The phenomenon of Allen Ginsberg
by Bruce Bawer, The New Criterion
On Allen Ginsberg’s poetry, 1985.
I’m so lucky to be nutty.
—Allen Ginsberg, “Bop Lyrics” (1949)
The very first poem in Allen Ginsberg’s Collected Poems 1947-1980  seems, in a way, to prophesy Ginsberg’s entire career. It is titled “In Society,” and it dates from 1947, when the poet was twenty-one years old. The poem records a dream: Ginsberg is at a high-society cocktail party, is more or less ignored, and is told by a woman, “I don’t like you.” He screams at her:
. . . “What!”
in outrage. “Why you shit-faced fool!”
This got everybody’s attention.
“Why you narcissistic bitch! How
can you decide when you don’t even
know me,” I continued in a violent
and messianic voice, inspired at last,
dominating the whole room.
Could Ginsberg have known, at that tender age, that he would spend much of his adult life dominating rooms in this manic, “messianic” manner—indeed, that his attention-getting tactics at poetry readings, political conventions, sit-ins, be-ins, protest marches, and Yippie Life Festivals would be a crucial catalyst in his rise to fame? Even Richard Howard, who in his no-nonsense survey of contemporary American poetry, Alone with America, begins forty of forty-one essays with a businesslike disquisition upon the poetic career at hand (“In 1960, Howard Moss selected an appropriate showing of poems from his first three volumes . . .”), makes an exception in the case of Allen Ginsberg. The long opening paragraph of Howard’s essay on Ginsberg is devoted not to explication de texte but to an anecdote. The gist of it is that once, at a poetry conference attended by Howard, an elderly poet just back from Nigeria was “extol[ling] the rare privilege of moving among a race of women proudly nude,” whereupon the bard of the Beat Generation rose from his seat, “stepped up onto the dais and without a word, without a smile, without a single deprecating gesture, Allen Ginsberg took off all his clothes.”
You could fill a book with Ginsberg anecdotes of this sort. (The stories about him removing his clothing at one public gathering or another would by themselves make up a long chapter.) What is remarkable is not that Ginsberg has advertised himself with such arrogance and audacity, but that it has worked like a charm; thanks to such shameless scene-stealing antics, he has attained a measure of fame that he could never have secured by his poetry alone. He is, unarguably, the only poet in America who is not just a member of the august American Academy of Arts and Letters but a bona fide celebrity, the sort who appears on network talk shows. He is idolized by English professors as well as rock stars, and associates comfortably with both groups. He is truly famous.
The Collected Poems 1947-1980 is the ultimate testimony to this fame. Two inches thick, clad in a bright, firetruck-red wrapper, this imposing tome, like its author, stands out big and brash among its fellows, demanding to be recognized. Its message could not be more obvious: that this poet, whose verse has heretofore been packed into numerous shoddy little small-press volumes, henceforth belongs to the ages. What’s more, the Collected Poems is only the first step in what amounts to the mainstream press’s canonization of Allen Ginsberg. In the words of the publicity flyer accompanying the review copy, Harper & Row will, in the fullness of time, “make available [Ginsberg’s] 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 1986.” What poet, living or dead, has been treated so reverently by Publishers’ Row? There can be no denying it hereafter: Allen Ginsberg, who rose to renown as the outspoken enemy of the Establishment, and the most prominent feature of whose poetry has always been its hostility to the order of things in the United States of America, is now the Republic’s premier Establishment poet.
Ginsberg’s parents, at least, would have been happy. And if there is anything in America that Allen Ginsberg has not rebelled against in his three decades as the amazingly tireless (and drearily tiresome) Poet of Protest, it is his parents. Ginsberg’s father, Louis, was a poet—a premodernist rhymester, to be sure, but a poet; his mother, Naomi, was a Communist agitator whose paranoid psychosis (as any reader of “Kaddish” knows) eventually necessitated her commitment to a mental institution. Poetry, paranoia, protest: this was the mixed legacy of Ginsberg’s parents, and it is a legacy to which Ginsberg—who has dedicated his Collected Poems to their memory—has been eternally and entirely faithful. When, at age sixteen, he left their Paterson, New Jersey, home to attend Columbia University, Ginsberg took up studies in literature, his father’s field; and, just as loyally, he rejected the opportunity that Columbia offered to breathe sane air for the first time in his life. Rather—in a clear attempt to cultivate a Naomi Ginsberg-like rebelliousness—Ginsberg took up with the Beats.
