Voice of the Beat Generation nears the end with serenity
Boyd Tonkin is Literary Editor at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Social Policy Editor of the New Statesman and has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes. He has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize for a lifetime's achievement in literature.
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, collaborator and occasional lover, Jack Kerouac, will open soon. Meanwhile, 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 from the New York artistic underground 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". Mind-altering drugs were invoked to intensify that state, as were jazz and rock, and sexual adventures.
Although a prominent figure in political campaigns for gay rights or against the Vietnam War, Ginsberg never improved on his early verse. For many readers, his claim to greatness rests above all on Kaddish (1961), a lament for his mother that draws on the poet's Jewish background. Never far from the surface, the mystical elements of Ginsberg's style would flourish later with his long-standing commitment to Zen Buddhism.
The stream of bardic and garrulous verse never dried up, but many recent critics have paid more attention to the publication of Ginsberg's journals from the 1950s. They vividly portray the group of friends, colleagues and sometime lovers - Kerouac, Neal Cassady, William Burroughs, and the poet himself - who still cast a spell on young rebels around the world.
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