Biography of Allen Ginsberg, American Poet, Beat Generation Icon

Portrait of Allen Ginsberg
Portrait of Allen Ginsberg, c. 1967. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

Allen Ginsberg (June 3, 1926 – April 5, 1997) was an American poet and a leading force within the Beat Generation. He sought to write poems as instinctively as possible, leveraging meditation and drugs to fuel his poetic trances. Ginsberg helped break the stranglehold censorship had on mid century American literature and was a prominent liberal and LGBTQ activist, in addition to a devoted teacher. His poetry is notable for its candor, rhythms, and wide range of influences.

Fast Facts: Allen Ginsberg

  • Full Name: Irwin Allen Ginsberg
  • Known For: Author of Howl
  • Born: June 3, 1926 in Newark, New Jersey
  • Parents: Naomi Levi and Louis Ginsberg
  • Died: April 5, 1997 in New York City, New York
  • Education: Montclair State College, Columbia University
  • Published Works: Howl and Other Poems (1956), Kaddish and Other Poems (1961), The Fall of America: Poems of These States (1973), Mind Breaths (1978), Collected Poems (1985), White Shroud Poems (1986)
  • Awards and Honors: National Book Award (1974), Robert Frost Medal (1986), American Book Award (1990), Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres (1993), Harvard Phi Beta Kappa Poet (1994)
  • Partner: Peter Orlovsky
  • Children: none
  • Notable Quote: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix.” And ''You don't have to be right. All you have to do is be candid.''

Early Life and Education

Allen Ginsberg was born on June 3, 1926 in Newark, New Jersey, into a house full of dynamic ideas and literature. Allen’s mother, Naomi, was from Russia and was a radical Marxist, yet suffered severely from paranoia and was institutionalized several times during Allen’s childhood. Allen’s father, Louis, provided stability in the home as a teacher and poet, yet was against just about everything Ginsberg would be in favor of (anti-Castro, anti-Communism, pro-Israel, pro-Vietnam). While the family was culturally Jewish, they did not attend services, but Ginsberg found the cadences and traditions of Judaism inspiring and would use Jewish prayers and imagery in many of his major poems.

Ginsberg knew he was gay from a young age, and had crushes on several other boys while in high school, yet was very shy about this taboo topic and did not come out (selectively) until 1946.

Allen Ginsberg
Close-up of author Allen Ginsberg, 1958. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

After starting out at Montclair State College in 1943, Ginsberg received a scholarship from the Young Men's Hebrew Association of Paterson and transferred to Columbia University. Following in his older brother Eugene’s footsteps, Ginsberg started a pre-law degree, with the aim to defend the working class as a labor lawyer, but transferred to literature after being inspired by his teachers Mark Van Doren and Raymond Weaver.

In late 1943, Ginsberg became friends with Lucien Carr, who introduced him to the future core of the Beat Movement: Arthur Rimbaud, William Burroughs, Neal Cassady, David Kammerer, and Jack Kerouac. Ginsberg would later explain the movement as “Everybody lost in a dream world of their own making. That was the basis of the Beat Generation.”

At Columbia, Ginsberg and his friends began experimenting with LSD and other hallucinogenic drugs, which he said brought him to a higher plain of sight. The group was torn apart in August 1944, when Carr fatally stabbed Kammerer in Riverside Park. Carr turned himself in after disposing of evidence with Burroughs and Kerouac, and the three were arrested and sent to trial. At this time, Ginsberg had not yet come out to his friends, and the trial raised Ginsberg’s concerns that they would be accepting. Carr’s defense was that Kammerer was queer and he himself was not, therefore he’d stabbed him in defense of perverse advances; this knocked down his conviction from first-degree murder to second-degree manslaughter.

Ginsberg funneled the anxiety this case caused into his work and began writing about it for his creative writing classes, but was forced to stop after censorship from the dean, which began his disillusionment with Columbia. He was suspended in 1946 for trumped up charges after continuing to see his friend Kerouac, despite the dean’s insistence he stop. He was instructed to hold a job for a year, and then he’d be able to return, but instead he entered a counter-cultural New York. He became much more involved with drugs, and began sleeping with men, including, briefly, the married Kerouac.

