Thursday, June 3, 2010

It's the birthday of Allen Ginsberg, (books by this author) born Irwin Allen Ginsberg in Newark, New Jersey (1926). His parents were leftists, coming out of the 1920s New York Jewish counterculture. He grew up in Paterson, where his father Louis was a high school English teacher and also a poet, who encouraged his son to read and write poetry. His mother, Naomi, was a Communist and a nudist. Ginsberg said of his parents: "They were old-fashioned delicatessen philosophers. My father would go around the house either reciting Emily Dickinson and Longfellow under his breath or attacking T.S. Eliot for ruining poetry with his 'obscurantism.' My 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.' I grew suspicious of both sides.'' But Naomi also had some severe mental health problems. She was hospitalized on and off with what was probably paranoid schizophrenia.

In high school, his home life was difficult, as he tried to deal with his mother's strange episodes and with his own growing awareness that he was gay. But he loved poetry, especially Walt Whitman and Edgar Allen Poe. He got a scholarship from the Young Men's Hebrew Association of Paterson to attend Columbia University in New York, where he met Jack Kerouac, William S. Boroughs, and Neal Cassady. Ginsberg got kicked out of Columbia for a year for drawing an obscene picture and writing obscene phrases in the dust on his dorm room window, to annoy the cleaning lady — he thought that she was being anti-Semitic and not cleaning his room.

During that year, Ginsberg read constantly, locking himself up in his apartment and not seeing any of his friends. He was upset by the hatred and anti-Semitism he perceived in the world, and he was at odds with what to do with himself. He had strange bouts of euphoria where he saw God and heard William Blake speaking to him. Finally, he got himself together, finished school, and took in his old friend Herbert Huncke, who was involved in all sorts of criminal activity. He stored stolen goods and lots of illegal drugs at their apartment, and was eventually arrested. Ginsberg too was arrested but pleaded psychological disability, so instead of going to jail he went to a psychiatric institution for eight months.

After Ginsberg left the hospital, he introduced himself to William Carlos Williams, a fellow New Jersey poet, who became his mentor. He worked at an advertising agency on Madison Avenue, but he couldn't stand the corporate world, so in 1954 he left for San Francisco with a letter of introduction to Kenneth Rexroth, written by Williams. He threw himself into writing, and in October of 1955 he read his new poem, "Howl," at the Six Gallery Reading — the poem that begins with the lines: "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, / dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, / angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night, / who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz, / who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw Mohammedan angels staggering on tenement roofs illuminated."

And suddenly, Allen Ginsberg was famous.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.

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