Allen Ginsberg, 70, Master Poet of Beat Generation
NEW YORK -- Allen Ginsberg, the poet laureate of the Beat Generation whose "Howl" became a manifesto for the sexual revolution and a cause celebre for free speech in the 1950s, eventually earning its author a place in America's literary pantheon, died early Saturday. He was 70 and lived in Manhattan.
He died of liver cancer, said Bill Morgan, a friend and the poet's archivist.
Morgan said that Ginsberg wrote right to the end. "He's working on a lot of poems, talking to old friends," Morgan said Friday. "He's in very good spirits. He wants to write poetry and finish his life's work."
William S. Burroughs, one of Ginsberg's lifelong friends and a fellow Beat, said that Ginsberg's death was "a great loss to me and to everybody."
"We were friends for more than 50 years," Burroughs said. "Allen was a great person with worldwide influence. He was a pioneer of openness and a lifelong model of candor. He stood for freedom of expression and for coming out of all the closets long before others did. He has influence because he said what he believed. I will miss him."
As much through the strength of his own irrepressible personality as through his poetry, Ginsberg provided a bridge between the Underground and the Transcendental. He was as comfortable in the ashrams of Indian gurus in the 1960s as he had been in the Beat coffeehouses of the preceding decade.
A ubiquitous presence at the love-ins and be-ins that marked the drug-oriented counterculture of the Flower Children years, Ginsberg was also in the vanguard of the political protest movements they helped spawn. He marched against the war in Vietnam, the CIA and the Shah of Iran, among other causes.
If his early verse shocked Eisenhower's America with its celebration of homosexuality and drugs, his involvement in protests kept him in the public eye and fed ammunition to his critics.
But through it all, Ginsberg maintained a sort of teddy bear quality that deflected much of the indignation he inspired.
He was known around the world as a master of the outrageous. He read his poetry and played finger cymbals at the Albert Hall in London; he was expelled from Cuba after saying he found Che Guevara "cute"; he sang duets with Bob Dylan, and he chanted "Hare Krishna" on William F. Buckley Jr.'s television program.
As the critic John Leonard observed in a 1988 appreciation: "He is of course a social bandit. But he is a nonviolent social bandit."
Or as the narrator in Saul Bellow's Him With His Foot in His Mouth said of Ginsberg: "Under all this self-revealing candor is purity of heart. And the only authentic living representative of American Transcendentalism is that fat-breasted, bald, bearded homosexual in smeared goggles, innocent in his uncleanness."
J.D. McClatchy, a poet and the editor of The Yale Review, said Saturday: "Ginsberg was the best-known American poet of his generation, as much a social force as a literary phenomenon.
"Like Whitman, he was a bard in the old manner -- outsized, darkly prophetic, part exuberance, part prayer, part rant," McClatchy said. "His work is finally a history of our era's psyche, with all its contradictory urges."
Allen Ginsberg was born June 3, 1926, in Newark, N.J., and grew up in Paterson, N.J., the second son of Louis Ginsberg, a schoolteacher and sometime poet, and the former Naomi Levy, a Russian emigree and fervent Marxist. His brother, Eugene, named for Eugene V. Debs, also wrote poetry, under the name Eugene Brooks. Eugene, a lawyer, survives.
Recalling his parents in a 1985 interview, Ginsberg said:
They were old-fashioned delicatessen philosophers. My father would go around the house either reciting Emily Dickinson and Longfellow under his breath or attacking T.S. Eliot for ruining poetry with his 'obscurantism.' My 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.' I grew suspicious of both sides.
An Authorization for a Lobotomy
Allen Ginsberg's mother later suffered from paranoia and was in and out of mental hospitals; Ginsberg signed an authorization for a lobotomy. Two days after she died in 1956 in Pilgrim State Mental Hospital on Long Island, he received a letter from her that said: "The key is in the window, the key is in the sunlight in the window -- I have the key -- get married Allen don't take drugs . . . Love, your mother."
Three years after her death, Ginsberg wrote "Kaddish for Naomi Ginsberg (1894-1956)," an elegy that many consider his finest poem.
