Allen Ginsberg was born June 3, 1926, in Newark, New Jersey. His father was an English teacher and mother was a Russian communist who suffered from mental illness most of her life. Always a lover of poetry, Ginsberg attended Columbia University where he befriended fellow poets Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs. Together, the three would later become central figures of the Beat generation. After graduation, Ginsberg headed to San Francisco in 1954, where he met Kenneth Rexroth. The pair teamed up to produce a poetry reading for the new “6” Gallery, in which Ginsberg read his Walt Whitman-structured poem “Howl.” What ensued is considered the beginning of the Beat Movement. A highly controversial and revolutionary work at the time, the poem was a diatribe against social and political injustice. When the poem was published in Howl and Other Poems (1956), the publisher was arrested for printing what was considered obscene and sexually explicit material at the time. It was only after a trial involving the testimony of leading literary figures that a judge ruled the book was not obscene, transforming the censorship of literature and making previously forbidden topics fodder for poets of the generation.
In 1961, Ginsberg published Kaddish and Other Poems. Considered by critics to be one of his strongest and most moving poems, “Kaddish” was written for the poet’s mother and is based on the traditional Hebrew prayer for the dead. As with most of his poetry, Ginsberg was concerned more with the emotion than traditional structure of the poem. He continued publishing collections of poetry throughout his life, including Planet News (1968) and The Fall of America: Poems of These States (1973), which garnered a National Book Award. Other awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1963, National Institute of Arts and Letters Award in 1969, National Arts Club Medal of Honor for Literature in 1979, Poetry Society of America gold medal in 1986, Harriet Monroe Poetry Award from the University of Chicago in 1991, and a Medal of Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et Letters in 1993.
Allen Ginsberg died from complications due to hepatitis and liver cancer, April 5, 1997, in New York City. He is remembered today not only for his unique contributions to American literature, but also—and maybe more notably—for his revolutionary ideas that shaped American culture. His political involvement in civil rights, war resistance, gay activism, and freedom of speech, transformed the nation and helped shape pop culture as we know it today.