Irwin Allen Ginsberg (pronounced /ˈɡɪnzbərɡ/; June 3, 1926 – April 5, 1997) was an American poet. Ginsberg is best known for the poem "Howl" (1956), celebrating his friends who were members of the Beat Generation and attacking what he saw as the destructive forces of materialism and conformity in the United States.
Early life and family
Ginsberg was born into a Jewish family in Newark, New Jersey, and grew up in nearby Paterson. His father Louis Ginsberg was a poet and a high school teacher. Ginsberg's mother, Naomi Livergant Ginsberg (who was affected by a rare psychological illness which was never properly diagnosed) was an active member of the Communist Party and often took Ginsberg and his brother Eugene to party meetings. Ginsberg later said that his 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.'"
As a young teenager, Ginsberg began to write letters to The New York Times about political issues such as World War II and workers' rights. When he was in junior high school, he accompanied his mother by bus to her therapist. The trip disturbed Ginsberg — he mentioned it and other moments from his childhood in his long autobiographical poem "Kaddish for Naomi Ginsberg (1894-1956)." While in high school, Ginsberg began reading Walt Whitman; he said he was inspired by his teacher's passion in reading.
In 1943, Ginsberg graduated from Eastside High School and briefly attended Montclair State College before entering Columbia University on a scholarship from the Young Men's Hebrew Association of Paterson. In 1945, he joined the Merchant Marine to earn money to continue his education at Columbia. While at Columbia, Ginsberg contributed to the Columbia Review literary journal, the Jester humor magazine, won the Woodberry Poetry Prize and served as president of the Philolexian Society, the campus literary and debate group.
Ginsberg worked for a while as a clerk in the Gotham Book Mart, a renowned bookstore and literary hotspot, where he undoubtedly came in contact with many renowned authors and poets.
New York Beats
In Ginsberg's freshman year at Columbia he met fellow undergraduate Lucien Carr, who introduced him to a number of future Beat writers including Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and John Clellon Holmes. They bonded because they saw in one another excitement about the potential of the youth of America, a potential which existed outside the strict conformist confines of post-World War II McCarthy-era America. Ginsberg and Carr talked excitedly about a "New Vision" (a phrase adapted from Arthur Rimbaud) for literature and America. Carr also introduced Ginsberg to Neal Cassady, for whom Ginsberg had a long infatuation. Kerouac later described the meeting between Ginsberg and Cassady in the first chapter of his 1957 novel On the Road. Kerouac saw them then as the dark (Ginsberg) and light (Cassady) side of their "New Vision." Kerouac's perception had to do partly with Ginsberg's association with Communism (though Ginsberg himself was never a Communist); Kerouac called Ginsberg "Carlo Marx" in On the Road. This was a source of strain in their relationship since Kerouac grew increasingly distrustful of Communism.
In 1948 in an apartment in Harlem, Ginsberg had an auditory hallucination of William Blake reading his poems "Ah, Sunflower", "The Sick Rose", and "Little Girl Lost" (later referred to as his "Blake vision"). Ginsberg was reading these poems at the time, and he said he was very familiar with them; at one point he claimed he heard them being read by what sounded like the voice of God but what he interpreted as the voice of Blake. He had at that moment pivotal revelations that defined his understanding of the universe. He believed that he witnessed then the interconnectedness of the universe. He looked at lattice work on the fire escape and realized some hand had crafted that; he then looked at the sky and intuited that some hand had crafted that also, or rather that the sky was the hand that crafted itself. He explained that this hallucination was not inspired by drug use, but said he sought to recapture that feeling later with various drugs.
Also in New York, Ginsberg met Gregory Corso in the Pony Stable Bar, one of New York's first openly lesbian bars. Corso, recently released from prison, was supported by the Pony Stable patrons and was writing poetry there the night of their meeting. Ginsberg claims he was immediately attracted to Corso, who was straight but understanding of homosexuality after three years in prison. Ginsberg was even more struck by reading Corso's poems, realizing Corso was "spiritually gifted." Ginsberg introduced Corso to the rest of his inner circle. In their first meeting at the Pony Stable, Corso showed Ginsberg a poem about a woman who lived across the street from him, and sunbathed naked in the window. Amazingly, the woman happened to be Ginsberg's former girlfriend from one of his forays into heterosexuality. Ginsberg and Corso remained life-long friends and collaborators.
