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“America I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel,” Allen Ginsberg declared at the conclusion of his 1956 poem “America.” Ginsberg was indeed putting his shoulder to the wheel, singing of America, and to America, even as it proved occasionally inhospitable to his life and art.
Ginsberg (1926-1997) was one of the founding members of the Beat movement, alongside novelists Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs and poets Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Jack Micheline. The Beats were anti-establishment with a hunger for experience and a desire to rewrite American letters to include themselves. They stood in opposition to what they saw as the stultifying consensus of 1950s America.
Ginsberg was born in 1926 in New Jersey, and spent his childhood in Paterson–home of poet William Carlos Williams, who would eventually serve as his mentor and write an introduction to Ginsberg’s chapbook Howl and Other Poems (1956). Ginsberg attended Columbia University on a scholarship granted by the YMHA (Young Men’s Hebrew Association) of Paterson. In New York, Ginsberg met other young poets and artists who would eventually become part of the Beat movement, including Lucien Carr, Gregory Corso, and Neal Cassady. After college, Ginsberg moved to San Francisco, where poets like Snyder and Kenneth Rexroth were already working.
Ginsberg crafted a style all his own, borrowing liberally from Walt Whitman’s romanticism while writing sympathetically of his own life, including his homosexuality, the tortured romantic and personal lives of his friends, and his drug use. “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,” begins Ginsberg’s famous “Howl.” The poem goes on to serve as a collective autobiography of the poet and his friends, and a condemnation of the military-industrial Moloch of its time. Ginsberg’s poetry revolved around his use of extended lines, which often move to a jazzy rhythm, and the poet gave credit for his style to both the jazz music he loved and the legendarily talkative Jews of his own youth.
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