Happy Birthday

Allen Ginsberg, Ginsberg, young Allen Ginsberg
Associated Press

Happy Birthday, Allen Ginsberg, Beat Poet

June 03, 2010
by Lindsey Chapman
Allen Ginsberg helped launch a literary revolution in the United States during the mid-20th century. As a central figure in the Beat generation, Ginsberg’s work dealt primarily with the taboo subjects of drug use and sexuality. His poem “Howl” landed him in court for obscenity, and his victory there helped expand the boundaries of what constituted acceptable literature in the U.S.

Allen Ginsberg’s Early Days

Born on June 3, 1926, in Newark, New Jersey, to two members of the New York literary counterculture, Allen Ginsberg grew up among “progressive political perspectives,” writes the Academy of American Poets

His mother, Naomi, suffered from mental health problems. Ginsberg biographer Barry Miles wrote, “Naomi’s illness gave Allen an enormous empathy and tolerance for madness, neurosis, and psychosis.” As Ginsberg grew up, he favored the writings of Walt Whitman and Edgar Allan Poe.

He attended Columbia University to learn how to become a labor lawyer, but his interests soon gravitated toward literature and poetry instead. Faculty members like Mark Van Doren and Lionel Trilling tried to help him develop his career, but Allen preferred the influences of his friends and “his experiences of the seedier sides of New York nightlife,” according to the University of North Carolina. Disciplinary problems resulted in his suspension from the school his sophomore year, but he eventually received his degree.

Ginsberg’s Notable Accomplishments

Ginsberg helped to found the “Beat” generation of poetry with a group of colleagues including Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs. They sought inspiration from jazz music, and they believed drug use could enlighten their writing.

The movement “was a male cult that would have been a footnote to ‘50s conformity, not a herd but a boys’ club of independent minds, without Allen Ginsberg's organizing fervor,” wrote Beat writer and longtime Ginsberg friend Herbert Gold.

According to the PBS, many critics disagreed with the “irresponsible” nature of their lifestyles. Followers of the Beat movement favored a more open discussion of society than had previously occurred before.

Two of Ginsberg’s most notable works from this era are “Kaddish” and “Howl.” The numerous references to drug use and sexual acts—both heterosexual and homosexual—in “Howl” led to copies of the poem being seized by U.S. custom officials and the work’s publisher being tried for obscenity. Many writers and poets testified on the poems behalf, and the judge ruled that it had “redeeming social importance.”

The opening lines of “Howl,” beginning “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,” still resonate with readers today. Ginsberg reflected on the poem’s creation in a 1985 interview with NPR.

Ginsberg worked in a variety of media. Certainly, he was a poet, but he was also a musician, photographer and visual artist. You can view some of his “doodles,” read from his lectures, see photos of him and by him, and view clips of videos with Ginsberg at The Allen Ginsberg Project.

The Rest of the Story

Ginsberg died in his apartment in April 1997 of liver cancer. He was 70 years old. “He was a pioneer of openness and a lifelong model of candor. He stood for freedom of expression and for coming out of all the closets long before others did,” said Burroughs. “He has influence because he said what he believed.”

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