Allen Ginsberg: Beat Poet Extraordinare Term Paper

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¶ … Allen Ginsberg:

Beat Poet Extraordinare

As one of America's most controversial poets of the mid to late 20th century, Allen Ginsberg, best-known for his radical poem "Howl" and for his outspoken views on American society, politics and the Vietnam War, was a very influential figure in the so-called "counterculture" of the mid to late 1960's and stands as the quintessential member of the "Beat Generation," a literary movement which encompassed life in the urban streets of our major American cities, such as New York, Chicago, Detroit, Ann Arbor, and Los Angeles, and often focused on specific topics that at the time were considered as taboo and forbidden, especially as literary centerpieces in the form of poetry, short stories, journals and magazine articles.

Thus, most of the work of Allen Ginsberg can be seen as culturally significant, for it explores through verse and narrative the inner workings of the cities and how the people that worked and died in these cities during the late 1940's and 1950's experienced everyday life. In essence, Ginsberg's poetry and narrative pieces are filled with "cultural poetics," also known as New Historicism, "a theory that emphasizes the importance of history as a standard of cultural value or as a determinant of events" (Schumacher, 56).Download full Download Microsoft Word File
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Before commencing on the biography of Allen Ginsberg, it seems appropriate to make some brief comments on the status of America during the 1950's, the period which highly influenced Ginsberg and his writings. Following the close of World War II in 1945, America was plunged into a "Cold War" with the Soviet Union, a war based on threat instead of action. Culturally, America was in the throes of massive change, due to the victories over Nazi Germany and Japan and the economic boom that followed in the wake of World War II. For the most part, Americans were experiencing new and at times disturbing cultural trends linked to politics, economics and the rapid development of technology, especially regarding television. Also, as a result of World War II, Americans had a sense of belonging to the greater whole and began to see themselves as conformists, meaning that they never questioned authority and subscribed to "herd mentality."

But deep down inside the American psyche, there was a sense that something was wrong with America and its values, such as those linked to morality, self-will and religion. Also, there existed the idea that America and its leaders were practicing pure hypocrisy, i.e. they said one thing while doing another, usually in utter contrast to what was generally accepted and viewed as right and wrong.

As a result of these views and changes in American culture, certain individuals and groups became non-conformists and dissenters and were soon seen as threats to the national security of the Unites States. Some of these individuals were political figures, while many were artists, writers, poets and musicians. To make matters worse, when Senator McCarthy set about to reveal and identify those with alleged connections to the Communist Party, many of these non-conformists and dissenters were blacklisted, a form of punishment which often resulted in unemployment and ostracism from American society.

Thus, the non-conformists and dissenters, one being Allen Ginsberg, created an upheaval in American culture by exposing, via their poetry and narrative language, what was wrong with America, at least in their view. The most visible of these individuals were part of a group of outcast poets and writers who rebelled against the traditional structure and morals of American society related to work and labor, conventional marriage, sexual identity and preference, the middle classes, authoritarianism and various social taboos. These individuals were known as beatniks, the heart of the "Beat Generation" and as Thomas F. Merrill puts it, "Allen Ginsberg, one of the quintessential Beats, was the principle voice of the upheaval which led to new forms of expression, based on culture and non-conformity" (178).

Allen Ginsberg, born on June 3, 1926 in Newark, New Jersey, was the son of Naomi (of Russian descent) and Louis Ginsberg, born in Newark in 1895. Politically, Louis Ginsberg was a pacifist/socialist and was strongly opposed to America's involvement in World War I; Naomi, on the other hand, was a Communist and supported America' entry into the war. Because of these political differences, Naomi and Louis often engaged in fierce arguments which surely had an effect on their son, due to his own political beliefs that bordered on Communism. In 1929, when Allen was three years old, his mother began to suffer from mental illness which at times was debilitating, recurring and life-threatening.

As a direct result of his mother's mental illness, Allen lived in an environment full of very odd behavior on the part of his mother, who when "sane" acted like any other loving mother, but when "mad" acted erratically and was quite unpredictable. In this environment, it is feasible that young Allen first viewed American society and culture through a distorted lens, meaning that he saw the cultural arena about him as being "mad" and unpredictable like his mother. Of course, when a small child at the age of ten or so experiences such behavior in someone he dearly loves, it undoubtedly makes an huge impact on the mind and perhaps acts as a catalyst on the development of one's character and personality.

Not surprisingly, Allen found an outlet for the frustrations related to his mother's mental problems, namely, by writing and recording what was happening around him. In the context of time and place, Ginsberg was keeping a personal journal of his life experiences related to his environment within the city of Newark -- the internal and external phenomenon of his world. According to Lewis Hyde, "the poetry of Allen Ginsberg exhibits the trait of great cultural awareness, for it is as if he was making a panoramic scan of all that was before him, shifting from one perspective to another, much like a voyeur staring through an open window and watching with much intensity the shifting and ambiguous activity before his wandering eyes" (267).

In addition to writing his journals, Allen took great pleasure in the times when his mother was "sane" and his father, while relaxing at home, would recite the poetry of John Milton, Percy Shelley or even Emily Dickinson. These readings surely affected Allen's personality and character, even more so when he would sit and listen to his parents argue about political situations in the world. Certainly, in such an atmosphere, Allen developed a sense of political awareness and perhaps decided on his own political stance.

In support of this, Allen put together a large file of newspaper clippings from the New York Times concerning prominent and culturally significant events in the world, such as the intervention of the U.S. into Spain in support of the Loyalists against Franco and the exploits of Adolph Hitler in Europe prior to the opening of World War II. Obviously, the cultural influence of these and other events in Allen's young life adhered to his psyche and were later incorporated in many of his poetical writings. Also, Allen was becoming a true non-conformist set against the conformity of modern America, for he once stated that he was "a kind of mental ghoul, totally disconnected from any reality" (Schumacher, 178), meaning that he was "disconnected" from ordinary cultural experiences such as those that any "normal" child would find interesting or entertaining.

In 1943, Allen Ginsberg entered Columbia University on a scholarship and at first decided to take up the study of law, but not long after starting his classes, he was introduced to Mark Van Doren, the literary editor of The Nation and a close friend of poet Robert Frost. Through Van Doren, Ginsberg became interested in literature and quickly immersed himself in all things literary. In one particular English class, his instructor "raised questions about how we live our lives, about the nature of good and evil, about the roles played by culture... " (Merrill, 189).

As a result of this epiphany, Ginsberg began to study the writings of the great authors of Western civilization. He then joined a select group of English students and became friends with Lucien Carr who had the greatest influence on Ginsberg and played a major role in shaping Ginsberg the poet. Through Carr, Ginsberg was introduced to William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, two the leading exponents of the "Beat Generation." Kerouac, author of On The Road, the so-called Bible of the "beatniks," and William Burroughs, author of Naked Lunch, an expose on drug addiction and crime, stand today as the pivotal figures of the "Beat Generation" and symbolize all that the "beatniks" admired -- rabid non-conformity, unconventionality, "rugged individualism," personal reflection and, of course, a life submerged in art and culture, existing on the fringes of society as outcasts and literary criminals.

Clearly, it was Lucien Carr who introduced Ginsberg to the cultural miasma of Greenwich Village in New York City, a place rampant with people from all walks of life. It… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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