Allen Ginsberg

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Allen Ginsberg

Allen Ginsberg (left) with his lifelong lover and friend, poet Peter Orlovsky
Born: June 3, 1926(1926-06-03)
Newark, New Jersey
Died: April 5, 1997 (aged 70)
Occupation: poet, activist, essayist
Literary movement: Beat, New American Poets, Postmodernism
Influences: Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, William Blake, Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, Percy Shelley, John Keats, Ezra Pound, Christopher Smart, Arthur Rimbaud, Antonin Artaud, James Joyce, Jean Genet, Franz Kafka, Herman Melville, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Hart Crane, William Shakespeare
Influenced: Bob Dylan, LeRoi Jones, Robert Lowell, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Andrei Codrescu, Saul Williams, Beau Sia, Jacob Ehrlich, Jim Morrison, Michael Savage, Bono

Irwin Allen Ginsberg (IPA: [ˈgɪnzˌbɝg]) (June 3, 1926 – April 5, 1997) was an American poet. Ginsberg is best known for Howl (1956), a long poem about the self-destruction of his friends of the Beat Generation and what he saw as the destructive forces of materialism and conformity in United States at the time.


  • 1 Life
    • 1.1 Early life and family
    • 1.2 New York Beats
    • 1.3 San Francisco Renaissance
      • 1.3.1 Biographical references in "Howl"
    • 1.4 To Paris and the 'Beat Hotel'
    • 1.5 Continuing literary activity
    • 1.6 His Buddhism
    • 1.7 Death and fame
  • 2 Controversial political activism
    • 2.1 Role in anti-Vietnam protests
    • 2.2 Relationship to Communism
    • 2.3 Gay rights and free speech
    • 2.4 Association with NAMBLA
    • 2.5 Demystification of drugs
  • 3 Career
    • 3.1 Inspiration from friends
    • 3.2 Inspiration from mentors and idols
    • 3.3 Style and technique
  • 4 Popular culture
  • 5 See also
  • 6 Notes and references
  • 7 Bibliography
  • 8 External links


Early life and family

Ginsberg was born into a Jewish family in Newark, New Jersey. He grew up in nearby Paterson. His father Louis Ginsberg was a poet and a high school teacher. Ginsberg's mother, Naomi Livergant Ginsberg (who was affected by epileptic seizures and mental illnesses such as paranoia[1]) was an active member of the Communist Party and often took Ginsberg and his brother Eugene to party meetings. Ginsberg later said that his mother "Made up bedtime stories that all went something like: 'The good king rode forth from his castle, saw the suffering workers and healed them.'"[2]

As a teenager, Ginsberg began to write letters to The New York Times about political issues such as World War II and workers' rights.[2] When he was a junior in high school, he accompanied his mother by bus to her therapist. The trip disturbed Ginsberg - he mentioned it and other moments from his childhood in his long autobiographical poem "Kaddish for Naomi Ginsberg (1894-1956)."[1] While in high school, Ginsberg began reading Walt Whitman; he said he was inspired by his teacher's passion in reading.

In 1943 Ginsberg graduated from Eastside High School and briefly attended Montclair State University before entering Columbia University on a scholarship from the Young Men's Hebrew Association of Paterson, (1949).[3] While at Columbia, Ginsberg contributed to the Columbia Review literary journal, the Jester humor magazine, won the Woodberry Poetry Prize and served as president of the Philolexian Society, the campus literary and debate group.

New York Beats

In Ginsberg's freshman year at Columbia he met fellow undergraduate Lucien Carr, who introduced him to a number of future Beat writers including Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and John Clellon Holmes. They bonded because they saw in one another excitement about the potential of the youth of America, a potential which existed outside the strict conformist confines of post-WWII McCarthy-era America. Ginsberg and Carr talked excitedly about a "New Vision" (a phrase adapted from Arthur Rimbaud) for literature and America. Carr also introduced Ginsberg to Neal Cassady, for whom Ginsberg had a long infatuation.[4] Kerouac later described the meeting between Ginsberg and Cassady in the first chapter of his 1957 novel On the Road.[1] Kerouac saw them then as the dark (Ginsberg) and light (Cassady) side of their "New Vision." Kerouac's perception had to do partly with Ginsberg's association with Communism (though Ginsberg himself was never a Communist); Kerouac called Ginsberg "Carlo Marx" in On the Road. This was a source of strain in their relationship since Kerouac grew increasingly distrustful of Communism.

In 1948 in an apartment in Harlem, Ginsberg had an auditory hallucination of William Blake reading his poems "Ah, Sunflower," "The Sick Rose," and "Little Girl Lost" (later referred to as his "Blake vision"). Ginsberg was reading these poems at the time, and he said he was very familiar with them; at one point he claimed he heard them being read by what sounded like the voice of God but what he interpreted as the voice of Blake. He had at that moment pivotal revelations that defined his understanding of the universe. He believed that he witnessed then the interconnectedness of the universe. He looked at lattice work on the fire escape and realized some hand had crafted that; he then looked at the sky and intuited that some hand had crafted that also, or rather that the sky was the hand that crafted itself. He explained that this hallucination was not inspired by drug use, but said he sought to recapture that feeling later with various drugs.

