Allen Ginsberg

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Allen Ginsberg, far left, at Airport Frankfurt, Germany
Allen Ginsberg, far left, at Airport Frankfurt, Germany

Irwin Allen Ginsberg (IPA: /ˈgɪnzˌbɝg/) (June 3, 1926April 5, 1997) was an American Beat poet born in Paterson, New Jersey. Ginsberg is best known for Howl (1956), a long poem about consumer society's negative human values.



Ginsberg was born on June 3, 1926 in Paterson, New Jersey, son of high school teacher and fairly well-known poet Louis Ginsberg and Naomi Levy Ginsberg. Ginsberg's mother suffered from epileptic seizures and mental illnesses such as paranoia.[1] She was also an active member of the Communist Party USA and she often 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.'"[2]

As a teenager, Ginsberg began to write letters to The New York Times about political issues such as World War II and workers' rights.[3] When he was a junior in high school, he accompanied his mother by bus to her therapist. The trip disturbed Ginsberg and he later described it, along with his relationship with his mother, in his long autobiographical poem Kaddish for Naomi Ginsberg (1894-1956).[4]

In 1943 Ginsberg graduated from high school began to attend Columbia University on a scholarship. (1949). In his freshman year 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. Carr also introduced Ginsberg to Neal Cassady, with whom Ginsberg fell in love. Kerouac later described the meeting between Ginsberg and Cassady in the first chapter of his 1957 novel On the Road.[5]

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, Gregory Corso, Bob Kaufman, Herbert Huncke, Rod McKuen, and Bob Dylan. Ginsberg died on April 5, 1997.


Ginsberg's poetry was strongly influenced by modernism, romanticism, the beat and cadence of jazz, and his Kagyu Buddhist practice and Jewish background. He considered himself to have inherited the visionary and homoerotic poetic mantle handed from the English poet and artist William Blake on to 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 which he claimed. Other influences included the American poet William Carlos Williams.

Ginsberg's principal work, "Howl", is well-known to many for its opening line: "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness". It was considered scandalous at the time of publication due to the rawness of the language, which is frequently explicit. Shortly after its 1956 publication by San Francisco's City Lights Bookstore, it was banned for obscenity. The ban became a cause célèbre among defenders of the First Amendment, and was later lifted after judge Clayton W. Horn, declared the poem to possess redeeming social importance. Ginsberg's leftist and generally anti-establishment politics attracted the attention of the FBI, who regarded Ginsberg as a major security threat.

Ginsberg's spiritual journey began early on with his reported spontaneous visions, and continued with an early trip to India and a chance encounter on a New York City street (they both tried to catch the same cab) with Chögyam Trungpa, Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist meditation master of the Vajrayana school, who became his friend and life-long teacher. In 1994, when the International Lesbian and Gay Association successfully banished all connections to the North American Man-Boy Love Association in order to gain consultative status in the United Nations, Ginsberg opposed (together with modern gay rights founder Harry Hay). He said that he supported NAMBLA's right to free speech because the hysteria over pederasty reminded him of the hysteria over homosexuality itself while he was growing up.

Ginsberg helped found the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, a school founded by Chögyam Trungpa, Rinpoche. In 1993, the French Minister of Culture awarded him with the medal of Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres (the Order of Arts and Letters).


  • "Our goal was to save the planet and alter human consciousness. That will take a long time, if it happens at all."
  • "Poetry is not an expression of the party line. It's that time of night, lying in bed, thinking what you really think, making the private world public, that's what the poet does."
  • "Pot is fun."
  • "The only thing that can save the world is the reclaiming of the awareness of the world. That's what poetry does."
  • "Master thyself and others will follow."
  • "First thought, best thought." (referring to his, and other Beat writers' unique style of writing poetry)


Further Reading

  • Miles, Barry. Ginsberg: A Biography. London: Virgin Publishing Ltd. (2001), paperback, 628 pages, ISBN 0753504863
  • Schumacher, Michael (edt.). Family Business: Selected Letters Between a Father and Son. Bloomsbury (2002), paperback, 448 pages, ISBN 1582342164
  • Schumacher, Michael. Dharma Lion: A Biography of Allen Ginsberg. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994.


  1. ^  "Allen Ginsberg's Life" by Ann Charters. Modern American Poetry website. Accessed 10/20/05.
  2. ^  Biographical Notes on Allen Ginsberg by Bonesy Jones on the Biography Project. Accessed 10/20/05.
  3. ^  Ibid.
  4. ^  "Allen Ginsberg's Life" by Ann Charters. Modern American Poetry website. Accessed 10/20/05.
  5. ^  Ibid.

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