Ginsberg, Allen

   Along with Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg is the central poet of the Beat Generation and is one of the most popular U.S. poets of the 20th century. He also served as a de facto literary agent for many Beat writers, as an intermediary between these writers and potential publishers. Moreover, Ginsberg is a figure who participated in major schools of contemporary American poetry, including the San Francisco Renaissance, the Black Mountain poets, the Confessionals, and the New York School. He also is a major figure in American gay literature. Ginsberg’s influence on American culture, too, has been wide. He was a leader in the antiwar and drug decriminalization movements of the 1960s and 1970s; he is one of the most widely known Buddhist converts in the ongoing cultural dialogue between the Buddhist East and Judeo–Christian West; and he was among the major voices in the antinuclear movement, the struggle for gay civil rights, and the Democratic Left’s opposition to the rise of the Religious Right in the United States. His political activism, in addition to his explicit borrowing from Whitman as an internationalist symbol of American poetic speech, has given Ginsberg perhaps the most global reach of all Beat poets, and his work has been translated into more than 22 languages.
   Ginsberg was born on June 3, 1926, in Newark, New Jersey, the son of Louis Ginsberg, a poet and schoolteacher, and Naomi Ginsberg. Louis’s family was active in Socialist circles, and Naomi’s in the Communist Party. His childhood background offered him early identifications with the literature and politics of the socially disenfranchised: the working class, immigrants, Russians, and Jews. Ginsberg’s early years were marked by his mother’s deteriorating mental condition, the narrative of which is recounted in his long poem, “kaddish.” He was just six years old when she was hospitalized for the first time, and she entered Greystone Mental Hospital for what would become a two-year hospital stay when Ginsberg was 11. He was kicked out of Columbia University because of his association with the stolen-goods ring involving herbert huncke, who had stashed property in Ginsberg’s apartment. As a condition of his readmittance to Columbia, Ginsberg agreed to be sent to the Columbia Presbyterian Psychiatric Institute for psychiatric treatment. There, he met Carl Solomon, to whom “howl” was dedicated.
   A catalyst in Ginsberg’s development as a visionary poet was his alleged William Blake vision of 1948, an experience that he has recounted in numerous interviews and that serves as an allegory for his 1961 poem “The Lion for Real.” He was alone in his apartment and had just finished masturbating when he was overwhelmed by the voice of Blake reciting the poem “Ah! Sunflower.” As he mentioned in his 1966 interview with the Paris Review, Ginsberg felt as if “some hand had placed the sky but . . . the sky was the living blue hand itself. . . . God was in front of my eyes—existence itself was God.” Later, in the Columbia bookstore, the feeling persisted. Ginsberg felt that he, the clerk, and the customers “all had the consciousness, it was like a great unconscious that was running between [sic] all of us that everybody was completely conscious.” For Ginsberg, this event, whether real or hallucinatory, authorized him to write visionary poetry in the tradition of Western prophecy. However, the vision also had a damaging effect on his life. He spent the next 14 years obsessively trying to recapture the feeling of this vision through drug use, and it was not until a meeting with Tibetan lama Dudjom Rinpoche on his travels to India in 1962–63 that he stopped. Up to this point, his efforts to relive the Blake vision through drug use were marked by anxiety, and drugs had not returned him to the vision. However, as he stated in his dedication remarks to Indian Journals, Dudjom Rinpoche’s remarks during their 1963 meeting helped him shake his attachment to the vision: According to Ginsberg, Rinpoche said, simply, “If you see anything horrible don’t cling to it if you see anything beautiful don’t cling to it.” Rinpoche’s advice was significant for Ginsberg as he crafted “The Change,” a poem that appropriates language and imagery from the Buddhist Sattipathana Sutra as it dramatizes his effort to work through his attachment to the Blake vision. He repeated Rinpoche’s words frequently throughout his career, in interviews and lectures, and applied them often to discussions of drug use, the poetics of visionary experience, and Buddhist doctrinal questions.
   On graduation from Columbia, he worked for a time at public relations firm, eventually moving to San Francisco to begin graduate school. In the Bay Area, he began to focus more on poetry, eventually becoming one of the central figures in the San Francisco Renaissance. He also met his lifelong companion, Peter Orlovsky, in San Francisco. His first major poetic success was Howl and otHer poems, with the title poem garnering enormous attention both for its rupture of prevailing New Critical aesthetic modes and for its ensuing obscenity trial, detailed below, which Ginsberg and his publisher, lawrence ferlinghetti, won. Soon after the publication of kaddisH and otHer poems, Ginsberg began a series of international travels that disillusioned him from Soviet-style communism and introduced him to Eastern religious thought, especially Buddhism, to which he would convert in 1972. He spent most of his life based in New York City in a lower East Side apartment and shuttling back and forth between New York and Boulder, Colorado, where he cofounded the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University. He died of liver cancer at age 70 in his New York apartment, surrounded by friends, associates, and Gelek Rinpoche, his last Buddhist teacher, who performed Tibetan rituals for the dying for him.
