Allen Ginsberg

Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) changed the face of American poetry.

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"Howl" led to an obscenity trial in 1957, which resulted in a famous victory for Ginsberg and the defenders of the artist's First Amendment right to freedom of expression. "Poets are damned but they are not blind, they see with the eyes of angels," wrote Williams in the introduction to Howl and Other Poems. "This poet sees through and all around the horrors he partakes of in the very intimate details of his poem."

Whitman's poetry was the obvious model for Ginsberg, who updated the generous, lyrically abundant, open-hearted style of "Song of Myself" for another era. In part, this was done by Ginsberg's openly acknowledging the homoeroticism Whitman could only nod to parenthetically—"queer shoulder" and all. But there was also a savvy mingling of Whitman's universalism with Ginsberg's own particularism. Ginsberg wanted to be both an exceptional poet and no one other than himself—unabashedly intellectual, gay, and Jewish. Ginsberg's Jewishness, too, was of a universal kind, less attuned to tradition than a pan-historical embrace of the spiritual. In the 1977 poem "What's Dead," from Plutonian Ode, a reference to Moses is accompanied by one to Jesus and Buddha--and Elvis Presley and Groucho Marx, as well.

Ginsberg's poetry conjoined disparate traditions, mingling the religious and the secular, the higher realms and the lower. The 1974 poem "Jaweh and Allah Battle" tackles this union of Judaism and spiritualism, acknowledging "Israel's tribes worshipping the Golden Calf" and "Zalmon Schacter Lubovitcher Rebbe" before settling on a mantra of pan-religious harmony: "JAWEH AND ALLAH SENT ME HERE!/Abraham will take me to his bosom!/Mohammed will guide me to 

paradise!/Christ sent me here to be crucified!/Buddha will wipe us out and destroy the world." The poem ends with a recitation of the Shema prayer, and a partially Jewish reference to the conclusion ("Shantih! shantih! shantih!") of T. S. Eliot's "The Waste Land,": "SHALOM! SHANTIH! SALAAM!"

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Saul Austerlitz

Saul Austerlitz is a writer and film critic in New York.