Writers to Read Part III — Allen Ginsberg
As most of you know, the Writers to Read slot is usually occupied by Mr William Soule, but this time we’re switching places. Rather than him writing a Writers to Read post on my blog, I am writing one on his — Will is a community Gallery Director for Literature over at deviantART and he asked if I’d like to do a short piece introducing his readers to Allen Ginsberg (because, of course, I’m a huge fangirl of his!). Bearing in mind that many of those readers may be totally new to the great man, it was quite tricky, but here’s what I came up with! Enjoy!
Allen Ginsberg was born in New Jersey, spending most of his childhood and early life in Paterson. He was a bright child, but a loner – his home life was fraught with difficulty as his mother, Naomi, suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and was in and out of mental health institutions throughout Allen’s teen years. Allen worried endlessly about the homosexual feelings that plagued him and alienated him from his peers, and to take his mind off things he immersed himself in politics. Naomi was a card-carrying member of the Communist Party (and took Allen and his brother Gene to meetings with her), while Allen’s father, Louis, was a staunch Socialist. From a young age Allen would write detailed letters to national newspapers regarding the political issues of the day. He was also an avid reader and devoured the works of Whitman throughout his high school years.
In 1943, the young Ginsberg won a scholarship to study at the University of Columbia, and enrolled in the merchant navy to earn money to fund his studies, and, according to his journal, to meet potential boyfriends! It was at this time that he began writing poetry seriously, and for a while he was mentored by the great Modernist poet and fellow Paterson resident, William Carlos Williams. Also at around this time, Ginsberg met William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, John Clellon-Holmes and Herbert Hunke – the founder members of the Beat Generation.
In 1948, Ginsberg experienced a poetic epiphany as he read the poems of William Blake while smoking marijuana – he claimed to have been “visited” by Blake himself, and the experience fired his interest in the study and effect of hallucinogenic drugs. He became a fierce campaigner for the legalisation of hallucinogens like peyote, yage and particularly marijuana, and supported the cause until his death at the age of 70.
In the 1950s, the Beat Generation rose to fame and became perhaps the most popular and influential counter-culture literary movement of all time. Having been expelled from Columbia, and relocated to San Francisco, Ginsberg turned his attention to his writing, and in 1955 he completed his most famous piece – the long poem Howl. The poem was a celebration of the Beat life in Greenwich Village (New York) and San Francisco, and chronicled the comings and goings of Ginsberg and his acquaintances. ‘Howl’ made a lot of bald political statements and contained lines which referred candidly to homosexual practices, the like of which had never been seen before. It was also structurally unique: Ginsberg used the breath-unit techniques he had learned from mentor Williams and inserted them into the long line he had borrowed from his hero Whitman, creating a brand new poetic form. A draft of the poem was first presented to the public at the Six Gallery Reading on 7th November 1955. Ginsberg became infamous over night, and when the poem was published soon after by Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Pocket Poets, it became the centre of one of the highest-profile obscenity trials in literary history. Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti were eventually cleared of all charges.
In 1956, Naomi – who had been divorced by Louis and permanently institutionalised for her own safety – passed away, and in memory of her, Ginsberg wrote what is arguably his best poem: Kaddish, another long piece built on the foundations of the Jewish funeral rite, the Kaddish (Naomi had been denied a traditional Kaddish at her funeral). Following the Howl trial and his mother’s death, Ginsberg spent several years travelling in Europe, India and Asia with his partner Peter Orlovsky, occasionally joined by other members of the Beat community, including Kerouac and Burroughs. During this time, Ginsberg became increasingly interested in Buddhism. These years also saw a gradual drift in Ginsberg’s strong friendship with Jack Kerouac, whose mother Gabrielle-Ange saw Allen as a bad influence and forbade the two from seeing each other. Kerouac died in 1969, and the breach was never really healed.
Kerouac’s death marked the falling-off point for the Beat Generation. Though many of its members continued to write, the movement itself slowly crumbled, and the Beats were replaced as the movers and shakers of counter-culture by the beatniks and the hippies. Ginsberg was one of the few Beats to stay in the literary spotlight – to this day he is still considered an infamous, popular and highly esteemed poet, essayist and scholar. Ginsberg spent his later life writing and teaching across America and the wider world, helping to establish the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at the Naropa Institute in Colorado, and remaining an active campaigner for civil rights, gay rights and the legalisation of marijuana. He died in 1997 at the age of 70.
For me, his best poems are the ones written in his early years, the Beat Generation years, and the ones I’d recommend reading/listening to are also his most popular: Howl, America, A Supermarket in California, Sunflower Sutra, Kaddish. You can also listen to a reading of several poems – including Howl – given by Ginsberg at Reed College in 1956. Warning: many of these poems could be considered NSFW.
You can read the original article here, and Mr Soule will be back in due course with the next of the Writers to Read — in the meantime, if you’d like to write a guest-post on ONS, drop me a line to firstname.lastname@example.org!