American Literature Allen Ginsberg
by
Matt Theado
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 August 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0055

Introduction

Irwin Allen Ginsberg (b. 1926–d. 1997) was born in Newark, New Jersey, to a high school teacher father who published poetry and a Russian-born mother who retained her communist roots. Both her sympathy for the labor class and her gradual mental decay deeply affected Ginsberg in his youth. Intending to study law, Ginsberg enrolled at Columbia University in 1943, but he soon turned to literature, taking classes from Mark Van Doren and Lionel Trilling. During his Columbia years, Ginsberg met Lucien Carr, William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, John Clellon Holmes, and Neal Cassady, artistic influences and principal constituents of what came to be known as the Beat Generation. In 1948 Ginsberg claimed to have heard William Blake’s voice, and from then on Ginsberg emphasized the visionary aspects of his poetry. He experimented with drugs, sexuality, and meditation throughout his life. In 1949 he was arrested in connection with a series of robberies, though he did not take part. In lieu of jail, he was sent to a psychiatric institute, where he met Carl Solomon, a key figure in Ginsberg’s poem “Howl.” Ginsberg’s public breakthrough came in San Francisco, in 1955, when he read the first part of “Howl” before an audience as part of an event that launched the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance. The City Lights publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, published Howl and Other Poems (1956), for which he was arrested by San Francisco police on charges of selling obscene material; the following trial, which resulted in an acquittal, catapulted Ginsberg to international notoriety. Although Howl and Other Poems remains Ginsberg’s best known book, many readers consider Kaddish and Other Poems, 1958–1960 (1961), dedicated to the memory of his mother, to be his best work. His Collected Poems, 1947–1997 (2006) displays the scope of his writing career and exhibits the traits for which he is known: breathy lines loosely arranged into poetic figures, subject matter that ranges from intensely personal to overtly political, forthright candor, and a sometimes shocking frankness.

General Overviews

Ginsberg is strongly identified with the literary and cultural phenomena of the Beat Generation, a phrase that refers to a literary stance as well as a demographic of people who came of age during the Great Depression and who felt out of place amid the growing materialism and conformity that characterized the post–World War II years. Whereas many writers are associated with groups, Ginsberg is seen as a central, formative figure for the Beats. Therefore, the numerous volumes that define, mythologize, demystify, debunk, explain, or document the Beats invariably provide grounding in the Ginsberg world. Charters 1983 is the major work of literary biography in this regard, reigning in dozens of writers who are at least loosely associated with the Beat sphere and presenting their lives and work in a way that is ideally suited for newcomers to the Beats. Theado 2003 gives an objective, documentary perspective, whereas Tytell 2006 and Morgan 2010 both defend and celebrate their subjects. Parkinson 1961 and Cook 1994 are period pieces, considering the Beats before their academic recognition as serious literary figures, and Foster 1992 is a primer of the Beat literature that served to elevate their stature, especially suitable for undergraduate college courses. The Allen Ginsberg Project explores the poet’s ongoing legacy.

  • The Allen Ginsberg Project.

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    Updated frequently by the directors of the Ginsberg estate, this valuable resource features news, publications, and discussions. Permanent links to web hosts of videos, recordings, essays, interviews, and articles as well as links for sites associated with Buddhism and activism. A model for making supportive literary media available to a wide audience.

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  • Charters, Ann, ed. The Beats: Literary Bohemians in Postwar America. 2 vols. Dictionary of Literary Biography. Detroit: Gale Research, 1983.

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    Academically grounded and engagingly constructed. Filled with photographs, biographical information, bibliographies, and critical perspectives, this two-volume encyclopedia explores the lives and work of dozens of writers, including those only loosely associated with the Beat Generation. See Paul Christenson’s entry, “Allen Ginsberg.”

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  • Cook, Bruce. The Beat Generation. New York: Quill, 1994.

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    Originally published in 1971 (New York: Scribner’s). An early attempt to clarify the record on the Beat writers. Based on personal interviews and available articles, this study positions the Beats historically and politically. Some facts are incorrect or incompletely rendered, yet the book establishes the Beats as serious literary figures. Ginsberg is the most significantly covered presence.

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  • Foster, Edward Halsey. Understanding the Beats. Understanding Contemporary American Literature. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1992.

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    Similar in structure to Tytell 2006, this book outlines the Beat Generation foreground, emergence, and influence before devoting chapters to Jack Kerouac, Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and William Burroughs. Aimed at an undergraduate audience, the treatment of Ginsberg’s work is rather superficial, whereas Tytell’s more sophisticated analyses assume readers share a more comprehensive background.

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  • Morgan, Bill. The Typewriter Is Holy: The Complete, Uncensored History of the Beat Generation. New York: Free Press, 2010.

