Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997)

    Contributing Editor:
    Linda Wagner-Martin

    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.

    Original Audience

    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 Roethke, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gary Snyder, Etheridge Knight, Denise Levertov, Pedro Pietri.