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Eras of American Literature: Allen Ginsberg & Robert Lowell

At the core of the Beat Generation was beloved East Villager Allen Ginsberg. He challenged the barriers that restricted what writers could print and created a handful of pieces that revolutionized American literature as we know it today. Recently, we discovered an old photograph via the Allen Ginsberg Project that inspired us to take a closer look at the contrasts of his work with another well-known writer, Robert Lowell. 

The photograph features a 1977 Poetry Project event, in which Lowell and Ginsberg shared the stage for the first time, at St. Mark’s in the Bowery Church. Lowell, in the midst of his performance, stands at the forefront of the image. The blurred silhouette of Ginsberg is seen closely behind. Presenting these two figures of American literature in the same photograph belies the stark differences in their work and the varying histories of transformative writers in our neighborhoods.

Photo: Martin Wechselblatt via The Allen Ginsberg Project // Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell at St Mark’s Church, New York City, February 23, 1977.

Lowell was known for his intimate, often nihilist, writing style. He was among the first-generation confessionalists that inspired writers like Slyvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and W. D. Snodgrass. This writing style was executed in Lowell’s book, Life Studies, in which he reflected on his family and personal relationships in descriptive prose. Lowell was also a close collaborator and friend of Elizabeth Bishop, once a resident of 16 Charles Street. The two held close correspondence, regularly editing and reviewing each other’s work.

Despite the overlapping timeline of Lowell’s career with the emergence of the Beat Generation, Lowell’s approach to writing was markedly different. Critiques and perspectives shared by Lowell and others highlighted differences between the various generations of American writers. Lowell was notorious for his critique in which he defined two categories of writers — “cooked” and “raw” poets. Writers like Donald Hall and Louis Simpson were categorized as “cooked,” while Ginsberg was placed into the realm of “raw.” Critiques such as this threw into relief the gap between these styles and generations of literature. 

Photo: Gerard Malanga // Robert Lowell

This generational barrier was seemingly put to rest during this 1977 event, however, leaving space for Ginsberg to share the stage with Lowell in the name of prose. Later that year, in September, Lowell passed away, leaving behind a decorated career and lasting impact on American literature. Ginsberg would live on for another twenty years, producing poetry that would touch millions worldwide.

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