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    Concise and helpful; not as detailed as Charters 1983 or as critically insightful as Tytell 2006. Provides background to readers new to the Beat Generation, while helping more knowledgeable readers by placing Beat figures in juxtaposition: who was with whom, where, and when. A handy reference for readers exploring the Beat canon.

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  • Parkinson, Thomas, ed. A Casebook on the Beat. Crowell Literary Casebooks. New York: Crowell, 1961.

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    Anthology of works by Beat writers accompanied by a collection of critical perspectives. In addition to defenses of the Beat writers, also includes the most notorious early attack on the Beats: “The Know-Nothing Bohemians” by Norman Podhoretz condemns the ethos of the Beat Generation writers, finding them to be ill-bred, anti-intellectual, and potentially violent. Podhoretz originally published in Partisan Review 25.2 (1958): 305–318.

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  • Theado, Matt, ed. The Beats: A Literary Reference. New York: Carroll and Graf, 2003.

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    A literary documentary of the Beat Generation that covers general events and trends before focusing on individual writers. Profusely illustrated with photos, book jackets, manuscript facsimiles, and ephemera, this book makes hard-to-find archival items accessible. The Ginsberg chapter provides letters, journal entries, interviews, and reviews.

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  • Tytell, John. Naked Angels: Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs. Chicago: Dee, 2006.

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    Originally published in 1976 as Naked Angels: The Lives and Literature of the Beat Generation (New York: McGraw-Hill). The first book-length academic critical analysis to treat the Beats’ production lays out the background of the Beats against Cold War politics and the social scene, followed by close critical analyses of Burroughs, Kerouac, and Ginsberg. Tytell is critical of Merrill 1988 (cited under Criticism), while strongly defending Ginsberg as an artist of high rank.

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Primary Texts

Although HarperCollins published Collected Poems, 1947–1997 in 2006, there is no unified collection of Ginsberg’s massive output of writing. Most of his important individual books of poetry are still available on the City Lights Books list in much the same format as their original editions, whereas his letters, journals, and essays have been brought out by various publishing houses. Ginsberg’s fame and positioning in the world of letters generally have accorded his work respectful treatment and solid editing.

Books of Poetry

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the owner of City Lights Books, in San Francisco, was present for the famous 6 Gallery poetry reading in 1955 and immediately afterward asked Ginsberg for the manuscript of “Howl.” Ferlinghetti became Ginsberg’s first and most consistent publisher, publishing in the City Lights Pocket Poets series Ginsberg 2001a, Ginsberg 2001b, Ginsberg 2001c, Ginsberg 2001d, and Ginsberg 2010. Ginsberg 1961 collects some of Ginsberg’s pre-“Howl” poetry, whereas Ginsberg 1986 and Ginsberg 2006 (the latter in its original, 1985 edition) were published by Harper & Row, with whom Ginsberg had negotiated a six-book contract that would include his collected poems.

Selected Works

Ginsberg’s journals and lectures supply much of the philosophical and technical information that undergirds his poetry. Ginsberg famously celebrated candor, so it is no surprise that he made his private journals available (Ginsberg 1994, Ginsberg 1995, Ginsberg 2006). Insights into his private life are further gleaned from Ginsberg 1993, a collection of his black-and-white photographs. Ginsberg and William Burroughs collaborated on a semifictional epistolary account of their fascination with a mystical drug, yage, in Burroughs and Ginsberg 2001. Statements designed for public consumption are gathered in Ginsberg 1974 and Ginsberg 2000.

Biographies

Allen Ginsberg’s life is sufficiently rich to support a series of mutually beneficial biographies. Schumacher 1992 remains the most thorough treatment, even though it covers Ginsberg’s life only through 1980. Miles 1989 and Morgan 2007 are informative but less comprehensive than Schumacher 1992. Kramer 1997 and Baker 2008 craft richly detailed representations of focused periods.

  • Baker, Deborah. A Blue Hand: The Beats in India. New York: Penguin, 2008.

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    Account of Ginsberg’s travels in India and Japan in the early 1960s, based on letters, journals, and interviews and rendered in dramatic narrative fashion. By focusing on this narrowed period, Baker provides greater detail and context for Ginsberg’s Eastern travels than does Miles 1989, Schumacher 1992, or Morgan 2007.

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  • Kramer, Jane. Allen Ginsberg in America. New York: Fromm International, 1997.

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    Highly readable account of Ginsberg’s life in the mid- to late 1960s. This sympathetic portrait has the probably unintentional effect of presenting Ginsberg and his friends as less seriously devoted to social change than they actually were.

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  • Miles, Barry. Ginsberg: A Biography. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989.

