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Allen Ginsberg

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There is no doubt who was the American Bard for the end of the 20th century: Allen Ginsberg was a mountain of possibility, growing tree of life, beyond-laser zap for poetry expansion and integration into the life of the citizenry. All you had to do was hear him, hunched over the harmonium or ranting at the mic–here comes the Bard! He was salvation for many who grew up in the 1960s, the voice of freedom and dynamism, the prophetic voice of an America you could be a patriot for. This was not your father’s poetry.

Did You Know?:

  • The book to read to get inside the Ginsberg dome is Ed Sanders’ investigative poem, The Poetry and Life of Allen Ginsberg.
  • His mother, Naomi, the subject/object of “Kaddish,” was a nudist whose bouts with mental disease were the central dynamic of Ginsberg’s childhood. “Naomi’s illness gave Allen an enormous empathy and tolerance for madness, neurosis, and psychosis.” --Barry Miles, Ginsberg: A Biography
  • Ginsberg twice had visions of William Blake, once in the Columbia Bookstore and once in his apartment in Harlem.
  • There is a tree in the St. Mark’s Church courtyard (2nd Ave & 10th Street, NY) dedicated to Ginsberg.

Ginsberg’s Early Life and Family:

June 3, 1926 in Newark, New Jersey Naomi and Louis Ginsberg brought a bouncing and babbling Irwin Allen Ginsberg into the world, their second and last child, Eugene having been born 5 years before. Intellectual Jews–he a poet/teacher, she a Russian communist firebrand mandolin player–they soon moved to Paterson, where Allen grew up in the city mythologized into modernity by W.C. Williams in his book-length eponymous poem. His was a family of poetry and politics, the world he would live in his entire life. In high school, he discovered Whitman thanks to teacher Francis Durbin, but his favorite poet was Edgar Allan Poe.

Columbia and Beat Beginnings:

In 1943, Ginsberg’s freshman year at Columbia, he met fellow undergraduate Lucien Carr, who introduced him to Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs and John Clellon Holmes. Less than a year later, Carr was arrested for murdering a stalker–Kerouac and Burroughs were witnesses; the outlaw reputation of the Beats was there from the start. Kerouac described Ginsberg’s 1946 meeting with Neal Cassady in the first chapter of On the Road, calling Allen “Carlo Marx,” prodding at his dedication to Communism. When Ginsberg met Gregory Corso in 1950 in the Pony Stable, a West Village lesbian bar, the core of the Beats was complete.

Visions and Pleading Insanity:

In 1948 in his apartment in Spanish Harlem, Ginsberg had a vision of William Blake; in later years he would set Blake’s poetry to music. This was the same apartment where street character Herbert Huncke’s friends later stored stolen goods. Once Allen, unaware of the goods in the trunk, hitched a ride that ended up in a madcap cop chase, his arrest and his first appearance in the newspapers, a front-page Daily News photo. Allen’s Columbia professors advised him to plead insanity. He did, and was admitted to Columbia Presbyterian Psychiatric Institution, where he met Carl Solomon, to whom he dedicated “Howl.”

Beat meets San Francisco Renaissance:

After his release from the Institution, Allen met W.C. Williams in 1950, received Cassady’s letter of pure bop spontaneity (this altered his and Kerouac’s aesthetic forever), learned marketing via Ipana toothpaste (he worked for an ad agency, in a tie!), went to Mexico in 1953, was spurned by Cassady, and in 1954 came to San Francisco, where he met Kenneth Rexroth, Kenneth Patchen, Jack Spicer, Robert Duncan, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, Lew Welch and Peter Orlovsky, love of his life and partner in Buddhism. When he met Michael McClure at an Auden reading they discussed Blake and planned the famous Six Gallery reading.

Rebirth of Oral Poetry:

“Six poets at the Six Gallery. October 7, 1955. Kenneth Rexroth, M.C. Remarkable collection of angels all gathered at once in the same spot. Wine, music, dancing girls, serious poetry, free satori. Small collection for wine and postcards. Charming event.” Thus read Ginsberg’s flyer for the reading that would change everything–you can read Kerouac’s mythologized version in Dharma Bums or McClure’s personal history in Scratching the Beat Surface. The six angels were Rexroth, Philip Lamantia, McClure, Whalen, Ginsberg and Snyder. Ginsberg’s dynamic performance of “Howl” announced the reemergence of the oral tradition.

Howl on Trial:

It’s the best known opening line in modern poetry: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked.” The day after the reading, Ferlinghetti sent Ginsberg a telegram offering to publish “Howl” and quoting Emerson to Whitman after reading Leaves of Grass: “I greet you at the beginning of a great career. When do I get the manuscript?” Soon after its 1956 publication by Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Bookstore, it was banned for obscenity. The ban became a cause célèbre among First Amendment defenders, and was lifted when the judge declared “Howl” possessed redeeming social importance.

Ginsberg and Buddhism:

Ginsberg had long been interested in Buddhism and other eastern philosophies/religions, but it was a chance encounter on a New York City street in 1970 that led him to his teacher–he and Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche tried to catch the same cab! Trungpa was a Tibetan Buddhist meditation master of the Vajrayana school, controversial and powerful, founder of Naropa Institute in Boulder, the only degree-granting Buddhist institution of higher learning in the U.S. Its Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics is the leading site for studying outrigger poetry traditions, the place to go to find the Ginsberg lineage and spirit.

Ginsberg and Gay Rights:

Ginsberg was a totally out gay man. Peter Orlovsky was his life-long love (listed in Who’s Who as spouse!) and the two cowrote the wonderful Straight Hearts’ Delight: Love Poems and Selected Letters, 1947-1980, published in 1980 by Sunshine Press. Ginsberg expressed his gayness openly and graphically in his poetry—anyone who heard him read “Please Master” (“please master can I take off my clothes below your chair / please master can I kiss your ankles and soul” are two of the least graphic lines) would either get turned on (whether straight, gay, bi- or asexual) or walk out. As with “Howl” at the beginning, Allen’s continuing to write about sexuality graphically and naturally was often seen (still is!) as indecent. In so doing, he challenged, and ultimately changed, obscenity laws.

Father Death:
In his later years, Ginsberg became a Distinguished Professor at Brooklyn College. In 1993, he received the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres (the Order of Arts and Letters) from the French Minister of Culture. In 1994, he sold his archives to Stanford for $1 million, which meant that he could at last move from his cramped tenement apartment to a loft he bought from Larry Rivers on 14th Street and finally have room to do his t’ai chi without bumping into the bathtub in the kitchen (see his poem “In My Kitchen in New York” in White Shroud). He had lived in the loft less than a year when, on April 5, 1997, in New York City, he died from complications of hepatitis and liver cancer.

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