Allen Ginsberg

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Irwin Allen Ginsberg (3 June 19265 April 1997) was an American poet born in Newark, New Jersey. He was a central figure among Beat Generation writers. Ginsberg is best known for "Howl", a long poem about consumer society's negative human values.


America I'm putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.
1. You can't win. 2. You can't break even. 3. You can't even get out of the game.
  • The only thing that can save the world is the reclaiming of the awareness of the world. That's what poetry does. By poetry I mean the imagining of what has been lost and what can be found—the imagining of who we are and the slow realization of it.
    • As quoted in C. F. Main & Peter J. Seng, Poems (Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1973), p. 3
  • Millions of fathers in rain
    Millions of mothers in pain
    Millions of brothers in woe
    Millions of sisters nowhere to go

    Millions of daughters walk in the mud
    Millions of children wash in the flood
    A Million girls vomit & groan
    Millions of families hopeless alone

    Millions of souls nineteen seventy one
    homeless on Jessore road under grey sun
    A million are dead, the million who can
    Walk toward Calcutta from East Pakistan
    • Allen Ginsberg. September on Jessore Road" is a poem by American poet and activist Allen Ginsberg
  • I saw Bob Dylan a couple of weeks ago (this being, what, December 1994?) and he was saying… “Who owns all the money? Who owns the media?”. As he travels around the world, he notices that all the media change their story every week, and someone is directing that. And “Who owns all the money?”, he was saying. And it was like he knew that he had a great deal of power, to influence people’s psyches, or minds, or thinking, or psychology, or opinion-ation, and yet his power was miniscule, compared to the power of the moguls of the media. And in America it’s only 22 people who run… who own… 80 percent of the mass-media, so that the… it would be very difficult for a poem… for a poet… to overcome that barrage of bullshit.
    On the other hand, poetry is the only place where you get an individual person telling his subjective truth, what he really thinks, as distinct from what he wants people to think he thinks (like a politician or someone preparing an editorial in a dignified newspaper). So if you need the historical truth of what people think inside, you have to follow Shelley (and his admonition is that poets are the “unacknowledged legislators of the race”) — or what William Carlos Williams said more acutely was, “The government is of words”.
    After all, the people making political speeches, they’re writing prose, if not poetry, and they are trying to get a little flowery language in there, but the language is shifty, and the language is manipulative, and people who are advertising, or even doing ordinary mass-media, are still inhibited and can’t say what they really think, but the poet can say what he really thinks, authentically, and that’s the advantage, and it’s longer-lasting than the immediate radio-broadcast or television-broadcast, because a poem is like a radio that can broadcast continually, for thousands of years. And so, in the long run, it may have an ameliorating effect on the spirit.

Howl (1956)

  • I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by 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 the night.

America (1956)

  • America I'm putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.
  • America I've given you all and now I'm nothing.

Hadda be Playin' on a Jukebox

  • The CIA and the Mafia are in cahoots
    • Hadda be Playin' on a Jukebox (1975).

Journals: Early Fifties Early Sixties

  • I could issue manifestos summoning seraphim to revolt against the Heavenly State we're in, or trumpets to summon American mankind to rebellion against the Authority which has frozen all skulls in the cold war, That is, I could, make sense, invoke politics and try organize a union of opinion about what to do to Cuba, China, Russia, Bolivia, New Jersey, etc. However since in America the folks are convinced their heaven is all right, those manifestos make no dent except in giving authority & courage to the small band of hipsters who are disaffected like gentle socialists. Meanwhile the masses the proletariat the people are smug and the source of the great Wrong. So the means then is to communicate to the grand majority- and say I or anybody did write a balanced documented account not only of the lives of America but the basic theoretical split from the human body as Reich has done- But the people are so entrenched in their present livelihood that all the facts in the world-such as that China will be 1/4 of world pop makes no impression at all as a national political fact that intelligent people can take counsel on and deal with humorously & with magnificence. So that my task as a politician is to dynamite the emotional rockbed of inertia and spiritual deadness that hangs over the cities and makes everybody unconsciously afraid of the cops- To enter the Soul on a personal level and shake the emotion with the Image of some giant reality-of any kind however irrelevant to transient political issue- to touch & wake the soul again- That soul which is asleep or hidden in armor or unable to manifest itself as free life of God on earth- To remind by chord of deep groan of the Unknown to most Soul- then further politics will take place when people seize power over their universe and end the long dependence on an external authority or rhetorical set sociable emotions-so fixed they don't admit basic personal life changes-like not being afraid of jails and penury, while wandering thru gardens in high civilization.
    • Gordon Ball (1977), Journals: Early Fifties Early Sixties, Grove Press NY

