Visionary poet, Allen Ginsberg, is widely renowned as the most famous poet in U.S. history.
He is also the founding father of the Beat generation—a literary movement that influenced our national culture in the post-Vietnam War era.
He was a liberated and spiritual leader for a more tolerant society.
More than a master poet, he was an energetic character who used poetry for self-expression and also to help others break down walls.
Here are 11 facts that make Allen Ginsberg one of the most fascinating people in U.S. history.
Allen Ginsberg: 11 Interesting Facts about the American Poet
1. He had a vision.
In 1948, Ginsberg experienced a vision while reading poetry by the famed William Blake. He explained it after the experience as hearing a voice for days. Later, he would claim that he had heard the voice of God—and he spent time later using drugs to try and recapture the moment, a weird fact about Allen Ginsberg.
One of those times was in 1954, when Ginsberg took Peyote while writing Howl. He had hallucinations of a child-eating demon while staying at the Sir Francis Drake Hotel. This child-eating monster would be the inspiration for Moloch, the demon in Howl.
2. He was in love with a painting model.
In the mid-1950s, Ginsberg met a young painting model named Peter Orlovsky. Orlovsky was modelling for Robert La Vigne, and the pair fell deeply in love. Ginsberg tried to encourage his young boyfriend to become a poet, and eventually supported him to teach poetry at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics in Colorado.
The two men remained together until Ginsberg’s death over 40 years later.
3. He spent time in India.
As was a major trend in the early 60s, Ginsberg and Orlovsky travelled to India. They lived in Calcutta and Benares for over a year, meeting poets and politicians. One of Ginsberg’s close friends in India was Pupul Jayakar, who was instrumental in Ginsberg being able to stay in the country.
4. He was a part of the 60s hippie movement.
Ginsberg was in San Francisco in 1967 for what became known as the Human Be-In, a very public celebration of psychedelic drugs. He was also a good friend of Timothy Leary—the psychologist who supported the use of psychedelics in medicine—and author, Ken Kesey, an interesting fact about Allen Ginsberg.
5. Neal Cassady was Ginsberg’s muse.
Neal Cassady was inspirational to many greats of Ginsberg’s era. Jack Kerouac took inspiration from Cassady for several of his characters—like On the Road’s Dean Moriarty. Ginsberg spoke of him in Howl, and referenced him several times throughout his poetry.
At the time, it is commonly acknowledged that Cassady and Ginsberg had a romantic relationship as well—despite Cassady having relationships with women at the time.
6. Ginsberg’s Howl was cause for criminal charges.
Howl—arguably one of Ginsberg’s most famous pieces—was more than controversial when it was published in 1957. Its publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, was arrested, and hundreds of published copies were seized by police.
There was a trial held to establish whether or not Howl was obscene—for its blatant use of homosexual and heterosexual sex—and it garnered massive media attention.
The prosecution called literary experts to testify, and the publisher was found not guilty. The poem was ruled to have social importance.
7. He was anti-war.
Ginsberg was a vocal anti-war protester during the Vietnam War—as were many of his generation. Along with Norman Mailer and Noam Chomsky, he signed the “Call to Resist Illegitimate Authority”—a campaign started by RESIST. Ginsberg announced that he would ‘refuse tax payments in protest.’
He also joined protests with Ron Kovic—the Vietnam veteran who went on to write Born on the Fourth of July.
8. He once stripped for an audience.
Ginsberg was popular for doing public readings of Howl, which often attracted hundreds of fans. At one such reading, a fan challenged whether Ginsberg would ever really go “naked in the world.”
Ginsberg silenced the heckler by stripping his clothes off on stage, a very weird fact about Allen Ginsberg.
9. He meditated.
After spending time with Orlovsky in India, Ginsberg developed a great interest in Krishnaism. He had been interested in Buddhism for much longer, with some reports saying that he studied the Buddhist religion as far back as the 50s. When he attended the Black Panther rally at Yale in 1970, and the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968, he chanted ‘Om’ as he meditated for hours.
10. His poetry was accessible to the everyday person.
Ginsberg’s writing was credited with being easy to read—at times blunt. He became well known for using blunt language to talk about taboo or controversial subjects—much like the subjects that got him into legal trouble with Howl.
He was often asked why he was so open about taboo topics—like sexual relationships, addiction, violence, and political ideology. Ginsberg referenced fellow author, Herbert Huncke, as being pivotal in breaking down taboos and opening conversation. Huncke long suffered from heroin addiction, but was unable to get support because it was unbecoming to discuss heroin in society.
11. He has many final resting places.
When Ginsberg died in 1997, he was cremated. His ashes were divided into thirds so that he could be buried in different places—in accordance with his wishes. One third of the ashes were buried in India, and one third with his family in New York. When his long-time partner, Peter Orlovsky, passed away, the final third of the ashes were buried alongside him.
Leading up to his death, and after his doctors warned him that he might die soon, Ginsberg called everyone in his address book. He said his goodbyes—many optimistic and upbeat, and many sad and tearful.
Johnny Depp was one of the well-known names that received a goodbye call from the famous poet.
Allen Ginsberg was a fascinating character, who was passionate about reform and changing society for the better. He lived a very open and honest life, at a time when homosexuality was a forbidden topic. Finally, he was one of very few people who got to watch his own autobiography come to life on film.
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