His parents, Naomi and Louis Ginsberg, named him Irwin Allen at his birth in Newark, New Jersey, in 1926. Twenty-nine years later, in San Francisco in 1955—when he began to write Howl— he liked to think that he was in a cosmos of his own creation. In fact, he was still very much connected to his parents.
Wasn’t Naomi a madwoman, and wasn’t Howl about madness? Didn’t Louis write apocalyptic poetry, and wasn’t Howl an apocalyptic poem, too? His parents haunted him in the months just before he wrote Howl—they appeared in his dreams, and he wrote about them in his journals and unpublished poems from that period.
Moreover, they provided the germinating seeds for Howl— madness, nakedness, and secrecy. Few poets have quarreled with their parents as intensely as Ginsberg quarreled with his, and few young men have turned those quarrels into poems as remarkable as Howl and Kaddish. His quarrels were with himself as much as they were with Naomi and Louis, and in the quarrels with himself he expanded the possibilities not only for himself, but for American poetry, as he pushed against the limits of literary caution and conservatism that characterized the times. If ever there was a poet in rebellion against his own parents it was Allen Ginsberg.
And yet if ever there was a dutiful poet it was also Allen Ginsberg. The son carried on the family heritage even as he railed against it. For decades, Louis Ginsberg had been far more famous than Allen. The elder Ginsberg taught poetry at Rutgers and played a leading role in the prestigious, though stodgy, Poetry Society of America. He had two books of poems to his name, dozens of poems in anthologies, and publications in most of the leading literary magazines. Then, in 1956 and 1957, with the advent of Howl, attention suddenly shifted from father to son. Allen was the bright new star in the literary firmament.
Never again would Louis outshine his son, though for a brief time in the late 1960s and early 1970s, father and son shared the stage and gave poetry readings together from California to New Jersey. Other fathers might have bridled at a son who was more famous than they were, and other sons might have used their fame to berate their fathers and settle old scores. Allen’s fame brought him closer to his father; now that he was famous he could pay homage to Louis and his work. In “To My Father in Poetry,” which he wrote in 1959, he acknowledged, at long last, his father’s influence on his own work—something he had long ignored and long denied.
He heard his father’s voice in his own voice. Louis was delighted that his famous son respected him. The father-son love feast notwithstanding, they disagreed as strongly as ever about politics, poetry, sex, and the self. In “To Allen Ginsberg”—one of his best poems—Louis compared his son to Theseus, the legendary Greek hero who slew the Minotaur, and expressed the hope that Allen would find his way through the labyrinth of his own self until he found his own genuine identity. Allen was well aware of his various selves, but unlike Louis, he felt that no single self was truer than another.
They were all parts of himself and equally valid. What was essential, he argued, was to be detached, to remain in flux and never become fixed to any one identity. (Morgan, Bill 4-10) Surely, fame would have taken a far greater toll had he not understood that “Allen Ginsberg” was a fiction. His ability to remain detached from any one fixed identity had helped to make Howl an extraordinary poem. In Howl, he was the paragon of the protean poet. In the moment of creation, he was everyone and he was everywhere, from Alcatraz to Madison Avenue.
He was himself, and he was also almost everyone else in the poem. He could become one with the angel headed hipsters and with the Adonis of Denver. He was Moloch and he was Carl Solomon, too. His ability to remain detached from “Allen Ginsberg” enabled him, in large part, to go on writing extraordinary poems in the wake of Howl—overtly political poems as well as deeply personal poems—including “Death to Van Gogh’s Ear! ” “At Apollinaire’s Grave, ” and, of course, Kaddish, which he started in 1956 and continued to work on in Paris and in New York in 1957 and 1958.
Living in Europe deepened his vision of both Europe and America and helped him understand the experience of a generation of European immigrants like his mother who were born in the Old World and came to the New World. Now he could imagine what it must have been like for Naomi Levy to leave Russia, travel across the Atlantic, and arrive in New York, the strangest of cities. He could transcend his own resentment and anger and see his mother as a beautiful woman in her own right. And he could put himself on the sidelines and put his mother at the center of his poem.
In Allen’s view, the White House and the Pentagon tolerated mad dictatorial developments everywhere on the face of the earth. Of course, he disapproved of Soviet-style mind control and brainwashing, and he rejected official Communist Party ideas about literature and the arts, and about the obligation of the artist to serve the needs of the people. He would never write for the Communist Party or for the people, he proclaimed. No matter what country he lived in, he would always write for himself or he would write for no one.
The Soviet Communist Party had driven Mayakovsky into madness and suicide. It surely would drive him mad, too. Meanwhile, America was driving him mad. The function of television, he insisted, was to control people, and he denounced it at every opportunity. By 1961 he would write about the deadliness of TV in Television Was a Baby Crawling toward That Death chamber, a long angry poem in which he proclaimed that he could never tell his own secrets on TV and that television kept vital information a secret from Americans.
In the late 1950s he argued that the USSR wasn’t as evil as the talking heads on American television made it out to be. He was convinced that the USSR was a great nation, that Russian writers were as original and creative as writers anywhere, and that communism had tried & succeeded in improving material living conditions. He didn’t want a communist society in the United States, but he wasn’t opposed to communism in the Third World. He thought a great deal about America during his sojourn in Europe.
