The Starving, Naked, Hysterical Mind of Allen Ginsberg

How a schizophrenic mother and a burgeoning FBI file shaped America’s most dangerous poet.

(Image credit: Engramma.it)

Depending on who you ask, Allen Ginsberg was a songwriter, a photographer, a political gadfly, a gay rights advocate, or the founding poet of the Beat Generation. He was also one of the most divisive figures of the 1960s, described as either an “ambassador for tolerance” or, as his FBI file reads, a “politically dangerous subversive.” But whether you see him as a force for good or evil, he was unequivocally—a force that changed American literature forever.

THE FAMILY BUSINESS

Irwin Allen Ginsberg was born June 3, 1926 in working- class Newark, New Jersey. His parents were both Jewish immigrants of Russian stock, but they were a study in contrasts. His father Louis was a levelheaded high school teacher, while his mother Naomi was an avid nudist, a radical Communist, and a paranoid schizophrenic. Each made a profound impression on young Allen, whose disposition fell somewhere between their polar extremes. He inherited a love of literature from his father, who was a poet in his own right. (Allen would later call writing “the family business.”) His mother, on the other hand, exposed him to a darker, more painful side of life. But if great suffering truly begets great writing, then the madness of Mrs. Ginsberg may deserve more credit for Allen’s success than his father’s fireside poetry readings. After all, his most influential works—including "Howl," "Kaddish," and "White Shroud"—focused on mothers and madness.

At age 9, Ginsberg began caring for his ailing mother while his father worked. In and out of mental hospitals for most of her adult life, Naomi Ginsberg was so gripped by paranoia that she raved about the FBI implanting mind-control devices in her brain and sometimes refused to believe  that Allen was her son. At age 21, he took a psychiatrist’s advice and signed papers authorizing a lobotomy for his mother—a decision he said he “always felt enormous guilt and uncertainty about.” She passed away years later in 1956, but her memory haunted Ginsberg and his work for the rest of his life.

Despite these early traumas, Allen seemed by all accounts a relatively normal and happy kid. A model student, he earned good grades, stayed out of trouble, and was elected president of his high school debate club. And when he was accepted to Columbia University in 1943, his no-nonsense father proudly announced that his son was going to become a lawyer.

ALLEN MEETS THE BEATS

Shortly after arriving in Columbia, Ginsberg met Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs, who would become his lifelong friends and greatest influences. Both were older than him (Kerouac by four years and Burroughs by 12), and they introduced young Allen to the fast-paced New York nightlife. During
the next few years, Ginsberg developed a love for jazz, experimented with drugs, and became openly homosexual. He also became passionate about writing poetry—dashing his father’s hopes for law school to pursue the artistic life, now known as Beat.

If you were expecting this to be the part where Ginsberg gets famous, then you’re thinking of the wrong literary movement. The Beat lifestyle promised adventure and artistic wanderlust, not pop stardom. Ginsberg finally graduated from Columbia in 1948 (six years after he started), but the dead-end jobs he cycled through afterward didn’t signal much professional promise. His love life around that time wasn’t any better. Abortive love affairs with the likes of Burroughs and Beat icon Neal Cassady eventually drove Ginsberg into the Merchant Marines in an attempt to escape a persistent melancholy.

Then things hit rock bottom. Caught with a car full of stolen goods belonging to his roommate, Ginsberg was court-ordered to spend eight months in a psychiatric ward. In true Ginsbergian style, however, he managed to turn institutional lemons into lemonade. He met Carl Solomon, a fellow inmate and kindred spirit, to whom he later dedicated Howl. Together, they roamed the halls with freedom and teased the guards by pretending to be truly insane. More importantly, though, Ginsberg took the opportunity to read a lot and work on his writing.

After his release in the spring of 1950, Ginsberg redoubled his poetic efforts. He sought out a mentorship with poet William Carlos Williams, but Williams’ initial feedback was discouraging. The old master felt Ginsberg’s slavish devotion to fixed rhyme and meter had hampered his creativity. Consequently, Allen became obsessed with reinventing his writing style. Though it took many more years for Ginsberg to find success (or any real confidence) as a poet, he would always credit Williams with “freeing his voice.”

A LONG, STRANGE TRIP

(Image credit: Herbert Rusche)

At 29, Ginsberg had written plenty of poems but had published almost none. Poisonously envious of his successful friends, he spent six months soul-searching in Mexico before winding up in San Francisco. There, things began to turn around. He fell deeply in love with a younger man named Peter Orlovsky, who would be his on-again, off-again partner for the next 40 years. And on the advice of a psychologist, he quit a well-paying market-research job to collect unemployment and focus on his writing. The gamble paid off. He soon embarked on a project that would change both his life and the landscape of American poetry.