Also in New York, Ginsberg met Gregory Corso in a bar and introduced him to the rest of his inner circle. In their first meeting Corso said he'd been fantasizing about a woman who lived across the street from him. The woman just happened to be Ginsberg's girlfriend during one of his forays into heterosexuality. It was also during this period that Ginsberg was romantically involved with Elise Cowen.

San Francisco Renaissance

In 1954 in San Francisco, Ginsberg met Peter Orlovsky, a young man of 21 with whom he fell in love and who remained his life-long lover, and with whom he eventually shared his interest in Tibetan Buddhism.

Also in San Francisco Ginsberg met members of the San Francisco Renaissance and other poets who would later be associated with the Beat Generation in a broader sense. Ginsberg's mentor William Carlos Williams wrote an introductory letter to San Francisco Renaissance figure head Kenneth Rexroth who then introduced Ginsberg into the San Francisco poetry scene. Ginsberg also met there three accomplished poets and Zen enthusiasts who were friends at Reed College: Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, and Lew Welch.

Wally Hedrick – a painter and co-founder of the Six Gallery – approached Ginsberg in the summer of 1955 and asked him to organize a poetry reading at the Six Gallery…At first, Ginsberg refused…But once he’d written a rough draft of Howl, he changed his “fucking mind,” as he put it. [5] Ginsberg advertised the event as "Six Poets at the Six Gallery." One of the most important events in Beat mythos, known simply as "The Six Gallery reading" took place on October 7, 1955.[6] The event, in essence, brought together the East and West Coast factions of the Beat Generation. Of more personal significance to Ginsberg: that night was the first public reading of "Howl", a poem that brought world-wide fame to Ginsberg and many of the poets associated with him. An account can be found in Kerouac's novel "The Dharma Bums" of the night, describing collecting change from each audience member to buy jugs of wine, and Ginsberg reading passionately, drunken, with arms outstretched.

Ginsberg's principal work, "Howl", is well-known to many for its opening line: "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked." "Howl" was considered scandalous at the time of its publication due to the rawness of its language, which is frequently explicit. Shortly after its 1956 publication by San Francisco's City Lights Bookstore, it was banned for obscenity. The ban became a cause célèbre among defenders of the First Amendment, and was later lifted after Judge Clayton W. Horn declared the poem to possess redeeming social importance.

Biographical references in "Howl"

Ginsberg claimed at one point that all of his work was an extended biography (like Kerouac's Duluoz Legend). Howl is not only a biography of Ginsberg's experiences before 1955, but a history of the Beat Generation. Ginsberg also later claimed that at the core of Howl was his unresolved emotions about his schizophrenic mother. Though Kaddish deals more explicitly with his mother (so explicitly that a similar line-by-line analysis would be both overly-exhaustive and relatively unrevealing), Howl in many ways is driven by that same emotion. Though references in most of his poetry reveal much about his biography, his relationship to other members of the Beat Generation, and his own political views, Howl, his most famous poem, is still perhaps the best place to start. See Howl

To Paris and the 'Beat Hotel'

In 1957, Ginsberg surprised the literary world by abandoning San Francisco and, after a spell in Morocco, turning up in Paris with Peter Orlovsky and Gregory Corso. They took rooms in a shabby lodging house above a bar at 9 rue Gît-le-Coeur that was to become known as the Beat Hotel. They were soon joined by William Burroughs and others. It was a productive, creative time for all of them. This period was documented by the photographer Harold Chapman, who moved in at about the same time, and took pictures constantly of the residents of the 'hotel' until it closed in 1963.

Continuing literary activity

Though "Beat" is most accurately applied to Ginsberg and his closest friends (Corso, Orlovsky, Kerouac, Burroughs, etc.), the term "Beat Generation" has become associated with many of the other poets Ginsberg met and became friends with in the late 1950s and early 1960s. A key feature of this term seems to be a friendship with Ginsberg. (Friendship with Kerouac or Burroughs might also apply, but both writers later strove to disassociate themselves from the name "Beat Generation") Part of the dissatisfaction with the term "Beat Generation" came from the mistaken identification of Ginsberg as the leader. Ginsberg never claimed to be the leader. He did, however, claim many of the writers with whom he had become friends in this period shared many of the same intentions and themes. Some of these friends include: Bob Kaufman; LeRoi Jones before he became Amiri Baraka, who, after reading "Howl", wrote a letter to Ginsberg on a sheet of toilet paper; Diane DiPrima; poets associated with the Black Mountain College such as Robert Creeley and Denise Levertov; poets associated with the New York School such as Frank O'Hara and Kenneth Koch.

