Poetry Foundation, “Allen Ginsberg,” 2020, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/allen-ginsberg; The Allen Ginsberg Project, accessed June 22, 2021, https://allenginsberg.org/.One of the most influential American poets of the twentieth century, the New Jersey-born Allen Ginsberg was also a committed Buddhist and anti-nuclear activist with deep ties to Colorado. His involvement in the founding of Boulder’s Naropa Institute (now Naropa University) and participation in civil disobedience actions against the Rocky Flats Plant set the stage for the publication of his 1978 poem, “Plutonian Ode.” Ginsberg’s activism was an extension of his artistic and spiritual practices. While his influence peaked in the counterculture movement of the 1960s and 1970s, he remains one of the most well-known and politically-committed writers of the last century.
Ginsberg catapulted to prominence with the publication of the long-form poem “Howl” in 1956. “Howl” portrayed a radically different side of American life—one embracing epiphanic experiences of drugs and sex—than the rigid and, for Ginsberg, damaging norms of Cold War society. In “Howl” and other works, Ginsberg often employed hallucinatory imagery that compares society to a machine and humans to plants. Just as violets can bloom in paved city sidewalks, so too can humans overcome the strict boundaries of societal norms. Along with Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs, Ginsberg was strongly associated with the Beat Generation, which valued intellectualism, sensuality, nonconformity, the pursuit of love, and profoundly influenced popular musicians like Bob Dylan and The Beatles and the broader 1960s counterculture movement.
Allen Ginsberg was a lifelong proponent for spiritual exploration. At first, he employed hallucinogens, but his readings and travels guided him to Eastern religious philosophies—especially Buddhism. He practiced breathwork and yoga, and Poetry Foundation, “Allen Ginsberg,” 2020, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/allen-ginsberg; The Allen Ginsberg Project, accessed June 22, 2021, https://allenginsberg.org/.developed relationships with spiritual leaders such as Tibetan Buddhist Chögyam Trungpa, who in 1974 began the Naropa Institute (now University) in Boulder, Colorado, Naropa University, “History of Naropa,” accessed June 22, 2021, https://www.naropa.edu/about-naropa/history-of-naropa/.with Ginsberg co-founding the Institute’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics with musician John Cage and fellow poets Anne Waldman and Diane di Prima. Naropa is the only accredited university dedicated to “contemplative education.” The pursuit of knowledge is grounded in self-awareness and compassion. As such, Naropa University is said to be the model for modern Western mindfulness.
At Naropa, Ginsberg was both a student and teacher, which was not unusual. He taught a variety of subjects including poetry, philosophy, and whatever else held his interest. The ethos of Naropa held that social activism cannot be separated from spiritual wellness because both movements share the same values of nonviolence, kindness, and connectivity. The university became a center of anti-nuclear activism, with Ginsberg and other faculty joining the Rocky Flats Truth Force, a direct action group committed to exposing and ending the risks of nuclear weapons.
At the height of his work with the Rocky Flats Truth Force, The Allen Ginsberg Project, accessed June 22, 2021, https://allenginsberg.org/.Allen Ginsberg published “Plutonian Ode,” writing the poem’s first draft in a marathon, all-night session on June 12, 1978. The poem begins with a syncretic creation story for this man-made element, drawing on both Greek and Judeo-Christian myths, before launching an extended direct address to plutonium itself. Ginsberg’s language speaks to his outrage and activism—he excoriates his “Radioactive Nemesis” with chants of “I yell,” “I roar,” and “I dare.” At the same time, he testifies to the strange, terrifying intimacy that all beings have under nuclear peril: “Enter my body or not I carol my spirit inside you.” Ginsberg concludes the poem with an invocation of the breath as meditation, as precursor to speech, and as a source of both life and vulnerability. He reminds the American public, political leaders, and “Poets and Orators to come” of their/our power to “destroy this mountain of Plutonium with ordinary mind and body speech.”
Underlining the continuing of poetry and political activism, Ginsberg participated in his first direct action at Rocky Flats just hours after completing the first draft of “Plutonian Ode.” Poetry Foundation, “Allen Ginsberg,” accessed June 22, 2021, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/allen-ginsberg; Camille Sterne, "Stirring the Dust at Rocky Flats," Boulder Weekly, August 22, 2013, https://boulderweekly.com/boulderganic/stirring-the-dust-at-rocky-flats/.He and his life partner Peter Orlovsky were arrested sitting, meditating, and chanting on the railroad tracks at the Rocky Flats Plant in Colorado to block shipments of plutonium from entering the facility. At his arraignment, Ginsberg defended his plea of not guilty by reading the poem aloud in court. Over the decades, “Plutonian Ode” became a fixture at protests around the world, connecting the movements against both nuclear weapons and power even as these issues began to diverge in the 1980s. Together, Ginsberg’s poem and his activism helped to shift the focus from how an artist might represent matters of politics to how they might address them. In this way, Ginsberg’s creative activism has shaped how generations of writers, visual artists, and performers respond to the urgencies of the past, present, and future.
Bagdanov, Kristin George. “Addressing the Atomic Specter: Ginsberg's ‘Plutonian Ode‘ and America's Nuclear Unconscious.” Symplokē 27, no. 1-2 (2019): 185-203.
Ginsberg, Allen. “Plutonian Ode.” Edited by Owen Plotkin. YouTube. August 5, 2007. Accessed April 4, 2021.
Naropa University. “History of Naropa.” Accessed April 4, 2021.
Poetry Foundation. “Allen Ginsberg.” Accessed April 4, 2021.