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Poet Allen Ginsberg Dies at 70

Obituary: Beat Generation icon, noted for his daring verse and radical politics, is credited with being a literary and cultural force.

April 06, 1997|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Allen Ginsberg, the Beat Generation poet and counterculture guru whose outsized personality, daring verse and scalding political critiques ranged over five decades and profoundly influenced American life and literature, died Saturday at age 70, just days after being diagnosed with liver cancer.

Ginsberg, whose angry, anti-establishment and sexually explicit poem "Howl," published in 1956, was considered a revolutionary event in American poetry, was surrounded by a group of "close friends and old lovers" in his New York apartment when he died.

"He went the way he wanted to go," said poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who was tried on obscenity charges in 1957 for publishing "Howl." "No life-support systems. He just had a Buddhist vigil all night long."

Poet and critic J.D. McClatchy, editor of the Yale Review, said Ginsberg was "as much a social force as a literary phenomenon. Like [Walt] Whitman, he was a bard in the old manner--outsized, darkly prophetic, part exuberance, part prayer, part rant."

Ginsberg, McClatchy said, "unzipped the polite literary fashions of the 1950s and offered a voice for the tumultuous, disaffected decades that followed. His work is a history of our era's psyche, with all its contradictory urges."

Gary Snyder, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and charter member of the poetic rebels who challenged American literary and political conformity in the 1950s, said Ginsberg's "willingness to put himself out there as a poet, a performer and a speaker brought poetry into a cultural and political relevance that it had never known before."

Because of Ginsberg, Snyder said, "Poetry became the way the antiwar movement, the civil rights movement and now the ecology movement speaks to itself and to the outside world."

Asked once to describe his political and social views, Ginsberg said simply: "Absolute defiance."

Ginsberg's poetry influenced the music of Bob Dylan, Yoko Ono and Patti Smith, the poetry of Czech President Vaclav Havel, and the in-your-face political antics of Abbie Hoffman and other radicals. Ginsberg invented the term "flower power" in the 1960s, and, as testament to durability, was a favorite on MTV in the 1990s.

"Dylan said he was the greatest influence on the American poetic voice since Whitman," said Gordon Ball, Ginsberg's editor and friend for 30 years. "I think that's certainly true."

That's an evaluation few would challenge, although some would suggest that the influence was not always positive.

Ginsberg has been criticized for celebrating drug usage and promiscuity. Critics have said that he and other Beat poets undermined respect for language with the notion that all self-expression, regardless of how undisciplined or indecipherable, is worthy of being called poetry.

Political Radical

Ginsberg's voluminous poems tore relentlessly at American materialism, imperialism and hypocrisy, exalted the joys of homosexuality and drug use, promoted socialism as the ideal form of government, and gave anguished voice to his own inner torment and insecurity.

The descent of his mother, Naomi, into madness and death in 1956 led to what many critics believe to be Ginsberg's finest work, "Kaddish," with its image of his mother during her frequent stays in mental institutions: "Back! You! Naomi! Skull on you! Gaunt immortality and revolution come--small broken woman--the ashen indoor eyes of hospitals, ward grayness on skin."

Like Whitman, whom he idolized, Ginsberg was contradictory, expansive, exuberant, audacious, generous, self-absorbed and both gifted and cursed with a sense of mission for using poetry to mold the American experiment in self-expression and self-governance.

He was a political radical, leading protests against American involvement in the Vietnam War and against CIA activities in the Third World, and yet was thrown out of Communist Cuba and Czechoslovakia for advocating personal freedom.

He grew up in a Jewish household but converted to Buddhism and helped found a Buddhist university in Boulder, Colo. He had a middle-class upbringing in New Jersey but was drawn to the drug addicts, petty criminals, pimps and "Negro hipsters" of post-World War II New York.

He feuded with the American media for its simplicity and intellectual sloth but yet was eminently quotable and willing to pose for pictures, including the famous 1960s picture of a full-bearded Ginsberg dressed as Uncle Sam.

Irwin Allen Ginsberg was born June 8, 1926, in Newark, N.J. His father, Louis, was a high school English teacher and well-regarded poet of conservative bent who died in 1976. His mother was a Russian-born Marxist. The pair were devoted parents, and Louis taught his sons (Ginsberg had an older brother, Eugene, who became a lawyer) to recite Dickinson, Poe, Shelley, Keats and Milton.

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