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Allen Ginsberg

Literary Greats (Part IX)

by Kerry Meadows-Bonner

He was one of the most respected writers and poets of the Beat generation alongside his friends, William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac. He was unconventional and championed for gay rights at a time when homosexuality acts were criminal in every state and embodied counter culture thinking too with his views on drugs, hostility to bureaucracy and economic materialism. Allen Ginsberg left his mark in the world with his unusual formatted poetry and individuality, reminding us all of our civic duty to use our voice.

Born Irwin Allen Ginsberg, June 3rd 1926 at Beth Israel Hospital in Newark, New Jersey, he was the second son born into a Jewish family. His father, Louis Ginsberg was a school teacher and poet and his mother, Naomi (nee Levy) a Russian expatriate. Although his Hebrew name was Israel Abraham, from the day he was born he was simply called Allen.

By all family accounts, Allen was a happy baby who was smothered with love by his mother and grew up to be sensitive, bright and gregarious. He showed early signs of becoming somewhat eccentric like his mother, but was extremely intelligent and as a child was dubbed, ‘The Professor’ by his playmates.

In 1930, after ten years of commuting to his job as a school teacher, Louis Ginsberg moved his family to nearby Paterson. He would later describe this as the first of many Paterson addresses as a ‘sad rooming house’ but, for the time being they made it as cheerful as possible. While Allen’s older brother, Eugene had happy memories in this apartment, especially of his father writing poetry, Allen’s own memories were generally not as pleasant.

When Allen was four years old he witnessed his mother starting a fire in a wastebasket which quickly spread facilitating a visit from the fire department. The basket was one Naomi had woven in an occupational therapy class on one of her increasingly frequent visits to rest homes and asylums. Regardless, his father later wrote that it was Allen who had started the fire even though Naomi was affected by a psychological illness, paranoid schizophrenia and would it often manifest in delusions and nervous breakdowns.

They put on on a tolerable, if strained front, but Louis and Naomi’s marriage had unravelled even further after Allen was born. Subtle differences in their political views grew into heated domestic arguments and would end in insults. By 1932, Naomi’s confirmed paranoid schizophrenia diagnosis became more acute over the years and whatever tranquillity the family experienced was interrupted by her frequent emotional outbursts and occasional suicide attempt. To make matters worse, she also suffered from hyperesthesia, an abnormally heightened sensitivity of the senses and for a long time she couldn’t tolerate sunlight and was ultra -sensitive to sound, touch and pain, keeping herself in a darkened room during severe attacks.

She was soon in and out of treatment to Bloomingdale and Greystone Park Asylum in New York and New Jersey and this would end up referencing Allen’s later work, his famous poem, Howl.

His mother’s illness and unusual behaviour imprinted on Allen so that he grew up seeing craziness as another side of life and no different to other ailments, however decades later, his stepmother would sum it up succinctly, saying, “Allen saw things he never should have seen”.

During the time Naomi was in and out of treatments, it had put a severe strain on the family’s finances, with added debt they had accumulated when they married and Louis’s debt from subsidizing his first book of poetry when he failed to find a commercial outlet for it. By now the Great Depression had also put economic hardship to all of America and Paterson soon became one of the poorest cities in the country.

In 1937 the family had to tighten their belts again so they moved once more to a cheaper apartment where their financial status was temporarily relived when Louis subsidized Liveright Publishing Corporation for the publishing of his second book of poetry, The Everlasting Minute, for two thousand dollars. During these years, Naomi’s schizophrenia was getting worse and more often than not Allen was repeatedly kept home from school to watch over her.

By 1940, Allen had entered his sophomore year at Eastside High School in Paterson and despite the tensions at home he had his first published pieces appear in the school’s newspaper and continued to write vividly in his dairy, writing for enjoyment and also as he put it, “to satisfy my egotism”.

From birth he was surrounded by poetry and literature although during his teenage years he had yet to see his own writing as art and saw it as something that recorded his thoughts and opinions. It was during this time he became more aware of his sexuality and his attraction to boys, but at the time he never confided his feelings to anyone. As the start of World War Two began, it also marked Naomi’s mental health as her schizophrenia succumbed her and aside from a few brief visits when she was released from a hospital in 1943, she never lived with Louis again and moved across to the Hudson River to live with relatives instead.

Meanwhile, Allen’s academic life excelled and he was encouraged to apply for Columbia. On May 14th, 1943 he was awarded financial assistance and with the help of his family and his earnings from his part time jobs, he entered Columbia in the summer.