Portrait with Bob Dylan, taken in 1975
Portrait with Bob Dylan, taken in 1975

Later in his life, Ginsberg formed a bridge between the beat movement of the 1950s and the hippies of the 1960s, befriending, among others, Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey, Rod McKuen, and Bob Dylan.

His Buddhism

Ginsberg's spiritual journey began early on with his spontaneous visions, and continued with an early trip to India and a chance encounter on a New York City street with Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche (they both tried to catch the same cab), a Tibetan Buddhist meditation master of the Vajrayana school, who became his friend and life-long teacher. Ginsberg helped Trungpa in founding the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. Ginsberg was also involved with Hinduism. He befriended A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the founder of the Hare Krishna movement in the Western world, a relationship that is documented by Satsvarupa Gosvami in his biographical account 'Srila Prabhupada Lilamrta'. Ginsberg donated money, materials, and his reputation to help the Swami establish the first temple, and toured with him to promote his cause. Ginsberg also claimed to be the first person on the North American continent to chant the Hare Krsna mantra. He was mourned by the Hare Krsnas upon his passing in 1997. Music and chanting were both important parts of Ginsberg's live delivery during poetry readings. He often accompanied himself on a harmonium, and was often accompanied by a guitarist. Attendance to his poetry readings was generally standing room only for most of his career, no matter where in the world he appeared.

Death and fame

Ginsberg won the National Book Award for his book The Fall of America. In 1993, the French Minister of Culture awarded him the medal of Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres (the Order of Arts and Letters).

Allen Ginsberg died on April 5, 1997, surrounded by family and friends in his East Village loft in New York City. He succumbed to liver cancer via complications of hepatitis. He was 70 years old. Ginsberg continued to write through his final illness, with his last poem "Things I'll Not Do (Nostalgias)" written on March 30.[7]

Ginsberg is buried in his family plot in Gomel Chesed Cemetery, one of a cluster of Jewish cemeteries at the corner of McClellan Street and Mt. Olivet Avenue near the city lines of Elizabeth and Newark, New Jersey. The family plot, located toward the western edge of the cemetery at the far end of the walk from the third gate along Mt. Olivet Avenue, is marked by a large Ginsberg and Litzky stone, and Ginsberg himself and each family member have smaller markers. Though the grave itself and the cemetery are neither picturesque nor otherwise notable (Ginsberg's grave is located near the rear fence of the flat cemetery, which is in the midst of an industrial area), and it has not become a major place of pilgrimage, there is a steady trickle of visitors as indicated by a handful of stones always on his marker and the occasional book or other item left by other poets and admirers.

Controversial political activism

Ginsberg's willingness to talk about taboo subjects is what made him a controversial figure in the conservative 1950s and a significant figure in the 1960s. But Ginsberg continued to broach controversial subjects throughout the 1970s, '80s, and '90s. When explaining how he approached controversial topics, he often pointed to Herbert Huncke: he said that when he first got to know Huncke in the 1940s, Ginsberg saw that he was sick from his heroin addiction. But at the time heroin was a taboo subject, and Huncke had nowhere to go for help.

Likewise, he continuously attempted to force the world into a dialogue about controversial subjects because he thought that no change could be made in a polite silence.

Role in anti-Vietnam protests

Ginsberg also played a key role in ensuring that a 1965 protest of the Vietnam war which took place at the Oakland-Berkeley city line and drew several thousand marchers, was not violently interrupted by the California chapter of the notorious motorcycle gang — the Hells Angels — and their leader, Sonny Barger.

The day prior to the scheduled march, the Hell's Angels attacked the front line of a smaller scale protest where a confrontation between police and demonstrators was brewing. The Hell's Angels came in on motocycles and slashed banners while yelling "Go back to Russia, you fucking communists!" at the protesters. The Hell's Angels then vowed to disrupt the larger protest the next day.

Ginsberg traveled to Barger's home in Oakland to talk the situation through. It is rumored that he offered Barger and other members of the Hell's Angels LSD as a gesture of friendship and goodwill. In the end, Barger and the other Hell's Angels that were present came away deeply impressed by the courage of Ginsberg and his companion Kesey. They vowed not to attack the next day's protest march and furthermore deemed Ginsberg a man who was worth helping out.

He was present the night of the massive Tompkins Square Park Police Riot in 1988 and provided an eyewitness account to The New York Times.[8] It was shortly after the Tompkins Square Park riots that he was involved in a fracas with the Mentofreeist group and was assaulted by its leader, Vargus Pike, who was arrested. He was later released when Ginsberg, sporting a black eye, refused to press charges.

Relationship to Communism

He talked openly about his connections with Communism and his admiration for past heroes of Communism and the labor movement at a time in America when the Red Scare and McCarthyism were recent memories. Later he travelled to several Communist countries to promote free speech; he claimed Communist countries, China for example, welcomed him in because they thought he was an enemy of Capitalism but often turned against him when they saw him as a trouble maker. In his poem "America", written on the 17th of January, 1956 in Berkeley, a line reads 'America I used to be a communist when I was a kid I'm not sorry'. Followed directly by 'I smoke marijuana every chance I get'...