It was also during this period that Ginsberg was romantically involved with Elise Cowen.
San Francisco Renaissance
In 1954 in San Francisco, Ginsberg met Peter Orlovsky, with whom he fell in love and who remained his life-long partner.
Also in San Francisco Ginsberg met members of the San Francisco Renaissance and other poets who would later be associated with the Beat Generation in a broader sense. Ginsberg's mentor William Carlos Williams wrote an introductory letter to San Francisco Renaissance figurehead Kenneth Rexroth, who then introduced Ginsberg into the San Francisco poetry scene. There, Ginsberg also met three budding poets and Zen enthusiasts who were friends at Reed College: Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, and Lew Welch. In 1959, along with poets John Kelly, Bob Kaufman, A. D. Winans, and William Margolis, Ginsberg was one of the founders of the Beatitude poetry magazine.
Wally Hedrick — a painter and co-founder of the Six Gallery — approached Ginsberg in the summer of 1955 and asked him to organize a poetry reading at the Six Gallery. At first, Ginsberg refused, but once he’d written a rough draft of "Howl", he changed his "fucking mind," as he put it. Ginsberg advertised the event as "Six Poets at the Six Gallery." One of the most important events in Beat mythos, known simply as "The Six Gallery reading" took place on October 7, 1955. The event, in essence, brought together the East and West Coast factions of the Beat Generation. Of more personal significance to Ginsberg: that night was the first public reading of "Howl", a poem that brought worldwide fame to Ginsberg and to many of the poets associated with him. An account of that night can be found in Kerouac's novel The Dharma Bums, describing how change was collected from audience members to buy jugs of wine, and Ginsberg reading passionately, drunken, with arms outstretched. A taped recording of the reading of "Howl" that Ginsberg gave at Reed College has recently been rediscovered and appeared on their multimedia website from 9am PST 15 February 2008.
Ginsberg's principal work, "Howl", is well-known for its opening line: "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked...." "Howl" was considered scandalous at the time of its publication, because of the rawness of its language, which is frequently explicit. Shortly after its 1956 publication by San Francisco's City Lights Bookstore, it was banned for obscenity. The ban became a cause célèbre among defenders of the First Amendment, and was later lifted after Judge Clayton W. Horn declared the poem to possess redeeming artistic value.
Biographical references in "Howl"
Ginsberg claimed at one point that all of his work was an extended biography (like Kerouac's Duluoz Legend). "Howl" is not only a biography of Ginsberg's experiences before 1955 but also a history of the Beat Generation. Ginsberg also later claimed that at the core of "Howl" were his unresolved emotions about his schizophrenic mother. Though "Kaddish" deals more explicitly with his mother (so explicitly that a line-by-line analysis would be simultaneously overly-exhaustive and relatively unrevealing), "Howl" in many ways is driven by the same emotions. Though references in most of his poetry reveal much about his biography, his relationship to other members of the Beat Generation, and his own political views, "Howl", his most famous poem, is still perhaps the best place to start.
To Paris and the "Beat Hotel"
In 1957, Ginsberg surprised the literary world by abandoning San Francisco. After a spell in Morocco, he and Peter Orlovsky joined Gregory Corso in Paris. Corso introduced them to a shabby lodging house above a bar at 9 rue Gît-le-Coeur that was to become known as the Beat Hotel. They were soon joined by William Burroughs and others. It was a productive, creative time for all of them. There, Ginsberg finished his epic poem "Kaddish", Corso composed "Bomb" and "Marriage", and Burroughs (with help from Ginsberg and Corso) put together Naked Lunch, from previous writings. This period was documented by the photographer Harold Chapman, who moved in at about the same time, and took pictures constantly of the residents of the "hotel" until it closed in 1963.
England and the International Poetry Incarnation
In May, 1965, Allen Ginsberg arrived at Better Books, London, and offered to read anywhere for free.
Shortly after his arrival, he gave a reading at Better Books, which was described by Jeff Nuttall as "the first healing wind on a very parched collective mind." Tom McGrath wrote "This could well turn out to have been a very significant moment in the history of England - or at least in the history of English Poetry."
Shortly after the reading at Better Books, plans were hatched for the International Poetry Incarnation, which was to be held at the Royal Albert Hall in London on June 11, 1965.
