Allen Ginsberg's Poetry

Social and political activism

Free speech

Ginsberg's willingness to talk about taboo subjects made him a controversial figure during the conservative 1950s, and a significant figure in the 1960s. In the mid-1950s, no reputable publishing company would even consider publishing "Howl". At the time, such "sex talk" employed in "Howl" was considered by some to be vulgar or even a form of pornography, and could be prosecuted under law.[40] Ginsberg used phrases such as "cocksucker", "fucked in the ass", and "cunt" as part of the poem's depiction of different aspects of American culture. Numerous books that discussed sex were banned at the time, including Lady Chatterley’s Lover.[40] The sex that Ginsberg painted did not portray the sex between heterosexual married couples, or even long time lovers. Instead, Ginsberg portrayed casual sex, and used this to comment on the emptiness and constant hunger that could exist in the lives of Americans.[40] For example, in "Howl", Ginsberg praises the man "who sweetened the snatches of a million girls". Ginsberg used gritty descriptions and explicit sexual language, pointing out the man "who lounged hungry and lonesome through Houston seeking jazz or sex or soup." In his poetry, Ginsberg also discussed the then-taboo topic of homosexuality. The explicit sexual language that filled "Howl" eventually led to an important trial on First Amendment issues. Ginsberg's publisher was brought up on charges for publishing pornography, and the outcome led to a judge going on record dismissing charges because the poem carried "redeeming social importance",[74] thus setting an important legal precedent. Ginsberg continued to broach controversial subjects throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. From 1970–1996, Ginsberg had a long-term affiliation with PEN American Center with efforts to defend free expression. When explaining how he approached controversial topics, he often pointed to Herbert Huncke: he said that when he first got to know Huncke in the 1940s, Ginsberg saw that he was sick from his heroin addiction, but at the time heroin was a taboo subject and Huncke was left with nowhere to go for help.[75]

Role in Vietnam War protests

Ginsberg was a signer of the anti-war manifesto "A Call to Resist Illegitimate Authority," circulated among draft resistors in 1967 by members of the radical intellectual collective RESIST. Other signers and RESIST members included Mitchell Goodman, Henry Braun, Denise Levertov, Noam Chomsky, William Sloane Coffin, Dwight Macdonald, Robert Lowell, and Norman Mailer.[76][77] In 1968, Ginsberg signed the "Writers and Editors War Tax Protest" pledge, vowing to refuse tax payments in protest against the Vietnam War.[78]

He was present the night of the Tompkins Square Park Police Riot in 1988 and provided an eyewitness account to The New York Times.[79]

Bangladeshi war victims

Allen Ginsberg will also be remembered by Bengalis for calling the world's attention to the suffering of victims during the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971. He wrote his legendary 152-line poem, September on Jessore Road, after visiting refugee camps and witnessing the plight of millions fleeing the violence.

Millions of daughters walk in the mud

Millions of children wash in the flood A Million girls vomit & groan

Millions of families hopeless alone[80]

Ginsberg's poem also serves as an indictment of the United States:

Where are the helicopters of U.S. AID?

Smuggling dope in Bangkok's green shade. Where is America's Air Force of Light?

Bombing North Laos all day and all night?

Out of the poem, he made a song that was performed by Bob Dylan, other musicians and Ginsberg himself.[81]

The last few lines of the poem read:

Millions of babies in pain Millions of mothers in rain Millions of brothers in woe Millions of children nowhere to go[82]

Relationship to communism

Ginsberg talked openly about his connections with communism and his admiration for past communist heroes and the labor movement at a time when the Red Scare and McCarthyism were still raging. He admired Castro and many other quasi-Marxist figures from the 20th century.[83][84] In "America" (1956), Ginsberg writes: "America, I used to be a communist when I was a kid I'm not sorry...." Biographer Jonah Raskin has claimed that, despite his often stark opposition to communist orthodoxy, Ginsberg held "his own idiosyncratic version of communism".[85] On the other hand, when Donald Manes, a New York City politician, publicly accused Ginsberg of being a member of the Communist Party, Ginsberg objected: "I am not, as a matter of fact, a member of the Communist party, nor am I dedicated to the overthrow of [the U.S.] government or any government by violence.... I must say that I see little difference between the armed and violent governments both Communist and Capitalist that I have observed..."[86]

