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Ginsberg Term Paper Essay, Research Paper

Allen Ginsberg

Allen Ginsberg defined a generation with his writing. He was modern, radical, bold and defiant. He had a strong belief in eastern religions and reincarnation. He truly believed that he was a direct descendant of some of the greatest writers of all time. The most trenchant of these were Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.

Ginsberg s writing was immediately absorbed by the public. His most famous poem, Howl was the first major American work of the era that spoke for the outcasts, for the mad and the lost, and about what would soon happen in the nation s soul (Lewis 1235). Howl brought much controversy. Ginsberg s supporters praised the work with utmost enthusiasm, while cultural commentators condemned it.

Along with Jack Kerouac and William S. Boroughs, Ginsberg created an antithesis to society called the Beat Generation. The Beats seemed to be renegades of America in the 1950s. Visionaries at the time, they wanted to live life immediately, not when they were old and gray. They went on the road, hung out in jazz bars, drank, read poetry and howled at the moon (Rolling Stone 67). The Beats thumbed their noses at the corporate world and committed themselves to art, which involved risk and sacrifice. Many were ruined and died, but the survivors will tell that the trip was a glorious and noble effort (George-Warren, 427).

In both his life and his work Ginsberg set an example of moral seriousness, artistic dedication and humane decency that has made him one of the most respected figures in American culture. The best of his avant-garde and innovative creations has earned him recognition as one of the major literary figures of the twentieth century.

Most of the significant events in Ginsberg s life are in some way attached to his writing. His parents were both common people, his father was a lyric poet and professor, and Ginsberg was exposed to different forms of poetry at an early age. His mother suffered from schizophrenia and was hospitalized when Ginsberg was young. Often he would end up at home taking care of his mother while she suffered from bouts of delirium. When attending Colombia University as a labor law major, his friends Kerouac and Burroughs persuaded him towards literature. He was suspended from Colombia University for obscenity charges, and he worked as a seaman and a welder for a while. He finished his degree and checked into a mental hospital to avoid criminal charges relating to theft. In the early fifties he began a correspondence with William Carlos Williams the most significant living role model in Ginsberg s life. He wrote Howl in 1955 encouraged by Williams. The poem was then put on trial in California on obscenity charges, which were overruled under the first amendment. In the same year Howl was published, Ginsberg s mother died of mental exhaustion. His response to her death was a long narrative poem called Kaddish.

Soon after Kaddish was published the Beats began to become popular and Ginsberg traveled worldwide, especially through Europe and Asia, gaining a strong respect and love for the eastern religions. Through out the 60s he was very active in protests against the Vietnam War. He became a converted Buddhist in 1970 and lived out the rest of his life in New York. He died in 1997 of liver cancer.

The chief influence in Ginsberg s writing was the poet Walt Whitman. Walt Whitman was an innovative and groundbreaking author. He developed his own distinct form of poetry, which was exceedingly different from the traditional poetry of the time. Whitman s poetry was a glorification of the individual, and a cry to the American masses. It was greatly influenced by the teachings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and constantly varied, almost contradicting itself. It was first rhetorical and bombastic, then peaceful and serene. It was deep and intense, and then sexually personal. His poetry was exhilarating and exhausting, like a fiercely contested game, or a conversation with an immensely vital person (Early, 310).

Whitman s poetry opened peoples minds to new ways of thinking. He called for greatness in American poetry, and he praised America to the highest degree. Though only few answered Whitman s call, Ginsberg was one of the few, and he answered with full potency and reverence. The Beats [were] the subtle and tremendous force-infusion Whitman called for (Ball, 246)

Whitman created his own individual form which even to this day is referred to as Whitmanesque. He used long, over-flowing lines that were very descriptive and used lots of colorful adjectives to paint pictures in the reader s mind. Catalogues were his most commonly used poetic device, listing word after word, to build the detail of whatever he was describing, and very often becoming discursive for the reader.

