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Allen Ginsberg and the Beat Generation

By Cristina King

    Though WWII and its effects could be felt all through the tumultuous forties and fifties, war was not the only incendiary thing to characterize this time period as Jewish homosexual and unorthodox poet Allen Ginsberg picked his generation’s brain in a way that made him positively r e v o l u t i o n a r y ​ in his own write. Irwin Allen Ginsberg was born in New Jersey on June 3rd 1926 to mentally ill communist Naomi Ginsberg and poet Louis Ginsberg. After gaining acceptance to Columbia University, Ginsberg followed in his father’s footsteps hoping to become a writer/poet himself. This, however, would be the first and last time Ginsberg would be a follower instead of leader for Ginsberg’s time at Columbia, while short due to his early expulsion, exposed him to a variety of out of the box, new-age thinkers at the helm of the scandalous Buteat Generation, a pivotal movement and that would help Ginsberg realize his full potential as a nonconformist poet and lead him to champion it alongside them.

    The Beat Generation was unorthodox, uncomfortable and unapologetic and thus, so was Ginsberg. While the rest of society was wrapped up in it's pretty, pristine, perfect, apple pie lies, Beat Generational poets like Allen Ginsberg preferred ugliness because while pretty was beautiful, ugliness was the truth. — And Allen Ginsberg prided himself on telling the truth, a notion that can be supported by a quote authored by him, reading: “Poetry is the one place where humans can speak their original human minds. It is the outlet for people to say in ​ public what ​ they know in p r i v a t e.” Though it was at times hard​ for many sheltered and blissfully ignorant persons to stomach due to the visceral acidity of his words, Ginsberg fashioned the truth, though it was not the ‘truth’ broadcasted on the small silver screens of nuclear family televisions across America, it was his truth, a seldom sung straightforward sordid gospel of the streets and sewers documented in many of his poems but specifically captured in his critically acclaimed masterwork Howl.

    Howl captures a deeply twisted America that is nowhere near as “brave” or “beautiful” as the patriotic ditties suggest. It paints the grim picture of a gritty, grotesquely ​ gutted America that chewed up and spit out its greatest intellectuals who lived not at the top as one would think, but at the bottom clinging with clammy, tremored hands to the dying embers and vestiges of a cruel, unforgiving supposed ‘utopia’. For this reason, the poem is a stunning depiction of America’s shortcomings and is mesmerizing even from the very beginning because while most literary works have their themes stationed at the end of their transmissions, Howl, in the true unorthodox fashion of his Beat Generation brothers starts with its theme and carries it like a torch throughout the piece.“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked” (Ginsberg, 1). Howl as a poem serves as a three part “what”, “how” and “why” stream of consciousness analysis for the this topic sentence and main message which serves as the pressure point of Ginsberg’s anger — and rightfully so as madness is something that Ginsberg has a very personal connection to. Ginsberg's mother Naomi was mentally ill (it is not specified what she suffered of but it highly hypothesized to be schizophrenic) which is highlighted in another poem, Kaddish posthumously dedicated to one, saying at one point:

“O mother
with your eyes running naked out of the apartment screaming into the hall
with your eyes being led away by policemen to an aumbulance
with your eyes strapped down on the operating table
with your eyes of lobotomy...” (Ginsberg, 202).
detailing her struggle with mental illness and eventual lobotomy. Ginsberg too was hospitalized and from 1949-1950 was committed to the Columbia Presbyterian Psychiatric Hospital where he met Carl Solomon, for whom Howl was dedicated. Ginsberg deeply admired Solomon who he described as “an intuitive Bronx Dadaist and prose-poet”. Other than in the dedication, Solomon cited by name when Ginsberg writes, “Carl Solomon! I’m with you in Rockland where you’re madder than I am“ (Ginsberg, 94 ). Solomon’s mental illness makes him no less favorable to Ginsberg, who was used this section of the poem as an ode to the man and it's clear he groups the ​ man in with the aforementioned “best minds of my [his] generation” (Ginsberg, 1).

