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literature

Alpha Index:  A-B  C-F  G-K  L-Q  R-S  T-Z

Subjects:  A-B  C-E  F-L  M-Z

     
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.

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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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    Bibliography
   

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 www.glbtq.com/literature/ginsberg_a.html  
    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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