Allen Ginsberg in the Village

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In October 1955, at the Six Gallery on Fillmore Street in San Francisco, a poetry reading took place that marked the start, not only of a new literary tradition, but an entire generation. Although many important poets took part – figures like Kenneth Rexroth, Philip Whalen, and Jack Kerouac – whose novel On the Road wouldn’t be published until 1957 – one poet’s performance in particular proved absolutely inspiring. Allen Ginsberg’s Howl was unlike anything they had heard before, and its electrifying opening line – ‘I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness’ – has rightly become an ‘underground’ classic. Yet although Ginsberg is associated with the San Francisco’ North Beach poetry scene, for most of his life he was a feature of New York’s East Village, living in some six locations over a period of almost fifty years. When Ginsberg lived at 437 East 12th Street – which he did from 1975 to 1996 – I saw him in the neighbourhood, just as I did his fellow Beat William Burroughs, who lived on the Bowery. Of all the Beats, Ginsberg was the only one to successfully make the transition from beatnik to hippie, and in the 1960s he became associated with a number of popular causes and pursuits, from anti-war protests and LSD advocacy, to embracing Hindu and Buddhist religious ideas. Ginsberg was a practicing Buddhist, a student of the venerable Chögyam Trungpa, and with his teacher, and the poet Anne Waldman, in 1974 Ginsberg founded the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at the Naropa Institute at Boulder, Colorado. Ginsberg was one of the first to participate in experiments with psilocybin conducted by Timothy Leary, and during one session in 1961, Ginsberg famously tried to get President Kennedy and Premier Khrushchev on the telephone, to end the cold war. He also tried to reach God. Sadly, neither God, Khruschev, or Kennedy were available, so he had to settle for his old friend Kerouac. Ginsberg died in 1997, and you can read more about him and his fellow Beatniks in my Dedalus Book of the 1960s: Turn Off Your Mind
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