“Howl,” the poem that carried Allen Ginsberg (June 3, 1926 – April 5, 1997) into public consciousness as a symbol of the avant-garde artist and as the designer of a verse style for a postwar generation seeking its own voice, was initially regarded as primarily a social document. As Ginsberg’s notes make clear, however, it was also the latest specimen in a continuing experiment in form and structure. Several factors in Ginsberg’s life were particularly important in this breakthrough poem, written as the poet was approaching thirty and still drifting through a series of jobs, countries, and social occasions. Ginsberg’s father had exerted more influence than was immediately apparent. Louis Ginsberg’s very traditional, metrical verse was of little use to his son, but his father’s interest in literary history was part of Ginsberg’s solid grounding in prosody. Then, a succession of other mentors—including Williams, whose use of the American vernacular and local material had inspired him, and great scholars such as art historian Meyer Shapiro at Columbia, who had introduced him to the tenets of modernism from an analytic perspective—had enabled the young poet to form a substantial intellectual foundation.
In addition, Ginsberg was dramatically affected by his friendships with Kerouac, Cassady, Burroughs, Herbert Hunke, and other noteworthy denizens of a vibrant underground community of dropouts, revolutionaries, drug addicts, jazz musicians, and serious but unconventional artists of all sorts. Ginsberg felt an immediate kinship with these “angelheaded hipsters,” who accepted and celebrated eccentricity and regarded Ginsberg’s homosexuality as an attribute, not a blemish. Although Ginsberg enthusiastically entered into the drug culture that was a flourishing part of this community, he was not nearly as routed toward self-destruction as Burroughs or Hunke; he was more interested in the possibilities of visionary experience. His oft-noted “illuminative audition of William Blake’s voice simultaneous with Eternity-vision” in 1948 was his first ecstatic experience of transcendence, and he continued to pursue spiritual insight through serious studies of various religions—including Judaism and Buddhism—as well as through chemical experimentation.
His experiments with mind-altering agents (including marijuana, peyote, amphetamines, mescaline, and lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD) and his casual friendship with some quasi-criminals led to his eight-month stay in a psychiatric institute.He had already experienced an unsettling series of encounters with mental instability in his mother, who had been hospitalized for the first time when he was three. Her struggles with the torments of psychic uncertainty were seriously disruptive events in Ginsberg’s otherwise unremarkable boyhood, but Ginsberg felt deep sympathy for his mother’s agony and also was touched by her warmth, love, and social conscience. Although not exactly a “red diaper baby,”Ginsberg had adopted a radical political conscience early enough to decide to pursue labor law as a college student, and he never wavered from his initial convictions concerning the excesses of capitalism. His passionate call for tolerance and fairness had roots as much in his mother’s ideas as in his contacts with the “lamblike youths” who were “slaughtered” by the demon Moloch: his symbol for the greed and materialism of the United States in the 1950’s. In conjunction with his displeasure with what he saw as the failure of the government to correct these abuses, he carried an idealized conception of “the lost America of love” based on his readings in nineteenth century American literature, Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau in particular, and reinforced by the political and social idealism of contemporaries such as Kerouac, Snyder, and McClure.
Ginsberg brought all these concerns together when he began to compose “Howl.” However, while the social and political elements of the poem were immediately apparent, the careful structural arrangements were not. Ginsberg found it necessary to explain his intentions in a series of notes and letters, emphasizing his desire to use Whitman’s long line “to build up large organic structures” and his realization that he did not have to satisfy anyone’s concept of what a poem should be, but could follow his “romantic inspiration” and simply write as he wished, “without fear.” Using what he called his “Hebraic- Melvillian bardic breath”—a rhythmic pattern similar to the cadences of the Old Testament as employed by Herman Melville—Ginsberg wrote a three-part prophetic elegy, which he described as a “huge sad comedy of wild phrasing.”