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    The first major biography of Ginsberg. Clarifies numerous events hitherto unknown or problematically mythologized, in a lively, reportorial style. Miles is well suited for newcomers to Ginsberg’s work who want a clearly rendered, straightforward account of Ginsberg’s life.

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  • Morgan, Bill. I Celebrate Myself: The Somewhat Private Life of Allen Ginsberg. New York: Penguin, 2007.

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    Unprecedented access to Ginsberg and his archives in the last two decades of the poet’s life informs this detailed biography. Morgan helpfully places poem titles in the margins of his pages with corresponding page numbers to Ginsberg’s Collected Poems. Unlike Schumacher 1992, does not include critical readings of the poems.

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  • Schumacher, Michael. Dharma Lion: A Biography of Allen Ginsberg. New York: St. Martin’s, 1992.

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    Massively researched, this definitive biography, unlike Miles 1989, relies on letters, journals, and documents of the time rather than on later interviews with Ginsberg’s acquaintances. Schumacher offers insightful critical analyses of Ginsberg’s works and meticulous details of Ginsberg’s life and influences through 1980, revealing a generous, compassionate, but also egocentric artist.

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Personal Reminiscences

Cassady 2008 is written from the perspective of one who knew Ginsberg not only as a poet, but also as a rival for her husband’s attentions. Carolyn Cassady seeks to dispel the myths associated with the men of the Beat Generation, who, like Walt Whitman, sought to celebrate themselves in their work; she debunks the myths and offers instead the routines of men who struggle to make ends meet while dividing their time between home and the road. Holmes 1988 is far more sympathetic in its treatment of Ginsberg’s character, depicting a companion who, like John Clellon Holmes, strove to succeed in the craft and business of poetry. Kashner 2004 and Trilling 2003 detail interactions with and observations of a man whom the authors did not know well but were affected by nonetheless.

  • Cassady, Carolyn. Off the Road: My Years with Cassady, Kerouac, and Ginsberg. New York: Overlook, 2008.

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    Cassady knew Ginsberg and his close friends Neal Cassady (her husband) and Jack Kerouac before, during, and after their burst into literary and cultural prominence. She provides a domestic perspective on the men’s lives from her vantage point as a confidant yet also as a rival with the men for Neal’s attention.

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  • Holmes, John Clellon. “The Consciousness Widener.” In Selected Essays. Vol. 2, Representative Men: The Biographical Essays. By John Clellon Holmes, 85–102. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1988.

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    Originally published in 1967 in Holmes’s Nothing More to Declare (New York: Dutton). Holmes was one of Ginsberg’s close friends for many years. Written in 1966, this recollection portrays Ginsberg as a focused writer and thinker who saw the expansion of consciousness as his mission. Although not a fluff piece by any means, the tone is highly adulatory.

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  • Kashner, Sam. When I Was Cool: My Life at the Jack Kerouac School: A Memoir. New York: HarperCollins, 2004.

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    This anecdotal memoir concerns Kashner’s enrollment in the Jack Kerouac School writing program at Naropa University in 1976.The portrait Kashner provides is blunt but not unflattering, revealing a Ginsberg often distracted by the business of the school and the damaging antics of his Beat friends, whom he hired as lecturers.

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  • Trilling, Diana. “The Other Night at Columbia: A Report from the Academy.” In The Beats: A Literary Reference. Edited by Matt Theado, 91–100. New York: Carroll and Graf, 2003.

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    Originally published in Partisan Review (1959): 223–230. A member of the “establishment” attends Ginsberg’s poetry reading at Columbia University in 1959. Trilling describes the crowd of Beatniks and the reaction of the “squares.” She suggests a sympathetic view, but her account tends toward the pejorative. Schumacher 1992 (cited under Biographies) finds her report to be “smug” and “inaccurate” (p. 314).

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Reference Works

Ginsberg’s close association with the Beat Generation writers requires that his readers know about their lives, works, and literary influences in order to appreciate fully Ginsberg’s work. In addition, Ginsberg alludes frequently in his work to his friends, so encyclopedia references serve as important footnotes for comprehending his allusions. Lawlor 2005 and Hemmer 2007 adequately fill the need for this information.

  • Hemmer, Kurt, ed. Encyclopedia of Beat Literature: The Essential Guide to the Lives and Works of the Beat Writers. Facts on File Library of American Literature: Literary Movements. New York: Facts on File, 2007.

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    The subtitle to this volume—“The Essential Guide to the Lives and Works of the Beat Writers”—is a reliable description. Objective, informative reference entries, including those for Ginsberg and several of his works. Bibliography of major works by Beat writers and secondary sources and an index.

