Allen Ginsberg 1926-1997
American poet, essayist, playwright, and nonfiction writer. See also Howl Criticism, Allen Ginsberg Literary Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 2, 3, 4, 6, 13, 109.
Ginsberg was one of the more celebrated and popular poets in late twentieth-century American literature. A longtime spokesperson for the country's disaffected youth, he was a prominent figure in the counterculture and antiwar movements of the 1960s as well as a leading member of the Beat Generation, a literary movement whose members wrote in the language of the urban streets about previously forbidden and controversial topics. Despite his libertarian beliefs and unconventional literary style, Ginsberg admitted that his verse was influenced by such established poets as William Carlos Williams, William Blake, and Walt Whitman.
Ginsberg's private life has informed much of the critical discussion of his works. Born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1926, he suffered an emotionally troubled childhood that is reflected in many of his poems. His mother, who suffered from various mental illnesses and was periodically institutionalized during Ginsberg's adolescence, was an active member of the Communist Party and other associations of the radical left. Contributing to Ginsberg's confusion and isolation during these years was his increasing awareness of his homosexuality, which he concealed from both his peers and his parents until he was in his twenties. First introduced to poetry by his father, a high school teacher and poet, Ginsberg furthered his interest through talks with his mentor, William Carlos Williams, who lived in nearby Paterson, where Ginsberg attended high school. Other early literary influences included Lionel Trilling and Mark Van Doren, both of whom taught Ginsberg at Columbia University. Ginsberg also established friendships with writers Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and Neal Cassady while in college. This group, along with several West Coast writers that included Kenneth Rexroth and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, among others, later formed the core of the San Francisco Beat Movement. In the 1960s Ginsberg generated national media attention for his political activism. He helped organize antiwar demonstrations and advocated “flower power,” a strategy in which antiwar demonstrators would promote positive values like peace and love to dramatize their opposition to the death and destruction caused by the Vietnam War. Around that time, he became influenced by Eastern philosophy, meditation, and yoga, which became a recurring influence on his work. Ginsberg died April 5, 1997, in New York City, after suffering a stroke.
Considered his best-known poem, the title work of Howl and Other Poems (1956) established Ginsberg as a leading voice of the Beat Movement. His public reading of “Howl” to a spellbound audience in San Francisco in 1955 demonstrated the power of his work as an oral medium and set standards for poetry readings throughout the United States. A reflexive, lyrical lamentation on the moral and social ills of the post-World War II era, the poem is dedicated to Carl Solomon, whom Ginsberg met while undergoing eight months of therapy at the Columbia Psychiatric Institute in 1948. “Howl” was extremely controversial at the time of its publication because of its graphic language and in 1957 became the subject of a landmark obscenity trial. Kaddish and Other Poems, 1958-1960 (1961) features “Kaddish,” an elegy for Ginsberg's mother, who died in a mental hospital in 1956. Based on the Kaddish, a traditional Hebrew prayer for the dead, it poignantly expresses the anger, love, and confusion Ginsberg felt toward his mother while rendering the social and historical milieu that informed his mother's troubled life.
Ginsberg's political experiences inform much of his work of the 1960s and early 1970s, including Planet News (1968), which collects poems that are considered impressionistic collages of that era. Several pieces in this collection also reveal his personal concern with aging and his anguish over the deaths of Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac. The Fall of America (1973), Ginsberg's next major work, takes the reader on a mystical cross-country journey, with “stops” to observe the physical and spiritual erosion of the United States. Dedicated to Walt Whitman, the collection won the National Book Award in 1974. Marking a change of direction in Ginsberg's verse, the poems in Mind Breaths (1978) are more tranquil, inducing the sense of spiritual meditation and calm suggested in the book's title. Ginsberg's last poems, including those works written after he learned he had liver cancer, appear in Death and Fame: Poems, 1993-1997 (1999). Another posthumous publication, Deliberate Prose: Selected Essays, 1952-1995 (2000), contains more than one hundred-fifty essays on such topics as nuclear weapons, censorship, and the Vietnam War.
Commentators have been sharply divided in their opinions of Ginsberg's work. While some critics praised his unstructured form and his exploration of controversial subject matter, others considered his skill overrated, arguing that Ginsberg won his fame through his behavior, such as political protests, the advocacy of drug use and homosexuality, poetry readings, and collaboration with rock bands. No matter the diverse opinions on his poetry and his controversial reputation, most critics acknowledge his contribution in introducing and legitimizing experimental poetry to a wider audience. Moreover, there has been much critical discussion on the influence of such poets as William Blake, Edgar Allan Poe, and William Carlos Williams on Ginsberg's work and the impact and the popularity of the Beat Movement on American literature.
