A Modern Whitman

"Radical, drug-inspired, pornographic, Allen Ginsberg's poetry has been available only in pamphlets and small-press editions. Now Harper and Row has issued Ginsberg's Collected Poems in a handsome trade edition"

NO American poet has proclaimed his contempt for this country more noisily than Allen Ginsberg. Ever since he first recited "Howl" in a San Francisco coffeehouse, in 1956, Ginsberg has been railing against the horrors of urban life, the stupidity of our government, and the crimes of what used to be called the military-industrial complex. Radical, drug-inspired, pornographic, his poetry has been available only in pamphlets and small-press editions. Now Harper & Row has issued Ginsberg's Collected Poems in a handsome trade edition—the first of six volumes that will eventually make available his journals, letters, literary essays, and lectures on American literature, as well as a new collection of poems scheduled to coincide with his sixtieth birthday, in 1987. The collected works of Allen Ginsberg: the sixties are history.

Replete with appendices and notes designed, Ginsberg explains, for "electronic laser TV generations that don't read Dostoyevsky," this 850-page volume is as weighty as the original volumes were slight. There was a fugitive, mildly forbidden aura about those little pamphlets, with their stark black-and-white covers, issued by Lawrence Ferlinghetti's City Lights Books in San Francisco. I bought a copy of Howl for seventy-five cents in Ferlinghetti's store when I was a teenager, and read with furtive wonder the litany of sordid goings-on experienced by the best minds of Ginsberg's generation,

     who cowered in unshaven rooms in underwear, burning their money in wastebaskets and listening to the Terror through the wall,
     who got busted in their pubic beards returning through Laredo with a belt of marijuana for New York,

and worse, much worse. If you were in the right crowd, the somnolence of the Eisenhower era was a myth. Dope and free sex weren't inventions of the sixties; Ginsberg and his cronies gave them currency a decade before anyone ever heard of Haight-Ashbury.

Thanks to the several biographies of Ginsberg's sidekick Jack Kerouac and the memoirs of their voluble companions on the road, we know a great deal—maybe more than we need to know—about the stoned adventures of the Beats during the 1950s. Even so, the Collected Poems is a fascinating historical document. Rich in particulars, in the names of places and lovers and dates ("34 coming up—I suddenly felt old—sitting with Walter & Raquel in Chinese Restaurant"), the poems have been arranged in strict chronological order "to compose an autobiography," Ginsberg notes in his preface—one of the most candid autobiographies ever written. An ardent seducer of boys, he dwells unblushingly on what Richard Ellmann once called the "precise anatomical convolutions" of love, and the details of his pederastic revels are enough to make even a regular at the Ramrod wince. But these revelations aren't just prurient; lurid as they are, they belong to the convention of the horny old poet celebrating the transient beauty of youth.

In his preface Ginsberg describes his method of composition as "spontaneous insight—the sequence of thought-forms passing naturally through ordinary mind." American poetry is full of such talk, from Charles Olson's theory of "art as process" to Frank O'Hara's "I do this, I do that" poems and Robert Bly's quest for the "deep image." In this view, poetic structure is repressive, authoritarian, a means of dominating and controlling the imagination. To put anything and everything into a poem is to capture the random, discontinuous nature of reality, to mime the texture of perception. Thus Ginsberg quotes newspapers, snatches of conversation, radio commentators; he addresses dead friends, blurts out old grievances, and dwells on childhood memories—gives us, unmediated, what he calls "the literary cackle in my head."

This "first thought, best thought" procedure entails considerable risks. A lot of Ginsberg's poetry could be written off as no more than stoned babble. Refining James Joyce's geographical signature to Ulysses (Trieste-Zurich-Paris, 1914-1921), he supplies not only the date and place but the time of composition (January 22, 1977, 3 A.M. - 11.30 A.M.) and, on occasion, the stimulant employed; "Big Sur; June 16, 1968 (grass)," reads the dateline to "Bixby Canyon." There are pages and pages of self-parody ("I carry/ Subversive salami in/ my ragged briefcase"), sentimental rhetoric ("Let some sad trumpeter stand/ on the empty streets at dawn/ and blow a silver chorus to the/ buildings of Times Square"), and sheer inanity ("and the grief of the countless chickens of America is expressed in the screaming of her comedians over the radio"). You know the poet's had a few tokes when you read a poem like "Hum Bom!":

What do we do?
You bomb! You bomb them!
What do we do?
You bomb! You bomb them!
What do we do?
We bomb! We bomb them!
What do we do?
We bomb! We bomb them!

There aren't many memorable lines in even the best of Ginsberg's work, but it has a virtue rare in contemporary poetry: it's never dull. Crammed with gossip, anecdotes, and confessions of sexual miscreancy, his garrulous, untidy narratives read like a good novel. The travel poems—"To Poe: Over the Planet, Air Albany-Baltimore," "Kansas City to Saint Louis," "Bayonne Entering NYC"—are vivid evocations of the American landscape that Ginsberg has traversed so many times, glimpsed from train compartments, airplane windows, cars hurtling through New Jersey:

Gray water tanks in gray mist,/ gray robot/ towers carrying wires through Bayonne's/ smog, silver/ domes, green chinaworks steaming,/ Christmas's leftover lights hanging/ from a smokestack--/ Monotone gray highway into the gray West . . .

These geographical passages, some of them ten pages long, are utterly absorbing. Even when Ginsberg has nothing to say about what he sees, the word picture he conjures up has the power of a photograph: this is how America looks.

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