Monday, April 5, 2010

Deathday: Allen Ginsberg, Poet

Irwin Allen Ginsberg (pronounced /ˈɡɪnzbərɡ/; June 3, 1926 – April 5, 1997) was an American poet. Ginsberg is best known for the poem "Howl" (1956), in which he celebrates fellow members of the Beat Generation and critiques what he saw as the destructive forces of materialism and conformity in the United States.

Ginsberg's principal work, "Howl", is well-known 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, because of 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 artistic value.

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 also a history of the Beat Generation. Ginsberg also later claimed that at the core of "Howl" were his unresolved emotions about his schizophrenic mother. Though "Kaddish" deals more explicitly with his mother (so explicitly that a line-by-line analysis would be simultaneously overly-exhaustive and relatively unrevealing), "Howl" in many ways is driven by the same emotions. 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.

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 that 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 a loose, colloquial free verse style. Early breakthrough poems include "Bricklayer's Lunch Hour" and "Dream Record."

Carl Solomon introduced Ginsberg to the work of 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 André 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 also claimed other more traditional influences, such as: Franz Kafka, Herman Melville, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Edgar Allan Poe, and even Emily Dickinson.


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 Knight of Arts and Letters).

With the exception of a special guest appearance at the NYU Poetry Slam on February 20, 1997, Ginsberg gave what is thought to be his last reading at The Booksmith in San Francisco on December 16, 1996. He died April 5, 1997, surrounded by family and friends in his East Village loft in New York City, succumbing 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.

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