On this day: Allen Ginsberg dies

April 5 1997: Voice of a generation


On his death at the age of 70, the JC eulogised Ginsberg as "a lay cantor-rabbi for the worldwide "make love not war" movement". Fourteen years later, his name and straggly-bearded image remain as iconic as they were at the height of the hippie era.

One of the foremost counter-cultural voices of his time, Ginsberg was born in New Jersey in 1926 to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents. His mother was a militant communist, his father an agnostic socialist.

His notorious poem Howl, first performed at a free public reading in San Francisco in 1955, took on conformity, capitalism and the social norms of 1950s America.

Two years later it became the subject of an obscenity trial over its allegedly "filthy, vulgar, obscene, and disgusting language", as well as sexually explicit content. The judge eventually ruled that it was not obscene.

A veteran of peaceful protest, Ginsberg voiced his opposition to everything from the Vietnam War to drug prohibition. He embraced Buddhism but throughout his life his Jewishness remained a subject for his work, not least in his 1960 Kaddish collection.

In a 1984 interview with the HC he said: "My real Jewishness wasn't in that God, but in the very strong cultural tradition - an international, left-wing, poetic, tolerant anarchism and argumentism I love.

"The granny wisdom, the bohemian mysticism of Gershon Scholem or Martin Buber or Singer. Einstein and Freud and Marx and Marc Chagall and the pacifist Trotskyist groups are much more interesting and useful to this planet."

What the JC said: For four decades, he preached, enacted and centralised the causes of outsiders, hipsters, beatniks, flower-children, gays, punks, victims of oppression, eco-nuts, and opponents of racism, sarcasm, and censorship….Allen Ginsberg's body is dead. His spirit, his messages, his poetry and prophetic voice live on

See more from the JC archives here.

Last updated: 3:56pm, April 5 2011