The Beat Goes On
A reconsideration of the poet who wrote "Howl" 50 years ago.

Reviewed by Anthony Cuda
Sunday, November 26, 2006


The Somewhat Private Life of Allen Ginsberg

By Bill Morgan

Viking. 702 pp. $29.95

Just after his 21st birthday, Allen Ginsberg decided to kill himself. Again. This time, however, to allow for the necessary preparations, he settled on a schedule. Two years should be "just enough time," he wrote in his journal, "for me to have accomplished the first great prose work, a small body of perfect poems . . . and to have attempted some happy labor in the world, and failed." Not all of his "Dear Diary" suicide notes -- and there were many -- were graced with such panache. Of the numerous love affairs worthy of diary entries, none was so crucial to Ginsberg's imagination as his courtship with death, except perhaps his enduring commitment to the sensual and spiritual joys of living.

Bill Morgan's provocative and thoroughly researched new biography of the poet, I Celebrate Myself, is a testament to the creative fruits and the personal anguish of this struggle, which spanned Ginsberg's long career as poet, literary impresario, political activist and cultural icon.

As a boy, Ginsberg witnessed his mother's painful descent into schizophrenia with the same mixture of compassion and revulsion that he later felt for his own life. The Modernist poet Marianne Moore shrewdly diagnosed his predicament in an early letter: "Your disgust worries me," she wrote, reminding him of the "old hackneyed truism; affirm or die." Of course, with all of Ginsberg's best work yet to be written, Moore could not know the other self-delighting and vigorously affirmative side of his personality. This bolstering self-assurance led him to proclaim, when he was only 14: "If some future historian or biographer wants to know what the genius thought and did in his tender years, here it is."

In retrospect, the real "here" of this announcement, however, was neither his journal nor his parents' home in Paterson, N.J., but the grounds of Columbia University in the 1940s. During his first few months as a student there, he met the future luminaries of the Beat generation, including the princely football star Jack Kerouac; the flirtatious and unpredictable playboy Neal Cassady; and the patron saint of awful advice, failed schemes and moral depravity William Burroughs.

In "therapy" sessions to which he regularly submitted with desperate credulity, Ginsberg turned to Burroughs (who knew nothing about psychoanalysis) for help overcoming his sorrow and dread. He fled despair for months at a time with the U.S. Maritime Service. When he gravitated toward Cassady's sexual charm, though, Ginsberg slid back into a dark night of the lover's soul. Morgan recounts this affair with regrettable cliché -- "The moment Ginsberg saw Cassady, he fell in love" -- but the melodrama of romantic thralldom and heartbreak, he rightly suggests, was the young poet's favorite emotional posture. Melodrama is never far from sentimentality, and Ginsberg's conflicted affections for life and death often tumbled into the less glamorous territory of self-pity and egotism.

Later, he hitchhiked to Mexico to hunt his melancholy spirit through Mayan ruins and burial grounds. It never took Ginsberg long to run out of money, but luckily this time an American woman (whom he called "the White Goddess") gave him a place to stay on her plantation, where he spent an idle summer training his imagination in the work of the medieval Catholic mystics and the path to nothingness.

In less than a year, however, the cocoon he had begun to spin around himself unraveled, and Ginsberg's creative energy emerged again with newfound force and direction. On Oct. 7, 1955, he bellowed the first public rendition of "Howl" to a crowd of about a hundred at the Six Gallery in San Francisco, soon to become the Mecca of Beat civilization. In "Howl," Ginsberg performs his swings between life and death at fever pitch, in both their epic and banal aspects. It is a savagely beautiful poem, by turns obscene and intimate, barbarous and noble.

The Six Gallery reading galvanized the Beat writers as a distinct literary avant-garde, and the event was so successful that Ginsberg was invited to read "Howl" again five months later to a crowd double the size, now abuzz with anticipation. Less than a year after the famous City Lights edition was published, a U.S. customs official seized a shipment on charges of obscenity. And thus began the famous trial that put Ginsberg's name into all of the newspapers and made "Howl" the poem that some say changed America.

Morgan includes marginal notes that helpfully point out correspondences between the life and the poems, though he rarely lifts the curtain to show us the writer at work. For this, readers can turn to three other Ginsberg gems, also timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of "Howl": Howl on Trial: The Battle for Free Expression, edited by Bill Morgan and Nancy Peters (City Lights, $14.95); The Book of Martyrdom and Artifice, First Journals and Poems: 1937-1952, edited by Juanita Lieberman-Plimpton and Bill Morgan (Da Capo, $27.50), and Howl: Original Draft Facsimile (HarperPerennial, $18.95). In contrast to the barbaric yawp of his masterpiece, Ginsberg's journals reveal a sensitive, vulnerable imagination. The scrawled and minute revisions of "Howl" in the facsimile edition demonstrate that -- popular legend notwithstanding -- the poem did not spring fully formed from Ginsberg's head but was the product of much creative deliberation and revision.

Morgan is a seasoned archivist and a nonacademic scholar, which means that his biography happily avoids slapdash research and academic jargon. But it also means that we are doubly disappointed with the uselessness of the endnotes, which demand that we consult his own separately published two-volume bibliography of Ginsberg to confirm his findings. His prose is enviably concise, if sometimes uninspired. But his least forgivable writerly offenses, both of which seem suspiciously chummy, are the drug lingo and the tactless four-letter-word descriptions of Ginsberg's sexual encounters.

On March 30, 1997, Ginsberg was diagnosed with liver cancer and told that it was too advanced for treatment. He spent the following days contacting old friends and lovers to say good-bye, often inviting them to visit him in his Manhattan loft on East 13th Street. He died early in the morning on April 5 surrounded by a small group of friends; Bill Morgan was among them.

Alongside the flood of popular attention that his work is now enjoying, the mammoth new Collected Poems, 1947-1997 (HarperCollins, $39.39) places Ginsberg firmly among the most prolific poets of the age. But as he knew, none of this guarantees him a plot on Parnassus. Cultural heroes or not, poets live or die on the strength of a handful of poems that vibrate with a strange frequency all their own. If this biography brings us closer, as I believe it does, to the magnificent resonance of "Howl," the tender intimacy of "A Supermarket in California" and the stringent beauty of "Kaddish," then it merits a place on every Ginsberg shelf. ·

Anthony Cuda teaches at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and reviews poetry for the New Criterion, FIELD: Contemporary Poetry and Poetics, and the American Book Review.

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