    — But more than that even, Ginsberg’s detest for America and delight toward mentally ill, socially inacceptable people also loops directly back to the Beat Generation once again as its affinity for all things unapproved or looked down is one shared by Ginsberg. In addition to referring to these people as “the best minds of my generation”, in Howl, he also considers them ​ in heavenly contexts calling these “starving hungry mad” people “angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,” (Ginsberg, 3) and “who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw Mohammedan angels staggering on tenement roofs illuminated,” (Ginsberg, 5). Another man who had a profound influence on Ginsberg, Walt Whitman, is questioned by Ginsberg in another poem, A Supermarket In California, when he wonders, “Are you my Angel?” (Ginsberg, 1). Ginsberg's beliefs openly contradict the traditional, Levittown views of the 50s at the time, but coincide with those of the Beatniks who supported him in this topsy-turvy belief set where what's ​ societally acceptable is bad and what's societally unacceptable is good.

    In A Supermarket California, Ginsberg openly mocks his society: “In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went into the neon fruit supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations! // What peaches and what penumbras! // Whole families shopping at night! // Aisles full of husbands! // Wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes!” (Ginsberg, 4-8). Ginsberg depicts the world like a giant supermarket, a Capitalistic illusion where everyone would rather put a downpayment on fiction over reality. This almost “pre-Counter Culture” of the Beat Generation thrives on a liberal, leftist hatred of a greedy America’s materialistic, Capitalistic government which has most certainly played a role in Ginsberg's thinly veiled disgust with it as well. In Howl, once again, his contempt with society is more obvious and unabashedly put, hatred no longer thinly veiled but well evident to the reader for when Ginsberg asks “what sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?” (Ginsberg, 79) referring to the demise of great minds cries:

​ “Moloch! Solitude! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and unobtainable dollars! Children screaming
under the stairways! Boys sobbing in armies! Old men weeping in the parks!...Moloch whose
mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is running money!...Moloch whose skyscrapers
stand in the long streets like endless Jehovahs! Moloch whose factories dream and croak in the
fog! Moloch whose smoke-stacks and antennae crown the cities!” (Howl, 83).
Ginsberg lands yet another blow to the Capitalistic wasteland many call home. “Moloch” (Ginsberg, 80) is a Middle-Eastern word for a false idol that children were sacrificed too and now names society “Moloch” (Ginsberg, 80) because it devours the glimmers of light, the promising, unconventional society. Moloch too is synonymous with “Solitude! Filth! Ugliness” (Ginsberg, 80) and causes terrible anxiety, fear, horror and suffering to its citizens. The money running through veins and pure machinery refers as aforementioned to the capitalistic system and an industrialization that is insufferable to Ginsberg and his Beatnik buddies.

    Speaking of, the Beatniks were known for the controversy. ​Another thing known for its creation of controversy was homosexuality of which Ginsberg was an avid practicer. The influence of the Beat Generation and their embracement of the forbidden and that taboo must have helped Ginsberg embrace that taboo portion of himself as well, an acceptance and pride that would be prevalent and glaringly obvious in all of his accomplished work. He mentions male genitalia frequently in his work, examples from Howl being “cock and endless balls,” (Ginsberg, 11) referring to buildings as “granite cocks” (Ginsberg, 88 ) and the naked male form frequently. Ginsberg’s exposure to the ideology of the Beat Generation allowed him to unleash a powerful, however perverse, tone to his writing, allowing homosexuality and lewd voyeurism to drip from every waking pore of his poetry unapologetically. In addition to the frequent mention of genitalia, concepts of homosexuality and people who Ginsberg deems as “Homosexual Icons”. Going back to Ginsberg’s apostrophe of Solomon in the third portion of Howl, at one point Ginsberg remarks, “I’m with you in Rockland // where we hug and kiss the United States under our bedsheets the United States that coughs all night and won’t let us sleep” (Ginsberg, 110). Ginsberg’s desire to quell the cacophonous sound of America’s corruption and “sickness” be pulled here as well as Solomon and Ginsberg kissing and hugging America “under bedsheets” ​ (Ginsberg, 110) to create an underlying homoerotic feeling to his work. Homosexual poets Federico García Lorca and Walt Whitman were mentioned in A Supermarket In California, but of the two, Walt Whitman was especially idolized by Ginsberg despite being called a “lonely old grubber, poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys” (Ginsberg, 10). These are terms that Ginsberg uses lovingly, of course as nice and pretty words have never fell into his vocabulary in any context but sarcastic. Homosexual themes are highlighted in this quip and though negative, are almost celebrated and humored by the Beat Generation Baron who reveled in all things troubling and taboo.

