Louis Ginsberg was a published poet, a high school teacher and a moderate Jewish Socialist. His wife, Naomi, was a radical Communist and irrepressible nudist who went tragically insane in early adulthood. Somewhere between the two in temperament was the Ginsberg’s second son, Irwin Allen, born on June 3, 1926.
A shy and complicated child growing up in Paterson, New Jersey, Allen’s home life was dominated by his mother’s bizarre and frightening episodes. A severe paranoid, she often trusted young Allen when she was convinced the rest of the family and the world was plotting against her. As the sensitive boy tried to understand what was happening around him, he also had to struggle to comprehend what was happening inside him, because he was consumed by lust for other boys his age.
He discovered the poetry of Walt Whitman (the original Beatnik) in high school, but despite his interest in poetry he followed his father’s advice and began planning a career as a labor lawyer. This was what he had in mind when he began his freshman year at Columbia University, but he fell in with a crowd of wild souls there, including fellow students Lucien Carr and Jack Kerouac and non-student friends William S. Burroughs and Neal Cassady. These delinquent young philosophers were equally obsessed with drugs, crime, sex and literature. Ginsberg, the youngest and most innocent member of the circle, helped them develop their literary smarts, while they helped him in turn by utterly shattering his bookish naivete.
His new crowd was based at Columbia, but they did not encourage him in his studies, and he eventually got suspended from Columbia for various small offenses. He began consorting with Times Square junkies and thieves (mostly friends of Burroughs), experimenting with Benzedrine and marijuana, and cruising gay bars in Greenwich Village, all the time believing himself and his friends to be working towards some kind of uncertain great poetic vision, which he and Kerouac called the New Vision. He began a passionate (for him, anyway) sexual affair with the reluctant Neal Cassady, and visited Cassady in Denver and San Francisco, helping to set in motion the cross-country trend that would soon inspire Kerouac’s ‘On The Road‘ adventures. The joyful craziness of his city friends somehow became a symbolic counterpoint, for Ginsberg, to the real craziness of his mother, whose condition continued to worsen until she was hospitalized for life and finally lobotomized. Many people deal with insanity in the family by becoming exaggeratedly normal, but Ginsberg went in the opposite direction. Knowing himself to be basically sane, he embraced bizarreness as a style of life, as if seeking to find the edge his mother had fallen over. Reading William Blake in a Harlem apartment one summer day in 1948, the 26-year-old Allen Ginsberg had a tremendous mad vision in which Blake came to him in person. This was the great moment of his life, and he joyfully told his family and friends that he had found God.
The whole wild scene crashed, though, when the criminal activities of several of Ginsberg’s friends (such as Burroughs and Herbert Huncke) resulted in his arrest and imprisonment. Ginsberg entered a ‘straight’ phase: he recounced Burroughs, immersed himself in psychoanalytic treatment, and even began dating a woman named Helen Parker. Now a self-declared heterosexual, he found a job as a marketing researcher. In an office in the Empire State Building, he helped develop an advertising campaign for Ipana Toothpaste (remember the ‘Brush-a brush-a brush-a!’ scene in the movie version of ‘Grease’?)
This phase was not meant to last. He met a kindred spirit, Carl Solomon, in the waiting room of a psychiatric hospital. He introduced himself to the important New Jersey poet William Carlos Williams, whose epic visionary poem about the town of Paterson had impressed Ginsberg greatly. Bearing a letter of introduction from the poet Williams, Ginsberg travelled to San Francisco and met Kenneth Rexroth, ringmaster of an emerging vibrant and youthful local poetry movement, which Ginsberg became a part of almost instantly.
At the age of 29, Ginsberg had written much poetry but published almost none. He worked hard to promote the works of Kerouac and Burroughs to publishers, neglecting to promote his own. Even so, he was the first Beat writer to gain popular notice when he delivered a thundering performance of his new poem ‘Howl‘ at the now-legendary Six Gallery poetry reading in October 1955. This great poem, conveniently publicized by a bungled obscenity charge that made Allen a worldwide symbol of sexual depravity (as homosexuality was then perceived), was the great expression of Beat defiance, just as Kerouac’s ‘On The Road,’ published two years later, would be the great expression of Beat yearnings.
