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"

GINSBERG'S vision of his country is hardly arcadian. "Pentagon Exorcism," "War Profit Litany," "Grant Park: August 28, 1968"—the titles tell the story. Collected Poems can be read as a leftist history of the sixties. Obsessed with the war in Vietnam, Ginsberg quotes Kissinger, Westmoreland, McNamara, Johnson, rehearses the atrocities committed in their name, decries the "Black Magic language" they invoked to justify themselves:

Communism is a 9 letter word/ used by inferior magicians with/ the wrong alchemical formula for transforming earth into gold/—funky warlocks operating on guesswork,/ handmedown mandrake terminology/ that never worked in 1956/ for gray-domed Dulles,/ brooding over at State,/ that never worked for Ike who knelt to take/ the magic wafer in his mouth/ from Dulles' hand/ inside the church in Washington . . .

These outbursts may seem dated now, shrill polemics out of another time, but they have a certain documentary value. When he didn't have his nose in Blake or the Upanishads, Ginsberg was scouring The New York Times for evidence of nefarious activities. Convinced that the CIA was involved in the heroin trade in Southeast Asia, he made a bet with Richard Helms, then its director: if his assertions turned out to be without substance he would confer on Helms a cherished Tibetan talisman, and if he was right, Helms would agree to meditate for an hour a day for the rest of his life. When I asked him recently how their bet had come out, he said that he had proven his case but doubted that Helms had kept his part of the bargain. (Ginsberg also mentions a letter from C. L. Sulzberger acknowledging the substance of his claims and admitting that he'd once thought Ginsberg was "full of beans." Not even poet-revolutionaries can resist dropping these big establishment names.)

Still, Ginsberg is no ideologue. Like Norman Mailer, he takes a karmic view of things: political repression is symptomatic of sexual repression; ecological catastrophe is the result of capitalist greed; meditation is the way to holiness. Collected Poems is crammed with references to Hindus and Buddhists, yogis and saints—a supermarket of Eastern lore that puts Eliot's Sanskrit dabblings in the shade. Everywhere he goes Ginsberg broods on "the shades of dead living loves, bodies weeping bodies broken, bodies aging"—a hip guru, heir of Whitman, "Buddhist Jew" with a sad heart and a gay appetite, scribbling "ambitious egohood's thousand pages."

The appearance of a volume of collected poems is an invitation to speculate on how the poet collected stacks up—always a risky business, given the provisional nature of literary taste. In a fit of impatience Ginsberg writes off the books on his shelves as "orient lore, poetry crap"—and there are critics who would say the same of his own work. Chaotic and hectoring, the long, Whitmanesque lines unfurl in apparent metrical anarchy, but no one who has ever heard Ginsberg read would call his prosody random. He has clearly served a rigorous apprenticeship, as the early imitations of Marvell and Donne (included in the appendix) demonstrate, and the long line he adopted in the 1950s exerts a hypnotic force. Poetry derives from oral literature; it was meant to be recited and sung. Ginsberg restores its original intent.

These poems are uneven, to say the least, but no more so than others just as ambitious (I'm thinking of William Carlos Williams's Paterson, Charles Olson's Maximus Poems, Robert Lowell's Notebook). Collected Poems is a vast, sprawling canvas, a portrait of postwar America. A handful of poems -- "Iron Horse," "Wales Visitation," the sequence "Don't Grow Old," the pastoral "Ecologue," a meditation on Ginsberg's farm in upstate New York, and "Kaddish," a twenty-page elegy to Ginsberg's psychotic mother—seem certain to survive. "A good poet is someone who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times," Randall Jarrell once estimated; "a dozen or two dozen times and he is great." By this measure, Allen Ginsberg is doing well, and he still hasn't come in out of the rain.

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