Allen Ginsburg in America

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Irwin Allen Ginsberg was born on June 3, 1926 in Newark, New Jeresy. Louis Ginsberg, Allen’s dad, was a published poet, a high school teacher and a Jewish Socialist. His wife, Naomi, was a radical Communist and nudist who went tragically insane in early adulthood. 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 trusted Allen when she was convinced the rest of the family and the world was plotting against her. As Allen tried to understand what was happening with his mother, 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, despite his interest in poetry he followed his father’s advice and planned on a career as a lawyer. This was what he had in mind when he began his freshman year at Columbia University, but what he ended up doing was running around with a bunch of poets and the like, including fellow students Lucien Carr and Jack Kerouac and friends William S. Burroughs and Neal Cassady. These delinquent young philosophers, you might say were equally obsessed with drugs, crime, sex and literature. Eventually, Allen got suspended from Columbia for various small offenses. He began hanging around with Times Square junkies and thieves (mostly friends of Burroughs), experimenting with Benzedrine and marijuana, and cruising gay bars in Greenwich Village. At this point in Ginsberg life he and Kerouac thought they were working towards some kind of great poetic vision, which they called the “New Vision.”

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Ginsburg’s friends acted crazy in a sort of joyfull way, that coupled with the real craziness of his mother, whose condition continued to worsen until she was hospitalized for life and finally lobotomized. Some people deal with insanity in the family by becoming exaggeratedly normal, but Ginsberg went in the opposite direction. Knowing himself to be sane, he used bizarreness as a style of life, as if seeking to find the edge his mother had fallen over. In 1948, the 26-year-old Allen Ginsberg had a mad vision reading William Blake in which Blake came to him in person. This was a great moment of his life, and he told his family and friends that he had found God.

Ginsberg had a change of values once when several of Ginsberg’s friends (such as Burroughs and Herbert Huncke) resulted in the arrest and imprisonment of Allen. Ginsberg entered a ‘straight’ phase: he recounced Burroughs, immersed himself in psychoanalytic treatment, and began dating a woman named Helen Parker. He then proclaimed to be a heterosexual, found a job as a marketing researcher. In an office in the Empire State Building, he develop an advertising campaign for Ipana Toothpaste.

This phase was not meant to last. He met Carl Solomon in the waiting room of a psychiatric hospital. The important New Jersey poet William Carlos Williams, whose poem about the town of Paterson had impressed Ginsberg greatly. Bearing a letter of introduction from the poet Williams, Ginsberg traveled to San Francisco and met Kenneth Rexroth, leader of an emerging local poetry movement, which Ginsberg became a part of almost instantly.

At the age of 29, Ginsberg had wrote a lot of poetry but published almost none. He worked hard to promote the works of Kerouac and Burroughs to publishers, but never his own. But he was the first Beat writer to gain notice when he gave a performance of his new poem ‘Howl’ at the legendary Six Gallery poetry reading in October 1955. This poem, which brought about an obscenity charge that made Allen a worldwide symbol of sexual depravity (as homosexuality was then veiwed).

Ginsberg followed ‘Howl’ with several other new poems, such as ‘Sunflower Sutra.’ At a critical stage in his career, he somehow was able to avoid the ‘fame burnout’ that Kerouac fell pray too. Ginsberg 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 to rid himself of something Ginsberg wrote ‘Kaddish,’ a poem about his mother’s insanity and death.

His celebrity grew 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 on Leary’s new discovery, the psychedelic drug LSD. As a famous American poet, Ginsberg was able to hold audiences with important political figures all over the world, and during the 60’s he took advantage of this repeatedly. He mainly just pissed off one important official after another, getting kicked out of Cuba and Prague, and annoying American conservatives. He was a familiar figure at protests against the Vietnam War, this coupled with the fact he was so open with his views helped put America in a mood which was against the war.

The list of 60’s events that Ginsberg played an important part in. He participated in Ken Kesey’s Acid Test Festivals in San Francisco, and helped Kesey relieve tension between the San Francisco hippies and the Hell’s Angels. In the summer of 1965 Ginsberg made a trip to London with several other Beat figures. Their reading at the Royal Albert Hall is what started the London underground scene, which helped spark a new breed from which bands like Pink Floyd and The Soft Machine would come about. 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 later played a 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.

In 1970 Ginsberg met with Tibetan guru Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Ginsberg soon accepted 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 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 in April 1997. He never moved away from his apartment in the streets of New York City’s Lower East Side, and would constantly be seen at local readings and gatherings, either on a stage or in a crowd.

I think this book opened my mind not only to a great poet but also a whole generation of people. It gave me insight on to what was happening at that time. With the whole anti-war movement, and the discrimination of homosexuals. Both of which Ginsberg spoke and wrote about. Ginsberg was not just a poet from the sixties, he was an embodiment of what a lot of youth of that generation were thinking but couldn’t say. Ginsberg gave them that voice.

Overall I got what I expected out of the book. An overview of Allen Ginsberg. I wish it had gone more in depth on his poems though. It only once brought an excerpt of the “Howl” and that was to show what Ginsberg was meaning to tell. I wish it had done more of this, and with more then just the “Howl.” If I were to read another book about Ginsberg it would have to be a review of his poetry, and maybe an interpretation of them. I’m glad the book cut right to Ginsberg’s later years, because I think those were his most interesting years. The book didn’t go into that much depth on his 20’s and so, mainly after he left New Jersey for San Fransico. The 60’s is what it pretty much went in depth on. His time around San Fransico and his life with his lover Peter Orlovsky, and his “experiments” with Timothy Leary. I also wish the book had maybe helped us get an idea of what his mother did to young Allen. I think this would maybe help us understand him as a person and his poetry. I think a mother’s insanity would help mold your life in very traumatic ways. Other then that I thought the book was excelently written and I’m glad I read it. The book interested me so much, I went out and bought a book of Ginsbergs poems, it also helped me find other beat-poets to study, like Jack Kerouac, William Carlos Williams, and William S. Burroughs. I also did some research on the author Jane Kramer, just wanting to know what her credentials were on writing a book about Allen. It all stemmed from the whole credibility lecture you gave. I wanted to know if her view of Allen was maybe biased in some way. I guess she interview Allen a lot and was allowed to review journal entries Allen had been keeping. The book was written while Allen was still alive and so I think this was also helpful. It would be interesting to find a book written after his death though, just to compare the points of view on Allen’s accomplishments. I would have to say overall though that I’m very pleased with the subject I choose and the book I read I think gave as a clear un-biased view of Allen Ginsberg as could be written.

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