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
Bixby Canyon Ocean Path Word Breeze (poetry) 1972
Iron Horse (poetry) 1972
Kaddish (play) 1972
New Year Blues (poetry) 1972
Open Head (poetry) 1972
The Fall of America: Poems of These States, 1965-1971 (poetry) 1973
The Gates of Wrath: Rhymed Poems, 1948-1952 (poetry) 1973
The Visions of the Great Rememberer (letters) 1974
Allen Verbatim: Lectures of Poetry, Politics, and Consciousness (lectures) 1975
Chicago Trial Testimony (nonfiction) 1975
First Blues: Rags, Ballads, and Harmonium Songs, 1971-1974 (poetry) 1975
Sad Dust Glories: Poems during Work Summer in Woods, 1974 (poetry) 1975
To Eberhart from Ginsberg (letters) 1976
Journals: Early Fifties, Early Sixties (journals) 1977
Careless Love: Two Rhymes (poetry) 1978
Mind Breaths: Poems, 1972-1977 (poetry) 1978
Mostly Sitting Haiky (poetry) 1978
Poems All over the Place: Mostly Seventies (poetry) 1978
Plutonian Ode (poetry) 1982
Collected Poems: 1947-1980 (poetry) 1984
White Shroud (poetry) 1986
The Hydrogen Jukebox (play) 1990
Snapshot Poetics (poetry) 1993
Cosmopolitan Greetings: Poems, 1986-1992 (poetry) 1994
Selected Poems, 1947-1995 (poetry) 1996
Death and Fame: Poems, 1993-1997 (poetry) 1999
Deliberate Prose: Selected Essays, 1952-1995 (essays) 2000
Family Business: Selected Letters between Father and Son (letters) 2001
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. Ginsberg's poetry works in parallel processes; it is junk poetry, not in the drug sense of junk but in its building blocks. It joins together the waste and loss that have come to characterize the current world, Cuba, Czechoslovakia, the Orient, the United States, Peru. Out of such debris as is offered he makes what poetry he can.
He doesn't bring news of the earth but of the planet. Earth drives us down, confines, mires, isolates, and besides there is less and less earth available to perception and more and more artifice. The late C. S. Lewis might not have enjoyed having his name brought into this discussion, but his great trilogy that begins with Out of the Silent Planet and ends with That Hideous Strength demonstrates the same concern with the planet as Ginsberg's new book. Both of them see Earth as a planet, part of a solar system, part of a galaxy, part of a universe, cosmic. But where Lewis wrote out of hatred, indignation, and despair at the destruction of tradition by mindless technology, Ginsberg writes from sad lost affection. I think Ginsberg is our only truly sad writer, sad with a heavy, heavy world, and somehow always courageous and content to remain in the human continuum with all his knowledge of human ill and malice clear. He persists.
But is it poetry? This question is so often asked that it does require answering not only within the confines of Ginsberg's work but generally. I am not entirely sure what the question means, since it could legitimately be asked of Whitman or Hart Crane, and has been asked of them. What Ginsberg's work represents is an enormous purging and exorcising operation; it is in the area of religious and spiritual exploration rather than that of aesthetic accomplishment. In the dispute between Whistler and Ruskin over the concept of artistic “finish,” Ginsberg's poetry would stand with...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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....
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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....
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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...
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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”
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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,...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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,...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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