The first part of “Howl” is a long catalog of the activities of the “angelheaded hipsters” who were his contemporaries. Calling the bohemian underground of outcasts, outlaws, rebels, mystics, sexual deviants, junkies, and other misfits “the best minds of my generation”—a judgment that still rankles many social critics—Ginsberg produced image after image of the antics of “remarkable lamblike youths” in pursuit of cosmic enlightenment, “the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night.” Because the larger American society had offered them little support, Ginsberg summarized their efforts by declaring that these people had been “destroyed by madness.” The long lines, most beginning with the word “who” (which was used “as a base to keep measure, return to and take off from again”), create a composite portrait that pulses with energy and excitement. Ginsberg is not only lamenting the destruction—or self-destruction—of his friends and acquaintances, but also celebrating their wild flights of imagination, their ecstatic illuminations, and their rapturous adventures. His typical line, or breath unit, communicates the awesome power of the experiences he describes along with their potential for danger. Ginsberg believed that by the end of the first section he had expressed what he believed “true to eternity” and had reconstituted “the data of celestial experience.”
Part 2 of the poem “names the monster of mental consciousness that preys” on the people he admires. The fear and tension of the Cold War, stirred by materialistic greed and what Ginsberg later called “lacklove,” are symbolized by a demon he calls Moloch, after the Canaanite god that required human sacrifice. With the name Moloch as a kind of “base repetition” and destructive attributes described in a string of lines beginning with “whose,” the second part of the poem reaches a kind of crescendo of chaos in which an anarchic vision of frenzy and disruption engulfs the world.
In part 3, “a litany of affirmation,” Ginsberg addresses himself to Solomon, a poet he knew from the Psychiatric Institute; he holds up Solomon as a kind of emblem of the victim-heroes he has been describing. The pattern here is based on the statement- counterstatement form of Christopher Smart’s Jubilate Agno (1939; as Rejoice in the Lamb, 1954), and Ginsberg envisioned it as pyramidal, “with a graduated longer response to the fixed base.” Affirming his allegiance to Solomon (and everyone like him), Ginsberg begins each breath unit with the phrase “I’m with you in Rockland” followed by “where . . .” and an exposition of strange or unorthodox behavior that has been labeled “madness” but that to the poet is actually a form of creative sanity. The poem concludes with a vision of Ginsberg and Solomon together on a journey to an America that transcends Moloch and madness and offers utopian possibilities of love and “true mental regularity.”
During the year that “Howl” was written, Ginsberg wondered whether he might use the same long line in a “short quiet lyrical poem.” The result was a poignant tribute to his “old courage teacher,” Whitman, which he called “A Supermarket in California,” and a meditation on the bounty of nature, “A Strange New Cottage in Berkeley.” He continued to work with his long-breath line in larger compositions as well, most notably the poem “America,” which has been accurately described by Charles Molesworth as “a gem of poly vocal satire and miscreant complaint.” This poem gave Ginsberg the opportunity to exercise his exuberant sense of humor and good-natured view of himself in a mock-ironic address to his country. The claim “It occurs to me that I am America” is meant to be taken as a whimsical wish made in self-deprecating modesty, but Ginsberg’s growing popularity through the last decades of the century cast it as prophetic as well.
Naomi Ginsberg died in 1956 after several harrowing episodes at home and in mental institutions, and she was not accorded a traditional orthodox funeral because a minyan (a complement of ten men to serve as witnesses) could not be found. Ginsberg was troubled by thoughts of his mother’s suffering and tormented by uncertainty concerning his own role as sometime caregiver for her. Brooding over his tangled feelings, he spent a night listening to jazz, ingesting marijuana and methamphetamine, and reading passages from an old bar mitzvah book. Then, at dawn, he walked the streets of the lower East Side in Manhattan, where many Jewish immigrant families had settled. A tangle of images and emotions rushed through his mind, organized now by the rhythms of ancient Hebrew prayers and chants. The poem that took shape in his mind was his own version of the Kaddish, the traditional Jewish service for the dead that had been denied to his mother. As it was formed in an initial burst of energy, he saw its goal as a celebration of her memory and a prayer for her soul’s serenity, an attempt to confront his own fears about death, and ultimately, an attempt to come to terms with his relationship to his mother. “Kaddish” begins in an elegiac mood, “Strange now to think of you gone,” and proceeds as both an elegy and a kind of dual biography. Details from Ginsberg’s childhood begin to take on a sinister aspect when viewed from the perspective of an adult with a tragic sense of existence. The course of his life’s journey from early youth and full parental love to the threshold of middle age is paralleled by Naomi’s life as it advances from late youth toward a decline into paranoia and madness. Ginsberg recalls his mother “teaching school, laughing with idiots, the backward classes—her Russian speciality,” then sees her in agony “one night, sudden attack . . . left retching on the tile floor.” The juxtaposition of images ranging over many years reminds him of his own mortality, compelling him to probe his subconscious mind to face some of the fears that he has suppressed about his mother’s madness. The first part of the poem concludes as the poet realizes that he will never find any peace until he is able to “cut through—to talk to you—” and finally to write her true history.
