Allen Ginsberg

As well-known for his political views and philosophies as he is for his writing, Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) was an American poet and one of the most influential members of the Beat Generation.

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    Allen Ginsberg Biography

    Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) was born in Newark, New Jersey, and raised in nearby Paterson. He was raised in a Jewish family consisting of his father, Louis Ginsberg, a teacher and a poet; his mother, Naomi Levy, a Russian immigrant; and his brother Eugene. Ginsberg became interested in politics and literature while in high school; a class on Walt Whitman sparked his interest in poetry. Upon graduating high school, Ginsberg briefly enrolled in Montclair State College, but ultimately attended Columbia University in New York City.

    Allen Ginsberg, Ginsberg's portrait, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Portrait of Allen Ginsberg.

    Ginsberg’s childhood was marked by his mother’s struggles with mental illness. Naomi was in and out of mental hospitals for much of his childhood. She suffered from paranoid delusions and was convinced that the government had installed recording devices in their home.

    Ginsberg was deeply affected by his mother’s condition. Many of his later works, including his famous "Howl" (1956), contain references to his mother and her struggles. His poem "Kaddish" (1956) was written about his mother following her death, the title referring to the Jewish blessing said by mourners at a funeral.

    Ginsberg’s time at Columbia was formative, as he fostered friendships with fellow writers that would influence him for the rest of his career. These writers included Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and Gregory Corso. Along with Kerouac and Burroughs, Ginsberg would become one of the leading poets of the Beat Generation, a term referring to those who wrote poetry as part of the Beat Movement.

    The Beat Movement was a post-World War II countercultural literary movement in the United States. The authors of the Beat Movement, known as the Beat Generation, wrote about previously-taboo subjects such as sexual exploration and the use of drugs. The tenets of the Beat movement included a rejection of materialism, opposition to traditional literary forms, and the importance of undergoing spiritual exploration in one’s life.

    After his graduation from Columbia, Ginsberg moved to San Francisco, where he became involved in the San Francisco Renaissance. During this time, Ginsberg corresponded with William Carlos Williams, an older Modernist poet who had a strong influence on Ginsberg’s poetry and outlook. Williams encouraged Ginsberg to continue writing poetry that reflected the particularities of American speech.

    In San Francisco, Ginsberg met his lifelong partner, fellow poet Peter Orlovsky. It was there that Ginsberg first published and performed "Howl", his most famous and controversial poem. The poem’s content - frank discussions of sexuality, drug usage, and politics - led to a lawsuit after it was banned for being obscene. In the end, the judge overseeing the case eliminated the ban, as he argued for the poem’s artistic merit. The trial serves as an important study in free speech court cases in America.

    The publication of "Howl" and its subsequent trial launched Ginsberg to international stardom and allowed him to work full-time as a poet. The trial was extensively documented in Life magazine and featured testimony by several prominent authors and poets of the time testifying in favor of the book's literary merit. By the end of the trial, Ginsberg was heavily involved in the concept of free speech. Throughout the rest of his life, he would protest in favor of free speech across the United States.

    Allen Ginsberg, Judge's grave at rest, StudySmarterFig. 2 - A judge's gavel at rest, in reference to 'Howl's' obscenity trial.

    Ginsberg spent much of his life traveling. In his 70 years, he visited every continent and spent extended periods of time outside of the United States. Ginsberg lived for periods of time in India, Paris, Morocco, and Mexico. He connected with poets in every country he visited, and had an extensive network of poets, activists, and authors across the world with whom he collaborated.

    As a result of his travels, Ginsberg began to practice Buddhism and Krishnaism later in life. His exploration and eventual practice of Eastern religions were hugely impactful on his writing. He was particularly influenced by the practice of mantra singing, the ritual chanting of a phrase that is imbued with spiritual power. In his writing, Ginsberg often embedded direct quotations of Buddhist or Krishnaist mantras as well as created his own version of mantras out of his writing.

    Allen Ginsberg Cause of Death

    Ginsberg’s later years were marked with health issues believed to have stemmed from contracting hepatitis in a hospital when he was in his 30s. He suffered strokes and lived with Bell’s Palsy facial paralysis as a result of these strokes. In 1997, Ginsberg was admitted to the hospital in New York City for heart failure.