Allen Ginsberg Amongst Protesters at Marijuana Rally
Allen Ginsberg leads a group of demonstrators outside outside the women's House of Detention in New York City's Greenwich Village advocating the use of marijuana. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

Despite misgivings, Ginsberg returned to Columbia in 1947 and graduated in 1949. He moved in with the writer Herbert Huncke, and was prosecuted after stolen goods were found in the apartment. Pleading insanity, Ginsberg was sent to a psychiatric facility for eight months, where he wrote to and befriended the poet Carl Solomon. After returning to Patterson, New Jersey, in 1949, Ginsberg began studying with William Carlos Williams, who encouraged his poetic growth and innate sensibilities.

Ginsberg returned to New York City and began working in advertising, but he hated the corporate world, so he quit and decided to truly become a poet.

Early Work and Howl (1956-1966)

  • Howl and Other Poems (1956)
  • Kaddish and Other Poems (1961)

In 1953, Ginsberg took his unemployment benefits to San Francisco, where he befriended the poets Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Kenneth Rexroth. He also met and fell in love with Peter Orlovsky; the pair moved in together a few weeks after meeting and exchanged private marriage vows in February 1955. Ginsberg said, “I’d found somebody to accept my devotion, and he found somebody to accept his devotion.” The pair would remain partners for the rest of Ginsberg’s life.

Beat Poets In London
American Beat poets Lawrence Ferlinghetti (left) and Allen Ginsberg (1926 - 1997) at the Albert Memorial in South Kensington, London, 11th June 1965. Stroud / Getty Images

Ginsberg began writing Howl in August 1955 after a series of visions. He read part of it in early October at the Six Gallery. Shortly after that reading, Ferlinghetti sent Ginsberg a telegram, echoing a famous letter from Emerson to Whitman, stating “I GREET YOU AT THE BEGINNING OF A GREAT CAREER [stop] WHEN DO I GET THE MANUSCRIPT OF ‘HOWL’?” In March, 1956, Ginsberg completed the poem and read it at the Town Hall Theater in Berkeley. Ferlinghetti then decided to publish it, with an introduction by William Carlos Williams stating, “We are blind and live our blind lives out in blindness. Poets are damned, but they are not blind, they see with the eyes of the angels. This poet sees through and all around the horrors he partakes of in the very intimate details of his poem.[…] Hold back the edges of your gowns, Ladies, we are going through hell.”

Before publication, Ferlinghetti had asked the ACLU if they would help defend the poem, since they knew what would happen when it got to America. Up to this point in the United States, freedom of expression did not extend to any literary work with overt sexual content, causing said work to be viewed as “obscene” and banned. The ACLU agreed and hired Jake Ehrlich, a prominent San Francisco attorney. Howl and Other Poems was published discreetly by Ferlinghetti in England, who attempted to sneak it into the United States. The collection also included the poem “America” which directly attacked Eisenhower’s post-McCarthy sensibilities.

Customs officers confiscated the second shipment of Howl in March 1957, but they were forced to return the books to the City Lights Bookstore after the U.S. attorney decided not to prosecute. A week later, undercover agents purchased a copy of Howl and arrested the bookseller, Shigeyoshi Murao. Ferlinghetti turned himself in on his return from Big Sur, but Ginsberg was away in Tangiers working with Burroughs on his novel Naked Lunch, so was not arrested.

City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco
Shelves filled with books for sale at City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, California. The landmark independent bookstore was founded in 1953 by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and specializes in 1950s Beat Generation literature, the arts and progressive politics. Robert Alexander / Getty Images

Judge Clayton Horn presided over The People v. Ferlinghetti, which was the first obscenity trial to use the new Supreme Court standard that the work could only be censored if it was obscene and was “utterly without redeeming [social] value.” After a long trial, Horn ruled in Ferlinghetti’s favor, and the book was published in America, although often with asterisks in the place of key letters.

