Saturday, June 3, 2017

Birthday: "Democracy! Bah! When I hear that word I reach for my feather Boa!"


Irwin Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997)
Poet, Peace and Human Rights Campaigner
Recipient, The National Book Award (1974)
Recipient, The National Arts Club Medal (1979)
Member, The American Academy of Arts and Letters (1979)
Recipient, The Robert Frost Medal (1986)
Distinguished Professor English,Brooklyn College (1986-97)

He was the Whitman of my day, and this bio never fails to get lots and lots of negative social media feedback, year after year. Poetry is for the alert; clicktivism, for the inert.

A classic New York, Jewish, red diaper baby, Ginsberg was born to a high school teacher who published his poetry on the side, and a mother who was a Communist and suffered from a lifelong, undiagnosed mental illness that manifested itself in paranoid delusions.

As a student at Columbia, Ginsberg fell in with a number of the central figures in the nascent Beats movement, including Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso, and William S. Burroughs. He had a “vision”- lasting several days- that left him convinced he had heard the voice of William Blake reading a number of his poems; Blake became the lodestar of his life and he regularly performed the poet’s works- set to Ginsberg’s music- over the next four decades.

Moving to San Francisco, Ginsberg worked various jobs and met- and fell in love with- Peter Orlovsky, with whom he lived for the rest of his life. Plugged into the West Coast side of the Beat Movement, Ginsberg published his classic poem, Howl, in 1956. It was promptly condemned as obscene and a manager at City Lights Bookstore was arrested for selling it ( a federal judge subsequently sprang the work from censorship jail ).

Through the late 1950s and early Sixties, Ginsberg traveled the world, a sort of one-man event wherever he was. With the escalation of the Vietnam War he became a singularly outspoken critic; his participation in Sixties counterculture events, his refusal to be coy about his homosexuality, and his practice of Buddhism made him an outrageous- and, to middle America- outraging figure of exotic and appalling views. He was regularly denounced as a communist, and deported by the communists in Cuba and Czechoslovakia for being a pervert and a trouble maker.

In person, even before a large audience, he was a magnetic presence: by turns witty and salacious, a comic and visionary in a rat’s nest beard and second-hand clothes. Like so many poets, Ginsberg’s best work came in his youth- “Howl”, in 1955; “Kaddish”- a long work inspired by the death of his long-suffering mother- is considered his best, and came out in 1961.

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