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.

Ginsberg’s Kadish Prayer

According to Jewish tradition, in the presence of a minyon (10 adult men) the child of a dead parent recites the Kaddish every day for 11 months to reaffirm his faith in God after the loss of a parent. One month is dropped from the 12 months required for the most wicked of souls to be purified before entering The World to Come to show that the deceased is not the most wicked. The recitation of this prayer demonstrates to God what a good parent the child had to be able to praise God during a period of mourning.

Mourner’s Kaddish

(Congregation recites italicized lines)

May His great Name grow exalted and sanctified.
in the world that He created as he willed.
May He give reign to His kingship in your lifetimes and in your days,
and in the lifetimes of the entire Family of Israel,
swiftly and soon.
Amen. Amen. May His great Name be blessed forever and ever.
May His great Name be blessed forever and ever.
Blessed, praised, glorified, exalted, extolled,
mighty, upraised, and lauded be the Name of the holy One, Blessed is He
Blessed is He
beyond any blessing and song,
praise and consolation that are uttered in the world.
Amen. Amen.
May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life
upon us and upon all Israel.
Amen. Amen.
He Who makes peace in His heights, may He make peace,
upon us and upon all Israel.
Amen. Amen.

“Kadish,” recounting his mother’s life and insanity, has to be accepted as one of Allen Ginsberg’s finest poems, a most personal, honest chronology of a child’s struggle to understand and help his parent, a truthful, realistic, unsentimental memory of his mother. As in all good poetry there is a lesson included for us all.

Ginsberg never is repelled by his mother’s illness, struggles to do as she wishes, helps her, attempts to understand her insanity as a spiritual condition rather than a medical one. Naomi Ginsberg was 62 years old when she died.

The poem is written in five parts: the Narrative, Hymmnn, Lament, Litany and Fugue.

In the Narrative, Ginsberg chronicles in 1959 how he began to write the poem. He and his friend Zev Putterman now living in Berkeley recall that at his mother Naomi’s funeral three years earlier, which Ginsberg did not attend, the Kaddish was not recited because not enough males were in attendance. Under the influence of hard drugs and the music of Ray Charles, Ginsberg and Putterman decide to read the Kaddish for his mother. New Jersey and Greystone Mental Hospital and Naomi’s inability to recognize him must have seemed episodes from another life for Ginsberg. He had just published “Howl,” receiving much attention for his work; he was living in Berkeley surrounded by other writers, and he had just fallen in love with poet Peter Orlovsky who would remain a lover and close friend for three decades although the relationship was not a monogamous one.

I’ve been up all night, talking, talking, reading the Kaddish
aloud, listening to Ray Charles blues shout blind
on the phonograph
the rhythm, the rhythm,–and your memory in my heart three
years after–
And read Adonais’ last triumphant stanzas aloud–wept,
realizing how we suffer–

His memories take him on a walk through the old New York neighborhood of Lower East Side Manhattan

where you walked 50 years ago, little girl–from Russia,
eating the first poisonous tomatoes of America–frightened
on the dock–then struggling in the crowds of Orchard Street
toward what? toward Newark–toward candy store, first
home-made sodas of the century, hand-churned ice cream
in backroom on musty brownfloor boards–
Toward education marriage nervous breakdown, operation,
teaching school, and learning to be mad, in a dream–
what is this life?

What came is gone forever every time–…

Death let you out,…

All the accumulations of life, that wear us out…

The second part of the Narrative reviews Naomi’s awful mental illness. She had had a “nervous breakdown” before Allen was born, been treated and improved, but in Allen’s childhood she descended into paranoia and schizophrenia, receiving treatment and hospitalization the rest of her life. Finally a lobotomy, now outlawed, was performed on Naomi:

…electrical shocks…
By long nites as a child in Paterson apartment, watching over your
nervousness–you were fat–your next move–
by that afternoon I stayed home from school to take care of you–
once and for all–when I vowed forever that once man disagreed
with my opinion of the cosmos, I was lost–

From the last line one also learns much about Allen.

