Poet: Irwin Allen Ginsberg
Date of Birth: 3 June 1926, New Jersey, USA
Date of Death: 5 April 1997, New York, USA
Buried: Gomel Chesed Cemetery, Newark, New Jersey, USA
Allen Ginsberg was a poet, philosopher, and writer. Whist at college in the 1940s he began close friendships with William S Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, forming the core of the Beat Generation. He strenuously opposed economic materialism, militarism, and sexual repression. His views on drugs, openness to Eastern religions and hostility to bureaucracy embodied the counterculture of the time. His best-known poem. ‘Howl’, in which he denounced the destructive forces of capitalism and conformity in the US was seized by San Francisco police and US Customs and attracted widespread publicity in 1957 in an obscenity trial as it described heterosexual and homosexual sex at a time when sodomy laws made homosexual acts a crime in every state. It was ruled as not obscene by Judge Clayton W Horn.
A Buddhist, Ginsberg studied Eastern religious disciplines extensively and lived modestly buying his clothing in second-hand stores and residing in New York’s East Village. Influenced by his teacher the Tibetan Buddhist and founder of the Naropa Institute in Colorado, Chögyam Trungpa, Ginsberg and poet Anne Waldman started the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at the institute in 1974. Ever an activist, Ginsberg too part in decades of political protest, campaigning against everything from the Vietnam War to the War on Drugs.
Ginsberg was born in Newark, New Jersey, into a Jewish family and he grew up in Paterson. In his teenage years, he began to write letters to the New York Times about political issues such as World War II and worker’s rights. In high school Ginsberg, inspired by one of his teachers, became interested in the work of Walt Whitman. Ginsberg graduated in 1943 and entered Columbia University on a scholarship from the Young Men’s Hebrew Association of Paterson. He joined the Merchant Marine in 1945 to earn money to continue his education at the university. While a student he contributed to the Columbia Review literary journal, the Jester humour magazine and won the Woodberry Poetry Prize.
Ginsberg’s mother was affected by an undiagnosed psychological illness and was also an active member of the Communist Party and took both Ginsberg and his brother to party meetings. His mother’s illness often manifested as paranoia and paranoid delusions. Her suspicion of those around her caused her to draw closer to the young Ginsberg. She also tried to kill herself and was taken to Greystone, a mental hospital; she would spend much of Ginsberg’s youth in mental institutions, and his experiences of his mother and her illness were a major inspiration for ‘Howl’ and ‘Kaddish for Naomi Ginsberg’.
In his first year at Columbia Ginsberg met Lucien Carr, a fellow undergraduate who introduced him to several future Beat writers, including Burroughs and Kerouac. They saw an excitement about the potential of American youth outside the strict conformist post-war McCarthy era in each other and bonded. In New York Ginsberg met Gregory Corso who, recently released from prison was supported by the Pony Stable Bar patrons. Although Corso was straight, he had an understanding of homosexuality after three years in prison.
Shortly after this period of his life, Ginsberg became romantically involved with Elsie Cowen, a student of Barnard College. Cowen felt a strong attraction to darker poetry most of the time and Beat poetry seemed to provide an allure to a shadowy side of the persona. She had joined a small group of other anti-establishment artists, poets and visionaries known to the outside world as beatniks.
During the 1950s Ginsberg moved to San Francisco and worked as a market researcher until ‘Howl and Other Poems’ was published by City Lights Bookshop in 1956. He met and fell in love with Peter Orlovsky, who remained his lifelong partner. In San Francisco, he met members of the San Francisco Renaissance and other poets who would later be associated with the Beat Generation. Ginsberg’s mentor William Carlos Williams a letter of introduction to Kenneth Rexroth, the San Francisco Renaissance figurehead., who then introduced Ginsberg to the city’s poetry scene. In 1959, along with the poets John Kelly, AD Winans, Bob Kaufman and William Margolis, Ginsberg was one of the founders of the Beatitude poetry magazine.
In mid-1955 Ginsberg was approached by the painter and co-founder of the Six Gallery, Wally Hedrick to organise a poetry reading at the Six Gallery. Initially, Ginsberg refused, but once he had written a rough draft of ‘Howl’ he changed his mind. The event was advertised as ‘Six Poets at the Six Gallery’ and was one of the most significant events in Beat mythos. The event brought together the East and West Coast factions of the Beat Generation, it also included the first public presentation of ‘Howl’, a poem that brought international fame to Ginsberg and to many of the poets associated with him.
‘Howl’ was considered scandalous at the time of its publication because of the rawness of its language. Shortly after is 1956 publication by San Francisco’s City Lights Bookstore, it was banned for obscenity, a cause célèbre among the defenders of the First Amendment and was later lifted after Judge Clayton W Horn declared the poem to possess redeeming artistic value.