   Although Ginsberg’s reputation was built on lifelong accomplishments in poetry and political activism, his original goal in life simply was to become a labor lawyer. As recounted in “Kaddish,” his ride on the ferry from his home in Paterson, New Jersey, to take his freshman entrance examination at Columbia University was a turning point in the development of a poetry that would emphasize his equally spiritual and political interests. He “[p]rayed on ferry to help mankind if admitted” to Columbia. He uttered this prayer in the name of some of the most important political and literary figures in his young life. It was a “vow” inspired by Nicola Sacco, Bartolomeo Vanzetti, Norman Thomas, Eugene V. Debs, John P. Altgeld, Carl Sandburg, and Edgar Allan Poe. At this period in his life, the young Ginsberg was sure that he would make a mark on the world—but as a lawyer, not a poet. According to one of Ginsberg’s biographers, Barry Miles, this vow on the ferry “gave direction to Ginsberg’s activities over the years, and that he used it as a benchmark whenever he was confused by a choice of courses of action.”
   Of course, Ginsberg’s time at Columbia University is known not for studying law but instead for how it planted the seeds for the Beat Generation. While at Columbia, he met and became close with Lucien Carr, William S. Burroughs, neal cassady, and jack kerouac, and together they would form a “new vision,” as they called it, for literature-what would become the Beat Generation. As both vow and prayer, Ginsberg’s thoughts on the ferry affirm the activist impulse that would sustain the body of his work. That “benchmark” moment offers a window into the major concerns of his poetics of social change and religious questing. The social and religious directions of his poetry are functions, too, of the environment in which he grew up. His earliest and most famous poems in Howl and Other Poems (1956) and Kaddish and Other Poems (1961) document his struggles with his mother, who was a great inspiration to him but also was mentally ill and subject to numerous breakdowns; and his disappointment with his father, a locally renowned poet in New Jersey who preferred the quiet middle-class life of a schoolteacher despite the family’s socialist-communist background. These early books, too, are windows into the poet’s efforts to find a place for his homosexual identity in the repressive pre-Stonewall United States. The family’s political views resembled those of many Jewish immigrant families in the East Coast at the time, and for Ginsberg the influence of his Judaic background always would be a part of his political poetry. Early in his career, during the composition of “Howl,” he began to envision himself as a poet-prophet in the literary tradition of Whitman and Blake. This form of self-representation could be seen as the perfect fusion of his earliest political and religious impulses because it is a literary tradition that finds a voice in the earliest social and spiritual concerns of the early Hebrew prophets of the Bible. Although the word prophecy has come to mean in common speech simply the ability to predict future events, the definition of the word from which Ginsberg took his identity was much more nuanced. The early biblical prophets were seen as forces of social and spiritual change. They were said to be subject to the direct influence of God, who spoke through them so that they might instruct the culture to turn away from socially and spiritually destructive practices. Prophets were visionary figures who served as intermediaries between everyday people and the word of God. It is from this biblical definition of prophet that Ginsberg wrote “Howl” and “Kaddish.” In “Howl,” he is concerned with reaching back to the visionary speech of prophecy to find language for the “secret heroes” of the Beat Generation-figures such as Kerouac, Cassady, Burroughs who were beaten down by the constraining culture of cold-war America. “Kaddish” is Ginsberg’s elegy for his mother; it rewrites the Hebrew Kaddish prayer for the dead in speech described both as “prophesy as in the Hebrew Anthem” and “the Buddhist Book of Answers.”
   After “Kaddish,” Ginsberg continued to write poems framed by the Western prophetic tradition. However, he increasingly emphasized how Western religiosity might be modified—at times, transformed—by traditions such as Hinduism and Buddhism. By the 1970s, Ginsberg’s poetry became identified more with his Buddhist practice than with his Jewish background. In 1972, he took Tibetan Buddhist Bodhisattva vows with Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and he began formal Buddhist study and practice with Trungpa, with whom he worked until Trungpa’s death in 1987. Ginsberg formed the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics within Trungpa’s Naropa University (then Institute) in 1974. Naropa would become the first accredited Buddhist college in the United States. Ginsberg ran Naropa’s Poetics Department, the academic name for the Kerouac School, and taught there and as Distinguished Professor at Brooklyn College through the end of his life. His classes at Naropa included Blake, the Beat Generation, Spiritual Poetics, Meditation and Poetics, and Spontaneous and Improvised Poetics. Ginsberg’s study and practice with formal Tibetan Buddhist teachers continued after Trungpa’s death, and he was a close student of Gelek Rinpoche, who was with Ginsberg when he died on April 5, 1997.
   Ginsberg’s many conflicts with governmental legal institutions began with the censorship trial over the book Howl and Other Poems. Seized by customs inspectors because of its frank portrayals of sex (both heterosexual and homosexual) and drug use, the book was at the center of a landmark U.S. obscenity case. State Superior Court Judge Clayton W. Horn eventually ruled that Howl and Other Poems could not be obscene—thereby sparing Ginsberg’s publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and City Lights Bookstore clerk Shigeyoshi Murao from a jail term—because any work of art that possessed “some redeeming social importance” was protected by the Constitution.