Trippers and askers surround me,

People I meet, the effect upon me of my early life or the ward and city I

I live in, or the nation

The latest dates, discoveries, inventions, societies, authors old and new

The real or fancied indifference of some man or woman I love (180).

Whitman s style can be seen mirrored by Ginsberg s, as shown here:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by the 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 (126)

Another strong characteristic shared by the two poets was the repetition of the first word in each line. For example, in the third section of Ginsberg s Howl every breath unit begins with the phrase I m with you in Rockland, which puts Ginsberg on the level of the victims/heroes that he has been describing.

In most of Whitman s poetry, he also used word repetition at the begging of each line, usually in a group of five or six lines at a time to emphasize a certain section:

Then I woke softly,

And pausing, questioning awhile the music of my dream,

And questioning all those reminiscences, the tempest in its fury,

And all the songs of sopranos and tenors,

And those rapt oriental dances of religious fervor,

And the sweet varied instruments, and the diapason of organs,

And all the artless plaints of love and grief and death (525)

This proves to be an extremely notable and effective sound device giving the poetry a natural cadence, while at the same time keeping the long, stretched out, descriptive lines.

Both Whitman and Ginsberg wrote in free verse and their poems usually were separated into multiple parts. During Whitman s time, free verse was very rare. Most poets used traditional forms of poetry. Whitman saw this as boring and a way of limiting what he had to say. He felt he could not get his point across effectively using rhyme schemes and meters. Ginsberg s verse varied in style, but his best works were created in Whitmanesque form. Ginsberg claimed that Whitman s form had rarely been further explored, that Whitman was a mountain too vast to be seen, that with a few exceptions his line was taken as a big freakish uncontrollable necessary prosaic goof (Ball, 244).

Both the lives of Ginsberg and Whitman were similar, and it can be noted when comparing their writings. This was also one of the reasons Ginsberg felt he was so strongly connected to Whitman. Both had average parents, and both were exposed to literature at an early age. Whitman embraced literature early on and loved it from the start; Ginsberg s love developed gradually through his teenage years.

They were born and raised in similar city like environments. Ginsberg grew up outside of Trenton, New Jersey, while Whitman grew up in Brooklyn.

Both poets also shared an extreme love for Ralph Waldo Emerson and his teachings. Whitman s chief correspondence and role model during his time was Emerson, where as Ginsberg s was William Carlos Williams.

Both authors reached significant turning points in their lives, which affected their writing for the better. Whitman took a three-month trip to New Orleans, which gave birth to his creative awakening. Ginsberg checked into a mental institution to avoid criminal charges from an incident with Herbert Huncke. After being released, he moved to San Francisco and wrote Howl inspired by his experiences in the mental institute.

Both poets were inspired by the city of Manhattan. This was more prevalent in Whitman s poetry than Ginsberg s. Whitman s poem Manahatta shows his passionate love for the city, where as Ginsberg s Manhattan May Day Midnight gave a dark terrifying look at how times had changed for the worst, and the once proud, public palace that Whitman so dearly praised had become a crawling pit of misery.

Both writers had a history of mental illness in their family, Ginsberg with his mother, and Whitman with his siblings, two of which died early of mental illness, and two who lived their lives in a harmfully unstable state.

Ginsberg and Whitman each had mentors that they praised through their writing. Ginsberg mostly praised his mother in poems like Kaddish, but he also greatly praised Whitman in poems like A Supermarket in California. Ginsberg would also sometimes refer to Whitman in his titles; for example, Love Poem on the Theme by Whitman, which was about an imaginary love affair influenced by Whitman s writing.

Whitman s mentor was Abraham Lincoln. Whitman was literally in love with Lincoln. He praised him with poems like When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom d, O Captain! My Captain!, Hush d Be the Camps To-day and This Dust Was Once the Man. The similarity of praising can be seen in excerpts from Ginsberg s Kaddish, and Whitman s O Captain! My Captain!

O mother

what have I left out

O mother

what have I forgotten

O mother

farewell (226)

Whitman s poem used more powerful images:

But O Heart! heart! heart!