The event attracted an audience of 7,000 people to readings and live and tape performances by a wide variety of figures, including Allen Ginsberg, Adrian Mitchell, Alexander Trocchi, Harry Fainlight, Anselm Hollo, Christopher Logue, George Macbeth, Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Michael Horovitz, Simon Vinkenoog, Spike Hawkins, Tom McGrath and William Burroughs.
Peter Whitehead documented the event on film and released it as Wholly Communion.
Continuing literary activity
Though "Beat" is most accurately applied to Ginsberg and his closest friends (Corso, Orlovsky, Kerouac, Burroughs, etc.), the term "Beat Generation" has become associated with many of the other poets Ginsberg met and became friends with in the late 1950s and early 1960s. A key feature of this term seems to be a friendship with Ginsberg. Friendship with Kerouac or Burroughs might also apply, but both writers later strove to disassociate themselves from the name "Beat Generation." Part of their dissatisfaction with the term came from the mistaken identification of Ginsberg as the leader. Ginsberg never claimed to be the leader of a movement. He did, however, claim that many of the writers with whom he had become friends in this period shared many of the same intentions and themes. Some of these friends include: Bob Kaufman; LeRoi Jones before he became Amiri Baraka, who, after reading "Howl", wrote a letter to Ginsberg on a sheet of toilet paper; Diane DiPrima; Jim Cohn; poets associated with the Black Mountain College such as Robert Creeley and Denise Levertov; poets associated with the New York School such as Frank O'Hara and Kenneth Koch.
Later in his life, Ginsberg formed a bridge between the beat movement of the 1950s and the hippies of the 1960s, befriending, among others, Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey, and Bob Dylan. Ginsberg gave his last ever reading at Booksmith, a bookstore located in the Haight Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco, a few months before his death.
Buddhism and Krishnaism
Ginsberg's spiritual journey began early on with his spontaneous visions, and continued with an early trip to India and a chance encounter on a New York City street with Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche (they both tried to catch the same cab), a Tibetan Buddhist meditation master of the Vajrayana school, who became his friend and life-long teacher. Ginsberg helped Trungpa (and New York poet Anne Waldman) in founding the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado.
Ginsberg was also involved with Krishnaism. He befriended A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the founder of the Hare Krishna movement in the Western world, a relationship that is documented by Satsvarupa dasa Goswami in his biographical account Srila Prabhupada Lilamrta. Ginsberg donated money, materials, and his reputation to help the Swami establish the first temple, and toured with him to promote his cause.
Music and chanting were both important parts of Ginsberg's live delivery during poetry readings. He often accompanied himself on a harmonium, and was often accompanied by a guitarist. When Ginsberg asked if he could sing a song in praise of Lord Krishna on William F. Buckley, Jr.'s TV show Firing Line on September 3, 1968, Buckley acceded and the poet chanted slowly as he played dolefully on a harmonium. According to Richard Brookhiser, an associate of Buckley's, the host commented that it was "the most unharried Krishna I've ever heard."
Attendance to his poetry readings was generally standing room only for most of his career, no matter where in the world he appeared. Ginsberg came in touch with the Hungryalist poets of Bengal, especially Malay Roy Choudhury, who introduced Ginsberg to the three fishes with one head of Indian emperor Jalaluddin Mohammad Akbar. The three fishes symbolised coexistence of all thought, philosophy and religion.
Ginsberg won the National Book Award for his book The Fall of America. In 1993, the French Minister of Culture awarded him the medal of Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres (the Order of Arts and Letters).
With the exception of a special guest reading at the NYU Poetry Slam on February 20, 1997, Ginsberg gave what is thought to be his last reading at The Booksmith in San Francisco December 16, 1996. He died April 5, 1997, surrounded by family and friends in his East Village loft in New York City, succumbing to liver cancer via complications of hepatitis. He was 70 years old. Ginsberg continued to write through his final illness, with his last poem, "Things I'll Not Do (Nostalgias)," written on March 30.
Ginsberg is buried in his family plot in Gomel Chesed Cemetery, one of a cluster of Jewish cemeteries at the corner of McClellan Street and Mt. Olivet Avenue near the city lines of Elizabeth and Newark, New Jersey. The family plot, located toward the western edge of the cemetery at the far end of the walk from the third gate along Mt. Olivet Avenue, is marked by a large Ginsberg and Litzky stone, and Ginsberg himself and each family member have smaller markers. The grave itself and the cemetery are neither picturesque nor otherwise notable (Ginsberg's grave is located near the rear fence of the flat cemetery, which is in the midst of an industrial area); although it has not become a major place of pilgrimage, there is a steady trickle of visitors to the grave, as indicated by a handful of stones always on his marker and the occasional book or other item left by other poets and admirers].