The frightening details of paranoia jump from the page

spied a mystical assassin from Newark…
and you covered your nose with motheaten fur collar, gas mask
against poison sneaked into downtown atmosphere,
sprayed by Grandma–
And was the driver of the cheesebox Public Service bus
a member of the gang? You shuddered at his face, I could
hardly get you on–to New York, very Times Square, to grab
another Greyhound where we hung around 2 hours fighting
invisible bugs and jewish sickness–breeze poisoned
by Roosevelt…

The bus ride for a 12 year old and his mother is the search for a rest home which will shelter Naomi from her in-laws, especially her mother-in-law Buba, and her husband, Louis, and doctors who she believed had implanted

3 big sticks up my back…they poisoned me, they want
to see me dead–3 big sticks, 3 big sticks
“The Bitch! Old Grandma! Last week I saw her, dress in pants
like an old man, with a sack on her back, climbing up the brick side
of the apartment
On the fire escape, with poison germs, to throw on me–at night–
maybe Louis is helping her–he’s under her power

Allen returns home after leaving his mother at a rest home in Lakewood. His father is understandably upset with him for leaving Naomi.

Louis was worried. How could I be so–didn’t I think? I shouldn’t
have left her. Mad in Lakewood. Call the Doctor.

A passage about Ginsberg’s first homosexual love follows as he reminisces about

R–my high school mind hero, jewish boy who came a doctor later
I later laying down life for him, moved to Manhattan–
followed him to college–Prayed on ferry to help mankind
if admitted–vowed, the day I journeyed to Entrance Exam–
by being honest revolutionary labor lawyer–would train for that–
inspired by Sacco Vanzetti, Norman Thomas, Debs, Altgeld,
Sandburg, Poe–Little Blue Books. I wanted to be President,
or Senator.
ignorant woe–later dreams of kneeling by R’s shocked
knees declaring my love of 1941–What sweetness he’d have
shown me, tho, that I’d wished him & despaired–first love–
Later a mortal avalanche whole mountains of homosexuality.

Soon Naomi must be retrieved from the Lakewood rest home

she’d gone mad–Naomi hiding under the bed screaming
bugs of Mussolini–Help! Louis! Buba! Fascists! Death–
the landlady frightened

The wild Naomi, screaming for a blood transfusion, is not allowed on the bus back to New York, but eventually she is taken to the doctor who admits her to Greystone, a large mental hospital in New Jersey where she remains for three years.

Take me home–I went alone sometime looking
for the lost Naomi, taking Shock–and I’d say, “No, you’re crazy
Mama,–Trust the Drs.”–

Ginsberg recounts the life his older brother Eugene begins–his desire to be a lawyer sidelined as he becomes a teach at Montclair Teachers College

just found the Scream of Naomi on his failure doorstep…
No love since Naomi screamed–since 1923?–now
lost in Greystone ward–new shock for her–Electricity,
following the 40 Insulin.
And Metrazol had made her fat.

By Naomi’s next return home, Louis is in debt. Naomi wanders the house, not remembering her lost Mahogany dining room set sold to the junk man. She goes to the backroom to nap, Allen lays beside her

‘Don’t be afraid of me because I’m just coming back home
from the mental hospital–I’m your mother–’
Poor love, lost–a fear–I lay there–Said, ‘I love you Naomi’–
stiff, next to her arm. I would have cried, was this the comfortless
lone union?–
Nervous, and she got up soon.

But being at home is no salvation.

…Roosevelt should know her case, she told me–Afraid
to kill her, now, that the government knew their names–
traced back to Hitler–wanted to leave Louis’ house forever.
…Once locked herself in with razor or iodine–could hear
her cough in tears at sink–Lou broke through glass green
painted door, we pulled her out to the bedroom…
later she ran away to the Bronx to her sister Elanor. And there’s
another saga of late Naomi in New York.

Naomi is not without humor sometimes…

‘and when we die we become an onion, a cabbage, a carrot,
or a squash, a vegetable…
Yesterday I saw God…he has a cheap cabin in the country,
like Monroe, N.Y. the chicken farms in the wood. He was
a lonely old man with a white beard.
I cooked supper for him. I made him a nice supper–lentil
soup, vegetable, bread & butter,–miltz–he sat down
at the table and ate, he was sad.
‘I told him, Look at all those fightings and killing down there,
What’s the matter? Why don’t you put a stop to it?
‘I try, he said–that’s all he could do, he looked tired. He’s
a bachelor so long, and he likes lentil soup.’

