Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1755
Irwin Allen Ginsberg was born in Newark, New Jersey, the second son of Louis Ginsberg, a lyric poet and teacher, and Naomi Levy Ginsberg, a teacher and political activist. His family moved to Paterson, New Jersey, in 1929, the year his mother was hospitalized for mental stress for the first time, and Ginsberg attended primary school in Paterson. He published two pieces in the Easter issue of the Central High School magazine, The Spectator, his first public work, in 1941.
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When he transferred to Eastside High School, he became president of both the Debating Society and the Dramatic Society before he graduated in 1943. He entered Columbia University as a pre-law student, hoping to pursue a career in labor law, and he studied with Lionel Trilling and Mark Mark Van Doren, who were partially responsible for shifting his focus toward literature. His schoolmates at Columbia included Jack Kerouac, and he met William S. Burroughs in New York City during his first year there. With Kerouac and Burroughs, among others, Ginsberg formulated a philosophical discourse which they called “The New Vision,” a precursor of the Beat generation precepts he exemplified in his later work.
At Columbia, he edited a humor magazine called The Jester, was on the debate team, and helped run the literary society. In 1945, he was suspended from Columbia for permitting Kerouac to stay in his room overnight, and he worked temporarily as a welder, dishwasher, assistant at the Gotham Book Mart, and apprentice seaman in the merchant marine. He was readmitted in 1946 and became assistant editor of the Columbia Review, in which he published poems, stories, and book reviews. Ginsberg spent the summer of 1947 traveling to Colorado to visit Neal Cassady, the model for Kerouac’s Dean Moriarty character in On the Road (1957), and he graduated with a B.A. from Columbia in 1948. Later in that year, he had a vision of the English Romantic poet William Blake speaking to him directly—partially a product of Ginsberg’s fairly extensive experimentation with hallucinogenic substances, partially an expression of his intense literary and philosophical considerations of the nature of the cosmos.
Although he had no intention to break the law, Ginsberg became involved in several quasi-criminal activities as a part of an underground (or as Kerouac called it, “subterranean”) existence, and, following the counsel of several teachers at Columbia, he committed himself to an eight-month stay in Columbia Presbyterian Psychiatric Institute as a means of avoiding prosecution. During his stay he met Carl Solomon, the man to whom “Howl” (1956) is addressed, recognizing immediately a fellow enthusiast for avant-garde art and an unconventional life pattern.
After moving in with his father and stepmother in 1950, he sent a letter and some poems to William Carlos Williams, who was living nearby in Rutherford, New Jersey. Williams provided guidance and encouragement, and while Ginsberg traveled to Mexico and Europe during the early 1950’s, he continued to work on his poetry. In 1953, he moved to the Lower East Side of Manhattan, which was to become his home ground for the following five decades, and worked as a copyboy at the New York World-Telegram. He spent much of 1954 living in Mexico and then San Francisco, where he worked briefly as a market researcher and met Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the poet and publisher of City Lights Books, which would issue Ginsberg’s poetry for the following quarter century. In 1955, Ginsberg moved to Berkeley, California, where he wrote his tribute to Walt Whitman, “A Supermarket in California” (1956), and organized the now-legendary landmark reading of October 13 at the Six Gallery, where he joined Gary Snyder, Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure, and Philip Whalen to read “Howl” in public for the first time. There, also, he was introduced to Peter Orlovsky, who became a close friend and sometime lover, a relationship that endured, while becoming progressively contentious, for many decades. His mother, Naomi, died in 1956, the year that Howl, and Other Poems was published, and Ginsberg spent the following two years traveling extensively, promoting the work of friends, defending the Howl volume against charges of obscenity, and working on “Kaddish,” his celebration of his mother, published in 1961.
The media had discovered the artists whom they grouped under the title “Beatniks” in the late 1950’s, and Ginsberg began to appear in magazines and films as an exemplar and proponent of this literary movement. Ginsberg continued to travel widely, reading and discussing the books that he and his friends— Gregory Corso, LeRoi Jones (later Amiri Baraka), Herbert Huncke, Diana di Prima—were trying to publish. He and Orlovsky visited Burroughs in Tangier in 1957, where he took part in a group effort to pull together Burroughs’s huge “word hoard” as Naked Lunch (1959). He spent time in South America and India in 1961 and 1962, before traveling to Great Britain where he met and performed with the Beatles (as well as Bob Dylan) in a now-legendary concert at London’s Albert Hall.
He revived his friendship with Cassady when a bus driven by Cassady carried Ken Kesey, author of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962), and the Merry Pranksters across the United States to New York in 1964. In 1963, he published his third collection of poems, Reality Sandwiches, as well as an exchange of letters with Burroughs (The Yage Letters) on their experiences with the liquid mind-altering substance yage. His interest in the use of materials such as this led him to form LeMar (Organization to Legalize Marijuana) in 1964 with the poet Ed Sanders. In 1965, he appeared in a proto-music video of Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues.”