The central incident of the second section is a bus trip the twelve-year-old Ginsberg took with his mother to a clinic. The confusion and unpredictability of his mother’s behavior forced him to assume an adult’s role, for which he was not prepared. For the first time, he realizes that this moment marked the real end of childhood and introduced him to a universe of chaos and absurdity. As the narrative develops, the emergence of a nascent artistic consciousness, poetic perception, and political idealism is presented against a panorama of life in the United States in the late 1930’s. Realizing that his growth into the poet who is revealing this psychic history is closely intertwined with his mother’s decline, Ginsberg faces his fear that he was drawing his newfound strength from her as she failed. As the section concludes, he squarely confronts his mother’s illness, rendering her madness in disjointed scraps of conversation while using blunt physical detail as a means of showing the body’s collapse: an effective analogue for her simultaneous mental disorder. There is a daunting authenticity to these details, as Ginsberg speaks with utter candor about the most intimate and unpleasant subjects (a method he also employs in later poems about sexual contacts), confirming his determination to bury nothing in memory.
This frankness fuses Ginsberg’s recollections into a mood of great sympathy; he is moved to prayer, asking divine intervention to ease his mother’s suffering. Here he introduces the actual Hebrew words of the Kaddish, the formal service that had been denied his mother because of a technicality. The poet’s contribution is not only to create an appropriate setting for the ancient ritual but also to offer a testament to his mother’s most admirable qualities. As the second section ends, Ginsberg sets the power of poetic language to celebrate beauty against the pain of his mother’s last days. Returning to the elegiac mode (after Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Adonais”), Ginsberg has a last vision of his mother days before her final stroke, associated with sunlight and giving her son advice that concludes, “Love,/ your mother,” which he acknowledges with his own tribute, “which is Naomi.”
The last part of the poem, “Hymmnn,” is divided into four sections. The first is a prayer for God’s blessing for his mother (and for all people); the second is a recitation of some of the circumstances of her life; the third is a catalog of characteristics that seem surreal and random but coalesce toward the portrait he is producing by composite images; and the last part is “another variation of the litany form,” ending the poem in a flow of “pure emotive sound” in which the words “Lord lord lord,” as if beseeching, alternate with the words “caw caw caw,” as if exclaiming in ecstasy.
By resisting almost all the conventional approaches to the loaded subject of motherhood, Ginsberg has avoided sentimentality and reached a depth of feeling that is overwhelming, even if the reader’s experience is nothing like the poet’s. The universality of the relationship is established by its particulars, the sublimity of the relationship by the revelation of the poet’s enduring love and empathy.
The publication of “Kaddish” ended the initial phase of Ginsberg’s writing life. “Howl” is a declaration of poetic intention, while “Kaddish” is a confession of personal necessity. With these two long, powerful works, Ginsberg completed the educational process of his youth and was ready to use his craft as a confident, mature artist. His range in the early 1960’s included the hilarious “I Am a Victim of Telephone,” which debunked his increasing celebrity, the gleeful jeremiad “Television Was a Baby Crawling Toward That Deathchamber,” the generously compassionate “Who Be Kind To,” and the effusive lyric “Why Is God Love, Jack?”Atribute to his mentor, “Death News,” describes his thoughts on learning of Williams’s demise.
