Ginsberg nears the end with serenity
Boyd Tonkin is Senior Writer and a columnist at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Literary Editor at The Independent, and before that Social Policy Editor and then Books Editor at the New Statesman magazine. He has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes and has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize. In 2001, he re-founded the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for literature in translation, and serves on its judging panel every year.
Saturday 05 April 1997
Ginsberg's raucous rejection of social convention has inspired four decades of hipsters, drop-outs and dissidents. His final illness comes at a time when the influence of the Beats on later counter-cultural movements looks as strong as ever. Director Martin Scorsese's film of On the Road, by Ginsberg's friend, Jack Kerouac, will open soon. Bob Dylan - whose style as a lyric writer owes everything to Ginsberg and the Beats - continues to tour around the world and will play at the Fleadh music festival in London's Finsbury Park in June.
Ginsberg, born in New Jersey in 1926 and educated at Columbia University, sprang into the limelight when he published Howl in 1956. His loose-limbed, visionary lines mixed echoes of Blake and Whitman with the drug and jazz culture of post-war Greenwich Village.
The "Beat" mentality that Ginsberg pioneered originally had little to to do with rock `n' roll hedonism. Rather, it gave a harsh American accent to the existential doubt and drift of 1940s Europe. Writing at the outset of the movement in 1952, Ginsberg's friend John Clellon Holmes defined the Beat outlook as "a nakedness of mind ... a feeling of being reduced to the bedrock of consciousness". Drugs were invoked to intensify that state, as were jazz and rock, and sexual adventures.
Although a prominent figure in campaigns for gay rights or against the Vietnam War, Ginsberg never improved on his early verse. For many readers, his claim to greatness rests on Kaddish (1961), a lament for his mother that draws on his Jewish background. Never far from the surface, the mystical elements of Ginsberg's style would flourish later with his commitment to Zen Buddhism.
The stream of verse never dried up, but many recent critics have paid more attention to Ginsberg's journals from the 1950s. They vividly portray the friends, colleagues and sometime lovers who still cast a spell on young rebels around the world.
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