O the bleeding drops of red,

Where on the deck my Captain lies,

Fallen cold and dead. (467)

Both Whitman and Ginsberg were homosexual and were not afraid to hide it. It was poignantly relevant in most of both their poetry. During Whitman s time it was not acceptable at all. The mere thought of being open about one s sexuality was unheard of. Yet Whitman broke down that barrier and defiantly proclaimed his sexuality and the fact that he was proud of it. His collection of poems Children of Adam were shockingly erotic, for his time, and censored strongly. Poems such as I Sing the Body Electric and A Woman Waits For Me show Whitman s strong inner turmoil regarding his sexual preferences.

Ginsberg encountered the same problem:

America was hardly prepared to admit that homosexuality might be anything other than a form of insanity: for a poet to declare pride or pleasure to be queer was to run a monumental risk. To talk about, to cherish, those who let themselves be [done] in the [bum] by a saintly motorcyclist and scream with joy, was no small matter. In effect it meant aligning oneself with madness, with inexpressible values. (Gilmore, 234)

Ginsberg s poems gradually became more explicit as his career moved on. Candid poems like Sweet boy Gimme Yr [Bum] appeared, and there was almost always a hint of homosexuality in each one of his poems.

This was best captured in A Supermarket in California where Ginsberg shares sexual views while at the same time giving praise to his mentor. I saw you Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, poking among the meats/ In the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys (10-11).

The two authors also shared a major historic parallel. Both were poets during American wars, and both wrote anti-war poetry. Whitman was constantly in protest of the Civil War even though he believed that slavery was a noble cause worth fighting for. Ginsberg was constantly organizing protests for the Vietnam War because he believed that there was no reason for America to be fighting it:

Ginsberg in 1968, when American political revolution was at its peak, said If the revolution isn t spiritual, it s not worth it. This [was] the center of the Beat Generation, redeeming the woeful American legacy projected by Walt Whitman one hundred and twenty-five years before (Grissim, 246).

In Whitman s time thoughts of America as an open country full of worthy citizens seemed to remain alive, but through to Ginsberg s time those ideas diminished, and America no longer was viewed as the wonderful palace Whitman depicted it to be. In the end, both Whitman and Ginsberg were credited with defining their generation.

Another descendant of Ginsberg was Ralph Waldo Emerson. A prolific essayist and revolutionary thinker, he was responsible for sparking an entirely new way of thinking, known as transcendentalism. By definition, transcendentalism says a philosophy that asserts the primacy of the spiritual and transcendental over the material and empirical, according to Webster s Dictionary (939). Characteristics of this theory include belief in the oversoul, strength in the individual, and Utopian ideas. The tone of these beliefs was optimistic and inspiring.

Many of Emerson s writings hold strong reference to eastern religions and philosophy. This theme was also quite prevalent in Ginsberg s writing. Emerson s poems and teachings often pay particular attention to Hinduism, and poems like Brahma and Hamatreya refer directly to the Hindu faith. I am the doubter and the doubt, /And I the hymn the Brahmin sings. Ginsberg wrote poems like Stotras to Kali Destroyer of Illusions which is an ode to Kali the Hindu god of destruction. In Kaddish and Collected Poems (1959-1960) Ginsberg deeply explores the Jewish and Hindu faiths clashing them together to form complex images involving various different gods and demons to symbolize different problems with the world.

The two authors did much traveling in their time and both learned the languages of the Far Eastern religions. Mystical states had always intrigued Ginsberg, if only because they challenged the rationalism of the surrounding world. He [Ginsberg] had explored the cults of the late classical world, and the samsonite religions of the pre modern people, the exhaled emotional states of Western saints, and martyrs the secrets of Eastern holymen and prophets (Unger 378).

A recurring theme in both Emerson and Ginsberg s writings is the belief in the Yin and the Yang: that all life was a circle, and in order to achieve happiness, one must obtain balance in everything and in the natural world. This was also the main motive behind Buddhism and is expressed in Emerson s poetry, as a way of giving hope to all life that death is not something to fear. Where as Ginsberg is afraid of Nirvana because he feels as if he is not worthy of it. These ideas were best expressed in Emerson s Hamatreya and Ginsberg s Iron Horse.