Or, more precisely, the as-yet-unknown Beats-to-be. At first, in addition to Ginsberg, there were three of them: Jack Kerouac (a middle-class boy who lived with his mother in Ozone Park, Queens), William Burroughs (an heir to the gigantic corporation of the same name), and Lucien Carr (a slim, handsome student at Columbia). Though they looked harmless enough, Kerouac, Burroughs, and Carr had the same problem Ginsberg did: they craved chaos. They looked down upon the society in which they lived, for no other reason than that, like any other nonanarchic society, it had laws, a government, a way of life; they considered the classical, intellectually oriented education offered at Columbia to be pointless and stifling; and they romanticized poverty, criminality, and rootlessness in a way that only naive, sheltered young men could do. They felt themselves to be geniuses—literary geniuses, to be precise—and disdained the “well-made” piece of writing as much as they did the well-ordered mind. Truly great minds, they insisted, were not sane and stable and logical, and did not express themselves in lucid, beautifully balanced sentences; instead, such minds soared above the surface of the earth, touched the stars, whirled and shook and spun erratically in the upper air. The great, in short, were always a little mad. Thus it was with genuine pride that the Beats asserted—at first to one another, and then, later, to an increasingly attentive world—their own madness.
The Beats have been spoken of as populist writers, as celebrators of the democratic spirit. But the truth is that they were confirmed elitists. Their collective self-image was nothing short of messianic; in their judgment, they were, by virtue of their self-proclaimed mental instability, incomparably superior to the civilization into which they had been born, to the professors who had been designated to instruct them, to the great authors that everybody read. The appeal of this anti-logic to the young Ginsberg, in particular, is obvious: what could bring more comfort to a sensitive young man who loved his mother than the idea that her mental illness, far from being a family tragedy, was, on the contrary, something to be proud of? It was this anti-logic, at any rate, that persuaded Ginsberg, when he was not yet twenty years old, to reject Lionel Trilling and the other too-sane “squares” of the Columbia English department as being utterly incapable of giving him a real education, and to allow the loosely bound Burroughs (who was twelve years older than he was) and the wacky Kerouac (four years his senior) to be his literary mentors.
The Beats used the same anti-logic to determine which outsiders would be allowed to join their fraternity. Thus Herbert Huncke, a psychopathic burglar and drug addict who was known to New York police as “the Creep” (and whom Ginsberg once described as “the only sophisticated man in New York”), was heartily welcomed into the fold. (Huncke would make an enduring, if unwitting, contribution to American literature: he introduced his cronies to the word “beat,” meaning worn-out, jaded; it was Kerouac who, in a deliberate echo of Gertrude Stein’s “lost generation” remark, borrowed Huncke’s word and coined the appelation “the Beat Generation”) And Neal Cassady, a dashing railway brakeman from Denver who arrived on the scene in 1946, was such an excellent specimen of the obsessive-compulsive type that the Beats not only let him into their charmed circle but, endlessly fascinated by his hyperkinetic hedonism, made a literary hero out of him. Kerouac would immortalize him as Dean Moriarty in On the Road (1956) and other novels, and Ginsberg (who fell in love with Cassady) would write numerous poems about him over the ensuing decades, one of the first being “Dakar Doldrums” (1947). The initial stanza of this poem not only demonstrates the intensity of Ginsberg’s unrequited passion (Cassady had thrown him over for a woman, and a despondent Ginsberg had signed onto a freighter bound for Senegal) but provides a good illustration of his extremely imitative, pseudo-Elizabethan early style (the first of many extremely imitative Ginsberg styles):
Most dear, and dearest at this moment most,
Since this my love for thee is thus more free
Than that I cherished more dear and lost;
Most near, now nearest where I fly from thee:
Thy love most consummated is in absence,
Half for the trust I have for thee in mind,
Half for the pleasures of thee in remembrance—
Thou art most full and fair of all thy kind.