In 1965 Ginsberg was deported from Cuba for publicly protesting against Cuba's anti-marijuana stance and its penchant for throwing homosexuals in jail, but also for an alleged remark referring to revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara as "cute."

The Cubans sent him to Czechoslovakia, where one week after being named the King of a May Day parade, Ginsberg was labeled an "immoral menace" by the Czech government because of his free expression of radical ideas and was then deported. Many important figures from Communist Bloc countries such as Vaclav Havel point to Ginsberg as an important inspiration to strive for freedom.

Gay rights and free speech

One contribution that is often considered his most significant and most controversial was his openness about homosexuality. Ginsberg was an early proponent of freedom for men who loved other men, having already in 1943 discovered within himself "mountains of homosexuality." He expressed this desire openly and graphically in his poetry. He also struck a note for gay marriage by listing Peter Orlovsky, his lifelong companion, as his spouse in his Who’s Who entry. Later homosexual writers saw his frank talk about homosexuality as an opening to speak more openly and honestly about something often before only hinted at or spoken of in metaphor.

Also, in writing about sexuality in graphic detail and in his frequent use of language seen as indecent he challenged — and ultimately changed — obscenity laws. He was a staunch supporter of others whose expression challenged obscenity laws (William S. Burroughs and Lenny Bruce, for example).

Association with NAMBLA

Ginsberg also spoke out in defense of the freedom of expression of NAMBLA. Ginsberg stated "I joined NAMBLA in defense of free speech..." Ginsberg, in "Thoughts on NAMBLA," published in Deliberate Prose, elaborated on these thoughts, stating "NAMBLA's a forum for reform of those laws on youthful sexuality which members deem oppressive, a discussion society not a sex club." Ginsberg felt the appreciation of youthful bodies and "the human form divine" has been a common theme throughout the history of culture, "from Rome's Vatican to Florence's Uffizi galleries to New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art." Ginsberg resigned his membership when he had proven his point about the importance of free speech in America[citation needed].

Demystification of drugs

Ginsberg also talked often about drug use. Throughout the 1960s he took an active role in the demystification of LSD and with Timothy Leary worked to promote its common use. He was also for many decades an advocate of marijuana legalization, and at the same time warned his audiences against the hazards of tobacco in his Put Down Your Cigarette Rag (Don't Smoke): "Don't Smoke Don't Smoke Nicotine Nicotine No / No don't smoke the official Dope Smoke Dope Dope."


Though he had intentions to be a labor lawyer, Ginsberg wrote poetry for most of his life. Most of his very early poetry was written in formal rhyme and meter like his father or like his idol William Blake. His admiration for the writing of Jack Kerouac inspired him to take poetry more seriously. Though he took odd jobs to support himself, in 1955 upon the advice of a psychiatrist Ginsberg dropped out of the working world to devote his entire life to poetry. Soon after, he wrote "Howl," a poem which brought him and his friends much fame and allowed him to live as a professional poet for the rest of his life.

Inspiration from friends

Since Ginsberg's poetry is intensely personal, and since much of the vitality of those associated with the beat generation comes from mutual inspiration, much credit for style, inspiration, and content can be given to Ginsberg's friends.

Ginsberg claimed throughout his life that his biggest inspiration was Kerouac's concept of Spontaneous Prose. He believed literature should come from the soul without conscious restrictions. However, Ginsberg was much more prone to revise than Kerouac. For example, when Kerouac saw the first draft of "Howl" he disliked the fact that Ginsberg had made editorial changes in pencil (transposing "negro" and "angry" in the first line, for example). Kerouac only wrote out his concepts of Spontaneous Prose at Ginsberg's insistence because Ginsberg wanted to learn how to apply the technique to his poetry.

An important figure when considering inspiration for "Howl" is Carl Solomon. The full title is "Howl for Carl Solomon." Solomon was a Dada and Surrealism enthusiast (he introduced Ginsberg to Artaud) who suffered bouts of depression. Solomon wanted to commit suicide, but he thought a form of suicide appropriate to dadaism would be to go to a mental institution and demand a lobotomy. The institution refused, giving him many forms of therapy, including electroshock therapy. Much of the final section of the first part of "Howl" is a description of this.

Ginsberg used Solomon as an example of all those ground down by the machine of "Moloch." Moloch, to whom the second section is addressed, is a Levantine god to whom children were sacrificed. Ginsberg may have gotten the name from the Kenneth Rexroth poem "Thou Shalt Not Kill," a poem about the death of one of Ginsberg's heroes, Dylan Thomas. But Moloch is mentioned a few times in the Torah and references to Ginsberg's Jewish background are not infrequent in his work. Ginsberg said the image of Moloch was inspired by peyote visions he had of the Francis Drake Hotel in San Francisco which appeared to him as a skull; he took it as a symbol of the city (not specifically San Francisco, but all cities). Moloch has subsequently been interpreted as any system of control, including the conformist society of post-World War II America focused on material gain, which Ginsberg frequently blamed for the destruction of all those outside of societal norms.