    After he was discharged from the hospital following unsuccessful treatment attempts, Ginsberg made phone calls to every important person in his life to say goodbye. On April 5, 1997, Ginsberg died of liver cancer at home in New York City. He was cremated and his ashes buried with his family members in a cemetery. He was survived by partner Peter Orlovsky.

    Works by Allen Ginsberg

    Throughout his lifetime, Ginsberg penned works of poetry and prose, as well as essays on politics and philosophy. As an influential member of the Beat Generation, his writing endures, with its innovative techniques and subject matter, in American literary history.

    Allen Ginsberg Poems

    Ginsberg published many poems individually in magazines as well as in larger collections. He loved the poetry of William Blake (1757-1827) and was influenced by fellow Beat Generation members such as Jack Kerouac, as well as his own poetic mentor, William Carlos Williams.

    In 1956, Ginsberg published Howl and Other Poems, a collection that included "Howl", his most famous and influential poem. The success of "Howl" allowed Ginsberg to quit his day job as a marketer and pursue poetry as a full-time profession. In 1961, he published Kaddish and Other Poems, a collection that included "Kaddish", which was written in Paris and reflected upon his mother Naomi’s life and his relationship with her.

    He often published to critical acclaim, and his 1973 collection The Fall of America: Poems of these States shared the National Book Award for Poetry of that year. The poems contained in The Fall of America collection were very political in nature.

    While many of Ginsberg’s earlier works were biographical and focused on the overarching themes he perceived within society, this collection commented directly on his antiwar feelings about the conflict in Vietnam, Che Guevara’s death, and the moon landing, among other current events.

    One of Ginsberg's clearest inspirations as a poet was Walt Whitman (1819-1892). Reading Whitman in high school had inspired Ginsberg to pursue poetry. Ginsberg is often styled as a modern-day or Beat Transcendentalist, a movement that Whitman influenced.

    Whitman's influence on Ginsberg is clear in Ginsberg's long-line style. He would use long poetry lines phrased by the natural placement of breath, which was derived directly from Whitman's similar style. A relationship exists in thematic terms as well. While Ginsberg's poetry is franker in the use of diction and expletives of the average individual, he explores the same themes as Whitman in his condemnation of the conformity and corrupting influence of society on individuals and individual expression.

    Transcendentalism was a 19th-century literary and philosophical movement that emphasized the interaction between individuals and nature and the innate goodness of people.

    Allen Ginsberg Books

    In addition to his poetry collections, Ginsberg published books of his travel writing and essays. Indian Journals (1970) was an account of Ginsberg’s time spent in India with Orlovsky between the years 1962 and 1963. A posthumously published collection of Ginsberg’s nonfiction political and philosophical essays was published in 2000 entitled Deliberate Prose: Essays 1952 - 1995. These essays contained Ginsberg’s thoughts on subjects such as communism, the Vietnam War, and his religious beliefs.

    Ginsberg's Political Activism

    Ginsberg didn't just produce works of literature. He was also a lifelong activist in support of various different causes. Just as the Beat movement was a countercultural literary movement, Ginsberg was active in countercultural politics. He was known for being outspoken about issues such as free speech in the wake of the "Howl" trial. He became a member and supporter of PEN America, a nonprofit dedicated to the protection of free speech through literature.

    In addition to free speech, Ginsberg was a staunch advocate for gay rights. He wrote openly and frankly about homosexuality when it was more common for it to be shrouded in metaphor. He advocated for gay marriage and referred to his lifelong partner Orlovsky as his husband. In a time when the notion of gay rights and relationships was taboo, Ginsberg was an outspoken advocate.

    Allen Ginsberg, Pride parade, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Ginsberg was an ardent advocate for gay rights.

    Ginsberg protested the Vietnam War and American imperialism in general. He advocated for tax resistance in protest of the war and was involved with the intellectual anti-war group RESIST. He participated in protests and riots against U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

    Ginsberg also often spoke in favor of labor movements and leaders as well as communist leaders such as Fidel Castro. He frequently traveled to communist countries in order to discuss the right of free speech. His mother was a communist, but Ginsberg, though he opposed McCarthyism and the Red Scare, stated that he was not a communist.

    Allen Ginsberg Quotes

    The opening line of "Howl" is one of Ginsberg’s best-known quotes:

    I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness” (1)

    He could be referencing the madness and destruction of World Wars I and II and their effect on subsequent generations, or more specifically the man to whom the poem is dedicated, Carl Solomon, whom Ginsberg met at a psychiatric hospital. It also refers to these "best minds" known to Ginsberg who defy societal conventions and are outcasts for this reason.

