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.