In 1965, after he had been invited to Cuba and Czechoslovakia, Ginsberg was expelled from each country for his bold condemnation of each nation’s policies. In Prague, he had been selected by students (including young Václav Havel) as Kral Majales (king of May), an ancient European honor that has lasted through centuries of upheaval. In the poem “Kral Majales”—published accompanied by positive and negative silhouettes of the smiling poet, naked except for tennis shoes and sporting three hands bearing finger cymbals, against a phallic symbol—he juxtaposed communist and capitalist societies at their most dreary and destructive to the life-enhancing properties of the symbolic May King: a figure of life, love, art, and enlightenment. The first part of the poem is marked by discouragement, anger, and sorrow mixed with comic resignation to show the dead end reached by governments run by a small clique of rulers. However, the heart of the poem, a list of all the attributes that he brings to the position of Kral Majales, is an exuberant explosion of joy, mirth, and confidence in the rising generation of the mid-1960’s. Written before the full weight of the debacle in Vietnam had been felt and before the string of assassinations that rocked the United States took place, Ginsberg reveled in the growth of what he thought was a revolutionary movement toward a utopian society. His chant of praise for the foundations of a counterculture celebrates “the power of sexual youth,” productive, fulfilling work (“industry in eloquence”), honest acceptance of the body (“long hair of Adam”), the vitality of art (“old Human poesy”), and the ecumenical spirit of religious pluralism that he incarnates: “I am of Slavic parentage and Buddhist Jew/ who worships the Sacred Heart of Christ the blue body of Krishna the straight back of Ramthe beads of Chango.” In a demonstration of rhythmic power, the poem builds until it tells of the poet’s literal descent to earth from the airplane he took to London after his expulsion. Arriving at “Albion’s airfield” with the exultation of creative energy still vibrating through his mind and body, he proudly presents (to the reader or listener) the poem he has just written “on a jet seat in mid Heaven.” The immediacy of the ending keeps the occasion fresh in the poet’s memory and alive forever in the rhythms and images of his art.
Witchita Vortex Sutra
The Prague Spring that was to flourish temporarily in events such as the 1965 May Festival was crushed by Soviet tanks in 1968. By then, the United States had become fully involved in the war in Southeast Asia, and Ginsberg had replaced some of his optimism about change with an anger that recalled the mood of the Moloch section of “Howl.” In 1966, he was in Kansas to read poetry, and this trip to the heartland of the United States became the occasion for a poem that is close to an epic of American life as the country was being torn apart. “Witchita Vortex Sutra,” one of Ginsberg’s longest poems, combines elements of American mythological history, personal psychic exploration, multicultural interaction, and prophetic incantation. The poem is sustained by a twin vision of the United States: the submerged but still vital American spirit that inspired Whitman and the contemporary American realities by which “many another has suffered death and madness/ in the Vortex.” A sense of a betrayal informs the narrative, and the poet is involved in a search for the cause and the cure, ultimately (and typically) discovering that only art can rescue the blighted land.
The first part of the poem depicts Kansas as the seat of American innocence, where the spirit of transcendental idealism is still relatively untouched by American actions in Vietnam. Whitman’s dream of an open country and worthy citizens seems to remain alive, but events from the outside have begun to reach even this sheltered place. The land of Abraham Lincoln, Vachel Lindsay, William Jennings Bryan, and other American idealists is being ruined by the actions of a rogue “government” out of touch with the spirit of the nation. The poet attempts to understand why this is happening and what consequences it has for him, for any artist. After this entrance into the poem’s geopolitical and psychic space, the second part presents, in a collage form akin to Ezra Pound’s Cantos (1925-1972), figures, numbers, names, and snatches of propaganda about the conflict in Vietnam. Following Pound’s proposal that a bad government corrupts a people by its misuse of language, Ginsberg begins an examination of the nature of language itself to try to determine how the lies and deceptions in “black language/ writ by machine” can be overcome by a “lonesome man in Kansas” who is “not afraid” and who can speak “with ecstatic language”: that is, the true language of human need, essential human reality. Calling on “all Powers of imagination,” Ginsberg acts as an artist in service to moral being, using all the poetic power, or versions of speech, that he has worked to master.
Ginsberg’s “ecstatic language” includes the lingo of the Far Eastern religions he has learned in his travels. To assist in exorcising the demons of theWest, he implores the gods of the East to merge their forces with those of the new deities of the West, whose incarnation he finds in such American mavericks as the musician Dylan. He summons them as allies against the Puritan death-wish he locates in the fanaticism of unbending, selfrighteous zealots such as Kansas’s Carrie Nation, whose “angry smashing ax” began “a vortex of hatred” that eventually “defoliated the Mekong Delta.” Ginsberg has cast the language artist as the rescuer and visionary who can restore the heartland to its primal state as a land of promise and justice. In a testament to his faith in his craft, Ginsberg declares, “The war is over now”—which, in a poem that examines language in “its deceits, its degeneration” (as Charles Molesworth says), “is especially poignant being only language.”