Strange now to think of you, gone without corsets & eyes,
the rhythm, the rhythm --
"Kaddish" burnished a reputation that had been forged with the publication of "Howl" three years earlier. The two works established Ginsberg as a major voice in what came to be known as the Beat Generation of writers.
Ginsberg's journey to his place as one of America's most celebrated poets began during his college days. He first attended Montclair State College. But in 1943, he received a small scholarship from the Young Men's Hebrew Association of Paterson and enrolled at Columbia University.
He considered becoming a lawyer like his brother, but was soon attracted to the literary courses offered by Mark Van Doren and Lionel Trilling, and switched his major from pre-law to literature.
At Columbia he fell in with a crowd that included Jack Kerouac, a former student four years his senior, Lucien Carr and William Burroughs, and later, Neal Cassady, a railway worker who had literary aspirations. Together they formed the nucleus of what would become the Beats.
Kerouac and Carr became the poet's mentors and Kerouac and Cassady became his lovers. It was also at Columbia that Ginsberg began to experiment with mind-altering drugs, which would gain widespread use in the decade to follow and which Ginsberg would celebrate in his verse along with his homosexuality and his immersion in Eastern transcendental religions.
But if the Beats were creating literary history around Columbia and the West End Cafe, there was a dangerous undercurrent to their activities. Carr spent a brief time in jail for manslaughter, and Ginsberg, because he had associated with Carr, was suspended from Columbia for a year.
In 1949, after Ginsberg had received his bachelor's degree, Herbert Huncke, a writer and hustler, moved into his apartment and stored stolen goods there. Huncke was eventually jailed, and Ginsberg, pleading psychological disability, was sent to a psychiatric institution for eight months.
At the institution, he met another patient, Carl Solomon, whom Ginsberg credited with deepening his understanding of poetry and its power as a weapon of political dissent.
Becoming a Protégé of the Poet Williams
Returning home to Paterson, Ginsberg became a protege of William Carlos Williams, the physician and poet, who lived nearby. Williams' use of colloquial American language in his poetry was a major influence on the young Ginsberg.
After leaving Columbia, Ginsberg first went to work for a Madison Avenue advertising agency. After five years, he once recalled, he found himself taking part in a consumer-research project trying to determine whether Americans preferred the word "sparkling" or "glamorous" to describe ideal teeth. "We already knew people associate diamonds with 'sparkling' and furs with 'glamorous,"' he said. "We spent $150,000 to learn most people didn't want furry teeth."
The poet said he decided to give up the corporate world "when my shrink asked me what would make me happy." He hung his gray flannel suit in the closet and went to San Francisco with six months of unemployment insurance in his pocket. San Francisco was then the center of considerable literary energy. He took a room around the corner from City Lights, Lawrence Ferlinghetti's bookstore and underground publishing house, and began to write.
During this period Ginsberg also became part of the San Francisco literary circle that included Kenneth Rexroth -- an author, critic and painter -- Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, Robert Duncan and Philip Lamantia. He also met Peter Orlovsky, who would be his companion for the next 30 years.
His first major work from San Francisco was "Howl" The long-running poem expressed the anxieties and ideals of a generation alienated from mainstream society. "Howl!," which was to become insberg's most famous poem, was dedicated to Carl Solomon, and begins:
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly
Ginsberg read the poem to a gathering arranged by Rexroth, and those present never forgot the poem, its author and the occasion.
Rexroth's wife privately distributed a mimeographed 50-copy edition of "Howl" and in 1956, Ferlinghetti published Howl and Other Poems in what he called his "pocket poets series."
With its open and often vivid celebration of homosexuality and eroticism, "Howl" was impounded by U.S. Customs agents and Ginsberg was tried on obscenity charges.
After a long trial, Judge Clayton Horn ruled that the poem was not without "redeeming social importance."
The result was to make "Howl" immensely popular and establish it as a landmark against censorship. The outrage and furor did not stop with the sexual revolution. As late as 1988, the radio station WBAI refused to allow "Howl" to be read on the air during a weeklong series about censorship in America.
There were almost as many definitions of Beatniks and the Beat movement as there were writers who claimed to be part of it. As John Clellan Holmes described it, "To be beat is to be at the bottom of your personality looking up." But if the movement grew out of disillusionment, it was disillusionment with a conscience.
