Poet Biographies

Allen Ginsberg: Voice of the Beat Generation

Allen Ginsberg, at the head of the Beat Generation, heavily influenced post-World War II American literature.

Allen Ginsberg Portrait

Allen Ginsberg was a celebrated 20th-century American poet. He was known for his post-war works, such as the poem ‘Howl,’ which was a groundbreaking piece of work at the time. Ginsberg was involved in a number of social causes throughout his life, advocating for sexual liberation, freedom of expression, and anti-establishment views. 

Ginsberg was a pivotal member of the Beat Generation, a group of friends and literary peers that flourished into the Beat movement. This literary movement was a group of writers, poets, musicians, and artists who pushed the envelope of expression and rejected mainstream views. They were influenced by jazz, blues, and other forms of African-American music, as well as by Eastern philosophy and mysticism.

He was known for his poetry, and his essays were widely read. He would go on to write over 150 essays during his career. He would touch on topics such as nuclear weapons, the Vietnam War, and censorship. He would also critique the works of other great writers and well-known figures such as John Lennon, Walt Whitman, and Robert Frank, the celebrated photographer.

Early Life 

Born on June 3, 1926, in Newark, New Jersey, Ginsberg grew up in a Jewish household. His mother, Naomi, faced mental health issues, which deeply affected Ginsberg’s childhood and later writings. 

Writing would run in the family, as his father, Louis Ginsberg, was an already established poet in his own right. He was a traditional poet.

The tumultuous relationship with his mother was a shadow that significantly shaped his formative years and his later writings. He started to read poetry during his school years. As a teen, he would regard the works of Walt Whitman as the pinnacle of literature. However, Edgar Allen Poe soon became the poet that he admired most by the time he graduated from high school.

His time at Columbia University was fruitful, as Ginsberg was forging connections and close friendships with Jack Kerouac and future literary luminaries like William Burroughs and Neal Cassady.

His time at Columbia University was colorful, once being caught storing stolen goods in his dorm room for an acquaintance. Remarkably, Ginsberg would choose to plead insanity in order to avoid jail time. He was successful in his plea, meaning that he had to spend a number of months in a mental institution.

Literary Career

Ginsberg’s literary debut was marked by ‘Howl.’ Ginsberg subsequently produced other seminal works like ‘Kaddish‘ and ‘A Supermarket in California.’

The literary world first took significant notice of Ginsberg when he unveiled ‘Howl‘ during a reading at the Six Gallery in San Francisco in 1955. The poem, with its fierce critique of mainstream society’s constraints and its candid depiction of sexuality and mental struggles, became notorious in literary circles. Its subsequent publication by City Lights Books led to a landmark obscenity trial in 1957. Defended by the ACLU, Ginsberg won the case. In 1965, he visited Cuba as a correspondent for Evergreen Review. He would also be named the Kral Majales (King of May) after a trip to Prague in 1967.

Beat Generation

The Beat Movement was an influential literary movement from the 1950s and into the 1960s. It was a collective of writers, thinkers, and artists who sought to challenge the conservative norms of their time, emphasizing spontaneity, spiritual exploration, and social critique. At the heart of this movement stood Allen Ginsberg, a figure whose works and personal convictions would come to define much of what the Beats represented.

In 1965, the group would travel to London, where they would read at the Royal Albert Hall. It is believed that this was the beginning of an underground scene growing in the English capital. It is said that the likes of Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd, and Soft Machine would be born out of this movement.

Later Career

By the 1970s and 1980s, Ginsberg was a well-known writer, and his fame had grown to its pinnacle. He became a bridge between the beats and the emerging punk rock movement. He would win the National Book Award in 1973 for his collection The Fall of America: Poems of These States. While continuing to write poetry, he toured extensively, reading his work and engaging with the political and countercultural movements of the times. 

An example of his involvement in the counterculture and protests was when he and his long-time companion Peter Orlovsky were arrested for sitting on train tracks in Colorado. That day in 1978, their plan was to stop a train that was coming from the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant, carrying radioactive waste.

Throughout his life, he embraced meditation and promoted Eastern spiritual traditions, such as studying Hare Krishna and other faiths like Buddhism. He was shown these different practices and faith during his trip to India in 1962.


Ginsberg’s journey came to an end on April 5, 1997, due to liver cancer at the age of 70. He was already fighting against diabetes and chronic hepatitis. Even in his final days, he continued to write and engage with life and important social issues.

Famous Poems

As an iconic poet, Allen Ginsberg was responsible for a number of revered works. Here are some of his most famous poems:


Allen Ginsberg’s poetry was deeply influenced by a range of writers. The poetry of Walt Whitman resonated with him deeply. The imagism of Ezra Pound, William Blake‘s symbolism, and William Carlos Williams‘s visceral nature also left their mark on his style.

Ginsberg’s openness and audacity in his writing and the way he went about his life paved the way for numerous poets and writers. He was a beacon for the counterculture, influencing artists ranging from Bob Dylan to Patti Smith. Contemporary poets like Saul Williams and Anis Mojgani were also heavily inspired by Ginsberg’s works.


What is Allen Ginsberg best known for?

Allen Ginsberg is best known for his poem ‘Howl,’ which was published in 1956. ‘Howl‘ is a long, free-form poem that celebrates the ideals of freedom, individuality, and non-conformity.

What era was Allen Ginsberg?

Allen Ginsberg was in his literary prime during the late 1940s into the 1990s, and he would play a vital role in the development of experimental American poetry.

How many poems did Allen Ginsberg write?

Allen Ginsberg wrote over 2,000 poems throughout his lifetime. His poems were published in over 50 books, and they have been translated into over 20 languages. Ginsberg’s poems are known for their range of subjects, experimental style, and passionate engagement with the world.

What was Allen Ginsberg’s poetry style?

Allen Ginsberg’s poetry style was characterized by its free-form structure, its use of repetition and refrain, and its exploration of personal and political themes. Ginsberg was influenced by a wide range of poets, including Walt Whitman, William Blake, and Federico García Lorca. His poetry often combined elements of Beat poetry, jazz poetry, and spoken word poetry.

Why was the poem Howl controversial?

The poem ‘Howl‘ was controversial for a number of reasons. First, its language was very explicit, including references to sex, homosexuality, drugs, and mental illness. Second, the poem celebrated the Beat Generation, which was seen by many as a rebellious and countercultural movement.

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