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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Poetry of Liberation Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997)

[5683] John Doss, Allen Ginsberg at Madame Nhu Protest, 1963 (1963), courtesy of the Allen Ginsberg Trust and the Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.

Allen Ginsberg was born in Newark, New Jersey, to Louis, a poet and high school teacher, and Naomi, who was of Russian descent. A graduate of Paterson public schools, Ginsberg developed an early friendship with the poet William Carlos Williams, who served as an important mentor during his early development. After leaving New Jersey to attend Columbia University, Ginsberg met the novelist William Burroughs, who encouraged not only his writing but also his questioning of social conformity.

After graduating from Columbia in 1948 (he was expelled twice, but did receive a degree), Ginsberg considered the following summer a turning point in his spiritual development. Feeling alone and isolated in New York City, Ginsberg reports having a vision in which he heard his own voice reciting William Blake’s poetry. The hallucination became a moment of great insight for Ginsberg, and he refers to the experience as a revelation.

Perhaps the most crucial moment in Ginsberg’s poetic career, however, was his decision to move to San Francisco, where a group of young writers, including Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, and Gregory Corso, were already living. Eventually, these writers were associated with the Beat movement, a term coined by Kerouac for its punning reference to “beaten down” and “beatified.” Ginsberg credits Kerouac as one of his greatest influences. Through this prose writer, he came to appreciate the practice of automatic writing, in which the process of writing becomes as important as the final product; in fact, revision is discouraged. Kerouac also convinced Ginsberg to incorporate personal experience in his verse, a practice that opened the door for confessional poetry. Robert Lowell said that Howl forever changed how he would write poetry and made his book Life Studies possible. Ginsberg’s poetry features colloquial language riddled with slang and obscenities, a prophetic tone, lengthy lines meant to be performed aloud, and a desire to capture the author’s physical and emotional state at the time of creation.

Known for their alternative lifestyle, the Beat writers experimented freely with drugs, sex, and spirituality. Like Kerouac, Ginsberg traveled extensively, mostly during the early 1960s. His poetry is colored by this social freedom and wanderlust. Perhaps his most famous poem, Howl chronicles the Beat culture of the 1950s. A radical poem for its subject matter, straightforward exploration of alternative culture (particularly drug-induced experiences), and social commentary, Howl was in danger of being censored in 1957, but Judge Clayton Horn decided that the poem merited publication. The trial made Howl an instant success and brought the Beat movement new prominence.

Ginsberg, like many of the other Beat poets, was deeply interested in Eastern religions, particularly Buddhism, and studied it in India during the early 1960s. In 1965, Ginsberg returned from his travels throughout the East and began lecturing at universities around the country. He continued to hold radical beliefs and became a symbol of counterculture and intellectual freedom in the United States. He remained an avid opponent of war, consumerism, and the establishment until his death.

Teaching Tips

  • Beat poets were famous for their poetry performances; indeed, we might see them as precursors to currently popular “poetry slams.” Have students take turns reading passages from Howl (the first section of the poem works well). After several students have performed the poem, ask the class to discuss the performance choices each student made. What words did they emphasize? What was the tone of the performance? Did they change the dynamics of their voice? What was it like for the students to read this poem aloud? How does the meaning change with each performance?
  • Ask students to write their own poem in the style of Ginsberg. You might get them started by asking them to make a list of the defining characteristics of their generation. Students should also consider the formal features of Ginsberg’s work (long lines, blurred boundary between prose and poetry, use of many registers, including slang, erudite allusions, etc.), the often aggressive tone, the intimacy created between speaker and reader, and the political critique that drives his work. After the students have written their poems, they should write several paragraphs explaining what features or characteristics they were trying to capture. Then, have students break into small groups and share their poems. Each group should vote on the best poem. Groups should be prepared to defend their choices as they listen to all of the poems.

