Author Spotlight: Allen Ginsberg

By Audrey W. | Arcadia Staff
Most known for his interweaving of spirituality and poetry to create nuanced imagery, Allen Ginsberg’s literary career was far more than that of an average writer. He helped found a school of poetics and the Beat Generation literary movement of 20th century America. Ginsberg is most known for two epic collections of poetry: Howl and Kaddish. His words became the source of inspiration for many readers, as they aimed to reveal a universal truth of spirituality and human likeness. Here, we’re diving into the life and legacy of one of the nation’s most brilliant poets.

Ginsberg’s Early Work and Family

Born Irwin Allen Ginsberg in 1926 to a Jewish family in New Jersey, Ginsberg would evolve into one of the nation’s most outspoken voices on militarism, sexual repression, and economic materialism, all of which he vehemently opposed. When he was a teen, he began writing letters to the New York Times, grappling with topics like World War II and the rights of American workers. In 1943, he started at Columbia University, where he wrote for the Columbia Review. At this same time, he won the Woodberry Poetry Prize, was president of Philolexian Society, a literary and debate group, and joined the Boar’s Head Society, a local poetry group.
During his first year of college, Ginsberg was introduced to writers Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and John Clellon Holmes - men who would become leaders of the Beat Generation. As young aspiring writers themselves, they bonded with Ginsberg through shared beliefs in politics and spirituality. He also met Gregory Corso, who he immediately forged a friendship with. After reading Corso’s poetry, Ginsberg claims he realized Corso was “spiritually gifted.” The two began traveling together and sealed a friendship that would last their entire lives.
Later in life, Ginsberg would reference his relationship with his mother with some strain. He believed she has an undiagnosed psychological disorder. She once informed a young Ginsberg that her mother-in-law was trying to kill her and the president had installed listening devices in their home. For most of Ginsberg’s upbringing, his mother was in and out of mental hospitals. The writer’s experiences with his mother served as inspiration for Howl and the autobiographical poem, Kaddish.

The Beat Generation

Ginsberg moved to San Francisco in the 1950s, where he met Peter Orlovsky, his lifelong partner. Also while living here, he met members of the San Francisco Renaissance (the Beat Generation’s west coast counterpart), and was mentored by renowned poet William Carlos Williams. 

Poet Allen Ginsberg.
One of the most important events in Ginsberg’s literary career took place on October 7, 1955, when members from the previously divisive Beat Generation and San Francisco Renaissance came together for a single reading. Today that gathering is known simply as “The Six Gallery reading.” Here, Ginsberg read a portion of “Howl.” It proved to be the poem that brought worldwide fame to Ginsberg. When the poetry collection of the same name was published in 1956, it was immediately banned for obscenity. A manager at City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, Shig Murao, was jailed for continuing to sell the book. Under the First Amendment, the banning of the collection was later revoked.
As an outspoken activist, Ginsberg was banned from Cuba and Czechoslovakia in 1965, and became a figure of much FBI scrutiny. He spoke on issues like the Vietnam War, gay rights, and drugs - Ginsberg was one of Timothy Leary’s earliest participants in his psilocybin and LSD experiments. All this aside, his opinions earned him a respected place in society. His political essays were in constant demand and he once testified in the hearings on drugs before the Senate.

Illness at the End of His Life

Ginsberg was a lifelong smoker. Though he tried to quit for religious and health reasons, he was never fully successful. The addiction played a role in his decline of health later in life. In 1960, while being treated for a tropical disease, an unsterilized needle was used on Ginsberg, causing him to contract hepatitis. Throughout the 1970s, Ginsberg suffered two major strokes, and was diagnosed with Bell’s palsy, which made him develop paralysis in some parts on his body, including half his face.
When he arrived home after an unsuccessful treatment for congestive heart failure at the hospital, Ginsberg made calls to all of his close friends and family to say goodbye. He died in New York City in April of 1997, finally succumbing to liver cancer and complications with hepatitis.
Ginsberg broke barriers with his poetry. Though he largely denies being the founder of the Beat Generation movement, he can easily take credit for being one of the central figures that made it possible. Through his work in literature and music, and using these platforms to speak on social, political, and economic unease, Ginsberg was a cultural game-changer in America.