Allen Ginsberg 1926–1997
American poet, essayist, playwright, and nonfiction writer.
For further information on Ginsberg's life and career, see CLC, Volumes 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 13, 36, and 69.
A founder of the Beat movement, Allen Ginsberg is one of the most noted and popular poets of post-war America. His most famous poem, "Howl" (1956), is a post-modern classic. Born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1926, Ginsberg grew up in the same neighborhood as poet William Carlos Williams, who would later write the introduction to "Howl." Ginsberg's father, Louis, taught high school literature and published lyrical poetry. His mother, Naomi, a Russian immigrant committed to the Communist cause, suffered from mental illness. Ginsberg attended Columbia University where he met Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs and Neal Cassady, with whom he would later form the Beat movement. Ginsberg's social dissent began at this time and continued throughout his lifetime. In the 1950s he moved to San Francisco to take part in the counter-culture movement. In October 1955 Ginsberg gave a public recital of "Howl," impressing critics and establishing himself as a noteworthy voice of his generation. The poem became a success with the public after the government charged that it was pornographic; a judge ruled in favor of Ginsberg. In "Howl," Ginsberg established the traits which he would continue to develop throughout his lifetime: his candor, his focus on sexuality, particularly homosexuality, and his non-traditional writing style. One of Ginsberg's most famous poems, "Kaddish" (1958), centers on his mother's life and mental illness. Loosely patterned on a traditional Jewish prayer, the poem established Ginsberg as a Jewish writer. Critics often compare Ginsberg to Walt Whitman, largely because both poets emphasized the interdependency of political and sexual freedom. While some critics praised Ginsberg's unstructured form and controversial subject matter, others considered his skill overestimated, 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. Ginsberg continued to write until his death on April 5, 1997, in New York City.