The Fall of America
Other poems, such as “Bayonne Entering NYC,” further contributed to the mood of a collection titled The Fall of America, but Ginsberg was also turning again toward the personal. In poems such as “Wales Visitation,” a nature ode written in the spirit of the English Romantics, and “Bixby Canyon,” which is an American West Coast parallel, Ginsberg explores the possibilities of a personal pantheism, attempting to achieve a degree of cosmic transcendence to compensate for the disagreeable situation on earth. His loving remembrance for Beat poet Cassady, “On Neal’s Ashes,” is another expression of this elegiac inclination, which reaches a culmination in Mind Breaths.
“Mind Breaths,” the title poem of the collection Mind Breaths, is a meditation that gathers the long lines of what Ginsberg has called “a chain of strong-breath’d poems” into a series of modulations on the theme of the poet’s breath as an aspect of the wind-spirit of life. As he has often pointed out, Ginsberg believes that one of his most basic principles of organization is his ability to control the rhythms of a long line (“My breath is long”). In “Mind Breaths,” he develops the idea that the voice of the poet is a part of the “voice” of the cosmos—a variant on the ancient belief that the gods spoke directly through the poet. Ranging over the entire planet, Ginsberg gradually includes details from many of the world’s cultures, uniting nations in motive and design to achieve an encompassing ethos of universality. Beneath the fragmentation and strife of the world’s governments, the poet sees “a calm breath, a silent breath, a slow breath,” part of the fundamentally human universe that the artist wishes to inhabit.
In the title poem of Plutonian Ode, Ginsberg offers another persuasive poetic argument to strengthen the “Mind-guard spirit” against the death wish that leads some to embrace “Radioactive Nemesis.” Recalling, once again, “Howl,” in which Moloch stands for the death-driven impulses of humankind gone mad with greed, Ginsberg surveys the history of nuclear experimentation. The poem is designed as a guide for “spiritual friends and teachers,” and the “mountain of Plutonian” is presented as the dark shadow-image of the life force that has energized the universe since “the beginning.” Addressing himself, as well, to the “heavy heavy Element awakened,” Ginsberg describes a force of “vaunted Mystery” against which he brings, as always, the “verse prophetic” to “wake space” itself. The poem is written to restore the power of mind (which is founded on spiritual enlightenment) to a civilization addicted to “horrific arm’d, Satanic industries”—an echo of Blake’s injunctions at the dawn of an era in which machinery has threatened human well-being.
The tranquility of such reveries in poems such as “Mind Breaths” did not replace Ginsberg’s anger at the social system but operated more as a condition of recovery or place of restoration, so that the poet could venture back into the political arena and chant, “Birdbrain is the ultimate product of Capitalism/ Birdbrain chief bureaucrat of Russia.” In the poem “Birdbrain,” published in Collected Poems, 1947-1980, Ginsberg castigates the idiocy of organizations everywhere. His humor balances his anger, but there is an implication that neither humor nor anger will be sufficient against the forces of “Birdbrain [who] is Pope, Premier, President, Commissar, Chairman, Senator!” In spite of his decades of experience as a political activist, Ginsberg never let his discouragement overcome his sense of civic responsibility. The publication of Collected Poems, 1947-1980 secured Ginsberg’s reputation as one of the leading writers of late twentieth century American literature.
The appearance in 1986 of White Shroud revived Ginsberg’s political orations; in this work, he identifies the demons of contemporary American life as he sees them: “yes I glimpse CIA’s spooky dope deal vanity.” There is a discernible sense of time’s passage in “White Shroud,” which is a kind of postscript to “Kaddish.” Once again, Ginsberg recollects the pain of his family relationships: His difficulties in dealing with aging, irascible relatives merges with his responsibility to care for those who have loved him, and his feeling for modern America fuse with his memories of the Old Left past of his immigrant family. The poem tells how Ginsberg, in search of an apartment, finds himself in the Bronx neighborhood where his family once lived. There he meets the shade of his mother, still berating him for having abandoned her, but now offering him a home as well. There is a form of comfort for the poet in his dream of returning to an older New York to live with his family, a return to the “lost America,” the mythic America that has inspired millions of American dreams.