After the trial, Howl became a pseudo-manifesto to the Beat Movement, inspiring poets to write about formerly forbidden and obscene topics in natural language and diction. Yet Ginsberg did not rest on his laurels and began composing a eulogy for his mother, which would form “Kaddish for Naomi Ginsberg (1894-1956).” She had died in 1956 following a seemingly-successful lobotomy to combat her paranoia.

“Kaddish” is often considered an even more impactful poem than “Howl,” even if “Howl” looms larger on the American political stage. Ginsberg used the poem to center his mother Naomi as the nexus of his poetic mind. He drew on inspiration from the Hebrew Kaddish prayer for the dead. Louis Simpson, for Time Magazine, labeled it Ginsberg’s “masterpiece.”

In 1962, Ginsberg used his funds and newfound fame to visit India for the first time. He decided that meditation and yoga were better ways of raising consciousness than drugs had been, and turned towards a more spiritual path to enlightenment. He found inspiration in Indian chants and mantras as useful rhythmic tools, and would often recite them at readings to help set the sonic mood. Ginsberg began studying with the controversial Tibetan guru Chogyam Trungpa, and took formal Buddhist vows in 1972.

American Beat Generation Poet Allen Ginsberg
Beat poet Allen Ginsberg with Peter Orlovsky and friend in their tenement pad during February 1963 in Benares on the bank of the Ganges river. Ginsberg explored Eastern philosophies with Peter Orlovsky and other founders of the Beat movement during his March '62 - May '63 stay. Pete Turner / Getty Images

Ginsberg began traveling extensively, and went to Venice to meet with Ezra Pound. In 1965, Ginsberg traveled to Czechoslovakia and Cuba, but was expelled from the latter for calling Castro “cute.” In Czechoslovakia, he was appointed by popular vote as the “King of May,” but then expelled from the country for being, according to Ginsberg, “a bearded American fairy dope poet.”

Later Work and Teaching (1967-1997)

  • The Fall of America: Poems of These States (1973)
  • Mind Breaths (1978)
  • Collected Poems (1985)
  • White Shroud Poems (1986)

Ginsberg was a very political poet, taking on a range of issues from the Vietnam War to civil and gay rights to a defense of labor unions. In 1967, he helped organize the first counter cultural festival, the “Gathering of the Tribes for a Human Be-In,” based on Hindu rituals, which inspired many later be-in protests. A non-violent demonstrator, he was arrested in 1967 at a New York anti-war protest, and in 1968 at a Chicago DNC protest. His inflammatory collection of political poems, Fall of America, was published by City Light Books in 1973 and was awarded the National Book Award in 1974.

Beat Poet Allen Ginsberg
Beat poet Allen Ginsberg holds a collection of his work and a piece of sheet music. Corbis / Getty Images

In 1968 and 1969, Cassady and Kerouac died, leaving Ginsberg and Burroughs to carry on their legacy. After studying at Trungpa’s Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, Ginsberg started a new branch of the school with the poet Anne Waldman in 1974: the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. Ginsberg brought poets including Burroughs, Robert Creeley, Diane di Prima, and others to help teach at the school.

While Ginsberg was active politically and busy teaching, he continued writing and publishing numerous collections of candid poems with City Light Books. Mind Breaths was rooted in Ginsberg’s Buddhist education, while White Shroud Poems returned to the themes of Kaddish and depicted Naomi alive and well, still living in the Bronx.

In 1985, HarperCollins published Ginsberg’s Collected Poems, thrusting his work into the mainstream. Following publication, he gave interviews in a suit, but rejected assertions that he was only then becoming respectable.

Portrait Of Allen Ginsberg
Portrait of American Beat poet Allen Ginsberg (1926 - 1997) as he sits cross-legged on a bed, New York, New York, 1987. Anthony Barboza / Getty Images

Literary Style and Themes

Ginsberg was greatly influenced by the poetry of the rest of the Beat poets, as they often inspired and critiqued each other. He also found inspiration in the musical poetry of Bob Dylan, Ezra Pound, William Blake, and his mentor, William Carlos Williams. Ginsberg claimed that he often experienced trances wherein he heard Blake reciting poetry to him. Ginsberg read widely and engaged often with everything from Herman Melville to Dostoevsky to Buddhist and Indian philosophies.

