Allen Ginsberg

Go fuck yourself with the atom bomb…
-America

Born: June 3, 1926, Newark, New Jersey
Died: April 5, 1997, New York City, New York

Photo credit: Larry Keenan

Photo credit: Larry Keenan

When I think of Allen Ginsberg, a certain reverence plays around in my mind. I think of all he accomplished, after such a tough childhood of watching his mother go insane. It is not everyone who can turn around the negative into the positive, but one of Ginsberg’s finest traits, at least to me, was his ability to do just that. He truly cared for people. He cared for the world. He wrote with powerful anecdotes, prose, and poetry–and he transitioned from decade to decade, inspiring and helping so many other artists–from Kerouac, to Burroughs, to Snyder, to Dylan, to Lennon, to the Fugs (geez, you name the circumstance, Allen seemed to have played a part somewhere in it)–and he spoke strongly against wrongful ideals and events, such as the Vietnam War.

I admire people who, despite their own hardships, extend themselves so much that you begin to wonder if they are really more than one person. Or if their hearts are really a billion hearts. He supported so many good causes, good friends, even children of his friends. Allen’s integrity, expression, warmth, and kindness speak volumes to me. There are other things that don’t come up as much as his accomplishments do, such as his support of NAMBLA in his later life, which of course most of us cannot understand nor condone.

Allen’s upbringing in Paterson, New Jersey was in a strict Jewish family. He had an older brother named Eugene (named after labor organizer Eugene V. Debs). Their father Louis was also a published poet; one of Louis’s poems is titled “Waterfalls of Stone,” and I have retyped it here:

Buildings are waterfalls of stone
That, spurting up with marble crest,
Are frozen and enchained in air,
Poised in perpetual rest.
But water seeks its level out.
So, when these fountains are unbound,
The cataracts of melting stone
Will sink into the ground.

Though Allen argued with his father about poetic structure, during their last years together, they often exchanged and discussed their poetry.

Allen’s mother Naomi had a profound impact on Allen, and he fashioned much of his poetry after her. A schizophrenic, Naomi had at times been able to manage her disease and remain politically and normally active. By the time Allen was very young, a toddler still, his mother had a significant relapse and spent the rest of her life in and out of sanatoriums. Times that she returned home, Allen witnessed her odd paranoid delusions, her raves and rants, her walking about the house naked. Allen sometimes skipped school to take care of her. To witness this madness early on in his life, and to deal with it, brought on a distorted sense of his own being: Allen was afraid that he himself would go nuts, he missed his mother’s sanity and previous loving warmth, and he became needy and misunderstanding of how someone could change so much–as well, he could not fill in the hole of the loss of her. However, such early toughness had a reversed positive effect on Allen. In turn, he cared deeply for others who were in trouble, and he found a great cushion in writing–one that helped him deal with the hard turns of life he’d experienced. I, and many writers, can relate to this one facet of words: they can bring out the inner demons, express things so privately that may not have another outlet, and be therapeutical. Though this last sentence is true to an extent, not many can turn “diary entries” into poems. There’s also a craft involved in poetry, which Allen knew about.

As a teenager, Allen discovered that his sexual attraction was for men. He also began to plan for college, and decided on Columbia University in New York–partly because of an attraction he had to a fellow student in high school who went to Columbia. He originally planned to become a lawyer, but turned to studying literature after being influenced by a couple of men in the English Department who had become mentors to him. In New York (is this an odd twist of fate that ultimately changed American history, or what?), he became close to a circle of writers, which included William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, and Lucien Carr. This one facet of a chance point in time, in which three great writers, the trilogy of Burroughs-Kerouac-Ginsberg, is nearly coincidental, it seems. In Ann Charters’ book, The Portable Beat Reader, she discusses “generations” of writers and says that they are more inclined to form a “movement” by commonality in temporal, not spatial or geographical, ties. That these three great future writers initially met through a circle of peers at one university–and all men just happening there for different reasons–may not be so mystically fate-ish, but it does seem to be a fortunate act of perfect timing.