Ginsberg's willingness to talk about taboo subjects made him a controversial figure during the conservative 1950s and a significant figure in the 1960s. But Ginsberg continued to broach controversial subjects throughout the 1970s, '80s, and '90s. When explaining how he approached controversial topics, he often pointed to Herbert Huncke: he said that when he first got to know Huncke in the 1940s, Ginsberg saw that he was sick from his heroin addiction, but at the time heroin was a taboo subject and Huncke was left with nowhere to go for help. Likewise, he continuously attempted to force the world into a dialogue about controversial subjects because he thought that no change could be made in a polite silence.
In the late 1920s and early 1930s, busking (i.e., public street performance) had grown to be quite a controversial enterprise in New York City. The country was in the midst of a horrible economic depression and many people had turned to busking as a source of income. Buskers were everywhere and fights over locations were alarmingly common between the buskers themselves and the buskers, merchants, and vendors. Out of frustration over the complaining, fighting, and violence, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia banned street performances in New York on the grounds of safety issues regarding the escalating conflicts. Busking went on, but on a much smaller scale. If anybody complained about a busker, at their discretion the police could order the busker to move on or could even arrest him or her. In 1970 Allen Ginsberg challenged the constitutionality of this ban. The ban was lifted in 1970 after being found to be unconstitutional by New York mayor John Lindsay.
Role in Vietnam War protests
Ginsberg also played a key role in ensuring that a 1965 protest of the Vietnam war, which took place at the Oakland-Berkeley city line and drew several thousand marchers, was not violently interrupted by the California chapter of the notorious motorcycle gang, the Hells Angels, and their leader, Sonny Barger.
The day prior to the scheduled march, the Hells Angels attacked the front line of a smaller scale protest where a confrontation between police and demonstrators was brewing. The Hells Angels came in on motorcycles and slashed banners while yelling "Go back to Russia, you fucking communists!" at the protesters. The Hells Angels then vowed to disrupt the larger protest the next day.
Ginsberg traveled to Barger's home in Oakland to talk the situation through. It is rumored that he offered Barger and other members of the Hells Angels LSD as a gesture of friendship and goodwill. In the end, Barger and the other Hells Angels that were present came away deeply impressed by the courage of Ginsberg and his companion Ken Kesey. They vowed not to attack the next day's protest march and furthermore deemed Ginsberg a man who was worth helping out.
It was shortly after the Tompkins Square Park riots in New York that Ginsberg was involved in a fracas with the Mentofreeist group and was assaulted by its leader, Vargus Pike. Pike was arrested, and was later released when Ginsberg, sporting a black eye, refused to press charges.
Relationship to Communism
Ginsberg talked openly about his connections with Communism and his admiration for past communist heroes and the labor movement at a time when the Red Scare and McCarthyism were still raging. He admired Castro and many other quasi-Marxist figures from the 20th century. In "America" (1956), Ginsberg writes: "America I used to be a communist when I was a kid I'm not sorry...." Biographer Jonah Raskin has claimed that despite his often stark opposition to communist orthodoxy, Ginsberg held "his own idiosyncratic version of communism." On the other hand, throughout his life Ginsberg often objected to being characterized as a Communist, stating publicly in 1970: "I am not, as a matter of fact, a member of the Communist party, nor am I dedicated to the overthrow of [the U.S.] government or any government by violence. ... I must say that I see little difference between the armed and violent governments both Communist and Capitalist that I have observed ..."
Ginsberg traveled to several Communist countries to promote free speech. He claimed that Communist countries, China for example, welcomed him because they thought he was an enemy of Capitalism but often turned against him when they saw him as a trouble maker. For example, in 1965 Ginsberg was deported from Cuba for publicly protesting Cuba's anti-marijuana stance. The Cubans sent him to Czechoslovakia, where one week after being named the King of a May Day parade, Ginsberg was labeled an "immoral menace" by the Czech government because of his free expression of radical ideas, and was then deported. Vaclav Havel points to Ginsberg as an important inspiration in striving for freedom.