Death

Ginsberg remained in his East Village apartment while suffering from chronic hepatitis and complications related to his diabetes. He continued to write letters and see friends who came to visit. In March 1997, he learned that he also had liver cancer, and promptly wrote his final 12 poems, before putting on a Ma Rainey album and falling into a coma on April 3. He died on April 5, 1997. His funeral was held at the Shambhala Center in New York City, where Ginsberg had often meditated.

Legacy

Works Published Posthumously

  • Death and Fame: Poems, 1993-1997
  • Deliberate Prose: Selected Essays, 1952-1995

Ginsberg was actively involved in the creation of his legacy while alive. He edited compilations of his correspondence, and taught courses on the Beat Generation at the Naropa Institute and Brooklyn College. After his death, his late poems were compiled into the collection, Death and Fame: Poems, 1993-1997, and his essays were published in the book Deliberate Prose: Selected Essays, 1952-1995.

Ginsberg believed that music and poetry were related, and helped popular musicians with their lyricism, including Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney.

While progress has been made since Howl’s original publication, Ginsberg’s work continues to both inspire and produce controversy. In 2010, Howl, a film starring James Franco as Ginsberg that chronicled the obscenity trial, premiered to critical acclaim at the Sundance Film Festival. In 2019, parents attacked a Colorado high school teacher for providing his students with the censored version of Howl, and encouraging them to write in the erased obscenities themselves; his school stood by his decision to teach the text, however thought that parental consent should have been received. To this day, Howl is considered “indecent,” and is restricted by the FCC (it cannot be recited on radio programs unless in a late night slot); the battle against censorship for Ginsberg work is still not over.

Adaptations and new works inspired by Ginsberg are produced around the world. For example, in February 2020, South African playwright Qondisa James premiered her new play A Howl in Makhanda, inspired by the intellectual liberation and existentialism of Ginsberg and the Beats.

Sources

  •  “Allen Ginsberg.” Poetry Foundation, www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/allen-ginsberg.
  • “Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan.” Beatdom, 13 Oct. 2016, www.beatdom.com/allen-ginsberg-and-bob-dylan/.
  • “Allen Ginsberg's ‘Mind Breaths.’” 92Y, www.92y.org/archives/allen-ginsbergs-mind-breaths.
  • Colella, Frank G. “Looking Back on the Allen Ginsberg Obscenity Trial 62 Years Later.” New York Law Journal, 26 Aug. 2019, www.law.com/newyorklawjournal/2019/08/26/looking-back-on-the-allen-ginsberg-obscenity-trial-62-years-later/?slreturn=20200110111454.
  • Ginsberg, Allen, and Lewis Hyde, editors. On the Poetry of Allen Ginsberg. University of Michigan Press, 1984.
  • Hampton, Wilborn. “Allen Ginsberg, Master Poet of Beat Generation, Dies at 70.” The New York Times, 6 Apr. 1997, archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/books/01/04/08/specials/ginsberg-obit.html?_r=1&scp=3&sq=allen%20ginsberg&st=cse.
  • Heims, Neil. Allen Ginsberg. Chelsea House Publishers, 2005.
  • “HOWL Official Theatrical Trailer.” Youtube, 7AD, www.youtube.com/watch?v=C4h4ZY8whbg.
  • Kabali-Kagwa, Faye. “South Africa: Theatre Review: a Howl in Makhanda.” AllAfrica.com, 7 Feb. 2020, allafrica.com/stories/202002070668.html.
  • Kenton, Luke. “Teacher Told Students to Fill in Curse Words of Poem 'Howl' and Meditate to a Song 'about Sexting'.” Daily Mail Online, 19 Nov. 2019.