Alaska Life

‘Siesta’ in the Arctic: The forgotten Alaska link to Allen Ginsberg and the Beat Generation

Part of a continuing weekly series on Alaska history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage or Alaska history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.

In the summer of 1956, a cargo ship and poet together traveled the seas off north Alaska. The ship was a relic, an artifact of a war that ended more than a decade earlier. As a Victory ship, the USNS Sgt. Jack J. Pendleton had been among hundreds built during World War II to replace losses from German submarines. It would continue to serve, but the initiative behind its creation was gone. On the other hand, Allen Ginsberg, the poet, stood at a precipice of fame, infamy and influence. He was about to publish his first standalone work on that boat in those frigid waters off Alaska.

The Beat Generation was a loosely gathered literary movement that broke out in the aftermath of World War II and significantly influenced American culture and politics. Beatniks were their fans and hippies their descendants. In as far as the literary Beats had defining attributes, they pushed back against conformity and normative values. The exploration of self was a repeated theme, often as a literal journey that begat a distinct, evolved personal identity. In broader terms, materialism was bad, sexual liberation was good, and drugs could be very good. And Ginsberg (1926-1997), alongside authors like Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs, was one of the foremost Beat authors.

Throughout the early 1950s, Ginsberg drifted, sometimes physically but always mentally in motion, hurtling between ideas and initiatives in an unsettled manner. He was an author surrounded by incomplete works, a life seeking meaning. He began the decade less than willingly hospitalized at the Columbia Presbyterian Psychiatric Institute, a plea-bargained escape from prosecution on a burgling charge. In 1953, the once and future inveterate New Yorker launched himself outwards on a ramshackle tour that passed through Washington, D.C., Florida and Cuba before grinding to a halt in Mexico.

For nearly six months, Ginsberg crisscrossed the Yucatan Peninsula, explored Mayan ruins, attended festivals, played drums, ate well, grew out his hair, took drugs, and hallucinated. But more often, he lazed through the days on a cocoa finca, allowing the heat to wring him from his worries. As he wrote to longtime friend Lucien Carr, “A great discovery I made here is the marvel of the hammock,” which he also described as “a friendly womb for repose.” While relaxing, he experienced something of a breakthrough and was finally able to write his first lengthy poem, what would become “Siesta at Xbalba.” After weeks without correspondence, he reemerged to ask his friends for money, loans that would allow him to return to the United States.

After Mexico, he reestablished himself in San Francisco. It was there, in 1954, that he met Peter Orlovsky, his lover and partner for the rest of his life. On Oct. 7, 1955, Ginsberg, Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure, Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen read poems at the Six Gallery on Fillmore Street, a near-mythical moment within the Beat movement. Kerouac was present, drunkenly shouting encouragement from the crowd. And for the first time in public, Ginsberg read part of “Howl,” the poem that would eventually launch his career. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, a publisher and fellow poet attending the reading, contacted him the next day, asking to publish it.

Yet, questioning himself as always, Ginsberg wallowed in edits. His life remained uncertain, with money ever an issue. His mother died in June 1956, removing one of the poet’s few moorings. So, he signed on as a merchant seaman for a season, having undergone training with the Military Sea Transportation Service in 1945, a useful skill he kept in his back pocket as an employment of last resort. In 1956, he needed the $5,040 — about $54,000 in 2024 money — salary more than he dreaded wearing the required khakis on the job. In a letter to his father, he also considered a “fishing industry job” in Alaska.


He turned 30 shortly before his ship left San Francisco in June, bound for Honolulu, Portland, Seattle and Tacoma before turning toward the Arctic. The Pendleton was due to resupply Distant Early Warning radar system stations — the DEW Line — along the north Alaska coast. Ginsberg was a yeoman storekeeper, a position that offered access to office supplies and equipment, convenient for an aspiring writer low on funds. His pack included drafts of several poems, including the proofs for “Howl,” a Bible, and several books on Christian saints.

On July 27, the ship entered the Bering Strait, and he grasped at the railing tightly while seeking a glimpse of his mother’s Russian homeland. He saw nothing but tossed some change into the ocean in her memory. As he wrote:

Funny gaiety of Joke

To cross the Bering Straits

and not see nothing but

the same old grey sea.

The job took relatively little effort or time away from his reading, writing and pondering. Regarding Alaska, he was not exactly impressed. In an Aug. 3 letter to San Francisco poet Robert LaVigne, he wrote, “Settled down in trip more, now up at a place in Arctic Circle called Wainwright, Alaska—so far no ice, snow, icebergs, aurora, whales, dolphins, seals, fish—nothing but grey sea and occasional bright day which truly does last all night. The light if you’re interested of these northern nights has a kind of deadbluish-grey immanence, as if not out of the sun (usually hidden behind solid cover of clouds also dead grey color past midnight) but lunar reflected out of the water. But it is enough to think it’s day by.”