Allen remembers experiencing a moment of his mother’s sexuality. The telling of the incident is not colored by anger or repulsion but by a wonder at the possibility of some spiritual knowledge to be gained from the act.

One time I thought she was trying to make me come lay her–
flirting to herself at sink…
later revolted a little, not much–seemed perhaps a good idea
to try–know the Monster of the Beginning Womb–Perhaps–
that way. Would she care? She needs a lover.

Naomi feels she must leave her own home to move in with her sister Elanor in the Bronx. The journey through madness continues at Elanor’s house and Naomi kicks her sister.

‘Elanor is the worst spy! She’s taking orders!’

Eventually Louis wants a divorce so he can remarry, Naomi “goes to the hospital forever” and suffers a stroke.

One hand stiff–heaviness of forties & menopause reduced
by one heart stroke, lame now–wrinkles—a scar on her head,
the lobotomy–ruin, the hand dipping downwards to death–

Allen’s last visit:

I came back she yelled more–they led her away–’You’re
not Allen–’ I watched her face–but she passed by me, not looking–
Opened the door to the ward,–she went thru without a glance
back, quiet suddenly–I stared out–she looked old–the verge
of the grave–’All the Horror!’

By the next year, Ginsberg is in Berkeley. Surrounded by Orlovsky and other friends he receives a telegram from Gene that Naomi is dead. He also receives a letter Naomi wrote:

‘The key is in the window, the key is in the sunlight at the window–
I have the key–Get married Allen don’t take drugs–the key
is in the bars, in the sunlight in the window.
your mother

Pressed between the layers of her insanity is the part of her which will always be a mother: “Get married Allen don’t take drugs.”

Part II, Hymmnn is a short piece reminiscent of the Beatitudes and similar to the Footnote to “Howl” in which the word “holy” is chanted, ending with “Holy the supernatural extra brilliant intelligent kindness of the soul!”

Hymmnn ends

Blessed be He who builds Heaven in Darkness! Blessed Blessed Blessed
be He! Blessed be He! Blessed be Death on us All!

Howl” and “Kaddish” both after cataloging the sufferings and defeats human beings face–in “Howl” it’s the destruction of youthful seekers of vision, in “Kaddish” it’s the destruction of his mother by insanity–end with an optimistic view of the holiness and blessedness of mankind. Critics often ignore this aspect of Ginsberg’s writing, focusing and commenting on what appeared obscene or seditious in his work.

The Lament holds the motivation for Ginsberg’s desire to memorialize Naomi as he recounts what he longs now not to have forgotten

Only to have not forgotten the beginning in which she drank
cheap sodas in the morgues of Newark,
only to have seen her weeping on gray tables in long wards
of her universe
only to have known the weird ideas of Hitler at the door, the wires
in her head, the three big sticks…
only to have come to that dark night on iron bed by stroke
when the sun gone down on Long Island
and the vast Atlantic roars outside the great call of Being
to its own
to come back out of the Nightmare–divided creation–with her head
lain on a pillow of the hospital to die
–in one last glimpse–all Earth one everlasting Light in the familiar
blackout–no tears for this vision…

Then Naomi’s letter becomes clear

But that the key should be left behind–at the window–the key
in the sunlight–to the living–that can take that slice of light in hand–
and turn the door–and look back see Creation glistening
backwards to the same grave, size of universe, size of the tick
of the hospital’s clock on the archway over the white door–

The reminder of God’s good universe, the remembrance, the Creation, the death, the grave the size of the universe symbolized in the size of the tick of the hospital clock on the archway over the white door–a mother’s profound lesson left like a key for her son.

The Litany is a remembrance of his mother in carefully spaced lines, lengthening, shortening

O mother
what have I left out
O mother
what have I forgotten
O mother
with a long black shoe
with Communist Party and a broken stocking
with your sagging belly
will your fear of Hitler
with your mouth of bad short stories
with you fingers of rotten mandolins
with your arms of fat Paterson porches
with your belly of strikes and smokestacks
with your chin of Trotsky and the Spanish War
with your voice singing for the decaying overbroken workers
with your nose of bad lay with your nose of the smell of the pickles of Newark
with your eyes…

Finally the Fugue, a juxtaposition of Ginsberg’s thoughts at Naomi’s grave and the sound of the caw, caw, caw of the crows

caw caw all year my birth a dream caw caw New York the bus
the broken shoe the vast highschool caw caw all Visions of the Lord
Lord Lord Lord caw caw caw Lord Lord Lord caw caw caw Lord

Allen Ginsberg went on to live at times appearing insane, an insanity promoted in a haze of drugs. Too, Ginsberg had to be influenced by his mother’s insanity, coming to see it as travel into the spiritual, away from the insanity of the culture in which he found himself. By not really being insane, which must be agony for the victim, but by attempting to induce temporary insanity through heavy drug use, Ginsberg and the other Beats hoped to find spiritual purity.

