poem index

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About this poet

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 counterculture 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 years.

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 art."

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 that garnered worldwide 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 "Howl" became one of the most widely read poems of the century, translated into more than twenty-two languages.

In the 1960s and 1970s, 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 Award.

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.


Selected Bibliography

Poetry

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)

Prose

Deliberate Prose 1952–1995 (2000)
The Book of Martyrdom and Artifice: First Journals and Poems 1937-1952 (2006)


Multimedia

From the Image Archive

 

A Supermarket in California

Allen Ginsberg, 1926 - 1997
  What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for I walked 
down the sidestreets under the trees with a headache self-conscious looking 
at the full moon.
  In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went into the neon
fruit supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations!
  What peaches and what penumbras!  Whole families shopping at 
night!  Aisles full of husbands!  Wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes!
--and you, García Lorca, what were you doing down by the watermelons?

  I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, poking
among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys.
  I heard you asking questions of each: Who killed the pork chops?    
What price bananas?  Are you my Angel?
  I wandered in and out of the brilliant stacks of cans following you,
and followed in my imagination by the store detective.
  We strode down the open corridors together in our solitary fancy 
tasting artichokes, possessing every frozen delicacy, and never passing the 
cashier.

  Where are we going, Walt Whitman?  The doors close in a hour.
Which way does your beard point tonight?
  (I touch your book and dream of our odyssey in the supermarket and
feel absurd.)
  Will we walk all night through solitary streets?  The trees add shade
to shade, lights out in the houses, we'll both be lonely.
  Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of love past blue automo-
biles in driveways, home to our silent cottage?
  Ah, dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher, what America
did you have when Charon quit poling his ferry and you got out on a 
smoking bank and stood watching the boat disappear on the black waters of
Lethe?

--Berkeley, 1955

From Collected Poems 1947-1980 by Allen Ginsberg, published by Harper & Row. Copyright © 1984 by Allen Ginsberg. Used with permission.

Allen Ginsberg

Allen Ginsberg

Allen Ginsberg was one of the leading icons of the Beat movement, and "Howl" became one of the most widely read book of poems of the century, translated into more than twenty-two languages.

by this poet

poem

 

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poem

For Carl Solomon

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,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the 
  starry dynamo in the machinery of
poem

For Naomi Ginsberg, 1894-1956

Strange now to think of you, gone without corsets & eyes, while I walk on
   the sunny pavement of Greenwich Village.
downtown Manhattan, clear winter noon, and I've been up all night, talking,
   talking, reading the Kaddish aloud, listening to Ray Charles blues