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  • Lawlor, William T., ed. Beat Culture: Lifestyles, Icons, Impact. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2005.

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    Complements Hemmer 2007: broader in scope, less focused on writers and works, this volume provides information on a wide variety of cultural, historical, and political issues of the 1950s and 1960s, as related to the Beat writers. Alphabetical and thematic listings of entries, an index, and a detailed chronology.

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Bibliographies

While Dowden 1971 and Kraus 1980 provided important developments in the cataloguing of Ginsberg’s work, Morgan 1995 and Morgan 1996 supersede them in the author’s monumental collations of items. Morgan’s work need not be done again for many years to come, so complete and thorough are the results. Morgan has given the high level of serious academic attention that propels writers into future generations. The useful guide Lawlor 1998 supports academic study as well.

  • Dowden, George. A Bibliography of Works by Allen Ginsberg, October, 1943 to July 1, 1967. San Francisco: City Lights, 1971.

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    Early bibliography of Ginsberg’s works superseded by Morgan 1995. Includes a foreword by Ginsberg.

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  • Kraus, Michelle P. Allen Ginsberg: An Annotated Bibliography, 1969–1977. Scarecrow Author Biographies 46. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow, 1980.

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    An extension of Dowden 1971, likewise superseded by Morgan 1995. Includes more genres than do most standard bibliographies, such as listings of personal tape recordings, Central Intelligence Agency and Federal Bureau of Investigation reports, and paper depositories that may be of interest. Chronology and indexes.

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  • Lawlor, William. The Beat Generation: A Bibliographical Teaching Guide. Pasadena, CA, and Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 1998.

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    Effectively annotated guide to primary and secondary sources regarding the major and minor Beat writers. Includes a listing of “Topics for Investigation and Writing.” An essential starting point for students, teachers, and interested readers who wish to research criticism and scholarship of Ginsberg as well as his Beat coterie.

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  • Morgan, Bill. The Works of Allen Ginsberg, 1941–1994: A Descriptive Bibliography. Bibliographies and Indexes in American Literature 19. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1995.

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    A comprehensive bibliography that provides production details and descriptions of each of Ginsberg’s books, followed by entries for broadsides; contributions to books and periodicals; photographs; miscellaneous publications; recordings; and film, TV, and radio appearances. A definitive and superlative bibliography.

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  • Morgan, Bill. The Response to Allen Ginsberg, 1926–1994: A Bibliography of Secondary Sources. Bibliographies and Indexes in American Literature 23. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1996.

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    Companion volume to Morgan 1995; lists all known material published about Allen Ginsberg and his works, more than 5,800 articles. Allows readers to trace Ginsberg’s career in detail from city to city for readings and performances and to gauge the public’s response to his presence and his work.

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Correspondence

In addition to writing poetry, Ginsberg was an inveterate letter writer, and his correspondence with his friends constitutes a running commentary not only on their own lives, with which they were infatuated, but also on the developments of the poetry and other literature that they produced. Despite Ginsberg’s reputation for political engagement, surprisingly little of his correspondence reveals insights into the political matters of his time. Gifford 1977, Leyland 1980, Morgan 2009, and Morgan and Stanford 2010 each present Ginsberg’s correspondence paired with the replies of one particular recipient (Neal Cassady, Peter Orlovsky, Gary Snyder, and Jack Kerouac, respectively), whereas Ginsberg 2008 includes letters from Ginsberg to numerous friends, poets, and public figures. Still, the bulk of Ginsberg’s correspondence remains unpublished.

  • Gifford, Barry, ed. As Ever: The Collected Correspondence of Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady. Berkeley, CA: Creative Arts, 1977.

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    Letters, 1947–1963. Cassady is the subject of and inspiration for numerous Ginsberg poems. This collection displays the complex interplay between the two men and shows Ginsberg as a driven artist, allowing readers insight into the spiritual and emotional pressures that resulted in poetic output.

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  • Ginsberg, Allen. The Letters of Allen Ginsberg. Edited by Bill Morgan. Philadelphia: Da Capo, 2008.

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    A selection of 165 of 3,700 available letters, informatively annotated. These letters can be read profitably alongside the biographies (not only his, but also those of his Beat associates) and his poetry, as they add poignancy, circumstance, and situation.

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  • Leyland, Winston, ed. Straight Hearts’ Delight: Love Poems and Selected Letters, 1947–1980: Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky. San Francisco: Gay Sunshine, 1980.

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    Erotically charged letters between Ginsberg and his lover of many years, Peter Orlovsky, as well as poems. Includes poems that are quite frank.

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  • Morgan, Bill, ed. The Selected Letters of Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder, 1956–1991. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2009.

