One of the fathers of the Beat generation, and an influential 20th century American poet, Allen Ginsberg was a major contributor to modern poetry. He rose to fame during the counter-culture era of the 1950’s and 60’s, challenging the norms of society. While most poets of the time used eloquent language and spoke of things such as the natural world, love or death, Ginsberg’s poems could come off as violent rants, filled with vivid images and obscenities. Not surprisingly, this confrontational method of poems wasn’t necessarily well recieved by the general public. However, Ginsberg would find his place alongside other disillusioned artists of the era, helping shape the Beat generation, alongside fellow poets like Jack Kerouac, Carl Solomon and William Burroughs. These poets expressed anger with modern society, capitalism and the conformity of post-war America.
The wild writing style of Allen Ginsberg and his rebellious personality can be partly attributed to his upbringing in Patterson, New Jersey. His parents were Jewish, although far from traditionalists. His father, Louis, composed poetry as well and his mother, Naomi, was an active communist. She also suffered from mental illness and eventually was committed to a mental asylum, an experience that would have a great effect on Ginsberg. As a young man, he studied in New York, where he would meet the friends that would shape his future, through rebellious acts and discussions on poetry and society. Moving between the counter-culture centers of New York and San Francisco, Ginsberg would develop his poetic style. In 1956, he wrote and performed his most famous work, Howl, explicitly expressing the frustrations of his generation and sub-culture. Ginsberg would go on to play a role in inspiring and propelling the revolutionary spirit of the late 50’s and 60’s. He worked with artists like Bob Dylan, worked to spread awareness of LSD with Timothy Leary and appeared at countless protests and movements. Ginsberg would go on to help evolve poetry, bringing it into the ‘post-modern’ world, and challenging traditions. Throughout his life, Ginsberg would advocate free speech and left-wing ideals and also worked for gay rights, himself being a homosexual.
The poems and personality of Allen Ginsberg are essential to understanding the Beat generation and the evolution of modern poetry. His pioneering style changed the structure and norms of poetry in America and across the world.This guide was created to help students and poets to learn more about this unique individual. As part of an ongoing effort to bring you the best information on poetry, and English in general, we have included a selection of resources to aid in further understanding of Allen Ginsberg.
These resources include online collections of poetry, biographies and analysis of his poems and works. Additionally, a number of lesson plans and teacher resources have also been included. The hope is that this guide will prove to be useful for poets and students of poetry and English, as well as anybody else interested in learning more about this polarizing artist.
Life and Work of Ginsberg
Ginsberg produced several decades worth of poetry and would consistently give performances and readings. His collaboration with other poets and artists helped develop and grow his style. In turn, Ginsberg would go on to inspire a new generation of poets, born in the radical atmosphere of post-war America. Ginsberg himself was inspired by contemporaries such as fellow Jersey resident William Carlos Williams, and historical authors, in particular William Blake. The following resources are biographies and examinations of the life Ginsberg, along with collections of his works.
- Poems of Allen Ginsberg – A collection of online published poems of Allen Ginsburg. Also includes quotations and a short biography of the poet.
- Allen Ginsberg Obituary – An obituary on the life and accomplishments of Allen Ginsberg. See links on the left column of this page for related analyses of Ginsberg and his poetry.
- Allen Ginsberg: Ashes & Blues – A memorial page of sorts for Allen Ginsberg. Contains 5 sections; A Brief Biography, Internet Links, Writings on the Wall, The Master’s Library and In Remembrance.
- Allen Ginsberg Biography – A concise biography on Allen Ginsberg and the important aspects and experiences of his career. Also includes 40 selected Ginsberg poems.
- Allen Ginsberg Quotes – A collection of 25 quotes from the mouth of Allen Ginsberg. Includes some famous as well as lesser known quotes.
- Allen Ginsberg Comprehensive Biography – An in depth biography of the controversial Allen Ginsberg. Includes a bibliography of Ginsberg’s works, as well as books and articles related to the poet.
Analysis and Discussion
Debate over the work of Ginsberg has been rampant since his early poetry. His obscene and violent style naturally invites such critiques. Along with these critiques comes much praise and discussion of his work, especially as times and society have changed since its original release. His first major work, Howl, was banned by the San Francisco Police Department. These resources examine and discuss the themes and style of Ginsberg’s poems.
- Allen Ginsberg Project – A website and resource dedicated to exploring the life and work of Allen Ginsberg. Includes an associated blog and collections of Ginsberg related media.
- Howl Analysis and Discussion – An analysis and sectional overview of Ginsberg’s famous poem, Howl. Discusses the poem’s context and relation with the time period and the Beat generation.
- Howl Theme Analysis – An series of analyses on Ginsberg’s Howl poem. Covers themes such as imagery, sound, setting and reception.
- Modern American Poetry – Allen Ginsberg – A collection of analyses, media and works from the life of Allen Ginsberg. Part of the Modern American Poetry project at the University of Illinois.
Lesson Plans and Media
Allen Ginsberg is a good individual to study to understand the evolution of poetry in America and the rebellious spirit of the 60’s. Below is a selection of lesson plans and resources for teaching about this controversial figure and his fellow the Beat poets. Also included are a number of recordings of the performances of Ginsberg, including some of his lesser known projects.
- The Letters of Allen Ginsberg – Video – A short documentary with Beat scholar Bill Morgan reading and discussing letters from and to Allen Ginsberg. Includes letters to other contemporary Beat writers as well as famous individuals and organizations, such as the CIA.
- Face to Face with Allen Ginsberg – Video – A 1995 interview with Allen Ginsberg on the BBC2 program Face to Face. Recorded shortly before his death in 1997, Ginsberg opens up about his life experience.
- Poetry on Film: Interpreting ‘Howl’ in the 21st Century – A lesson plan for students to understand and interpret the poem, Howl. Involves readings of the story and clips from the recent film of the same name, and provides some basic questions to ask students.
- Allen Ginsberg Lesson Plans – A series of lesson plans relating either directly to Ginsberg, or the culture of his era. Created for multiple grade levels and class topics.
- Allen Ginsberg: Poetry and Politics – A high school level lesson plan on the poetry and politics of Ginsberg, created by PBS. Focuses on three themes; the link between art and politics, the Sixties, and poetry and popular music.
- Allen Ginsberg Music – An online collection of some of the obscure music produced by Allen Ginsberg. Includes 4 albums from the poet, including his famous First Blues album.
- Ginsberg Audio – A large collection of audio files by and about Allen Ginsberg, provided by archive.org. Includes some rare audio, such as Ginsberg’s academic lectures series.
- Ginsberg Sounds – A large collection of readings and audio files featuring Allen Ginsberg, compiled by the PennSounds project from the University of Pennsylvania. Covers the full range of Ginsberg’s career and organized chronologically.
- Ginsberg First Recording Found After 50 years – An article from The Guardian newspaper detailing the recent discovery of a long lost recording of Howl.
*Photo Source: National Gallery of Art