Howl and Other Poems (poetry) 1956
Siesta in Xbalva and Return to the States (poetry) 1956
Empty Mirror: Early Poems (poetry) 1961
Kaddish and Other Poems, 1958-1960 (poetry) 1961
The Change (poetry) 1963
Reality Sandwiches: 1953-1960 (poetry) 1963
Kral Majales (poetry) 1965
Wichita Vortex Sutra (poetry) 1966
TV Baby Poems (poetry) 1967
Airplane Dreams: Compositions from Journals (poetry) 1968
Ankor Wat [with Alexandra Lawrence] (poetry) 1968
The Heart is a Clock (poetry) 1968
Message II (poetry) 1968
Planet News (poetry) 1968
Scrap Leaves, Tasty Scribbles (poetry) 1968
Wales—A Visitation, July 29, 1967 (poetry) 1968
For the Soul of the Planet is Wakening (poetry) 1970
Indian Journals: March 1962-May 1963: Notebooks, Diary, Blank Pages, Writings (journals and diary) 1970
The Moments Return: A Poem (poetry) 1970
Notes after an Evening with William Carlos Williams (nonfiction) 1970
Ginsberg's Improvised Poetics (poetry) 1971
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SOURCE: Parkinson, Thomas. “Reflections on Allen Ginsberg as Poet.” In Poets, Poems, Movements, pp. 309-11. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1987.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1969, Parkinson debates the poetic value of Ginsberg's verse, contending that it belongs “in the area of religious and spiritual exploration rather than that of aesthetic accomplishment.”]
Allen Ginsberg is a notoriety, a celebrity; to many readers and nonreaders of poetry he has the capacity for releasing odd energetic responses of hatred and love or amused affection or indignant moralizing. There are even people who are roused to very flat indifference by the friendly nearsighted shambling bearded figure who has some of the qualities of such comic stars as Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin. And some of their seriousness.
His latest book, Planet News, grants another revelation of his sensibility. The usual characteristics of his work are there; the rhapsodic lines, the odd collocations of images and thoughts and processes, the occasional rant, the extraordinary tenderness. His poetry resembles the Picasso sculpture melted together of children's toys, or the sculpture of driftwood and old tires and metal barrels and tin cans shaped by enterprising imaginative young people along the polluted shores of San Francisco Bay. You can make credible Viking warriors from such materials....
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SOURCE: Portugés, Paul. “Allen Ginsberg's Visions and the Growth of His Poetics of Prophecy.” In Poetic Prophecy in Western Literature, edited by Jan Wojcik and Raymond-Jean Frontain, pp. 157-73. Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1984.
[In the following essay, Portugés details Ginsberg's visionary experiences and their effect on his poetry.]
In the bitter winter of 1944, Allen Ginsberg was crossing by ferry to Manhattan in order to take a scholarship and entrance examination for Columbia University. He was, quite naturally, somewhat frightened and excited. Although almost eighteen years old, he still nurtured a secret desire kindled early in his childhood to help save the poor, the abused masses, God's true children. Shivering in the icy wind of the bright, damp morning, he vowed before his Maker to devote his life to helping the “masses in their misery”—if he could only pass his examination: “I went to take the entrance exam at Columbia, Vowed Forever that if I succeeded in the scholarship test and got a chance I would never betray the Ideal—to help the masses in their misery.”1
Although successful with his examination, Ginsberg slowly learned that he was incapable of saving the common man. He realized that he was not tough enough and that his plan to become a “pure Debs”2—that is, a good, Socialist lawyer working for...
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SOURCE: Shechner, Mark. “Allen Ginsberg: The Poetics of Power.” In After the Revolution: Studies in the Contemporary Jewish American Imagination, pp. 180-95. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.
[In the following essay, Shechner determines the impact of Ginsberg's poetry on cultural and political events in the 1960s and 1970s and deems him “America's leading and perhaps only example of a power poet.”]