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    Letters culled from thirty-five years of correspondence show various sides of Ginsberg’s relationship with Gary Snyder. They exchange ideas on Buddhism, travel, and professional publication. The letters bring to life the men’s voices and friendship but reveal no new areas of poetic or aesthetic discussion and few previously unknown biographical details.

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  • Morgan, Bill, and David Stanford, eds. Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg: The Letters. New York: Viking, 2010.

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    Although many of these letters are published elsewhere, their positioning here re-creates the lifelong ongoing conversation of two literary friends who met in college and who went on to worldwide fame. Sparsely annotated but helpfully indexed.

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Criticism

Numerous critical works are devoted to Howl and Other Poems and Kaddish and Other Poems, 1958–1960; beyond these first two books, none of Ginsberg’s other books of poetry have attracted significant critical attention. Nearly all of his publications were reviewed in respectable publications, and many of his individual works have been the subjects of conference presentations or have been mentioned in articles that focus on “Howl” or “Kaddish.” There is no shortage of commentary on Ginsberg’s life as a cultural raconteur, but beyond criticism dedicated to “Howl” or “Kaddish,” no full-length critical studies are directed to specific works and very few to specific issues or literary matters pertaining to Ginsberg. Portugés 1978 is one exception in that it focuses specifically on one aspect of Ginsberg’s poetry, the theme of visions. Trigilio 2007 provides the other exception, presenting a detailed analysis of the Buddhist elements in Ginsberg’s poems over the span of his career. Merrill 1988 provides a general overview to Ginsberg’s life and work, a useful introduction for readers new to Ginsberg. Schumacher 1992 is a natural complement to Merrill 1988, with less critical depth but more biographical context. Perloff 1990 offers a perspective on Ginsberg’s work three decades after his literary debut.

  • Merrill, Thomas F. Allen Ginsberg. Rev. ed. Twayne’s United States Authors. Boston: Twayne, 1988.

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    Originally published in 1969 (New York: Twayne). In this first full-length book of Ginsberg criticism, Merrill examines Ginsberg’s life and influences before analyzing the poetry, in order of publication from book to book. Merrill assesses the work frankly, not hesitating to refer to some poems in disparaging terms. Undercut by various errors; readers must confirm biographical details by using other sources.

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  • Perloff, Marjorie. “A Lion in Our Living Room: Reading Allen Ginsberg in the Eighties.” In Poetic License: Essays on Modernist and Postmodernist Lyric. By Marjorie Perloff, 199–230. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1990.

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    Discusses Ginsberg’s ongoing poetic project during the “Reagan Eighties,” when his reputation was approaching a low point. Helpful in positioning Ginsberg as a lifelong working poet, beyond the cultural environment of the 1950s and 1960s.

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  • Portugés, Paul. The Visionary Poetics of Allen Ginsberg. Santa Barbara, CA: Ross-Erickson, 1978.

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    Focused on the nature of spiritual and hallucinatory visions. Filling a glaring gap in Ginsberg studies, sensibly and earnestly looks at Ginsberg’s claims to his visionary status and its influence in his poems.

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  • Schumacher, Michael. Dharma Lion: A Biography of Allen Ginsberg. New York: St. Martin’s, 1992.

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    Features solid (though typically brief) critical analyses of Ginsberg’s poems, set against the situational backdrop of his life. As Ginsberg wrote many poems based on his acquaintances and the occurrences in his life, Schumacher’s book is essential in understanding the references and conditions of the poems’ composition.

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  • Trigilio, Tony. Allen Ginsberg’s Buddhist Poetics. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2007.

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    A groundbreaking study of Ginsberg’s contention that his work consists of Buddhist poetry. Combines background in Buddhism with extensive research on Ginsberg’s prose writings and teaching transcripts. Beneficial for all readers interested in Ginsberg’s incorporation of Buddhism, but Trigilio’s wide-ranging references and academic diction will be most accessible to more sophisticated readers.

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Collections

Surprisingly, there is only one anthology of Ginsberg criticism—Hyde 1984, which although easily located in libraries or as a used book, appears to be out of print. Hyde 1984 consists entirely of gathered essays, excerpts, and reviews and not of original criticism produced for inclusion. An updated collection of critical perspectives on Ginsberg’s work is overdue.

Howl and Other Poems

Howl and Other Poems established Ginsberg’s reputation upon its publication in 1956 and remains his best known work and the work by which he is defined as a poet and as a socially significant figure. The title poem has always received mixed reviews, typically divided along cultural–political lines; in the early 21st century, conservative commentators continue to cite the poem as a clarion call for rebellion, subversion, and immorality, whereas progressive commentators tend to proclaim the poem as a rallying cry for spirituality, individuality, and freedom of expression. Conclusions regarding the poem’s literary merit are likewise split. As the poem is now regularly included in undergraduate reading lists and anthologies, the market for ancillary reference material remains high. Unlike many other US poems that are required reading, “Howl” also maintains a large audience outside the classroom as well.

