Columbians Ahead of Their Time
 Allen Ginsberg

Allen Ginsberg

"Poetry is not an expression of the party line. It's that time of night, lying in bed, thinking what you really think, making the private world public, that's what the poet does."

Allen Ginsberg (1926–97)
Poet
Columbia College 1948
Faculty 1986–87

Quintessential Beat, countercultural prophet, Buddhist-Jewish adventurer, distinguished professor—Ginsberg lived as an irrepressible iconoclast in the mold of William Blake and Walt Whitman. His free verse, often presented in a frenetic stream-of-consciousness, a "Hebraic-Melvillian breath" as he called it, posed a revolutionary challenge to traditional notions of poetic form and to society as well.  Celebrating all forms of free expression in his work, Ginsberg also played a highly visible role in a number of protest movements including those in support of gay rights and against the Vietnam War, nuclear weapons, and U.S. policy in Latin America.

His first book, Howl and Other Poems, published by Lawrence Ferlinghetti's City Lights Books in 1956, is widely considered the most important poetic work of the Beat movement, and its opening line became emblematic: "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked . . . " A few years after Howl was published (and cleared of obscenity charges), his elegy for his mother, Kaddish for Naomi Ginsberg (1894–1956),  enhanced his reputation.  In all he wrote over forty collections of poetry; his Fall of America received the National Book Award in 1972. In 1974 he cofounded The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado. In 1987, he joined the faculty of Brooklyn College as a distinguished professor of English and creative writing, teaching undergraduates and graduate students almost until his death in April 1997.

Ginsberg entered Columbia College in 1943. Another alumnus poet, David Lehman, described Ginsberg's two-sided student career in Columbia College Today: "He studied with Lionel Trilling and Meyer Schapiro, read voraciously, and hung out at the West End bar, treating his professors to excited midnight phone calls ("I see the death's head of realism in Dostoevsky" and "I just decided that Andre Gide is obvious"). Shortly after arriving Ginsberg met Lucien Carr (Columbia College 1943–44), who introduced him to former student Jack Kerouac (Columbia College 1940–42).  The trio and others in their circle, including William Burroughs, Neal Cassady, and John Clellon Holmes, congregated in and around the University and in Greenwich Village, engaging in the kind of cultural, literary,  and personal exploration that came to be called Beat in the 1950s. Twice expelled from the College, he nonetheless won the respect of his professors and graduated in 1948 with an A- average.  In 1986, he returned to Columbia as a visiting professor.

Read more about Allen Ginsberg in the Columbia Encyclopedia.

The Lion for Real exhibition explores Allen Ginsberg's early poetic development.

Ginsberg’s papers from 1944 to 1991 are archived at Columbia University.

Naropa University salutes Allen Ginsberg with this online tribute.

A legendary classroom presence, poet, editor, and biographer, Van Doren inspired generations of Columbia students, including Ginsberg.

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