Great Poets Howl

  • Nobody knows whether we were catalysts or invented something, or just the froth riding on a wave of its own. We were all three, I suppose.
    • Glen Burns (1983), Great Poets Howl: A Study of Allen Ginsberg's Poetry, 1943-1955, Peter Lang GmbH, ISBN 3-8204-7761-6.

Family Business

  • You assume we are all sexually stable; while on the other hand, as I have become acquainted with people, I find that they are all perverted sinners, one way or another, that the whole society is corrupt and rotten and repressed and unconscious that it exhibits its repression in various forms of social sadism.
    • Family Business: Selected Letters Between a Father and Son, Allen and Louis Ginsberg (1944-1976), Michael Schumacher (ed.) (2001), Bloomsbury Publishing NY, ISBN 1582341079, p. 21.



Ginsberg's theorem


Quotes about Ginsberg

  • He (Bob Creeley) introduced me to Charles Olson, Allen Ginsberg-and Ginsberg has been a major model of mine. Olson has been a major model.
  • A few days after the Congress ended, David and I encountered Allen Ginsberg in Hyde Park talking to a large crowd of flower children. Someone in the crowd around him asked his opinion of Che Guevara. Ginsberg replied that Ché was uptight, that he should just sit down and get stoned on coca leaf with the Indians in Bolivia. The questioner grew angry and yelled to the crowd: "The Indians chew coca to numb hunger pains, not for fun, and that's why Ché is there, it's about hunger and disease, not about getting high." Ginsberg laughed, and said, "I'll bet those are some happy, hungry Indians, chewing coca," and resumed chanting.
  • I am also happily quite unable to suppress the surreal occasion when Alan Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, the distant "Beat Poets" of San Francisco, made a curious kind of state visit to the Universities. It was something of a genial occasion – Alan Ginsberg was a genial poet, I remember, – and read his sub-standard Walt Whitman rhetoric for a long, long time. At the end, eventually, the undergraduate hippy-colony was joined by a few members of the Senior Common Room (I think the occasion took place in New College), among them Lord David, after dinner at High Table, dressed in a dinner-jacket. I was standing next to Lord David, when the bearded Beatnik asked him: "Who do you love, man?" To which Lord David replied: "my family and my friends".
    • Patrick Garland, 'David As Lecturer and Critic', in David Cecil: A Portrait by his Friends (1990), p. 121
  • At the start of the Iraq War, Bush issued an executive order banning photos of soldiers' caskets returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, neatly decoupling the disastrous war from its body count. Following Hurricane Katrina, the Bush administration's decisive intervention was to ban images of dead bodies floating down the boulevards of New Orleans. And President Bush's advance team has banished protesters from appearing anyplace where cameras might capture them. It is all part of an elaborate effort to create a Potemkin presidency, where reality is defined and managed by those in power. Beat poet Allen Ginsberg explained the rationale best: "Whoever controls the media, the images, controls the culture."
    • Amy Goodman Standing Up to the Madness: Ordinary Heroes in Extraordinary Times (2008)
  • Gay poets Allen Ginsberg and Jack Spicer set a post-beatnik tone for the dropout culture.
    • Judy Grahn Another Mother Tongue: Gay Words, Gay Worlds (1985)
  • Of the Beat triumvirate, Kerouac was probably both the most pathetic and least noxious. Psychologically, he was a mess—as indeed were Ginsberg and Burroughs. But, unlike them, Kerouac lacked the knack of sanctifying his pathologies and inducing others to bow down in obeisance.
    • Roger Kimball, "A gospel of emancipation", The New Criterion, October 1997
  • there are also times when there is chaos in the world that is so powerful, and the world's weapons have gotten so strong... What are we going to do about the bomb? I don't know what the people with right politics and gentle weapons such as words can do. I remember during the Vietnam War Allen Ginsberg declared an end to the war on PBS, and he did it poetically.
  • His bouncing back has to do with irrepressible joy and his spirit of fun. Somehow we are going to solve the world's problems with fun and theater. And with laughter. The reason this is all set in the Sixties, too, is that the monkey was here, in the Sixties. Abby Hoffman, Allen Ginsberg, you know? They were monkey spirits, trying to change the world with costumes and street theater.
