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.
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...
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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...
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