He became increasingly anti-American, and yet there was something uniquely American about his anti-Americanism. In many ways he was the archetypal innocent abroad, the idealistic young man making the grand tour, the wide-eyed tourist who fell in love with almost everything about the Old World, and came to detest almost everything about the New World. Europe was a “great experience. Like hundreds if not thousands of Americans before him, he found Paris “beautiful” and he was tempted to “expatriate & settle down.
” And, like so many other Americans, he loved the Latin Quarter and the little cafes where the existentialists smoked, drank, and talked, and where you might catch a glimpse of Jean Paul Sartre, if you were lucky. Europeans were genuine intellectuals, he decided. They cared about ideas, he insisted, whereas making money was the American thing, and there were no moral standards. Even New York, the most European of American cities, paled by comparison with Paris, Rome, and Florence. From the vantage point of Europe, New York looked hard, closed, commercial, and ingrown.
Europeans were less materialistic than Americans, he thought, and less racist, too. “Europeans have more better personal relations with Negroes than Americans have, ” he concluded. In Holland, “big black nigger looking spades” dated “nice white girls, ” he noted, and no one paid any attention. Yes, he was still using racist language, still trying to shock his father, and he would go on using racist language for some time to come. Even as late as 1966, in the midst of the civil rights movement, he would use racial epithets in Wichita Vortex Sutra. No one challenged him, or scolded him.
(Rothschild, Matthew 34-35) By the mid-1960s he was largely beyond reproach. In 1967, for example, when he read in London, the British poet Ted Hughes described him as the prophet of a spiritual revolution, and one of the most important men of the twentieth century. From Hughes’s point of view, Howl was the single work that began a global revolution in poetical form and content. It had, indeed, broken all sorts of verbal barriers, and Ginsberg went on breaking them when he described himself as “queer” or wrote about his own body and his bodily functions, or used words like niggers” and “spades.
” In the late 1950s, the Europeans he met seemed less repressed than Americans about sex and race and about language, too. They were far more verbally liberated. About the only thing he didn’t like in Europe was the Roman Catholic Church. At first he imagined that European Catholics belonged to a mystical secret society that provided a wonderful sense of community. Gradually, however, he changed his mind and came to feel that the Roman Catholic Church operated like the secret police in a totalitarian society, and that Rome was in the business of mind control and censorship.
All those medieval cathedrals depressed him, while the Renaissance inspired him, especially the art of Michelangelo, which depicted “naked idealized realistic human bodies. ” Europeans seemed more artistic and far more poetic than Americans—Americans hated poetry and poets, he insisted— and he pursued poets and the legacy of poetry, too. In Italy, he visited mad Shelley’s grave, plucking a few tender leaves of clover and mailing them to Louis, who was delighted to receive them. There were visits to living poets, too, especially W.
H. Auden, whom he had adored when he was an undergraduate at Columbia, and whom he had been trying to meet for years. He loved to be in the company of famous people, especially famous writers and musicians, and for years he would seek out celebrities, from Ezra Pound to Bob Dylan and the Beatles, though celebrities also sought him out. Now, with the fame that Howl had furnished, and with all the notoriety that the media provided, he could knock on doors and find himself ushered into tea or served a glass or two of wine.
What he wanted was adulation and acceptance. (Pollin, Burton R. 535) When he died, Columbia College Today, the alumni magazine, published a cover story about him by the poet and critic David Lehman. Eventually Trilling changed his mind about Ginsberg’s work and included two of his poems, “A Supermarket in California” and “To Aunt Rose,” in his comprehensive anthology The Experience of Literature, which was published in 1967 and used widely as a textbook. Ever since Ginsberg wrote Howl in the mid-1950s, he had wanted to be included in the canon, and now he was.
Of course, he was delighted that it was none other than Trilling who made a place for him. The inclusion and validation was exhilarating to Ginsberg. (Harris, Oliver 171) Bibliography • Harris, Oliver. Article Title: Cold War Correspondents: Ginsberg, Kerouac, Cassady, and the Political Economy of Beat Letters. Journal Title: Twentieth Century Literature. Volume: 46. Issue: 2. Publication Year: 2000. Page Number: 171. • Morgan, Bill. The Works of Allen Ginsberg, 1941-1994. Publisher: Greenwood Press. Place of Publication: Westport, CT. Publication Year: 1995. • Morgan, Bill.
The Response to Allen Ginsberg, 1926-1994: A Bibliography of Secondary Sources. Publisher: Greenwood Press. Place of Publication: Westport, CT. Publication Year: 1996. • Pollin, Burton R. Article Title: Edgar Allan Poe as a Major Influence upon Allen Ginsberg. Journal Title: The Mississippi Quarterly. Volume: 52. Issue: 4. Publication Year: 1999. Page Number: 535. • Rothschild, Matthew. Article Title: Allen Ginsberg: ‘I’m banned from the Main Marketplace of Ideas in My Own Country. Magazine Title: The Progressive. Volume: 58. Issue: 8. Publication Date: August 1994. Page Number: 34+.