Textual Materials

Ginsberg was an obsessive hoarder of his papers. Yet, of all the manuscript material that he accumulated and meticulously stored, only the typescripts for “Howl” have been published. Part of the six-book deal Ginsberg made with Harper & Row in the 1980s, Ginsberg, with the biographer and editor Barry Miles, produced a facsimile edition, Ginsberg 1995, that opens up for readers the background of the poem’s composition and story of its publication.

  • Ginsberg, Allen. Howl: Original Draft Facsimile, Transcript, and Variant Versions, Fully Annotated by Author, with Contemporaneous Correspondence, Account of First Public Reading, Legal Skirmishes, Precursor Texts, and Bibliography. Edited by Barry Miles. New York: Harper/Perennial, 1995.

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    No study of “Howl” is complete without reference to this book. Readers can track the composition of the poem from influence via precursors, to early versions and shifts in Ginsberg’s style, to the first words he typed on paper and all subsequent, extant revisions. Available in a paperback format, this indispensable work is also affordable.

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Collections

The fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Howl and Other Poems brought numerous tributes and renewed recognition of the poem’s impact. Shinder 2006 offers several writers and others an opportunity to share the effect the poem had on them. Less colloquial and more historically connected is Morgan and Peters 2006, an abundant gathering of documentary sources that leads readers through the stages of the poem’s trial and repercussions.

  • Morgan, Bill, and Nancy J. Peters, eds. Howl on Trial: The Battle for Free Expression. San Francisco: City Lights, 2006.

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    Contains a nearly complete sequential account of the story of “Howl,” from its inception through the subsequent trial (including trial transcripts) and aftermath. Vitally important for the study not only of this poem, but also of issues involving obscenity and literature in the United States.

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  • Shinder, Jason, ed. The Poem That Changed America: Howl Fifty Years Later. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006.

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    Collects personal reminiscences and insights from a variety of writers, such as Rick Moody, Andrei Codrescu, and Marge Piercy as well as Ginsberg’s acquaintances and colleagues. Not a scholarly or academic collection, but the contributions therein affirm Ginsberg’s influence, both in literary technique and in spirit.

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Criticism

When critics write of Ginsberg, they usually have in mind “Howl,” the title poem of Howl and Other Poems. For this reason, Ginsberg’s copious mentions in books and articles point to that poem at the expense of anything else he wrote during his subsequent forty years of poetic output. That is to say, references to Ginsberg in anthologies and op-ed pieces are invariably references to “Howl,” so it is helpful to isolate the references that deliberately focus on the poem’s perceived merits or defaults. Raskin 2004 is the only book-length treatment devoted exclusively to “Howl” as an artistic work. Whereas Hollander 1957 is an early review that is generally praiseful, Dickey 1968 is especially damning; Eberhart 1956, although lacking unqualified praise, is generally appreciative. These three early reviews hint at the range of treatment Ginsberg would receive over the next forty years. Ferlinghetti 1957 recounts the infamous obscenity trial. Hunsberger 1965, Portugés 1980, and Perloff 2006 bring serious scholarly attention and help pave the way for academic scholars who moved the topics of Ginsberg discussion from social influence to literary study.

  • Dickey, James. “Poets and Poetry Now.” In Babel to Byzantium: Poets and Poetry Now. By James Dickey, 52–55. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1968.

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    Originally published as part of “From Babel to Byzantium,” Sewanee Review 65.3 (1957): 509–530. Dickey finds that Ginsberg lacks the qualities associated with the craft of poetry. Useful review in that it represents the consensus New Critical view not only of Ginsberg, but also of the Beat writers generally.

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  • Eberhart, Richard. “West Coast Rhythms.” New York Times Book Review, 2 September 1956, 7–18.

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    First major article to mention Ginsberg’s work. Brought widespread attention to the Beat movement and to Ginsberg in particular; refers to “Howl” as “the most remarkable poem of the young group” (p. 7). Eberhart, a poet, benefitted from a detailed letter Ginsberg had sent him, outlining his poetic method. Excerpted in Hyde 1984 (cited under Collections).

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  • Ferlinghetti, Lawrence. “Horn on ‘Howl.’” Evergreen Review 1.4 (1957): 145–158.

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    The City Lights Books publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, relates his perspectives on his arrest and trial for selling “obscene material,” Howl and Other Poems. Excerpted in Hyde 1984 (cited under Collections).

