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Alen Ginsberg Beat poet, dies Leading voice in generation of dissent is silenced at 70.


NEW YORK -- Allen Ginsberg, the poet laureate of the Beat generation whose "Howl!" became a manifesto for the sexual revolution and a cause celebre for free speech in the 1950s, died early yesterday. He was 70 and lived in Manhattan.

He died of liver cancer, said Bill Morgan, the poet's friend and archivist.

Mr. Morgan said that Mr. Ginsberg wrote right to the end. "He's working on a lot of poems, talking to old friends," Mr. Morgan said Friday. "He's in very good spirits. He wants to write poetry and finish his life's work."

William S. Burroughs, one of Mr. Ginsberg's lifelong friends and a fellow Beat, said:

"He stood for freedom of expression and for coming out of all the closets long before others did. He has influence because he said what he believed."

As much through the strength of his own irrepressible personality as through his poetry, Mr. Ginsberg provided a bridge between the Underground and the Transcendental. He was as comfortable in the ashrams of Indian gurus in the 1960s as he had been in the Beat coffeehouses of the preceding decade.

He was known around the world as a master of the outrageous. He read his poetry and played finger cymbals at the Albert Hall in London; he was expelled from Cuba after saying he found Che Guevara "cute"; he sang duets with Bob Dylan; he chanted "Hare Krishna" on William F. Buckley Jr.'s television program.

The narrator in Saul Bellow's "Him With His Foot in His Mouth" said of Mr. Ginsberg: "Under all this self-revealing candor is purity of heart. And the only authentic living representative of American Transcendentalism is that fat-breasted, bald, bearded homosexual in smeared goggles, innocent in his uncleanness."

Allen Ginsberg was born June 3, 1926, in Newark, N.J., and grew up in Paterson, N.J., the second son of Louis Ginsberg, a schoolteacher and sometime poet, and the former Naomi Levy, a Russian emigree and fervent Marxist.

His brother, Eugene, named for Eugene V. Debs, wrote poetry, under the name Eugene Brooks. Eugene, a lawyer, survives.

Recalling his parents in a 1985 interview, Mr. Ginsberg said: "They were old-fashioned delicatessen philosophers. My father would go around the house either reciting Emily Dickinson and Longfellow under his breath or attacking T. S. Eliot for ruining poetry with his 'obscurantism.'

"My mother made up bedtime stories that all went something like: 'The good king rode forth from his castle, saw the suffering workers and healed them.' I grew suspicious of both sides."

Allen Ginsberg's mother later suffered from paranoia and was in and out of mental institutions; Mr. Ginsberg signed an authorization for a lobotomy.

Three years after her death in a mental hospital, Mr. Ginsberg wrote "Kaddish for Naomi Ginsberg (1894-1956)," an elegy that many consider his finest poem:

Strange now to think of you, gone without corsets & eyes, while I walk on the sunny pavement of Greenwich Village,

downtown Manhattan, clear winter noon, and I've been up all night, talking, talking, reading the Kaddish aloud, listening to Ray Charles blues shout blind on the phonograph

the rhythm, the rhythm -- and your memory in my head three years after -- .

"Kaddish" burnished a reputation that had been forged with the publication of "Howl!" three years earlier. The two works established Mr. Ginsberg as a major voice in what came to be known as the Beat Generation of writers.

Mr. Ginsberg's journey to his place as one of America's most celebrated poets began during his college days. At first, he attended Montclair State College. But in 1943, he received a small scholarship from the Young Men's Hebrew Association of Paterson and enrolled at Columbia University.

At Columbia he fell in with a crowd that included Jack Kerouac, a former student four years his senior; Lucien Carr and William Burroughs; and later, Neal Cassady, a railway worker who had literary aspirations. Together they formed the nucleus of what would become the Beats.

It was also at Columbia that Mr. Ginsberg began to experiment with mind-altering drugs, which would gain widespread use in the decade to follow and which Mr. Ginsberg would celebrate in his verse along with his homosexuality and his immersion in Eastern transcendental religions.

If the Beats were creating literary history around Columbia and the West End Cafe, there was a dangerous undercurrent to their activities. Mr. Carr spent a brief time in jail for manslaughter, and Mr. Ginsberg, because he had associated with Mr. Carr, was suspended from Columbia for a year.

In 1949, after Mr. Ginsberg had received his bachelor's degree, Herbert Huncke, a writer and hustler, moved into his apartment and stored stolen goods there. Mr. Huncke was jailed, and Mr. Ginsberg, pleading psychological disability, was sent to a psychiatric institution for eight months.

At the institution, he met another patient, Carl Solomon, whom Mr. Ginsberg credited with deepening his understanding of poetry and its power as a weapon of political dissent.

Returning to Paterson, Mr. Ginsberg became a protege of William Carlos Williams, the physician and poet, who lived nearby. Mr. Williams' use of colloquial American language in his poetry was a major influence on the young Ginsberg.

After Columbia, Mr. Ginsberg went to work for a Madison Avenue advertising agency. After five years, he moved to San Francisco with six months of unemployment insurance in his pocket.

San Francisco then was the center of considerable literary energy. He took a room around the corner from City Lights, Lawrence Ferlinghetti's bookstore and underground publishing house, and began to write.

During this period, Mr. Ginsberg also became part of the San Francisco literary circle that included Kenneth Rexroth -- an author, critic and painter -- Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, Robert Duncan and Philip Lamantia. He also met Peter Orlovsky, who would be his companion for the next 30 years.

His first major work from San Francisco was "Howl!"

The long-running poem expressed the anxieties and ideals of a generation alienated from mainstream society. "Howl!," which was to become Mr. Ginsberg's most famous poem, was dedicated to Carl Solomon and begins:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,

dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,

angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night.

With its open and often vivid celebration of homosexuality and eroticism, "Howl!" was impounded by U.S. Customs agents, and Mr. Ginsberg was tried on obscenity charges.

After a long trial, Judge Clayton Horn ruled that the poem was not without "redeeming social importance." The result was to make "Howl!" immensely popular and establish it as a landmark against censorship.

Mr. Ginsberg described his literary rules succinctly: "You don't have to be right. All you have to do is be candid."

Mr. Ginsberg used the celebrity he gained with "Howl!" to travel widely during the next two decades, going to China and India to study with gurus and Zen masters.

He was in the forefront of whatever movement was in fashion: the sexual revolution and drug culture of the 1960s, the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations of the '60s and '70s, the anti-CIA and anti-Shah demonstrations of the '70s, and the anti-Reagan protests of the '80s.

In 1967 he was arrested in an anti-war protest in New York City, and he was arrested again, for the same reason, at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968. He testified in the trial of the so-called Chicago Seven.

Through it all, he kept writing. After "Kaddish" in 1959, major works included "TV Baby" (1960), "Wichita Vortex Sutra" (1966), "Wales Visitation" (1967), "Don't Grow Old" (1976) and "White Shroud" (1983).

In his celebrated career, Mr. Ginsberg was the recipient of many awards, including the National Book Award (1973), the Robert Frost Medal for distinguished poetic achievement (1986) and an American Book Award for contributions to literary excellence (1990).

By the 1970s, he was becoming one of the last living voices of the Beat generation.

In 1985, Harper & Row published Mr. Ginsberg's "Collected Poems," an anthology of his major works in one volume that firmly established the poet in the mainstream of American literature. He again made tours, giving interviews and showing up on television shows, but this time he was in suit and tie and offering a sort of explanation of his life's work.

"People ask me if I've gone respectable now," he said to one interviewer. "I tell them I've always been respectable."

Pub Date: 4/06/97

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