It’s the birthday of Allen Ginsberg (1926) (books by this author), the poet who coined the term “flower power,” which became the catchphrase to describe the social and political revolution of the 1960s. He’s best known for his landmark poem, “Howl” (1956), which kick-started the youth revolution in America and gave voice to a group of writers known as the “Beat Generation.”
Ginsberg grew up in Paterson, New Jersey. His father was a high school teacher and his mother a former member of the Communist Party. They taught Ginsberg and his brother, Eugene, to recite Poe, Dickens, and Keats aloud. Ginsberg once called his parents “old-fashioned delicatessen philosophers.”
At Columbia University, he met a scruffy poet named Lucien Carr who introduced him to fellow writers Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, and Neal Cassady. They introduced him to drugs, free love, and the writings of William Blake and Ezra Pound. Ginsberg was expelled from Columbia for minor infractions and ended up working as a merchant seaman, welder, and dishwasher. After he finally graduated from Columbia, he was arrested for possession of drugs. Rather than go to jail, he pleaded insanity and spent eight months in a psych ward at Columbia. He went back to Paterson for a time, where he met poet William Carlos Williams, who became his mentor.
Ginsberg’s mother suffered from paranoia and slit her wrists. She was committed to Pilgrim State Hospital in Long Island and Ginsberg signed a letter authorizing her lobotomy. A few days after she died in 1956, Ginsberg received letters from her, which he used for an epic poem called “Kaddish for Naomi Ginsberg 1895–1956,” which many consider his poetic masterpiece. One of her letters said, “Get married Allen don’t take drugs love, your Mother.”
After writing copy on Madison Avenue for five years, Ginsberg moved to San Francisco, where he got a room around the corner from Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights bookstore, took a lot of peyote, and wrote a long poem called “Howl” (1955), which begins, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked.” He read the poem, which included references to homosexuality, at the Six Gallery to a cheering crowd, a scene that Jack Kerouac later used for his novel The Dharma Bums (1958). Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights later published the poem, which was promptly seized by U.S. Customs and San Francisco police for obscenity. The trial judge dismissed the charge, saying, “Would there be any freedom of press or speech if one must reduce his vocabulary to vapid innocuous euphemisms?”
“Howl” made Allen Ginsberg famous. He went on to become a Buddhist and to study with Zen masters and gurus; he was expelled from Cuba for calling Che Guevara “cute” and kicked out of Czechoslovakia in 1966. He smoked pot with Bob Dylan and the Beatles, and claimed he’d found a new method for writing poetry. He said, “All you have to do is think of anything that comes into your head, then arrange in lines of two, three, or four words each, don’t bother about sentences, in sections of two, three, or four lines each.” James Dickey called Ginsberg “a problem,” because Ginsberg made it seem like anyone could write a poem.
He protested against the Vietnam War and amassed a lengthy FBI dossier. He spoke out in favor of gay rights and the legalization of drugs and posed in an Uncle Sam costume for a very popular 1960s poster. He once said, “It occurs to me that I am America.”
Allen Ginsberg died in 1997. His books include Howl and Other Poems (1956), Reality Sandwiches (1963), Collected Poems 1947–1980 (1984). He won the National Book Award (1974) for The Fall of America: Poems of These States 1965–1971 (1973).