  • Toni Morrison and I and Leslie Marmon Silko traveled through China together five years ago, with Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, and Francine du Plessix Gray...Ginsberg and Snyder are Buddhists. Gary Snyder had that book, Cold Mountain Poems, and we went to the Cold Mountain Monastery where he presented the poems to the monks that were there. And there was a painting on the wall that was the same painting that was in his book, which he identified with. And it felt really good because though the Chinese have wiped out the temples, his temple was still there. Allen Ginsberg went to a monastery that came from Tibetan teachings, and found symbols that he recognized, especially some kind of old bone that he worshipped.
  • Allen Ginsberg instructs: "First thought, best thought." Oh, to have my every spontaneous thought count as poetry!
  • Allen Ginsberg, born in 1926, was closer in age to Lowell than he was to the students of 1968. But Ginsberg, even in his forties, balding and a bit paunchy, with his thick beard and wreath of wild dark hair, had both the personal spirit and literary style that characterized the sixties. He was really a fifties figure, a central figure of the beat generation. But by 1968 many of the beats had faded. Jack Kerouac was dissipated from alcohol and did not approve of the antiwar movement. He accused his old friend Ginsberg of being unpatriotic. Neal Cassady died in Mexico in early 1968 while undertaking a fifteen-mile hike following a railroad line. He said he would pass the time counting railroad ties. But along the way he managed to get himself invited to a wedding party, where he spent hours drinking and taking Seconal. He was found the next day along the railroad tracks where he had spent the rainy night. Suffering from overexposure, he soon died, exiting in that free and offbeat style that had made his group famous. According to legend, his last words were, “Sixty-four thousand nine hundred and twenty-eight.” Despite losing many friends to alcohol and drugs, Ginsberg was a passionate believer in certain drugs, especially marijuana, psilocybin, and LSD. In fact, although he was a determined adversary of the Vietnam War and the American military and industrial war machine, there were three other topics that he seemed to bring up on most occasions. One was fair treatment for homosexuals. Always extremely candid in his poetry, some said graphic, about his own sexual preference, he was a gay rights activist before the term was invented. And he always championed his theories on the beneficial uses of narcotics as well as the unfair persecution of users. He was also a persistent believer in the value of Buddhist chants. By 1968, when Eastern religion had become a trend, it was easy to forget that Ginsberg had been very serious about his Buddhism for a number of years. Hinduism was also in vogue, especially having a guru, a new enough word in 1968 for the press to usually offer the pronunciation (goo-roo).
  • I was working as a secretary in Chicago when I went with a friend to hear Allen Ginsberg read...That night Allen Ginsberg broke open the world of writing for me. He wrote in the vernacular. This was real language, living and passionate. He wrote out of his own sexuality, not the way he had been programmed to believe it should be, but as he experienced it in his body and mind. He wrote with emotion and sometimes with humor. His poems were those of a Jew and a radical. As I sat there almost bolting out of my seat, he peeled off me all the veneer of graduate school...Because he was writing honestly, he offered to all of us a poetic license to tell our own truths...The academics may make a fuss about Ginsberg now that he is safely dead and it is fifty years since Howl broke a hole in the wall that had been erected around real poetry with the capacity to move people.
    • Marge Piercy "TOUCHED BY GINSBERG AT A (RELATIVELY) TENDER AGE" in My Life, My Body (2015)
  • I thought/about the reading he'd given at our college in Texas/that year, incense adrift on the air, his harmonium/humming. We'd all gone into a sandalwood poetry/trance, sitting with legs crossed, smiling back at him.
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