|Allen Ginsberg at the Miami Book Fair International of 1985|
|Born||Irwin Allen Ginsberg
June 3, 1926
Newark, New Jersey, U.S.
|Died||April 5, 1997 (aged 70)
New York City, U.S.
|Occupation||Writer & Poet|
|Literary movement||Beat, New American Poets, Hippies, Postmodernism|
Irwin Allen Ginsberg (pronounced /É¡ÉnzbÉrÉ¡/; June 3, 1926 – April 5, 1997) was an American poet who vigorously opposed militarism, materialism and sexual repression. In the 1950s, Ginsberg was a leading figure of the Beat Generation, an anarchic group of young men and women who combined poetry, song, sex, wine and illicit drugs with passionate political ideas that championed personal freedoms. Major literary works of the Beat Generation include the novels On The Road by Jack Kerouac and Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs, as well as Ginsberg's epic poem Howl, in which he celebrates his fellow "angelheaded hipsters" and excoriates what he saw as the destructive forces of capitalism and conformity in the United States. The poem, dedicated to writer Carl Solomon, has a memorable opening:
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...
In October 1955, Ginsberg and five other unknown poets gave a free reading at an experimental art gallery in San Francisco. Ginsberg's Howl electrified the audience. According to fellow poet Michael McClure, it was clear "that a barrier had been broken, that a human voice and body had been hurled against the harsh wall of America and its supporting armies and navies and academies and institutions and ownership systems and power support bases." In 1957, Howl attracted widespread publicity when it became the subject of an obscenity trial in which a San Francisco prosecutor argued it contained "filthy, vulgar, obscene, and disgusting language." The poem seemed especially outrageous in 1950s America because it depicted both heterosexual and homosexual sex at a time when sodomy laws made homosexual acts a crime in every U.S. state. Howl reflected Ginsberg's own bisexuality and his homosexual relationships with a number of men, including Peter Orlovsky, his lifelong partner. Judge Clayton W. Horn ruled that Howl was not obscene, adding, "Would there be any freedom of press or speech if one must reduce his vocabulary to vapid innocuous euphemisms?"
In Howl and in his other poetry, Ginsberg drew inspiration from the epic, free verse style of the 19th century American poet Walt Whitman. Both wrote passionately about the promise (and betrayal) of American democracy; the central importance of erotic experience; and the spiritual quest for the truth of everyday existence. J. D. McClatchy, editor of the Yale Review called Ginsberg "the best-known American poet of his generation, as much a social force as a literary phenomenon." McClatchy added that Ginsberg, like Whitman, "was a bard in the old manner – outsized, darkly prophetic, part exuberance, part prayer, part rant. His work is finally a history of our era's psyche, with all its contradictory urges."
Ginsberg was a practicing Buddhist who studied Eastern religious disciplines extensively. One of his most influential teachers was the Tibetan Buddhist, the Venerable Chgyam Trungpa, founder of the Naropa Institute, now Naropa University at Boulder, Colorado. At Trungpa's urging, Ginsberg and poet Anne Waldman started a poetry school there in 1974 which they called the "Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics". In spite of his attraction to Eastern religions, the journalist Jane Kramer argues that Ginsberg, like Whitman, adhered to an "American brand of mysticism" that was, in her words, "rooted in humanism and in a romantic and visionary ideal of harmony among men." Ginsberg's political activism was consistent with his religious beliefs. He took part in decades of non-violent political protest against everything from the Vietnam War to the War on Drugs. The literary critic, Helen Vendler, described Ginsberg as "tirelessly persistent in protesting censorship, imperial politics, and persecution of the powerless." His achievements as a writer as well as his notoriety as an activist gained him honors from established institutions. Ginsberg's book of poems, The Fall of America, won the National Book Award for poetry in 1974. Other honors included the National Arts Club gold medal and his induction into the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, both in 1979. In 1995, Ginsberg won a Pulitzer Prize for his book, Cosmopolitan Greetings: Poems 1986–1992.
Ginsberg was born into a Jewish family in Newark, New Jersey, and grew up in nearby Paterson. His father Louis Ginsberg was a poet and a high school teacher. Ginsberg's mother, Naomi Livergant Ginsberg, was affected by a rare psychological illness that was never properly diagnosed. She was also an active member of the Communist Party and took Ginsberg and his brother Eugene to party meetings. Ginsberg later said that his mother "made up bedtime stories that all went something like: 'The good king rode forth from his castle, saw the suffering workers and healed them.'"