As is said often, you can never ignore the social context when it comes to understanding why certain people are magnets for each other. They sometimes share common views on what the world is about, or has been about, or will be about, or–more importantly, in this case–what the world should and could be about. In 1945, the United States was at the end of World War II, and so the good life of American prosperity was in the cards. But, everything didn’t jump to a nirvana state; there were also fears of Communists and nuclear war, and a far way to go with issues such as civil rights. Popping up through the seams of the seemingly rich new fabric of America were the phenomena that ignited the beat generation, or at least suffused with it: new jazz, such as Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk; junkies like Herbert Huncke beating around Times Square; and drugs like Benzedrine and pot becoming more popular. Too, again, back to the threads common among Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs: they had mad talks up all night on Benzedrine; passionate discussions of their literary influences such as Dostoevsky, Rimbaud, and Whitman; thoughts of how the new bebop sounds could be infused with the written language. Later in the mid-fifties, Kerouac, Ginsberg, and others were also becoming hip to haiku and use the of ellipse (or ellipsis) in poetry. Some of Allen’s “ellipsis influences” were Paul Cezanne, William Blake, and Buddhist studies. But, mainly, in those early days was a fervent, feverish seeking–excited by “discoveries”–and the recognition of the beatitude of their times: beat up, beat out, divine.

During these times, there were other individuals who became part of their circle: Herbert Huncke, Neal Cassady (who’d come to visit New York City, with his wife Luanne), and others. Allen fell in love with Neal Cassady, and even followed him back to Denver, before realizing that it wasn’t meant to be. Back in New York, he began seeing a therapist after suffering a mental breakdown (toughly hurt by his loss of Neal), and also worked at an ad agency. For a while, he drifted around, and his therapist advised him to do what he wanted to do: write poetry.

This led Allen out to San Francisco, meeting up again with Neal (who by this time was married to Carolyn), and hanging out with some of the North Beach poets, such as Kenneth Rexroth and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Kerouac also came into the picture now and then, doing his own “Road” stints. In the Bay area, Allen met Peter Orlovsky, who was to become and remain his lover for the next several decades.

Allen’s creative juices were fueled by the poets and friends he was hanging out with now. In August of 1955, he attempted a spontaneous, or free, verse as he’d seen in Kerouac’s writings, and began to type “Howl,” finding, once again, some kind of comfort in words that helped him express his sadness and tough reality view of the downtrodden in America–the type of person he must have thought he was as well. Just a couple months later, Allen and Kenneth Rexroth organized the infamous “Six Gallery” reading at City Lights, at which Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, Philip Lamantia, and Kenneth Rexroth would also read. Allen was urged to read “Howl,” which he’d written back in August.
To me, this (like the meeting of Burroughs, Kerouac, and Ginsberg in New York) was yet another moment of definition for the beat generation. It marked the East and West Coast poets centralizing their “powers” in one place, one night.

Allen’s “Howl” went down into history, beginning that night. It cried for the outcasts, it sang to America, and it was so powerful that it became an enemy in the eyes of those who could not accept or understand its meaning and honesty (such as words and ideas considered obscene). In 1956, Ferlinghetti published “Howl and Other Poems” in his Pocket Poet Series, and it was confiscated by authorities, culminating in the arrest of Ferlinghetti and his City Lights partner Shig Murao. Ralph McIntosh, the prosecuting attorney, had been set on removing obscenity (nudity and other such “filth” from the city), and “Howl” fit in to his cause. However, the American Civil Liberties Union bailed out Ferlinghetti, and other individuals such as Kenneth Patchen, Kenneth Rexroth, and author Walter Van Tilburg Clark supported the poem. The judge, Clayton W. Horn, ruled that “Howl” had social importance and could not be ruled as obscene. The book returned to bookstores, and although it wasn’t widely read back then–outside those who’d supported it (or didn’t, but were curious), “Howl” has taken a place in our history–and also propelled Allen’s further publishing.

Allen also was supporting his peers’ writing efforts (he helped Kerouac publish On the Road and Burroughs publish Junky and Naked Lunch). He wrote “Sunflower Sutra” and “America”–other “defiant” poems that were shunned by those who were in an outrage about the beats. He also wrote “Kaddish” (see my review of Tony Trigilio’s critical analysis of Kaddish in his article “Strange Prophecies Anew”).

In 1947, Allen had signed a release for his mother to have a lobotomy–a decision that may have been the toughest in his life, and one that he struggled with long after. He’d sent his mother his poem “Howl,” in 1956, and she died not long after–so although she was still supporting his poetic efforts, Allen did not get to see her and have a long-lost reunion with her as he’d often imagined. I think that Naomi’s death altered Allen to a big degree, and “Kaddish,” a tribute to his mother, was a shift of passion toward her–not that it’d been lacking before, but that it came out full force in his poetry.