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  • Hollander, John. “Review of ‘Howl’ and Other Poems.” Partisan Review 24.2 (1957): 296–298.

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    While acknowledging that Ginsberg demonstrates talent and “a good ear,” Hollander finds no merits whatsoever in this book of poems. Hollander came to represent, along with James Dickey (Dickey 1968) and Norman Podhoretz (Parkinson 1961, cited under General Overviews), the East Coast literary “establishment” that rejected Ginsberg and the Beat writers as a whole. Excerpted in Hyde 1984 (cited under Collections).

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  • Hunsberger, Bruce. “Kit Smart’s Howl.” Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature 6.1 (1965): 34–44.

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    A close reading of lines from “Howl” compared with lines from Christopher Smart’s Jubilate Agno reveals the often-overlooked influence Smart’s poem had on Ginsberg’s. Hunsberger succinctly points out their similarities of theme, terminology, and spirit. Very helpful in clarifying origins for Ginsberg’s style. Excerpted in Hyde 1984 (cited under Collections). Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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  • Perloff, Marjorie. “‘A Lost Battalion of Platonic Conversationalists’: ‘Howl’ and the Language of Modernism.” In The Poem That Changed America: Howl Fifty Years Later. Edited by Jason Shinder, 24–43. New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2006.

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    Analysis of Ginsberg’s modernist and postmodernist poetics; “Howl” ultimately is a World War II poem, more so than a Cold War poem. Perloff contrasts “Howl” with Louis Simpson’s “To the Western World,” finding that the differences are not thematic, but technical.

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  • Portugés, Paul. “Allen Ginsberg’s Paul Cézanne and the Pater Omnipotens Aeterna Deus.” In Special Issue: Art and Literature. Edited by L. S. Dembo. Contemporary Literature 21.3 (1980): 435–449.

    DOI: 10.2307/1208251Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Compares and contrasts the influences of William Blake and Paul Cézanne on Ginsberg’s work. Portugés provides the basis for an interdisciplinary study of “Howl” that students and scholars may extend to other disciplines in regard to the cultural and artistic contexts of the poem. Excerpted in Hyde 1984 (cited under Collections). Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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  • Raskin, Jonah. American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and the Making of the Beat Generation. Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 2004.

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    Traces the development, public reading, publication, and aftereffects of “Howl,” from cultural, artistic, and legal perspectives. Raskin draws on Ginsberg’s psychiatric reports and interviews with his former psychiatrist to demonstrate the personal achievement the poem represents.

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Kaddish and Other Poems, 1958–1960

“Kaddish: Proem, narrative, hymmnn, lament, litany, & fugue,” the title poem, is generally recognized as one of Ginsberg’s best. Nonetheless, no Ginsberg poem is universally praised. Dickey 1961 and Bloom 1971 are quick to dismiss any value in the poem, although Carroll 1961 assumes that the poems are sufficiently weighty to bear focused scrutiny. Wilson 1962 focuses on the musical qualities, particularly rhythm, in “Kaddish.” Rosenthal 1967 deals with the personal expression in the title poem as a confirmation of the power of confessional verse, and Grossman 1984 commends the poet’s identification with his Jewish heritage. Breslin 1977 also looks to Ginsberg’s relationship with his parents.

  • Bloom, Harold. “On Ginsberg’s ‘Kaddish.’” In The Ringers in the Tower: Studies in Romantic Tradition. By Harold Bloom, 213–215. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971.

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    Bloom declares that “Kaddish” and “Howl” are failures as poems and that Ginsberg is an unsuccessful poet.

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  • Breslin, James. “Allen Ginsberg: The Origins of ‘Howl’ and ‘Kaddish.’” Iowa Review 8.2 (1977): 82–108.

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    Detailed biographical analysis that focuses on Ginsberg’s relationship with his parents. Breslin’s sympathetic and discerning scrutiny leads readers to an understanding of “Kaddish” as a poem that develops from the same roots as “Howl.” Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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  • Carroll, Paul. “Death Is a Letter That Was Never Sent.” Evergreen Review 19 (1961): 114.

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    Carroll asserts that some of Ginsberg’s poems in Kaddish and Other Poems, 1958–1960 are “pentecostal” and that Ginsberg is akin to a Hebrew profit contending with his God. Excerpted in Hyde 1984 (cited under Collections).

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  • Dickey, James. “Confession Is Not Enough.” New York Times Book Review, 9 July 1961.

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    A curt putdown of Ginsberg’s poetic method, typical of the responses of many East Coast literary establishment figures of the time.

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  • Grossman, Allen. “Allen Ginsberg: The Jew as an American Patriot.” In On the Poetry of Allen Ginsberg. Edited by Lewis Hyde, 102–110. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1984.