Amid all the non compos mentis carryings-on, then, there was some writing going on among the Beats. But, all in all, the history of Ginsberg’s first years with his subterranean compeers bears less resemblance to a literary chronicle than it does to a textbook of case histories in schizophrenia. Two incidents stand out. The first, which took place in 1944, was the murder by Lucien Carr of a young man named David Kam-merer, who, according to Carr, had made a pass at him. Since the crime was therefore an “honor slaying,” Carr was let off with a relatively brief term in an Elmira, New York, reformatory. His fellow Beats, for their part, appear to have gotten a Norman Mailerish thrill out of the affair; the murder, one gathers from the many narratives that have touched on the crime, confirmed their image of themselves as a dangerous band of underground rebels. Then, in 1948 (the year he was finally graduated from Columbia), Ginsberg had his first brush with fame. He was implicated in one of Huncke’s burglaries, got his picture on the cover of the Daily News as a result, and was sent to the Columbia Psychiatric Institute instead of prison. There he met and befriended Carl Solomon, a well-read maniac who (one gets the impression) made the Beats look like the Sitwells; upon release from the Institute, Solomon immediately assumed the role of the group’s so-called “lunatic saint.” (He would also, in time, become the raving mad junkie-protagonist of Ginsberg’s most famous poem, “Howl.”) Solomon was, in the words of Beat historian John Tytell, something of a Platonic ideal of “the artist as outrage”—and therefore, obviously, a model of sorts for the outrageous public persona that Ginsberg was eventually to assume.
Besides being the year that Ginsberg joined Carr in the pantheon of hipster hoods, 1948 was also the year of two supposedly epiphanic events in the life of the aspiring poet. The first involved William Blake. One day, Ginsberg was alone in his apartment, having just read “Ah! Sun-Flower” (a poem in Songs of Experience), when suddenly he heard a voice—that of Blake himself, he figured—reading the verses aloud. Over the next few weeks, the voice returned and read other Blake poems to him. The Ginsberg groupies have made much of this incident; Paul Portuges devotes a whole book (The Visionary Poetics of Allen Ginsberg) to an interpretation of Ginsberg’s entire corpus in light of it, insisting that the auditory hallucination “revolutionized [Ginsberg’s] ideas about poetry, his concept of self, and his perception of the quotidian world.” Ginsberg himself (as quoted in Jane Kramer’s book Allen Ginsberg in America) puts it this way:
The thing I felt was that there was this big god over all, who was completely aware and completely conscious of everything, and at the same time completely the same as everybody, and that the whole purpose of being born was to wake up to Him. . . . . I felt everything vibrating in one harmony—all past efforts and desires, all present realizations . . . . And I felt that even my previous ponderings had been harmoniously flower-petaled toward this final understanding of what it was all about and that all my poetic musings about supreme reality were prophetic, really, and just the sweet, well-intentioned strivings of a poor mind to reach what was already there.
What it comes down to is that this “visitation” (which occurred, by the way, after Ginsberg had been smoking marijuana and inhaling Benzedrine regularly for several years) gave Ginsberg an abrupt push in the direction of the cosmic. It made him more of a transcendental poet than he had been before—the sort of poet, that is, who does not think of a poem as an object, a “made thing,” but rather as the effusion of a poetic self that sees all, knows all, encompasses all. This was, then, the beginning of the end of whatever interest the twenty-two-year-old Ginsberg might have had in developing his poetic technique.
