Allen Ginsberg was born in Newark, New Jersey in 1926, to mother Naomi, a Russian immigrant, and father Louis Ginsberg, a poet. While attending Columbia University in the 1940s he befriended William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, who profoundly influenced his writing, which up to that point employed strict meters and rhyme schemes. These three friends established what later became “The Beat Generation”. Ginsberg further honed his command of what he called “the bardic function” under the influence of Walt Whitman and William Blake, and the tutelage of William Carlos Williams, whose own poetry incorporated the sounds and diction of everyday speech.
In 1956, Ginsberg published his first volume of poetry, Howl and Other Poems. These poems freed the voice of the poet, rooting the prosody in physical breath, using long, uninhibited lines, as well as the diction of common speech. Howl and Other Poems was banned on grounds of obscenity, leading to an historic censorship trial in which the judge found “artistic merit” in the work, thereby advancing the cause of free speech in the US. “Howl” went on to become one of the most widely read poems of the 20th century.
Allen Ginsberg was a lifelong vociferous advocate of human rights, and he criticised authoritarianism wherever he saw it, on both the left and the right. He was also a prescient proponent of environmentalism, promoting earth-friendly, sustainable human activities before global warming entered the modern lexicon. Ginsberg actively organised against the Viet Nam war, and was highly critical of US military aggression in Latin America and elsewhere. He campaigned actively for gay rights throughout his life, and much of his poetry explicitly depicts gay sex at a time when homosexuality was still a taboo subject.
Ginsberg’s output was continuous up until his death at the age of 71. Allen Ginsberg died surrounded by friends and family in 1997. His works and activism are lauded around the globe. Many great artists, writers and musicians cite Ginsberg as an inspiration, a brave cultural and literary trail-blazer who opened the doors of freer and more natural expression — in life and art — to future generations. Bob Dylan said of him, “Ginsberg is both tragic & dynamic, a lyrical genius, con man extraordinaire and probably the single greatest influence on American poetical voice since Whitman.”
10 December ’09