A Biography of Allen Ginsberg
Early Life and Education
Allen Ginsberg was born in New Jersey on June 3rd, 1926. His father was a teacher and a poet, and his mother was a Russian immigrant who suffered from seizures and paranoia. She spent years going through painful treatments for her illness and eventually died in 1956. Her illness and death were embedded in his mind forever and resulted in him writing poetry about her for the rest of his life (Charters).
While in high school, Ginsberg became interested in poetry when he read Walt Whitman, particularly “Song of Myself.” (Allen Ginsberg Biography) Even with his love of Whitman and poetry, Ginsberg wrote legal work as his choice of occupation and took a scholarship to Columbia University. While attending Columbia University, Ginsberg made friends with Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs, who would greatly influence his decision to become a poet. Subsequently, all three would become significant parts of a revolutionary cultural movement: the Beat Generation (Allen Ginsberg Biography).
Ginsberg graduated from Columbia in 1948, but was arrested as an accomplice in a robbery a year later. Instead of jail time, his professors pleaded that he be put in a mental institution. He spent eight months in a Psychiatric Institute where he met Carl Solomon, a fellow writer who would have a big influence on Ginsberg in the following five years (Charters).
The Beat Generation
In the 1950”s the Beat Poets invented a new type of poetry and a new culture that broke with tradition. They used different styles (such as jazz), did not censor their language, and spoke of deviant sexualities. Ginsberg himself did not get into poetry until he had a vision, under the influence of drugs, of a famous poet reading one of his poems. That is how he knew it was his fate. The poets themselves also used drugs to bring them to what Ginsberg called, “an exalted state of mind” (Charters).
Ginsberg left New York City on a series of trips and finally settled in San Francisco. While there, he met Peter Orlovsky who would soon become his partner. In 1955, Ginsberg’s old friend Kerouac gave him the courage to write the most emotional poem he would ever write: “Howl”, which he dedicated to Carl Solomon. In this poem, he spoke of questioning sexuality and it was here people say he finally accepted being gay (Kramer).
In 1956, Howl and Other Poems was published. Later in that same year, police seized the books from a small shop and arrested the shop manager. The shop manager was charged with “publishing and selling an obscene and indecent book” (Charters). The American Civil Liberties defended Ginsberg’s poem and Judge Clayton Horn said “Howl” had merit (Allen Ginsberg Biography). This poem and its ruling in court brought a period of anti-censorship throughout the U.S. Ginsberg, though he was happy about his win in court and his success in poetry, suffered a brief moment of depression while thinking about his mother and her untimely death. This moment inspired him to write Kaddish and Other Poems. He began using various drugs to explore terrible memories of his life with his mother, and he wrote what is considered to be his greatest poem, “Kaddish for Naomi Ginsberg” (Charters).
Change and Death
Ginsberg traveled to South America to seek someone who would teach him meditation. It was an event that many scholars believed was the most important thing he ever did. Travelling in Japan, he recorded “The Change” which was his realization that he could use meditation to create visionary poetry instead of drugs (Charters).
Ginsberg came back to the United States and became an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War. He steadily produced more poems and founded the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Peotics of the Naropa Institute. He won the 1974 National Book Award for The Fall of America: Poems of these States 1965-1971. Ginsberg remained a very influential poet and writer for the rest of his life and won several other awards for various works and died from cancer on April 5, 1997 in New York at the age of 70 (Allen Ginsberg Biography).
written by Clayton Jannise
Charters, Ann. "Allen Ginsberg's Life."Welcome to English « Department of English, College of LAS, University of Illinois. N.p., n.d. Web. 4 Apr. 2013. <http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/g_l/ginsberg/life.htm>
"Allen Ginsberg Biography - Facts, Birthday, Life Story - Biography.com ."Famous Biographies & TV Shows -Biography.com . N.p., n.d. Web. 4 Apr. 2013. <http://www.biography.com/people/allen-ginsberg-9311994?page=2>.
Kramer, Jane. "Odd Man In." time 94.6 (1969): 1. Print.