Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997)
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Teaching Ginsberg requires addressing rampant stereotypes about the
beats and the kind of art they created; i.e., the drug culture, homosexuality,
Eastern belief systems, and, most important, the effects of such practices
on the poem.
By showing the students what a standard formalist 1950s poem was, I
have usually been able to keep them focused on the work itself. Ginsberg's
long-lined, chant-like poems are so responsive to his speech rhythms that
once students hear tapes, they begin to see his rationale for form. Connections
with Whitman's work
are also useful.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Ginsberg's dissatisfaction with America during the 1950s prompted his
jeremiads, laments, "Howls." When his macabre humor could surface,
as it does in "A Supermarket in California," he shows the balance
that clear vision can create. His idealism about his country marks much
of his work, which is in many ways much less "personal" than
it at first seems.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Consider the tradition of American poetry as voice dependent (Whitman
and William Carlos Williams)
rather than a text for reading. The highly allusive, ornate, "learned"
poems of T. S. Eliot
or Wallace Stevens
have much less influence on Ginsberg's work, although he certainly knows
a great deal about poetry. His poems are what he chooses to write, and
he makes this choice from a plethora of models. The highly religious influence
shapes much of his work (he once described himself as a Buddhist Jew with
connections to Krishna, Siva, Allah, Coyote, and the Sacred Heart). Ginsberg
was a personal friend of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber. It was largely
through Buber's influence that he gave up drugs.
"Howl," the first part of which appears here, is one of the
most famous artifacts of the 1950s. Struggling to recover from the McCarthy
trials that spelled doom for anyone charged with difference, the late 1950s
was the edge of both promise and fear. The 1960s, with their recognition
of the value of change and difference, were about to strike every American
citizen, but "Howl" when it was first published in 1956 was still
a threatening work. (A decade later, when a recording of the poet reading
the work was played on radio, people responsible could have lost their
jobs.) In alluding to the experiences of the beats, especially Carl Solomon,
whom Ginsberg met when both were patients at the Columbia Psychiatric Institute
in 1949, the poem brings into focus a quantity of events unknown to the
(polite) literary world, a more advantaged world.
It also alludes to the travels of William S. Burroughs, whose first
book Junkie (1953) was published through Solomon's efforts; Herbert
E. Huncke, a con artist and junkie from New York; and Neal Cassady, a Denver
hipster whose travels with Jack Kerouac were recreated in the latter's
On the Road (1957). As a collective chronicle, the work draws on
a number of people's experiences--all united in being marginal, offensive,
and generally threatening to most academics and students.
Ginsberg's work can usefully be approached as protest as well as lament.
Connections with the writings of racial minorities can help define his
own Jewish rhythms.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
See the following authors: Walt
Whitman, Robert Creeley,
William Carlos Williams,
Langston Hughes, Theodore
Ferlinghetti, Gary Snyder,
Etheridge Knight, Denise
Levertov, Pedro Pietri.