I. THE ENLIGHTENMENT
Living in an age of ornamental poetry in which the essential obligation of the poet is to produce allegories of his own sensitivity, we are likely to find ourselves out of touch with the audacious last line of Shelley's “A Defense of Poetry”: “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” What possible relation, we are bound to wonder, does our poetry have to legislation, to politics, to power? And if we could locate those elements in poetry that might bear some plausible connection to power, how would it be possible, in an age that neither honors nor even reads poetry, for a poet to become the legislator of the world, even an unacknowledged one?
Of course, Shelley's conception of poetry was a far cry from what we find when we open our Eliot, our Lowell, our Ashbery … whomever. His defense was rooted in the great dramatic and epic poets: Shakespeare, Sophocles, Plato (whom Shelley deemed a poet of ideas),...
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SOURCE: Woods, Gregory. “Allen Ginsberg.” In Articulate Flesh: Male Homoeroticism and Modern Poetry, pp. 195-211. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987.
[In the following essay, Woods places Ginsberg's poetry within the gay tradition and considers the function of sexuality in his work.]
The argument that one's homosexuality is entirely her or his own affair, a private matter to be lapped in secrecy, cannot honestly be upheld. Sexual orientation has as much to do with social life and politics—if only because a homosexual person is well advised to choose approving friends, and not to vote for disapproving parties—as with internal emotion and the gymnastics of the boudoir. Supposedly private emotions, particularly those of writers, yearn for the freedom of release. So, a literature of homosexuality will seek to be affirmative (or confessional, at least), within the bounds of expediency. Clearly, where homosexual desires and acts are punishable by death, homo-erotic literature will tend to be metaphorical and oblique, whereas, in freer circumstances, it will tend to be descriptive and direct. Coming out is no mere fashion, but in several respects a personal, social, and political necessity. Of course, anyone who comes out, no matter how quietly, is accused of ‘flaunting’ her or his homosexuality, as if wedding rings, joint mortgages, maternity dresses,...
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SOURCE: Klawans, Stuart. “The Beat Goes On: Allen Ginsberg, All American.” Voice Literary Supplement (November 1989): 21-23.
[In the following review, Klawans assesses Ginsberg's contribution to American poetry.]
Strange now to think of him, back before the medals and wreaths, when he lived in wood-frame Paterson, New Jersey; gray Columbia dorms; obscurity. Who would have thought that Irwin Allen Ginsberg, queer son of a Communist madwoman, would end up in the American Institute of Arts and Letters? Strange to think of him as he graduated from college and the loony bin, put on a tie, set up house on Nob Hill with Sheila Williams Boucher and her little son. He knew the path to success; and he knew he had to be heading the other way when he strayed off with his visionary poems and a young man named Orlovsky. None of the rest was supposed to happen—no Ginsberg as we know him, magnified and glorified, his great name most recently exalted in an almost-official biography, as if the man himself were finished now, except for the reading of his kaddish.
That the burial is premature may be judged from the note of suspense in the eulogies, which have been intoned for some 15 years now over their incorrigibly lively subject. His Collected Poems, at 800 pages, has the heft you'd expect of a tombstone; but its subtitle, 1947-1980, does not so much close off the poet's life as...
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SOURCE: Spiegelman, Willard. “The Moral Imperative in Anthony Hecht, Allen Ginsberg, and Robert Pinsky.” In The Didactic Muse: Scenes of Instruction in Contemporary American Poetry, pp. 56-109. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989.
[In the following excerpt, Spiegelman finds parallels between the work of Ginsberg, Anthony Hecht, and Robert Pinsky.]
Twenty years ago, Susan Sontag suggested “Jewish moral seriousness and homosexual aestheticism and irony” as the primary forces in the modern sensibility.1 Gay poets have no monopoly on irony, as the cases of Howard Nemerov, Richard Wilbur, Anthony Hecht and John Hollander, to cite a few, prove. Nemerov and James Merrill both inherited the mantle of W. H. Auden, although only Merrill shares Auden's sexual preference. Nor do American Jews have, ipso facto, a greater share of moral seriousness (consider Robert Bly, Amy Clampitt, Robert Hass, and Robert Lowell). And yet Sontag's theory has a curious validity for contemporary poetry. She has identified two strands, sometimes separate, sometimes intertwined, that stand out prominently in the contemporary fabric. In fact, at least as far as poetry goes, the three major forces in a collective “sensibility” might be the Jewish-moral, the gay-aesthetic, and the Southern-agrarian, the last represented in these pages by A. R. Ammons, but reaching backward to Robert Penn Warren and forward to...
