Allen Ginsberg’s poetry reflect both the time and place in which he wrote it. The term “psychedelia” does not just refer to psychedelic drugs like marijuana or peyote. It also includes any deliberate attempt by someone else to alter the mind’s workings. Ginsberg’s exploration of Zen Buddhism, his use of chanting as a way to focus the mind, and his deliberate disregard for standard rhythmical and mathematical devices all contributed to his uniqueness.
Ginsberg’s first poem was published at Columbia University. He began his Columbia University career in December 1943. Despite his preference for a literary career, he decided to follow his father’s lead and begin a program of study as a labor lawyer. Ginsberg first met Lucien Carr in 1943. Lucien introduced Ginsberg, unknowingly, to Jack Kerouac. Ginsberg changed his major to literature after he switched to law. He began to meet Kerouac as well as Burroughs regularly, and they created the trio that would eventually lead to the Beat movement in literature. Jack Kerouac, during a conversation he had with John Holmes in the fall 1948, coined “Beat” to refer to his group of friends. They were discussing their social and literary ideas. Holmes stated it best in his article: Although the origins and meaning of the term “beat” remain a mystery to Americans, they are very obvious. It’s more than weariness. It’s a feeling like you are stripped down to your core consciousness. It is a feeling of being unrestrained against one’s own wall. The man who goes broke and puts all his resources on one number is beaten. That’s what the young generation does from their early years.
The Beat generation was a mature and maturing group that had been born during the Great Depression and the Second World War. These college-aged people, who were left without an anchor in a world undergoing dramatic changes and lost at the end of the war, turned to new things to fill the void. Even though Ginsberg, Kerouac or their friends were more extreme than some others, they simply followed the eclecticisms to their natural conclusions.
Kerouac made reference to “Beatific” in the second half of origin of the term. This meaning, as well as the first, is important. Ginsberg clearly applies this meaning to much of his work. The third section “Howl,” which declares that every human is equally holy and worthy, is the third part of “Beat.” Although many people found the notion of a homeless man on a New York street corner or a senile Catholic priest being equally holy was absurd, it provided the ideological foundation for works such as “Howl,” America, and the “Sunflower Sutra.”
Ginsberg lived at Columbia for a time with Burroughs, Kerouac and Herbert Huncke. This meant that he had to switch majors. They all quickly resumed Ginsberg’s education. They introduced Ginsberg to Blake, Yeats and Celine. A year later, he received his readmission to Columbia. After that, the family of literary friends began dispersing throughout the country. After a semester at Columbia, he left to travel with his friends and continue on to other places. Ginsberg made the decision to fully devote himself to poetry after completing his first semester at Columbia.
Ginsberg, who found Kerouac distracted, and Burroughs involved with the harvest and sale Texan marijuana’s first crop, devoted himself to writing poetry about his inner suffering. He shipped from Galveston out to Dakar. There he tried to get “restorative Gide love in the form a dashing African” but found it difficult to communicate. Ginsberg then returned to New York in the late summer. Ginsberg discovered that his friends had moved on and he wrote another “Doldrums.”
Ginsberg spent his last two Columbia years mostly in a rut. After Ginsberg’s graduation, Columbia turned down his request for a graduate fellowship or teaching job. Ginsberg also spent most of his time “washing dishes at Bickford’s, having visions, and not finding the work that Columbia graduates are expected to get.” Ginsberg’s last summer at Columbia was a rocky one. After reading Blake’s poem “Ah, Sunflower”, Ginsberg had a vision. He heard a masculine voice and felt like God speaking to him. He knew that he was fated to write poetry and that vision influenced his entire life.
Ginsberg attempted to “go straight” shortly following Blake’s vision. He underwent psychoanalysis, and ended his limited experimentation using mind-altering substances. Previously, he had only been allowed to use marijuana and Benzedrine as a methamphetamine. Ginsberg moved from New York to San Francisco in 1953 in order to participate the poetry movement. Ginsberg continued his exploration of psychedelia and became familiar with local poets while he was there.
Zen Buddhism is defined in Japan differently to the Zen Ginsberg, his Beatniks, and others explored. John Ciardi called it “the holiness and the impromptu”. Merrill elaborates by explaining that their version of Zen was based on the idea of Zen. Merrill also explains that Zen is not a purely formalized form of Zen.
