Ginsberg, Allen (Vol. 13)
Ginsberg, Allen 1926–
Ginsberg is an American poet and the author of Howl and Other Poems, the little collection which Lawrence Ferlinghetti published at his City Lights press and successfully defended in court against obscenity charges. The book became the Beat Generation's "poetic manifesto" and Ginsberg its mentor, "the shaman and superstar of poetry readings and anarchic literary happenings all over the United States." Ginsberg has called himself "a fairy dope poet" and his poetic school "Beat-Hip-Gnostic-Imagist." Always at the disposal of those who want his help, Ginsberg established in 1966 the Committee on Poetry, the foundation dedicated to helping needy artists to which he still contributes most of his own income. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
The most remarkable poem of the young [Bay Region group,] written during the past year, is "Howl," by Allen Ginsberg…. [After] years of apprenticeship to usual forms, he developed his brave new medium. This poem has created a furor of praise or abuse whenever read or heard. It is a powerful work, cutting through to dynamic meaning. Ginsberg thinks he is going forward by going back to the methods of Whitman.
My first reaction was that it is based on destructive violence. It is profoundly Jewish in temper. It is biblical in its repetitive grammatical build-up. It is a howl against everything in our mechanistic civilization which kills the spirit, assuming that the louder you shout the more likely you are to be heard. It lays bare the nerves of suffering and spiritual struggle. Its positive force and energy come from a redemptive quality of love, although it destructively catalogs evils of our time, from physical deprivation to madness.
In other poems, Ginsberg shows a crucial sense of humor. It shows up principally in his poem "America," which has lines "Asia is rising against me. / I haven't got a Chinaman's chance." Humor is also present in "Supermarket in California." His "Sunflower Sutra" is a lyric poem marked by pathos. (pp. 145-46)
Richard Eberhart, "West Coast Rhythms," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1956 by the New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 2, 1956 (and reprinted in his Of Poetry and Poets, University of Illinois Press, 1979, pp. 144-47).
I think it should be granted from the start that [Allen Ginsberg] is not much of a poet in most usual literary senses, though he may well be an admirable and important practitioner of poetic saintliness. Carefully going again through his three volumes of published poetry covering the 50s (Howl and Other Poems, Kaddish and Other Poems 1958–60, and Reality Sandwiches 1953–60), I find three pieces that could well bear rereading as poems: "Howl," "America," and "Death to Van Gogh's Ear!" Other passages here and there give a curious surreal twist or are informative of matters most Ginsbergian, such as the bitter-bathetic physical description of his mad mother in the elegy-prayer "Kaddish," or maybe of some other non-literary interest. But most of it is poorly realized, pastiches of awkward language which many a poet could rewrite into more consistent style and apprehendable experience. The stuff of it seems more often unmade than crafted, and it is patent that Ginsberg never quite found a literary style of his own. Much of what he published as poems can better be considered pre-poems, fitting his own categories of "notes" and "nightmares" (including the drug "visions") and "musings." He is less writing poems than awkwardly adumbrating a personal and public "spiritual" mission. He adapts poetic methods to "widen the area of consciousness" and, while translating personal therapy as public revelation hopes that the reader will "taste my mouth in your ear."
Certainly Ginsberg displays considerable ambivalence about his poetic role, but finally degrades the writer to justify the seer. Though posing sometimes as a naif who wants a visceral poetry of direct screams and obscenities—a stance partly contradicted by his public as well as private acts of charm and intelligence and charity—he is also highly, probably excessively, literary, full of commemorative allusions to his whole tradition from Blake through Whitman to Apollinaire and his own...
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It took half a dozen years, and more, for people to realise that Ginsberg, in Howl, had not merely invented a written equivalent of noise, but had opened language so wide, and made it so hungry, that nothing was safe any longer from poetry. Anything could be cut loose from its attachment to logical reality, and sent roaring into a sea of associations. Ginsberg's voice, in Howl, Kaddish and Planet News is omnivorous; its genius is to include and never to exclude. That is its connection to the surrealist practice of automatic writing which is also a method of radical inclusion, a way of putting a parenthesis around the will, while the contents of the psyche pour forth, unjudged. The poetry of Howl clarifies a profound implication of spontaneous language: it is an act of love. Not only noble images, but also the crippled children of the psyche will be loved, and the abortions and the terrors and the lonely ones. The surrealists argued that love was the essential revolutionary act. Love was the opposite of reason, because reason selects and judges, while love embraces. This was an argument that Whitman would have understood, and Ginsberg stands halfway between these two master-sources of his psyche, sometimes closer to one, sometimes to the other…. But there is an important difference between the spirit of his poetry and that of the French surrealists. Surrealism, in France, was attuned to psychic realities. It tended to view...
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[Ginsberg's] has been a spectacular career, and some of the thinking that went into making it is recorded in these "Journals"—but not enough. With all the traveling he did in these years, and the thinking he must have done to change the "shy" imitator of Williams into the astonishing poet of "Howl" and "Kaddish," Ginsberg's "Journals" do not yield episodes that reveal his development as a poet. There are trivial details and, at the other extreme, some mystic musings, but Ginsberg's strength as a writer is in neither of these: it lies in his ability to deal with the whole visible world, drawing sounds and images from it, so that we see things in a new way. Here and there in the "Journals" we come across a passage that has this quality, as in the description of roosters crowing in a village: "challenging in various cockly hoarse tones as if they existed in a world of pure intuitive sound communicating to anonymous hidden familiar chickensouls from hill to hill." But there is too little of this. Instead we have his dreams, acres of them—perhaps because he had been treated by psychiatrists and was undergoing psychoanalysis. (p. 46)
As a record of Ginsberg's formative years during which he produced many good poems, the "Journals" have some factual value and must be of interest to serious readers of poetry. Ginsberg has been one of the most influential poets in America in our time.
Robert Bly once said that people...
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Ginsberg's comic bravura, like Mailer marshalling armies of the night in his three-piece suit, is wholly Jewish and self-deprecatingly assured. Ginsberg neither attempts the Western role of urban gamecock nor indulges in camp comedy. Whitman manages both … in his endless saga of self-affirmation. Yet both share the need to leap for self-transcendence in a kind of cosmic love-affair that turns, as often as not, into a comic impasse of ecstasy foiled and rebuffed….
Whitman, moreover, believed in his soul. He loafed and invited it, he said. Ginsberg does not:
Let me say beginning I don't believe
The heart, famous heart's a bag of
shit I wrote 25 years ago.
Ginsberg prefers to be known as the man "Who saw Blake and abandoned God." Mind Breaths suggests spiritual afflatus and yoga exercises and consciousness-raising…. For what may seem, to the uninitiated, graffiti to decorate the walls of America are really "home made Blake hymns, mantras to raise the skull of America."….
The whole slim volume is no more than one filed catalogue among countless unfiled catalogues of awareness…. There are some fine new poems on old age, a New York mugging as well as a series of lilting pop lyrics fit for old-fashioned hurdy-gurdies…. But far more remarkable than any "Blakean Punk Epic with nirvanic Rune music" is the fact that the poet who entered howling in 1956 now exits shaking with laughter, like a great earth-bound Jewish-American Buddha: laughing with his jukebox prophecies; laughing with his pederast rhapsodies, even with his Dharma elegies; laughing on his own way to "Guru Death," singing the "Sickness Blues."… (p. 747)
Harold Beaver, in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1978; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), July 7, 1978.