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SOURCE: Honan, Park. “Ginsberg and Kerouac.” In Authors' Lives: On Literary Biography and the Arts of Language, pp. 231-46. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1990.
[In the following essay, Honan traces Ginsberg's role in the development of the Beat Movement in American literature and discusses the influences on both Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac.]
Slim, bearded, with slightly staring eyes but a pleasant face, Allen Ginsberg stood up in a San Francisco gallery in October 1955 to read “Howl.” This was the beginning of the Beat movement in American literature. The poet had been a wayward Columbia University student, but his poem was to be as famous as any since T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land.
England has often been more hospitable than America to twentieth-century American poetry (Robert Frost printed his first two volumes in London), and the first edition of “Howl” was printed in England by Villiers, passed through U.S. Customs and published late in 1956 by City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco. However, Customs seized 520 copies of the second printing on March 25, 1957, and on April 3 the American Civil Liberties Union decided to contest the legality of the seizure, since it considered the poem not obscene. A California court finally agreed “Howl” had cultural value and meanwhile interest in the obscenity trial made Ginsberg and the Beats famous.
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SOURCE: Stephenson, Gregory. “Allen Ginsberg's ‘Howl’: A Reading.” In The Daybreak Boys: Essays on the Literature of the Beat Generation, pp. 50-58. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1990.
[In the following essay, Stephenson analyzes “Howl” as “essentially a record of psychic process and … its relationship to spiritual and literary traditions and to archetypal patterns.”]
Where there is no vision, the people perish.
Much madness is divinest sense To a discerning eye; Much sense the starkest madness. 'Tis the majority In all this, as all, prevails. Assent, and you are sane; Demur,—you're straightway dangerous, And handled with a chain.
Emily Dickinson, “Much Madness”
In the quarter century since its publication by City Lights Books, Allen Ginsberg's poem “Howl” has been reviled and admired but has received little serious critical attention. Reviewers and critics have generally emphasized the social or political aspects of the poem, its breakthrough use of obscenity and its allusions to homosexuality, or its long-line, free-verse, open form. For these reasons “Howl” is already being relegated to the status of a literary artifact. I want to consider “Howl” as essentially a record of psychic process and to indicate its relationship to spiritual and literary traditions and to...
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SOURCE: Reilly, Evelyn. “Naked Allen Ginsberg.” Parnassus 16, no. 2 (1991): 161-71.
[In the following essay, Reilly explores Ginsberg's status as an outsider and its impact on his work.]
Who goes there? hankering, gross, mystical, nude …
—Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”
I want to be known as the most brilliant man in America
I want to be the spectacle of Poesy triumphant over trickery of the world
—All empty all for show, all for the sake of Poesy to set surpassing example of sanity as measure for late generations
—Allen Ginsberg, “Ego Confession”
Oh, Allen … ! What is that special sigh we reserve for Allen Ginsberg? Who is this man who has moved among us with such public intimacy for the last four decades arousing so much admiration, embarrassment, irritation, and affection? As I weigh five-hundred-plus pages of his “life” in my mind and hand, I wonder, do we need a biography at all? For what other poet has offered him or herself to us so undisguisedly and, yes, even, confessionally, for so long? What more can there be to know than, say, what is contained in a poem like “Ego Confession,” which, in its self-deprecation, its only half-ironic messianic claims, its humor and sanity, sums up that special unrestrained, uncensored (and unedited, one too often...
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SOURCE: Jarraway, David R. “‘Standing by His Word’: The Politics of Allen Ginsberg's Vietnam ‘Vortex’.” Journal of American Culture 16, no. 3 (fall 1993): 81-88.
[In the following essay, Jarraway discusses “Wichita Vortex Sutra” as emblematic of Vietnam and postmodern literature.]
There is a passage near the end of Michael Herr's Dispatches from the Vietnam war that baffles equally as it fascinates. The passage reads as follows:
One morning, about twenty-five correspondents were out by the Y Bridge working when a dying ARVN was driven by on the back of a half-ton pick-up. The truck stopped at some barbed wire, and we all gathered around to look at him. He was nineteen or twenty and he'd been shot three times in the chest. All of the photographers leaned in for pictures, there was a television camera above him, we looked at him and then at each other and then at the wounded Vietnamese again. He opened his eyes briefly a few times and looked back at us. The first time, he tried to smile (the Vietnamese did that when they were embarrassed by the nearness of foreigners), then it left him. I'm sure that he didn't even see us the last time he looked, but we all knew what it was that he'd just seen before that.
