Allen Ginsberg

1926 - 1997

by Attila Gyenis


Allen Ginsberg, Poet-Laureate of the Beat Generation, passed away on April 5 at his home in New York City. The quickness of his death was unexpected. He had just been diagnosed the week before with a terminal liver ailment, but the doctors had told him that he had 3 to 6 months to live. Upon hearing the news he went back to his apartment to write more poems. One of his last poems was titled "Death and Fame". He also spent the week calling his friends, asking if they were OK, asking them if they needed any money, and announcing to them that he was dying. One of the last people he would call was William Burroughs, his friend of over 50 years.

Allen was born in 1926 and grew up in Patterson, New Jersey, right across the Hudson River from New York City. His father was a high school English teacher and a poet. His mother, Naomi, was diagnosed as a schizophrenic, and even though Ginsberg was only a child, it would often fall upon him to care for her. This provided him with a first-hand view of madness. He would write about this experience in his poem Kaddish.

He started attending Columbia University for the purpose of becoming a lawyer like his brother, but fell into friendships with Kerouac, Burroughs, and Cassady among others. It was these friendships that caused him to eventually pursue his calling as a poet. Ginsberg got caught up in all the sex, drugs, and creativity that the beat generation seemed to espouse and surround itself with.

He eventually graduated from Columbia University in 1949, and joined the corporate world for a few years in an advertising agency before giving it all up and going to San Francisco. It would be here that he would meet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gary Snyder, and Peter Orlovsky.

In 1955, Ginsberg participated in a reading at Six Gallery in San Francisco, where he read Howl for the first time in public. The poem was published by City Lights Books in 1956. The poem, which celebrated Ginsberg’s homosexuality and eroticism, became the focal point for an obscenity trial. It was declared not to be obscene, the judge saying that the poem was not without "redeeming social importance."

In the ensuing decades, Ginsberg succeeded in transforming himself from Beat to Hippie to war protester, but he always maintained his identity as a poet. And he never failed to act as spokesman for any of these causes.

He also served as the chronicler of the period in time that he lived in and helped define. He was never without his camera, and captured many of the people and events in photographs that serve today as evidence of that generation.

Ginsberg signed thousands of copies of Howl with his trademark "Ah". And if you were lucky, he would add a flower. Death silenced his howl, but not the reverberations that it made. Ah...


From the Holy Soul Jelly Roll liner notes Ginsberg explains how he came up with "Ah", "...[I] got in the middle of the group who were going off to blockade a highway and started chanting "Ah" after asking them to chant with me. Everybody sat down, then we discussed strategy calmly rather than as a hysterical mob. "Om" closes out at the end but "Ah" leaves the mouth open, breath goes out [see Ginsberg’s Mind Breaths poem for more]. On the 4th of July you see the fireworks and say "Ah", or you recognize something and say "Ah!" When Trungpa said "Why don’t you try ‘Ah’?" he joined an American sound with Himalayan wisdom, and I’ve used it ever since. "Ah" for recognition, appreciation, the intelligence of speech joining body and mind and for a measure of the breath."



to be published