Who Was Allen Ginsberg?
Allen Ginsberg was one of the founding fathers of the Beat Generation with his revolutionary poem "Howl." Ginsberg was a prolific writer who also championed gay rights and anti-war movements, protesting the Vietnam War and coining the phrase "Flower Power." Even with his countercultural background, he became recognized as one of American's foremost writers and artistic icons.
Irwin Allen Ginsberg was born on June 3, 1926, in Newark, New Jersey, and grew up in the city of Paterson. His mother Naomi had immigrated from Russia to the states while his father Louis was a poet and teacher. The young Ginsberg, who kept a journal from his pre-teen years and took to the poetry of Walt Whitman in high school, went on to attend Columbia University. While there he met former Columbia student Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs, who would all become literary icons of a revolutionary cultural movement. Ginsberg started to focus on his writing during the mid-1940s while also exploring his attraction to men.
Ginsberg graduated from Columbia in 1948, but in the following year was involved as an accomplice in a robbery. To avoid jail time, Ginsberg pleaded insanity, spending time in the university's mental health facilities. Upon his release, he started to study under poet William Carlos Williams and worked for a time at a Manhattan ad agency.
In 1954, Ginsberg moved to San Francisco and became part of the countercultural gathering that would come to be known as the Beat Movement, which used a number of artistic and sensory modes to eschew rigid rules of society. It was also in the Bay Area where Ginsberg met model Peter Orlovsky, who would become his companion.
Then in 1955, Ginsberg read excerpts from his poem "Howl" at a gallery, which became a key manifesto of the Beat Generation and was published the following year by City Lights Bookstore in the form of Howl and Other Poems. "Howl" was an eye-opening work in its explorations of sexuality, anguish and social issues in non-traditional poetic form, relying on a freewheeling mix of influences.
The poem was deemed as being obscene and Ginsberg was tried for its content, though he was vindicated once the presiding judge ruled the work had merit. The resulting publicity placed Ginsberg and his work in the spotlight and as icons of anti-censorship. During this time Ginsberg experienced deep loss as his mother, who had suffered from a history of severe mental health issues, died in 1956, two days after receiving a lobotomy.
Highly Influential Artist
Ginsberg's next published work, Kaddish and Other Poems 1958-1960, featured the poem ''Kaddish for Naomi Ginsberg (1894-1956),'' which explored his mother's past and his feelings about their relationship. It is regarded by many as one of his strongest, most affecting works.
Ginsberg was prolific with his writing during the '60s, with some of his published titles including Reality Sandwiches (1963) and Planet News 1961-1967 (1969), and also worked with musical forms as well. Ginsberg also came up with the phrase "flower power," which he used to describe the peace movements that fueled much of the anti-war demonstrations he took part in, including his protests against the Vietnam War.
Ginsberg was an advocate of drug use, though he would generally walk away from this position after he studied yoga and meditation during a 1962 voyage to India. Ginsberg later converted to Buddhism and founded the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics of the Naropa Institute, which focused on Buddhist teachings. He was also a world traveler, remaining for extended periods of time in Latin America and Europe.
Ginsberg won the 1974 National Book Award for his work The Fall of America: Poems of these States 1965-1971, and over the ensuing years, became increasingly renowned for the importance and influence of his work, receiving accolades like the 1986 Robert Frost Medal. In the 1980s and '90s, he continued to write and worked with musical artists like Philip Glass, Bono, Sonic Youth and the Clash.
Already ailing from hepatitis and congestive heart failure, among other health issues, Ginsberg was diagnosed with liver cancer in the spring of 1997. He died shortly after on April 5, 1997, in his East Village loft surrounded by friends and old lovers. He was 70 years old. A massive collection of his work can be found in the book Collected Poems 1947-1997.
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