One contribution that is often considered his most significant and most controversial was his openness about homosexuality. Ginsberg was an early proponent of freedom for homosexuals. In 1943 he discovered within himself "mountains of homosexuality." He expressed this desire openly and graphically in his poetry. He also struck a note for gay marriage by listing Peter Orlovsky, his lifelong companion, as his spouse in his Who's Who entry. Later homosexual writers saw his frank talk about homosexuality as an opening to speak more openly and honestly about something often before only hinted at or spoken of in metaphor.
In writing about sexuality in graphic detail and in his frequent use of language seen as indecent he challenged—and ultimately changed—obscenity laws. He was a staunch supporter of others whose expression challenged obscenity laws (William S. Burroughs and Lenny Bruce, for example).
Radio talk show host, Michael Savage befriended and traveled with Beat poets Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Stephen Schwartz, also an acquaintance of Savage from this time, reported Savage possessed a photograph of himself and Ginsberg swimming naked in Hawaii and used the photograph as sort of a "calling card." Savage maintained a correspondence with Ginsberg consisting of ten letters and a trio of postcards across four years, which is maintained with Ginsberg's papers at Stanford University. One letter asked for Ginsberg to do a poetry reading, so others could "hear and see and know why I adore your public image." One postcard from Michael Savage mentions his desire to photograph Ginsberg "nude, in a provocative way."
Association with NAMBLA
Ginsberg also spoke out in defense of the freedom of expression of the North American Man/Boy Love Association (NAMBLA). In "Thoughts on NAMBLA," a 1994 essay published in the collection Deliberate Prose, Ginsberg stated, "I joined NAMBLA in defense of free speech." In the essay, he referred to NAMBLA "as a forum for reform of those laws on youthful sexuality which members deem oppressive, a discussion society not a sex club." Ginsberg expressed the opinion that the appreciation of youthful bodies and "the human form divine" has been a common theme throughout the history of culture, "from Rome's Vatican to Florence's Uffizi galleries to New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art", and that laws regarding the issue needed to be more openly discussed. In an interview for the Harvard Gay and Lesbian Review he said:
"Everybody likes little kids. All you've got to do is walk through the Vatican and see all the little statues of little prepubescents, pubescents and postpubescents. Naked kids have been a staple of delight for centuries, for both parents and onlookers."
—Intermountain Jewish News
Demystification of drugs
Ginsberg also talked often about drug use. Throughout the 1960s he took an active role in the demystification of LSD and with Timothy Leary worked to promote its common use. He was also for many decades an advocate of marijuana legalization, and at the same time warned his audiences against the hazards of tobacco in his Put Down Your Cigarette Rag (Don't Smoke): "Don't Smoke Don't Smoke Nicotine Nicotine No / No don't smoke the official Dope Smoke Dope Dope."
Though early on he had intentions to be a labor lawyer, Ginsberg wrote poetry for most of his life. Most of his very early poetry was written in formal rhyme and meter like his father or like his idol William Blake. His admiration for the writing of Jack Kerouac inspired him to take poetry more seriously. Though he took odd jobs to support himself, in 1955, upon the advice of a psychiatrist, Ginsberg dropped out of the working world to devote his entire life to poetry. Soon after, he wrote "Howl", the poem that brought him and his friends much fame and allowed him to live as a professional poet for the rest of his life. Later in life, Ginsberg entered academia, teaching poetry as Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College from 1986 until his death.
Inspiration from friends
Since Ginsberg's poetry is intensely personal, and since much of the vitality of those associated with the beat generation comes from mutual inspiration, much credit for style, inspiration, and content can be given to Ginsberg's friends.
Ginsberg claimed throughout his life that his biggest inspiration was Kerouac's concept of "spontaneous prose". He believed literature should come from the soul without conscious restrictions. However, Ginsberg was much more prone to revise than Kerouac. For example, when Kerouac saw the first draft of "Howl" he disliked the fact that Ginsberg had made editorial changes in pencil (transposing "negro" and "angry" in the first line, for example). Kerouac only wrote out his concepts of Spontaneous Prose at Ginsberg's insistence because Ginsberg wanted to learn how to apply the technique to his poetry.
