Ginsberg was born on 3 June 1926 into a Jewish family in Newark, New Jersey, though he grew up in Paterson, 15 miles further north. His father was a published poet and teacher, and his mother a communist and unstable depressive. He attended Columbia University on a scholarship from the Young Men’s Hebrew Association of Paterson. There he met William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, all later to be pivotal figures of the beat movement. Their behaviour was generally considered wayward, not least because of dabbling with drugs. By 1948, his last year at Columbia, Ginsberg had decided to become a poet, supposedly thanks to hearing the voice of William Blake in a vision. The following year, he spent several months in a mental institution as a consequence of pleading insanity when stolen goods were discovered in his dorm.
In late 1953, Ginsberg travelled to Mexico, and then settled in San Francisco. He fell in love with Peter Orlovsky, also a poet, who would subseqently remain his lifelong partner. In 1955, inspired by a poem by Kerouac, he wrote the long poem Howl which he performed at a reading he organised - Six Poets at the Six Gallery (known now as the Six Gallery reading). The poem, full of raw language and acceptance of his own homosexuality, would bring him world attention, not least because it was the subject of a failed obscenity charge. During the trial, Ginsberg and Orlovsky moved to Paris, living off the royalties from Howl and a disability pension that Orlovsky collected as a Korean veteran. For a period, they went to Tangier to stay with Burroughs who was working on, what would become, Naked Lunch.
In 1958, Ginsberg returned to New York City, troubled by his mother’s death two years earlier in an asylum. There he wrote, what is considered his best work - Kaddish for Naomi Ginsberg, an elegy for his mother based on a traditional Hebrew prayer for the deceased. Thereafter, he continued experimenting with drugs, and travelling widely, most significantly in India where he sought out holy men, remaining for the best part of two years. Having turned to Buddhism, he wrote, in Japan, The Change, about how meditation rather than drugs would help him towards enlightenment. Back in New York City, he befriended A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the founder of the Hare Krishna movement, helping him with money, organisation and contacts. By this time, he was also incorporating chanting and music (he had acquired a harmonium in India) into his poetry readings.
In the mid-1960s, Ginsberg became strongly associated with the hippy and antiwar movements, and is credited with creating the idea of ‘flower power’, using positive values, peace and love, in demonstrations. He was constantly at odds with the establishment. In 1965, alone, he was asked to leave Cuba and Czechoslovakia by their respective governments. At home he was arrested at various demonstrations, and, in 1972, was jailed in Miami for protesting against President Richard Nixon. A few years later, he was arrested with Orlovsky for sitting on train tracks to try and stop a train loaded with radioactive waste.
In his later years, Ginsberg was a public figure, the archetypal Beat Generation writer. Despite increasing health problems, he continued to publish steadily and travel often, giving readings across the globe. He died in 1997 - for more biographical info see Wikipedia, Allen Ginsberg Project, Poetry Foundation, American National Biography Online, or various obituaries (New York Times, for example, or The Independent).
Ginsberg began using notebooks in childhood, collecting source material for poetry and prose, and for drafting poems. Anansi, in Toronto, published a first selection of extracts in 1968, 35 pages worth, under the title Airplane Dreams: Compositions from Journals (described as ‘not exactly poems, nor not poems’.) Two years later, David Halewood Books and City Lights Books jointly published Ginsberg’s Indian Journals (describing, in prose and verse, his drug-induced experiences in the sub-continent). Grove Press brought out, in 1977, Journals: Early Fifties, Early Sixties, as edited by Gordon Ball. And nearly 20 years later, but still with input from Ginsberg himself, HarperCollins issued Journals: Mid-Fifties, also edited by Gordon Ball (1995). A selection of reviews can be found at the website of Buffalo and Erie County Public Library.
According to Ball’s introduction, the printed text of the last book of journals draws on material entered by Ginsberg in twelve notebooks (and related separated pages) from June 1954 through mid-July 1958. Though presented as a single entity, he says, the editing has involved considerable interleaving between one journal and another, and sometimes yet a third; and both Ginsberg and Gordon Ball ‘lightly pruned and shaped’ the text.
The book also contains a few pages dictated by Ginsberg in 1984 (many journals notes were similarly dictated) which have been presented under the title: ‘Meditations on Record Keeping by Poet’. In these meditations, he describes how he was aware of a ‘historical change of consciousness and some kind of cultural revolution’, and how there was a contest between further liberation or 1984 authoritarianism. He felt he needed to record this in some way, and mentions some of society’s troubles (censorship, drugs, a growing military budget). He then says: ‘I saw all that at stake and thought best to keep a record: in my own writing but also just sort of an archive. So after I milked the notebooks for poems, I just kept hold of the notebooks for whatever I had in it, though I didn’t keep like a historical record of conversations - that wasn’t my function; I thought Kerouac had done that, historical record of scenes, conversations, characters, and persons. He had covered that and I couldn’t possibly compete with him; the best I thought I could do was just keep a record of my own changes of self-nature and perceptions - you know, intermittent perceptions, spots of time. So my notebook is thoughts, epiphanies, vivid moments of haiku, poems, but not a continuous diary of conversations like Virginia Woolf, or Anais Nin, or Boswell.’
Here are samples from two dated extracts in Journals: Mid-Fifties (though the vast majority of entries are undated, and many are poetry rather than prose).
31 March 1955
‘Tiring of the Journal - no writing in it - promotes slop - an egocentric method.
Life’s quiet finally, no love, another plane, after-hours from the office, struggle completed (high tonite on terpinhydrate of codeine), music, rugs, a lousy room and evening robes in which to read, a typewriter.
Lately in revising I’ve noticed a tendency - revising year pile of notes - to adjust the notes to small groups of lines as in 3-line stanza, begun however before reading the Williams late forms - the division being by active words, number of active words in phrase.
“the sad heart of August dies”
the nouns & verbs have a single weight, the adjectives usually less unless strong words or long ones. Count mainly by eye. But requirement of regularity of some lines is a clarity I find apparent lately, so that the notes don’t present themselves totally amorphous. The lines are not yet free enough - for this reason the concentration process is useful again in order to get a sense of measuring small lines - with later possibility, the expansion to a large form with lines distributed over the page
but equal, each parallel indentation equal or equivalent
So that the structure has a structure at least as an excuse for its form
following, as we might guess, the given possibilities of lengths of speech mind-think lines - there will probably be a select number to recognise & distinguish, the double:
and the triplet
Neal’s naked breast” ’
21 December 1956
‘Strange faces in the subway - the minute I sat down I realized I had power to see them straight in the eye and dig the eternal moment’s mask - as they ride by dreaming rocked in the dark with neon on their faces.
The 59th St. stop - recollecting Burroughs and Lucien, Columbus Circle, IRT Station, the dark pavement and endless outpouring of students and ballet dancers and musicians and fairies on this platform, waiting in their youth for life to begin - while I come back here dead (for the fourth time), disconnected. The new IRT B’way train - brighter and shinier - futuristic 1930s air conditioning aluminum big flowers growing out of the roof - parkay tile floors, glassy lights, shining steel poles to hold on to, even the people seem cleaner and richer - and the seats so nice and soft, red cushions.
A man with a notebook in front of me making notes for an ad. My own rusty (gaudy) book.
Beside me a fat well-dressed little kid bow tie, bright Jewish eyes, ass-length salt and pepper jacket - he don’t work on nothing, just lies in bed and eats ham in the morning. And gets up to ride the subway showing off all afternoon, at nite he goes back to supper and eats huge pork chops with lots of greasy potatoes and peas.
Approaching 116 St. Columbia Stop.’