Ginsberg travelled to several communist countries to promote free speech. He claimed that communist countries, such as China, welcomed him because they thought he was an enemy of capitalism, but often turned against him when they saw him as a trouble maker. For example, in 1965 Ginsberg was deported from Cuba for publicly protesting at the persecution of homosexuals and referring to Che Guevara as "cute".[87] The Cubans sent him to Czechoslovakia, where one week after being named the Král majálesu ("King of May"[88] – a students' festivity, celebrating spring and student life), Ginsberg was labelled an "immoral menace" by the Czechoslovak government because of his free expression of radical ideas, and was then deported on May 7, 1965[87][89] by order of the state security agency StB.[90] Václav Havel points to Ginsberg as an important inspiration in striving for freedom.[91]

Gay rights

One contribution that is often considered his most significant and most controversial was his openness about homosexuality. Ginsberg was an early proponent of freedom for gay people. In 1943, he discovered within himself "mountains of homosexuality." He expressed this desire openly and graphically in his poetry. He also struck a note for gay marriage by listing Peter Orlovsky, his lifelong companion, as his spouse in his Who's Who entry. Subsequent gay writers saw his frank talk about homosexuality as an opening to speak more openly and honestly about something often before only hinted at or spoken of in metaphor.[75]

In writing about sexuality in graphic detail and in his frequent use of language seen as indecent, he challenged—and ultimately changed—obscenity laws. He was a staunch supporter of others whose expression challenged obscenity laws (William S. Burroughs and Lenny Bruce, for example).

Association with NAMBLA

Ginsberg was a supporter and member of North American Man/Boy Love Association (NAMBLA),[92] saying that "Attacks on NAMBLA stink of politics, witchhunting for profit, humorlessness, vanity, anger and ignorance ... I'm a member of NAMBLA because I love boys too– everybody does, who has a little humanity."[93] Some critics have claimed, due to Ginsberg's NAMBLA membership, that Ginsberg was a pedophile. However, no conclusive evidence of this has appeared.[94] In "Thoughts on NAMBLA", a 1994 essay published in the collection Deliberate Prose, Ginsberg stated, "NAMBLA's a forum for reform of those laws on youthful sexuality which members deem oppressive, a discussion society not a sex club. I joined NAMBLA in defense of free speech."[95] In 1994, Ginsberg appeared in a documentary on NAMBLA called Chicken Hawk: Men Who Love Boys (playing on the gay male slang term "Chickenhawk"), in which he read a "graphic ode to youth".[92]

During an interview on a Boston television station, Ginsberg joked about the scandal, saying: "I had sex when I was eight, with a man in the back of my grandfather's candy store in Revere, and I turned out okay."[94]

Demystification of drugs

Ginsberg also talked often about drug use. Throughout the 1960s he took an active role in the demystification of LSD, and, with Timothy Leary, worked to promote its common use. He was also for many decades an advocate of marijuana legalization, and, at the same time, warned his audiences against the hazards of tobacco in his Put Down Your Cigarette Rag (Don't Smoke): "Don't Smoke Don't Smoke Nicotine Nicotine No / No don't smoke the official Dope Smoke Dope Dope."

CIA drug trafficking

Through his own drug use, and the drug use of his friends and associates, Ginsberg became more and more preoccupied with the American government's relationship to drug use within and outside the nation. He worked closely with Alfred W. McCoy who was writing The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia which tracked the history of the American government's involvement in illegal opium dealing around the world. This would affirm Ginsberg's suspicions that the government and the CIA were involved in drug trafficking. In addition to working with McCoy, Ginsberg personally confronted Richard Helms, the director of the CIA in the 1970s, but he was simply brushed off as being "full of beans". Allen wrote many essays and articles, researching and compiling evidence of CIA's involvement, but it would take ten years, and the publication of McCoy's book in 1972, before anyone took him seriously. In 1978 Allen received a note from the chief editor of the New York Times, apologizing for not taking his allegations seriously so many years previous.[96] The political subject is dealt with in the song/poem "CIA Dope calypso".


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