Discussion Topics (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
When Allen Ginsberg asserted in “Howl” that he would be describing the “best minds of a generation,” he was establishing a set of criteria for individual experience that challenged some familiar and generally accepted standards for personal behavior. What are some of the more prominent values that his work supports? What are some of the personal preferences that drew particularly virulent criticism from some cultural commentators?
One of the most appealing aspects of Ginsberg’s poetry is his comic capacity. He often regards himself as a figure of fun, even in serious statements. Locate and identify examples of his comic sense, and consider how they operate in the creation of an aesthetic sensibility.
In “A Supermarket in California,” Ginsberg depicts two poets dreaming of “the lost America of love.” What are some of the most significant attributes of this “nation” that Ginsberg mentions and elucidates in his poetry?
Ginsberg explained that “Wales Visitation” was a poem written to convey the essence of the psychedelic experience. How does Ginsberg use images to express the dimensions of his psychological mood? How does this correspond to the kind of visionary mental condition that he admires in poets such as William Blake?
One of the most important factors in Ginsberg’s development as a poet was his relationship with his parents. How does he describe and attempt to come to a resolution of tension with his mother’s life in “Kaddish” and other poems?
Among other terms, Ginsberg described his religious inclinations as a “Buddhist Jew.” What are some of the religious precepts and principles which can be drawn from his poems?
As a way to explain one of his poetic techniques, Ginsberg spoke of the linkage of disparate objects, as in “Hydrogen Jukebox” from Howl, and Other Poems. What other prominent examples of this method can be found in his poetry, and how well do they work in generating the moods of the poem?
Other literary forms (Critical Survey of Poetry: American Poets)
Allen Ginsberg recognized early in his career that he would have to explain his intentions, because most critics and reviewers of the time did not have the interest or experience to understand what he was trying to accomplish. Consequently, he published books that include interviews, lectures, essays, photographs, and letters to friends as means of conveying his theories about composition and poetics.
Achievements (Critical Survey of Poetry: American Poets)
The publication of “Howl” in 1956 drew such enthusiastic comments from Allen Ginsberg’s supporters, and such vituperative condemnation from conservative cultural commentators, that a rift of immense proportions developed, which has made a balanced critical assessment very difficult. Nevertheless, partisan response has gradually given way to an acknowledgment by most critics that Ginsberg’s work is significant, if not always entirely successful by familiar standards of literary excellence. Such recognition was underscored in 1974, when The Fall of America shared the National Book Award in Poetry. Ginsberg was awarded a Los Angeles Times Book Prize (1982) and the Frost Medal by the Poetry Society of America (1986). Included among the many honors he garnered during his lifetime were an Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1969, the Woodbury Poetry Prize, Guggenheim fellowships, the National Arts Club Medal of Honor, the Before Columbus Foundation award for lifetime achievement, the University of Chicago’s Harriet Monroe Poetry Award, an American Academy of Arts and Sciences fellowship, and the Medal of Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et Letters.
The voice Ginsberg employed in “Howl” not only has influenced the style of several generations of poets, but also has combined the rhythms and language of common speech with some of the deepest, most enduring traditions in American literature. In both his life and his work, Ginsberg set an example of moral seriousness, artistic commitment, and humane decency that made him one of the most popular figures in American culture. The best of his visionary and innovative creations earned for him recognition as one of the major figures of the twentieth century.
Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Aronson, Jerry. The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg. Video. New York: First Run Icarus Films, 1993. An entertaining and informative documentary film.
Caveney, Graham. Screaming with Joy: The Life of Allen Ginsberg. New York: Broadway Books, 1999. A documentary of Ginsberg’s zealous life and the Beat poets with more than 150 photographs and illustrations.
Ginsberg, Allen. The Letters of Allen Ginsberg. Edited by Bill Morgan. Cambridge, Mass.: Da Capo, 2008. This collection contains 165 letters that Ginsberg wrote to literary critics, journalists, and other writers, including Jack Kerouac. This is a fascinating book for those interested in the Beat poets.
Ginsberg, Allen. Spontaneous Mind: Selected Interviews, 1958-1996. Preface by Václav Havel. Introduction by Edmund White. Edited by David Carter. New York : HarperCollinsPublishers, 2001. A generous selection of interviews that provide an introduction to Ginsberg’s intentions as artist and public figure.
Hyde, Lewis, ed. On the Poetry of Allen Ginsberg. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1984. This is a wide-ranging collection including critical evaluation from both ends of the spectrum (from extravagant praise to total condemnation), interesting historical information, interviews, and even excerpts from the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s file on the poet. An excellent introduction to Ginsberg’s work.
Kramer, Jane. Allen Ginsberg in America. New York: Random House, 1969. A detailed account of two years in the poet’s life, showing him reading at...
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