Ginsberg tried to explain the aims of the Beats in a letter to his father in 1957: "Whitman long ago complained that unless the material power of America were leavened by some kind of spiritual infusion, we would wind up among the 'fabled damned.' We're approaching that state as far as I can see. Only way out is individuals taking responsibility and saying what they actually feel. That's what we as a group have been trying to do."
On another occasion, he described the literary rules more succinctly: "You don't have to be right. All you have to do is be candid." Ginsberg was nothing if not candid.
As he wrote in "America," another 1956 poem, which took aim at Eisenhower's post-McCarthy era:
America I've given you all and now I'm nothing
Ginsberg claimed that the poets who formed the prime influence on his own work were William Blake, Walt Whitman, Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams. He declared he had found a new method of poetry. "All you have to do," he said, "is think of anything that comes into your head, then arrange in lines of two, three or four words each, don't bother about sentences, in sections of two, three or four lines each."
His disdain for the traditional rules of poetry only gave ammunition to his critics. James Dickey once complained that the "problem" with Allen Ginsberg was that he made it seem like anybody could write poetry.
Traveling Widely for Two Decades
Ginsberg used the celebrity he gained with "Howl" to travel widely during the next two decades. He went to China and India to study with gurus and Zen masters and to Venice to see Pound. On his way home he was crowned King of the May by dissident university students in Prague, only to be expelled by the communist government. He read his poetry wherever they would let him, from concert stages to off-campus coffeehouses.
He was in the forefront of whatever movement was in fashion: the sexual revolution and drug culture of the 1960s, the anti-Vietnam war demonstrations of the '60s and '70s, the anti-CIA and anti-shah demonstrations of the '70s, and the anti-Reagan protests of the '80s.
In 1967 he was arrested in an antiwar protest in New York City, and he was arrested again, for the same reason, at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968. He testified in the trial of the so-called Chicago Seven.
Through it all, he kept writing. After "Kaddish" in 1959, major works included "TV Baby" in 1960, "Wichita Vortex Sutra" (1966), "Wales Visitation" (1967), "Don't Grow Old" (1976) and "White Shroud" (1983).
In his celebrated career, Ginsberg was the recipient of many awards, including the National Book Award (1973), the Robert Frost Medal for distinguished poetic achievement (1986), and an American Book Award for contributions to literary excellence (1990).
In 1968, Neal Cassady died of a drug overdose. Kerouac died of alcoholism the next year. By the mid-1970s, Ginsberg had helped start the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics of the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colo., a Buddhist university where he taught summer courses in poetry and in Buddhist meditation. He also was becoming one of the last living voices of the Beat generation and the keeper of the flame.
In 1985, Harper & Row published Ginsberg's Collected Poems, an anthology of his major work in one volume that firmly established the poet in the mainstream of American literature. The poet again made tours, giving interviews and showing up on television shows, but this time he was in suit and tie and offering a sort of explanation of his life's work.
"People ask me if I've gone respectable now," he said to one interviewer. "I tell them I've always been respectable."
During another interview, he confessed: "My intention was to make a picture of the mind, mistakes and all. Of course I learned I'm an idiot, a complete idiot who wasn't as prophetic as I thought I was. The crazy, angry Philippic sometimes got in the way of clear perception.
"I thought the North Vietnamese would be a lot better than they turned out to be. I shouldn't have been marching against the Shah of Iran because the mullahs have turned out to be a lot worse."
But despite his suit and tie, the censors continued to look over Ginsberg's shoulder. During the round of interviews, David Remnick, then of The Washington Post, accompanied him to his scheduled appearance on CBS's "Nightwatch." A producer, clearly unfamiliar with the poet's work, asked if he would read something on the show.
"How about reading that poem about your mother?" she suggested.
"'Kaddish,' yes. Time magazine calls it my masterpiece," Ginsberg replied. "But I don't know...."
The poet pointed to a word in the poem he doubted would make prime time. As Remnick reported, the producer's eyes glazed over and there was a long silence in the room.
"Your mother's...?" the producer said in horror.
"Couldn't we just bleep that part out?" the poet offered, always helpful.
"No," the producer said.
"It's OK," the poet replied. "I've got other poems."