He also made sure to emphasize that Moloch is a part of all of us: the decision to defy socially created systems of control — and therefore go against Moloch — is a form of self-destruction. Many of the characters Ginsberg references in "Howl", such as Neal Cassady and Herbert Huncke, destroyed themselves through excessive substance abuse or a generally wild lifestyle. The personal aspects of "Howl" are perhaps as important as the political aspects. Carl Solomon, the prime example of a "best mind" destroyed by defying society, is associated with Ginsberg's schizophrenic mother: the line "with mother finally ******" comes after a long section about Carl Solomon, and in Part III, Ginsberg says "I'm with you in Rockland where you imitate the shade of my mother." Ginsberg later admitted that the drive to write "Howl" was fueled by sympathy for his ailing mother, an issue which he was not yet ready to deal with directly. He dealt with it directly with 1959's "Kaddish."

Inspiration from mentors and idols

Ginsberg's poetry was strongly influenced by Modernism (specifically Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Hart Crane, and most importantly William Carlos Williams), Romanticism (specifically Percy Shelley and John Keats), the beat and cadence of jazz (specifically that of bop musicians such as Charlie Parker), and his Kagyu Buddhist practice and Jewish background. He considered himself to have inherited the visionary poetic mantle handed down from the English poet and artist William Blake, and the American poet Walt Whitman. The power of Ginsberg's verse, its searching, probing focus, its long and lilting lines, as well as its New World exuberance, all echo the continuity of inspiration which he claimed.

He studied poetry under William Carlos Williams, who was then in the middle of writing his epic poem Paterson about the industrial city near his home. Ginsberg, after attending a reading by Williams, sent the older poet several of his poems and wrote an introductory letter. Most of these early poems were rhymed and metered and included archaic pronouns like "Thee." Williams hated the poems. He told Ginsberg later, "In this mode perfection is basic, and these poems are not perfect."

Though he hated the early poems, Williams loved the exuberance in Ginsberg's letter. He included the letter in a later part of Paterson. He taught Ginsberg not to emulate the old masters but to speak with his own voice and the voice of the common American. Williams taught him to focus on strong visual images, in line with Williams' own motto "No ideas but in things." His time studying under Williams led to a tremendous shift from the early formalist work to the brilliance of his later work. Early breakthrough poems include "Bricklayer's Lunch Hour" and "Dream Record."

Carl Solomon introduced him to Antonin Artaud ("To Have Done with the Judgement of God" and "Van Gogh: The Man Suicided by Society"), and Jean Genet (Our Lady of the Flowers). Philip Lamantia introduced him to other Surrealists and Surrealism continued to be an influence (for example, sections of Kaddish were inspired by Andre Breton's "Free Union"). Ginsberg claimed that the anaphoric repetition of "Howl" and other poems was inspired by Christopher Smart in such poems as Jubilate Agno. Ginsberg claims other more traditional influences, such as: Franz Kafka, Herman Melville, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Edgar Allan Poe, and even Emily Dickinson.

Ginsberg also made an intense study of haiku and the paintings of Paul Cezanne from which he adapted a concept important to his work, which he called the "Eyeball Kick." He noticed in viewing Cezanne's paintings that when the eye moved from one color to a contrasting color, the eye would spasm, or "kick." Likewise, he discovered that the contrast of two seeming opposites was a common feature in haiku. Ginsberg used this technique in his poetry, putting together two starkly dissimilar images: something weak with something strong, an artifact of high culture with an artifact of low culture, something holy with something unholy. The example Ginsberg most often used was "hydrogen jukebox" (which later became the title of an opera he wrote with Philip Glass). Another example is Ginsberg's observation on Bob Dylan during his hectic and intense 1966 electric tour, fuelled by a cocktail of amphetamines, opiates, alcohol, and psychedelics, as a 'Benzedrine Clown'. The phrases "eyeball kick" and "hydrogen jukebox" both show up in "Howl" as well as a direct quote from Cezanne: "Pater Omnipitens Aeterna Deus."