As a young teenager, Ginsberg began to write letters to The New York Times about political issues, such as World War II and workers' rights. When he was in junior high school, he accompanied his mother by bus to her therapist. The trip deeply disturbed Ginsberg – he mentioned it and other moments from his childhood in his long autobiographical poem "Kaddish for Naomi Ginsberg (1894–1956)". Also while in high school, Ginsberg began reading Walt Whitman, inspired by his teacher's passionate reading.
In 1943, Ginsberg graduated from Eastside High School and briefly attended Montclair State College before entering Columbia University on a scholarship from the Young Men's Hebrew Association of Paterson. In 1945, he joined the Merchant Marine to earn money to continue his education at Columbia. While at Columbia, Ginsberg contributed to the Columbia Review literary journal, the Jester humor magazine, won the Woodberry Poetry Prize and served as president of the Philolexian Society, the campus literary and debate group.
In Ginsberg's freshman year at Columbia he met fellow undergraduate Lucien Carr, who introduced him to a number of future Beat writers, including Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and John Clellon Holmes. They bonded because they saw in one another an excitement about the potential of American youth, a potential that existed outside the strict conformist confines of post-World War II, McCarthy-era America. Ginsberg and Carr talked excitedly about a "New Vision" (a phrase adapted from Arthur Rimbaud) for literature and America. Carr also introduced Ginsberg to Neal Cassady, for whom Ginsberg had a long infatuation. Kerouac later described the meeting between Ginsberg and Cassady in the first chapter of his 1957 novel On the Road. Kerouac saw them as the dark (Ginsberg) and light (Cassady) side of their "New Vision." Kerouac's perception had to do partly with Ginsberg's association with Communism. Though Ginsberg was never a member of the Communist Party, Kerouac named him "Carlo Marx" in On the Road. This was a source of strain in their relationship, since Kerouac grew increasingly distrustful of Communism.
In 1948 in an apartment in Harlem, Ginsberg had an auditory hallucination while reading the poetry of William Blake (later referred to as his "Blake vision"). At first, Ginsberg claimed to have heard the voice of God, but later interpreted the voice as that of Blake himself reading "Ah, Sunflower", "The Sick Rose", and "Little Girl Lost". Ginsberg believed that he had witnessed the interconnectedness of the universe. He looked at lattice work on the fire escape and realized some hand had crafted that; he then looked at the sky and intuited that some hand had crafted that also, or rather, that the sky was the hand that crafted itself. He explained that this hallucination was not inspired by drug use, but said he sought to recapture that feeling later with various drugs.
Also, in New York, Ginsberg met Gregory Corso in the Pony Stable Bar, one of New York's first openly lesbian bars. Corso, recently released from prison, was supported by the Pony Stable patrons and was writing poetry there the night of their meeting. Ginsberg claims he was immediately attracted to Corso, who was straight, but understanding of homosexuality after three years in prison. Ginsberg was even more struck by reading Corso's poems, realizing Corso was "spiritually gifted." Ginsberg introduced Corso to the rest of his inner circle. In their first meeting at the Pony Stable, Corso showed Ginsberg a poem about a woman who lived across the street from him, and sunbathed naked in the window. Amazingly, the woman happened to be Ginsberg's girlfriend from one of his forays into heterosexuality. Ginsberg was living with the woman and took Corso over to their apartment, where the woman proposed sex and Corso, still very young, fled in fear. Ginsberg introduced Corso to Kerouac and Burroughs and they began to travel together. Ginsberg and Corso remained life-long friends and collaborators.
Shortly after this period in Ginsberg's life, he became romantically involved with Elise Nada Cowen after meeting her through Alex Greer, a philosophy professor at Barnard College that she had dated for a while during the burgeoning Beat generations period of development. As a Barnard student, Elise Cowen was extremely bright and extensively read the poetry of Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, when she met Joyce Johnson and Leo Skir, among other Beat players. As Cowen had felt a strong attraction to darker poetry most of the time, Beat poetry seemed to provide an allure to what suggests a shadowy side of her persona. While at Barnard, Cowen earned the nickname "Beat Alice" as she had joined a small group of anti-establishment artists and visionaries known to outsiders as beatniks, and one of her first acquaintances at the college was the beat poet Joyce Johnson who later portrayed Cowen in one of her books Come and Join the Dance, which expressed the two women's experiences in the Barnard and Columbia Beat community. Through his association with Elsie Cowen, Ginsberg discovered that they shared a mutual friend, Carl Solomon, to whom he would later dedicate his most famous poem "Howl". This poem is considered an autobiography of Ginsberg prior to 1955, and a brief history of the Beat Generation through its references to his relationship to other Beat artists of that time.
