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 Even so, the Collected Poems is a fascinating historical document.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.
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.