   In 1965 Ginsberg was expelled from Cuba and Czechoslovakia because of his outspoken support for free speech and sexual freedom in those countries. He publicly declared his outrage with Fidel Castro’s persecution of homosexuals at Havana University. He was roused in the middle of the night and deported from Cuba. He then flew to Europe’s Eastern Bloc, where more than 100,000 people in Prague crowned him “King of May” (Kral Majales) and led him through the streets of the city on a chair placed on the back of a flatbed truck. Ginsberg was viewed by the Communist Czech government as an outsider agitating a counterrevolutionary student movement. The police seized his notebook, and he was flown out of the country to London. His disillusionment with both sides of the cold war was dramatized best in “Kral Majales” (1965), his account of the trip to Czechoslovakia: “And tho’ I am the King of May, the Marxists have beat me upon the street, kept me up all night in Police Station, followed me thru Springtime Prague, detained me in secret and deported me from our kingdom by airplane.” When he returned to the United States, he was placed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation on its Dangerous Security List. As early as 1961, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency had begun a file on the poet, and afterward he was under periodic surveillance. Ginsberg was strip-searched for drugs on arrival in New York from the Czechoslovakia trip. As he waited for the authorities, Ginsberg managed to see the files that were on the table in the observation room. As biographer Michael Schumacher has reported, one of these documents went so far as to state, with no attribution, that both Ginsberg and his life partner, Peter Orlovsky, “were reported to be engaged in smuggling narcotics.”
   Still, Ginsberg maintained an active public profile as both an artist and activist. In 1966 he testified before the U.S. Senate on The Narcotic Rehabilitation Act of 1966. The stated purpose of the hearings was to establish sentencing and rehabilitation guidelines for federal drug offenses. Ginsberg testified on his experiences with hallucinogenic drugs such as LSD and ayahuasca and urged the Senate, in vain, to keep LSD a legal drug for scientific experimentation and controlled adult use.
   Ginsberg’s reputation as a poet and social critic was confirmed with the publication of Howl and Other Poems and Kaddish and Other Poems. He continued an output of poems significant to contemporary American poetry until his death. Ginsberg’s major works of the 1960s include his long-poem Buddhist explorations “Angkor Wat” and “The Change,” both written during a 1962–63 trip through Asia, and “wichita vortex sutra,” from Planet News (1968). His most notable poems of the 1970s include the work collected in fall of america: poems of tHese states (1973), which won the National Book Award for poetry; and Mind Breaths (1978), a collection of Buddhistinspired poems, including the well-known title poem from the collection which reflected his formal study and practice with Trungpa. The poet’s literary output of the 1980s and 1990s, including White Shroud (1986) and Cosmopolitan Greetings (1994), reflects his continued desire to stretch the art form of the poem on the page to include songs, prayers (Eastern and Western), and chants. White Shroud is especially significant for the poems “White Shroud” and “Black Shroud,” both sequels to “Kaddish.” In his later years, his efforts to blur the boundaries between poetry and popular music resulted in musical recordings of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience; collaborations with members of the bands The Clash and Sonic Youth; and recordings of his own poems put to music, such as Paul McCartney and Philip Glass’s rendition of “The Ballad of the Skeletons,” from Ginsberg’s last book of poems, Death and Fame: Final Poems (1999).
   Death and Fame collects a series of poems written as his body was giving out to liver cancer.
   These poems are important for their acknowledgment that Ginsberg’s reputation as a contemporary Whitman-inspired poet of the body is, like any other aspect of the politics of literary reputation, a construction. The poems demonstrate, through his body’s wasting away, that Ginsberg always celebrated a body both ecstatic and anxious for its mortality. In poems such as “Here We Go ’Round the Mulberry Bush,” “Bowel Song,” and “Hepatitis, Body Itch,” he celebrated the impermanence of the body in the language of abjection. In speaking with candor about the body, Ginsberg also dramatized Buddhist teachings on the body he had received from Trungpa and Gelek Rinpoche, both of whom advised their students to give up their attachments and aversions to corporeal pleasure and pain. In published remarks on Ginsberg’s death, Gelek Rinpoche praised Ginsberg because he “put his heart and soul toward the benefit of people.” Remarking that Ginsberg was responsible for bringing many Westerners to Buddhism, Rinpoche emphasized the need “to remember his concern, his message and his teaching, honesty, openness.”
■ Ginsberg, Allen. Collected Poems, 1947-1980. New York: Harper & Row, 1984.
■ ———. Cosmopolitan Greetings: Poems 1986-1992. New York: HarperCollins, 1994.
■ ———. Death and Fame: Last Poems, 1993-1997. New York: HarperCollins, 1999.
■ ———. White Shroud: Poems, 1980-1985. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.
■ Miles, Barry. Ginsberg: A Biography. New York: Harper-Collins, 1989.
■ Schumacher, Michael. Dharma Lion: A Critical Biography of Allen Ginsberg. New York: St. Martin’s, 1992.
   Tony Trigilio

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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