This Day In Literary History
On June 3rd, 1926, the legendary American 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 where he discussed topics such as World War II 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.
He would write about it later in his classic 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 the Ginsberg family'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 some extra 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 his 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, found himself 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.
The Six Gallery Reading was 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 classic novel, The Dharma Bums (1958).
Howl, dedicated to Ginsberg's friend, fellow poet Carl Solomon, whom he had met in a mental hospital, (Ginsberg had committed himself to avoid jail time after he got caught riding in a stolen car) was a revolution in American poetic voice and these gut wrenching 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 became a cause celibre among defenders of the First Amendment. The ban was eventually 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, he 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, Ginsberg 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 writers and artists. Sometimes, the house manager, Madame Rachou, would accept paintings or manuscripts from her tenants if they couldn't pay the rent.
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. Burroughs joined them later, and they 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 of 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 powered by air, the harmonium 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 also an anti-Vietnam War and free speech activist in the U.S. during the late 1960s, and appeared at demonstrations on college campuses. Once he ran into the Hell's Angels motorcycle gang when they attacked a particular anti-Vietnam War protest in 1965 at the Oakland-Berkeley city line.
The bikers slashed banners and screamed, "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, legendary 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 and other famous writers.
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 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 haunting 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 generations of poets.
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 performing a live show of readings and songs, A Night With Allen Ginsberg, at Loyola University in 1990. Enjoy!