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: Why do you think Ginsberg chose the title Howl? What is the effect of the repetition of words at the beginning of lines (e.g., who, Moloch, I’m). To what does Moloch refer? Why does Ginsberg divide the poem into three parts?
  2. Comprehension: In “To Aunt Rose,” Ginsberg refers to the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, Hitler, and Emily Brontë, a seemingly eclectic set of allusions. What is the significance of each reference? How is history treated here?
  3. Comprehension: “Sutra” is the Sanskrit word for “thread.” It refers to Brahmin or Buddhist texts used for religious teaching. In Ginsberg’s poem “Sunflower Sutra,” what does the title mean? What does the sunflower symbolize?
  4. Context: In “A Supermarket in California,” Ginsberg repeatedly addresses the nineteenth-century poet Walt Whitman. Why does he invoke this bard? What do these poets share? If Ginsberg is determined to forge a new poetry about life on the fringes of society, why does he invoke a traditional, canonized poet?
  5. Context: Compare Ginsberg’s interpretation of the Beats’ philosophy to Gary Snyder’s. What techniques do the poets share, and where do they diverge?
  6. Exploration: Review the context on “Orientalism” in Unit 10. Many of the modernist poets, particularly Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, were fascinated by Asian art, architecture, and poetry. The Beat poets also share an interest in Asian culture, particularly Buddhism. How do these two generations of American poets differ in their treatment of Asian culture? What techniques do they share? Why do you think this fascination with the Far East continues throughout the century? You might consider Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” and “The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter”; William Carlos Williams’s “Willow Poem”; Ginsberg’s “Sunflower Sutra”; and Gary Snyder’s “The Blue Sky.”
  7. Exploration: Ginsberg begins “Ego Confession” with the line, “I want to be known as the most brilliant man in America.” How does that beginning affect the reader? What is the tone? What is the portrait of the poet represented here? How does Ginsberg’s notion of the poet differ from that of his modernist predecessors, like T. S. Eliot (see The Waste Land) and William Carlos Williams (consider Paterson)?
  8. Exploration: Like William Carlos Williams, Walt Whitman, Robert Frost, and a host of other writers, Ginsberg struggles to create a uniquely American poetry. What does it mean to be an American to Ginsberg? What does he value most? How does his poetic voice differ from that of other poets you’ve read? How is it similar?

Selected Archive Items

[4999] Anonymous, Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary, and Ralph Metzer (Left to Right) Standing in Front of a Ten Foot Plaster Buddha (1965), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-119239].
Beats preparing for a “psychedelic celebration” at the Village Theater in New York City. Beat writers looked to Eastern religions and traditions, finding European-American culture and religions empty of meaning. See Ginsberg’s poem “Sunflower Sutra” (“sutra” is Sanskrit for “thread” and refers to Buddhist religious texts).

[5682] Anonymous, Ginsberg Typing (1956), 
courtesy of the Allen Ginsberg Trust. 
Ginsberg typing Howl in kitchen. Ginsberg first unveiled Howl, one of his most famous and controversial poems, at a poetry reading in San Francisco at the Six Gallery.

[5683] John Doss, Allen Ginsberg at Madame Nhu Protest, 1963 (1963), 
courtesy of the Allen Ginsberg Trust and the Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries. 
Allen Ginsberg is pictured here in front of City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, after the anti-Madame Nhu demonstration of 1963. Madame Nhu, wife of the head of the Vietnamese secret police, was the official hostess of the U.S.-controlled South Vietnamese government. When a Buddhist monk immolated himself in Saigon as a protest against the government’s favoritism of Catholicism (the majority of South Vietnamese were Buddhist), Madame Nhu called the suicide a “barbecue” and offered to light the match for the next one. When she came to the University of California, Berkeley, campus in 1963, she was met with a wide variety of protests.

[7490] Dennis Cook, Allen Ginsberg Reads Howl (1994), 
courtesy of the Associated Press. 
In the 1950s, Ginsberg shocked America with his poetic manifesto Howl.

[7537] Anonymous, Allen Ginsberg Uncensored Poetry Reading in Washington Square Park (1966), 
courtesy of the Associated Press. 
Allen Ginsberg was born in New Jersey in 1926 and attended Columbia University; while a student, he was greatly influenced by William Burroughs.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


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