The inspiration for "Howl" was Ginsberg's friend, Carl Solomon and "Howl" is dedicated to Solomon (whom Ginsberg also directly addresses in the third section of the poem). Solomon was a Dada and Surrealism enthusiast (he introduced Ginsberg to Artaud) who suffered bouts of depression. Solomon wanted to commit suicide, but he thought a form of suicide appropriate to dadaism would be to go to a mental institution and demand a lobotomy. The institution refused, giving him many forms of therapy, including electroshock therapy. Much of the final section of the first part of "Howl" is a description of this.
Ginsberg used Solomon as an example of all those ground down by the machine of "Moloch." Moloch, to whom the second section is addressed, is a Levantine god to whom children were sacrificed. Ginsberg may have gotten the name from the Kenneth Rexroth poem "Thou Shalt Not Kill", a poem about the death of one of Ginsberg's heroes, Dylan Thomas. But Moloch is mentioned a few times in the Torah and references to Ginsberg's Jewish background are not infrequent in his work. Ginsberg said the image of Moloch was inspired by peyote visions he had of the Francis Drake Hotel in San Francisco which appeared to him as a skull; he took it as a symbol of the city (not specifically San Francisco, but all cities). Ginsberg later acknowledged in various publications and interviews that behind the visions of the Francis Drake Hotel were memories of the Moloch of Fritz Lang's film Metropolis (1927) and of the woodcut novels of Lynd Ward. Moloch has subsequently been interpreted as any system of control, including the conformist society of post-World War II America focused on material gain, which Ginsberg frequently blamed for the destruction of all those outside of societal norms.
He also made sure to emphasize that Moloch is a part of all of us: the decision to defy socially created systems of control—and therefore go against Moloch—is a form of self-destruction. Many of the characters Ginsberg references in "Howl", such as Neal Cassady and Herbert Huncke, destroyed themselves through excessive substance abuse or a generally wild lifestyle. The personal aspects of "Howl" are perhaps as important as the political aspects. Carl Solomon, the prime example of a "best mind" destroyed by defying society, is associated with Ginsberg's schizophrenic mother: the line "with mother finally ****** (fucked)" comes after a long section about Carl Solomon, and in Part III, Ginsberg says "I'm with you in Rockland where you imitate the shade of my mother." Ginsberg later admitted that the drive to write "Howl" was fueled by sympathy for his ailing mother, an issue which he was not yet ready to deal with directly. He dealt with it directly with 1959's "Kaddish."
Inspiration from mentors and idols
Ginsberg's poetry was strongly influenced by Modernism (specifically Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Hart Crane, and most importantly William Carlos Williams), Romanticism (specifically Percy Shelley and John Keats), the beat and cadence of jazz (specifically that of bop musicians such as Charlie Parker), and his Kagyu Buddhist practice and Jewish background. He considered himself to have inherited the visionary poetic mantle handed down from the English poet and artist William Blake, and the American poet Walt Whitman. The power of Ginsberg's verse, its searching, probing focus, its long and lilting lines, as well as its New World exuberance, all echo the continuity of inspiration that he claimed.
He studied poetry under William Carlos Williams, who was then in the middle of writing his epic poem Paterson about the industrial city near his home. Ginsberg, after attending a reading by Williams, sent the older poet several of his poems and wrote an introductory letter. Most of these early poems were rhymed and metered and included archaic pronouns like "thee." Williams hated the poems. He told Ginsberg later, "In this mode perfection is basic, and these poems are not perfect."
Though he hated the early poems, Williams loved the exuberance in Ginsberg's letter. He included the letter in a later part of "Paterson." He taught Ginsberg not to emulate the old masters but to speak with his own voice and the voice of the common American. Williams taught him to focus on strong visual images, in line with Williams' own motto "No ideas but in things." His time studying under Williams led to a tremendous shift from the early formalist work to a loose, colloquial free verse style. Early breakthrough poems include "Bricklayer's Lunch Hour" and "Dream Record."
Carl Solomon introduced Ginsberg to the work of Antonin Artaud ("To Have Done with the Judgement of God" and "Van Gogh: The Man Suicided by Society"), and Jean Genet (Our Lady of the Flowers). Philip Lamantia introduced him to other Surrealists and Surrealism continued to be an influence (for example, sections of Kaddish were inspired by André Breton's "Free Union"). Ginsberg claimed that the anaphoric repetition of "Howl" and other poems was inspired by Christopher Smart in such poems as "Jubilate Agno." Ginsberg also claimed other more traditional influences, such as: Franz Kafka, Herman Melville, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Edgar Allan Poe, and even Emily Dickinson.
