Ginsberg Rocks the World of Poetry

Although Jack Kerouac is generally considered the founder of the Beats, Allen Ginsberg may well be its most famous member. For better or for worst, Allen Ginsberg seems to me to be the Elvis Presley of modern poetry. Too often while reading Allen Ginsberg: Selected Poems 1947 to 1995, I felt like I was watching VH1’s show “Behind the Rock Stars,” for Ginsberg’s life often seems both meteoric and self destructive.

At its best, this 443 page tome allows you to see all aspects of Ginsberg’s life, the good, the bad, and, certainly, most certainly, the ugly. I’ve tried to pick out some of my favorite poems to discuss here, but, for me, the bad probably outweighs the good.

For awhile, I played with the idea of including some of what I consider Ginsberg’s worst poems here simply to show what you have to wade through to find the nuggets that are just as surely to be found here. In the end, though, I decided not to include those poems in order to avoid the enormous number of Google hits that would inevitably follow such poems, but you can go here
to get a sample of what I mean. I refuse to cite them with the offending words deleted or ***!# substituted because that would deny to Ginsberg one of the greatest virtues of this work: his honesty. But, judging from the number of weird hits I received after discussing Anne Sexton’s poetry, I might get really depressed if I suddenly became very popular simply because I quoted many of Ginsberg’s bad poems unexpurgated.

No matter how you feel about this work, though, you cannot deny its honesty and its portrayal of a complex, and at times tortured, individual seeking personal recognition and redemption, as he readily admits in:

Ego Confession

I want to be known as the most brilliant man in America
Introduced to Gyalwa Karmapa heir of the Whispered Transmission
Crazy Wisdom Practice Lineage
as the secret young wise man who visited him and winked anonymously
decade ago in Gangtok
Prepared the way for Dharma in America without mentioning Dharma–
scribbled laughter
Who saw Blake and abandoned God
To whom the Messianic Fink sent messages darkest hour sleeping on steel
sheets “somewhere in the Federal Prison system” weathermen
got no Moscow Gold
who went backstage to Cecil Taylor serious chat chord structure & Time in
a nightclub
who fucked a rose-lipped rock star in a tiny bedroom slum watched by a
statue of Vajrasattva–

and overthrew the CIA with a silent thought
Old Bohemians many years hence in Viennese beergardens’ll recall
his many young lovers with astonishing faces and iron breasts
gnostic apparatus and magical observation of rainbow-lit spiderwebs
extraordinary cooking, lung stew & Spaghetti a la Vongole and recipe for
salad dressing 3 parts oil one part vinegar much garlic and honey a
his extraordinary ego, at service of Dharma and completely empty
unafraid of its own self’s spectre
parroting gossip of gurus and geniuses famous for their reticence
Who sang a blues made rock stars weep and moved an old black guitarist to
laughter in Memphis
I want to be the spectacle of Poesy triumphant over trickery of the world
Omniscient breathing its own breath thru tear gas spy hallucination
whose common sense astonished gaga Gurus and rich Artistes
who called the justice department & threaten’d to Blow the Whistle
Stopt Wars, turned back petrochemical Industries’ Captains to grieve &
groan in bed
Chopped wood, built forest houses & established farms
distributed monies to poor poets & nourished imaginative genius of the
Sat silent in jazz roar writing poetry with an ink pen
wasn’t afraid of God or Death after his 48th year
let his brain turn to water under Laughing Gas his gold molar pulled by
futuristic dentists
Seamen knew ocean’s surface a year
carpenter later learned bevel and mattock
son, conversed with elder Pound & treated his father gently
–All empty all for show, all for the sake of Poesy
to set surpassing example of sanity as measure for late generations
Exemplify Muse Power to the young avert future suicide
accepting his own lie & the gaps between lies with equal good humor
Solitary in worlds full of insects & singing birds all solitary
–who had no subject but himself in many disguises
some outside his own body including empty air-filled space forests &
Even climbed mountains to create his mountain, with ice ax & crampons & ropes, over Glaciers

San Francisco, October 1974

Although the humor in this poem, as in much of his poetry, helps to blunt the sheer egotism, there’s no denying, nor need there be, that Ginsberg’s desire for fame is an inextricable part of this volume, as also indicated by the constant name-dropping in the work. Of course, the fact that he is able to drop such names casually does indicate the extent of his fame. He is a poet “star,” though I’m not sure that makes him the “most brilliant man in America,” and I’m positive it doesn’t make him the kind of religious prophet suggested in the line “Prepared the way for Dharma in America,” for he is no St. John the Baptist. He may well have done some of the things suggested in the next few lines, and they may help to account for his fame and popularity, but it is, again, unfortunately, in my opinion, an exaggeration to claim that he “overthrew the CIA with a silent thought.”

I can well believe he sang a blues song that made a black guitarist laugh, but unfortunately Poesy still isn’t “triumphant over trickery of the world.” Nor has it ever managed to stop a war, though “tis often used to celebrate them. Because of his fame, Ginsberg may well “Exemplify Muse Power to the young,” but, on reflection, that may not necessarily be a good thing.

The truest thing about this poem seems to be that Ginsberg does seem to accept “his own lie & the gaps between lies with equal good humor” and his poetry has “no subject but himself in many disguises.”

Another poem I like is “Returning to the Country for a Brief Visit.” It’s an interesting reflection on death, a re-occurring theme in Ginsberg’s later poems.

