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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Allen Ginsberg

Allen Ginsberg brought not only a new self-consciousness to American poetry but a rare sense of humor. While poets contemporary with him—W. D. Snodgrass, Robert Lowell, Theodore Roethke, and somewhat later Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath—were mining the personal to unearth images that would speak for an “Every person” understanding, Ginsberg was exploring the psyche with a shrewd sense of humor. His dialogue with Walt Whitman, “A Supermarket in California,” views the suburban scene of lush plenty with a wry vision that brings the elements of poetry and life together in a completely new perspective.

Ginsberg is best known for his first long-lined poem, “Howl,” written after he left Columbia University and the New York avant-garde and moved to California. “Howl” lamented the 1950s wastes—good minds buried under layers of convention, stifling restrictions on art and sexual expression—reversing Whitman’s catalogs of praise to chart uncountable griefs. Its irony and its all-too-real truths gave Ginsberg an immediate audience once City Lights published the poem, with a foreword by William Carlos Williams.

Though Ginsberg quickly became identified with the homosexual drug culture, his roots more directly stretched back to his New Jersey home, where his knowledge of social inequities and cultural frustrations mirrored that of his older Rutherford neighbor, Williams. His next major poem, “Kaddish,” a lament for the health of his brilliant Jewish mother, Naomi Levy, reflected much of that social coercion, intensified with cultural alienation and social response to mental instability.

Ginsberg was born in 1926 to Naomi and Louis Ginsberg, in Newark, where his father was a high school teacher and a poet. Before graduating from Columbia University in 1949, Ginsberg held jobs as a dishwasher, spot welder, copy boy on the New York World-Telegram, and reporter for a New Jersey paper. After he graduated with his A.B. degree, he traveled to California to find William Burroughs, who wrote from the tradition of prophetic, inspired voices (Ginsberg had had visions in which he saw William Blake, and he thought of himself as a seer in his art). After his comparative successes in California, determined to live on his income from writing—no small endeavor—Ginsberg spent part of 1963 in India, traveling with his lover Peter Orlovsky. He returned to the States to participate in a poetry festival at University of British Columbia, bringing with him a mantra-like chant that from then on enhanced the delivery of his poetry.

In 1963 Ginsberg was a Guggenheim Fellow; in 1969 he received a National Institute of Arts and Letters award and in 1973 the National Book Award for The Fall of America: Poems of These States. In 1979 he received the National Arts Club Medal of Honor for Literature. Although he read frequently on university campuses and remained a spokesperson for the avant-garde, Ginsberg developed a comparatively mild profile during the last decade of his life. He returned to New Jersey, where he lived on a small farm, accessible to his friends and admirers, writing a remarkably constant poetry that hammered away at the problems faced not only by the United States but by most of the world cultures. The “insane demands” he spoke of in his 1956 poem “America” are still rampant, and Ginsberg proved to be prophetic once more as he described himself as staying with the country, trying to work through its aberrations to find some of its truth. In that endeavor, too, he echoed the efforts of William Carlos Williams. Though never accepted by the culture he was so critical of, Ginsberg never expatriated himself from it; he rather preached, and sang, and chanted, lessons he thought might be helpful to its greatest dilemmas.

Linda Wagner-Martin
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

In the Heath Anthology
Howl (1955-1956)
A Supermarket in California (1956)
America (1956)

Other Works
Howl and Other Poems (1956)
Empty Mirror: Early Poems (1961)
Kaddish and Other Poems 1958-60 (1961)
Reality Sandwiches: 1953-1960 (1963)
Wichita Vortex Sutra (1967)
Planet News (1968)
Iron Horse (1972)
The Fall of America: Poems of These States, 1965-1971 (1973)
Mind Breaths: Poems, 1972-1977 (1978)
Collected Poems 1947-1980 (1984)
Howl (facsimile) (1986)
White Shroud, Poems 1980-1985 (1986)

Cultural Objects
Image fileThe Beat Generation Map of America

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Allen Ginsberg Memorial
Extensive information about the life of Ginsberg as a writer and member of the Beats.

Allen Ginsberg's FBI file
Provides an excerpt from Herbert Mitgang's, Dangerous dossiers : exposing the secret war against America's greatest authors.

Ashes & Blues
Rich with resources; provides a biography, a multitude of links and, a forum for Ginsberg memorial exchange.

Literary Kicks
A hypertext biography.

The Beat Page: Allen Ginsberg
Contains a hypertext biography and a selection of poems including Sunflower Sutra, In the Back of the Real.

Secondary Sources

Donald Allen, ed., Composed on the Tongue: Allen Ginsberg, 1980

Michelle P. Kraus, Allen Ginsberg, An Annotated Bibliography 1969-1977, 1980

Barry Miles, Allen Ginsberg: A Biography, 1989

Barry Miles, The Beat Hotel: Ginsberg, Burroughs and Corso in Paris, 1957-1963, 2000

Grergory Stephenson, The Daybreak Boys,1990

John Tytell, Naked Angels: The Lives and Literature of the Beat Generation, 1976