But Ginsberg and the Beats deserve attention for more than just their use of drugs. For the most part they need to be seen as human beings in search of a pure existence above the “getting and spending” trivialities of life. They were the writers who expressed their yearnings, giving their readers some insight into the need to search for the path to enlightenment.

Diane McCormick

A Plea for the Return of the 50’s Prophet

The poet Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) survived his youth in Patterson, New Jersey, popped pills and smoked dope with his friends, fidgeted in jail for burglary, agonized over his homosexuality, and explored psychoanalysis all by the time he was 23 to become one of the most influential poets of the twentieth century. He could also be called the archetypal result of the parenting school, “Don’t give your kid a break if you want him to be creative.”

The worst thing that happened to Ginsberg, according to biographers, was his mother’s mental illness which brought years of hospitalization and shock treatment, finally leading to a lobotomy. When she was home, she seemed to trust Allen more than his brother or her husband which meant she kept him close to her and shared her paranoia. As his mother grew worse, she would wander the house, naked, convinced her doctors had implanted electrodes in her back to control her. Once she took young Allen on a bus ride around New Jersey, looking for a home that would keep her safe from her in-laws.

Attempting to please his father, Ginsberg enrolled in Columbia University to study law, but soon found a more exciting life with a group of revelers that included Jack Kerouac and Lucien Carr. These college kids partied with street folks from Time Square, William S. Burroughs and Neal Cassady. Soon Ginsberg was in love with Cassady and his innocence was only a memory from his pre-college days.

Few young men can experiment with Benzedrine, marijuana, fret over homosexuality and get good grades at Columbia. Ginsberg soon was suspended and began the great road trip to visit Cassady in Denver and San Francisco.

Too wild a life often leads to punishment and Ginsberg who involved himself in some criminal activity along the way soon ended up in jail where he eschewed Burroughs, hied himself to psychoanalysis, and found a girl. He even located employment as a market researcher.

In the psychiatric hospital Ginsberg met Carl Solomon who would inspire the poem “Howl,” the reading of which would elevate Ginsberg to notoriety as a major poet and activist.

“Howl” sounded on the stage of the Six Gallery Coffee House in San Francisco a little before midnight on an October night, 1955. By then the audience as well as Ginsberg had consumed three gallons of screw top California burgundy, thanks to Jack Kerouac who collected for the wine. The reading of the poem grew more intense, the audience became the cheering section led by Kerouac pounding on the table, encouraging with a “go, go” at the end of each line–poetry reading as spectator sport. The symbiotic life of readings and coffee houses was born. There is no record of snapping fingers replacing applause. A passage in Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums recalls the evening.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti who would publish Ginsberg’s poetry wrote after the reading, “I greet you at the beginning of a great career” lines borrowed from a letter written by Ralph Waldo Emerson to Walt Whitman upon the publishing of Leaves of Grass.

But clouds–albeit clouds with silver linings–hung over “Howl.” To save some money Ferlingetti attempted to publish “Howl” in a collection of Ginsberg’s poems in London. The Brits objected–you’ll see why in a moment–bringing attention to the San Francisco poet. Enter the San Francisco Police Department who brought obscenity charges against Ferlingetti in 1957. Two uptight witnesses appeared, one from the Catholic University of San Francisco, the other a private elocution teacher, “a beautiful woman,” who said “You feel like you are going through the gutter when you have to read that stuff. I didn’t linger on it too long, I assure you.” Ah, the pronouncement of a lady of the fifties. The defense couldn’t have asked for better witnesses who damaged the prosecution, and the case was dropped. “Howl” found its way into the hands of young folk who probably weren’t serious poetry readers until the obscenity case. The following lines were bound to interest the youth of America:

who howled on their knees in the subway and were dragged
off the roof waving genitals and manuscripts,
who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists,
and scream with joy, who blew and were blown by those
human seraphim, the sailors, caresses of Atlantic and Caribbean

Strong stuff for the fifties but not impressive for today’s youth, listening to Loveline.