Ginsberg also made an intense study of haiku and the paintings of Paul Cézanne, from which he adapted a concept important to his work, which he called the "Eyeball Kick". He noticed in viewing Cézanne's paintings that when the eye moved from one color to a contrasting color, the eye would spasm, or "kick." Likewise, he discovered that the contrast of two seeming opposites was a common feature in haiku. Ginsberg used this technique in his poetry, putting together two starkly dissimilar images: something weak with something strong, an artifact of high culture with an artifact of low culture, something holy with something unholy. The example Ginsberg most often used was "hydrogen jukebox" (which later became the title of an opera he wrote with Philip Glass). Another example is Ginsberg's observation on Bob Dylan during Dylan's hectic and intense 1966 electric-guitar tour, fuelled by a cocktail of amphetamines, opiates, alcohol, and psychedelics, as a "Dexedrine Clown." The phrases "eyeball kick" and "hydrogen jukebox" both show up in "Howl," as well as a direct quote from Cézanne: "Pater Omnipotens Aeterna Deus."
Style and technique
From the study of his idols and mentors and the inspiration of his friends—not to mention his own experiments—Ginsberg developed an individualistic style that's easily identified as Ginsbergian. "Howl" came out during a potentially hostile literary environment less welcoming to poetry outside of tradition; there was a renewed focus on form and structure among academic poets and critics partly inspired by New Criticism. Consequently, Ginsberg often had to defend his choice to break away from traditional poetic structure, often citing Williams, Pound, and Whitman as precursors. Ginsberg's style may have seemed to critics chaotic or unpoetic, but to Ginsberg it was an open, ecstatic expression of thoughts and feelings that were naturally poetic. He believed strongly that traditional formalist considerations were archaic and didn't apply to reality. Though some, Diana Trilling for example, have pointed to Ginsberg's occasional use of meter (for example the anapest of "who came back to Denver and waited in vain"), Ginsberg denied any intention toward meter and claimed instead that meter follows the natural poetic voice, not the other way around; he said, as he learned from Williams, that natural speech is occasionally dactylic, so poetry that imitates natural speech will sometimes fall into a dactylic structure but only accidentally. Like Williams, Ginsberg's line breaks were often determined by breath: one line in "Howl", for example, should be read in one breath. Ginsberg claimed he developed such a long line because he had long breaths (saying perhaps it was because he talked fast, or he did yoga, or he was Jewish). The long line could also be traced back to his study of Walt Whitman; Ginsberg claimed Whitman's long line was a dynamic technique few other poets had ventured to develop further. Whitman is often compared to Ginsberg because their poetry sexualized aspects of the male form — though there is no direct evidence Whitman was homosexual.
Many of Ginsberg's early long line experiments contain some sort of anaphoric repetition, or repetition of a "fixed base" (for example "who" in "Howl", "America" in "America"), and this has become a recognizable feature of Ginsberg's style. However, he said later this was a crutch because he lacked confidence in his style; he didn't yet trust "free flight". In the 60s, after employing it in some sections of Kaddish ("caw" for example) he, for the most part, abandoned the anaphoric repetition.
Several of his earlier experiments with methods for formatting poems as a whole become regular aspects of his style in later poems. In the original draft of "Howl," each line is in a "stepped triadic" format reminiscent of Williams (see "Ivy Leaves," for example). He abandoned the "stepped triadic" when he developed his long line, but the stepped lines showed up later, most significantly in the travelogues of The Fall of America. "Howl" and "Kaddish," arguably his two most important poems, are both organized as an inverted pyramid, with larger sections leading to smaller sections. In "America," he experimented with a mix of longer and shorter lines.
"Lightning's blue glare fills Oklahoma plains, the train rolls east casting yellow shadow on grass Twenty years ago approaching Texas, I saw sheet lightning cover Heaven's corners... An old man catching fireflies on the porch at night watched the Herd Boy cross the Milky Way to meet the Weaving Girl... How can we war against that?" (From Iron Horse, composed July 22-23, 1966, while riding a train from the West Coast to Chicago. The poem was dictated to a tape recorder, and later transcribed. The second part of the poem takes place on a Greyhound bus.)