How do you write like Allen Ginsberg?

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Answered by: Lawrence, An Expert in the Writing Poetry Category
Exploding into the popular consciousness in 1956 with the now infamous ‘Howl’, Allen Ginsberg’s verse would come to define the Beat Generation of writers who dominated American literary culture over the following decade.

Even today, his work continues to inspire thousands of artists thanks to its intensity of feeling, often controversial subject matter, and dismissiveness towards traditional poetic form.Recapturing the time, place and mental state in which he wrote is an impossible task. However his deliberate technique and style still offer valuable lessons for would-be beatniks. Below are three things to consider for the poet who desires to one day write like Allen Ginsberg.

Don’t be afraid of run-on sentencesThe poem ‘Howl’ is one long run-on sentence, and many of Ginsberg’s other works use them either as the core structure or as breaks between shorter, constrained lines. In each case, the risk of exhausting the reader is carefully weighed against the potential freedom gained by throwing out punctuation and conjunctions.

This desire for freedom is essential to his poetry. Freedom from oppressive governments, from economic inequality, from social ostracism and, ultimately, freedom from the constraints of language itself.

For the traditionally minded poet a thought must end when it fulfils the grammatical requirements of its sentence: subject, verb and object - arranged in clauses. For Ginsberg it ends when the idea itself is complete, and not a word sooner.

This does not mean his poetry is without structure, however. In the absence of those grammatical shackles, the natural rhythm across individual words takes precedence. Understanding these cadences makes all the difference between long-winded rambling and a refined linguistic style.

Exercise Idea: Write some single sentence poems. Keep expanding on a specific thought until it runs dry, allowing it to go in any direction that fuels the sentence. Then go over your word choices and insert line breaks to improve clarity and rhythm.

Exchange rhyme for repetition

Explicit rhymes can be a useful tool to tie multiple lines together, or to give an overall sense of symmetry to your poems. Yet in work as ecstatic and unconfined as Ginsberg’s they are clearly of no use at all. Even assonance - rhymed syllables between words - is in short supply, as he opts instead for the energy of constantly contrasting sound.

Then how does he achieve the consistency of a sonnet with such inconsistent structure?

The answer lies in the repeated phrase or word: “who”, “nor”, “I’m with you in Rockland”, “America”.

Like a backbone which holds up the weight of each poem’s imagistic complexity, these repetitions ensure that we do not become lost as we make our way through Ginsberg’s thought process. They refocus our attention just as we teeter on the edge of losing it. His subject or central theme is carried no matter how convoluted the sentence structure becomes.

Although renowned for euphoric and scintillating language, the power in his greatest poetry lies in these small devices, without which his flow becomes simply overwhelming.

Exercise Idea: Rewrite a poem, yours or another’s, removing all mention of the subject itself. Experiment with ways to re-contextualise the leftover images. It may be useful to incorporate this strategy into the previous exercise.

Confront the grotesque

If you want to write like Allen Ginsberg then to some extent you’ll have to think like him. That doesn’t mean copying the man’s ideas out word for word, nor slumming it on the streets of San Francisco for a summer. (Although the second part is optional of course!)

The key is bravery in the face of your subject matter, and to be unflinching in its depiction.

For all the lewd references to homosexual acts, drug usage and other assorted debaucheries - which brought the law to task on ‘Howl’ when it was published - more striking is Ginsberg’s sense of desperation in confronting American society. He comes across as both a fragile and antagonistic creature, hopeful for the world yet repulsed at the same time.

Other poets might talk about this horror and squalor in abstract terms. In contrast Ginsberg uses direct experience, best served by uncensored language, to capture the reality of life for the people that populate his world.

Emulating this style requires that you be prepared to stand up to your greatest terrors. Not just attacking them with shocking language, but allowing the truth to make you vulnerable, and this honesty to make your writing soar.

Exercise Idea: Write a poem about your most unpopular opinion. The less you’d want to share it with another person, the better.

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