The second epiphanic event of 1948 was somewhat more down-to-earth. Ginsberg went to hear his fellow Patersonian, William Carlos Williams, read at the Museum of Modern Art, and when the older poet recited his poem “The Clouds,” which at its end trails off in mid-sentence, the device struck Ginsberg with the force of a revelation: you could write the way you talk! Up to this point he had been, in his own words, “hung up on cats like Wyatt, Surrey, and Donne,” and had churned out reams of pseudo-Elizabethan poems (and would continue to do so for a couple more years, finally abandoning the iamb—for a while, anyway—after “Ode: My Twenty-Fourth Year” in 1950-51). Now, hung up on a cat named Williams, he began dividing entries from his prose journals into lines and calling them poems:
I walked into the cocktail party
room and found three or four queers
talking together in queertalk.
I tried to be friendly but heard
myself talking to one in hiptalk.
“I’m glad to see you,” he said, and
looked away. “Hmn,” I mused: The room
was small and had a double-decker
bed in it, and cooking apparatus:
icebox, cabinet, toasters, stove;
the hosts seemed to live with room
enough only for cooking and sleeping.
Now, that was the way to write a poem—no muss, no fuss! Williams, whom Ginsberg soon came to know quite well (and whom he would refer to in later years as his “guru”), was flattered by these imitative (if utterly unimaginative) verses and provided an introduction for the book in which Ginsberg planned to publish them.
That book, however—Empty Mirror was its title—would not find a publisher till 1961; so Williams obligingly contributed a second introduction to what became Ginsberg’s debut volume, Howl & Other Poems (1956). Between the writing of Empty Mirror and of Howl, though, Williams’s influence waned. There were (aside from the obvious incompatibility of Williams’s “no-ideas-but-in-things” approach and Ginsberg’s Blake-born neo-Platonism) several reasons for this decline in influence. One of them was Kerouac’s new “theory” of spontaneous writing, to which Ginsberg subscribed enthusiastically upon its introduction in 1951. The idea, as set forth in Kerouac’s essay “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose” (and applied in the fast-as-lightning composition of On the Road), was that, when one is writing, the first words to enter one’s head are always the best ones for the purpose; revision is a deceitful process because it involves thinking, that dreaded enemy of honest feeling and consequently of true art. “First thought, best thought”: it was a ridiculous concept, but one perfectly suited to the Beats, who were impatient, impulsive, and incomparably conceited, who hated order, and who didn’t really want to spend all that much time writing anyway. (If they did, there wouldn’t be any time left to be “hip.”) Ginsberg, for one, would never be the same after “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose”; Kerouac, he was later to say (in one of the most dubious compliments in the history of American literature), “taught me everything I knew about writing.”
Kerouac was not the only member of the Beat Generation who was making discoveries.
But Kerouac was not the only member of the Beat Generation who was making discoveries. Sometime between the writing of Empty Mirror and of Howl Ginsberg made a big one: Walt Whitman. Here, he realized, was the perfect model for the spontaneous, transcendental poet he wanted to be. Ginsberg’s Open Road was to be different from Whitman’s, though; his journey down the “long brown path” of Whitmanian fame was not to be a lyrical, lighthearted hike but a bumpy, buffoonish protest march. “Pater-son” (1949), his first poem in imitation of the Bard of Paumanok, not only made it clear that he had shamelessly appropriated the entire arsenal of Whitmanian devices—the vatic tone, the long lines, the comprehensive lists, the names of American places, the programmatic egocentrism, the rampant sensuality, the practice of beginning a series of lines with the same words or phrases, and the obsession with the past, present, and future of America—but established the distinctly un-Whitmanian uses to which he would put them. At the beginning of “Paterson,” Ginsberg bluntly declares his hostility toward the American way of life: “What do I want in these rooms papered with visions of money?” He despises the idea of participating in an economic system governed by “the slobs and dumbbells of the ego with money and power/to hire and fire and make and break and fart and justify their reality of wrath/and rumor of wrath to wrath-weary man.” What sort of life would Ginsberg prefer? A demented, disordered one, of course:
I would rather go mad, gone down the dark
road to Mexico, heroine dripping in my veins,
eyes and ears full of marijuana,
eating the god Peyote on the floor of a mudhut on the border
or laying in a hotel room over the body of some suffering man or woman;
rather jar my body down the road, crying by a diner in the Western sun;
rather crawl on my naked belly over the tincans of Cincinnati;
rather drag a rotten railroad tie to a Golgotha in the Rockies;
rather, crowned with thorns in Galveston,
nailed hand and foot in Los Angeles, raised up to die in Denver,
pierced in the side in Chicago, perished and tombed in New Orleans and resurrected in 1958 somewhere on Garrett Mountain,
come down roaring in a blaze of hot cars and garbage,
streetcorner Evangel in front of City Hall,
surrounded by statues of agonized lions,
with a mouthful of shit, and the hair rising on my scalp,
screaming and dancing in praise of Eternity
annihilating the sidewalk, annihilating reality,
screaming and dancing against the orchestra
in the destructible ballroom of the world,
blood streaming from my belly and shoulders
flooding the city with its hideous ecstasy,
rolling over the pavements and highways
by the bayoux and forests and derricks leaving
my flesh and my bones hanging on the trees.