Emerson and Ginsberg were both Buddhists. Emerson wrote The Buddhist who thanks no man, who says, do not flatter you benefactors, but who, in his conviction that every good deed can by no possibility escape its reward will not deceive the benefactor by pretending that he has done more than he should, is a Transcendentalist.

Ginsberg and all the beats lived the teachings of Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. They did not sit around and wait for life to come to them, but they went out and embraced life and lived it to the fullest (Thoreau 66). The writings of Ginsberg reflect this. He was never afraid to admit to his doubts and pleasures, and he always voiced a domineering cry when he is displeased with society. He never held anything back, when he was in an extreme state of joy he wrote about it, and when he was in a superlative interlude with madness he wrote about it.

The concept of the oversoul continually appeared in Ginsberg s writings. In Emerson s words Let man, then, learn the revelation of all nature and all thought to his heart; this namely; that the highest dwells with him; that the sources of nature are in his own mind if the sentiment of duty is there ( Oversoul 980). Ginsberg describes his interpretation of the Oversoul, and what motivated him to live his life, in poems such as Falling Asleep in America and Northwest Passage. We re in the Great Place, Fable Place, Beulah, Man wedded to Earth, Planet of green Grass (518). His most commonly used metaphors for the oversoul are linked to his homosexuality, and are used throughout his observations of the world. There are times in his poems when Ginsberg uses sexual allusions to keep himself equal to the reader. Ginsberg s oversoul is emphasized through nature and his inner feelings, which became prevalent as his poetry became more personal.

Ginsberg s most transcendental poem was also his longest. Wichita Vortex Sutra was a narrative poem crying out for art to save America from the troubles of Vietnam. It was a combination of mythological history, personal psychic exploration, multicultural interaction, and prophetic incantation (Lewis, 1232). The poem used two polar images of America. The submerged but still vital American spirit that inspired Whitman, and the contemporary America where people suffer from death and madness similar to his earlier poem Howl. The tone is agonizing with a sense of betrayal from the government. The first part of the poem depicts Kansas as the seat of American innocence, where the spirit of transcendental idealism is still relatively untouched by American actions in Vietnam (1232). The second half of the poem is obscure and full of incomplete thoughts. Ginsberg tells how all the great idealists of before had died out and the government s faulty use of language has caused it to fall out of touch with the spirit of the nation (1232). He portrays himself as the artist he is, and uses all of the poetic power he has acquired to save America and support the war efforts (1232).

Ginsberg s poetry also showed strong support of strength in the individual. He was not afraid to proclaim what he thought about himself, no matter how great or little. This is best captured in his collection of poems from 1974-1977 entitled Ego Confessions. Ginsberg proclaimed faith and pride in himself. He truly believed that he had found and fulfilled his goal in life I realized entire Universe was manifestation of One Mind /My teacher was William Blake my life work Poesy, / transmitting that spontaneous awareness to Mankind (595).

One of Emerson s most famous aphorisms is Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles. This is best expressed through Ginsberg s poem America where he outwardly proclaims It occurs to me that I am America (47). This poem gave Ginsberg the opportunity to exercise his humor and good-natured views of himself in a mock ironic address to the American people.

The strongest transcendental characteristic shown in Ginsberg s writing are the utopian ideas that reoccur in his poems. The Beats are credited with replacing the outward struggle for utopia by the inward struggle for Nirvana or satori (Unger 373). However, Ginsberg repeatedly hinted at the ideas of a perfect society. The end of Howl places he and Carl Solomon in an America of hope transcending from Moloch and madness and giving off utopian possibilities of love and the true mental regularity (Lewis 1228).

The poem Television Was a baby Crawling Toward That Deathchamber points out how television had corrupted the nation and gave a bleak disgusting perspective on the countries future. The poem then implies communist like ideas on how to salvage society from the venomous grips of the media. Ginsberg revealed what he thought was a revolutionary movement toward a utopian society (Lewis 1231).

