A Look Back at Allen Ginsberg (Part 2)
The fall term's deep dive into Allen Ginsberg was prompted by an email from Elaine Falone telling me she had an urge to read some Ginsberg poems and found that she appreciated him much more today than in her younger years.
I forgot how many location poems he wrote, everything buried under HOWL…he's out & about on the streets mostly in NYC. Like you, he many times had a light lovely touch, a beautiful way of creating the atmosphere/environment, bringing the ppl into the scene or how the ppl were inseparable from the scene or to use one of my old phrases, "brocaded to the space around them"…how it's all one thing.
He many times exhibited a delicate refinement buried under his more wild commercialized exterior. History in too much of a hurry to category him. (quoted with permission)
What I came to think of as the Ginsberg project took me to books, interviews, and articles in the Beat section of my personal library, Kenneth Rexroth's book about American poetry in the twentieth century, Ginsberg's appearance on William Buckley's Firing Line, and the poems themselves. I have some vague recollection of watching that Firing Line episode on television in glorious black and white at home in the Dutch Fork region of South Carolina, May 1968, three months shy of my sixteenth birthday, when my provincial horizons were expanding ever so slowly and haphazardly. I knew little more about Ginsberg than his name and maybe that he was known for a poem called "Howl." Acquaintance would have come mostly by way of mainstream periodicals Time, Newsweek, and Life. It is a safe bet I did not encounter him in any high school textbooks.
Whatever impression Ginsberg made in 1968 is lost to me. My sense as I learned more about him and his writing a few years later and as I have read him since is that he is a significant poet who wrote a handful of genuinely strong poems while producing a large body of work that is wildly uneven in quality. Ginsberg had an interesting mind, maybe even as Lawrence Ferlinghetti had it, a genius mind, but not everything that came from that mind was all that interesting. Because he was Allen Ginsberg, Beat icon, pop cultural celebrity hanging out with Bob Dylan and the Beatles, there would always be someone eager to publish a Ginsberg poem, any Ginsberg poem, and Ginsberg was apparently delighted to see them in print.
Ginsberg the poet is inseparable from Ginsberg the public figure, political activist, openly homosexual in a period more hung up about such things than our own, although there are factions today who would backtrack on that, an enthusiast for the use of drugs as tools in pursuit of visionary experience also pursued as world traveler who sought the counsel of Martin Buber in Israel and Hindu and Buddhist teachers in India, the prototypical bohemian, the "hippie's hippie" as William Buckley dubbed him. He camped with the radical left politically, but the instincts that took him there were more libertarian antipathy to civil authority than socialist or Marxist. Always a fierce critic of American policy foreign and domestic, he put himself on the line in uncompromising poems and at the barricades in antiwar and environmentalist demonstrations where he was on more than one occasion beaten by police and arrested, tear-gassed at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, jailed for demonstrating against Nixon at the 1972 Republican National Convention in Miami.
Courage and an irrepressible spirit were as much part of Ginsberg's makeup as idealism and the political naïveté that Buckley noted. Ken Kesey recalled the time in1965 when the Hell's Angels announced they planned to protest a big Vietnam Day antiwar rally in Berkeley by "pounding the shit out of protesters."
Since we kind of knew the Angels, we went over to Oakland, to [Angels leader] Sonny Barger's house. Ginsberg went with us, right into the lion's mouth with his little finger cymbals. Ching, ching, ching. And he just kept talking and being his usual absorbing self. Finally they said, "Okay, okay. We're not going to beat up the protesters." When he left, one of the angels, Terry the Tramp, says, "That queer little kike ought to ride a bike." From then on, he had a pass around the Angels…They were absolutely impressed by his courage. ("Memories of Allen," Rolling Stone Book of the Beats)
Kesey also remembered a newspaper photo of Ginsberg after he was beaten by police at a peace rally. "They were carrying him out on a stretcher, all pummeled, and he began flashing the V sign for the reporters taking pictures. Pretty soon, he had everyone laughing, even the cops."
Ginsberg was no less courageous, or naïve, about speaking up in other countries whose regimes were not noted for tolerance. In 1965, while visiting Cuba as a correspondent for Evergreen Review, he was asked to leave the country after complaining about treatment of gay people at the University of Havana. That same year he traveled to Czechoslovakia where students in Prague elected him King of May at the traditional May Day celebration. Later that week the Czech government requested that he leave the country for being sloppy and degenerate.
