Gordon Ball, the editor of these journals, has put together a handsome volume including many photographs and the poet’s original doodles. Ginsberg owes a considerable debt to Ball, who carefully selected and compiled, from eighteen separate original manuscript notebooks, those passages best reflecting the “diversity of the author’s situations” and the essential qualities of his literary reputation. One day we may crave the journals in their entirety, but in the meantime Ball’s one-volume edition serves us well and does justice to a poet not particularly well equipped to edit himself. As poet or journal-keeper, Ginsberg has a breathless, rhapsodic, and orphic voice. Ball’s “Reader’s Guide” breaks down the journal entries into manageable chronological units, connects the events recorded with other important data about Ginsberg, and shows how some of the fragments of poetry and prose Ginsberg recorded in his journals ultimately found their way into his published poems.
These Journals span the period from Ginsberg’s post-Columbia sojourn in New York City (1952), where he held odd jobs (copy boy, market researcher, opinions analyst) and together with Jack Kerouac frequented the San Remo Bar and met the people whom they both called “Subterraneans,” to travels in the Mediterranean in the early 1960’s that gradually took Ginsberg on his inevitable pilgrimage to India. Indian Journals was published in 1970, so that Ball’s book provides us with the decade of journal entries that preceded the passionate record of his travels in India (March, 1962March, 1963) already well known by Ginsberg’s readers.
Indian Journals, as a symbolic reincarnation of Walt Whitman’s “Passage to India,” alerted the literary community to the consistency of Ginsberg’s poetic development. The fierceness of his free verse in “Howl” (1956) and “Kaddish” (1961) had earned him the right to Whitman’s mantle, although it rested awkwardly on his nervous frame. In the ecstatic entries of Indian Journals, Ginsberg delighted in the possessed behavior of Indian mystics and fakirs and was humbled by the poverty, suffering, and endurance all around him. If this delight, awe, and compassion did not exactly earn him the visionary calm of Walt Whitman, it did at least balance the anger of the earlier Beatnik verse narratives.
What we learn from the Journals at hand is that Ginsberg, from the beginning of his literary life, has relied on visions and dreams for his own messianic self-deliverance. From an early vision induced by Blake’s “Ah! Sunflower” to his own countless drug-induced reveries, Ginsberg has literally thrived on dreams. Despite their frightening evocation of his childhood and insane mother, themes he examined with searing honesty in “Kaddish,” dreams reassured him of his immortality. They flooded his mind with mystical signs as well as dreaded memories. He seems to prize travel primarily because its novelties and dislocations stimulate dreaming. But there is often very little explicit connection between the dream and the place where he has it. In Israel he dreams of Paterson, New Jersey, his hometown; off the coast of Abyssinia, he remembers Fredericksburg, Virginia. Ginsberg’s eye rarely remains on the object any longer than it takes to trigger the inner eye to dream.
Indeed, these Journals are primarily dream journals; they do include fragments of poetry and truncated, sketchy but informative descriptions of waking activity, often enlivened with crude pencil drawings. But the entries are most impressive and crafted, into telescoped narratives or surrealistic prose poems, when they record dreams. If Ginsberg wakes without clearly remembering his dreams, he is in agony: “. . . can’t remember the dream O flat horrible reality closing in at morn after night of spectacles. . . .” If the dream is recalled, Ginsberg...
(The entire section is 1620 words.)