Allen Ginsberg's Poetry

Allen Ginsberg's Poetry Study Guide

Allen Ginsberg's work can be considered a culmination of modernist poetry while, at the same time, it is also a prime example of the deconstruction of the modernist form. Ginsberg sought to move away from the formal styles of poetry that characterized the academic disciplines of literary criticism and writing in the mid-twentieth century. Both his life and his art inhabited a space outside of the mainstream. His poetry attempted to recreate forms of speech and patterns of conversation using the long line as a template for experimentation. Though his poetry was initially rejected by critics and many contemporaries, Ginsberg's work came to exemplify the poetic styles of the Beat generation.

The Beat Generation, or Beat poets as some were called, embraced the bleak urban landscapes and pockets of poverty and despair of people living outside mainstream culture. They were a generation that felt they could never settle into the lives of corporate jobs and nuclear families -- ordinarily the ideal of men of the post-war era. They longed for a more "real" America with people truer to the land or to a kind of homespun cultural heritage that seemed somehow lost. Other Beat writers simply longed for a cultural space in which to exist where the conformity of society was never an issue. Ginsberg's poetry, for example, deals with the tensions between rural ideals of the American Romantic poets and the reality of poverty, industrialization, and urban blight that faced maligned urban groups in the mid-twentieth century. Ginsberg, like his fellow Beat poets, felt that he simply could not belong in modern America.

Ginsberg's poetry, along with other Beat Generation works, thus became a seed for the rebellion, protest, and cultural revolution that would mark the late 1960's and early 1970's. Ginsberg would be characterized as a "hippie," though his poetry never shied away from the realities of war and violence. Ginsberg was never naive about the social power of the authorities his art assaulted. Ginsberg knew rejection -- he was kicked out of Columbia, discriminated against because of his sexuality, and his poetry was banned and censored because of its controversial content. Ginsberg was clearly aware of an America that had gone awry, and though he kept hope for the country's renewal, his work never shied away from depicting the less romantic realities of a beatnik life.

Ginsberg remains one of the most respected, yet controversial, poets of the modern era. His poetry sought to redefine the values both of poetic form and social commentary. Its depictions of drug use, violence, and lewd sexual acts still have the power to shock even while Ginsberg's life and work condemn an artistic, political, and social context that seeks to choke out difference and activism. Ginsberg's Collected Poems, published a few years after his death in 1997, marks an artistic life that stretched the boundaries of form and taste and helped identify an iconic underground generation --one that defied the authority of standards and law in the mid-twentieth century.