This penchant for clashing with authority was on display early on. Some episodes were fairly sophomoric, others more serious. In 1944 Ginsberg was suspended from Columbia for a year after writing "Butler Has No Balls" and "Fuck the Jews" along with drawings of a skull and crossbones and a penis in the dust on his dorm room window as part of a feud with a maid he thought failed to clean his room. Butler was the university president. The discovery that Jack Kerouac was staying over in Ginsberg's dorm room may also have played a part in the suspension. Kerouac had been banished from campus for being what would be described in a TV crime show as an accessory after the fact in the stabbing and drowning of Dave Kemmerer by their friend Lucien Carr.
A few years later, in 1949, Ginsberg was arrested following a high-speed car chase involving a stolen vehicle, stolen goods, and an illegal right on red. He was a passenger in the car but not exactly an innocent bystander. His friend Herbert Huncke had been using his apartment to stash stolen goods. To avoid prison Ginsberg agreed to a plea deal and spent seven months in the Psychiatric Institute of Columbia Presbyterian Hospital.
My real introduction to Ginsberg and the Beats came my freshman year in college. I read Kerouac for the first time over Christmas break, Vanity of Duluoz because that was what I happened on at Richland County Public Library. Spring semester I waded deeper into the scene with a term paper on the Beat Generation for an introductory sociology class. Through most of my twenties I was very much taken with Kerouac, Gregory Corso, and to a slightly lesser extent Ginsberg and William Burroughs, reading and rereading everything I could get my hands on, given to rattling on about Kerouac's gospel of spontaneous prose, the sin of revision, first thought, best thought, and all that. By decade's end I had my fill. Passion for the Beats flamed out. I no longer found anything in Kerouac beyond the occasional rhapsodic passage. Ginsberg and Corso could still draw me in and sometimes wake my pen slumbering uninspired when I returned to them intermittently in the decades that followed. With Ginsberg it was usually the familiar poems, the standbys: "Howl," "America," "Sunflower Sutra," "A Supermarket in California," "A Strange New Cottage in Berkeley," "At Apollinaire's Grave."
Ginsberg spoke and wrote in superlatives. He was never shy about proclaiming the genius of his friends. Jack Kerouac was the best poet in the US (1966 interview*), I suppose supplanting Gregory Corso who in 1958 was probably the greatest poet in America (Ginsberg's introduction to Corso's book Gasoline). Critics less than kindly disposed to Ginsberg's poetics have been known to ask who Ginsberg had in mind with the opening line of "Howl": "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness." Kerouac, Corso? William Burroughs? Carl Solomon, who he met at the Psychiatric Institute? Huncke, hoodlum and hustler? Neal Cassady, psychopath with an inclination for violence against women? These were the best? I like the line and accept it as poetic license born of Ginsbergian gush and enthusiasm. For all that, Ginsberg's belief in himself and his friends, in their individual and collective genius, was deep-rooted and authentic.
Pronouncements about poetry, the craft of writing, and so on were delivered in the same authoritative vein. Ginsberg sometimes spoke as if first thought was sacrosanct, revision forbidden. This was the common understanding and my perception as a young enthusiast. Yet there is ample evidence from manuscripts and testimony from their editors that Ginsberg and Kerouac both revised extensively. The "Howl" manuscript is laced with edits and notes. As Louis Menand put it, "It's true that they both had bursts of creativity, as all writers do, but they revised their burst" ("The Best Minds" chapter in his book The Free World; more on this topic can be found in Revisiting On the Road: The Original Scroll Route, Portable Bohemia, July 30, 2021).
For all the seemingly slapdash verse that his critics pounce on, Ginsberg's poetic practice was guided by principles that he articulated in any number of interviews. There was method behind the slapdashery, a thoughtfulness about what he was up to that I do not recall picking up on previously.
Ginsberg frequently invoked William Carlos Williams' dictate "no ideas but in things," stick to particulars, details, avoid abstraction; the maxim first thought, best thought; and precepts laid out in Jack Kerouac's essentials for writing spontaneous prose. On the matter of form, a journal entry from March 1952 relates a conversation where Williams said, "I don't even know if Paterson is poetry. I have no form, I just try to squeeze the lines up into pictures." Ginsberg spoke of working with his own neural impulses and writing impulses.
See, the difference is between someone sitting down to write a poem in a definite preconceived metrical pattern and filling in that pattern, and someone working with his physiological movements and arriving at a pattern, and perhaps even arriving at a pattern which might even have a name, or might even have a classical usage, but arriving at it organically rather than synthetically. Nobody's got any objection to iambic pentameter if it comes from a source deeper than the mind, that is to say if it comes from the breathing and the belly and the lungs.
He insisted that the language and subject matter of ordinary conversation among friends is fitting and proper language and subject matter for poetry.