Ginsberg left San Francisco in 1957 and after a short time in Mexico he and Orlovsky joined Gregory Corso in Paris. Corso introduced them to a lodging house above a par in rue Gît-le-Coeur that became known as the Beat Hotel. They were soon joined by others and it was a creative and productive time for all involved. Ginsberg started work on his epic poem ‘Kaddish’, Corso composed Bomb and Marriage and the period was documented by the photographer Harold Chapman who constantly took pictures of the ‘hotel’ residents until it closed in 1963. During 1962-63 Ginsberg and Orlovsky travelled extensively across India, spending 6 months at a time between Calcutta and Benares. He formed friendships with Bengali poets of the time including Pupul Jayakar and Shakti Chattopadhyay. Jayakar helped Ginsberg extend his stay in India when the authorities were keen to expel him.
Ginsberg arrived in London in May 1965 and offered to read anywhere for free. And shortly after his arrival he gave a reading at Better Books. Soon after the bookshop reading plans were made for the International Poetry Incarnation which was held at the Royal Albert Hall in London in June 1965. The event attracted seven thousand people who heard readings and live and tape performances by a variety of figures including Ginsberg, Fainlight, Corso, Ferlinghetti and McGarth. The event was documented on film by Peter Whitehead.
The term Beat most accurately refers to Ginsberg and his closest friends such as Orlovsky, Corso, Burroughs, Kerouac, etc., the term Beat Generation is associated with many of the poets Ginsberg met in the late 1950s and early 1960s. A key feature to this term seems to be an association with Ginsberg, Burroughs, or Kerouac. However, both Burroughs and Kerouac dried to distance themselves from the label of Beat Generation partly due to the mistaken identification of Ginsberg as the leader, a role Ginsberg never claimed to be. In his later life, Ginsberg formed a bridge between the 1950s Beat movement and the 1960s hippy movements.
In 1950 Kerouac shared his studies of Buddhism with Ginsberg, including the Four Noble Truths and sutras such as the Diamond Sutra. Ginsberg’s spiritual journey began with spontaneous visions and continued with a trip to India with Gary Snyder, who had studied ay the First Zen Institute of the Daitoku-ji Monastery in Kyoto. Ginsberg travelled to meet the Dalai Lama and the Karmapa of Rumtek Monastery and later the Dudjom Rinpoche in Kalimpong. On returning to the United Stated he met Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a Kagyu and Nyingma Tibetan Buddhist master who became his lifelong teacher. Along with the poet Anne Waldman, Ginsberg helped Trungpa in the founding of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poets at Naropa University, Colorado.
In the mid-1960s, Ginsberg started incorporating the Hare Krishna mantra into his religious practices. He befriended AC Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the founder of the Krishna movement in the Western world. Ginsberg donated money, materials, and his reputation to help the Swami establish the first temple in the west. In 1967, helped organise a reception for the Swamis at San Francisco International Airport. Between fifty and a hundred hippies greeted the Swami, chanting the Hare Krishna while holding flowers in their hands in the airport lounge.
Ginsberg was treated for a tropical disease in 1960 and contracted hepatitis. He suffered two minor strokes in the 1970s which left him with significant paralysis. In his later life, he suffered from high blood pressure and other stress-related disorders. Her died at the age of 70 due to liver cancer via hepatitis complications. His ashes were buried in his family plot in Gomel Chesed Cemetery, Newark, NJ, USA.
Homework by Allen Ginsberg, 1980
If I were doing my Laundry I’d wash my dirty Iran
I’d throw in my United States, and pour on the Ivory Soap, scrub up Africa, put all the birds and elephants back in the jungle,
I’d wash the Amazon river and clean the oily Carib & Gulf of Mexico,
Rub that smog off the North Pole, wipe up all the pipelines in Alaska,
Rub a dub dub for Rocky Flats and Los Alamos, Flush that sparkly Cesium out of Love Canal
Rinse down the Acid Rain over the Parthenon & Sphinx, Drain Sludge out of the Mediterranean basin & make it azure again,
Put some blueing back into the sky over the Rhine, bleach the little Clouds so snow return white as snow,
Cleanse the Hudson Thames & Neckar, Drain the Suds out of Lake Erie
Then I’d throw big Asia in one giant Load & wash out the blood & Agent Orange,
Dump the whole mess of Russia and China in the wringer, squeeze out the tattletail Gray of U.S. Central American police state,
& put the planet in the drier & let it sit 20 minutes or an Aeon till it came out clean.
©JG Farmer 2020