Style and technique

From the study of his idols and mentors and the inspiration of his friends — not to mention his own experiments — Ginsberg developed an individualistic style that's easily identified as Ginsbergian. Howl came out during a potentially hostile literary environment less welcoming to poetry outside of tradition; there was a renewed focus on form and structure among academic poets and critics partly inspired by New Criticism (see "Open Form vs. Closed Form" in the Beat Generation section). Consequently, Ginsberg often had to defend his choice to break away from traditional poetic structure, often citing Williams, Pound, and Whitman as precursors. Ginsberg's style may have seemed to critics chaotic or unpoetic, but to Ginsberg it was an open, ecstatic expression of thoughts and feelings that were naturally poetic. He believed strongly that traditional formalist considerations were archaic and didn't apply to reality. Though some, Diana Trilling for example, have pointed to Ginsberg's occasional use of meter (for example the anapest of "who came back to Denver and waited in vain"), Ginsberg denied any intention toward meter and claimed instead that meter follows the natural poetic voice, not the other way around; he said, as he learned from Williams, that natural speech is occasionally dactylic, so poetry that imitates natural speech will sometimes fall into a dactylic structure but only ever accidentally. Like Williams, Ginsberg's line breaks were often determined by breath: one line in Howl, for example, should be read in one breath. Ginsberg claimed he developed such a long line because he had long breaths (saying perhaps it was because he talked fast, or he did yoga, or he was Jewish). The long line could also be traced back to his study of Walt Whitman; Ginsberg claimed Whitman's long line was a dynamic technique few other poets had ventured to develop further. Whitman is often compared to Ginsberg because they both had sexual interests in men. They had very different politics, Whitman being a nationalist and Ginsberg demonstratively anti-nationalist.

Many of his early long line experiments contain some sort of anaphoric repetition or repetition of a "fixed base" (for example "who" in Howl, "America" in "America"), and this has become a recognizable feature of Ginsberg's style. However, he said later this was a crutch because he lacked confidence in his style; he didn't yet trust "free flight." In the 60s, after employing it in some sections of Kaddish ("caw" for example) he, for the most part, abandoned the anaphoric repetition.

Several of his earlier experiments with methods for formatting poems as a whole become regular aspects of his style in later poems. In the original draft of Howl each line is in a "stepped triadic" format reminiscent of Williams (see "Ivy Leaves," for example). He abandoned the "stepped triadic" when he developed his long line, but the stepped lines showed up later, most significantly in the travelogues of The Fall of America. Howl and Kaddish, arguably his two most important poems, are both organized as an inverted pyramid, with larger sections leading to smaller sections. In "America" he experimented with a mix of longer and shorter lines.

Ginsberg called one of his favorite techniques the "eyeball kick" or the "ellipse"; it is a paratactical juxtaposition of two starkly dissimilar images. The line in Howl starting "who were burned alive in their innocent flannel suits on Madison Avenue" contains several examples of eyeball kicks, such as "mustard gas of sinister intelligent editors." The eyeball kick is not only a way to describe the juxtaposition of words, but the structure of poems as a whole and the flow of ideas within poems, the shift between each section of Howl for example. In the following selection "yellow shadow" is an example of an eyeball kick, and the last line of the selection is an example of the haiku-like paratactical shift common in Ginsberg's poetry.

"Lightning's blue glare fills Oklahoma plains, the train rolls east casting yellow shadow on grass Twenty years ago approaching Texas, I saw sheet lightning cover Heaven's corners... An old man catching fireflies on the porch at night watched the Herd Boy cross the Milky Way to meet the Weaving Girl... How can we war against that?" (From Iron Horse, 1972)

Ginsberg also commonly employed catachresis. For example, from Howl: "secret gas station solipsisms of johns" is perhaps designed to make solipsism (a noun used as a verb here) sound like a sexual act. Another example is "what peaches and what penumbra" from "Supermarket in California" is perhaps designed to make penumbra seem like a fruit or like something you can buy in a supermarket.