Because of his often critical comments about politics in the United States, the Communist governments of Cuba and Czechoslovakia invited Ginsberg to visit under the mistaken assumption that he would approve of their repressive regimes. In 1965, Ginsberg visited Cuba and was expelled when he challenged the totalitarian aspects of Cuban society, unsettling the puritanical Communist regime with rampant erotic invitations. He then visited Prague, where he was chosen “King of May” by a hundred thousand Czechs before being expelled for his “unusual sex politics dream opinions,” as he put it in the poem “Kral Majales.”
At the same time that he was becoming increasingly specific about his differences with the U.S. government about its policies in Vietnam, Ginsberg was also becoming a patron of sorts in forming the Committee on Poetry, a nonprofit foundation to assist other writers. In 1967, he was arrested at an antidraft demonstration; he also interviewed Ezra Pound, the most influential Modernist poet in American literature, in Spoleto, Italy. Ginsberg published Planet News in 1968, a volume including all the poetry he had written in the 1960’s, and he was directly involved in the massive political protests at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in the summer of 1968, acting as a strong voice for nonviolent expression amidst the increasing chaos of the demonstrations and police retaliation that disrupted the political program. He testified for the defense in the notorious trial of the “Chicago Seven” following the convention.
As the 1960’s drew to a close, Ginsberg was becoming recognized more widely as an important figure in American literature. In 1969, he was awarded a National Institute of Arts and Letters grant for poetry, and in 1971, he served as a judge on the National Book Awards panel for poetry. In the early 1970’s, he spent some time on a farm in upstate New York and published The Fall of America: Poems of These States, 1965-1971 (1972), poems written during the previous six years. His interest in Buddhism, going back to his visit to India which was presented in Indian Journals: March 1962-May 1963 in 1970, culminated in an acceptance of the teaching of Buddha under the instruction of Chögyam Trungpa, a religious figure from Tibet who initiated him with the name “Lion of Dharma.” In 1974, The Fall of America won the National Book Award, and Ginsberg began to teach at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, in a school he named “The Jack Kerouac Disembodied School of Poetics.”
Continuing to work in areas not traditionally associated with conventional literary expression, Ginsberg joined Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Review as a percussionist-poet in 1975 and recorded much of his own work, as well as some poetry by Blake, with various types of musical accompaniment. In 1978, he published Mind Breaths and joined a protest at the Rocky Flat nuclear trigger factory, an activity that led to the composition of his “Plutonian Ode.” As the decade closed, Ginsberg’s increasing celebrity and accomplishment were honored by a gold medal from the National Arts Club Academy and induction into the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Ginsberg continued to travel, teach, and perform during the early 1980’s, publishing poems written during the preceding three years in Plutonian Ode: Poems, 1977-1980 (1982) and then achieving stature as a major figure in American letters with the publication of his Collected Poems, 1947-1980 in 1984, a volume received with wide attention and respect by both academic critics and the national media. In 1986, he was appointed distinguished professor at Brooklyn College, and then Professor at the Graduate Center of City University, and published White Shroud, an epilogue to “Kaddish” plus other poems from the early 1980’s. In 1987, he appeared in several segments of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) Voices and Visions series on American poets; as the decade drew to a close, he began a collaboration with the composer Philip Glass that led to a release in 1990 of a chamber opera called Hydrogen Jukebox (a phrase from “Howl”), which placed many of his well-known poems in inventive musical settings. In 1993, he was awarded the medal of Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et Letters by the French minister of culture.
Ginsberg died of liver cancer in his apartment in the East Village of lower Manhattan on April 5, 1997. His death drew an exceptional outpouring of praise from many prominent members of the American cultural community, as well as some typical disparagement from those who decried his undeniable influence on American letters. Ginsberg, no longer considered a wild madman of language, was recognized as a vibrant force in American culture, successful during his last years in the preservation of the legacy of the Beat writers, whose work he taught, promoted, and celebrated. The tributes that appeared on the occasion of his death were both a testament to his work and an acknowledgement by a wide spectrum of the American cultural community of his exceptionally generous support of other artists and his consistent encouragement of all those who were trying to sustain the humane values that he advocated in his life and art.
Last Updated on January 20, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 132
Ginsberg worked in the tradition begun by Walt Whitman, in which the poet is not only a master of language and literature but also a singer whose voice carries the spirit of a nation’s speech and thought. A self-proclaimed “poet as priest” whose congregation was his country’s citizenry, Ginsberg never lost sight of his initial vision of a cosmos where the full range of human possibility can be made manifest through the unrestricted explorations of the mind and body. In opposition to the evils of the modern age, Ginsberg tried to create a kingdom of love leading toward a utopian universe that is alive in his poetry. Like Whitman, the “dear father graybeard” who guided him, he never lost the courage to proclaim his heart’s truth in his poetry.