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Remembering Allen Ginsberg

A look back at the Beat poet's life, from poetry to punk rock

Remembering Allen Ginsberg

”Who cares what it’s all about? I do!” — ”Is About”

Allen Ginsberg, who died April 5 of liver cancer at age 70, reinvented American poetry and the idea of what a poet could say and do. In the ’50s, radiant with sudden fame as the author of ”Howl,” the epic countercultural rant, he became the center of the Beat movement with pals Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and Gregory Corso. He contemporized Walt Whitman’s lengthy conversational lines, creating what he called ”a long-breath poetry that has a sort of ecstatic climax.” He wrote poems tender and harrowing to his mother — most notably the meditation on beauty, aging, and death, ”Kaddish for Naomi Ginsberg (1894-1956),” in 1959 — to his government, to his gay lovers. He wrote, in fact, ceaselessly, unconcerned that some of it was throwaway babble, knowing the rest of it was roiling bliss.

Beyond that, no other poet has so fully participated in the culture of his lifetime. Ginsberg often read verse backed by jazz combos, and beginning in the ’60s he was drawn to rock. He can be seen in the famous opening sequence of D. A. Pennebaker’s 1967 Bob Dylan documentary, Don’t Look Back, and he also crooned wheezily on Dylan’s 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue. Later, he helped birth punk rock by serving as a performance exemplar to Patti Smith (”He made us see that poets were pop stars,” said Smith’s guitarist, Lenny Kaye) and collaborating with the Clash on London Calling in 1979. Ginsberg was a recording artist himself; among his albums was last year’s four-disc retrospective on Rhino Records, Allen Ginsberg: Holy Soul Jelly Roll, Poems and Songs 1949-1993. And he knew how to hustle his pop fame: He sold his personal archives to Stanford for a million bucks in 1994 and showed off his tattered chinos in a 1995 Gap ad.

Along the way, ”Howl” was the object of a landmark obscenity trial in 1957 (Ginsberg prevailed). He testified at the 1969 trial of the Chicago Seven. He protested against the Vietnam War and spoke out at rallies against the CIA, the Shah of Iran, and President Ronald Reagan. The FBI, which considered him ”potentially dangerous” (”Ginsberg chanted unintelligible poems…”), kept a thick file on him.

We talk about Ginsberg’s life as inseparable from his art because that’s what he taught us to do. It was his greatest accomplishment, a rebellious act backed up by an observational precision and emotional generosity that stands as a joyous rebuke to the studied coldness of his poet predecessors: T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Robert Lowell. His Old Testament-Hollywood prophet’s beard made it seem as if he’d be around forever; now gone, his low, reedy voice still sings in our ears. Babble on, Ginsberg.