Returning to the Country for a Brief Visit
Annotations to Amitendranath Tagore’s Sung Poetry

“In later days, remembering this I shall certainly go mad.”

Reading Sung poems, I think of my poems to Neal
dead few years now, Jack underground
invisible–their faces rise in my mind.
Did I write truthfully of them? In later times
I saw them little, not much difference they’re dead.
They live in books and memory, strong as on earth.

“I do not know who is hoarding all this rare work. ”

Old One the dog stretches stiff legged,
soon he’ll be underground. Spring’s first fat bee
buzzes yellow over the new grass and dead leaves.

What’s this little brown insect walking zigzag
across the sunny white page of Su Tung-p’o’s poem?
Fly away, tiny mite, even your life is tender–
I lift the book and blow you into the dazzling void.

“You live apart on rivers and seas. . . ”

You live in apartments by rivers and seas
Spring comes, waters flow murky, the salt wave’s covered with oily dung
Sun rises, smokestacks cover the roofs with black mist
winds blow, city skies arc clear blue all afternoon
but at night the full moon hesitates behind brick.
How will all these millions of people worship the Great Mother?
When all these millions of people die will they recognize the Great Father?

Cherry Valley April 20,1973

Apparently having gained some new kind of insight, Ginsberg now wonders if his earlier ideas on death were “true.” How do we write “truthfully” about people who have just died? Only a powerful insight allows us to see death “truthfully.” Now he believes that, in a literary sense, Neal and Jack are still alive because their memory is strong.

The second section takes an even more objective look at a beloved animal, who’ll soon “be underground.” This image is contrasted with an image of “spring’s first fat bee,” an image of new life, of life reborn after winter. Interestingly enough, in the image of a “tiny mite” the narrator talks about how even it’s life “is tender.” How do we reconcile this with the seemingly indifference to Neal and Jack’s demise in the first section? Perhaps the clue comes from the phrase “the dazzling void.” The combination of “dazzling” and “void” suggests that Ginsberg has some new insight into death that he did not have in earlier epitaphs he has written for Neal Cassady.

But this apparent acceptance of death is contrasted with the image of people alienated from their world, an alienation that suggests that they will also be alienated after death. In this stanza the pollution of the world somehow is extended into the afterlife. If one lacks harmony with life, is there any chance of harmony after death? Ginsberg may feel he is ready for the dazzling void, but he doubts that most people are.

Personally, I found far fewer poems that I liked in the last years of Ginsberg’s writings. It seems that songs became much more important to Ginsberg, and though I don’t read enough music to know what they would sound like if played, I do know that the lyrics leave much to be desired in my mind.

However, I was quite fond of some additional stanzas that Ginsberg wrote for the very traditional song, “New Stanzas for Amazing Grace:”

New Stanzas for Amazing Grace

I dreamed I dwelled in a homeless place
Where I was lost alone
Folk looked right through me into space
And passed with eyes of stone

O homeless hand on many a street
Accept this change from me
A friendly smile or word is sweet
As fearless charity

Woe workingman who hears the cry
And cannot spare a dime
Nor look into a homeless eye
Afraid to give the time

So rich or poor no gold to talk
A smile on your face
The homeless ones where you may walk
Receive amazing grace

I dreamed I dwelled in a homeless place
Where I was lost alone
Folk looked right through me into space
And passed with eyes of stone

April 2, 1994

The alienation Ginsberg describes here is one that we can all identify with at some point in our life. Who hasn’t been “passed with eyes of stone,” unaware of you or the trials you are going through at that moment. Even a smile on someone else’s face, the mere recognition of you as a fellow human, may allow you to receive “amazing grace,” the amazing grace bestowed by human sympathy.

As you can probably tell if you stuck with this review this far, Ginsberg isn’t my favorite modern poet. There are some excellent poems in this volume, ones I don’t have the time to cover here, but you have to work really hard to separate the wheat from the chaff, and you end up with a lot more chaff than wheat. I suspect that you may well be better off to limiting your reading to anthologies where others have already done the thrashing for you.

However, if, like me, you’ve lived a relatively sheltered life and haven’t met many people like Allen Ginsberg, it is fascinating to explore his complex personality through his poems. It’s nearly impossible not to gain some insight and satisfaction simply from trying to figure out what drives him.

It’s also possible to gain some insights into what the Beats bring to modern poetry that made them so popular. Most obviously, they bring shock value. Ginsberg’s graphic description of homosexual lust was definitely a first for serious poets. Unfortunately, it’s a first I would have preferred to miss. I’ve reconciled myself to the idea that Whitman may well have been gay, but at least he had the good sense not to write about it. I have no desire to read about anyone’s sex life, much less that of a gay man’s sexual life with other men.

Ginsberg certainly pushed the envelope of “confessional” poetry much further than it has been pushed before. There are probably no longer any limits to what can be written about.

On a more positive note, Ginsberg brings a refreshing informality that is often missing in much of modern poetry. For the Beats, poetry seems to be introduced as a part of everyday life, not just reserved for special moments.

Because of their “immediacy,” Beats seldom seem to polish their poetry and retain poems that many poets would discard as rough drafts or failed attempts. This willingness to share poems that are less than perfect may well encourage others to attempt to write their own poetry.

And that’s certainly a good thing.