Allen Ginsberg

I have achieved the introduction of the word fuck into texts inevitably studied by schoolboys. -- Allen Ginsberg

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness. -- Allen Ginsberg

Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997), radical American poet, the true successor to Walt Whitman.

Ginsberg was born 3 June 1926, Newark, New Jersey, of Louis Ginsberg, a poet and teacher, and Naomi, a radical Communist who went tragically insane in her early life. Born Newark, New Jersey, Ginsberg grew up in Paterson, New Jersey, where he also attended high school.

It was as at high school that Ginsberg discovered Walt Whitman, but he followed his Father's advice and went to Columbia University to study law. At Columbia he met fellow students Lucien Carr and Jack Kerouac and fell in with William Burroughs and Neal Cassady. The group became obsessed with drugs, crime, sex and literature. These new found friends and interests did little for Ginsberg's studies and he was soon to be expelled from Columbia.

Ginsberg bummed around for a while, working as a cafeteria cleaner, welder in Brooklyn Naval Yard and market researcher. It was during this period when he tried to straighten himself out that he sought psychiatric care. Whilst in the waiting room of a psychiatric hospital he met Carl Solomon. Carl Solomon introduced Ginsberg to to the New Jersey poet William Carlos Williams. William Carlos Williams gave Ginsberg a letter of introduction to Kenneth Rexroth and the San Francisco poetry scene.

At the age of 26, in a Harlem apartment one summer day in 1948, William Blake came to Ginsberg in a vision. He was to later tell his family and friends that he had found God. The experience may explain why a Ginsberg poetry recital often ended with a reading of Blake. Visions of Blake inspired the early poetry, in particular Empty Mirror (1961) and The Gates of Wrath: Rhymed Poems 1948-1952 (1972).

William Blake, Walt Whitman, Zen Buddhism, were major influences on Ginsberg.

Ginsberg achieved fame with Howl and other Poems (1956). 'Howl' lamented many long lost, burn-out friends, it also achieved notoriety for its obscenities. Ginsberg came to popular attention when he read 'Howl' at the now-legendary Six Gallery poetry reading (October 1955).

Ginsberg's reputation was enhanced and secured with Kaddish and Other Poems (1961). In 'Kaddish', Ginsberg laments his mother's insanity and comes to terms with her death.

Ginsberg was the unofficial spokesman and leader of the 1960s revolution. There was few demonstrations of which he was not a part. He was part of the hippy movement and coined the phrase 'flower power'. At the Democrat Convention in Chicago (1968) he worked with Timothy Leary to publicise and promote LSD.

In the early 1960s, Ginsberg travelled through India with Gary Snyder and Peter Orlovsky, all three founders of the Beat Generation.

Ginsberg was a fully fledged member of the Beat Generation. In the summer of 1965 Ginsberg and several Beats travelled to London. Their reading at the Royal Albert Hall led to the beginning of the London underground scene, based at the UFO Club. Bands to emerge from the UFO Club included Pink Floyd and Soft Machine.

In the late 1960s or early 1970s I saw Soft Machine perform at University of Kent at Canterbury. Soft Machine were a Canterbury band, and my girlfriend was a cousin of one of the band. Sometime in the mid-1970s I saw Pink Floyd perform at an open air concert at Knebworth Park.

Bob Dylan was heavily influenced by Ginsberg. Dylan cited Ginsberg as one of the few literary figures he could stand. Ginsberg is standing in the alley in the background of Dylan's Subterranean Homesick Blues video (1965), and played a major part in the film Renaldo and Clara (1977).

Sometime, one summer in the late-1970s, I saw Bob Dylan perform at a vast open air concert at Blackbush Airport (near Fleet, Hampshire, England). It was one huge picnic. Also on the bill were Joan Armatrading, Elvis Costello and Eric Clapton. Clapton and Dylan performed their own sets, then at the end, for the grand finale, Dylan and Clapton performed together.

Ginsberg, Gary Snyder and Michael McClure led the crowd in chanting 'OM' at the San Francisco Be-In (1967). Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Jean Genet and Terry Southern were key figures at the Chicago Democratic Convention anti-war protests.

In 1970, Ginsberg met the Tibetan guru Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, later Ginsberg took Trungpa as his personal guru. Ginsberg and poet Anne Waldman founded a poetry school, the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, at Trungpa's Naropa Institute, Boulder, Colorado.

The chance meeting with the Tibetan guru Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche was the culmination of a spiritual journey which began early on with spontaneous visions and continued with an early trip to India.

1980 was a low point in taste for Ginsberg when he associated himself with the Punk Rock movement, he appeared on the Clash's Combat Rock album and performed with them on stage.

Ginsberg never moved away from his humble apartment in the streets of New York City's Lower East Side, and was often seen at local readings and multi-cultural gatherings, either on stage or part of the crowd.

In the later years of his life, Ginsberg was a Distinguished Professor at Brooklyn College.

Ginsberg died 5 April 1997, East Village, New York City.

Synchronicity: Ginsberg met the Tibetan guru Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche on the streets of New York when both tried to get into the same taxi. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche was to become a lifelong friend and teacher.

Web Resources


Thomas Riggs (ed), Contemporary Poets, St James Press, 1996

Gary Snyder, Earth Household, New Directions, 1969

Literature ~ Beat Generation ~ Jack Kerouac ~ Gary Snyder ~ Walt Whitman
(c) Keith Parkins 1999-2005 -- March 2005 rev 2