Can you explain Allen Ginsberg?
March 26, 2020 12:03 PM   Subscribe

HOWL and his other work? Why is he important?
posted by ebesan to Media & Arts (14 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I think it's fair to generalize a little and say that his importance now has a lot to do with his contemporaries having judged him to be a prominent exponent of an artistic movement that represented the culture of its times. So now, looking at literature's worth in part as its value as a historical document of thought and aesthetics, we know that reading Howl tells us what people found new and relevant when it was written.
posted by less of course at 12:18 PM on March 26 [7 favorites]

Beat literature was the bridge between the repressed post-war haze and the sixties fun party revolutionary haze? They preceded hippies and get credit for starting the cultural shift associated with the later.
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 12:27 PM on March 26 [1 favorite]

I think he was very much of his time, his early poems, and if you were not young or youngish at that time, it's hard to reacquire the poems' impact. It helped a great deal that Howl was seized by the police as lewd but the judge decided otherwise. It helped that the poems mentioned sex and drugs, visions and eastern religions, an extreme sort of freedom. It helped that we has friends with Burroughs and Kerouac, who were similarly lionized in their era, and for similar reasons (altho neither of them wrote poetry). It helped that Howl was published by City Light books in the Pocket Poet Series, small in format and cheap to buy. The Vietnam War protests; the African-American protests; the beginning of gay people to see themselves as whole people, not sick or crazy; the rise of the drug culture among the young; the interest in eastern religions---these were things that Ginsburg was involved with to varied extents which solidified his perceived value. His early poetry was very much an aural poetry, best when heard spoken. Young people of the time were somewhat against the canon of old white men, verse forms, etc.

I'm not an academic but I think it might be hard to teach Ginsburg today except as a cultural, historical artifact.
posted by tmdonahue at 12:34 PM on March 26 [19 favorites]

Once I attended a course where we were mixed architects and poets (I'm an architect), and what was most eye-opening and thrilling to me was to learn to listen to the poetry as spoken instead of reading it. So now when I read poetry, I read it out loud to myself, often several times to get the sound of it. With Ginsberg, you can find recordings. It's like a form of music.
If you read the lyrics of an iconical song, they don't always make sense. But when you hear the song they do. That's how to read (some forms of) poetry.
posted by mumimor at 12:57 PM on March 26 [7 favorites]

The best answer I can give is to suggest listening to Howl and the other poems on that album. It's on iTunes. He's legit a great poet and I find, for instance, "America" just as resonant today as it was when it was written.

Beyond that, as above, he was part of the Beats in the 50s, SF 60s culture, NYC East Village culture after that, so he was historically "plugged in" for a long time. Maybe if you said more about why you find "Howl" complicated people could chime in more. I find it a pretty readable poem, so I am not sure what you are looking to explain.
posted by dame at 1:01 PM on March 26 [8 favorites]

I think he was very much of his time, his early poems, and if you were not young or youngish at that time, it's hard to reacquire the poems' impact.

He's a counter culture poet and his work was hugely popular and impactful in the 90s too, which coincidentally was the last time there was a strong counter culture in the US and the last time people gathered to listen to live poetry readings regularly. Maybe it's the internet or increasing globalization or economics but his poetry is about rejecting societal expectations and individualism and that's not been the zeitgeist since about 2001. Maybe that will change with GenY but millennials were/ are very conform-y and careful not to cause offense to anyone and their aspirations tended to revolve around normal boring things like buying a house, paying bills and affording a child. They were reacting to their parents so presumably millennials kids will turn around and LOVE Ginsberg.
posted by fshgrl at 1:02 PM on March 26 [3 favorites]

The Wikipedia article on Allen Ginsberg is a nice, succinct overview of his life and career, with a bibliography, list of awards, etc. as well as an extensive list of references to other sources.

For Howl specifically, there is a recent-ish book called The Poem That Changed America that offers a deep dive into the significance of that work.
posted by niicholas at 1:26 PM on March 26 [2 favorites]

Often overlooked is the fact that he was an advocate for so-called "adult child love" and a supporter/participant in a covert community of pedophiles. So, he's important for that, too.
posted by erattacorrige at 1:31 PM on March 26

I was lucky enough to hear Allen Ginsberg at Carnegie Hall sometime in the 90s and all I can say is yeah, it's gotta be out loud. I knew that I was hearing an artifact of another time (when, for example, being an out gay man was a big fuckin deal) and another subculture (most of which is not my thing) and it was hair-raising anyway.
posted by inexorably_forward at 1:40 PM on March 26 [2 favorites]

A line from "America" that I can't get out of my head. The final line, actually:

"America I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel."

posted by tmdonahue at 2:02 PM on March 26 [6 favorites]

+1 listen to it. I read Howl for a college class and was like "what's the big deal anyway" but my professor put it on during lecture and I was embarrassed to find myself crying in a lecture hall full of twenty-year-olds.
posted by potrzebie at 3:38 PM on March 26 [3 favorites]

The Beats were hypermasculine in a lot of ways (think Kerouac) whereas the hippies afterwards were more gender bending. Ginsberg was in many ways a bridge between them as an out gay Jewish man who was provocative in a number of ways and lived long enough to make an impact over time (unlike Kerouac). I am old enough to have seen him read HOWL in a crowded auditorium in the 90s and it was, as everyone says, transformative.
posted by jessamyn at 4:25 PM on March 26 [8 favorites]

Ginsberg is very much "of his time" in view of the cultural context, but I wouldn't reduce him to be confined merely into that little box. His poetry is expansive in relation to his influences William Blake & Walt Whitman, and he is one of the most interesting American poets of the mid 20th century.
posted by ovvl at 5:56 PM on March 26 [1 favorite]

he surrendered himself to the voice he heard as fully and completely as he could and he had the good fortune of having the world recognize it and see it as meaningful

his surrender is the crucial part of this, not the recognition - as he knew, we are all "published in heaven"
posted by pyramid termite at 11:54 AM on March 27 [1 favorite]

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