LONG and inclusive as it is, this first collected edition of Allen Ginsberg's poetry may give the impression that he did nothing but write nonstop for 33 years. But we know that this is not even figuratively true. The idea of Ginsberg toiling away at his lines day after day and night after night, constantly polishing, ceaselessly looking for that perfect word -- all this is inconsistent with what we know of his life, his philosophy of composition, and with the poems themselves. He is simply not that kind of poet. The kind of poet Allen Ginsberg is was settled a century earlier by Walt Whitman.
Yet for his first model, it was probably natural that Ginsberg should have chosen William Carlos Williams, for after all the good Dr. Williams, pet-survivor of the '20s avant-garde, had become the laureate of Paterson, New Jersey (Ginsberg's hometown), with the book-length poem which sang the city's history, geography, and anthropology. Ginsberg sought out Williams, who lived and practiced medicine in nearby Rutherford, claimed him as a mentor, and in his first published poems (Empty Mirror) offered him the sincere flattery of imitation.
It was just a matter of form, however. He used Dr. Williams' short lines and rhymes, even tried out his use of the caesura -- yet without much real success. Even Ginsberg acknowledged his difficulty:
I attempted to concentrate
the total sun's rays in
each poem as through a glass,
but such magnification
did not set the page afire.
Ginsberg longed to set the page afire with his anger. Eventually, he found that the form and diction which carried Dr. Williams' brand of plain-spoken humanism so well would often crack and collapse under the weight of his own rage.
And why was Allen Ginsberg so angry? A reasonable question, but one that invites a more clinical response than seems proper in this space. Let's say that it probably had more than a little to do with his feelings regarding his own Jewishness, and about his mother Naomi, who had been in and out of mental institutions on a number of occasions by the time he began to write.
Deep-seated though it was, this anger of his became, if not a pose, then a fixed attitude that seemed to suit him well. Ginsberg was, after all, one of the original Beats. While still an undergraduate at Columbia he made two of the formative friendships of his life when he got to know Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs. And their little conspiracy grew into a literary movement that proved to be even more obstreperous than most. Anger, disgust, and disillusionment at postwar America -- this was the ethos that gave the Beat generation its vitality; Allen Ginsberg was confirmed in it.
But to play this new role as one of the Beat protagonists, he needed a new voice to go with the attitude. He first found it while experimenting with a Whitmanesque free verse long line, the sort of form in which virtually nobody else was working at that time. This poem from Empty Mirror, entitled "Psalm I," is his earliest in this style:
These psalms are the workings of the vision haunted mind and not that reason which never changes.
I am flesh and blood, but my mind is the focus of much lightning.
I change with the weather, with the state of my finances, with
the work I do, with my company.
But truly none of these is accountable for the majestic flaws of
mind which have left my brain open to hallucination
All work has been an imitation of the literary cackle in my
This gossip is an eccentric document to be lost in a library and
rediscovered when the Dove descends.
FROM this, and in this basic form, eventually came the poems for which Allen Ginsberg is so well known. Beginning with "Howl," which he wrote for a reading during a stay in San Francisco with Kerouac, Ginsberg's matter and emotion found their exact form. The result was amazing for its energy, its sense of vatic inspiration, and for the sweeping nature of its denunciation:
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 fix
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection
to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night . . .
And on and on -- as we know ("Howl" is not only the most familiar poem by an American since World War II, it is also for many probably the only familiar postwar poem) -- in a tone of outrage which, though certainly not inimitable, soon became quite recognizably Ginberg's own.
One thing should be pointed out in passing: "Howl" and the many such poems that followed were written essentially as performance pieces. It was was first read at the Six Gallery where a number of San Francisco poets had gathered, including Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, and Philip Whalen, who were later identified as Beat Generation poets; in fact, the occasion, which marked the convergence of San Francisco and New York poets of like styles and temperaments, really established the Beat Generation as a national literary enterprise. What inspired them all, what really turned them on, was Ginsberg's rhythmic delivery of the incantatory Moloch section of "Howl":
Moloch! Moloch! Nightmare of Moloch! Moloch the loveless!
Mental Moloch! Moloch the heavy judger of men!
Kerouac was present at the reading -- more than present, he was a presence: he had a jug of wine from which he drank deeply, and he yelled encouragement to Ginsberg and kept time through the performance, banging the bottle on the floor. Kerouac himself was only a few years away from doing his own readings to jazz.
It ws with Howl and Other Poems and Reality Sandwiches that Ginsberg established himself as the preeminent Beat poet -- the cold-eyed judge presiding at the court at which all American culture and literature were put on trial. To many that seemed like just so much chutzpah, and certainly Ginsberg was ridiculed by the poetry establishment. Yet Ginsberg swept all this aside when he wrote "Kaddish." It could be neither ridiculed nor dismissed. Going back to the very roots of his anger, singing a funeral dirge to his dead mother, he exposed himself and her so ruthlessly that there could be no doubt he had made a considerable emotional investment in the work. It was a bold, risk-taking poem written at a time when poets seldom took chances.
It is written in a Whitmanesque line so long and loose that it has almost gone to prose. Yet "Hymmnn," which follows it as a second part or sequel, is gloriously, religiously incantatory. Here, for instance, Ginsberg comes to terms with his motherforth:
Blessed be you Naomi in tears! Blessed be you Naomi in fears!
Blessed Blessed Blessed in sickness!
Blessed be you Naomi in Hospitals! Blessed be you Naomi in
solitude! Blest be your triumph! Blest be your bars! Blest be
your last years' loneliness!
Writing the poem did seem to have a purgative effect on Allen Ginsberg. Not long after it was published, he left for an extended stay in the Orient -- principally in Japan and India -- and he came back a much different man.
YES, he was changed, and so was the America he returned to, for by that time the '60s were heating up. No one talked much about the Beat Generation anymore, but that didn't mean that he and Kerouac and Corso and all the rest had gone unheeded. The Hippies and Yippies of the '60s appropriated the Beat message and agenda and made them their own. They welcomed Allen Ginsberg as a guru, a chaplain to the movement.
This was a part that Ginsberg played with pleasure and considerable skill. He was accepted, loved, and respected by the '60s generation. Probably without doing it quite consciously, he turned once again to Walt Whitman and began playing the role of the "good, gray poet" that Whitman played lated in his life. Yet the '60s passed, eventually the Vietnam War ended, and the youthful army that made up the peace movement disbanded and went off to take up their lives again. In a sense, Allen Ginsberg was left behind then. Although he has continued to write, he is not nearly as prolific as he once was, and there has been little energy and fire in his poems of the last dozen years.
All this should be quite evident to readers of this volume of Ginsberg's Collected Poems 1947-1980. But it should be neither surprising nor even especially disappointing that Ginsberg's career has taken such a turn. After all, Walt Whitman spent his latter years editing, revising, and modestly augmenting Leaves of Grass. Ginsberg continues as a survivor of not one but two movements, more Whitmanesque than ever, traveling, giving readings and lectures, living the life of a culture hero, an icon incarnate.