Allen Ginsberg was born June 3, 1926, in Newark, New Jersey, and died April 5, 1997. He was raised in a Jewish household and was deeply influenced by both of his parents. His father, Louis, was a minor poet and high school English teacher, and his mother, Naomi, was an active member of the Communist Party of the United States of America. Naomi suffered from paranoia and schizophrenia, a condition that would prime Ginsberg to write in a style that accepts the madness of the individual as the madness of the culture. He became a central and respected representative of the Beat Generation, propelled to fame by reading “Howl” at the Six Gallery in San Francisco. Ginsberg was a prolific writer and published many critically acclaimed works such as Kaddish and Other Poems, 1958-1960 (1961), Planet News: Poems, 1961-1967 (1968), and The Fall of America: Poems of These States, 1965-1971 (1973). His writing style broke with traditional poetic verse by straying from strict rhyme and regular meter. His writing was also heavily influenced by his childhood, spirituality, politics, mental discord, and social unrest. Many of the Beats found refuge in the philosophy and practice of Buddhism, including Ginsberg, who became a serious practitioner in his later life. Concepts like karma and dharma often appear in his work, hinting at his search for a spiritual foundation. Ginsberg had his thumb on the pulse of what it meant to be a Beat and is a part of the tradition of American writers seeking spiritual enlightenment.
Empty Mirrors: Early Poems by Allen Ginsberg was published in 1961 by Totem Press, though the poems themselves were written twelve years earlier during his 1949 stay at the Psychiatric Institute of Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. These poems are precursors to the extended poetic line made famous through “Howl” where a single sentence can go on for pages, though his language had yet to become as explicit and bold as it would in later years. “Psalm 1” shows the extended lines and the punctuation that encourages continuity by reducing syntactic breaks. These literary structures suggest Ginsberg’s need to keep moving, whether that be through the words he wrote, his search for spiritual peace, or his devotion to political activism. Ginsberg’s poems indicate his struggles early in life and the beginning of his desire to display the wrongs of the society around him. The lines “Tonite all is well ... What a / terrible future” assert the idea that living in the moment is beneficial, while also reaffirming Ginsberg’s belief that America was moving towards a future that held no promise, only a magnification of the capitalistic principles that governed its society.
Known by many as the most influential poem in Beat history, “Howl” dramatically propelled Allen Ginsberg from obscurity to national fame. The strong and unapologetic language he used shocked audiences worldwide. It prompted deep discussion of nonconformity in society, love for all things, and illuminated the spiritual beauty that can be seen in all aspects of life. This is especially prevalent in the “Footnote to Howl” where Ginsberg writes, “Everything is holy! everybody’s holy! everywhere is holy!” The poem was made even more famous by an obscenity trial held in California in 1957. “Howl” opened the floodgates for publication of Beat poets across the country and catapulted the small group of writers and their developing literary movement into the national spotlight. In a succinct analysis and defense of the poem, Dr. Leo Lowenthal, a supporter of “Howl” at the obscenity trial said, “As I see it, it consists of three parts, the first of which is the craving of the poet for self-identification.... He then indicts, in the second part, the villain...the Moloch of society, of the world as it is today. And in the third part he indicates the potentiality of fulfillment by friendship and love” (Lawrence Ferlinghetti, “Horn on ‘Howl’” ).
The “yellow paper rose on a wire hanger” that Ginsberg mentions in “Howl” has been interpreted in many different ways. The rose in its delicate, ephemeral, and beautiful state represents the Beat Generation, and the more enduring and practical wire hanger is indicative of America. Although the materials are vastly different, together they create a beautiful relationship, a hope Ginsberg articulates throughout his work. The rose also hangs in a closet, which alludes to Ginsberg’s homosexuality, and his struggles with keeping the beauty that he felt inside hidden from the rest of the world. The rose could simply be the remaining bit of hope from Ginsberg’s days in the mental hospital with Carl Solomon or his relationship with his mother. Both experiences were fraught with emotional intensity. Seeing this small yet significant item could have brought hope to Ginsberg when his mind was devoid of all but what his speaker calls apiece of “mental furniture.” No matter how hallucinatory the rose may have been, it provides real and tangible comfort to the tortured poet. The frail beauty of the rose somehow survives the ugliness expressed in Parts I and II of “Howl.”
The Joker by Llyn Foulkes evokes the Beats’ dark views of American society and their notoriety as childlike artists or jokers dancing at its fringes. The scrap of newspaper in the center characterizes this piece as assemblage, a style that showcases the downward mobility of Beat writers and artists who pitched their work against the competitive upward momentum of mainstream American culture. The ominous figure in the middle hints at Ginsberg’s depiction of Moloch, the Canaanite god of child sacrifice he used to personify toxic capitalism and corporate development; the faded and chalky figures of people dissolve in the surrounding darkness.
Untitled by Jess Collins, when considered in a Beat context, becomes the perfect metaphor for Ginsberg’s role in the movement. At first glance, the suspended array of this assemblage appears random, but notice an iconic set of spectacles framing a tube bulb, as if the late poet himself were hallucinating the sculpture. This is suggestive of the Beat drive to initiate inner change rather than outer revolution: the individual, a microcosm within a macrocosm. Also in the center, a small golden figure triumphantly ascends through the falling chaos, which is reminiscent of Ginsberg’s charged delivery of “Howl” at the Six Gallery reading.
Allen Ginsberg, poetry, exhibit, Buddhism
Arts and Humanities
Lueckler, Sarah; Hanson, Samantha; and Hardy, Nate, "Ginsberg" (2019). ENGL 4310 – Heart Beats Exhibit. 5.