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Allen Ginsberg was born 3 June 1926 in Newark, New Jersey. His father was Louis Ginsberg, a high school English teacher and poet. An active member of the Communist Party-USA, his mother, Naomi Ginsberg took her sons to meetings dedicated to the cause of international Communism during the Great Depression.
In the winter of 1941, when Allen was a junior in high school, his mother insisted that he take her to a therapist at a rest home in Lakewood, New Jersey. He catalogs this instance in his life in his long poem "Kaddish." Naomi Ginsberg spent most of the next fifteen years in mental hospitals, enduring the effects of electroshock treatments and a lobotomy before her death at Pilgrim State Hospital in 1956.
Ginsberg graduated from Newark's East Side High School in 1943, but later recalled his most memorable day of school as an afternoon when his English teacher, Frances Durbin, read aloud from Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself".
Attending Columbia University, Ginsberg planned to study law, but under the influence of his professors, and even more so his friends, he eventually decided to become a poet. As a freshman he met people like Lucien Carr, who introduced him to other big names in the Beat Generation like William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac. Together they formed a diverse group that eventually included Herbert Huncke, John Clellon Holmes, and Neal Cassady, a handsome young drifter and car thief with whom Ginsberg fell in love. These friends became the nucleus of a group that named themselves the "Beat Generation" writers.
In the summer of 1948, in his senior year at Columbia, Ginsberg had dedicated himself to becoming a poet after hearing in a vision the voice of William Blake reciting the poem "Ah Sunflower" and others. He later experimented with drugs to try and induce further visions. He was dissatisfied with the poetry he was writing at this time, traditional work modeled on English poets like Andrew Marvell whom he had studied at college.
In June 1949 Ginsberg was arrested as an accessory to crimes carried out by Huncke and his friends. As an alternative to a jail sentence, Ginsberg's professors Van Doren and Trilling arranged with the Columbia dean for a plea of psychological disability, on the condition that Ginsberg be admitted to the Columbia Presbyterian Psychiatric Institute. Spending eight months in the institution, Ginsberg became close friends with the young writer Carl Solomon, who was treated there for depression.
In December 1953 Ginsberg left New York City on a trip to Mexico to explore Indian ruins in Yucatan and experiment with various drugs. He later moved to San Francisco and met Kenneth Rexroth, who impressed Ginsberg with his balance of social activism and poetry. He was also introduced to Robert Duncan who encourages Ginsberg to break away from the influence of Williams, supports his enthusiasm with Kerouac's more spontaneous poetics. There too he fell in love with a young artist's model, Peter Orlovsky. In August 1955, inspired by the manuscript of a long jazz poem titled "Mexico City Blues" that Kerouac had recently written in Mexico City, Ginsberg found the courage to begin to type what would eventually become the long poem "Howl for Carl Solomon".
In October 1955 Ginsberg read the first part of his new poem in public for the first time to tumultuous applause at the Six Gallery reading in San Francisco with the local poets Kenneth Rexroth, Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, and Philip LaMantia. Journalists were quick to herald the reading as a landmark event in American poetry and the birth of what they labeled the “San Francisco Poetry Renaissance”. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who ran the City Lights Book Store and the City Lights publishing house in North Beach, sent Ginsberg a telegram that echoed Emerson's response to Whitman's Leaves of Grass: "I greet you at the beginning of a great career. When do I get the manuscript?" On the 13th of October 1955, at the Six Gallery, Ginsberg delivers a mythic reading of "Howl". Kerouac MCs, punctuates reading with slaps on a jug of wine and shouts of "GO!"
Early in the following year Howl and Other Poems was published with an introduction by William Carlos Williams as number four in the City Lights Pocket Poets Series. In May 1956, copies of the small black-and-white stapled paperback were seized by the San Francisco police, who arrested Ferlinghetti and Shigeyoshi Murao, his shop manager, and charged them with publishing and selling an obscene and indecent book. The American Civil Liberties Union took up the defense of Ginsberg's poem in a highly publicized obscenity trial in San Francisco, which concluded in October 1957 when Judge Clayton Horn ruled that Howl had redeeming social value.
