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Ginsberg, Allen (1926-1997)  

Probably the best-known U.S. poet to emerge in the post-World War II period, Allen Ginsberg entered public awareness with the controversy over his first book, Howl and Other Poems (1956). A sharp denunciation of America's cultural temper during the Cold War, the volume included extremely frank celebration of the libido in all its manifestations, including the .

Throughout numerous later works, Ginsberg has embodied varied aspects of the counterculture: pacifism, drug experimentation, sexual liberation, hostility to bureaucracy (both capitalist and Communist), and openness to Eastern religions.

In his earliest writing, Ginsberg imitated the metaphysical poetry of Andrew Marvell and John Donne. Through romantic relationships with fellow Beat Generation figures Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs--and with the help of a therapist who encouraged Ginsberg to accept his sexuality--the poet began to draw on personal experience in his work.

He abandoned strict verse forms, instead producing rapidly written, uncensored compositions. These poems somewhat resemble the work of Walt Whitman, with their use of anaphora and their extensive catalogues; but their diction probably owes more to the "spontaneous bop prosody" of Kerouac's novels.

Ginsberg's exploration of open forms culminated in Howl and Other Poems. The long title piece is a jeremiad in which the poet recalls how "the best minds of my generation" refused, and were "destroyed" by, the norms of middle-class society.

Through the juxtaposition of images ("the crack of doom on the hydrogen jukebox") and an incantatory blend of Biblical cadences and jazz slang, "Howl" evoked extreme states of mind. But the volume also spoke of a feeling of solidarity and community among the dispossessed.

Howl's forthright treatment of gay life--sometimes with a dramatic coarseness of expression ("who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy")--contributed to the book's seizure by the San Francisco police and U.S. customs in 1956. Thanks to court testimony defending the book's literary merits by prominent writers and academics, Howl was declared not obscene. The book has sold more than 300,000 copies.

Ginsberg's subsequent work shares with Howl a distinctive interweaving of the confessional mode with a prophetic or admonitory address to the public. The poet's "Kaddish" (1959) for his mother is a powerful, sometimes excruciating account of growing up with a schizophrenic parent. (The kaddish is a traditional Hebrew prayer of mourning.)

Later poems recount Ginsberg's worldwide travels; his involvement with the hippy, antiwar, and antinuclear movements; his decades-long marriage to Peter Orlovsky; and his devotion to Buddhism.

Ginsberg's Gay Sunshine Interview (1974) is an important recollection of the poet's role as a pre-Stonewall gay spokesperson. The lectures and discussions collected in Composed on the Tongue (1980) provide an indispensable account of Ginsberg's politics and poetics.

Ginsberg's Collected Poems (1984) is a kind of spiritual autobiography. With its extensive annotations, the volume also provides a remarkable document of the author's life as activist and public figure. Few contemporary writers have taken Shelley's definition of poets as "unacknowledged legislators of the world" quite so literally.

Scott McLemee


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Allen Ginsberg (left) with Peter Orlovski in 1978.
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literature >> Overview:  American Literature: Gay Male, 1900-1969

Although largely invisible to the general public, a large body of twentieth-century gay male literature by American authors was published prior to Stonewall, some of it positive but most of it tinged with misery or bleakness as the price of being published and disseminated.

literature >> Overview:  American Literature: Gay Male, Post-Stonewall

After Stonewall, gay male literature became focused as a movement, aided by the development of gay newspapers, magazines, and quarterlies and the founding of serious gay and lesbian bookstores.

literature >> Overview:  Beat Generation

The writers of the Beat Generation, many of whom were gay or bisexual, endorsed gay rights as a part of their rebellion against inhibition and self-censorship.

literature >> Overview:  Censorship

Governments, publishers, editors, and even gay writers themselves have censored gay content in literature from the Renaissance to the present.

literature >> Overview:  Elegy

A poetic response to the death of a greatly loved person, the elegy has had since classical times a homoerotic component.

literature >> Overview:  Humor

Like other minority groups, gay men and lesbians have had to develop both a particular sense of humor among themselves in order to make their marginal social status endurable and also a defensive awareness toward the rest of the world in order to disarm their adversaries with laughter.

literature >> Overview:  Jewish-American Literature

Jewish-American gay and lesbian literature is marked by its rich heritage, diverse subject matter, and thriving vitality.

literature >> Overview:  Poetry: Gay Male

The gay tradition in literature from ancient times to the present is primarily a tradition not of prose but of verse.

literature >> Burroughs, William S.

Both in his life and his novels, American writer William S. Burroughs was an outlaw and a provocateur, focusing on sexual repression as the fundamental element of social control and writing in a surrealistic and bitterly satirical mode.

literature >> Donne, John

England's supreme poet of heterosexual love in the late Renaissance, John Donne also wrote a series of homoerotic verse letters to a young man and a remarkable dramatic monologue in a lesbian voice.

arts >> Epstein, Rob

Writer, director, and producer Rob Epstein is one of the most accomplished documentary filmmakers of his generation, having worked on a number of landmark gay-themed films.

literature >> Overview:  Gay and Lesbian Bookstores

The network of independent gay and lesbian bookstores that arose in the 1970s served as incubators for the literary and cultural development of the modern gay rights movement in the United States and abroad.

literature >> Kerouac, Jack

The bisexual Jack Kerouac omitted references to his homosexuality from his otherwise autobiographical works.

literature >> Norse, Harold

Often categorized as a Beat writer, poet and memoirist Harold Norse created a body of work that uses everyday language and images to explore and celebrate both the commonplace and the exotic.

literature >> Paglia, Camille

The frequently outrageous cultural commentary and caustic criticism of Camille Paglia have made her both famous and controversial.

arts >> Rivers, Larry

One of the pioneers of Pop Art, Larry Rivers was a prolific artist, sculptor, and jazz musician; although he did not identify as a bisexual, the twice-married artist had significant same-sex sexual experience.

literature >> Sapphire (Ramona Lofton)

Bisexual African-American novelist, poet, and performance artist Sapphire came to public attention with works that focus on the harrowing realities of inner city existence.

literature >> Schuyler, James

Pulitzer Prize-winning poet James Schuyler, a prominent member of the New York School of poets and painters, wrote openly about his homosexuality.

literature >> Whitman, Walt

Celebrating an ideal of manly love in both its spiritual and physical aspects, Walt Whitman has exerted a profound and enduring influence on gay literature.


Avi-Ram, Amitai. "Free Verse in Whitman and Ginsberg: The Body and the Simulacrum." The Continuing Presence of Walt Whitman: The Life After the Life. Robert K. Martin, ed. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1992. 93-113.

Berman, Paul. "Intimations of Mortality." Parnassus 8.1 (1979): 283-293.

Kramer, Jane. Allen Ginsberg in America. New York: Random House, 1969.

Martin, Robert K. The Homosexual Tradition in American Poetry. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1979. 165-170.

Portuges, Paul. The Visionary Poetics of Allen Ginsberg. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Ross-Erikson, 1978.

Schumacher, Michael. Dharma Lion. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992.


    Citation Information
    Author: McLemee, Scott  
    Entry Title: Ginsberg, Allen  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated June 1, 2010  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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