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    Originally published in Judaism 11.4 (1962): 303–308. Identifies Ginsberg’s grief for his mother as a lament for the passing of the Jewish reliance on experience. Noting the lack of a Jewish American tradition, Grossman concludes that Ginsberg forges his own peculiar direction. Important consideration of Ginsberg’s Jewish roots.

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  • Rosenthal, M. L. “The Refusal to Repress.” In The New Poets: American and British Poetry since World War II. By M. L. Rosenthal. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967.

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    Rosenthal investigates how Ginsberg deals with his mother’s problematic life and its effects on him, repressing neither his mother’s mental instability nor the subject of communism in a poem written during the Cold War era. Excerpted in Hyde 1984 (cited under Collections).

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  • Wilson, Robert Anton. “The Poet as Radar System.” Liberation (November 1962).

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    Explores poetic method by locating Ginsberg’s meter in one of Ezra Pound’s laws of Imagism: “to write in the sequence of the musical phrase.” Wilson provides a close reading of lines from “Kaddish,” identifying the rhythms and repetitions as musical phrases combined with emotional significance. Excerpted in Hyde 1984 (cited under Collections).

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Ginsberg and Buddhism

Critics have often accused Ginsberg and other Beat writers as well of dabbling in Eastern mysticism merely as a shallow justification for their drug use or their penchant for alternative lifestyles. Yet, for most of his adult life, Ginsberg pursued an active interest in Buddhism that is reflected in his poetry. Morgan 2009 helps encapsulate this by showing Ginsberg’s developing interest in the field, as influenced by his friend and fellow poet, Gary Snyder, who studied at a Zen Buddhist monastery in Japan. Tonkinson 1995 reveals the Buddhist influence not only on Ginsberg, but also on his Beat coterie overall. Trigilio 2004 leads the way to more intensive focus on Buddhism in Ginsberg’s works, a promise fulfilled by Trigilio 2007, the only book-length treatment of this key facet in understanding Ginsberg’s work. Mortenson 2009 focuses on one important aspect of Buddhist practice, the isolation of the “still point,” whereas Augustine 2009 looks at the notion of “crazy wisdom.”

  • Augustine, Jane. “The American Poetic Diamond Vehicle: Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman Re-work Vajrayana Buddhism.” In The Emergence of Buddhist American Literature. Edited by John Whalen-Bridge and Gary Storhoff, 155–174. SUNY Series in Buddhism and American Culture. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2009.

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    An account of Ginsberg’s meeting with Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who would be his Buddhist teacher and who also would found Naropa University. Augustine traces effects of Trungpa’s embodiment of crazy wisdom in Ginsberg’s poetry.

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  • Morgan, Bill, ed. The Selected Letters of Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder, 1956–1991. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2009.

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    Displays the development of Ginsberg’s early understanding of Buddhism, as aided by Snyder, who was living in a Zen Buddhist monastery in Japan.

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  • Mortenson, Erik. “Keeping Vision Alive: The Buddhist Stillpoint in the Work of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.” In The Emergence of Buddhist American Literature. Edited by John Whalen-Bridge and Gary Storhoff, 123–137. SUNY Series in Buddhism and American Culture. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2009.

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    Examines Jack Kerouac’s and Ginsberg’s attempts to employ the Buddhist still point, an ephemeral, visionary experience that the writers seek to maintain through Buddhist practice, so that it might infuse their work. Academic, well researched, and effective in locating support in the literature.

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  • Tonkinson, Carole, ed. Big Sky Mind: Buddhism and the Beat Generation. New York: Riverhead, 1995.

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    Anthology of Buddhist-related works by Beat writers. The introduction by Stephen Prothero integrates a definition of “Beat Generation” with references to precursor writers, such as the American transcendentalists and the concurrent period of “new consciousness.” Includes a selection of Ginsberg’s prose, poetry, and interviews.

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  • Trigilio, Tony. “‘Will You Please Stop Playing with the Mantra?’ The Embodied Poetics of Ginsberg’s Later Career.” In Reconstructing the Beats. Edited by Jennie Skerl, 187–202. New York and Houndsmills, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

    DOI: 10.1057/9781403982100Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Covers the period in Ginsberg’s career from “Wichita Vortex Sutra” to his final book, Death and Fame, exploring his appropriation of the Buddhist mantra and his development of the prophetic language. Appears in more developed form as chapters 4 and 5 in Trigilio 2007.

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  • Trigilio, Tony. Allen Ginsberg’s Buddhist Poetics. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2007.

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    Investigates Ginsberg’s claim that his work consists of Buddhist poetry. Academic in tone and scope; fulfills the need for an in-depth study of Buddhist influences in Ginsberg’s work.

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