Popular culture

  • Ginsberg was portrayed by David Cross in the 2007 Bob Dylan biopic I'm Not There.
  • July 17th, 2007 - The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg is due to be released on DVD with the 84 minute feature and 6 hours of extra interviews and features.
  • Give Peace A Chance by John Lennon makes a reference to Allen Ginsberg
  • In 1981, Ginsberg recorded his poem "Birdbrain" with the Denver punk band, The Gluons.
  • In 1982, he was featured on "Ghetto Defendant", a song by The Clash, on their album "Combat Rock".
  • In a June 1981 concert by The Clash at Bond's Casino in New York City, Ginsberg sang his poem "Capital Air" set to music.
  • Rage Against the Machine performed "Hadda be Playin' on a Jukebox", a poem of Ginsberg's, at a live concert. The song is available on their "Live & Rare" album, released in 1998 and as a 'B side' on their Bulls on Parade CD single released in 1996.
  • Ginsberg recites "When the Light Appears Boy," on the 1997 Cornershop album "When I Was Born for the 7th Time".
  • Natalie Merchant's song "King of May" (from her 1998-album Ophelia) is a tribute to Allen Ginsberg.
  • Patti Smith often performed Ginsberg's Howl to music, sometimes calling her performance, "A Footnote to Howl."
  • In 1996, Ginsberg played a leading role as an actor in the John Moran opera, "Mathew in the School of Life", and went on to record a song on Moran's 2nd album, "Meet the Locusts"
  • Ginsberg himself appeared in the background in the short film made by Bob Dylan for his song Subterranean Homesick Blues.
  • Ginsberg was featured as a supporting character, a resistance-cell leader, in John Barnes's science-fiction novel Patton's Spaceship.
  • He released an album entitled New York Blues: Rags Ballads and Harmonium Songs on which he sings and plays harmonium. He also released a single called Ballad of the Skeletons with music by Philip Glass and Paul McCartney playing guitar.
  • The musical Rent referenced him in the song La Vie Boheme, in the line "Ginsberg, Dylan, Cunningham and Cage." Dylan can either be a reference to Ginsberg's friend Bob Dylan or to the poet Dylan Thomas. Cunningham and Cage are Merce Cunningham the choreographer and experimental musician John Cage, both associated with the Black Mountain College, a school that produced many artists later associated with Ginsberg.
  • The alternative rock band Sonic Youth recorded a track entitled "Hits of Sunshine (for Allen Ginsberg)" on its 1998 album, A Thousand Leaves.
  • On the album Death of a Ladies' Man by Leonard Cohen, Ginsberg and Bob Dylan sing back-up on the song Don't Go Home with Your Hard-on.
  • The book Illuminated Poems is a collaboration between Ginsberg and painter, Eric Drooker.
  • He is mentioned in the track 'Hotel Beat' by the Lounge Band 'Gare du Nord' in connection with the Beat Hotel in Paris.
  • The rock band the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club named their third album Howl after the Ginsberg poem Howl.
  • A song called "I Should Be Allowed To Think" by the alternative rock band They Might Be Giants opens with a quote from Howl, and continues to vary the quote throughout the song.
  • At the end of "Good Will Hunting," the credits read: in dedication to Allen Ginsberg and Williams S. Burroughs.
  • The song "1997" from the Spanish band Amaral opens with a verse that translates to "The year that Allen Ginsberg died". The verse is repeated throughout the song.
  • In the Thanksgiving episode of The Simpsons, Lisa Simpson pays homage to Ginsberg in her poem "Howl of the Unappreciated".
  • Poet/writer Christopher Wunderlee published a famous piece in the Fall 2002 literary journal Zyzzyva entitled "A Chat with Howl" in which he interviews the "voice" of the poem (not Allen Ginsberg).
  • Folk-rock group The Mammals performed his poem "Lay Down Yr Mountain" on their CD tiled Rock That Babe.
  • On an episode of the animated sitcom American Dad the alien character Roger, pretending to be a political science professor, makes up a background which includes a period of sexual experimentation with Allen Ginsberg.
  • In the TV Show Daria, in the episode entitled "The Old and the Beautiful," Daria is seen reading the first few lines of "Howl" to a resident of a nursing home as part of a service project.
  • Heaven nightclub UK Allen Ginsberg performed his final UK stage reading October 19 1995 to a packed audience in Charing Cross London (on a birthday of the megatripolis club-night).(As shown in Diva Pictures film Allen Ginsberg Live in London). (
  • Folksinger Ani Difranco makes reference to the first line of Howl in her song, Garden of Simple, where she sings, The best minds of my generation can't make bail.
  • An episode of the children's animated TV show Hey Arnold makes reference to Howl when Gerald shares a poem that is a more children-friendly version of the poem.
  • The song " Machinehead " by post-grunge band Bush mentions the first few lines of Howl. In live shows, Gavin Rossdale recites more of the poem.
  • In the film 'Hackers', the main character, Dade Murphy writes out a Ginsberg quote on the chalkboard in an English class.
  • In the Simpsons episode D'oh in the Wind, the hippies Homer befriends have a dog named Ginsberg.
  • A 50th anniversary of 'Howl' took place on November 1, 2006 at The Art Workers Guild in London on the exact day of first publication at City Lights San Francisco, with a reading of 'Howl', tributes to Ginsberg, poetry readings and a screening of 'Wholly Communion' and highlights of 'Allen Ginsberg Live in London'.
  • Kate Moss has been photographed wearing a shirt that proclaims 'Ginsberg is God'.
  • New York based Crust-Punk Ezra Kire, in his one man band, Morning Glory, makes reference to Howl with the opening lines of the song Circle N: "I saw the best minds of my generation/destroyed by desperation" on the album This Is No Time Ta Sleep.
  • Appeared as an interviewee in No Direction Home, the 2005 documentary on Bob Dylan by Martin Scorsese.
  • In the book "Idol Hands, Bleeding Heart" by American Poet Joshua Mansfield his dedication begins with "To those who came before A.G., J.K., WSB., & W.W." referring to Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs and Walt Whitman
  • The title of first track on post-hardcore band Refused's album The Shape Of Punk To Come, "Worms Of The Senses/Faculties Of The Skull" comes from Howl
  • In the show Gilmore Girls, Jesse steals a copy of Howl and writes notes in the margins from Rory, and then tells her he has read it 40 times.