On July 28, 1956, off the coast of Alaska, he typed a final version of “Siesta at Xbalba” and printed 52 copies on the ship’s mimeograph machine, stapling the copies together on the side. The cover notes, “As Published By The Author July 1956 Near ICY CAPE, ALASKA at the Sign of the Midnight Sun.” Perhaps in his hurry, he misspelled “Xibalba,” an area in the Chiapas region of southeastern Mexico, as “Xbalba.” Though he soon realized the error, Ginsberg maintained the spelling in future publications. It was dedicated to Karena Shields, an archeologist and former actress who owned a cocoa finca near Palenque, Mexico, where Ginsberg spent many weeks during his southern sojourn.

The poem itself is long, meditative, or simply hallucinatory, a revised rearrangement of his journal entries while in Mexico, the result of long days spent in induced contemplation. For example, from its second stanza:

—One could pass valuable months

and years perhaps a lifetime

doing nothing but lying in a hammock

reading prose with the white doves copulating underneath

and monkeys barking in the interior of the mountain

and I have succumbed to this temptation—

He wrote to Ferlinghetti, “Enclosed find ... thirteen copies of a mimeographed pamphlet of the Mexican poem I made up here on ship last weekend. Keep one yourself and put the other dozen on sale at 50¢ each if you think you can sell them.” Ginsberg kept the rest to disperse according to his whims, primarily as gifts for other poets.

In July 1956, Ginsberg was an anonymous sailor working his way around Alaska. “Siesta in Xbalba” was his first standalone published work, and a humble one at that, most often given away or sold for charity. That November, Ferlinghetti finally published Ginsberg’s first true book, “Howl and Other Poems.” The incendiary opening line declared, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked.” Anonymity swiftly vanished.


There were more than a few references to drugs and sexual practices within the book. By the middle of 1957, cases of the book bound for England had been seized by customs officials, and Ferlinghetti had been arrested for selling obscene material. At the subsequent obscenity trial, which received national coverage, Judge Clayton W. Horn found Ferlinghetti not guilty as the poem contained “redeeming social importance.” As Horn further noted, “In considering material claimed to be obscene it is well to remember the motto: ‘Honi soit qui mal y pense.’” Shame on him who sees something evil in it. Or in other words, perhaps those quick with negative criticism are telling more about themselves than their target.

“Howl” remains the most well-known Beat poem and is frequently included among the most important poems of the 20th century. Sales and skill, with the added spice of controversy, thereafter ensured Ginsberg’s reputation. Moreover, the breakthrough of Howl into the national consciousness heralded the major Beat works that would follow, including Kerouac’s “On the Road” in 1957 and Burrough’s “Naked Lunch” in 1959.

The Pendleton, the cargo ship that carried Ginsberg north in 1956, was abandoned in 1973 after striking a reef. Ginsberg soon returned to New York, living for decades in a modest East Village apartment. “Siesta in Xbalba” was republished several times. There are even recordings of Ginsberg reading the poem. In March 2024, one of the Icy Cape printed editions of “Siesta in Xbalba” sold for almost $14,000 via Bonhams auction house. Ginsberg inscribed and gifted this copy to Gary Snyder, a Beat poet known for his environmental themes.

Ginsberg’s intersection with Alaska passed without notice by Alaskans themselves, which was perhaps the best outcome. As in many corners of America, Beats and beatniks were misunderstood in Alaska, the occasionally misguided subject of scorn and even fear. When writer and artist Shel Silverstein visited Alaska on assignment for Playboy in 1960, the Nome Nugget published a warning that the “bearded young man” seen about town was perhaps a beatnik nut only of the “milder type.” A writer for a mature magazine was thus less of a threat to the population than a full-blooded beatnik. More on Silverstein’s Alaska adventure in a future article.

Key sources:

Bellarsi, Franca. “' Alien Hieroglyphs of Eternity’ and ‘Cold Pastorals’: Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Siesta in Xbalba’ and John Keats’s Great Odes.” Comparative American Studies 11, no. 3 (2013): 243-264.

Morgan, Bill. I Greet You at the Beginning of a Great Career: The Selected Correspondence of Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg, 1955-1997. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2015.

Morgan, Bill. The Letters of Allen Ginsberg. Philadelphia: De Capo Press, 2008.


“Playboy Cartoonist is Expert on Beatniks.” Nome Nugget, July 27, 1960, 6.

Schumacher, Michael. Dharma Lion: A Critical Biography of Allen Ginsberg. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992.

David Reamer | Histories of Alaska

David Reamer is a historian who writes about Anchorage. His peer-reviewed articles include topics as diverse as baseball, housing discrimination, Alaska Jewish history and the English gin craze. He’s a UAA graduate and nerd for research who loves helping people with history questions. He also posts daily Alaska history on Twitter @ANC_Historian.