30 POETS/30 DAYS: ALLEN GINSBERG

Allen Ginsberg

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One of the most respected Beat writers and acclaimed American poets of his generation, Allen Ginsberg enjoys a prominent place in post-World War II American culture. He was born in 1926 in Newark, New Jersey, and raised in nearby Paterson.

In 1943, while studying at Columbia University, Ginsberg befriended William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, and the trio later established themselves as pivotal figures in the Beat Movement. Known for their unconventional views, and frequently rambunctious behavior, Ginsberg and his friends also experimented with drugs. On one occasion, Ginsberg used his college dorm room to store stolen goods acquired by an acquaintance. Faced with prosecution, Ginsberg decided to plead insanity and subsequently spent several months in a mental institution. After graduating from Columbia, Ginsberg remained in New York City and worked various jobs. In 1954, however, he moved to San Francisco, where the Beat Movement was developing through the activities of such poets as Kenneth Rexroth and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

Ginsberg first came to public attention in 1956 with the publication of Howl and Other Poems. “Howl,” a long-lined poem in the tradition of Walt Whitman, is an outcry of rage and despair against a destructive, abusive society. Kevin O’Sullivan, writing in Newsmakers, deemed “Howl” “an angry, sexually explicit poem” and added that it is “considered by many to be a revolutionary event in American poetry.”The poem’s raw, honest language and its “Hebraic-Melvillian bardic breath,” as Ginsberg called it, stunned many traditional critics. James Dickey, for instance, referred to “Howl” as “a whipped-up state of excitement” and concluded that “it takes more than this to make poetry.” Other critics responded more positively. Richard Eberhart, for example, called “Howl” “a powerful work, cutting through to dynamic meaning…It is a howl against everything in our mechanistic civilization which kills the spirit…Its positive force and energy come from a redemptive quality of love.” Paul Carroll judged it “one of the milestones of the generation.” Appraising the impact of “Howl,” Paul Zweig noted that it “almost singlehandedly dislocated the traditionalist poetry of the 1950s.”

Ginsberg followed Howl in 1961 with Kaddish and Other Poems. “Kaddish,” a poem similar in style and form to “Howl,” is based on the traditional Hebrew prayer for the dead and tells the life story of Ginsberg’s mother, Naomi. The poet’s complex feelings for his mother, colored by her struggle with mental illness, are at the heart of this long-lined poem. It is considered to be one of Ginsberg’s finest: Thomas F. Merrill called it “Ginsberg at his purest and perhaps at his best”; Louis Simpson simply referred to it as “a masterpiece.”

Ginsberg’s political activities caused him problems in other countries as well. In 1965 he visited Cuba as a correspondent for Evergreen Review. After he complained about the treatment of gays at the University of Havana, the government asked Ginsberg to leave the country. In the same year the poet traveled to Czechoslovakia, where he was elected “King of May” by thousands of Czech citizens. The next day the Czech government requested that he leave, ostensibly because he was “sloppy and degenerate.” Ginsberg attributes his expulsion to the Czech secret police being embarrassed by the acclaim given to “a bearded American fairy dope poet.”

In the spring of 1997, while already plagued with diabetes and chronic hepatitis, Ginsberg was diagnosed with liver cancer. After learning of this illness, Ginsberg promptly produced twelve brief poems. The next day he suffered a stroke and lapsed into a coma. Two days later, he died. In the New York Times, Ginsberg was remembered by William Burroughs as “a great person with worldwide influence.”

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