    Ginsberg is known well for the way he wrote not with structure, but wrote without ​ structure, soundness or sanity — but with soul. His word choices were unconventional and at times unsettling to his audience, Ginsberg favoring words like “Moloch” that were almost guttural-sounding or uncomfortable to listen to. This “visceral, principled identification with the deviant Others” (Manhood) gave him a kind of cult following and appreciation by an audience that identify by similar standards. A telling recount of Howl’s reading emulates this very notion.

“In all of our memories no one had been so outspoken in poetry before--we had gone beyond a
point of no return--and we were ready for it, for a point of no return. None of us wanted to go
back to the gray, chill, militaristic silence, to the intellective void--to the land without poetry--to
the spiritual drabness. We wanted to make it new and we wanted to invent it and the process of
it as we went into it. We wanted voice and we wanted vision. . . .” (McClure).

    Ginsberg gave people this voice — Ginsberg gave people this vision! ​Within all the heinous, hideous text that is Howl and his other poetry, Ginsberg managed to be a hero in tremendous villainy and give hope to the hopeless. Those who have been looked down on and downtrodden ascended by him to the heavenly plane of angels and supported instead of suppressed, empowered instead of oppressed. That was the main objective of the Beat Generation — to embrace the weird and undesirable instead of expel it — and without its influence, Allen Ginsberg might still be a heterosexual Irwin leaving the Beat Generation, for lack of a better word...   b e a t e n.

Works Cited

1. Ginsberg, Allen. “A Supermarket In California.” Poets.org, Academy of American Poets, 6 Aug. 1984, www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/supermarket-california.
2. Ginsberg, Allen. “Howl by Allen Ginsberg | Poetry Foundation.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, 17 Apr. 1955, www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/49303.
3. Ginsberg, Allen. “Kaddish by Allen Ginsberg | Poetry Foundation.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, 21 Feb. 1956, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/49313.
4. Charters, Ann. “Allen Ginsberg's Life.” Allen Ginsberg's Life, Illinois Edu., 10 June 2000, www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/g_l/ginsberg/life.htm.
5. Schumacher, Michael. “Allen Ginsberg: Biography - The Allen Ginsberg Project.” The Allen Ginsberg Project, The Allen Ginsberg Project, 27 Jan. 2002, http://allenginsberg.org/biography/.
6. McClure, Michael. “On ‘Howl.’” On "Howl", Illinois Edu., 1982, www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/g_l/ginsberg/howl.htm.
7. DuPlessis, Rachel Blau. “Manhood and Its Poetic Projects:” Jacket 31 - October 2006 - Jacket 31 - October 2006 - Rachel Blau DuPlessis: Manhood and Its Poetic Projects: The Construction of Masculinity in the Counter-Cultural Poetry of the U.S. 1950s, National Poetry Foundation, 1996, jacketmagazine.com/31/duplessis-manhood.html.
8. Hoby, Hermione. “Allen Ginsberg, Howl and the Voice of the Beats.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 23 Feb. 2011, www.theguardian.com/books/2011/feb/23/allen-ginsberg-howl-poem-film.
9. Allen Ginsberg.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poets/detail/allen-ginsberg.