American poet and activist Allen Ginsberg was the voice of the post–World War II generation. Through his words, he fought against materialism and conformity. He also developed his own style of poetry, combining traditional rhyme and rhythm techniques with a contemporary visionary style.
Born on June 3, 1926, in Newark, New Jersey, Ginsberg had been a passionate writer even at an early age. Ginsberg was raised in a Jewish family and referred to his parents as old-fashioned. Nevertheless, his parents allowed him and his brother, Eugene, to grow up appreciating literature. His mother, despite suffering from a mental illness, often told them her own bedtime stories. His father, on the other hand, recited Emily Dickinson around the house or verbally attacked T. S. Eliot for “ruining” poetry.
After high school, he initially attended Montclair State College. However, he was offered a scholarship from the Young Men’s Hebrew Association of Paterson, allowing him to study at Columbia University. There, Ginsberg had the opportunity to further develop his writing abilities. He contributed to the Columbia Review literary journal, wrote for the Jester humor magazine, received the Woodberry Poetry Prize, became the president of a literary and debate group called the Philolexian Society, and joined the Boar’s Head Society.
During his first year at Columbia, Ginsberg met several future important writers such as Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and John Clellon Holmes. They later cofounded the Beat Generation. Along with Lucien Carr, they shared a vision of a new America following World War II, free from conformist restrictions. They named themselves “beat,” referring to the exhaustion they experienced from the conformity, materialism, and hypocrisy within the post-war American society. The Beat Generation became popular throughout the 1950s, and some of their most influential works include Burroughs’s Naked Lunch (1959), Kerouac’s On the Road (1957), and Ginsberg’s Howl (1956).
As a college senior, Ginsberg experimented with recreational drugs, which is said to have triggered an auditory hallucination of William Blake reciting the poem “Ah! Sun-flower.” This was when he decided to become a poet.
Ginsberg stayed in the East Coast up until 1953, when he went to Mexico, and then decided to settle in San Francisco. While there, Ginsberg fell in love with a model named Peter Orlovsky. Ginsberg started to embrace his homosexuality instead of trying to “become straight.” He further expressed this in his 1955 long poem, “Howl for Carl Solomon.”
That same year, Ginsberg became part of an iconic event in American poetry. He recited a part of his new poem at the Six Gallery reading, known as the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance, with local poets such as Kenneth Rexroth, Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, and Philip LaMantia. Ginsberg later had his poetry published in a volume titled Howl and Other Poems.
In 1957, Ginsberg left California and lived briefly in Paris with Orlovsky. They returned to the United States in 1958, this time moving to New York City. Ginsberg’s mother had passed two years previously. Bothered by the fact that he was unable to properly say goodbye, Ginsberg wrote what is called his greatest poem, “Kaddish for Naomi Ginsberg.” The elegy followed a Jewish memorial tradition.
In the early ’60s, Ginsberg and Orlovsky traveled around the world as the former further experimented with creating visionary poetry. While in India for two years, Ginsberg learned meditation, which he called his spiritual enlightenment. The ’60s were a prolific time for Ginsberg as a writer, publishing a novel and a volume of poetry and collaborating in music.
Since childhood, Ginsberg was vocal with political issues, something that he carried through adulthood. He was responsible for coining the term “flower power,” used to describe peaceful demonstrations protesting the war against Vietnam. Ginsberg bridged the Beat movement of the 1950s and the hippies of the 1960s by befriending the likes of Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey, and Bob Dylan.
Ginsberg continued to work throughout the ’70s, publishing yet another volume of poetry, The Fall of America: Poems of These States, which won him the 1974 National Book Award. In the ’80s and ’90s, he collaborated with musicians like Bono, the Clash, Philip Glass, and Sonic Youth. Ginsberg’s work continued to influence these generations, and in 1986, he was even awarded the 1986 Robert Frost Medal.
Ginsberg’s last reading was given at The Booksmith in San Francisco on December 16, 1996. He also appeared as a guest at the NYU poetry slam on February 20, 1997, one of his last public outings.
After returning home from the hospital because of an unsuccessful treatment for congestive heart failure, Ginsberg started making phone calls to say goodbye to everyone in his address book. He also continued to write, his last piece being “Things I’ll Not Do (Nostalgias)” (1997). He died in his home in East Village, New York City, on April 5, 1997, surrounded by friends and family.
- Allen Ginsberg | Poetry Foundation
- The Allen Ginsberg Project | AllenGinsberg.org
- Academy of American Poets | poets.org
- Academy of American Poets | poets.org
- Allen Ginsberg Biography | Biography.com
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