Two Tuesday Quotes: Ginsberg and Emerson


Whoever controls the media, the images, controls the culture.

Allen Ginsberg

What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have never been discovered.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Allen Ginsberg

The “Howl” obscenity trial served as a catalyst in fomenting Ginsberg’s lifelong obsession with First Amendment issues in particular, and political activism in general. Using his fame as an international podium, Ginsberg spoke out on such controversial issues as the Vietnam War, gay rights (he listed his lifelong companion, Peter Orlovsky, as his spouse in his Who’s Who entry), and drugs (he was an early participant in Timothy Leary’s psilocybin and LSD experiments). At times, his opinions landed him in trouble: he was expelled from Cuba and Czechoslovakia in 1965 and, like many outspoken artists and activists, became the subject of a voluminous FBI dossier. His opinions and knowledge, however controversial, were highly solicited. He testified before Senate subcommittee hearings on drugs and his political essays were in constant demand. Accredited with coining the term “Flower Power”, Ginsberg became a figurehead of the global youth movement in the late 1960s. Source

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Ginsberg, Allen (3 June 1926-6 Apr. 1997), poet, was born in Newark, New Jersey, the younger son of Louis Ginsberg, a high school English teacher and poet, and Naomi Levy Ginsberg. Ginsberg grew up with his older brother Eugene in a household shadowed by his mother’s mental illness; she suffered from recurrent epileptic seizures and paranoia. An active member of the Communist Party-USA, Naomi Ginsberg took her sons to meetings of the radical left dedicated to the cause of international Communism during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

In the winter of 1941, when Allen was a junior in high school, his mother insisted that he take her to a therapist at a Lakewood,
New Jersey, rest home, a disruptive bus journey he described in his long autobiographical poem “Kaddish.” Naomi Ginsberg spent most of the next fifteen years in mental hospitals, enduring the effects of electroshock treatments and a lobotomy before
her death at Pilgrim State Hospital in 1956. Witnessing his mother’s mental illness had a traumatic effect on Ginsberg, who wrote poetry about her unstable condition for the rest of his life.

Graduating from Newark’s East Side High School in 1943, Ginsberg later recalled that his most memorable school day was the afternoon his English teacher Frances Durbin read aloud from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” in a voice “so enthusiastic and joyous . . . so confident and lifted with laughter” that he never forgot the image of “her black-dressed bulk seated squat behind an English class desk, her embroidered collar, her voice powerful and high” (quoted in Schumacher, p. 17). Despite his passionate response to Whitman’s poetry, Ginsberg listed government or legal work as his choice of future occupation in the high school yearbook.

In his remaining years, publishing steadily and traveling tirelessly despite increasing health problems with diabetes and the aftereffects of a stroke, Ginsberg gave readings in Russia, China, Europe, and the South Pacific. In the bardic tradition of William Blake, who played a pump organ when he read his poetry, Ginsberg often accompanied himself on a portable harmonium bought in Benares for fifty dollars. He was the archetypal Beat Generation writer to countless poetry audiences and to the general public. Unlike Kerouac, who died in 1969, Ginsberg remained a radical poet, the embodiment of the ideals of personal freedom, nonconformity, and the search for enlightenment. As a member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, he unabashedly used his prestige to champion the work of his friends. Two months short of his seventy-first birthday, he died of liver cancer at his home in the East Village, New York City. Source

 

Ralph Waldo Emerson

An American essayist, poet, and popular philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–82) began his career as a Unitarian minister in Boston, but achieved worldwide fame as a lecturer and the author of such essays as “Self-Reliance,” “History,” “The Over-Soul,” and “Fate.” Drawing on English and German Romanticism, Neoplatonism, Kantianism, and Hinduism, Emerson developed a metaphysics of process, an epistemology of moods, and an “existentialist” ethics of self-improvement. He influenced generations of Americans, from his friend Henry David Thoreau to John Dewey, and in Europe, Friedrich Nietzsche, who takes up such Emersonian themes as power, fate, the uses of poetry and history, and the critique of Christianity. Source

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Born on May 3, 1803, in Boston, Waldo, as he preferred to be called, received a classical education at Boston Latin School and at Harvard College. Following in his father’s footsteps, Emerson was ordained a Unitarian minister in 1829, but he experienced a religious crisis after the death from tuberculosis of his first wife, the beautiful and romantic Ellen Tucker, to whom he had been married only eighteen months. Resigning from the Second Church and journeying to England in 1832, he became friends with Carlyle, Coleridge, and Wordsworth, and began to formulate his Transcendental faith.

Gathering around him a circle of poets, reformers, artists, and thinkers who helped define a new national identity for American art–among them, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Margaret Fuller, the Peabody sisters, the Alcott family, Jonas Very, the Ripleys and the Channings– Emerson expounded his views on the mystical harmonies of man and nature, the essential perfectibility of the human spirit, the unity of the human soul with the divine Over-Soul, and the values of non-conformity, intellectual and spiritual independence, self-reliance, and utopian friendship. A committed Abolitionist, a champion of the hounded Native Americans, a tireless crusader for peace and social justice, a supporter of educational reform, as well as a selfless champion of other creative geniuses around him–(his letter endorsing Whitman’s LEAVES OF GRASS hailed the younger poet as “the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed”), Emerson’s writings combine passion with a purity of prose.

On April 27, 1882, the great thinker died of pneumonia, caught some weeks before after a rain-soaked walk through his beloved Concord woods. The tiny New England town tolled the bell for each of his years, shrouded itself in black, and prepared for the onslaught of mourners who came from far and near to accompany Emerson to his rest on Poets’ Knoll in Sleepy Hollow cemetery. Source

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His father died when Waldo was eight, leaving the family without financial support. His mother Ruth sold her husband’s library (which became the Boston Athenaeum), took in boarders and worked as a maid. They often had not enough to eat. Waldo and his brother Charles had only one overcoat between them. Taunting schoolfellows asked, “Whose turn is it to wear the great-coat today?”

Aunt Mary Moody Emerson, his father’s unmarried sister, was the dominant influence of Emerson’s childhood and youth. Without formal education, she was possessed of a richly fertile mind. She read widely and knew well the thinkers of the day. A moderate “Channing Unitarian,” steeped in the piety of New England and the history of its churches and theology, she taught Waldo many of the aphorisms he in turn taught his own children: “Lift your aims.” “Always do what you are afraid to do.” “Despise trifles.” “Turn up your nose at glory, honor and money.” And “Oh, blessed, blessed poverty.” She first introduced Emerson to Hindu scriptures and Neoplatonism. She anticipated, especially in her openness to natural religion, the Transcendentalist sensibility. Emerson’s distinctive views first began to emerge in his letters to “Tnamurya,” an anagram of “Aunt Mary,” during the 1820s.

Poor as they were, their family history and social position assured that the Emerson boys would be well-educated. Waldo entered Harvard at 14. He began then to keep a journal, a practice he continued for the rest of his life, later calling its volumes—all long since published—his “savings bank.” He considered various professions, most involving oratory or rhetoric in one way or another. From Harvard he once wrote Aunt Mary, “In my daydreams I do often hunger and thirst to be a painter.” His early journals, poems, and other writings were lavishly illustrated with his drawings. He also painted with water colors. His early writings contain much poetry, but he knew he could not earn a living as a poet. One aspiration never left him. He told Prof. James B. Thayer in 1873 that there never was a time that he would not have accepted a professorship of rhetoric at Harvard. Source

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