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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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5. Masculine Heroes   

15. Poetry of Liberation

•  Unit Overview
•  Using the Video
•  Authors
- John Ashberry
- Amiri Baraka
- Lorna Dee Cervantes
- Allen Ginsberg
- Joy Harjo
- Audre Lorde
- Sylvia Plath
- Adrienne Rich
- Gary Snyder
- James Wright
- Suggested
•  Timeline
•  Activities

Authors: Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997)

Allen Ginsberg at Madame Nhu Protest, 1963
[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 Activities
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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.

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