Also in San Francisco, Ginsberg met members of the San Francisco Renaissance and other poets who would later be associated with the Beat Generation in a broader sense. Ginsberg's mentor William Carlos Williams wrote an introductory letter to San Francisco Renaissance figurehead Kenneth Rexroth, who then introduced Ginsberg into the San Francisco poetry scene. There, Ginsberg also met three budding poets and Zen enthusiasts who were friends at Reed College: Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, and Lew Welch. In 1959, along with poets John Kelly, Bob Kaufman, A. D. Winans, and William Margolis, Ginsberg was one of the founders of the Beatitude poetry magazine.
Wally Hedrick – a painter and co-founder of the Six Gallery – approached Ginsberg in the summer of 1955 and asked him to organize a poetry reading at the Six Gallery. At first, Ginsberg refused, but once he–d written a rough draft of "Howl", he changed his "fucking mind", as he put it. Ginsberg advertised the event as "Six Poets at the Six Gallery". One of the most important events in Beat mythos, known simply as "The Six Gallery reading" took place on October 7, 1955. The event, in essence, brought together the East and West Coast factions of the Beat Generation. Of more personal significance to Ginsberg: that night was the first public reading of "Howl", a poem that brought worldwide fame to Ginsberg and to many of the poets associated with him. An account of that night can be found in Kerouac's novel The Dharma Bums, describing how change was collected from audience members to buy jugs of wine, and Ginsberg reading passionately, drunken, with arms outstretched. A taped recording of the reading of "Howl" that Ginsberg gave at Reed College has recently been rediscovered and appeared on their multimedia website from 9am PST 15 February 2008.
Ginsberg's principal work, "Howl", is well-known for its opening line: "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked...." "Howl" was considered scandalous at the time of its publication, because of the rawness of its language. Shortly after its 1956 publication by San Francisco's City Lights Bookstore, it was banned for obscenity. The ban became a cause clbre among defenders of the First Amendment, and was later lifted, after Judge Clayton W. Horn declared the poem to possess redeeming artistic value.
Ginsberg claimed at one point that all of his work was an extended biography (like Kerouac's Duluoz Legend). "Howl" is not only a biography of Ginsberg's experiences before 1955, but also a history of the Beat Generation. Ginsberg also later claimed that at the core of "Howl" were his unresolved emotions about his schizophrenic mother. Though "Kaddish" deals more explicitly with his mother (so explicitly that a line-by-line analysis would be simultaneously over-exhaustive and relatively unrevealing), "Howl" in many ways is driven by the same emotions. –Howl– chronicles the development of many important friendships throughout Ginsberg–s life. He begins the poem with –I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness–, which sets the stage for Ginsberg to describe Cassady and Solomon, immortalizing them into American literature. This madness was the –angry fix– that society needed to function–madness was its disease. In the poem, Ginsberg focused on –Carl Solomon! I–m with you in Rockland–, and, thus, turned Solomon into an archetypal figure searching for freedom from his –straightjacket–. Though references in most of his poetry reveal much about his biography, his relationship to other members of the Beat Generation, and his own political views, "Howl", his most famous poem, is still perhaps the best place to start.
In 1957, Ginsberg surprised the literary world by abandoning San Francisco. After a spell in Morocco, he and Peter Orlovsky joined Gregory Corso in Paris. Corso introduced them to a shabby lodging house above a bar at 9 rue Gt-le-Coeur that was to become known as the Beat Hotel. They were soon joined by Burroughs and others. It was a productive, creative time for all of them. There, Ginsberg finished his epic poem "Kaddish", Corso composed "Bomb" and "Marriage", and Burroughs (with help from Ginsberg and Corso) put together Naked Lunch, from previous writings. This period was documented by the photographer Harold Chapman, who moved in at about the same time, and took pictures constantly of the residents of the "hotel" until it closed in 1963. During 1962–3, Ginsberg and Orlovsky traveled extensively across India, living half a year at a time in Benaras and Calcutta. Also during this time, he formed friendships with some of the prominent young Bengali poets of the time including Shakti Chattopadhyay and Sunil Gangopadhyay.
