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."