Ginsberg, Allen

▪ 1998

      American poet (b. June 3, 1926, Newark, N.J.—d. April 5, 1997, New York, N.Y.), was the poet laureate of the cultural movement in the 1950s whose members were known as the Beat Generation, disaffected antiestablishment writers whose lifestyle embraced alienation, nonconformity, and, often, drug use. His influence on art, music, and politics lasted throughout the following four decades, and such varied individuals as Abbie Hoffman, Vaclav Havel, Bob Dylan, and Yoko Ono were said to have considered him a guru. While attending Columbia University, New York City, with the intention of becoming a lawyer, Ginsberg switched to a major in literature and came under the influence of Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs (Burroughs, William Seward ) (q.v.), and Neal Cassady. Together they became the leaders of the Beats. Ginsberg's springboard to renown was his poem "Howl," an explicit rage against mainstream society and a celebration of his politically radical upbringing and his homosexuality. Lawrence Ferlinghetti's City Lights Books published the poem in Howl and Other Poems (1956), and Ferlinghetti was tried on obscenity charges. He was acquitted, and the case became a landmark in the anticensorship crusade. Perhaps Ginsberg's best and most highly regarded poem was "Kaddish for Naomi Ginsberg (1894-1956)," published in Kaddish and Other Poems (1961); it honoured his mother and dealt with both his relationship with her and her death in a mental hospital. As beatniks gave way to hippies in the 1960s, Ginsberg remained firmly ensconced in the counterculture. He adopted Buddhist religious beliefs, was an organizer of the first "be-in," coined the term flower power, advocated the legalization of drugs, campaigned against the Vietnam War, and in 1968 demonstrated—and was teargassed—at the Democratic national convention in Chicago. The following decades found him both traveling throughout the world and continuing his political protesting in the U.S. A one-volume anthology of Ginsberg's works, Collected Poems, 1947-80, was published in 1984. Among his many honours and awards were the National Book Award for The Fall of America: Poems of These States, 1965-1971 (1972) and an American Book Award (1990), and he was a 1995 Pulitzer Prize finalist for Cosmopolitan Greetings: Poems 1986-1992.

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▪ American poet
born June 3, 1926, Newark, N.J., U.S.
died April 5, 1997, New York, N.Y.

      American poet whose epic poem Howl (1956) is considered to be one of the most significant products of the Beat movement.

      Ginsberg grew up in Paterson, N.J., where his father, Louis Ginsberg, himself a poet, taught English. Allen Ginsberg's mother, whom he mourned in his long poem Kaddish (1961), was confined for years in a mental hospital. Ginsberg was influenced in his work by the poet William Carlos Williams (Williams, William Carlos), particularly toward the use of natural speech rhythms and direct observations of unadorned actuality.

      While at Columbia University, where his anarchical proclivities pained the authorities, Ginsberg became close friends with Jack Kerouac (Kerouac, Jack) and William Burroughs (Burroughs, William S.), who were later to be numbered among the Beats. After leaving Columbia in 1948, he traveled widely and worked at a number of jobs from cafeteria floor mopper to market researcher.

      Howl, Ginsberg's first published book, laments what he believed to have been the destruction by insanity of the “best minds of [his] generation.” Dithyrambic and prophetic, owing something to the romantic bohemianism of Walt Whitman (Whitman, Walt), it also dwells on homosexuality, drug addiction, Buddhism, and Ginsberg's revulsion from what he saw as the materialism and insensitivity of post-World War II America.

      Empty Mirror, a collection of earlier poems, appeared along with Kaddish and Other Poems in 1961, followed by Reality Sandwiches in 1963. Kaddish, one of Ginsberg's most important works, is a long confessional poem in which the poet laments his mother's insanity and tries to come to terms with both his relationship to her and with her death. In the early 1960s Ginsberg began a life of ceaseless travel, reading his poetry at campuses and coffee bars, traveling abroad, and engaging in left-wing political activities. He became an influential guru of the American youth counterculture in the late 1960s. He acquired a deeper knowledge of Buddhism, and increasingly a religious element of love for all sentient beings entered his work.

      His later volumes of poetry included Planet News (1968); The Fall of America: Poems of These States, 1965–1971 (1972), which won the National Book Award; Mind Breaths: Poems 1972–1977 (1978); and White Shroud: Poems 1980–1985 (1986). His Collected Poems 1947–1980 appeared in 1984. Collected Poems, 1947–1997 (2006) is the first comprehensive one-volume collection of Ginsberg's published poetry. The Letters of Allen Ginsberg was published in 2008.

Additional Reading
Bill Morgan, I Celebrate Myself: The Somewhat Private Life of Allen Ginsberg (2006).

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Universalium. 2010.

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