Shortly after his arrival, he gave a reading at Better Books, which was described by Jeff Nuttall as "the first healing wind on a very parched collective mind". Tom McGrath wrote "This could well turn out to have been a very significant moment in the history of England – or at least in the history of English Poetry".
The event attracted an audience of 7,000 people to readings and live and tape performances by a wide variety of figures, including Allen Ginsberg, Adrian Mitchell, Alexander Trocchi, Harry Fainlight, Anselm Hollo, Christopher Logue, George Macbeth, Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Michael Horovitz, Simon Vinkenoog, Spike Hawkins, Tom McGrath and William S. Burroughs.
Though the term "Beat" is most accurately applied to Ginsberg and his closest friends (Corso, Orlovsky, Kerouac, Burroughs, etc.), the term "Beat Generation" has become associated with many of the other poets Ginsberg met and became friends with in the late 1950s and early 1960s. A key feature of this term seems to be a friendship with Ginsberg. Friendship with Kerouac or Burroughs might also apply, but both writers later strove to disassociate themselves from the name "Beat Generation." Part of their dissatisfaction with the term came from the mistaken identification of Ginsberg as the leader. Ginsberg never claimed to be the leader of a movement. He did, however, claim that many of the writers with whom he had become friends in this period shared many of the same intentions and themes. Some of these friends include: David Amram, Bob Kaufman; LeRoi Jones before he became Amiri Baraka, who, after reading "Howl", wrote a letter to Ginsberg on a sheet of toilet paper; Diane DiPrima; Jim Cohn; poets associated with the Black Mountain College such as Robert Creeley and Denise Levertov; poets associated with the New York School such as Frank O'Hara and Kenneth Koch.
Later in his life, Ginsberg formed a bridge between the beat movement of the 1950s and the hippies of the 1960s, befriending, among others, Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey, and Bob Dylan. Ginsberg gave his last public reading at Booksmith, a bookstore in the Haight Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco, a few months before his death.
Ginsberg's spiritual journey began early on with his spontaneous visions, and continued with an early trip to India and a chance encounter on a New York City street with Chgyam Trungpa Rinpoche (they both tried to catch the same cab), a Tibetan Buddhist meditation master of the Kagyu and Nyingma sects, who became his friend and life-long teacher. Ginsberg helped Trungpa (and New York poet Anne Waldman) in founding the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado.
Ginsberg was also involved with Krishnaism. He befriended A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the founder of the Hare Krishna movement in the Western world, a relationship that is documented by Satsvarupa Das Goswami in his biographical account Srila Prabhupada Lilamrta. Ginsberg donated money, materials, and his reputation to help the Swami establish the first temple, and toured with him to promote his cause.
Music and chanting were both important parts of Ginsberg's live delivery during poetry readings. He often accompanied himself on a harmonium, and was often accompanied by a guitarist. When Ginsberg asked if he could sing a song in praise of Lord Krishna on William F. Buckley, Jr.'s TV show Firing Line on September 3, 1968, Buckley acceded and the poet chanted slowly as he played dolefully on a harmonium. According to Richard Brookhiser, an associate of Buckley's, the host commented that it was "the most unharried Krishna I've ever heard."
Attendance to his poetry readings was generally standing room only for most of his career, no matter where in the world he appeared. Ginsberg came in touch with the Hungryalist poets of Bengal, especially Malay Roy Choudhury, who introduced Ginsberg to the three fishes with one head of Indian emperor Jalaluddin Mohammad Akbar. The three fishes symbolised coexistence of all thought, philosophy and religion.
Ginsberg won the National Book Award for his book The Fall of America. In 1993, the French Minister of Culture awarded him the medal of Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres (the Knight of Arts and Letters).
