"I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn, looking for an angry fix,
Angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection
to the starry dynamo in the machinery of the night..."
The first lines of Allen Ginsberg's iconic epic poem "Howl" are some of the most powerful prose written in the 20th century. Ginsberg's torment and anger at life in these United States led to this, the rallying cry of the Beat Generation. But what led Ginsberg, a young, confused and often tormented Jewish boy, to become known as "the voice of a generation"?
The Early Years
Irwin Allen Ginsberg was born on June 3, 1926 to Louis Ginsberg, a high school teacher and poet, and Naomi Livergant Ginsberg, a Communist sympathizer who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. Naomi's mental illness and Communist ties would prove to have a huge impact upon Allen's life and writing.
Allen grew up in Paterson, New Jersey and attended Eastside High. An English teacher at Eastside introduced him to the poetry of Walt Whitman, and his interest in writing prose began. Ginsberg was a young teen when he wrote impassioned letters to the New York Times about WWII and workers rights, two issues of which his viewpoint was decidedly Marxist. At a young age his mother would often take him to Communist Party meetings, and this influenced his views on American capitalism and greed, themes that would show up repeatedly in his later works.
After graduation, Ginsberg briefly attended Montclair College before being accepted to Columbia University on a scholarship provided by the Young Men's Hebrew Association. While enrolled, he was a frequent contributor to the Columbia Review literary review, with his articles and poetry receiving a lukewarm reception.
It was during his freshman year at Columbia that a chance meeting with another student would begin Ginsberg's road to literary greatness. Lucien Carr, a fellow freshman at Columbia and resident of the Union Theological Seminary dorm on 122nd Street, was listening to Brahms one day when Ginsberg knocked on his door to ask about the recording. A friendship emerged between the two as both shared a love of classical music and poetry. Carr's childhood friend William Burroughs soon became another close friend, and the circle was complete when Edie Parker, a mutual friend of all the men, introduced them to her boyfriend Jack Kerouac.
A New Vision
In a haze of cigarette and pot smoke, Ginsberg and Carr often railed for hours about poetry's need for a 'New Vision', a phrase borrowed from libertine poet Arthur Rimbaud. The New Vision they perceived was a polar opposite style of writing from the scholarly, conservative and formulaic literary style. Fueled by dope and the burgeoning jazz scene in NYC, the "Libertine Circle", as Ginsberg referred to his fellow tortured souls, would often sit around trading lines of free-form poetry over the hashish pipe.
In 1944, Ginsberg's world would be shaken by a close friend's transgression. Carr, stalked for five years by a homosexual named David Kammerer, murdered the man in Morningside Park and received a sentence of 1 to 20 years in Elmira Correctional Facility in New York. Kerouac and Burroughs were also arrested for helping Carr cover up the crime. This would not be the first time that Ginsberg's friends would commit transgressions that would have a ripple effect throughout the entire group. Ginsberg was openly supportive of Carr, thought by New York society to have inflicted an "honor killing" by taking out a known 'predatory homosexual'. Unbeknownst to Carr's other supporters, Ginsberg was himself gay, only recently having begun to embrace the feelings for men he'd had since he was young.
The San Francisco Years
In 1954, after Ginsberg and his band of Beats had migrated west to San Francisco, Allen would meet the man that he would spend the rest of his life with. Peter Orlovsky, a former Korean War Army medic, began drifting around San Francisco looking for a 'scene'. He became a model for artist Robert La Vigne, and it was through La Vigne that Orlovsky became acquainted with Ginsberg and the Beat crowd.
In 1955, shortly after meeting Orlovsky, Ginsberg began work on an epic poem that he hoped would electrify the poetry scene in San Francisco. After being arrested for petty larceny, Ginsberg served some time in a mental institution where he met Carl Solomon, his inspiration for "Howl" and to whom the poem was dedicated. "Howl" is a scathing indictment of the Establishment, of patriotism and of capitalism. It is also an homage to all things the Beats held dear: open experimentation with drugs and sexuality, and the freedom to express oneself regardless of the repressive masses. It also touched on his bouts with depression, with Lucien Carr's attempted suicide, and with his mother's schizophrenia, delusions, and subsequent hospitalizations.
Ginsberg debuted the poem in October of 1955 in San Francisco art gallery the Six at an open poetry reading. At the reading, now referred to as "The Six at the Six", "Howl" immediately met with great acclaim. In the crowd that night was the owner of City Lights Bookstore and fellow poet, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who approached Ginsberg and offered to publish the poem. Once in print, the inflammatory prose was under fire immediately for it's "unneccessary obscenity" with its frequent references to homosexuality and illegal drug use. City officials banned the poem in 1956. However, on October 3, 1957 (and after Ferlinghetti and City Lights manager Shigeyoshi Murao were both arrested for distributing obscene material) San Francisco Judge Clayton Horn deemed the material as artistic expression, not pornography, and the book resumed publication and sales. The trial had the benefit of bringing massive amounts of publicity, and made Ginsberg and "Howl" a household name.
The Final Years
The Beat Generation, with Ginsberg at the helm, changed the shape of future generations. Ginsberg and Orlovsky, both vocal political activists, led the charge in evolving the Beats into the Counterculture movement of the 1960's. Ginsberg spent a lot of time with 60's luminaries such as Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey and Bob Dylan, planning political protests and despairing of the Viet Nam crisis.
Ginsberg also became an outspoken activist in the Gay Rights Movement, as well as an advocate of Womens and Civil Rights. He embraced spirituality and Eastern philosophy, and spent much of his later years traveling the Far East and studying with Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist meditation master. This embrace of spirituality aided him when diagnosed with congestive heart failure. A professor of poetry at Brooklyn College, Ginsberg quit teaching to focus on his health. He continued to give poetry readings periodically around NYC; his last reading was on February 20, 1997 at the NYU Poetry Slam. On April 5, 1997, Ginsberg succumbed to his illness, thus silencing the pen of the greatest poet of the 20th century.