Ginsberg in the 1990’s expressed his introspective side with lyric sadness in such poems as “Personals Ad” (from Cosmopolitan Greetings), in which he communicates his quest for a “. . . companion protector friend/ young lover w/empty compassionate soul” to help him live “in New York alone with the Alone.” With the advent of his seventh decade, he might have settled for a kind of comfortable celebrity, offering the substance of his literary and social experiences to students at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and to countless admirers on reading tours throughout the nation. Instead, he accepted his position as the primary proponent and spokesperson for his fellow artists of the Beat generation, and he continued to write with the invention and vigor that had marked his work from its inception. Acknowledging his perspective as a “poet professor in autumn years” in “Personals Ad,” Ginsberg remains highly conscious of “. . . the body/ where I was born” (from “Song,” in Howl, and Other Poems), but his focus is now on the inescapable consequences of time’s passage on that body in poems that register the anxieties of an aging man trying to assess his own role in the cultural and historical patterns of his era.
The exuberance and the antic humor that have always been a feature of Ginsberg’s poetry of sexual candor remain, but there is a modulation in tone and mood toward the rueful and contemplative. Similarly, poems presenting strong positions about social and governmental policies often refer to earlier works on related subjects, as if adding links to a chain of historical commentaries. Although few of Ginsberg’s poems are as individually distinctive as the “strong-breath’d poems” such as “Howl,” “Kaddish,” or “Witchita Vortex Sutra,” which Ginsberg calls “peaks of inspiration,” Ginsberg’s utilization of a characteristic powerful rhythmic base figure drives poems such as
“Improvisation in Beijing.” “On Cremation of Chogyam Trungpa, Vidadhara,” “Get It,” and “Graphic Winces” offer statements that are reflections of fundamental positions that Ginsberg has been developing throughout his work. “Improvisation in Beijing,” the opening poem, is a poetic credo in the form of an expression of artistic ambition. Using the phrase “I write poetry . . .” to launch each line, Ginsberg juxtaposes ideas, images, data, and assertion in a flux of energetic intent, his life’s experiences revealing the desire and urgency of his calling. Ginsberg has gathered his responses to requests for his sources of inspiration: from the explicitly personal “I write poetry to make accurate picture my own mind” to the overtly political “. . . Wild West destroys new grass & erosion creates deserts” to the culturally connected “I write poetry because I listened to black Blues on 1939 radio, Leadbelly andMaRainey” to the aesthetically ambitious in the concluding line, “I write poetry because it’s the best way to say everything in mind with 6 minutes or a lifetime.”
“On Cremation of Chogyam Trungpa, Vidadhara,” a tribute to a spiritual guide, reverses the structural thrust of “Improvisation in Beijing” so that the lines beginning “I noticed the . . .” spiral inward toward a composite portrait built by “minute particulars,” Ginsberg’s term for Williams’s injunction “No ideas but in things.” Ginsberg concentrates on specifics in tightly wound lines that present observations of an extremely aware, actively thoughtful participant: “I noticed the grass, I noticed the hills, I noticed the highways,/ I noticed the dirt road, I noticed the cars in the parking lot.” Eventually, the poet’s inclusion of more personal details reveals his deep involvement in the occasion, demonstrating his ability to internalize his guide’s teaching. The poem concludes with a summation of the event’s impact, a fusion of awe, delight, and wonder joining the mundane with the cosmic. Typically at this time in his life, Ginsberg acts from a classic poetic position, speaking as the recorder who sees, understands, and appreciates the significance of important events and who can find language adequate for their expression.
The collection, like Ginsberg’s other major volumes, contains many poems that are not meant to be either especially serious or particularly profound. These works include poems written to a musical notation (“C.I.A. Dope Calypso”), poetic lines cast in speech bubbles in a “Deadline Dragon Comix” strip, three pages of what are called “American Sentences” (which are, in effect, a version of haiku), and a new set of verses to the old political anthem, “The Internationale,” in which Ginsberg pays homage to the dreams of a social republic of justice while parodying various manifestations of self-important propagandists and salvationists.
