People / Allen Ginsberg

Writer, activist, educator. Allen Ginsberg was born in Newark, New Jersey in 1926, to Louis Ginsberg, a high school English teacher and poet, and Naomi Levy Ginsberg, homemaker. His mother’s strident Communist beliefs and the mental illness that plagued her left an indelible mark on Ginsberg. While a student at Columbia University, Ginsberg came into contact with a group of individuals who would shape his work more than even his professors. Fellow undergraduate student Lucien Carr introduced Ginsberg to William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac. Burroughs and Kerouac, in turn, introduced Ginsberg to the social circle that included Herbert Hunckle, John Clellon Holmes, and Neal Cassidy. This loose and diverse group would form the nucleus of the Beat generation of writers. By his senior year, Ginsberg had dedicated himself to becoming a poet. His dedication was derailed, however, when Ginsberg was arrested as an accessory to crimes carried out by Huncke and his friends.

In cooperation with the dean of Columbia University, Ginsberg’s professors Lionel Trilling and Mark Van Doren arranged a plea of psychological disability on the condition that Ginsberg entered Columbia Presbyterian Psychiatric Institute for eight months. At the Institute Ginsberg met and befriended the young writer Carl Solomon, who was being treated for depression with insulin shock therapy. To Solomon, Ginsberg dedicated “Howl” (1956), the poem that launched Ginsberg into the American consciousness by virtue of its striking voice and the highly publicized obscenity trial that followed its publication. During the tumultuous trial, Ginsberg left California for Paris. Upon his return to America in 1958, Ginsberg—haunted by his mother’s lonely death in a mental hospital two years previous—began to write “Kaddish” (1961), a seminal work. Ginsberg attended the Vancouver Poetry Conference (1963) with Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Denis Levertov, among others in the experimental poetry community. Ginsberg was a key cultural figure of the 1960s, credited with coining the term “flower power” and famous for chanting Om in an attempt to calm the violence between protesters and police at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Ginsberg wrote, performed, and taught prolifically until the end of his life. He passed away in 1997.