Ginsberg from the base his poetry gave him, went on to support each decade’s counter culture–the Beats of the fifties, the hippies of the sixties, befriending Ken Kesey and Bob Dylan. Remember the Youth International Party–the Yippies–those fun guys, Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin? Yes, he contributed to their protests by chanting ‘OM’ at the Lincoln Park Yippie Life Festival at the 1968 Presidential convention in Chicago. That same year he joined Jean Genet and Terry Southern at the Chicago Democratic Convention antiwar protest, a group later to be known as The Chicago Seven.

In 1970 Ginsberg became a follower of the guru Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, joining him and poet Anne Waldman to construct The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Trungpa’s Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

The eighties initiated punk rock and Ginsberg joined the Clash’s Combat Rock album, performing on stage with them.

Social activism carried Ginsberg into the nineties to his death April 5, 1997. He wrote, he sang, he read aloud, he annoyed the establishment until his last.

Ginsberg published forty books, produced eleven albums, and was honored with the National Book Award for Poetry, a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, National Arts Club Medal, 1986 Struga Festival Golden Wreath, and the Manhattan Borough President David Dinkins Medal of Honor for Literary Excellence, 1989. Ginsberg later in his life became a Distinguished Professor of Brooklyn College. Not bad for a man who began his adult life in the company of junkies, geniuses living in chaos, arrested for burglary, confined in a psychiatric hospital. At times he could be silly and wrong, but he also shared his vision with the world who saw him as a prophet.

Sites quickly appear on the Internet under the prompt Allen Ginsberg. Two I favor are and Michael Schumcher’s Dharma Lion is the recommended biography.


The influences of Walt Whitman are plain in “Howl” although the points of view recall Janus. If I remember correctly, Whitman celebrated his life as a human being, especially in
“Song of Myself” written in 1855. Wow, just 100 years before “Howl.”

“Song of Myself” begins

I celebrate myself
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

which is different from

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving
hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry

Whitman contemplates the universality of human existence while for Ginsberg human existence in American culture is more us versus them.

But the similarities speak louder. Both poets influence through that troublesome literary element, voice, which shouts passionately in both of their works. The speaker is the poet who rallies everyman, stirring emotion. Neither man restrained himself with rhyme and meter, the works sound better than they read, both wrote outside the current fashion.

Ginsberg also felt the influence of William Blake and often ended his poetry readings with selections from Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. Blake’s mysticism would have intrigued Ginsberg.

To understand the references in “Howl,” one must be pretty hip himself for the poem begins with a litany for those who perished, searching for meaning in a callous and money grubbing world

looking for an angry fix…angelheaded hipsters…
who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes
hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy among the scholars
of war…who were expelled from the academics
for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull…
Peyote solidities of halls, backyard green tree cemetery dawns,
wine drunkenness over the rooftops, storefront boroughs
of teahead joyride neon blinking traffic light…a lost battalion
of platonic conversationalists jumping down the stoops off
fire escapes off windowsills off Empire State out of the moon…
who thought they were only made when Baltimore gleamed
in supernatural ecstasy, who jumped in limousines with the Chinaman
of Oklahoma on the impulse of winter midnight streetlight smalltown rain

Pretty advanced if one doesn’t have some experience at least with the drug vocabulary. The features of New York expand to include the loss he feels in:

the volcanoes of Mexico…the shadow of dungarees and the lava
and ash of poetry scattered in fireplace Chicago

Agonized, Ginsberg’s fellow students at Columbia are lost to madness

who burned cigarette holes in their arms protesting the narcotic
tobacco haze of Capitalism, who distributed Supercommunist
pamphlets in Union Square weeping and undressing while
sirens of Los Alamos wailed them down, and wailed down
Wall, and the Staten Island ferry also wailed, who broke
down crying in white gymnasiums naked and trembling before
the machinery of other skeletons

Personal tales of his trips across America with other Beats, Cassady and Kerouac , recall:

