ALLEN GINSBERG, 1926-1997
Allen Ginsberg was born in Newark, New Jersey, on June 3, 1926, the second of two children of Louis and Naomi Ginsberg. He grew up in a relatively poor Jewish neighborhood in nearby Paterson, where his father worked as a high school English teacher. Among the varied influences on Allen during his childhood and adolescence, several seem especially significant in the formation of the future poet and political and social activist. Both his parents had leftist political leanings (his father vaguely socialist, his mother more decidedly communist), and their views surely helped shape Allen's later outlook on the world. Moreover, his father, in addition to being a teacher, was a published poet of modest reputation, and he actively (and successfully) sought to communicate his interest in poetry and literature to his younger son. Even more profoundly, it would seem, Allen was affected by his exposure to his mother's decades-long struggle with mental illness. Naomi exhibited symptoms of serious instability even as a young adult, and her condition (what today might be called paranoid schizophrenia) deteriorated over the years, resulting in periodic hospitalizations from 1932 until her death in a state mental institution on Long Island in 1956. The impact of this extended trauma on the son and future poet is reflected in "Kaddish," Ginsberg's powerful and moving tribute to his deceased mother and, after "Howl," his best-known poem. Among other things, the experience of his mother's illness may have helped shape the "enormous empathy and tolerance" the adult Ginsberg showed "for madness, neurosis and psychosis" (Barry Miles, Ginsberg: A Biography, rev. ed. [London: Virgin Publishing, 2000]).
A tolerance for -- indeed, an attraction to -- life lived on the edge became evident very soon after Ginsberg left Paterson in 1943 to attend Columbia University in New York City. There he gravitated toward a group of young people, themselves living mostly on the margins, that included Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Lucien Carr, Herbert Huncke, and later Neal Cassady and Gregory Corso. Together with other lesser-known friends, they formed the core of what would later become the Beat literary movement. Although from widely different backgrounds (from the Harvard-educated and aristocratic Burroughs to the street junkie and petty criminal Huncke), they shared a common alienation from what they saw as the gray conformity of much of American life and culture in the 1940s (and 1950s). They were determined to live their lives more fully and with greater spontaneity and consciousness. Seeming to embrace risk-taking as essential to a meaningful existence, they experimented with drugs, sexuality, and new forms of literary and cultural expression.
Reflecting his parents' sympathies, Ginsberg went to Columbia to prepare himself for a career as a labor lawyer. Once he was there, his interests shifted to literature with the goal of becoming a poet. Although such prominent faculty members as Mark Van Doren and Lionel Trilling showed interest in his development, he found the counsel of his off-campus friends, especially Kerouac and Burroughs, and his experiences of the seedier sides of New York nightlife more compelling. He did not distinguish himself as a student (and was even suspended for disciplinary reasons in his sophomore year), but he did gain from his experiences as an editor of and frequent contributor to two campus literary magazines, the Columbia Jester and the Columbia Review. He received his diploma in February 1949.
The period of the late 1940s and early 1950s were difficult ones for Ginsberg, as he continued trying to learn his craft as a poet while working in a series of minor, dead-end jobs. In June 1949, he began eight months of court-ordered treatment at Columbia's Psychiatric Institute after his arrest as an accessory to thefts actually carried out by Huncke and two of his friends. The one positive outcome of this incident was the close friendship he developed with Carl Solomon, a fellow patient in the hospital, to whom he later dedicated his poem "Howl." The most important influences on his literary formation at this time continued to be his friend Kerouac as well as the writings of such poets as Walt Whitman and William Blake. His breakthrough, however, came with his rather unexpected discovery of the poetry of William Carlos Williams. After hearing Williams at a reading in Manhattan, Ginsberg contacted the fellow New Jersey poet, who for the next several years acted as his writing mentor. From Williams he learned the importance of writing from his own experience of everyday things and to express himself with directness and concreteness in ordinary, everyday American speech. Reflecting his admiration for and his sense of indebtedness to Williams, he persuaded his mentor to write the introduction for the 1956 City Lights edition of Howl and Other Poems.