With the exception of a special guest appearance at the NYU Poetry Slam on February 20, 1997, Ginsberg gave what is thought to be his last reading at The Booksmith in San Francisco on December 16, 1996. He died April 5, 1997, surrounded by family and friends in his East Village loft in New York City, succumbing to liver cancer via complications of hepatitis. He was 70 years old. Ginsberg continued to write through his final illness, with his last poem, "Things I'll Not Do (Nostalgias)", written on March 30.
Ginsberg is buried in his family plot in Gomel Chesed Cemetery.
Ginsberg's willingness to talk about taboo subjects made him a controversial figure during the conservative 1950s, and a significant figure in the 1960s. In the mid-1950s, no reputable publishing company would even consider publishing –Howl–. At the time, such –sex talk– employed in –Howl– was considered a form of vulgar pornography, and could even be prosecuted under law. Ginsberg used phrase such as –Cocksucker–, –fucked in the ass–, and –cunt– to show the underbelly of America. Numerous books that discussed sex were banned at the time, including Lady Chatterley–s Lover. The sex that Ginsberg painted did not portray the conventional sex between married couples, or even long time lovers. Instead, Ginsberg promotes casual sex, and used this to echo the emptiness and constant hunger in the lives of Americans. For example, in –Howl–, Ginsberg praises the man –who sweetened the snatches of a million girls–. Ginsberg displayed the true hunger of humanity through gritty obscenities and frank talk about sex, pointing out the man –who lounged hungry and lonesome through Houston seeking jazz or sex or soup–; Ginsberg used such taboo language, not only to promote free speech, but also to mirror the depravity of the human condition at the time. Ginsberg also went a step further, discussing the taboo topic of homosexuality. The obscenity that filled Howl eventually led to an important trial on First Amendment issues. Ginsberg–s publisher was brought up on charges for publishing pornography, and the outcome led to a judge going on record dismissing charges because the poem carried "redeeming social importance", thus setting an important legal precedent. Even so, Ginsberg continued to broach controversial subjects throughout the 1970s, '80s, and '90s. When explaining how he approached controversial topics, he often pointed to Herbert Huncke: he said that when he first got to know Huncke in the 1940s, Ginsberg saw that he was sick from his heroin addiction, but at the time heroin was a taboo subject and Huncke was left with nowhere to go for help.
Ginsberg also played a key role in ensuring that a 1965 protest of the Vietnam war, which took place at the Oakland-Berkeley city line and drew several thousand marchers, was not violently interrupted by the California chapter of the notorious motorcycle gang, the Hells Angels, and their leader, Sonny Barger. The day prior to the scheduled march, the Hell's Angels attacked the front line of a smaller scale protest, where a confrontation between police and demonstrators was brewing. The Hell's Angels came in on motorcycles and slashed banners while yelling "Go back to Russia, you fucking communists!" at the protesters. The Hell's Angels then vowed to disrupt the larger protest the next day.
Ginsberg traveled to Barger's home in Oakland to talk the situation through. It is rumored that he offered Barger and other members of the Hell's Angels LSD as a gesture of friendship and goodwill. In the end, Barger and the other Hell's Angels that were present came away deeply impressed by the courage of Ginsberg and his companion Ken Kesey. They vowed not to attack the next day's protest march, and, furthermore, deemed Ginsberg a man who was worth helping out.
It was shortly after the Tompkins Square Park riots in New York that Ginsberg was involved in a fracas with the Mentofreeist group and was assaulted by its leader, Vargus Pike. Pike was arrested, and was later released when Ginsberg, sporting a black eye, refused to press charges.
Ginsberg talked openly about his connections with Communism and his admiration for past communist heroes and the labor movement at a time when the Red Scare and McCarthyism were still raging. He admired Castro and many other quasi-Marxist figures from the 20th century. In "America" (1956), Ginsberg writes: "America I used to be a communist when I was a kid I'm not sorry...." Biographer Jonah Raskin has claimed that, despite his often stark opposition to communist orthodoxy, Ginsberg held "his own idiosyncratic version of communism". On the other hand, when Donald Mains, a New York City politician, publicly accused Ginsberg of being a member of the Communist Party, Ginsberg objected: "I am not, as a matter of fact, a member of the Communist party, nor am I dedicated to the overthrow of [the U.S.] government or any government by violence. ... I must say that I see little difference between the armed and violent governments both Communist and Capitalist that I have observed ..."
