About the Poet
A disciple of American liberties found in the writings of Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Henry David Thoreau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, Irwin Allen Ginsberg was a latter-day prophet of freedom. Unconventional in life and art, he was a gay anarchist and Jew-turned-Buddhist who flaunted eccentricity as a badge of distinction. He was a dissenter and political spokesman for leftists, union organizers, and proponents of unfettered sex and psychedelic drugs, and he pursued the ideal and visionary along with the creative in pop culture.
Apart from the wealth of analysis attached to his work, Ginsberg’s literary doctrine was simple and personal: Poetry equals sanity. His blunt sexuality and unconventional ravings challenged notions of propriety and decorum left over from seventeenth-century puritanism, compounded by eighteenth-century conservatism and nineteenth-century prudery. Spurned by purists as a drugged-out degenerate, but admired by contemporaries as a libertarian crusader, he earned respect from a sprinkling of the literary in-crowd, including poet William Carlos Williams.
Ginsberg was born of a liberal Jewish working-class background on June 3, 1926, in Newark, New Jersey, and reared in Paterson. His Russian immigrant parents, Naomi Levy and high school English teacher Louis Ginsberg, conditioned him to buck conservative trends by supporting spontaneous expression, radical Communism, and nudity. He graduated from Paterson High School in 1943.
Labeled a gay drug experimenter while completing a B.A. at Columbia University, Ginsberg resided with fellow free spirits in Harlem. To accentuate his mounting rebellion, he studied Franz Kafka and William Blake and hung out at the West End Cafe, one of the first locations connected with the birth of the Beat movement. During his erratic college years, he was suspended for two semesters for scrawling obscene words on his dorm room window and allowing Jack Kerouac to stay as unofficial roommate.
After working as a welder, dishwasher, and deckhand, Ginsberg served the New York World Telegram as a copy boy and Newsweek as a reviewer. During his tenure in San Francisco, he discovered congenial artists in North Beach, which thrived at the end of the McCarthy era in outrageous, anticonservative artistic bliss. Acknowledged with a letter of introduction from William Carlos Williams, he launched the Beat movement in 1955 at his “Happy Apocalypse,” a public reading of “Howl,” an apocalyptic diatribe against modern corruption. City Lights Bookshop published Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems (1956), which effectively channeled his rage into self-conscious experimental verse. The volume’s controversial content preceded his arrest on an obscenity charge against publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who, in 1957, weathered a highly publicized trial and acquittal.
Ginsberg did not limit himself to the California scene. He taught at the University of British Columbia, appeared in twenty movies, formed a lifetime relationship with mate Peter Orlovsky, and recited verse in the British Isles, Russia, Czechoslovakia, Poland, India, Peru, and Chile. During his residency in Greenwich Village, New York, he shared a 7th Street apartment with Kerouac and William Burroughs while completing Kaddish and Other Poems (1961), a verse biography of his mother. Ginsberg’s correspondence with Burroughs appeared as The Yage Letters (1963). He drew police surveillance while picketing the Vietnam War in New York and the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and authorities ejected him from Cuba in 1965 for protesting antigay treatment at state schools. The Fall of America: Poems of These States (1973), a lament for the poet’s deceased mother, won a National Book Award.
While living on the ultraliberal university campus at Berkeley, California, Ginsberg published First Blues: Rags, Ballads, & Harmonium Songs, 1971-1974 (1975). As Ever (1977) reprises his letters to fellow Beat poet Neal Cassady. His Journals Early Fifties Early Sixties (1977) covers travels in Greece and reveals an anti-establishment bent, which he celebrated with poetry readings at the Second Bisbee Poetry Festival in Bisbee, Arizona, in 1980. In a wacky but sincerely rebellious spirit, he cofounded the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics in Boulder, Colorado, where he codirected curriculum and taught poetry each summer.
Following Ginsberg’s death on April 15, 1997, his funeral at Temple Emanu-El in San Francisco turned into a media circus. Old friends and admirers exulted that the poet would have loved it.
Howl, Ginsberg’s Dantean masterwork, dominated the poet’s canon to his last years and formed a catechism for young bohemians in search of a mentor and mythmaker. In old age, he wished aloud that he had the vigor to start again and denounce more recent government repression with Howl II. A dynamic sermon composed in Old Testament rhythms, rich active verbs, explicit nouns, and ordinary speech, the original Howl condemns authoritarians for forcing the fringe, later called beatniks or hippies, into subhumanity. He anchored his furor on a shared experience with Carl Solomon, whom he met while both were receiving insulin shock treatment for mental illness at Columbia Presbyterian Psychiatric Institution. The shock factor of astonishing juxtapositions — for example, the hungry figure plunging under a meat truck in search of an egg; boxcar bums traveling toward “grandfather night”; the use of shocking terms like cunt, balls, and gyzym; and personal memories of a sexual relationship with N. D. [Neal Cassady] — precipitated an investigation by San Francisco police, who censored the work for obscenity.
