Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) was born in Newark, New Jersey. However, he went to high school in Paterson, New Jersey, and soon attended and graduated from Columbia at the age of 22.
By the age of 30, Ginsberg would be briefly imprisoned for charges of obscenity produced against his first book, Howl and Other Poems (1956).
Howl discusses freely such taboo subjects in the 1950’s as drug use, the evils of electric-shock therapy, and perhaps most importantly homosexuality. It would take a judge to finally suggest that the poem Howl in fact was a poem, was in fact literature.
Ginsberg, after the attention draw to his work over the obscenity charges would continue as a public figure throughout the Beat Movement.
In some ways, America’s response to “Howl” is indicative of Ginsberg’s entire career. Writing poems with words that had not been seen in poetry and that still would make most readers squirm, Ginsberg’s outlandish behavior on stage is perhaps even more notorious.
Literally jumping up and down on stage and screaming his poetry at small jazz club audiences, Ginsberg tried to produce a new kind of poetry. Feeling that poetry should not be stilted and formulaic, as it was in its origins, Ginsberg tried to find a way to write poetry that was “modeled on speech and breathing patterns.”
In other words, Gisberg wanted to break down the artifice of so-called professional writing and to bring it back to its real-life applications. How to people really speak? he seems to have asked himself. With obscenities. So he too wrote with obscenities.
With its emphasis on beat, language, life, and the theatrical nature of the spoken word, the Beats, including Ginsberg, are cited as predecessors for modern-day rap. In a fitting manner, then, when Ginsberg died in 1997, his “The Ballad of the Skeletons,” turned first into music and second into a music video, was moving to the top of the MTV charts, introducing the artist without whom rap music would not exist in the same way to a generation who otherwise might not know his name.