Ginsberg traveled to several Communist countries to promote free speech. He claimed that Communist countries, such as China, welcomed him because they thought he was an enemy of Capitalism, but often turned against him when they saw him as a trouble maker. For example, in 1965 Ginsberg was deported from Cuba for publicly protesting Cuba's anti-marijuana stance. The Cubans sent him to Czechoslovakia, where one week after being named the King of a May Day parade, Ginsberg was labeled an "immoral menace" by the Czech government because of his free expression of radical ideas, and was then deported. V¡clav Havel points to Ginsberg as an important inspiration in striving for freedom.
One contribution that is often considered his most significant and most controversial was his openness about homosexuality. Ginsberg was an early proponent of freedom for gay people. In 1943, he discovered within himself "mountains of homosexuality." He expressed this desire openly and graphically in his poetry. He also struck a note for gay marriage by listing Peter Orlovsky, his lifelong companion, as his spouse in his Who's Who entry. Subsequent gay writers saw his frank talk about homosexuality as an opening to speak more openly and honestly about something often before only hinted at or spoken of in metaphor.
In writing about sexuality in graphic detail and in his frequent use of language seen as indecent, he challenged–and ultimately changed–obscenity laws. He was a staunch supporter of others whose expression challenged obscenity laws (William S. Burroughs and Lenny Bruce, for example).
Ginsberg also spoke out in defense of the freedom of expression of the North American Man/Boy Love Association (NAMBLA). In "Thoughts on NAMBLA", a 1994 essay published in the collection Deliberate Prose, Ginsberg stated, "I joined NAMBLA in defense of free speech." In the essay, he referred to NAMBLA "as a forum for reform of those laws on youthful sexuality which members deem oppressive, a discussion society not a sex club." Ginsberg expressed the opinion that the appreciation of youthful bodies and "the human form divine" has been a common theme throughout the history of culture, "from Rome's Vatican to Florence's Uffizi galleries to New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art", and that laws regarding the issue needed to be more openly discussed. In an interview for the Harvard Gay and Lesbian Review he said:
"Everybody likes little kids. All you've got to do is walk through the Vatican and see all the little statues of little prepubescents, pubescents and postpubescents. Naked kids have been a staple of delight for centuries, for both parents and onlookers."–Intermountain Jewish News
Ginsberg also talked often about drug use. Throughout the 1960s he took an active role in the demystification of LSD, and, with Timothy Leary, worked to promote its common use. He was also for many decades an advocate of marijuana legalization, and, at the same time, warned his audiences against the hazards of tobacco in his Put Down Your Cigarette Rag (Don't Smoke): "Don't Smoke Don't Smoke Nicotine Nicotine No / No don't smoke the official Dope Smoke Dope Dope."
Though early on he had intentions to be a labor lawyer, Ginsberg wrote poetry for most of his life. Most of his very early poetry was written in formal rhyme and meter like his father or like his idol William Blake. His admiration for the writing of Jack Kerouac inspired him to take poetry more seriously. Though he took odd jobs to support himself, in 1955, upon the advice of a psychiatrist, Ginsberg dropped out of the working world to devote his entire life to poetry. Soon after, he wrote "Howl", the poem that brought him and his friends much fame and allowed him to live as a professional poet for the rest of his life. Later in life, Ginsberg entered academia, teaching poetry as Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College from 1986 until his death.
Since Ginsberg's poetry is intensely personal, and since much of the vitality of those associated with the beat generation comes from mutual inspiration, much credit for style, inspiration, and content can be given to Ginsberg's friends.
Ginsberg claimed throughout his life that his biggest inspiration was Kerouac's concept of "spontaneous prose". He believed literature should come from the soul without conscious restrictions. However, Ginsberg was much more prone to revise than Kerouac. For example, when Kerouac saw the first draft of "Howl" he disliked the fact that Ginsberg had made editorial changes in pencil (transposing "negro" and "angry" in the first line, for example). Kerouac only wrote out his concepts of Spontaneous Prose at Ginsberg's insistence because Ginsberg wanted to learn how to apply the technique to his poetry.
The inspiration for "Howl" was Ginsberg's friend, Carl Solomon, and "Howl" is dedicated to Solomon (whom Ginsberg also directly addresses in the third section of the poem). Solomon was a Dada and Surrealism enthusiast (he introduced Ginsberg to Artaud) who suffered bouts of depression. Solomon wanted to commit suicide, but he thought a form of suicide appropriate to dadaism would be to go to a mental institution and demand a lobotomy. The institution refused, giving him many forms of therapy, including electroshock therapy. Much of the final section of the first part of "Howl" is a description of this.