To control wave on wave of painful memories, a catalog of evils, and disdainful prophecy, Ginsberg tames elongated lines with sight mechanisms, primarily parallel entries preceded by repetitions of the pronoun “who.” The list of complaints cites unrelated places — Atlantic City, Newark, Baltimore, Los Alamos — and intersperses jubilant acts of straight and gay sex with state coercion, alienation, despair, suicide, and expatriation. His exaggerations of injustice weave a black-on-white tapestry of suppression by which “the absolute heart of the poem of life [is] butchered out of their own bodies.” Like a challenge, the innovative verve of Howl presses into the reader’s face a new poetic style either exciting or exasperating, depending on the point of view.
In less frenzied style, Ginsberg employs the same free verse for “A Supermarket in California,” a satire on American plenty. The poem opens with an address to his literary idol and spiritual mentor, Walt Whitman. Despairing for the haven that Whitman prophesied, Ginsberg’s apostrophe closes on the “black waters of Lethe,” a romantic cliche for oblivion. Juxtaposing human shoppers among inanimate vegetables and fruit, the poet moves to a verse biography of Whitman, a solitary man obsessed by lust for young bag boys. Ginsberg idealizes his relationship with the nineteenth-century poet in images of artichoke tasting. Once out in the street with his dream companion, the poet makes a pun on “shade to shade,” a vision of a ghost shadowed by trees along the sidewalk. Like Ginsberg, Whitman, a wartime medic, lived in difficult times as Union fought Confederate. The poem closes on the formidable “courage — teacher,” whom the ferryman Charon abandons on a smoking bank of the underworld.
Ginsberg pursues his signature tumbling style in “Sunflower Sutra,” a pseudo-religious poem written in 1956 following a vision of William Blake reciting “Ah! Sunflower.” The text, which reads with the honesty of a diary entry, opens on somber lament. Alongside friend Kerouac, the grieving poet obsesses over polluted streams devoid of fish and rusted machinery until Jack points out one hopeful entity, a sunflower. In technically powerful lines enlivened with similes, the poet summarizes America’s downhill slide. In alliterated monosyllables, he decries “the smut and smog and smoke” of trains. Dramatically, powerfully, the poem rises to an intense melancholy in line 9: “O my soul, I loved you then.”
Ginsberg seems overwhelmed with the violation of technology, which he characterizes as “artificial worse-than-dirt.” Continuing in a flood of alliterated pairings, he humanizes the wreckage around him in slang anatomical terms. With mannered exaggeration, he differentiates sunflower from locomotive, humorously warning, “forget me not!” The glorified sunflower becomes the cavalier’s sword. Stuck in his belt, it arms the idealist, who lectures “anyone who’ll listen.” In the final line of the vision, which he sets apart by a dash, the poet embraces the internal sunflower beauty of self while rejecting the outer shame that fouls society.
“America,” a self-conscious national evaluation composed in the same period, speaks with the ringing self-righteousness of the inquisitor. The pace is deliberately slow, the tone brow-beating, almost intimidating. Less like oratory than a nose-to-nose confrontation, the poem departs from the long-lined lyricism of “Sunflower Sutra” with harshly end-stopped, verbal accusations against the poet’s native land. In snarly discontent, he badgers America like a parent scolding a child, blaming the nation for ignoring want and war and for forcing Ginsberg to “want to be a saint.” His insistence on run-on sentences creates a peevish atmosphere, which suits a boyish confession, “I smoke marijuana every chance I get.”
The second stave jerks at the lapels of Ginsberg’s homeland with a curt, “I’m addressing you.” In rebellion against the vision of America published in Time magazine, the poet makes his discovery, “It occurs to me that I am America.” By pairing self and country, the speaker considers national enemies his personal foes. To remind the nation of its blunted purpose, he trivializes contemporary concerns over marijuana, sexuality, and censorship in the opening line of the third stave, which accuses America of fostering a “silly mood.”
The poem champions the underdog by name, ordering America to stop tormenting a labor agitator and two radicals unjustly accused of murder. Mixed in are Spanish Loyalists and the racially charged cases of the Scottsboro boys, two celebrated cases that Americans abandoned. With a brief return to sentence overload, the poet spews out childhood memories of Communist cell meetings and abandons straightforward rhetoric for the comic Old West Indian dialect from such television series as “The Lone Ranger.” In a final dedication to task, the speaker declares himself unfit mentally, morally, and physically for anything but the people’s poetry. Phrasing his intent in cliche, he pledges with mock-seriousness to put his “queer shoulder to the wheel.”
Discussion and Research Topics
1. Discuss the role of authoritarian power in Howl. How does Ginsberg buck authority in the work?
2. In Howl, Ginsberg cites various cities spread throughout the United States. What role do these cities play in the work? Is Ginsberg’s vision an urbanized vision, or does it encompass rural settings as well?
3. Write an essay in which you discuss whether or not the images in Howl are obscene. If the work were written today, would the government’s reaction to it be different? Why or why not?
4. Contrast Ginsberg’s pessimism in Howl with Hart Crane’s ecstatic vision of America’s greatness in The Bridge.
5. Contrast Ginsberg’s portrait “To Aunt Rose” with the lyric biography of Rita Dove’s Thomas and Beulah.
6. Contrast the speaker of “America” with the speaker of Howl. Is one speaker more pessimistic than the other? If so, which speaker, and why?
7. Chronicle the parallel growth of beat expression with imagism, impressionism, and modern verse.