Selected Poems 1947-1995

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Allen Ginsberg’s seventieth birthday coincided with the publication of Selected Poems 1947-1995, a book which brings back the old favorites of the 1950’s and 1960’s as well as presenting some of his newest work. This book is a slimmer, more selective volume than Collected Poems 1947- 1980, which was repetitious and uneven. On the other hand, Collected Poems did contain just about everything—it is a scholar’s as well as a reader’s book. This collection leaves out some work the researcher might be looking for. Moreover, Ginsberg has edited particular poems for length and focus. “Iron Horse,” for example, is considerably shorter in the new version and loses much of the sense of Whitmanesque self-exaltation that characterizes the original. Some readers may not find the changes an improvement.

Selected Poems has the feel of a collected poems about it, yet it is clear that the book has been arranged to suggest development and change. Poems are presented chronologically, from “In Society,” dated Spring, 1947, through the song or chant “The Ballad of the Skeletons,” dated February 12- 16, 1995. The last half of the book contains many “performance poems” that are accompanied by their music; these represent the direction Ginsberg’s work took since the early 1970’s. Because the poems depend on the music for full effectiveness, readers ought to pick the tunes out on the piano while reading or perhaps reciting the lyrics. Casual readers are unlikely to do this, however, and will settle for the diminished experience that results from acquaintance with the lyrics alone.

The book’s selectiveness is a flaw as well as a virtue—although the repetitiousness is gone, Ginsberg’s best work has been winnowed as thoroughly as his less than optimal output. Had sheer quality been the criterion, the selection would not have drawn so evenhandedly from all his work. Moreover, the attempt to emphasize changes or eras in Ginsberg’s work may be misleading as well. There may simply not be such a great difference between early and late Ginsberg as the selection suggests. Yet the book is satisfying despite its gaps; the essential Ginsberg is here.

At the end of the collection is a series of idiosyncratic notes to the poems, which provide identification of well-known and lesser-known people and events mentioned in the poems as well as a few photographs of Ginsberg’s friends and family. The identifications are scattered and whimsical. The photos provide a true nostalgia trip, as they bring back the world of the “Beat poets” and suggest what these innovators were reacting against as they strove to open out standard poetic forms and infuse the genre with new energy. One of the most eye-catching exhibits is a stark black-and-white snapshot of the child Allen with his parents on a trip to New York. All the stuffy public formality and familial claustrophobia of the time period is in it, and looking at the photo gives a new dimension to the reading of “Kaddish.”

Ginsberg’s subjects have been more or less constant since his first work, and include the dysfunctional family, celebrations of gay sex and of the body in general, American oppression, death and the body, and Eastern religion. His later poetry is more concerned with the aging body, but the tone that is taken by the body-poems is similar whether he is celebrating youth or considering the changes of age. From the early City Lights paperbacks, Ginsberg wrote rough, ecstatic, mystical, uncensored poetry.

The anthology pieces are all here. Some of the strongest ones are poems of the family myth, distorted and rubbed to pain; they are rooted in Ginsberg’s memories of growing up in New Jersey and living with his mentally ill mother and ineffective poetic father. “Kaddish,” the justly famed poem he wrote after the death of his mother, is an outpouring of guilt-tinged grief. “Kaddish” predates most “confessional poetry” but has a way of implicating the reader in the writer’s pain that may make it even more powerful than the work of the confessional poets of the 1960’s. It will remain in the poetry canon, and Ginsberg’s exorcism of grief with repetition, formal variation, and chant will continue to show his early skill with elements of music as part of poetry. Celebrations of gay sex are less frequent in this collection than in Collected Poems, but they are an important presence here as well. Early poems shout defiant joy at sexual discovery, extol the individual’s need to define and express himself sexually in an age of repression. Later poems refer to AIDS and condoms, but find joy in the sensual world still. Attitudes toward...

(The entire section is 1923 words.)