Irwin Allen Ginsberg was an American Beat poet. Ginsberg is best known for Howl (1956), a long poem about the self-destruction of his friends of the Beat Generation and what he saw as the destructive forces of materialism and conformity in United States at the time.
Ginsberg was born into a Jewish family in Newark, New Jersey. His father Louis Ginsberg was a poet and a high school teacher. Ginsberg's mother, Naomi Levy Ginsberg (who was affected by epileptic seizures and mental illnesses such as paranoia) was an active member of the Communist Party USA and often took Ginsberg and his brother Eugene to party meetings. Ginsberg later said that his mother 'Made up bedtime stories that all went something like: "The good king rode forth from his castle, saw the suffering workers and healed them."'
As a teenager, Ginsberg began to write letters to The New York Times about political issues such as World War II and workers' rights. While in high school, Ginsberg began reading Walt Whitman; he said he was inspired by his teacher's passion in reading.
In Ginsberg's freshman year at Columbia he met fellow undergraduate Lucien Carr, who introduced him to a number of future Beat writers including Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and John Clellon Holmes. They bonded because they saw in one another excitement about the potential of the youth of America, a potential which existed outside the strict conformist confines of post-WWII McCarthy-era America. Ginsberg and Carr talked excitedly about a 'New Vision' (a phrase adapted from Arthur Rimbaud) for literature and America. Carr also introduced Ginsberg to Neal Cassady, for whom Ginsberg had a long infatuation. Kerouac later described the meeting between Ginsberg and Cassady in the first chapter of his 1957 novel On the Road. Kerouac saw them then as the dark (Ginsberg) and light (Cassady) side of their 'New Vision'. Kerouac's perception had to do partly with Ginsberg's association with Communism (though Ginsberg himself was never a Communist); Kerouac called Ginsberg 'Carlo Marx' in On the Road. This was a source of strain in their relationship since Kerouac grew increasingly distrustful of Communism.
Also in New York, Ginsberg met Gregory Corso in a bar and introduced him to the rest of his inner circle.
In 1954 in San Francisco, Ginsberg met Peter Orlovsky, a young man of 21 with whom he fell in love and who remained his life-long lover, and with whom he eventually shared his interest in Tibetan Buddhism.
Also in San Francisco Ginsberg met members of the San Francisco Renaissance and other poets who would later be associated with the Beat Generation in a broader sense.
He met Michael McClure at a W. H. Auden reading where they struck up a conversation about William Blake. McClure was planning a poetry reading at the Six Gallery where Robert Duncan's play Faust Foutu had previously been performed. But McClure handed the duties off to Ginsberg. Ginsberg advertised the event as 'Six Poets at the Six Gallery'. One of the most important events in Beat mythos, known simply as 'The Six Gallery reading' took place on October 7, 1955. The event, in essence, brought together the East and West Coast factions of the Beat Generation. Of more personal significance to Ginsberg: that night was the first public reading of Howl, a poem that brought world-wide fame to Ginsberg and many of the poets associated with him.
Ginsberg's principal work, Howl, is well-known to many for its opening line: 'I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness.' Howl was considered scandalous at the time of its publication due to the rawness of its language, which is frequently explicit. Shortly after its 1956 publication by San Francisco's City Lights Bookstore, it was banned for obscenity. The ban became a cause célèbre among defenders of the First Amendment, and was later lifted after a judge declared the poem to possess redeeming social importance.
Though 'Beat' is most accurately applied to Ginsberg and his closest friends (Corso, Orlovsky, Kerouac, Burroughs, etc.), the term 'Beat Generation' has become associated with many of the other poets Ginsberg met and became friends with in the late 1950s and early 1960s. A key feature of this term seems to be a friendship with Ginsberg. (Friendship with Kerouac or Burroughs might also apply, but both writers later strove to disassociate themselves from the name 'Beat Generation') Part of the dissatisfaction with the term 'Beat Generation' came from the mistaken identification of Ginsberg as the leader. Ginsberg never claimed to be the leader. He did, however, claim many of the writers with whom he had become friends in this period shared many of the same intentions and themes.
Later in his life, Ginsberg formed a bridge between the beat movement of the 1950s and the hippies of the 1960s, befriending, among others, Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey, Rod McKuen, and Bob Dylan.
Ginsberg's willingness to talk about taboo subjects is what made him a controversial figure in the conservative 1950s and a significant figure in the 1960s. But Ginsberg continued to broach controversial subjects throughout the 1970s, '80s, and '90s.
One contribution that is often considered his most significant and most controversial was his openness about homosexuality, including his love of youths. Ginsberg was an early proponents of freedom for men who loved other men, having already in 1943 discovered within himself 'mountains of homosexuality'. He expressed this desire openly and graphically in his poetry. He also struck a note for gay marriage by listing Peter Orlovsky, his lifelong companion, as his spouse in his Who’s Who entry. Later homosexual writers saw his frank talk about homosexuality as an opening to speak more openly and honestly about something often before only hinted at or spoken of in metaphor.
Also, in writing about sexuality in graphic detail and in his frequent use of language seen as indecent he challenged — and ultimately changed — obscenity laws. He was a staunch supporter of others whose expression challenged obscenity laws (William S. Burroughs and Lenny Bruce, for example).
He continuously attempted to force the world into a dialogue about controversial subjects because he thought that no change could be made in a polite silence.
Allen Ginsberg died on April 5, 1997, surrounded by family and friends in his East Village loft in New York City. He succumbed to liver cancer via complications of hepatitis. He was 70 years old.