By his own admission, "Howl" wasn’t something Ginsberg meant to publish. As soon as it began to flow from his typewriter, he knew it contained too much “dirty stuff” for his father to see. Initially, he regarded it as just an exercise, but then he read it aloud at a small gallery space in a rough section of town. He felt hesitant at first, but by the time he finished reading, the applause was so deafening that he wept. The next day, poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti sent Ginsberg a prophetic telegram, paraphrasing a letter sent by Ralph Waldo Emerson to a young Walt Whitman: “I greet you at the beginning of a great career.”

Ferlinghetti, the manager of the now-legendary Beat bookstore City Lights, proudly published Ginsberg’s poem. Unfortunately, enough people found "Howl" offensive that it landed both of them in court on obscenity charges. Nine literary experts and the ACLU came to "Howl's" defense, and in the end, the judge surprised everyone by ruling that it was of “redeeming social importance.” Better still, the national media coverage of the trial put sales of "Howl" through the roof and made Allen Ginsberg famous.

Ginsberg received so much fan mail during the next few years that it detracted from his work. (“I want to write poems, not letters,” he told a friend.) Also, he was constantly in demand for public readings, which often made him so nervous he’d vomit beforehand. Nevertheless, fame suited him. He traveled the world almost nonstop and produced some of his best work. In 1961, City Lights came out with Ginsberg’s second book, Kaddish and Other Poems. Named after the Jewish prayer of mourning, “Kaddish” dealt directly with Naomi Ginsberg’s death and her long struggle against insanity. The ultimate expression of anguish, the poem is often considered Ginsberg’s literary masterpiece.

FROM HIPSTER TO HIPPIE

The 1960s and Allen Ginsberg got along famously. Even though he was well into his forties by the height of the “flower power” revolution (a term Ginsberg is credited with coining), he was still a counterculture hero. After the "Howl" trial, Ginsberg became a champion of free speech, advocating world peace, gay rights, and drug legalization. The more radical his activism became, the more news reporters tapped him as a source of reliably sensational quotes.

Gradually, Ginsberg’s politics and poetry became indistinguishable. His largest and most enthusiastic audiences were at demonstrations, where thousands of young people sat enthralled by his politically charged poems, such as “Pentagon Exorcism.” And  when tensions ran high between cops and kids at Chicago’s notorious Democratic National Convention in 1968, Ginsberg chanted “Om” through a bullhorn for seven hours straight to pacify the crowd. This sort of activity made him the subject of enormous interest—not only to hippies and poetry fans, but also to the FBI. The agency kept a voluminous dossier on him that spanned decades. And it wasn’t just the American government that regarded him with suspicion. In 1965, Ginsberg was ejected from both Czechoslovakia and Cuba—the latter for allegedly hitting on Che Guevara. He was one of the rare dissidents who could inspire fear in both Communist and capitalist countries alike.

A MORE MELLOW GINSBERG

(Image credit: Elsa Dorfman)

Almost wihthout trying, Ginsberg had created another career for himself as an activist—but he didn’t stop there. At an age when most men start slowing down, Ginsberg began hanging out with Bob Dylan and The Beatles and recording his own albums. And while his warbly voice and strange musical renditions of William Blake poems were received with little enthusiasm, his career was hardly hitting a rough patch. A few years later, his poetry collection The Fall of America won the 1974 National Book Award. And in the mid-1980s, hundreds of photographs he’d taken of his Beat friends resurfaced, to much enthusiasm. His snapshots were exhibited around the world and later published in book form.

Despite the furious activity of his golden years, Ginsberg had mellowed by the late 1970s. The poet’s guru, a charismatic Tibetan lama named Chogyam Trungpa, inspired him to give up drugs and devote himself to meditation and yoga. Still, Ginsberg remained both politically and poetically active until the end of his life. By the time he succumbed to liver cancer in 1997 at age 70, he’d become a living legend. His era-defining Howl had been reprinted more than 50 times, and he was being touted as one of the greatest poets of the 20th century. By wielding poetry as a tool for social change, Allen Ginsberg expanded the definition of what America—and American poets—could be.

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The article above, written by Ransom Riggs, is reprinted with permission from the January-February 2008 issue of mental_floss magazine. Get a subscription to mental_floss and never miss an issue!

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