As Tony Trigilio pointed out in his article “Strange Prophecies Anew,” Naomi’s voice was muted in “Howl,” but in “Kaddish,” she was a central authority. The Kaddish, a Jewish prayer traditionally chanted for 30 days by a loved one of the deceased–or for 11 months if the deceased is a parent–is not a mourn for the dead but a praise of God’s glory. Allen had wanted to recite the Kaddish at his mother’s graveside, but was not allowed to. His poem was not the “traditional” Kaddish, but a poetic one that was seen as a revised prayer, not a conventional one. Allen’s poem, to me, is one of the most honorable things he ever wrote, and I think of him as a true “Kaddishel”–a son who continued to honor his mother after death, in the expression he had come to know best: poetry.

Allen continued to write poetry as he naturally and easily transitioned into “movements” that came after the beat generation.

His good friend Neal Cassady died in 1968, on some railroad tracks in Mexico. Jack Kerouac died a year later. Kerouac had publicly uttered anti-Semitic crushing words about Allen Ginsberg during a time late in Kerouac’s life when his alcoholic demise and his mother’s racial ideals influenced him more than his ties to his friends. That Ginsberg forgave these slurs, knowing their origins, is one hot point for Allen, I think. Allen also helped create the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poets at Naropa Institute.

Ginsberg’s transition into the sixties, and his poetry up until then and after then, made a big impact of cultural “heroes” who were popping into the scene. Bob Dylan, for instance, used much of the beat essence to form his own artistic expression. John Lennon had read many beat writings as a student in Liverpool, and he changed the name from “Beetles” to “Beatles” to reflect the influence of the beats. The “hippie” generation following the beats may have been foreseen and somewhat defined by the beats. According to the Rolling Stone Book of the Beats, “hippie” was a term coined by the beats, and the term “flower-power” was coined by Allen Ginsberg.

Allen continued his political activism into the sixties and beyond, denouncing the Vietnam War, helping to organize Chicago’s Festival of Life (with the Black Panthers, Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman, and others), and working with Timothy Leary to publicly support the use of LSD in the context of the “egalitarian ideal,” the expanse of one’s mind in order to enhance expression and thought.

Allen’s artistic contributions branched out as well: he worked and played with Bob Dylan, The Clash, Denise Mercedes and the Stimulators, Lee Ranaldo (of Sonic Youth), Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Andy Warhol, the Fugs, Philip Glass, and many others. The very best site I’ve seen on the Web that relates the beats’ connections with music is Levi Asher’s coverage.

Allen died in April, 1997 of complications surrounding liver cancer. Although Allen had been sick, only a week before his death he found that his cancer had taken a turn for the worse–as in he didn’t have long to live at all. During that last week of his life, he wrote a series of poems about his life. One of these, “Death and Fame,” is part of a volume of poetry by the same name, which has recently been reviewed on this site by Adrien Begrand.

The class and grace and predictable warmth (and even humor) with which Allen faced his last few days was full of cherished sentiment and good friends. He was surrounded by those whom he’d loved, and who loved him, including Peter Orlovsky. He also talked with William Burroughs (who sadly died short of just four months later, on August 2) and Gregory Corso.

About the best elegy to his life and death took place on a mailing list at that time, which Levi Asher, of Literary Kicks, saved. These posts came from people everywhere, just before and after Allen’s death, and it’s one of the most emotional and happy-sad and honest things I’ve ever read.

A recent book out by Ginsberg, compiled by his biographer Bill Morgan, is Deliberate Prose: Selected Essays 1952-1995, by HarperCollins, published February, 2000. In this book are some previously unpublished works as well as Ginsberg’s most popular essay and prose outputs. The book does not included personal letters; however, a selected letters book is in the works and due out in the fall of 2000. For more information, see an article written by Steve Silberman in the San Francisco Chronicle. Another recent addition to anyone’s Ginsberg library is Death and Fame: Poems 1993-1997 (paperback), published in March, 2000. The upcoming The Poetry and Life of Allen Ginsberg: A Narrative Poem, by Ed Sanders, is due out in June, 2000.

Allen Ginsberg is known in Kerouac’s books as Leon Levinsky in Town and the City; Irwin Garden in Vanity of Duluoz, Desolation Angels, Big Sur, Book of Dreams, and Visions of Cody; Carlo Marx in On the Road; Adam Moorad in Subterraneans; and Alvah Goldbook in Dharma Bums. He is also known as David Stofsky in Holmes’ Go.

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