Ginsberg used Solomon as an example of all those ground down by the machine of "Moloch". Moloch, to whom the second section is addressed, is a Levantine god to whom children were sacrificed. Ginsberg may have gotten the name from the Kenneth Rexroth poem "Thou Shalt Not Kill", a poem about the death of one of Ginsberg's heroes, Dylan Thomas. However, Moloch is mentioned a few times in the Torah and references to Ginsberg's Jewish background are not infrequent in his work. Ginsberg said the image of Moloch was inspired by peyote visions he had of the Francis Drake Hotel in San Francisco which appeared to him as a skull; he took it as a symbol of the city (not specifically San Francisco, but all cities). Ginsberg later acknowledged in various publications and interviews that behind the visions of the Francis Drake Hotel were memories of the Moloch of Fritz Lang's film Metropolis (1927) and of the woodcut novels of Lynd Ward. Moloch has subsequently been interpreted as any system of control, including the conformist society of post-World War II America, focused on material gain, which Ginsberg frequently blamed for the destruction of all those outside of societal norms.
He also made sure to emphasize that Moloch is a part of all of us: the decision to defy socially created systems of control–and therefore go against Moloch–is a form of self-destruction. Many of the characters Ginsberg references in "Howl", such as Neal Cassady and Herbert Huncke, destroyed themselves through excessive substance abuse or a generally wild lifestyle. The personal aspects of "Howl" are perhaps as important as the political aspects. Carl Solomon, the prime example of a "best mind" destroyed by defying society, is associated with Ginsberg's schizophrenic mother: the line "with mother finally ****** (fucked)" comes after a long section about Carl Solomon, and in Part III, Ginsberg says "I'm with you in Rockland where you imitate the shade of my mother." Ginsberg later admitted that the drive to write "Howl" was fueled by sympathy for his ailing mother, an issue which he was not yet ready to deal with directly. He dealt with it directly with 1959's "Kaddish", which had its first public reading at a Catholic Worker Friday Night meeting, possibly due to its associations with Thomas Merton.
Ginsberg's poetry was strongly influenced by Modernism (specifically Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Hart Crane, and most importantly William Carlos Williams), Romanticism (specifically Percy Shelley and John Keats), the beat and cadence of jazz (specifically that of bop musicians such as Charlie Parker), and his Kagyu Buddhist practice and Jewish background. He considered himself to have inherited the visionary poetic mantle handed down from the English poet and artist William Blake, and the American poet Walt Whitman. The power of Ginsberg's verse, its searching, probing focus, its long and lilting lines, as well as its New World exuberance, all echo the continuity of inspiration that he claimed.
He studied poetry under William Carlos Williams, who was then in the middle of writing his epic poem Paterson about the industrial city near his home. Ginsberg, after attending a reading by Williams, sent the older poet several of his poems and wrote an introductory letter. Most of these early poems were rhymed and metered and included archaic pronouns like "thee." Williams hated the poems. He told Ginsberg later, "In this mode perfection is basic, and these poems are not perfect."
Though he hated the early poems, Williams loved the exuberance in Ginsberg's letter. He included the letter in a later part of "Paterson." He taught Ginsberg not to emulate the old masters, but to speak with his own voice and the voice of the common American. Williams taught him to focus on strong visual images, in line with Williams' own motto "No ideas but in things." His time studying under Williams led to a tremendous shift from the early formalist work to a loose, colloquial free verse style. Early breakthrough poems include "Bricklayer's Lunch Hour" and "Dream Record."
Carl Solomon introduced Ginsberg to the work of Antonin Artaud ("To Have Done with the Judgement of God" and "Van Gogh: The Man Suicided by Society"), and Jean Genet (Our Lady of the Flowers). Philip Lamantia introduced him to other Surrealists and Surrealism continued to be an influence (for example, sections of Kaddish were inspired by Andr Breton's "Free Union"). Ginsberg claimed that the anaphoric repetition of "Howl" and other poems was inspired by Christopher Smart in such poems as "Jubilate Agno." Ginsberg also claimed other more traditional influences, such as: Franz Kafka, Herman Melville, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Edgar Allan Poe, and even Emily Dickinson.