We all talk among ourselves and we have common understandings, and we say anything we want to say, and we talk about our assholes, and we talk about our cocks, and we talk about who we fucked last night, or who we're gonna fuck tomorrow, or what kinda love affair we have, or when we got drunk, or when we stuck a broom in our ass in the Hotel Ambassador in Prague—anybody tells one's friends about that. So then—what happens if you make a distinction between what you tell your friends and what you tell your Muse? The problem is to break down that distinction: when you approach the Muse to talk as frankly as you would talk with yourself or with your friends.
The question begged is whether this is really what anyone tells one's friends about. Furthermore, what anyone tells one's friends about is often of no particular interest to anyone other than those friends. Sometimes not even to them. Judgment, discerning what to sift out and what to put in the poem, is part of the craft, sometimes present in Ginsberg's work, others not so much.
Letters to Ferlinghetti as they prepared the manuscript of "Howl" for publication by City Lights express Ginsberg's own doubts and reservations about the poem. Typographical arrangement of the very long lines that extended beyond the page's right margin was a chief but not sole concern: "The reason for my being particular is that the poems are actually sloppy enough written, without sloppiness made worse by typographical arrangement." The opening lines of "Howl" go like this (as they appear in the Harper/Collins edition of Collected Poems):
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the
starry dynamo in the machinery of night
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the
supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of
cities contemplating jazz,
who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw Mohammedan angels
staggering on tenement roofs illuminated,
who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes hallucinating Arkan-
sas and Blake-light tragedy among the scholars of war
A month later, after reading copy for the book, Ginsberg told Ferlinghetti everything was fine with the typography, but he "shuddered" when he read the poetry: "it all seems so jerry-built sloppy and egocentric, most of it…I am already embarrassed by half of it" (I Greet You at the Beginning of a Great Career: the Selected Correspondence of Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg, 1955-1997).
In a lecture for his class on the craft of poetry (NYU, 1995), Ginsberg discussed "how to revise poems written in the principle of absolutely spontaneous verse…A total contradiction in terms." He provided a list of fourteen steps for revision. The guidance is pretty standard: review with an eye to idiomatic speech, substitute particular facts for abstraction (e.g., change "walking down the avenue" to "walking down 2nd Avenue"), review for weak spots left there for inertial reasons, check for active versus passive verbs, etc. When a student asked how he reconciled his slogan first thought, best thought with rewriting, Ginsberg answered with refreshing candor: "I don't know. As I get older, I get more schizophrenic about it…If the poem, the original skeleton of the poem, retains its integrity, that's it…The first thought isn't necessarily the first thought you notice…First thought does not necessarily mean don't correct at all, it just means that your model should be the interior form that you glimpse, rather than the superficial level of mind. If the mind is shapely the art will be shapely" (Elise Schappell, "The Craft of Poetry" in Beat Writers at Work).
In Ginsberg's opinion Kerouac "went further into the existential thing of writing conceived of as an irreversible action or statement, that's unrevisable and unchangeable, once it's made." He thought the point Kerouac was making was that he could reveal himself best at first, and any revisions he did would tend to hide what embarrassed him (Ginsberg interviews Burroughs). It appears not to have occurred to either of them to question whether or to what degree revelation of one's self is the point of writing poetry and fiction.
Asked by Tom Clark if he felt in command when writing, Ginsberg replied that there were only a few times: "Probably a piece of 'Howl,' a piece of 'Kaddish,' and a piece of 'The Change.' And one or two moments of other poems." Asked if by command he meant a sense of the whole poem rather than in parts, Ginsberg responded, "No—a sense of being self-prophetic master of the universe." Such grand assertions pop up frequently. I sometimes wonder if he was putting us on a bit, a gentle smile behind the beard as he went for some hyperbole, more poetic license. That may be more my sensibility than his. Earlier in this interview came a kindred description that appears to be meant literally:
Usually during the composition, step by step, word by word, and adjective by adjective, if it's at all spontaneous, I don't know whether it even makes sense sometimes. Sometimes I do know it makes complete sense, and I start crying. Because I realize I'm hitting some are which is absolutely true. And in that sense applicable universally.
In 1948, in his apartment in East Harlem, his eyes idling over the page of William Blake's poem "Ah! Sunflower," Ginsberg realized the poem was talking about him. He heard "a very deep earthen voice" that he assumed was Blake's voice. "And," he related,
my eye on the page, simultaneously the auditory hallucination…the apparitional voice, in the room, woke me further deep in my understanding of the poem, because the voice was so completely tender and beautiful…ancient. Like the voice of the Ancient of Days. But the peculiar quality of the voice was something unforgettable because it was like God had a human voice, with all the infinite tenderness and anciency and mortal gravity of a living Creator speaking to his son.
