The poets who really woke me up with their writing were prurient and profane when I found them, but exciting enough to keep reading until I understood what made their work lasting, important, and profound. Allen Ginsberg is the first of these. I read Howl at fourteen years old crouched in a Barnes & Noble in a suburb too far from Los Angeles to really be a suburb. After Howl I spent then next couple years seeking out other writers whose work felt like a punch in the stomach: Henry Miller, Charles Bukowski, and Stephen Dobyns knocked the wind out of me during my high school years, and it's partly due to Allen Ginsberg that I found them.
There is a poem other than "Howl" in the book of the same name that is strikingly beautiful and strange and melancholy, and it is this poem that I return to when I pull out my dog-eared copy of Collected Poems 1947-1980: "A Supermarket in California" is a fantastical poem about tailing Walt Whitman through a grocery store, and it ends thusly:
Ah, dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher, what America did you have in mind when Charon quit poling his ferry and you got out on a smoking bank and stood watching the boat disappear on the black waters of Lethe?
If you want to read some of the scholarly things people have to say about Allen Ginsberg, Ann Charters said most of it, you can check it out here.
Today is Allen Ginsberg's birthday: Happy Birthday, Allen Ginsberg. Celebrate by reading one of his other poems. I found this audio clip of him reading his poem, "America" that I had never heard before, and I was struck by the joy and humor in his voice as he reads it: He was able to be loud about serious things, but always with joy and a sense of humor.