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Allen Ginsberg Biography

(1926–97), Howl and Other Poems, Kaddish and Other Poems, Planet News, The Fall of America

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American poet, born in New Jersey, educated at Columbia University. After working in various capacities from 1948 to 1954, he settled in San Francisco where Howl and Other Poems was published in 1956, establishing him as the most widely noted participant in the San Francisco Renaissance. The influence of William Carlos Williams, whom he had known since the late 1930s, was apparent in a number of the collection's precisely observed and rhythmically flexible shorter lyrics. Kaddish and Other Poems (1961) confirmed his reputation as a poet of idiosyncratic accomplishment and direct emotional appeal. Taking its title from the Jewish form of prayer for the dead, the title poem mourns and celebrates Ginsberg's mother; the political perspective established by treatment of her socialist convictions provides the basis for the poem's continuation of his uncompromising critique of American society, which subsequently extended into his public role as a protester against the Vietnam War (see Vietnam Writing). During the later 1960s he was internationally pre-eminent among the proselytizers of ‘flower power’, a term of his coinage, and its associated cults of hallucinogenic drugs and Eastern mysticism. Among numerous subsequent collections are Planet News (1968), The Fall of America (1972), Mind Breaths (1978), Plutonian Ode (1981), Collected Poems 1947–1980 (1985), White Shroud (1987), and Cosmopolitan Greeting (1994). Although Ginsberg occasionally uses rhymed forms, his most impressive work remains typified by rhythmically charged free verse, often conveying his visionary political philosophy or autobiographically discursive cultural commentary; in either mode he frequently demonstrates the disarming qualities, among them a highly developed sense of the absurd, which prompted Christopher Ricks to classify him as ‘a great comic poet’. His numerous other works include The Yage Letters, a correspondence with William Burroughs (1963), and Journals: Early Fifties–Early Sixties (edited by Gordon Ball, 1977). Allen Ginsberg (1989) is a biography by Barry Miles. See also underground poetry.

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