He was at once convinced this was what he was born for and must "never forget, never renege, never deny…don't get lost wandering in other spirit worlds or American or job worlds…But the spirit of the universe was what I was born to realize."
Varieties of mysticism—Judaic, gnostic, Hindu, Buddhist—and drugs were enlisted in the quest for further visionary experiences. Ginsberg explained that the experience of his trip to Asia in 1961 got him out of a corner he painted himself into with drugs, "duty bound and obliged for the sake of consciousness expansion, and this insight, and breaking down my identity, and seeking more direct contact with primate sensations, nature, to continue." An encounter with Martin Buber in Jerusalem set him off in a different direction:
Buber said that he was interested in man-to-man relationships, human-to-human—that he thought it was a human universe we were destined to inhabit. And so therefore human relationships rather than relations between the human and the nonhuman. Which was what I was thinking I had to get into…And he was right.
Allen Ginsberg's father, Louis (1895–1976), was a schoolteacher and poet born in Newark, New Jersey. His mother, Naomi (1894–1956), emigrated with her family from Russia in 1905 after a pogrom. Louis appears to have been the more conventional of the two. The poem "Kaddish," an account of Naomi written shortly after her death, describes him briefly: "his sweetness and glasses, his high school decades, debts, loves, frightened telephone calls."
Naomi was a communist bohemian of the twenties and thirties who tried to paint, played mandolin, went to the opera, poetry readings, silent movies, and was secretary of her Communist Party cell (Elenore Lester, Allen Ginsberg Remembers Mama). Her first nervous breakdown was in 1919. She came to believe that her head was wired like a radio sending terrible messages. She was pursued by Hitler, Roosevelt, and capitalists, ran naked through hallways, and banged her head against walls. Suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, she spent much of her adult life in mental institutions.
In the poem Ginsberg envisioned Naomi as a girl "with the YPSL's [Young People's Socialist League] hitch-hiking through Pennsylvania, in black baggy gym skirts pants." Later came a refrain of hospitals, electric shocks, lobotomy. Naomi "stared out the window on the Broadway Church corner, and spied a mystical assassin from Newark." It fell on young Allen to care for her. In a harrowing passage Allen, twelve years old, shepherds her to New York and then back into New Jersey on a succession of buses in search of a rest home, Naomi telling him he doesn't understand: "ever since those 3 big sticks up my back—they did something to me in Hospital, they poisoned me, they want to see me dead—3 big sticks, 3 big sticks." After finding a place that would take her and making his way back home, finding his father worried, he "went to bed exhausted, wanting to leave the world."
A few years later, on the ferry the day he went to take the college entrance exam, he vowed to help mankind if admitted "by being honest revolutionary labor lawyer…inspired by Sacco Vanzetti Norman Thomas, Debs." The poem jumps then to 1941 with a dream of an early, unrequited love with a male classmate from high school, and despair. "Later a mortal avalanche, whole mountains of homosexuality, Matterhorns of cock, Grand Canyons of asshole—weight on my melancholy head."
Then 1956, he returned from San Francisco to the cottage in Berkeley one night, Peter Orlovsky and Philip Whalen there, and a telegram from his brother Gene. Naomi was dead.
Temptation to engage in armchair psychoanalysis is the work of a Malevolent Fiend, as seductive and treacherous as any apple offered up by a serpent. Nonetheless. Childhood experiences with Naomi must have had an effect. So did misgivings about homosexuality. As a young man he experienced long periods of melancholy and guilt feelings, "disguised mostly as a sort of Kafkaian sordidness of sense of self." Early homosexual affairs did not go well. Experiences with women were also unsatisfactory, his motivation more curiosity than interest (per Ginsberg letter to Wilhelm Reich, quoted in Tytell, Naked Angels). Does it go too far to wonder if the later compulsion to write about his sexual escapades in detail and at considerable length in poems was part of coming to terms with it all?
*Unless otherwise noted, quoted passages are from Tom Clark's 1966 interview for Paris Review published in Beat Writers at Work
Memo from the Editorial Desk. A minor editorial change was made after this was initially published: In the paragraph beginning "Ginsberg the poet is inseparable", the phrase was "more libertarian antipathy to civil authority" was inserted in place of "more anti-authoritarian and libertarian".
concluding part 3 is in progress and coming soon (the author has blown through deadlines throughout this project; "coming soon" should be taken advisedly)