trial, became an advocate of free speech and an outspoken advocate for gay rights.

In 1957, he and Orlovsky left San Francisco, going first to Morocco and then to Paris, where they stayed for five years in what came to be known as the “Beat Hotel” with Gregory Corso and William Burroughs who was writing Naked Lunch at the time. Paris was a boost to Ginsberg’s creativity as well, and he was able to finish “Kaddish” there.

Other travel followed, including a year in India, as Ginsberg’s interest in Krishna and Buddhism developed into a lifelong fascination. His later poetry readings back in New York City often included chanting, as he accompanied himself on the harmonium, a kind of reed organ popular in India. Ginsberg’s spiritual quest also included experiments with drugs; he campaigned to legalize marijuana and worked with Timothy Leary to promote the use of LSD.

Ginsberg gave poetry readings in London for free and traveled to China, Czechoslovakia, and Cuba, where he was deported when he said that he thought Che Guevara was “cute” and denounced the Cuban antimarijuana policy. He became known for his outrageous comments and advocacy of various causes, supporting protests against the Vietnam War in California and Manhattan in the 1960s. Ginsberg identified with the new generation of hippies and beatniks, was friends with counterculture musicians and writers like Bob Dylan and Ken Kesey, and got himself arrested at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968. The FBI maintained a dossier on him.

His legacy, however, was in his poetry, a blend of protest, commentary, imaginative vision, and unusual poetics, for which Ginsberg gave ample credit to his mentors William Blake, Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, and Ezra Pound. Other writers found his disdain for poetic tradition liberating and his long-lined, free verse literary style became a model for poetry that harked back to an oral tradition and gave poetic language license to roam where it would. “A Supermarket in California” opens with characteristic musing:

What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for I walked down the sidestreets under the trees with a headache self-conscious looking at the full moon.

Ginsberg’s poetry collections, after “Howl” in 1956, include “Kaddish,” 1959; “TV Baby,” 1960; “Wichita Vortex Sutra,” 1966; “Wales Visitation,” 1967; “Don’t Grow Old,” 1976; and “White Shroud,” 1983. A volume of his Collected Poems was published in 1985 by Harper & Row. Among many honors, Ginsberg received the National Book Award in 1973 and an American Book Award in 1990 for his contributions to literature. He was still working on some of his poems when he died of liver cancer in his East Village Manhattan apartment in April 1997. He was buried in B’Nai Israel Cemetery in Newark, New Jersey.

By the time he died, Allen Ginsberg had become part of the mainstream, “earning a place in America’s literary pantheon” as the New York Times said in his obituary. He had shocked the United States into a new literary era: “America I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing.” “America this is quite serious.” “I’m addressing you. Are you going to let your emotional life be run by Time Magazine?” “It occurs to me that I am America. I am talking to myself again.”

—Mary Cross


Ginsberg, Allen. “America,” “Howl,” and “A Supermarket in California,” from Howl. San Francisco, CA: City Lights Books, 1956.

Hampton, Wilborn. “Allen Ginsberg, Master Poet of Beat Generation, Dies at 70.” The New York Times, April 6, 1997, 1.

Miles, Barry. Ginsberg: A Biography. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989.

Schumacher, Michael. Dharma Lion: A Biography of Allen Ginsberg. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992.