In 1954 Ginsberg left New York for California, eventually settling in the San Francisco area, where he spent most of the next three years. Some months after his arrival, one of his new friends, Robert LaVigne, introduced him to twenty-one-year-old Peter Orlovsky. Ginsberg and Orlovsky became lovers and began a relationship that lasted until Ginsberg's death more than forty years later.
Over the next year, he developed ties with other like-minded writers in the San Francisco poetry community, including Kenneth Rexroth, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, and Michael McClure. It was during this period that he wrote "Howl" and gave his now famous reading of the poem at the Six Gallery in San Francisco (October 1955). His presentation on that night electrified the audience. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, poet, publisher, and owner of the City Lights Bookstore, was among the listeners, and the very next day he sent a telegram to Ginsberg with the message: "I greet you at the beginning of a great career. When do I get the manuscript?"
City Lights Books published Howl and Other Poems in October 1956. The book was in its second printing in the spring of the following year when San Francisco police arrested Ferlinghetti and his store manager for distributing obscene materials. In the famous censorship trial that followed in 1957, both the book and its publisher were vindicated. The controversial trial and the national press coverage that it attracted ensured booming sales for the book and sudden fame to its author.
By the time of the Howl trial, Ginsberg had already left San Francisco to visit Burroughs in Morocco (where he would help him complete his novel Naked Lunch) and to tour Europe. He spent most of his tour living with Orlovsky, Gregory Corso, and later Burroughs on the Left Bank in Paris in what subsequently came to be known as the Beat Hotel. There Ginsberg indulged his interest in French literature and wrote poetry, including one part of "Kaddish," the passionate tribute to his deceased mother. He had left for Europe in 1957 still largely unknown. When he returned to New York in July 1958, he found himself a public figure, the celebrated author of the controversial book Howl. Several months later he gave his first public reading of parts of "Kaddish" to a sold-out crowd at Columbia University. He would finally complete the poem in late 1960 and publish it in April of the following year as the title poem of his second City Lights collection.
Shortly before this new collection appeared in print, Ginsberg again retreated from the American poetry scene. For the next two years, he traveled around the world, spending the greatest portion of his time talking with religious gurus and investigating religious traditions, especially Buddhism, in India, Southeast Asia, and Japan. Spiritually renewed, he returned to the United States in the summer of 1963.
Over the next two decades, Ginsberg was a prominent, often very controversial, figure in American life. He became increasingly involved politically, notably in the anti-Vietnam War movement, in his opposition to the criminalization of LSD, and in defense of other causes associated with the counterculture of the period. His commitment to Buddhist spirituality and practices led him to accept the codirectorship (with Anne Waldman) of the newly formed Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at the Naropa Institute in Colorado, the first Buddhist university in the United States. He devoted much of his time and energy to that institution throughout the 1970s. He also continued to write, publishing his poems and prose pieces singly or in small clusters, mostly among the many small presses and periodicals associated with the avant-garde. Between 1963 and 1982, he gathered the best of his poetry into a series of five collections, all published by Lawrence Ferlinghetti's City Lights in San Francisco. His literary efforts received increasing public acceptance and recognition, even in mainstream America. His Fall of America, published by City Lights in 1972, was awarded the National Book Award for Poetry. In 1973 he was elected a member of the prestigious American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.
In the mid-1980s, approaching his sixtieth birthday, Ginsberg began to show an increasing interest in consolidating and passing on his legacy. Thus, in 1985, he agreed to publish through Harper and Row a single volume gathering together the best of his life's poetic output, titled simply Collected Poems, 1947-1980. He also accepted an appointment as Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College in New York in 1986. During the remaining twelve years of his life, he renewed an interest in photography, publishing several volumes of his own pictures -- older as well as more recent ones -- of friends and associates among the Beats. Together with the copious annotations he supplied for the images, these photographs form a unique iconographic record of a significant literary movement. Along with his teaching and photographic work, Ginsberg continued to travel, to accept public appearances and readings, and, above all, to write and publish new poetry. His final lifetime collection of poetry, Cosmopolitan Greetings, was published by HarperCollins of New York in 1994. Three years later, on April 5, 1997, he died surrounded by friends in his East Village apartment, a victim of a liver cancer diagnosed only a week earlier.