With that last statement, Herr's brief, moving anecdote breaks off, and we're...
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SOURCE: Jamison, Andrew and Ron Eyerman. “The Reconceptualization of Culture: Allen Ginsberg, James Baldwin, Mary McCarthy.” In Seeds of the Sixties. pp. 141-77. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.
[In the following excerpt, Jamison and Eyerman regard the role of radical politics on the work of Ginsberg, James Baldwin, and Mary McCarthy and deem the three authors “central actors in the reconceptualization of American culture that was taking place in the postwar period and, more important, in planting seeds that would sprout in the 1960s.”]
On a cold day in early spring 1943, Irwin Allen Ginsberg, the son of Russian immigrants who had settled in Paterson, stood on a New Jersey dock awaiting the ferry to New York. Not yet seventeen, he was on his way to take the entry examination at Columbia University. In a rush of youthful emotion, he solemnly vowed to himself that if accepted to that great institution he would study labor law and devote his life to helping the working class. This was a vow not taken lightly, since Ginsberg's parents were both active in the socialist movement and his early life had been colored by heated debates concerning the relative virtues of Joseph Stalin and Leon Trotsky and the importance of class solidarity. Although he would never receive a law degree, completing a degree in English instead, the categories that defined politics in the 1930s would remain...
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SOURCE: Peters, Robert. “Funky Poetry: Ginsberg's The Fall of America.” In Where the Bee Sucks: Workers, Drones and Queens of Contemporary American Poetry, pp. 113-19. London: Asylum Arts, 1994.
[In the following essay, Peters provides a stylistic analysis of Ginsberg's verse, defining it as “funky” poetry.]
Funky poetry is my invention for a genre of poem best executed by Allen Ginsberg. Poetry in Salvation Army clothes hung with rusted medals and pendants culled from the trash heaps of America and from the head shops of eastern mysticism. Poetry in Whitman's easiest colloquial, cataloguing, suspiring manner, of the Whitman clad in frayed and soiled Big Mac overalls just in from the barn of the universe, that Vedantaesque-pseudo Blakean-Kerouacian stables. The poet is to locate nuggets in the animal-magical ordure of this life—these states.
Yes, a tatty form, a diarrhea (frequently) of phrases and projective verse breath group clusters, a telegraphic mode intended to speed (no pun intended) the reader along towards enlightenment, and at its best evoking Gary Snyder's sufi-zenism by scaling the nearest ponderosa pine towards nirvana, drunk on manzanita tea and the memory of friends' anuses. In an issue of Camels Coming Newsletter (3) Ginsberg produces this cover-page definition of literary pollution:
What's literary pollution? Immediate...
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SOURCE: Everett, Nicholas. “Pushing Seventy.” Times Literary Supplement (10 February 1995): 22.
[In the following mixed review, Everett considers the poems in Cosmopolitan Greetings as candid yet inconsistent.]
It will be forty years in October since Allen Ginsberg gave his historic first reading of “Howl” (in San Francisco), the poem which so spectacularly launched his poetic career and put the Beat Generation on the American literary and cultural map. Looking back at the various outraged responses the poem inspired, the one that now seems strangest is not the (unsuccessful) prosecution for obscenity (some of Ginsberg's poems still can't be broadcast on American radio during the day) but the objection from the literary “establishment” that the poem was wild and wholly lacking in craft. What has become clear over the intervening years is just how systematic and considered Ginsberg's methods are. Indeed, next to this anarchic beatnik, many formalist and traditionalist poets seem like brave improvisers, going it without the kind of aesthetic (and ideological) framework that Ginsberg has always so readily invoked to explain and justify his art.
Admittedly, his central principle of composition is spontaneity, but this is really just a desire to be candid, to use his ordinary thoughts rather than trying to come up with something more impressive for the purpose of the poem....
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SOURCE: Bawer, Bruce. “The Phenomenon of Allen Ginsberg.” In Prophets & Professors: Essays on the Lives and Works of Modern Poets, pp. 193-214. Brownsville: Story Line Press, 1995.
[In the following essay, Bawer explores the reasons for Ginsberg's renown and considerable reputation.]
I'm so lucky to be nutty.
