Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Happy Birthday, Allen Ginsberg

There are really only two great, unforgettable openings in the whole history of epic poetry. There's:

Rage! Sing to me, O Muse, of the Rage of Achilles!

And then there's:

"I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked"

Mad, frenetic, hypnotic, like Whitman on speed, Ginsberg's masterpiece must be read out loud, in a single breath. Buy a copy from your local bookseller, mosey out in the woods for some privacy (or, if you're daring, wander the city streets unashamed) and read the entire poem out loud, with the emphasis on 'loud.'

From The Writer's Almanac:

It's the birthday of Allen Ginsberg born in Newark, New Jersey (1926). His father was a schoolteacher and occasional poet. His mother was a Russian immigrant and devoted Marxist. She was in and out of psychiatric institutions all through out his childhood and had to undergo electric shock treatments and a lobotomy. Ginsberg went to Columbia University on a small scholarship and there he began consorting with Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, William Burroughs. After college, he got a job in marketing research, wore a business suit everyday, and had on office on the 52nd floor of the Empire State Building. He says he started writing there, and that there he learned about careful manipulation of words.

He moved to San Francisco and became friends with Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who published Ginsburg's first major work, Howl.

By his 30s, he was prematurely bald with a ring of hair on the fringe of his head and thick long black beard streaked with gray. He wore black rimmed classes and his Buddha belly was one of his most distinguishing features.

Ginsburg's reading of Howl was reputed to have "turned the 1950s into the 1960s overnight." It began:

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, angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of the night.

The death of his mother affected Ginsburg deeply and for a long time. He wrote his poem "Kaddish" for her, which began:

Strange now to think of you, gone without corsets & eyes, while I walk
on the sunny pavement of Greenwich Village.
downtown Manhattan, clear winter noon, and I've been up all night,
talking, talking, reading the Kaddish aloud, listening to Ray Charles
blues shout blind on the phonograph
the rhythm the rhythm — and your memory in my head three years after —

He once said, "There's no bar to us proclaiming our delight and that's the strength of poetry."

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