As well as being its central poet, Allen Ginsberg was the guru, impresario and foremost source of inspiration for the Beat culture.
Ginsberg was born in New Jersey in 1926 to a family of Russian Jewish immigrants. He grew up under the influence of his parents’ political and cultural left-wing radicalism – his mother was a communist, his father a moderate socialist and a poet himself. His mother’s mental sickness laid a shadow over his entire childhood, leaving indelible marks on his life and his art. From an early age he felt an outsider: shy, insecure, sexually ambivalent and more inclined towards the world of books than towards sports or practical life.
As a student at Columbia University in New York from 1963 he came into contact with a group that was later to be known as “The Beat Generation”, including Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Herbert Huncke and Lucien Carr. It was particularly Huncke and the somewhat older Burroughs who became mentors for Ginsberg in his development as anti-establishment rebel, radical poet and homosexual activist in a post-war USA dominated by the Cold War, consumerism and puritan values. An experience in Harlem in May 1948 was crucial for his further development. In a vision he heard the voice of William Blake, and at the same time he felt a divine presence and a feeling of mystical unity. To this can be traced much of his search for the transcendental through meditation, yoga, sex and narcotic substances. Much of his poetry, particularly that of his earlier years, was driven by this same urge towards transcendence.
Early in the 50s Ginsberg moved to San Francisco where he encountered the so-called “San Francisco Renaissance” in art and literature. He gradually broke away from accepted norms and developed his own poetic voice, inspired by Arthur Rimbaud, Surrealism, William Carlos Williams and the American Transcendentalists, not least Walt Whitman. His great breakthrough was his reading of “Howl” at Six Gallery in San Francisco 13. October 1955. The event was a sensation, and caused the publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti (City Lights Books), to be indicted for publishing obscene writing. The reading, the publication and the court case made Ginsberg a guru and “ambassador” for the Beat culture both in USA and overseas, as he frequently travelled to India, East and Western Europe, Cuba and Latin America. In the 1960s and 70s he became more politically involved through the Hippie and Anti-war movements and the ecological movement. He was in the forefront of Timothy Leary and Ken Kesey’s campaigns for social revolution through the use of psychedelic drugs, and he was an early gay activist. His interest in Buddhist spirituality deepened with the years. In time he became increasingly accepted by the arts establishment, as can be seen by his many awards and his membership in the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Letters. Ginsberg died i New York April 1997.
Ginsberg was master of more than one art form: he was photographer, musician and writer. However, he was first and foremost a poet. His juvenilia are unoriginal and echo various styles. But from the early 50s, particularly after his move to San Francisco, he developed a down-to-earth, spontaneous form, based on the spoken word, often communicated to great effect through his own readings. The themes were close to life, and often broke taboos such as homoeroticism, drugs, psychotic and private traumas, often based on his own experiences. This development is noticeable in Reality Sandwiches (1963) with poems from the 50s. However, it was only with Howl and Other Poems (1956) and Kaddish and Other Poems (1961) that Ginsberg emerged as an unquestionably original poet who, in a prophetic voice, spoke for his own generation, hurled diatribes against the establishment, and set out his alternative vision for the liberation of the individual and for a new culture. In Planet News (1968) and The Fall of America (1972), we see a more direct political involvement, as in the great anti-war poem “Wichita Vortex Sutra.” The poems in Plutonium Ode (1972) are on the whole less powerful.
Ginsberg’s oeuvre is enormous. In addition to Collected Poems (1985) there are collected letters, dairies, notes, interviews and much non-fiction prose. All the material left by Ginsberg is housed at Stanford University in California – a unique collection of source material for the study of American post-war literature.