—Allen Ginsberg, “Bop Lyrics” (1949)
The very first poem in Allen Ginsberg's Collected Poems 1947-19801 seems, in a way, to prophesy Ginsberg's entire career. It is titled “In Society,” and it dates from 1947, when the poet was twenty-one years old. The poem records a dream: Ginsberg is at a high-society cocktail party, is more or less ignored, and is told by a woman, “I don't like you.” He screams at her:
… “What!” in outrage. “Why you shit-faced fool!” This got everybody's attention. “Why you narcissistic bitch! How can you decide when you don't even know me,” I continued in a violent and messianic voice, inspired at last, dominating the whole room.
Could Ginsberg have known, at that tender age, that he would spend much of his adult life dominating rooms in this manic, “messianic” manner—indeed, that his attention-getting tactics at poetry readings, political conventions, sit-ins, be-ins, protest marches, and Yippie Life Festivals...
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SOURCE: Vendler, Helen. “The Reversed Pietà: Allen Ginsberg's ‘Kaddish’.” In Soul Says: On Recent Poetry, pp. 9-15. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1995.
[In the following essay, Vendler perceives “Kaddish” as “chiefly an elegy of the body—the physical body and the historically conditioned body of Naomi Ginsberg.”]
The poem “Kaddish,” now thirty years old, appeared in 1961 with two manifestos by Ginsberg bracketing it. The first, on the copyright page of the volume Kaddish, announced that “the established literary quarterlies of my day are bankrupt poetically thru their own hatred, dull ambition or loudmouthed obtuseness,” and, in acknowledging previous appearances of the poems in journals, remarked that two of those publications were begun by “youths who quit editing university magazines to avoid hysterical academic censorship.” This Ginsberg manifesto is one of irritated satiric energy; the other, appearing on the back cover of the volume, abounds in passionate phrases like “broken consciousness,” “suffering anguish of separation,” “blissful union,” “desolate … homeless … at war,” “original trembling of bliss in breast and belly,” “fear,” defenseless living hurt self,” and “hymn completed in tears.” Things that are separate in the manifestos—satire and pathos—come together in Ginsberg's great elegy for...
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SOURCE: Vendler, Helen. “American X-Rays: Forty Years of Allen Ginsberg's Poetry.” New Yorker 72, no. 33 (4 November 1996): 98-102.
[In the following mixed assessment of Selected Poems, 1947-1995, Vendler views Ginsberg's verse as an insightful record of late twentieth-century American history.]
In a poem to Allen Ginsberg, Czeslaw Milosz wrote:
I envy your courage of absolute defiance, words inflamed, the fierce maledictions of a prophet. … Your blasphemous howl still resounds in a neon desert where the human tribe wanders, sentenced to unreality. … And your journalistic clichés, your beard and beads and your dress of a rebel of another epoch are forgiven.
Allen Ginsberg, at the beginning of his Selected Poems 1947-1995, gives his own definition of his “absolute defiance”: “I imagined a force field of language counter to the hypnotic force-field control apparatus of media Government secret police & military with their Dollar billions of inertia, disinformation, brainwash, mass hallucination.”
Ginsberg's “force field” came to public notice with the publication of Howl and Other Poems, in 1956, when Ginsberg was thirty years old. The title poem of the volume cried out against an America that devoured its young as the pagan god Moloch had devoured the...
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SOURCE: Chidley, Joe. “Counterculture Forever.” MacLean's 109, no. 46 (11 November 1996): 95-96.
[In the following review, Chidley considers the renewed commercial and critical interest in Ginsberg's verse as well as the poet's political and social concerns.]
Five storeys up in a nondescript apartment building, workmen are hammering and sawing, renovating a sunny Manhattan loft in a cacophony of Italian song and shouted curses. Amid the clatter, lying on a modest double bed, Allen Ginsberg—original beatnik, gay iconoclast, Buddhist peacenik, hippie guru and, arguably, America's Last Famous Poet—is taking a nap. As incense wafts through the room, he seems a pool of repose surrounded by what he once called “the vast animal soup” of the everyday world. It is tempting to view the professorial, diminutive gentleman as a saintly figure—a madman-poet who has at last found peace. But as Ginsberg, roused from his sleep, begins to talk about his twin passions—poetry and politics—it is clear that he remains a clear, energetic, even dangerous thinker. “Candor is the whole key [to poetry],” he says. “It's exactly what we're missing in politics. Everybody is a bunch of hypocritical liars in public—everybody knows they are, and yet the whole system sustains itself on secrecy and lies.”
