This Day In Writing History
On June 3rd, 1926, the legendary poet Allen Ginsberg was born in Paterson, New Jersey. His father, Louis, was a high school teacher and a lyric poet of minor recognition. Allen's mother Naomi was a devout communist who took him and his brother Eugene to party meetings. As a young teenager, Ginsberg wrote letters to the New York Times about political issues like World War 2 and workers' rights.
Ginsberg's mother suffered from a rare form of schizophrenia that was never properly diagnosed. He once accompanied her to a session with her therapist, a disturbing trip for the teenage Ginsberg, who would write of it later in his famous poem, Kaddish for Naomi Ginsberg (1894-1956). He wrote the poem because the rabbi presiding at Naomi's funeral refused to read the traditional Kaddish in the presence of Ginsberg's non-Jewish friends.
In 1943, Allen Ginsberg graduated from Eastside High School and later attended Columbia University on a scholarship, which he supplanted by joining the Merchant Marine to earn money. While at Columbia, Ginsberg contributed to the Columbia Review literary journal and the Jester humor magazine. He also won the Woodberry Poetry Prize and served as president of the campus literary and debate group, the Philolexian Society. In his freshman year, Ginsberg's friend and classmate Lucien Carr introduced him to some of the Beat generation's greatest writers, including William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, who would become Ginsberg's closest friends.
After graduating, Ginsberg took an apartment in New York City, where he hung out with Burroughs, Kerouac, and their friend, writer, drug addict, and street hustler Herbert Huncke. He also met ex-convict turned poet Gregory Corso at, of all places, New York's first openly lesbian bar, the Pony Stable.
Ginsberg, who was gay, was immediately attracted to Corso and awed by his poems, one of which was about a woman who, in an amazing coincidence, was a former girlfriend of Ginsberg's - one of his few heterosexual relationships. Corso was bisexual, but he preferred women, so they didn't become lovers. They would become lifelong friends. After their first meeting, Ginsberg introduced to Corso his circle of friends, including Burroughs and Kerouac.
In 1954, Ginsberg went to San Francisco with a letter of introduction from his mentor, poet William Carlos Williams, and became involved with a group of poets and writers that came to be known as the San Francisco Renaissance. He also met and fell in love with Peter Orlovsky, who would become his lifelong partner.
Ginsberg had been doing odd jobs to support himself while he wrote, but his life changed forever when he wrote Howl, his most famous poem, which brought him international fame. Ginsberg's first public reading of Howl took place on October 7, 1955, at The Six Gallery Reading, an event promoted by Ginsberg and his friend, poet Kenneth Rexroth. It brought together the East and West Coast factions of the Beat generation's literati. Jack Kerouac included a fictionalized account of the event in his novel, The Dharma Bums.
Howl, dedicated to his friend and fellow mental patient Carl Solomon, (who introduced him to the writings of Antonin Artaud and Jean Genet) was a revolution in American poetic voice and these gutwrenching opening lines would forever be imprinted in the American consciousness:
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 night...
Shortly after Howl And Other Poems was published in 1956, the book was banned as obscene, as Ginsberg's poems contained profane language and sexual imagery more daring than the works of other poets of the time. The censorship of Ginsberg's book was a cause celibre among defenders of the First Amendment and the ban was overturned by a judge who found that Howl And Other Poems was not obscene because it possessed redeeming artistic value. Ginsberg's writing career took off, and his public readings always drew standing-room-only crowds.
In 1957, Ginsberg surprised the literati by leaving San Francisco and traveling to Tangier, Morocco, to see his old friend and ex-lover, William S. Burroughs. From there, he and Peter Orlovsky moved to Paris, renting a room at a shabby boarding house that came to be known as the Beat Hotel, because it was frequented by Beat generation artists and writers. Joined by old pal Gregory Corso, Ginsberg completed work on his second most famous epic poem, Kaddish, while Corso wrote his classic poems Bomb and Marriage. They were later joined by Burroughs and helped him edit the manuscript for his brilliant, landmark novel, Naked Lunch (1959).
Ginsberg never claimed to be the leader of any movement, but he ended up forming the bridge between the Beat generation of the 1950s and the hippies of the 1960s, and in doing so, became a leader and icon of the late 1960s counterculture. In the early 60s, he went to India, where a chance meeting with Tibetian Buddhist meditation master Chögyam Trungpa led to a spiritual rebirth.
Ginsberg also studed Krishnaism with its founder, Swami Prabhupada, and helped introduce Eastern spirituality to the American counterculture. In September 1968, Ginsberg appeared as a guest on William F. Buckley's TV show, Firing Line, and chanted the Mahamantra while accompanying himself on the harmonium, a portable musical instrument best described as a laptop accordion - though it looks more like a miniature organ than an accordion. Invented in France in the 19th century, it became the accompanying instrument of choice for performing bhajans - Hindu songs of praise.
Ginsberg was an anti-Vietnam War and free speech activist in the U.S. during the late 1960s, and appeared at demonstrations on college campuses. When the Hell's Angels motorcycle gang attacked a particular anti-Vietnam War protest in 1965 at the Oakland-Berkeley city line, slashing banners and screaming, "Go back to Russia, you fucking communists!" Ginsberg befriended them and gave them LSD as a gesture of goodwill. The Hell's Angels were so impressed by the courage of Ginsberg and his friend, writer Ken Kesey, that they vowed not to attack the next day's protest.
In between antiwar and free speech protests, Ginsberg helped found the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, where he frequently taught, as did his old friend, William S. Burroughs.
In the early 1970s, Ginsberg's neo-Marxist views and connection to the American communist party (though he himself was never an official member) earned him invitations to visit usually restricted communist countries such as China, Cuba, and Czechoslovakia. He visited those countries and gave lectures, but because he was both a strong free speech and drug legalization advocate, and also a homosexual, the communist countries eventually deemed him a troublemaker and expelled him.
In the 1980s, Ginsberg, like William S. Burroughs, developed a cult following among punk rock musicians. Ginsberg appeared on stage with the legendary British punk band The Clash, singing and reading his poetry. He took up songwriting and wrote and recorded a collection of memorable songs, including the anti-Vietnam war ballad September On Jessore Road and the humorous, satirical CIA Dope Calypso.
Allen Ginsberg died of liver cancer in 1997 at the age of 70. Just five months earlier, he had given what would be his last public reading at The Booksmith in San Francisco. Ginsberg left behind a large body of work that continues to influence poets to this day. Bob Dylan once said of him, "Ginsberg is both poetic and dynamic, a lyrical genius, con man extraordinaire, and probably the single greatest influence on American poetical voice since Whitman."
Quote Of The Day
"Follow your inner moonlight; don't hide the madness." - Allen Ginsberg
Today's Vanguard Video features Allen Ginsberg reading his classic poem, America, in front of a live audience, circa 1956. Enjoy!