With “Paterson,” then, Ginsberg set the course he would follow for the rest of his life: that of the self-proclaimed martyr and madman, the Hyde to Whitman’s Jekyll, the prophet-poet turned enemy of the system.
Ginsberg made other significant “discoveries” besides Whitman, of course. From around 1952, the poet, in his own words, “experimented with poetic effect of psychedelic drugs.” What this means is that he wrote “Howl” on peyote, “Wales Visitation” on lsd, “I Hate America” on heroin, “On Neal’s Ashes” on morphine or marijuana, “Denver Doldrums” on Benzedrine, “Kaddish” on methadrine, “A Ghost May Come” on marijuana, “Death to Van Gogh’s Ear!” on codeine. He composed a series of poems that take their titles from the name of the drug on which they were written: “Mescaline,” “Laughing Gas,” “Lysergic Acid.”
He went all the way to Peru just to bring back a hallucinogenic vine called ayahuasca. Portuguese book contains an interview in which Ginsberg discusses in depth the various effects of these substances on his work. “All mellow poems seem to emerge out of heroin. Endless metaphysical-political ravings in my journal and other stuff you’ve seen were written on morphine and heroin.” He speaks of poems like “Marijuana Notation” and “Psalm I” as having a “grass-like clarity.” He says of laughing gas: “It gives the appearance of enlarging perception to a point where the totality of the universe invades the individual entity and dissolves the individual entity into the blackness of space.” These were not, of course, private “experiments”; Ginsberg, like his friend and fellow chemist Timothy Leary, proselytized long and hard for the use of psychedelic drugs, travelling from campus to campus reciting poems like “Aether,” in which he asserts that “you can see/God by sniffing the/gas in a cotton . . .”
Ginsberg also discovered Eastern religion. His full-dress involvement with it dates back to the early Sixties, when he went to Asia and found himself intrigued by Hinduism and Buddhism. What appealed to him most about these religions was their emphasis on the self-determination of the individual and their understanding of morality as a subjective consideration. Life was not a matter of objective right and wrong, it was a matter of being true to one’s own karmic sense of things. No philosophy of life could have pleased Ginsberg more.
His exploration of Eastern religions has continued ever since; in the autobiographical notes to his Poems All Over the Place, Mostly Seventies (1978), Ginsberg indicated that he was spending a good deal of his time practicing both “mantra-heart meditation” (with one Swami Muktananda) and Tibetan Buddhist meditation. The influence of Hinduism, Hare Krishna, and the various species of Buddhism on his work has been largely semantic; in his poems and journals, for instance, he habitually (and gratuitously) describes relationships in terms of karmas and yogas. This is not to suggest, of course, that the babas, swamis, gurus, and lamas have not had a substantial impact upon the way Ginsberg lives and writes; like his psychedelic drugs, they have helped him fight off the desire for intellectual order that exists in some corner of every conscious mind and to give even freer rein to his id. Ginsberg, in typical fashion, prefers to describe this process as the “holy divine yoga of losing ego.”
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