It is one of those sweeping, characteristically Ginsbergian statements that makes it hard...
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SOURCE: Ostriker, Alicia. “‘Howl’ Revisited: The Poet as Jew.” American Poetry Review 26, no. 4 (July-August 1997): 28-31.
[In the following essay, Ostriker regards Ginsberg as a Jewish poet.]
I have reverenced Allen Ginsberg—man and poet—for three decades, and see no reason to stop now. The first time I met Allen I was amazed, as this essay suggests, by his voice: the power and sweetness and humor of it. His breath, I thought, was the breath of the spirit. The last time was the same, but more so. We were at the Dodge Poetry Festival in Waterloo, N.J., in the soft weather of early fall, 1996. At dinner I told him I had written an essay about him as a Jew, that he would probably disapprove of, and he shrugged this off and talked about his new apartment. He was looking ailing and frail. He was ailing and frail, until he went on stage, seated with his harmonium, and then—what can one say except that Allen's voice was channeling huge quantities of spiritual energy, joy, pain, love, hope, laughter, from the Great Beyond, or wherever that stuff comes from, and spraying it like a cosmic fire hydrant into the big tent and out into the warm night. For forty-five minutes he hosed us up and down, and we all rode the billows of delight. I imagine he is having a fine time now, in the holy company of Whitman, Blake, Williams, and the Prophet Jeremiah.
I GINSBERG THE YID...
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SOURCE: Podhoretz, Norman. “My War with Allen Ginsberg.” Commentary 104, no. 2 (August 1997): 27-40.
[In the following essay, Podhoretz recalls his disputes with Ginsberg and provides a critical assessment of his work and contribution to American poetry.]
“Allen Ginsberg, Master Poet of Beat Generation, Dies at 70,” proclaimed the headline on the front page of the New York Times for April 6, 1997. Reading it, I was moved more deeply than I would have expected—not to grief (though an unmistakable touch of sadness did briefly make a surprise appearance) but rather to an overwhelming feeling of wistfulness. It came over me that I had known this man for a full 50 years—50 years!—and that for at least 40 of them I had been at war with him and he with me. It came over me too that even now, with Ginsberg himself carried off the field, his work and its influence would still be there and the war would still go on.
Perhaps the best place to begin in telling the story of that war is a Saturday night in the fall of 1958, when I was twenty-eight and had just left the editorial staff of Commentary to work on a book while also trying my luck as a freelance writer and editor. At about 7:30 P.M., after hanging around all day in the sloppy old clothes I usually wore on weekends, I shaved, put on a clean white shirt with a button-down collar, a rep tie, and a three-piece...
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SOURCE: Castellitto, George P. “Imagism and Allen Ginsberg's Manhattan Locations: The Movement from Spatial Reality to Written Image.” Colby Quarterly 35, no. 2 (June 1999): 117-28.
[In the following essay, Castellitto perceives an affinity between Ginsberg's utilization of Manhattan images in his verse and the Imagist poets of the early twentieth century.]
Allen Ginsberg's excursions into the streets of Greenwich Village in the 1950's brought him in contact with a host of specific locations and objects that he catalogues in much of his early poetry. Ginsberg has been labeled as mystic, guru, and howler, but beneath the stark epithets and undaunted vocabulary of his poetry lies his affinity with the early Imagist poets of the twentieth century: William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, and Amy Lowell. Ginsberg himself admitted that, besides the works of Whitman, Kerouac, and the Bible, “imagist practices” were “immediate resources” for his poetic vision (Muckle 20). Ginsberg perceives the walls of Christine's Polish Restaurant on East Twelfth Street and First Avenue with much the same exactness and avoidance of metaphor as Williams views the particulars of Queen Anne's lace. Ginsberg's “impressive grip on exact description” (Vendler 196) places his work more solidly in the Imagist tradition than he himself would often admit. Williams, in his awareness of the inefficacy of language to portray...
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SOURCE: Trigilio, Tony. “‘Strange Prophecies Anew’: Rethinking the Politics of Matter and Spirit in Ginsberg's ‘Kaddish.’” American Literature 71, no. 4 (December 1999): 773-95.
[In the following essay, Trigilio contrasts “Howl” and “Kaddish” and determines the “complex role ‘Kaddish’ plays in Ginsberg's development of a contemporary poetics of prophecy.”]