During the furor of the trial, Ginsberg left California and settled in Paris with Orlovsky, who was to remain his companion for the next forty years. In 1958 Ginsberg returned to New York City, still troubled by his mother's death in the mental hospital two years before, haunted by the thought that he had never properly said goodbye to her. Using various drugs to explore his painful memories of their life together and confront his complex feelings about his mother, Ginsberg wrote his poem, "Kaddish for Naomi Ginsberg," modeling his elegy on the traditional Jewish memorial service for the dead.
Continuing to experiment with various psychedelic drugs to create poetry, Ginsberg took a trip to South America, Europe, Morocco, and India with Orlovsky in 1962. Staying in India for almost two years, he met with holy men in an effort to find someone who could teach him a kind of meditation that would help him with emotional problems and make him become more spiritually aware. On a train in Japan, Ginsberg recorded his poem "The Change" and in it, his realization that meditation instead of drugs could assist his enlightenment. He returned to North America in the fall of 1963 to attend the Vancouver Poetry Conference with Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Robert Creeley, Denise Levertov, and many others who felt that they had formed a community of experimental, nonacademic writers.
In 1968 Ginsberg received wide television coverage during the Democratic National Convention when he confronted the police in Chicago's Grant Park. The poet stayed on an impromptu stage and chanted "Om" in an attempt to calm the crowd of people being shot by tear gas and attacked by clubs. Ginsberg's courage, humanitarian views and support of liberated sexuality, his engagement in Eastern meditation, and his charismatic personality made him a favorite spokesman chosen by the younger generation of radical Americans who came to be known as the "hippies" towards the end of the decade.
In the early 1970s Ginsberg's serious, bearded image with black-rimmed glasses, a tweed jacket, and an "Uncle Sam" paper top hat became a ubiquitous poster protesting the Vietnam War. He went on to found a creative writing program called the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa. He also taught summer poetry workshops and lectured during the school year at Brooklyn College as a tenured professor until the end of his life. He was the archetypal Beat Generation writer to countless poetry audiences and to the general public. Unlike Kerouac, who died in 1969, Ginsberg remained on the stage as a radical poet, embodying the ideals of personal freedom, nonconformity, and the search for enlightenment. Two months short of his seventy-first birthday, he died of liver cancer at his home in the East Village, New York City.
Working with Other Artists
Ginsberg was notorious for working with other artists of the time, especially musicians. Here is is in the background of Bob Dylan's video for "Subterranean Homesick Blues":
This also relates to Ginsberg's involvement in media. He was recorded countless times, many of which can be found here: Ginsberg Audio
"Allen Ginsberg Biography." Famous Poets And Poems . com. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Sep 2010. <http://famouspoetsandpoems.com/poets/allen_ginsberg/biography>.
"Allen Ginsberg." American Masters. PBS: Website. 28 Sep 2010. <http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/database/ginsberg_a.html>.
Jones, Bonesy. "Allen Ginsberg." The Biography Project. PopSubCulture(dot)com, 03 Dec 2001. Web. 28 Sep 2010. <http://www.popsubculture.com/pop/bio_project/allen_ginsberg.html>.
Schumacher, Michael. "Bio." Allen Ginsberg Project. Allen Ginsberg Project, 27 Jan 2002. Web. 28 Sep 2010. <http://www.allenginsberg.org/index.php?page=bio>.
Photo courtesy of: "Allen Ginsberg." Fashiontribes. Web. 28 Sep 2010. <http://fashiontribes.typepad.com/main/2006/05/even_if_you_did.html>.
Video courtesy of: "Bob Dyland Subterranean Homesick Blues." YouTube. Web. 28 Sep 2010. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nNCmaX2ZCig&feature=player_embedded>.