At barely seventeen, Allen was younger than most of the other Freshman at Columbia that year and was a dynamic and lively talker. With his experience from his high school debate team, he was soon representing Columbia at intercollegiate debates and hoped to make a career as an attorney or trade union member but soon changed tack after his literary interests grew and political ambitions waned. He had always been class philosopher and liked formulating his own personal theories but despite his sociability he saw himself as a misfit and loner.

In early 1944, he met a fellow undergraduate, Lucian Carr who introduced him to a good friend of his, an older man twelve years older than Allen, William Burroughs.

To seventeen year old Allen, his new found friends seemed like exciting and sophisticated people. In the late spring of that same year, at Lucian’s Carr’s suggestion, Allen introduced himself to another like minded individual, Jack Kerouac. It wasn’t long before the three men were hanging out together in bars with conversations of philosophy, art, drugs and sex and would become literary icons of the Beat Movement.

Beneath his gruff, macho exterior, Allen discovered his new friend, Jack Kerouac to also be highly intelligent and extraordinarily sensitive, forming a friendship that would survive numerous disagreements, long periods of separation, political differences and hard times in the years that followed.

By the end of his first year at Columbia, Allen had established himself as a brilliant if somewhat eccentric figure about campus and remained closest to Kerouac, confiding in him his sexual attraction to men, a brave feat especially during a time when many were still in the closet and open homosexuality acts meant persecution. It had no effect on their friendship and over the years Kerouac would openly praise Allen for his courage.

In January 1945, Allen began writing his first real poems and along with Kerouac established writing schedules with serious intent. Showing surprising discipline for a young writer who had a busy and active academic and social life.

A few months prior he had also begun his own novel based on the 1944 manslaughter of David Kammerer, where William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac were arrested as material witnesses. It contained numerous homosexual references and Columbia were less than pleased. He soon found himself in trouble again for writing an obscenity on a window that would end in a temporary expulsion.

It was a period of experimentation for Allen and he worked a series of short-lived jobs as a requirement for his re entry back into Columbia. His writing remained constant and taking note from Kerouac, he enlisted in in the U.S Maritime Service for some quick money and experience, beginning his duty in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn.

Biding his time and fulfilling his duties he completed his three month stint and upon discharge re entered Columbia and graduated with a B.A in 1948.

The following year, another incident occurred when he allowed his apartment to be used as a base to store stolen goods from a robbery. In order to avoid being charged as an accomplice, he plead insanity and spent several months in the University’s psychiatric hospital. Upon his release he worked various jobs including a stint at a Manhattan ad agency and immersed himself in the study of poet, William Carlos Williams. He remained in New York for a few years before moving to San Francisco in 1954 and becoming involved in the San Francisco Renaissance, its own Beat Movement on the West Coast. It marked a new chapter in his life and it was here he would meet his life- long partner, poet and actor, Peter Orlovsky.

In 1955, Allen read excerpts of his then unknown poem, Howl at a gallery which would become a key manifesto of the Beat Movement and was published the following year with the title, Howl and other Poems. Its exploration of sexuality and social issues in a non-traditional poetic form was deemed obscene and Allen was tried and vindicated for its content, placing him in the spotlight as an icon of anti-censorship. During this time, he suffered the loss of his mother who died two days after receiving a lobotomy.

During the sixties and seventies he continued to be prolific with his writings and coined the phrase, “flower power” to describe peace movement that fuelled many of the anti-war protests he was a part of. It was during the early sixties he started studying mediation and yoga, converting to Buddhism and founded the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics of the Naropa Institute in Colorado in 1974 which focused on Buddhist teachings.

Having received many accolades for his work during the later seventies, over the ensuing years he became increasingly renowned for the importance and influence of his writings and continued to write into the eighties and nineties with collaborative musical projects with bands and artists, Paul McCartney and The Clash, managing to stay culturally and politically relevant until his death.

In later years he suffered two minor strokes leading to Bell’s palsy that caused partial paralysis and drooping of one side of his face and had contracted hepatitis from an unsterilized needle administered by a doctor. During the nineties he had also been treated unsuccessfully for a congestive heart failure and spent his last months saying goodbye to friends and writing, with his last poem, Things I’ll Not Do (Nostalgias) written a few weeks before he succumbed to liver cancer via complications of his hepatitis, April 5th 1997 in New York.

He was 70 years old.

“He was surrounded by poetry and literature, although during his teenage years he had yet to see his own writing as art, and saw it as something that recorded his thoughts and opinions.”