Who drove crosscountry seventytwo hours to find out if
I had a vision or you had a vision or he had a vision
to find out Eternity, who journeyed to Denver

to recreate the syntax and measure of poor human prose
and stand before you speechless and intelligent
and shaking with shame, rejected yet confessing out
the soul to conform to the rhythm of thought
in his naked and endless head, the madman bum and angel
beat in Time, unknown, yet putting shadow of the band
and blew the suffering of America’s naked mind for love
into an eli eli lamma lamma sabacvthani saxophone cry
that shivered the cities down to the last radio

Part II

Part II is an allusion to Moloch, the Canaanitish god of fire to whom children were sacrificed against Hebrew law. For Ginsberg Moloch sometimes becomes a place as well as a god. It doesn’t take long to understand what place he means.

What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open
their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?
Moloch! Moloch! solitude! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and
unobtainable dollars! Children screaming under the stairways!
Boys sobbing in armies! Old men weeping in the parks!…
Moloch whose love is endless oil and stone! Moloch whose
soul is electricity and banks! Moloch whose poverty is the specter
of genius! Moloch whose fate is a cloud of sexless hydrogen!
Moloch whose name is the Mind!

No doubt is left in the reader’s mind that Ginsberg sees through the stifling culture he rails against, proselytizing for all of us to be free to search for our vision without restraint. No doubt, too, the poem would really piss off the bankers, the lawyers, the politicians who maintained such a culture. Ginsberg knew just how he was perceived for he would comment often on his three foot high FBI file, labeling him “potentially dangerous …subversive … having a propensity for violence and antipathy toward good order and government.” During the Reagan Era he proudly joined the list of 84 people who were “unsuitable” to speak overseas for the government. The list included Ralph Nader, Coretta Scott King, Betty Friedan, John Kenneth Galbraith.

Part III

Part III is dedicated to Carl Solomon, the insane intellectual Ginsberg met at Rockland, an upstate New York psychiatric hospital.

ah, Carl, while you are not safe I am not safe,
and now you’re really in the total animal soup of time

Carl Solomon! I’m with you in Rockland…
where you’re madder than I am
where you imitate the shade of my mother…
in my dreams you walk dripping from a sea-journey
on the highway across America in tears to the door
of my cottage in the Western night.

The footnote illuminates the lesson to be learned: The word “holy” becomes the chant:

The world is holy!

All things are holy: the groaning saxophone,
the marijuana hipsters, the crazy shepherds of rebellion,
The soul is holy!

Everyman’s an angel!

Holy forgiveness! mercy! charity! faith! Holy! Ours! bodies! suffering!
holy the supernatural extra brilliant intelligent kindness
of the soul!

Walt Whitman smiles…

According to Ferlinghetti who still runs the City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco “the Beat message became the only rebellion around –and it is still the same today–With the dot-commies and the whole computer consciousness, the Beat message is needed now more than ever.”

Time to reread “Howl.”
Diane McCormick

:: Sunflower Sutra::

I walked on the banks of the tin can banana dock and sat down under the huge shade of a Southern Pacific locomotive to look at the sunset over the box house hills and cry.

Jack Kerouac sat beside me on a busted rusty iron pole, companion, we thought the same thoughts of the soul, bleak and blue and sad-eyed, surrounded by the gnarled steel roots of trees of machinery.

The oily water on the river mirrored the red sky, sun sank on top of final Frisco peaks, no fish in that stream, no hermit in those mounts, just ourselves rheumy-eyed and hung-over like old bums on the river-bank, tired and wily.

Look at the Sunflower, he said, there was a dead gray shadow against the sky, big as a man, sitting dry on top of a pile of ancient sawdust–

-I rushed up enchanted-it was my first sunflower, memories of Blake–my visions–Harlem

and Hells of the Eastern rivers, bridges clanking Joes Greasy Sandwiches, dead baby carriages, black treadless tires forgotten and unretreaded, the poem of the riverbank, condoms & pots, steel knives, nothing stainless, only the dank muck and the razor-sharp artifacts passing into the past–

and the gray Sunflower poised against the sunset, crackly bleak and dusty with the smut and smog and smoke of olden locomotives in its eye

corolla of bleary spikes pushed down and broken like a battered crown, seeds fallen out of its face, soon-to-be-toothless mouth of sunny air, sunrays obliterated on its hairy head like a dried wire spiderweb,

leaves stuck out like arms out of the stem, gestures from the sawdust root, broke pieces of plaster fallen out of the black twigs, a dead fly in its ear,

Unholy battered old thing you were, my sunflower 0 my soul, I loved you then!