The poems in the volume that show Ginsberg at his most effective, however, occur in two modes. Ever since his tribute to Whitman, “A Supermarket in California,” Ginsberg has used the lyric mode as a means of conveying his deeply romantic vision of an idealized existence set in opposition to the social disasters he has resisted. These are poems of appreciation and gratitude, celebrating the things of the world that bring delight. “To Jacob Rabinowitz” is a letter of thanks for a translation of Catullus. “Fun House Antique Store” conveys the poet’s astonishment at finding a “country antique store, an/ oldfashioned house” on the road to “see our lawyer in D.C.” The lovingly evoked intricate furnishings of the store suggest something human that is absent in “the postmodern Capital.” Both of these poems sustain a mood of exultation crucial to a lyric.
The other mode that Ginsberg employs is a familiar one. Even since he described himself as “Rotting Ginsberg” in “Mescaline” (1959), Ginsberg has emphasized physical sensation and the extremes of sensory response as means for understanding artistic consciousness, a mind-body linkage. Some of the most despairing lines Ginsberg has written appear in these poems— understandable considering the poet’s ailments, including the first manifestations of liver cancer, which Ginsberg endured for years before his death. Nonetheless, the bright spirit that animates Ginsberg’s work throughout is present as a counterthrust.
“In the Benjo,” which has been placed at the close of the collection, expresses Ginsberg’s appreciation for Snyder’s lessons in transcendent wisdom and epitomizes a pattern of affirmation that is present in poems that resist the ravages of physical decline (“Return to Kral Majales”), the loss of friends (“Visiting Father & Friends”), the sorry state of the world (“You Don’t Know It”), and the fraudulent nature of so-called leaders (“Elephant in the Meditation Hall”). In these poems, as in many in earlier collections, Ginsberg is conveying the spirit of an artistic age that he helped shape and that his work exemplifies. As Snyder said in tribute, “Allen Ginsberg showed that poetry could speak to our moment, our political concerns, our hopes and fears, and in the grandest style. He broke that open for all of us.”
Collected Poems, 1947-1997
Collected Poems, 1947-1997 is a massive chronological compilation—combining Collected Poems, 1947-1980, White Shroud, Cosmopolitan Greetings, and Death and Fame—that gathers virtually every poem Ginsberg ever wrote, from his first published effort, “In Society” (1947), to his last written work, “Things I’ll Not Do (Nostalgia),” finished just days before he died. The volume incorporates drawings, photographs, sheet music, calligraphy, notes, acknowledgments, introductions, appendixes, and all the other addenda included in the previous publications that collectively reveal Ginsberg’s far-reaching interests and his enormous skill. Ginsberg’s entire body of work portrays the poet’s growth as a craftsperson, a seeker of truth, a spokesperson for his generation, and ultimately as a human being.
Even in his earliest work, “In Society”—which alludes to his homosexuality and includes epithets that polite society would deem vulgar—Ginsberg demonstrated that no subject was unworthy of consideration, no phrase taboo. Though his topics from the beginning were sometimes controversial, the format of his poems was still restrained and formal because he had not yet rejected his father’s traditionalist ways. Such poems as “Two Sonnets” (1948), with their conventional fourteen-line structures and rhyme schemes, would not look out of place in collections of William Shakespeare or Edmund Spenser. Indeed, much of Ginsberg’s early work (in the first section, “Empty Mirror: Gates of Wrath, 1947-1952”) constitutes rhyming verse as the poet experimented with meter, line length, and language in his fledgling efforts to find a unique voice. Subject matter, too, is fairly traditional: love poems, contemplation of nature, and musings on life, death and religion. With few exceptions, the titles of these poems—”A Very Dove,” “Vision 1948,” “Refrain,” “A Western Ballad,” “The Shrouded Stranger,” “This Is About Death,” “Sunset,” “Ode to the Setting Sun”— give little indication of Ginsberg’s pixie-like humor or his coming break with literary convention.
Part 2 of the collection (“The Green Automobile, 1953-1954”) provides the first inkling that Ginsberg was beginning to discover the appropriate form of expression for ideas too large to be otherwise contained. The long poem “Siesta in Xbalba and Return to the States,” an impressionistic work based on Ginsberg’s travels in Mexico, sets the stage for the angry, dynamic, no-holds-barred compositions that would follow and characterize the bulk of his poetic career. The main part of Ginsberg’s career is collected in eleven sections: “Howl, Before and After: San Francisco Bay Area (1955-1956),” “Reality Sandwiches: Europe! Europe!” (1957-1959),” “Kaddish and Related Poems (1959-1960),” “Planet News: To Europe and Asia (1961-1963),” “King of May: America to Europe (1963-1965),” “The Fall of America (1965-1971),” “Mind Breaths All over the Place (1972-1977),” “Plutonian Ode (1977-1980),” “White Shroud: Poems, 1980-1985,” “Cosmopolitan Greetings: Poems, 1986-1992,” and “Death and Fame: Poems, 1993-1997.”