Undoubtedly the presence of transcendentalism is apparent in Ginsberg s poetry; however, transcendental ideas were categorized as optimistic and inspiring, Ginsberg reverses this and uses transcendentalism as a dark, sometimes pessimistic way to express his thoughts and opinions. Yet, he was still a transcendentalist and his writing reflects the same characteristics as the great writers of the turn of the century.

Ginsberg was a true writer of the heart. He claims that he wrote only for himself, but he brought inconceivable inspiration and dedication to his time. He was a groundbreaking poet who spoke to the masses, and he did so in the tradition of his ancestors. If anyone lived life deep and sucked out the marrow of it it was Ginsberg (Thoreau 68). He is hailed Poet Laureate of the Beats and responsible for loosening the breath of American poetry

(George-Warren, 225). Few writers in the history of literature so persistently celebrated their ancestors and influences as Ginsberg did, and the result is the reshaping of modern poetry as we see it today.

Works Cited

Baym, Nina, Ronald Gottersman, Laurence B. Holland, David Kalstone, et al.

Introduction. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. New York:


Early, James, Louis Eisenhauer, Emily Ellison, Thomas M. Folds, et al. Adventures In

American Literature. New York:Harcourt,1973.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Nature. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. New

York: Norton,1979. 903-931.

—. Brahma. Baym 1046.

—. Hamatreya. Baym 1050-1051

—. The Over Soul. Baym 973-984.

—. Self Reliance. Baym 956-972.

George-Warren, Holly. The Rolling Stone Book of the Beats: The Beat Generation and

American Culture. New York: Hyperion, 1999

Alfonso, Barry. Elder Statesman, Unrepeatable Rebel: A Chat with Allen Ginsberg

Rolling Stone September. 1998: 253-257

Ball, Gordon. A One-Man Generation.

Rolling Stone May.1994: 241- 246

Gilmore, Mikal. Allen Ginsberg: 1926-1997.

Rolling Stone May.1997: 227-240

Grissim, Joh Jr. A Beat Book Review.

Rolling Stone May. 1969: 247-249

Marcus, Greil. Death of a Patriot.

Rolling Stone May. 1997: 271-272

Rosenthal, Marshall. A Beat Book Review.

Rolling Stone October. 1970: 250

Ginsberg, Allen. Collected Poems 1947-1980.

New York: Harper, 1984.

—. America 146-148

—. Angkor Wat 306-323

—. Ego Confession 623-685

—. Falling Asleep in America 373

—. Howl 126-133

—. Iron Horse 432-456

—. Kaddish 209-227

—. Love Poem On Theme by Whitman. 115.

—. Manhattan May Day Midnight. 695

—. Northwest Passage 518-521

—. Stotras to Kali Destroyer of Illusions. 290-292

—. Sweet boy give me yr [bum]. 613

—. A Super Market in California. 136

—. Television Was a Baby Crawling Towards the Death Chamber. 272-283

—. Witchita Vortex Sutra. 394-411

—. Who. 595

Lewis, Leon. Allen Ginsberg. Ed. Frank N. Magill Critical Survey of Poetry V.III

Englewood Cliffs, Salem Press: 1992. 1224-1235.

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden or Life in the Woods and On the Duty of Civil Disobediance.

New York, 1854. Signet Classics ser.

Transcendentalism. Webster s Dictionary. 17th ed. Springfield: 1967.

Unger, Irwin, Debi Unger. Turning Point: 1968

New York: Charles Scribner s Sons, 1988

Whitman, Walt, Ed. Justin Kaplan Whitman Poetry and Prose

New York: The Library of America, 1982.

—. Song of Myself Kaplan 188-247

—. Oh Captain! My Captain! Kaplan 467-468

—. Manahatta Kaplan 585

—. I Sing the Body Electric Kaplan 250- 258

—. A Woman Waits For Me Kaplan 258-259

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