His work also contains other Zen concepts. The second section of the poem, “Howl,” which ejaculates that all things are holy, is a modern interpretation of the notion that every kind of life is sacred. Ginsberg did not get the Zen influence from San Francisco. Ginsberg traveled for four years between India and Nepal. He used Zen ideas to explain the nature of divineity in much of his lecturing later. His poetry was not influenced by his search for divinity, but instead he used it as a metaphor for divinity. The poetry of the search for the divine is clearly illustrated in “Sunflower Sutra.” Lines like this: A corolla of bleary twigs that were broken and pushed down, like a crown of bricks, with seeds falling from its head. Sunrays fell on its soon-to-be toothless mouth. Its hairy head was covered in sunrays like a dried wire spiderweb. It gestured from the root. There were pieces of plaster in its ears.
Ginsberg’s soul and a battered sunflower are not inseparable. The connection between the sunflower and Ginsberg is not that it is less divine than the human soul. Therefore, the sunflower is equally worthy of love. This Buddhist concept clashed with American values. American values emphasize the superiority the human soul and define the essential needs of pureness. Ginsberg’s bisexual, experimental lifestyle was completely against this.
Ginsberg used the power of chanting to concentrate his mind and his intellect. The idea behind chanting, as it is understood in many Eastern cultures, is very simple. A mantra is a phrase which has no specific meaning but that can be used to convey many spiritual concepts. It is repeated with different emphasis and tone. This allows the mind to clear of all thoughts and helps release tensions that could hinder artistic impulses. Ginsberg’s “free association” writing is what allows the thoughts and ideas to flow naturally from the mind to the page without being analyzed. Although some of his poems were not subject to “free association” analysis due to revisions, his breath-by-breath poetry has its own meter. Not all poems reflect an Iambic pentameter. But there is a sense rhythm that brings the words into a poetic focus. Although “Ecologue,” a dramatic piece of poetry, was composed in 1970, the seeds that led to this style were planted as soon as Ginsberg had completed the first half of “Howl” (in 1955).
Two events that impacted Ginsberg’s poetry in the 1960s were: Timothy Leary requested Ginsberg to be part of a series on studies with LSD and psilocybin mushroom. Ginsberg’s experience with ayahuasca (which translates as “vine the dead”) resulted in vivid imagery and poetry that is based on his awareness-expanding abilities. Ginsberg described his third ayahuasca experience as “faced by Death”, with his skull wrapped around a pallet on the porch. This was followed by a feeling of nausea and vomiting. I felt like a snake vomiting the universe — or like a Jivaro with fangs vomiting up to realize the Murder of the Universe — my own death — everyone’s — I was unprepared…
Although it is difficult to lose reality in these hallucinations, the effect on working poets adds a whole new dimension. Ginsberg rewrote entire sections of “Kaddish” in addition to several poems in the collection. The poems include “Laughing Gas”, which Ginsberg was writing while he was feeling the effects Nitrous Oxide. Also, Ginsberg recorded Ginsberg’s first encounter with LSD as part of a Stanford mental research unit study.
Between 1954 and 1956, Ginsberg wrote “Howl” the entire first section. This was before he experienced hallucinations caused by peyote, a button-like protrusion found in certain Mexican and south-western American succulents. The poem’s first line (“I saw the greatest minds of my generation starved to death by madness”) is more than a poetic license. Ginsberg actually saw his friends, poets, walking naked through the streets below his apartment window, naked and hungry, using peyote-induced visions. This image shows Ginsberg’s profound perception of hallucinogens and psychedelics. Ginsberg was asked psychologically about his experience with psychedelics in 1960 while he was at the annual convention of the Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry.
Ginsberg incorporated his many experiences with psychedelic drug use into his Buddhist philosophies and continued his quest for higher consciousness. His attempt to “turn on” people to “Acid” was partially successful with Timothy Leary. However, his subsequent attempts to introduce LSD legislation failed miserably.
Ginsberg was unique in his approach to poetry writing. None of his Beatnik colleagues shared it. The poetic development of America was markedly influenced by the widespread use of psychedelica in order to expand consciousness, realize the divinity and divinity of each individual soul and the divinity that is the entire universe. Ginsberg’s “narcissistic holyness” was what some call it. It is clear in his poetry as well as his life that Ginsberg took his words seriously.