At the very end of his life, as he lay dying, Ginsberg, like someone reviewing the span of his existence in clarifying flashes, seemed to return full circle to where he had begun. Brief bursts of inspiration, such as “American Sentences,” are whimsical, epigram- like in nature. Other final thoughts, including “Sky Words,” “Scatological Observations,” “My Team Is Red Hot,” “Starry Rhymes,” “Thirty State Bummers,” and “Bop Sh’bam,” are almost childlike ditties in conventional verse forms such as rhyming couplets and quatrains.
Collected Poems, 1947-1997 captures the essence of an artist who, like Whitman before him, exploded the notion of what poetry could or should be. Mostly, though, it lays bare the mind and soul of an individual of consummate craft, a person of fierce intelligence and insatiable curiosity, a human blessed with playful wit, undying optimism, all-encompassing compassion and unstinting generosity for other people.
Nonfiction: Indian Journals, 1963; The Yage Letters, 1963 (with William Burroughs); Indian Journals, March 1962-May 1963: Notebooks, Diary, Blank Pages, Writings, 1970; Allen Verbatim: Lectures on Poetry, Politics, Consciousness, 1974; Gay Sunshine Interview, 1974; Visions of the Great Rememberer, 1974; To Eberhart from Ginsberg, 1976; As Ever: The Collected Correspondence of Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady, 1977; Journals: Early Fifties, Early Sixties, 1977, 1992; Composed on the Tongue: Literary Conversations, 1967-1977, 1980; Allen Ginsberg Photographs, 1990; Snapshot Poetics: A Photographic Memoir of the Beat Era, 1993; Journals Mid-Fifties, 1954-1958, 1995; Deliberate Prose: Selected Essays, 1952-1995, 2000; Family Business: Selected Letters Between a Father and Son, 2001 (with Louis Ginsberg); Spontaneous Mind: Selected Interviews, 1958-1996, 2001; The Letters of Allen Ginsberg, 2008 (Bill Morgan, editor); The Selected Letters of Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder, 2009 (Morgan, editor).
Edited text: Poems for the Nation: A Collection of Contemporary Political Poems, 2000.
Miscellaneous: Beat Legacy, Connections, Influences: Poems and Letters by Allen Ginsberg, 1994; The Book of Matyrdom and Artifice: First Journals and Poems, 1937-1952, 2006.
Baker, Deborah. A Blue Hand: The Tragicomic, Mind-Altering Odyssey of Allen Ginsberg, a Holy Fool, a Lost Muse, a Dharma Bum, and His Prickly Bride in India. New York: Penguin, 2009.
Edwards, Susan. The Wild West Wind: Remembering Allen Ginsberg. Boulder, Colo.: Baksun Books, 2001.
Felver, Christopher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and David Shapiro. The Late Great Allen Ginsberg: A Photo Biography. New York: Running Press, 2003.
Ginsberg, Allen. Howl: Original Draft Facsimile, Transcript, and Variant Versions, Fully Annotated by Author, with Contemporaneous Correspondence, Account of First Public Presentation. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2006.
Landas, John. The Bop Apocalypse. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2001.
Miles, Barry. The Beat Hotel: Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Corso in Paris, 1958-1963. New York: Grove Press, 2000.
Morgan, Bill. I Celebrate Myself: The Somewhat Private Life of Allen Ginsberg. New York: Viking Press, 2006.
Podhoretz, Norman. Ex-Friends: Falling Out with Allen Ginsberg, Lionel and Diana Trilling, Lillian Hellman, Hannah Arendt, and NormanMailer. New York: Encounter Books, 2000.
Raskin, Jonah. American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” and the Making of the Beat Generation. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.
Trigillo, Tony. Allen Ginsberg’s Buddhist Poetics. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2007.