Allen Ginsberg, the Beat Generation’s premier poet, wrote a long ode- Howl, in 1956. Its famous opening lines: “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.”
I'm not sure Ginsberg's poem is good, exactly, but it's a piece that has been quoted from for too long to really ignore. The image of Ginsberg in his later years, a bald, chubby dharma bear, has eclipsed his early years as a cute, soulful jewish gay boy, back-to-back on a Paris park bench with his lifelong partner- Peter Orlovsky.
The poem warns of the destructive forces of materialism & conformity in the USA of the time, & it was an iconic moment in the social upheaval of the 1960s.
New Jersey born Ginsberg attended Columbia University where he met Lucien Carr, who introduced him to Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, & John Clellon Holmes, all future Beat Generation writers. They bonded over the potential they saw in the youth of America, as a counter movement to the McCarthy era.
In 1954, in San Francisco, just as I was being born across the bay in Oakland, Ginsberg met 21 year old Peter Orlovsky & they fell in love. Ginsberg encouraged Orlovsky to try writing poetry. They were partners for 40+ years, until Ginsberg’s death. Orlovsky’s gentleness & kindness were a contrast to Ginsberg’s dry brittle coldness. Ginsberg met members of the San Francisco Renaissance & other poets who would become part of a broader band, now known as The Beat Generation.
Ginsberg & Orlovsky by Avedon
Ginsberg held poetry reading that changed our culture, advertising the event as Six Poets at the Six Gallery. The reading, held on October 7, 1955, brought together the East & West Coast factions of the Beat Generation. It was the first public reading of Howl. The poem would bring him world-wide fame.
Because of its explicit, raw language, Howl was considered scandalous when it was first published. Banned for obscenity shortly after its1956 publication, that action became a cause célèbre among defenders of the First Amendment; the ban was rescinded after a judge declared the poem as having redeeming social importance.
Ginsberg's writings on taboo subjects made him a controversial figure in the conservative 1950s, but he continued to create sensitive & inflammatory subjects throughout the next 4 decades. His openness about homosexuality, including his love of young men, was a constant expression. In his poetry he wrote graphically about his desire for the freedom of men to love other men. His work challenged obscenity laws, ultimately changing them.
Ginsberg left this world in 1997, at age 70, surrounded by family, friend & Orlovsky in his East Village loft in NYC. Orlovsky died in spring of 2010. Gay people owe our legal freedom of expression to Ginsberg who bravely challenged the conservative conditions of our reactionary times.
Howl was made into a film of sorts in 2010. As Allen Ginsberg talks about his life & art, his famous poem is illustrated in animation while the obscenity trial over the work is dramatized with an improbable James Franco, my occasional lover, playing Ginsberg.