See also

  • The Fugs
  • Central Park Be-In
  • The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg

Notes and references

  1. ^ a b c Charters, Ann. Allen Ginsberg's Life. Modern American Poetry website. Retrieved on 2005-10-20.
  2. ^ a b Jones, Bonesy. Biographical Notes on Allen Ginsberg. Biography Project. Retrieved on 2005-10-20.
  3. ^ Ginsberg obit. New York Times. Retrieved on 2006-04-01.
  4. ^ Barry Gifford, ed., As Ever: The Collected Correspondence of Allen Ginsberg & Neal Cassady.
  5. ^ Jonah Raskin, American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” and the Making of the Beat Generation.
  6. ^ Siegel, Robert. Birth of the Beat Generation: 50 Years of 'Howl'. Retrieved on 2006-10-02.
  7. ^ Allen Ginsberg, Collected Poems 1947-1997, p.1160-1
  8. ^ "Melee in Tompkins Sq. Park: Violence and Its Provocation," by Todd Purdham, The New York Times, August 14, 1988, Section 1; Part 1, Page 1, Column 4; Metropolitan Desk


  • Howl and Other Poems (1956)
  • Kaddish and Other Poems (1961)
  • Reality Sandwiches (1963)
  • The Yage Letters (1963) – with William S. Burroughs
  • Planet News (1968)
  • First Blues: Rags, Ballads & Harmonium Songs 1971 - 1974 (1975), ISBN 0-916190-05-6
  • The Gates of Wrath: Rhymed Poems 1948–1951 (1972)
  • The Fall of America: Poems of These States (1973)
  • Iron Horse (1972)
  • Mind Breaths (1978)
  • Plutonian Ode: Poems 1977–1980 (1982)
  • Collected Poems 1947–1980 (1984)
    Republished with later material added as Collected Poems 1947-1997, New York, Harper Collins, 2006
  • White Shroud Poems: 1980–1985 (1986)
  • Cosmopolitan Greetings Poems: 1986–1993 (1994)
  • Howl Annotated (1995)
  • Illuminated Poems (1996)
  • Selected Poems: 1947–1995 (1996)
  • Death and Fame: Poems 1993–1997 (1999)
  • Deliberate Prose 1952–1995 (2000)

Further Reading

  • Bullough, Vern L. "Before Stonewall: Activists for Gay and Lesbian Rights in Historical Context." Harrington Park Press, 2002. pp 304-311.
  • Charters, Ann (ed.). The Portable Beat Reader. Penguin Books. New York. 1992. ISBN 0-670-83885-3 (hc); ISBN 0140151028 (pbk)
  • Clark, Thomas. "Allen Ginsberg." Writers at Work — The Paris Review Interviews. 3.1 (1968) pp.279-320.
  • Gifford, Barry (ed.). As Ever: The Collected Letters of Allen Ginsberg & Neal Cassady. Berkeley: Creative Arts Books (1977).
  • Podhoretz, Norman. "At War with Allen Ginsberg," in Ex-Friends (Free Press, 1999), 22-56. ISBN0-684-85594-1.
  • Miles, Barry. Ginsberg: A Biography. London: Virgin Publishing Ltd. (2001), paperback, 628 pages, ISBN 0-7535-0486-3
  • Hrebeniak, Michael. Action Writing: Jack Kerouac's Wild Form, Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 2006.
  • Raskin, Jonah. American Scream: Allen Ginsberg's Howl and the Making of the Beat Generation. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004. ISBN 0-520-24015-4
  • Schumacher, Michael (ed.). Family Business: Selected Letters Between a Father and Son. Bloomsbury (2002), paperback, 448 pages, ISBN 1-58234-216-4
  • Schumacher, Michael. Dharma Lion: A Biography of Allen Ginsberg. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994.
  • Trigilio, Tony. "Strange Prophecies Anew": Rereading Apocalypse in Blake, H.D., and Ginsberg. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2000. ISBN 0838638546.
  • Trigilio, Tony. Allen Ginsberg's Buddhist Poetics. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2007. ISBN 0809327554
  • Warner, Simon (ed.). Howl for Now: A 50th anniversary celebration of Allen Ginsberg's epic protest poem. West Yorkshire, UK: Route (2005), paperback, 144 pages, ISBN 1-901927-25-3
  • The Life & Times of Allen Ginsberg DVD
  • BBC Interview with Allen Ginsberg
  • Allen Ginsberg's 1966 visit to Wichita, KS
  • Allen Ginsberg on With audio clips, poems, and related essays, from the Academy of American Poets
  • After 50 Years, Ginsberg's 'Howl' Still Resonates
  • Film promo site with audio clips, poems, photographs and video
  • Conversation #1 with A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada
  • Conversation #2 with A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada
  • Allen Ginsberg at Rolling Stone
  • Persondata
    NAME Ginsberg, Allen
    ALTERNATIVE NAMES Ginsberg, Irwin Allen
    SHORT DESCRIPTION poet, activist, essayist
    DATE OF BIRTH June 3, 1926
    PLACE OF BIRTH Newark, New Jersey
    DATE OF DEATH April 5, 1997
    PLACE OF DEATH New York City
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    Free Documentation License".