Ginsberg followed ‘Howl’ with several other important new poems, such as ‘Sunflower Sutra.’ Now at a critical stage in his career, he was somehow able to avoid the ‘fame burnout’ that would soon engulf Kerouac. According to Bruce Cook in his book ‘The Beat Generation,’ Ginsberg even mellowed considerably during this period, after travelling the world, discovering Buddhism and falling in love with Peter Orlovsky, who would remain a constant companion (though their relationship was not monogamous) for thirty years. Perhaps most importantly, he exorcised some internal demons by writing ‘Kaddish,’ a brilliant and surprising poem about his mother’s insanity and death.
His celebrity continued to grow as the ‘Beat’ concept evolved from an idea into a movement and then into a cliche. In the early sixties, Ginsberg threw himself into the hippie scene. He and Timothy Leary worked together to publicize Leary’s new discovery, the psychedelic drug LSD, and Ginsberg attempted to turn on every famous cultural figure in his address book, including Willem De Kooning, Franz Kline, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonius Monk, Robert Lowell and Jack Kerouac (whose cranky response sent Timothy Leary on his first bum trip).
As a famous American poet, Ginsberg was able to attain audiences with important political figures all over the world, and during the 60’s he took advantage of this repeatedly. He pissed off one important official after another, causing furors in India, getting kicked out of Cuba and Prague, and annoying America’s right wing to no end. He was a familiar bushy-bearded figure at protests against the Vietnam War, and his willingness to state his controversial views in public was an important factor in the development of the revolutionary state of mind that America developed during the 1960’s.
The list of 60’s events that Ginsberg played an important part in is almost unbelievably huge. He participated in Ken Kesey‘s Acid Test Festivals in San Francisco, and helped Kesey break the ice between the San Francisco hippies and the antagonistic Hell’s Angels. In the summer of 1965 Ginsberg made a seminal trip to London with several other Beat figures. Their reading at the Royal Albert Hall signalled the beginning of the London underground scene, based at the UFO Club, from which bands like Pink Floyd and the Soft Machine would emerge. Bob Dylan often cited Ginsberg as one of the few literary figures he could stand. Ginsberg can be seen standing in the alley in the background of Dylan’s 1965 ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ video, and would later play a major part in Dylan’s 1977 film ‘Renaldo and Clara.’ Ginsberg, Gary Snyder and Michael McClure led the crowd in chanting ‘OM’ at the San Fransisco Be-In in 1967. Ginsberg, Burroughs, Jean Genet and Terry Southern were key figures at the Chicago Democratic Convention antiwar protests in 1968. One of the only radical events of the Sixties that Ginsberg was not a part of was the Stonewall gay uprising, and Ginsberg showed up at the site the next day to offer his support.
In 1970 Ginsberg met the controversial Tibetan guru Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Ginsberg would soon accept Trungpa as his personal guru. He and poet Anne Waldman joined to create a poetry school, the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, at Trungpa’s Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado.
In the early eighties, Ginsberg even joined the punk rock movement, appearing on the Clash’s ‘Combat Rock’ album and performing with them on stage.
Ginsberg carried on an active social schedule until his death on April 5, 1997. He never moved away from his humble apartment in the poetry-rich streets of New York City’s Lower East Side, and would constantly be seen at local readings and multicultural gatherings, either on a stage or in a crowd. He was one of my favorite living writers, and yet I personally grew so accustomed to seeing him sitting a few benches from me at readings that I stopped noticing. Now that he’s dead these moments take on a broader dimension in my memory.
I spoke to him at length only once; you can read about it here.
I also saw him read poetry countless times, but it never stopped being a unique experience. He was a truly and simply free soul on stage, clinking little finger cymbals and barking weirdly melodic chants with an impish smile behind his graying beard and thick glasses. I particularly remember seeing him at a Carnegie Hall benefit for Tibet House, where performers like Paul Simon and Philip Glass received polite applause from the well-dressed crowd. Ginsberg wandered out looking like a bearded shtetl shoemaker and began croaking a weird and hilarious rant about meditation. The crowd loosened up for the first time, laughing at his Zen jokes, and they finally gave him the biggest applause of the night.
(One good way to experience this poet’s utter weirdness today is to listen to his music. Songs like “Birdbrain” and “Gospel Noble Truths” are two of the more bizarrely rewarding. But don’t play this stuff at a party unless you want everybody to go home.)
There is also now an official Allen Ginsberg website.
The first great thing about Ginsberg was his refusal to be embarrassed or to deny himself. And the other great thing was his poetry, which spoke in so strong a voice that his talent could not be denied.
Let’s end this with a recitation from Blake, which is how Ginsberg used to end his poetry readings.