The grime was no man’s grime but death and human locomotives,

all that dress of dust, that veil of darkened railroad skin, that smog of cheek, that eyelid of black mis’ry, that sooty hand or phallus or civilization spotting your crazy golden crown–

and those blear thoughts of death and dusty loveless eyes and ends and withered roots below, in the home-pile of sand and sawdust, rubber dollar bills, skin of machinery, the guts and innards of the weeping coughing car, the empty lonely tincans with their rusty tongues alack, what more could I name, the smoked ashes of some cock cigar, the cunts of wheelbarrows and the milky breasts of cars, wornout asses out of chairs & sphincters of dynamos–all these

entangled in your mummied roots–and you there standing before me in the sunset, all your glory in your form!

A perfect beauty of a sunflower! a perfect excellent lovely sunflower existence! a sweet natural eye to the new hip moon, woke up alive and excited grasping in the sunset shadow sunrise golden monthly breeze!

How many flies buzzed round you innocent of your grime, while you cursed the heavens of the railroad and your flower soul?

Poor dead flower? when did you forget you were a flower? when did you look at your skin and decide you were an impotent dirty old locomotive? the ghost of a locomotive? the specter and shade of a once powerful mad American locomotive?

You were never no locomotive, Sunflower, you were a sunflower!

And you Locomotive, you are a locomotive, forget me not!

So I grabbed up the skeleton thick sunflower and stuck it at my side like a scepter,

and deliver my sermon to my soul, and Jack’s soul too, and anyone who’ll listen,

-We’re not our skin of grime, we’re not our dread bleak dusty imageless locomotive, we’re all golden sunflowers inside, blessed by our own seed & hairy naked accomplishment–bodies growing into mad black formal sunflowers in the sunset, spied on by our eyes under the shadow of the mad locomotive riverbank sunset Frisco hilly tincan evening sitdown vision.

Berkeley, 1955

Generally, I like “Sunflower Sutra,” though I find the use of “sutra” in the title a little pretentious and deceptive. This poem does, however, seem to be written in the tradition of Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman, with particular homage to Whitman’s poetic style.

Visually, the repetitive structure used here is quite reminiscent of Whitman’s style, though I don’t find it to have quite the same kind of parallel structure, nor does it have the powerful rhythmic patterns that I admire in Whitman’s best poems.

That said, the dominant image or symbol in the poem, the sunflower growing in the midst of a garbage-covered industrial area, is a powerful one, particularly when linked to the sun. It’s the kind of symbol, or mantra, that you could use as the center of a meditation.

By setting the poem in San Francisco looking out at a sunset, Ginsberg suggests the end of the Western dream that has brought he and Kerouac to this place. That dream has been replaced by the industrial nightmare of “Harlem and Hells of the Eastern rivers.” The eastern seaboard’s industrial pollution, the result of industrial greed, has finally won America, having reached its western shores.

The physical description of the actual sunflower, if there ever was one, "all that dress of dust, that veil of darkened railroad skin" is an accurate physical description of what would have happened to a sunflower growing in such an area, but it also indicates the kind of accurately symbolic degradation all life must undergo under such conditions — that’s why we who have a choice have fled to the suburbs, though unwittingly bringing the results of industrialization with us.

The jump to the sunflower as the symbol of the soul, "you were, my sunflower 0 my soul" is smoothly integrated with the rest of the poem, and the sunflower, because we, like all of nature are nurtured by the sun, seems like a reasonable symbol of the soul. It even brings to mind masks of earlier cultures, particularly South American cultures, where the sun god is worn as a mask.

The effects the industrial revolution have had on the human soul are probably not too different from effects it has had on the environment, both have been degraded. No wonder people trapped in such an environment give up hope.

Personally, I find the "sermon" delivered to the soul, "You were never no locomotive, Sunflower, you were a sunflower!" a little too simplistic, too cartoonish to be completely successful, but the message itself certainly seems valid. And the upbeat message at the end also seems justified, and perhaps believable.

%d bloggers like this: