Poet Allen Ginsberg reads his poem “Howl” at a poetry reading at Six Gallery in San Francisco. The poem was an immediate success that rocked the Beat literary world and set the tone for confessional poetry of the 1960s and later.
Ginsberg was born in 1926 to a high school English teacher father and Marxist mother who later suffered a mental breakdown. Her mental illness and death were the subjects of Ginsberg’s poem “Kaddish.”
Ginsberg’s father raised Allen and his older brother to recite poetry by Poe, Dickens, Keats, Shelley, and Milton. Ginsberg attended Columbia University, intending to study law. At Columbia, he met Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs and Neal Cassady, who would become central figures in the Beat movement. Ginsberg was expelled from Columbia in 1945 for a series of minor infractions, then bummed around, working as a merchant seaman, a dishwasher, and a welder. He finally finished Columbia in 1948 with high grades but was arrested when a drug-addict friend stored supplies in his apartment. He successfully pleaded not guilty on the grounds of insanity and spent eight months in the psych ward at Columbia.
After his arrest and trial, Ginsberg went through a “straight” period, working as a successful market researcher and helping to develop a successful ad campaign for toothpaste. He moved to San Francisco and soon fell back in with the Beat crowd. In 1955, over a period of a few weeks, he wrote his seminal work “Howl.”
“Howl” was printed in England, but its second edition was seized by Customs officials as it entered the country. City Lights, a San Francisco bookstore, published the book itself to avoid Customs problems, and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti was arrested and tried for obscenity, but defended by the ACLU. Following testimony from nine literary experts on the merits of the book, Ferlinghetti was found not guilty.
Ginsberg was center stage at numerous milestone counterculture events during the 1950s and 1960s. His name made it onto J. Edgar Hoover’s list of dangerous subversives. He wrote about his own experiences as a gay man, experimented with drugs, protested the Vietnam War, was clubbed and gassed at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, studied Buddhism, toured with Bob Dylan, and recorded poetry and music with Paul McCartney and Philip Glass. He became a popular teacher and lecturer at universities across the United States. He won the National Book Award in 1973 and was a runner-up for the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for poetry. He wrote and read poetry in New York until his death from liver cancer in 1997.