Allen Ginsberg’s “Celestial Homework”: A Reading List for His Class “Literary History of the Beats”


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“Argh, you’re all ama­teurs in a pro­fes­sion­al uni­verse!” roared Allen Gins­berg to a young class of aspir­ing poets in 1977 at the Jack Ker­ouac School of Dis­em­bod­ied Poet­ics. Their offense? Most of the stu­dents had failed to reg­is­ter for med­i­ta­tion instruc­tion. The sto­ry comes to us from Steve Sil­ber­man, who was then a 19-year-old stu­dent in that class­room and a recip­i­ent of Ginsberg’s genius that sum­mer.

Only three years ear­li­er, in 1974, Gins­berg and poet Anne Wald­man launched the Jack Ker­ouac School at Naropa Insti­tute (now Naropa Uni­ver­si­ty), in Boul­der, Col­orado. The Institute—founded by Tibetan teacher Chö­gyam Trung­pa Rin­poche—was mod­eled on ancient Bud­dhist learn­ing cen­ters in India and described by Wald­man and poet Andrew Schelling as “part monastery, part col­lege, part con­ven­tion hall or alchemist’s lab.”

Gins­berg taught at Naropa until his death in 1997. The class in which he had his out­burst was called “Lit­er­ary His­to­ry of the Beats,” at the start of which he hand­ed his stu­dents a list called “Celes­tial Home­work” (first page above, sec­ond and third pages here and here). Sil­ber­man describes the list thus (quot­ing from Gins­berg’s descrip­tion):

This “celes­tial home­work” is the read­ing list that Gins­berg hand­ed out on the first day of his course as “sug­ges­tions for a quick check-out & taste of antient scriven­ers whose works were reflect­ed in Beat lit­er­ary style as well as spe­cif­ic beat pages to dig into.”

It’s a par­tic­u­lar­ly Gins­berg-ian list, with a healthy mix of gen­res and peri­ods, most of it poetry—by Ginsberg’s fel­low beats, to be sure, but also by Melville, Dick­in­son, Yeats, Mil­ton, Shel­ley, and sev­er­al more. Sad­ly, it’s too late to sit at Gins­berg’s feet, but one can still find guid­ance from his “Celes­tial Home­work,” and you can even lis­ten to audio record­ings from the class online too.

Sil­ber­man has done us all the great ser­vice of com­pil­ing as many free online ver­sions of Ginsberg’s rec­om­mend­ed texts as he could. You’ll find them all here, with author bios linked to each pho­to. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, some of the links have gone dead, but with a lit­tle bit of search­ing, you can work your way through most of Ginsberg’s list. Sil­ber­man reports anoth­er Gins­berg epi­gram from his 1977 class: “Poet­ry is the real­iza­tion of the mag­nif­i­cence of the actu­al.” The works on the “Celes­tial Home­work,” Sil­ber­man com­ments, “are gates to that mag­nif­i­cence.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Allen Gins­berg Reads His Famous­ly Cen­sored Beat Poem, Howl

Allen Gins­berg Record­ings Brought to the Dig­i­tal Age. Lis­ten to Eight Full Tracks for Free

W.H. Auden’s 1941 Lit­er­a­ture Syl­labus Asks Stu­dents to Read 32 Great Works, Cov­er­ing 6000 Pages

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Wash­ing­ton, DC. Fol­low him @jdmagness

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