Too often critics conflate Allen Ginsberg's best-known poems, “Howl” and “Kaddish,” and in the process understate important differences between them. The reasons for this conflation are clear enough: both are interventions in Western prophecy, and both conjoin religion and politics in an effort to decenter Cold War sexual-political orthodoxy and to highlight the “beatitude” of downtrodden, even oppressed, protagonists. Yet exaggerating the similarities between the two poems fails to do justice to the complex role “Kaddish” plays in Ginsberg's development of a contemporary poetics of prophecy. Specifically, such exaggeration neglects four revisionary strategies in “Kaddish”: the recovery of a female principle of divinity from the male comradeship of “Howl”; “Kaddish”'s less trustful attitude toward prophetic naming, despite its continuation of the prophetic impulse of “Howl”; Ginsberg's manipulation of psychiatric and antipsychiatric historical contexts to forge a revisionary poetics of mind...
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SOURCE: Diggory, Terence. “Allen Ginsberg's Urban Pastoral.” College Literature 27, no. 1 (winter 2000): 103-18.
[In the following essay, Diggory views Ginsberg's poetry as part of the pastoral tradition.]
What does Allen Ginsberg want? The question persists in his poetry, where it has acquired something more of a literary emphasis now that the poet himself is dead. Without insisting too rigidly on the boundary between art and life that Ginsberg delighted in crossing, I want to propose the literary concept of “pastoral” as a useful means for exploring the question of Ginsberg's desire. Taken together, the following three exhibits will suggest what I mean by “pastoral” in this connection and how complex a tradition conveys the concept to Ginsberg.
Exhibit 1: In 1977, the poet Kenneth Koch asks Ginsberg, “What would you consider an ideal existence for yourself as a poet?” Ginsberg replies: “Retiring from the world, living in a mountain hut, practicing certain special meditation exercises half the day, and composing epics as the sun sets” (Ginsberg 1977, 9).
Exhibit 2: In 1954, the San Francisco psychiatrist Philip Hicks asks Ginsberg: “What would you like to do? What is your desire, really?” Ginsberg replies:
I really would like to stop working...
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SOURCE: Harris, Oliver. “Cold War Correspondents: Ginsberg, Kerouac, Cassady, and the Political Economy of Beat Letters.” Twentieth Century Literature 46, no. 2 (summer 2000): 171-92.
[In the following essay, Harris surveys the correspondence between three of the predominant figures in the Beat Movement and elucidates its insight into the relationship between the Cold War and Beat Movement.]
On June 23, 1953, an aspiring poet employed as a copyboy for the New York World Telegram wrote a long letter to an old friend in San Jose. The letter ends by reproducing a telegraph sent to President Eisenhower protesting what David Caute has called “the midsummer's night of postwar anti-Communist, anti-Soviet hysteria” (62)—the electrocution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, the so-called atom spies: “Rosenbergs are pathetic, government Will sordid, execution obscene America caught in crucifixion machine only barbarians want them burned I say stop it before we fill our souls with death-house horror” (Ginsberg, As Ever 150). Since the copyboy was Allen Ginsberg and the friend Neal Cassady, the letter witnesses a precise intersection of the dominant narrative action of early Cold War America and its dissident counternarrative as represented by key figures in the emergent Beat movement. However, in context of the exemplary character of Beat cultural politics, Ginsberg's telegram of...
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Morgan, Bill. The Works of Allen Ginsberg, 1941-1994: A Descriptive Bibliography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1995, 456 p.
Primary bibliography listing Ginsberg's books, photographs, pamphlets, and recordings as well as film, radio, and television appearances.
———. The Response to Allen Ginsberg, 1926-1994: A Bibliography of Secondary Sources. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996, 505 p.
Catalogues the foreign language translations of Ginsberg's work as well as secondary material on the poet.
Miles, Barry. Ginsberg: A Biography. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989, 588 p.
Biography of Ginsberg.
Hyde, Lewis, ed. On the Poetry of Allen Ginsberg. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1984, 462 p.
Compilation of reviews and critical essays on Ginsberg's work.
Merrill, Thomas F. Allen Ginsberg. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1988, 161 p.
Full-length critical study of Ginsberg's work.
Meyers, Jeffrey. “Gonzo Ginsberg and Moby Dickey: A Memoir.” Virginia Quarterly Review 74, no. 3 (summer 1998): 446-57.
Personal recollections of Ginsberg and Dickey....
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