On October 7, 1955, Allen Ginsberg read his poem “Howl” before an audience for the first time. Appearing as the penultimate of six poets who read at Six Gallery in San Francisco that night, the 29-year-old Ginsberg recited those words that have since become iconic: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked” – the first of 112 lines of a confessional, non-rhythmic, sexually explicit cri de couer that did much to change the face of American culture during the coming decades.
Ginsberg was born in Newark, New Jersey, on June 3, 1926, and grew up in nearby Paterson. His father, Louis Ginsberg, was a high-school teacher and sometime poet, and his mother, the former Naomi Levy, was a Russian-born woman who had schizophrenia; she was in and out of mental hospitals while her son was growing up, and ended up being lobotomized.
Attending college at Columbia University, initially on a scholarship from the Paterson YMHA, Ginsberg became friends with fellow student Lucien Carr, who introduced him to the future Beat writers Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs and John Clellon Holmes.
He also participated in a variety of literary organizations on campus and won a poetry prize.
After college, Ginsberg worked for five years as a researcher at a New York advertising agency – surely an experience that contributed to his questioning and subversive sensibility. When, in 1954, a psychiatrist suggested he become a full-time poet, Ginsberg gave up his day job and moved to San Francisco, where an introduction from his East Coast mentor, William Carlos Williams, led him to Kenneth Rexroth, who served as an entrée for him to the local literary counterculture.
Ginsberg began work on what became “Howl” in 1954; an early version, called “Dream Record 1955,” was about Burroughs’ late wife. What ended up as “Howl” was, according to Ginsberg, about his own mother, as well as being a history of the Beats. The first of its three sections (in addition to a footnote), is about the sacrifice of the “lambs” to the pagan god Moloch; the second is about Moloch, “the monster of mental consciousness,” and the third about those who are sacrificed. It is addressed to Ginsberg’s friend Carl Solomon, whom he met during a brief stay in a psychiatric hospital, and who is something of a stand-in for his mother.
After hearing Ginsberg read that night, the poet, publisher and bookstore owner Lawrence Ferlinghetti sent him a telegram to “greet you at the beginning of a great career,” quoting a similar note sent by Ralph Waldo Emerson to Walt Whitman on publication of the latter’s “Leaves of Grass.” The following year, Ferlinghetti’s City Lights bookstore published “Howl,” accompanied by other poems, in book form.
When a salesman in the bookstore sold a copy of the book’s second edition to an undercover policeman in 1957, both he and Ferlinghetti were arrested and charged with distributing obscene material — which led to a trial that was the best thing that could have happened to Ginsberg. California Superior Court Judge Clayton Horn, after hearing a defense mounted by the American Civil Liberties Union that included expert testimony from nine literary scholars, ruled that “Howl” was of “redeeming social importance.”
In the four remaining decades of his life, Allen Ginsberg not only was a fruitful and respected poet, but also an outspoken advocate for human rights worldwide, and for the impoverished and oppressed of many different countries. He spent extended periods living in some of the world’s poorest societies, and back home, in New York’s East Village, lived very modestly himself until the end of his life. He was open about being gay from very early on, and even those who disagreed with his “radical” opinions appreciated his honesty, his warmth and his humor. The conservative commentator William F. Buckley, hosting Ginsberg on his TV show “Firing Line” in 1968, for example, couldn’t turn down Ginsberg’s request to sing a Hare Krishna chant. Two decades later, the cultural critic John Leonard said approvingly of Ginsberg: “He is of course a social bandit. But he is a nonviolent social bandit.’’
Ginsberg died on April 5, 1997, of liver cancer and complications of hepatitis.