Photo by Dorothy Alexander, from the archives of the Academy of American Poets, May 14, 1992
On June 3, 1926, Allen Ginsberg was born in Newark, New Jersey. The son of Louis and Naomi Ginsberg, two Jewish
members of the New York literary counter-culture of the 1920s, Ginsberg was raised among several progressive
political perspectives. A supporter of the Communist party, Ginsberg's mother was a nudist whose mental health was
a concern throughout the poet's childhood. According to biographer Barry Miles, "Naomi's illness gave Allen an
enormous empathy and tolerance for madness, neurosis, and psychosis."
As an adolescent, Ginsberg savored Walt Whitman, though in 1939, when Ginsberg graduated
high school, he considered Edgar Allan Poe his favorite poet. Eager to follow a childhood hero
who had received a scholarship to Columbia University, Ginsberg made a vow that if he got into the school he would
devote his life to helping the working class, a cause he took seriously over the course of the next several
He was admitted to Columbia University, and as a student there in the 1940s, he began close friendships with William S.
Burroughs, Neal Cassady, and Jack Kerouac, all of whom later became leading figures of the Beat movement. The group led Ginsberg to a "New Vision," which he
defined in his journal: "Since art is merely and ultimately self-expressive, we conclude that the fullest art,
the most individual, uninfluenced, unrepressed, uninhibited expression of art is true expression and the true
Around this time, Ginsberg also had what he referred to as his "Blake vision," an auditory
hallucination of William Blake reading his poems "Ah Sunflower," "The Sick
Rose," and "Little Girl Lost." Ginsberg noted the occurrence several times as a pivotal moment for
him in his comprehension of the universe, affecting fundamental beliefs about his life and his work. While
Ginsberg claimed that no drugs were involved, he later stated that he used various drugs in an attempt to recapture
the feelings inspired by the vision.
In 1954, Ginsberg moved to San Francisco. His mentor, William Carlos Williams, introduced
him to key figures in the San Francisco poetry scene, including Kenneth Rexroth. He also met
Michael McClure, who handed off the duties of curating a reading for the newly-established "6" Gallery.
With the help of Rexroth, the result was "The '6' Gallery Reading" which took place on October 7, 1955. The event has been hailed as the birth of the Beat Generation, in no small part because it was
also the first public reading of Ginsberg's "Howl," a poem which garnered world-wide attention for him and the poets he associated with.
In response to Ginsberg's reading, McClure wrote: "Ginsberg read on to the end of the poem, which left us
standing in wonder, or cheering and wondering, but knowing at the deepest level that a barrier had been broken,
that a human voice and body had been hurled against the harsh wall of America..."
Shortly after Howl and Other Poems was published in 1956 by City Lights Bookstore, it was banned for obscenity. The work overcame censorship trials, however, and became one of the most widely read
poems of the century, translated into more than twenty-two languages.
In the 1960s and 70s, Ginsberg studied under gurus and Zen masters. As the leading icon of the Beats, Ginsberg
was involved in countless political activities, including protests against the Vietnam War, and he spoke openly about
issues that concerned him, such as free speech and gay rights agendas.
Ginsberg went on to publish numerous collections of poetry, including Kaddish and Other Poems (1961), Planet
News (1968), and The Fall of America: Poems of These States (1973), which won the National Book
In 1993, Ginsberg received the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres (the Order of Arts and Letters) from the French
Minister of Culture. He also co-founded and directed the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at the Naropa
Institute in Colorado. In his later years, Ginsberg became a Distinguished Professor at Brooklyn College.
On April 5, 1997, in New York City, he died from complications of hepatitis.
Howl and Other Poems (1956)
Kaddish and Other Poems (1961)
Reality Sandwiches (1963)
The Yage Letters (with William S. Burroughs, 1963)
Planet News (1968)
The Gates of Wrath: Rhymed Poems 1948–1951 (1972)
Iron Horse (1972)
The Fall of America: Poems of These States (1973)
First Blues: Rags, Ballads & Harmonium Songs 1971 - 1974 (1975)
Mind Breaths (1978)
Plutonian Ode: Poems 1977–1980 (1982)
Collected Poems: 1947–1980 (1984)
White Shroud Poems: 1980–1985 (1986)
Cosmopolitan Greetings Poems: 1986–1993 (1994)
Howl Annotated (1995)
Illuminated Poems (1996)
Selected Poems: 1947–1995 (1996)
Death and Fame: Poems 1993–1997 (1999)
Deliberate Prose 1952–1995 (2000)
The Book of Martyrdom and Artifice: First Journals and Poems 1937-1952 (2006)