    In Part II of "Howl", Ginsberg writes:

    Moloch! Solitude! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and unobtainable dollars! Children screaming under the stairways! Boys sobbing in armies! Old men weeping in the parks!” (79-80)

    These lines, referencing the character Moloch from the poem, encapsulate Ginsberg’s feelings about America. He condemns poverty, the unobtainable nature of the American dream, and the injustice of sending young men to die in war.

    America I’ve given you all and now I’m/nothing”2 (1-2)

    These opening lines of his poem, "America" articulate once again Ginsberg’s thoughts on the state of the country. Throughout the poem, Ginsberg deplores the state of politics and the war efforts within America.

    Allen Ginsberg Writing Style

    Ginsberg cultivated a writing style so unique that it spawned its own term - Ginsbergian. In contrast to many of his contemporary Modernist poets, Ginsberg’s poetry is characterized by long lines that stretch across the page and breaks in the poem to simulate breathing. The Modernists, such as Ginsberg's mentor William Carlos Williams, utilized short lines and sparse language. By contrast, Ginsberg's long-line formation with bombastic language was notable for its Modern style and simultaneous divergence from the norm.

    Ginsberg was also interested in "spontaneous prose", a concept introduced by Jack Kerouac that argued that literature and poetry should be written spontaneously, not painstakingly re-edited and re-written.

    In addition to writers such as Walt Whitman, William Blake, and Jack Kerouac, Ginsberg also drew poetic inspiration from music. Ginsberg was drawn to the spontaneous, improvisational rhythms of jazz music that he attempted to imitate in the rhythms of his own poems. Additionally, as Ginsberg became more interested in the study of Buddhism and Eastern religions, he structured some of the rhythms in his poems off of ritualistic chants used in religious practices.

    Allen Ginsberg - Key takeaways

    • Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) was an American poet, essayist, and political activist known for being one of the most influential members of the Beat Generation.

    • Ginsberg grew up in New Jersey and as an adult spent much of his life traveling the world.

    • His poem "Howl" (1956) was influential in its innovative, uniquely Ginsberg style, as well as its taboo subject matter, which included sexual identity, drugs, and politics.

    • The result of the publication of "Howl" was an obscenity trial that ended in favor of the poem’s continued publication and led Ginsberg to lifelong advocacy for free speech.

    • Ginsberg published multiple poetry collections as well as works of prose; he shared the National Book Award for Poetry in 1973 for his collection The Fall of America.

    • Ginsberg is as remembered for his poetry as he is for his activism in free speech, antiwar efforts, and LGBTQ rights.

    1. Allen Ginsberg, "Howl", 1956.

    2. Allen Ginsberg, "America", 1956.

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    Frequently Asked Questions about Allen Ginsberg

    Who was Allen Ginsberg?

    Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) was an American poet, essayist, and activist. He is known for being a leading member of the Beat Generation, a group of writers who formed the Beat Movement in literature. He was an outspoken activist and prolific writer of poetry as well as political and philosophical essays.

    Where was Allen Ginsberg born?

    Allen Ginsberg was born in Newark, New Jersey, and raised in nearby Paterson, New Jersey. He spent his life traveling and lived for long periods of time outside of the United States. Some of his most important works were written when he was living in New York, San Francisco, and Paris.

    How did Allen Ginsberg die?

    Ginsberg died in 1997 of liver cancer. This followed years of health issues stemming from his contraction of hepatitis in a hospital when he was in his 30s. Following his release from the hospital after unsuccessful treatment for heart failure in 1997, Ginsberg called all of his close friends and family to say goodbye. He passed away at his home in New York City in April 1997. 

    How many poems did Allen Ginsberg write?

    Ginsberg wrote numerous poems throughout his lifetime. Two of his most well-known poetry collections include Howl and Other Poems (1956) and Kaddish and Other Poems (1961). He was awarded the shared National Book Award for Poetry in 1973 for his collection The Fall of America: Poems of these States.

    When was Allen Ginsberg born?

    Allen Ginsberg was born in Newark, New Jersey on June 3rd, 1926. He was raised in nearby Paterson, New Jersey.

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