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Allen Ginsberg: Beat poet and counter-culture icon

Allen Ginsberg (1926-97) was a pivotal figure of the Beat generation and of 1960s American counterculture. His poetry first came to prominence with the publication of his collection Howl and other poems (1956).

The poem Howl, in particular, caused great controversy due to its explicit content. It divided critics, drawing criticism and praise for its antagonistic tone, use of raw, honest street language and treatment of taboo subjects. The critic Kevin O’Sullivan wrote that the poem was ‘considered by many to be a revolutionary event in American poetry’, while Paul Zweig noted how the poem ‘almost singlehandedly dislocated the traditionalist poetry of the 1950s’.

Shortly after the collection was published, it was banned for obscenity. Howl overcame censorship trials and became a manifesto for the Beat movement. Ginsberg was also heavily involved with counterculture and anti-war movements in the 1960s, protesting against the Vietnam War and addressing issues of free speech and gay rights.

The copy of Collected poems featured in the exhibition is inscribed by Ginsberg to Eric Mottram (1924-95), professor of English and American Literature at King's College London, who was also a poet, critic and editor.

The inscription includes a quotation from the Buddhist abbot Chögyam Trungpa: ‘Things are symbols of themselves’. Ginsberg took classes and taught poetry in Trungpa's Naropa Institute and committed himself to the Buddhist faith in the 1970s.

In this exhibition

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