Allen Ginsberg

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Allen Ginsberg, born June 3, 1926, began his career as a labor lawyer, but soon he was running with a wild crowd as a young man. Ginsberg, the son of a moderate Jewish Socialist, and a mother who was a radical Communist who went tragically insane in early adulthood, became an important, and highly controversial voice of the 1960’s. In high school he discovered the ‘Beatnik’ poetry of Walt Whitman in addition to his own budding sexual interest in his male peers. By the time he reached university, he found his place among a wild crowd of delinquent young philosophers who shared his interests in drugs, sex, and literature. That ‘crowd’ included Lucien Carr, Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, and William S. Burroughs, all of whom were convinced that they were working towards a ‘great poetic vision’, which they called the New Vision. Ginsberg’s mother’s condition greatly affected his life, as he tried to live as ‘bizzarly’ as possible. Then while reading William Blake in an apartment in Harlem in 1948, the then 26-year-old Ginsberg decided that he had found God and gleefully announced this revelation to his family and friends. Ginsberg went on to become the first Beat writer to develop a popularity following his performance of a new poem ‘How’. Of course, the poem was further publicized by a 1955 obscenity charge citing the sexual nature of the piece. Ginsberg followed ‘How’ with several important poems, and unlike Kerouac who suffered from ‘celebrity burnout’, Ginsberg managed to become more ‘mellow’ during this period. In the early 60’s as the ‘Beat’ concept progressed into a movement, Ginsberg became an important voice of the ‘hippie’ scene. He and Timothy Leary began a crusade to introduce every famous cultural figure of the time to Leary’s new discovery – LSD – including Willem De Kooning, Thelonius Monk, and Dizzy Gillespie. Using his fame as an American poet, he managed to attain audiences with well-known political figures worldwide. However, his political views angered America’s right wing, and his controversial stand against the Vietnam War made him a pariah in many foreign countries During his stay in France Ginsberg and several writers, poets and musicians lived for a time in Paris at a low-rent rooming house at 9, rue Git-le-Cœur they called the ‘Beat Hotel’. The hotel, run by Madame Rachou, became what was known as the ‘fleabag shrine’ for the creative talents who resided there. Ginsberg later became a Buddhist, found companionship in Peter Orlovsky–who would remain his partner for thirty years–and dealt with his mother’s insanity and death in a brilliant poem entitled Kaddish. —Christiann Anderson is the author of The Single Woman’s Insider’s Guide to Paris.
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