Ginsberg also made an intense study of haiku and the paintings of Paul Czanne, from which he adapted a concept important to his work, which he called the "Eyeball Kick". He noticed in viewing Czanne's paintings that when the eye moved from one color to a contrasting color, the eye would spasm, or "kick." Likewise, he discovered that the contrast of two seeming opposites was a common feature in haiku. Ginsberg used this technique in his poetry, putting together two starkly dissimilar images: something weak with something strong, an artifact of high culture with an artifact of low culture, something holy with something unholy. The example Ginsberg most often used was "hydrogen jukebox" (which later became the title of a song cycle composed by Philip Glass with lyrics drawn from Ginsberg's poems). Another example is Ginsberg's observation on Bob Dylan during Dylan's hectic and intense 1966 electric-guitar tour, fuelled by a cocktail of amphetamines, opiates, alcohol, and psychedelics, as a "Dexedrine Clown". The phrases "eyeball kick" and "hydrogen jukebox" both show up in "Howl", as well as a direct quote from Czanne: "Pater Omnipotens Aeterna Deus".
From the study of his idols and mentors and the inspiration of his friends–not to mention his own experiments–Ginsberg developed an individualistic style that's easily identified as Ginsbergian. "Howl" came out during a potentially hostile literary environment less welcoming to poetry outside of tradition; there was a renewed focus on form and structure among academic poets and critics partly inspired by New Criticism. Consequently, Ginsberg often had to defend his choice to break away from traditional poetic structure, often citing Williams, Pound, and Whitman as precursors. Ginsberg's style may have seemed to critics chaotic or unpoetic, but to Ginsberg it was an open, ecstatic expression of thoughts and feelings that were naturally poetic. He believed strongly that traditional formalist considerations were archaic and didn't apply to reality. Though some, Diana Trilling, for example, have pointed to Ginsberg's occasional use of meter (for example the anapest of "who came back to Denver and waited in vain"), Ginsberg denied any intention toward meter and claimed instead that meter follows the natural poetic voice, not the other way around; he said, as he learned from Williams, that natural speech is occasionally dactylic, so poetry that imitates natural speech will sometimes fall into a dactylic structure, but only accidentally. Like Williams, Ginsberg's line breaks were often determined by breath: one line in "Howl", for example, should be read in one breath. Ginsberg claimed he developed such a long line because he had long breaths (saying perhaps it was because he talked fast, or he did yoga, or he was Jewish). The long line could also be traced back to his study of Walt Whitman; Ginsberg claimed Whitman's long line was a dynamic technique few other poets had ventured to develop further. Whitman is often compared to Ginsberg because their poetry sexualized aspects of the male form – though there is no direct evidence Whitman was homosexual.
Many of Ginsberg's early long line experiments contain some sort of anaphoric repetition, or repetition of a "fixed base" (for example "who" in "Howl", "America" in "America"), and this has become a recognizable feature of Ginsberg's style. However, he said later this was a crutch because he lacked confidence in his style; he didn't yet trust "free flight". In the 60s, after employing it in some sections of Kaddish ("caw" for example) he, for the most part, abandoned the anaphoric repetition.
Several of his earlier experiments with methods for formatting poems as a whole become regular aspects of his style in later poems. In the original draft of "Howl", each line is in a "stepped triadic" format reminiscent of Williams (see "Ivy Leaves", for example). He abandoned the "stepped triadic" when he developed his long line, but the stepped lines showed up later, most significantly in the travelogues of The Fall of America. "Howl" and "Kaddish", arguably his two most important poems, are both organized as an inverted pyramid, with larger sections leading to smaller sections. In "America", he experimented with a mix of longer and shorter lines.
"Lightning's blue glare fills Oklahoma plains, the train rolls east casting yellow shadow on grass Twenty years ago approaching Texas, I saw sheet lightning cover Heaven's corners... An old man catching fireflies on the porch at night watched the Herd Boy cross the Milky Way to meet the Weaving Girl... How can we war against that?" (From Iron Horse, composed July 22–23, 1966, while riding a train from the West Coast to Chicago. The poem was dictated to a tape recorder, and later transcribed. The second part of the poem takes place on a Greyhound bus.)
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