Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) was an important figure in the Beat Generation Movement that took place right before the revolutionary American 60s. Other major beat writers (also called beatnicks) were: Gregory Corso, Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs. The beat poetry was meant to be oral and very effective in readings. It developed out of poetry readings in underground clubs. (a beautiful image of these secret clubs can be found in the movie called Dead Poets Society with Robin Williams playing the main character).
Some argued that it was the grandparent of rap music. The term Beat Generation was coined by Kerouac in the fall of the 1948 in New York City. The word beat referred loosely to their shared sense of spiritual exhaustion and diffuse feelings of rebellion against what they experienced as the general conformity, hypocrisy and materialism of a larger society around them caught up in he unprecedented prosperity of postwar America. The beat poetry was the most anticanon form of literature in the United States.
The poetry is a cry of pain and rage, a howl at what the poets see as the loss of Americas innocence and as a tragic waste. Allen Ginsberg was born in Newark, New Jersey. His parents were second generation Russian- Jewish immigrants, left-wing radicals interested in Marxism, nudism, feminism, generally in the modern revolutionary ideas of his times. This background certainly did influence his evolution as a revolutionary poet. His father, Louis Ginsberg, was a teacher and a poet, whose work was published in New York Times.
During Ginsbergs childhood, his mother, Naomi Ginsberg, started to suffer from paranoia. She was institutionalized and eventually lobotomized. She died in an asylum in 1956. her life is the subject one Allens poem entitled Kaddish and which was written as a compensation of her funeral service. After he graduated a public high school, Ginsberg won a scholarship from Columbia University where he became a famous student, making friends with Williams Burroughs and Jack Kerouac.
Another important person was Neal Cassady who helped Ginsberg accept his homosexuality. Then he fell in love with his fellow student Lucien Carr. When Lucien Carr was convicted for murder, Ginsberg was ordered to undergo psychiatric counseling. He was suspended from the university for a year. Before receiving The Bachelors Degree he worked as a welder in the Brooklyn Naval yards, as a dishwasher and night porter. Ginsberg was also accused of possessing stolen goods. He pleaded insanity and spent eight months at Columbia Psychiatric Institute.
He was experimenting with drugs, hanging out with junkies and geniuses, brooding about his homosexuality, struggling to find his voice as a poet. Later he campaigned for the liberation of American anti-drug laws. He wrote poems like Mescaline, Lysergic Acid and Laughing Gas. In 1955 he launched Howl. It is one of his early works. The poem was published by Lawrence Ferlinghettys City Light Press, with a foreword by Williams Carlos Williams: Hold back the edges of your gowns, we are going through hell The police seized the entirely printing on the grounds of obscenity.
Howl is a long free verse poem which exemplifies Ginsbergs ars poetica of spontaneous composition: All you have to do is think of anything that comes into your head, then arrange in lines of two, three or four words each, dont bother about sentences, in sections of two, three or four lines each The poem was made to be read aloud and became one of the symbols of the liberation of American culture in the 1950s.
The most important fragments and words are easy to identify, together forming a remaking of Howl: I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the Negro streets niversities, radiant cool eyes, expelled, marijuana ate fire, drunk turpentine, dreams, drugs, waking nightmares, alcohol, cock and endless balls backyard green tree cemetery dawns, wine drunkness over the rooftops New York, Brooklyn, winter, Bronx Screaming, vomiting, whispering facts and memories and anecdotes and eyeball kicks and shocks of hospitals and jails and wars Wandered around and around at midnight in the railroad yard wondering where to go Seeking visionary Indian angels, seeking jazz or sex or soup
Who distributed super communist pamphlets in Union Square Who howled in their knees in the subway; who let themselves be fucked in the ass, screamed with joy Unemployment offices, great suicidal dramas Who sat in boxes breathing in the darkness under the bridge; plunged themselves under meat trucks looking for an egg Cut their wrists three times successively unsuccessfully, gave up and were forced to open antique stores Find out eternity; went away to find out the time Fell on their knees in hopeless cathedral praying for each other salvation and light In jail; shaven head and speech of suicide Therapy hallucination, Carl, madman bum and angel beat in time All these elements are important as they express the drama of the postmodernist poet. It is a manifest poetry in the name of a generation, I is social criticism freely expressed against the American society. This poem is said to be an insight to his own life and his view of the world.
William Carlos Williams said it is the poet who has gone, in his body, through the horrifying experiences described: Literally he has been (K) through hell. It is obvious that Ginsberg searched for a language that would incarnate his Self. He does not focus on the form but on the effectiveness and power of words; he searches for accurate violent emotions. A howl is a prolonged animal cry and so, an instinctive cry. Ginsbergs poem powerfully communicates the sense of a sudden, angry eruption if instincts, of the release of oppressed human and literary energies. John Hollander said that although the title is a noun, one can also take it as an imperative. It is a prophetical sign of social protest.
The idea that the poet should be naked in front of his reader is revolutionary and Ginsberg interpreted it to the extreme: At a reading in Los Angeles a heckler harassed Ginsberg throughout his reading (of Howl) and was quieted only when Allen promised to give him the chance to express his opinions after the reading. However he continued to disrupt the reading after Allen had turned it over to Gregory Corso. At one point, Gregory proposed a verbal duel with the heckler, the winner being the one with the best “images, metaphors (and) magic. The heckler was more interested in engaging Corso in a fistfight. He taunted the poets, calling them cowards, insisting they explain what they were trying to prove onstage. “Nakedness,” Ginsberg replied.
When the heckler demanded further explanation, Allen left the stage and approached him. He accused the man of wanting to do something brave in front of the audience and then challenged him to take off all his clothes. As he walked towards the drunk, Allen stripped off all of his clothing, hurling his pants and shirt at the now retreating heckler. Stand naked before the people,” Allen said. “The poet always stands naked before the world. ” Defeated the man backed into another room. (from Michael Schumcher, Dharma Lion — A Biography of Allen Ginsberg. ) Ginsbergs style is not disciplined, but based on a spontaneous utterance of ideas, violating all the current artistic canons, provoking a literary and social scandal.
The powerful representations of the urban realities, of the language and matter of the urban streets were meant to induce powerful reactions of the reader. He brought the culture down to the level of streets and neighborhoods. Thats why the language and the images are obscene, including symbolism and direct references to oral and anal sex, homosexuality and drug use. We can even say that the form of the poem seems to be a self exploration, shaped after his own life. What Ginsberg manages to do is to freely express his attitudes the way they overwhelm him: defiance, longing, terror, hysteria, prayer, anger, joy, exhaustion, culminating with madness and suicide.