The great poet W.H. Auden famously — or infamously — observed, “poetry makes nothing happen.” Allen Ginsberg’s poetry, and his life, turn that tired truism neatly on its head. And if the poems didn’t quite make everything happen, they reflected the breadth of Ginsberg’s political sympathies. As Eliot Katz neatly summarizes in the preface to his “The Poetry and Politics of Allen Ginsberg,” from “outspokenness against Eisenhower-era political and sexual repression to his protests against the Vietnam War, from his willingness to sit on the railroad tracks in Rocky Flats, Colorado, to stop the shipment of plutonium to his opposition to the 1991 Gulf War, Allen Ginsberg consistently put his body and his poetry on the line.”
What Katz contends is that in many, if not all, instances, Ginsberg’s poetry and politics are inseparable, that they inform one another, and that to ignore the former to concentrate on the latter is to diminish the poet. Katz also argues that Ginsberg — arguably the best-known English-language poet of the 20th and early 21st centuries — devoted his “considerable literary skills and energies to help envision and create a more just, peaceful, and egalitarian world.”
In both his poetry and his life, Allen Ginsberg was one of the most politically engaged writers of his era. Influenced by such key literary predecessors as William Blake and Walt Whitman, and raised by a communist mother Naomi, and a Debsian democratic-socialist-poet father Louis, Allen Ginsberg learned how to turn his political ideas and observations into some of the most memorable and widely read poetry of the 20th century. In his personal life, he actively supported and participated in a wide range of organized political movements, beginning with the movement to end the Vietnam War and, in ensuing years, movements for such progressive causes as gay rights, civil rights, environmental protection, nuclear disarmament, and avoidance of the 1991 Gulf War. He was an active member of the PEN Freedom to Write Committee, opposing censorship East and West, and served on the advisory board of numerous progressive organizations, including the media watch group, Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), and a national student activist group that I worked with during the late 1980s and early 1990s, Student Action Union. From 1980 until his death in 1997, during the years that I knew Allen Ginsberg as a one-time student (at Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado) and a longtime friend, he was constantly writing or calling government offices to advocate for improved social policies and urging younger poets like myself to do the same. In addition, many of the next-generation poets whose work Ginsberg praised, mostly writers whose work was not well-known in larger or more mainstream literary circles, were progressive poets deeply concerned with social and political issues.
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