Allen Ginsberg

Matt Theado

in American Literature

ISBN: 9780199827251
Published online August 2012 | | DOI:
Allen Ginsberg

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Irwin Allen Ginsberg (b. 1926–d. 1997) was born in Newark, New Jersey, to a high school teacher father who published poetry and a Russian-born mother who retained her communist roots. Both her sympathy for the labor class and her gradual mental decay deeply affected Ginsberg in his youth. Intending to study law, Ginsberg enrolled at Columbia University in 1943, but he soon turned to literature, taking classes from Mark Van Doren and Lionel Trilling. During his Columbia years, Ginsberg met Lucien Carr, William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, John Clellon Holmes, and Neal Cassady, artistic influences and principal constituents of what came to be known as the Beat Generation. In 1948 Ginsberg claimed to have heard William Blake’s voice, and from then on Ginsberg emphasized the visionary aspects of his poetry. He experimented with drugs, sexuality, and meditation throughout his life. In 1949 he was arrested in connection with a series of robberies, though he did not take part. In lieu of jail, he was sent to a psychiatric institute, where he met Carl Solomon, a key figure in Ginsberg’s poem “Howl.” Ginsberg’s public breakthrough came in San Francisco, in 1955, when he read the first part of “Howl” before an audience as part of an event that launched the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance. The City Lights publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, published Howl and Other Poems (1956), for which he was arrested by San Francisco police on charges of selling obscene material; the following trial, which resulted in an acquittal, catapulted Ginsberg to international notoriety. Although Howl and Other Poems remains Ginsberg’s best known book, many readers consider Kaddish and Other Poems, 1958–1960 (1961), dedicated to the memory of his mother, to be his best work. His Collected Poems, 1947–1997 (2006) displays the scope of his writing career and exhibits the traits for which he is known: breathy lines loosely arranged into poetic figures, subject matter that ranges from intensely personal to overtly political, forthright candor, and a sometimes shocking frankness.

Article.  6683 words. 

Subjects: Literary Studies (American)

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