Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2725
Ginsberg, Allen 1926–
Ginsberg, an American poet, is a gentle, generous man, and the "leading apostle" of the Beat Generation. As much a public as a literary figure, Ginsberg writes "mystical-rhetorical" poetry which is inseparable from his performance of it. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
The same themes, the same attitudes, and the assumptions that all of the poets around Ginsberg share—the intense idealism, the social naivete, the centering on the lyric of the self, the use of familiar linguistic materials—all of this is expressive of Ginsberg's concerns. His own definiteness as poet is a verbal fluidity, a line's length and form growing around his involvement with the spoken, rather than the read, poem; and an even more intense idealism. He has, also, a brilliant intensity of image, the poem shaped by his conception of material as image. His insistence on the unity of his work is an expression of the emphasis on the conception….
In Ginsberg … language and … attitudes are entirely personal, and … excitement is direct, unabashed. And in the smallest objects he finds an image source that clarifies most of his deepest concerns….
Only someone who was sure of his attitudes toward his society could find an imagery as coherent, as consistent, as Ginsberg finds in his responses to something as casual as loose money ["American Change"]. In another poet this kind of consistency comes from a kind of intellectual insistence, but with Ginsberg it comes from his deep moralism. It is this, perhaps, of all the concerns in his poetry that gives it its strongest thrust. He insists on the moral necessity of idealism, even when he seems to laugh at his own extravagant imagery, even when he's writing the loose sections of the work for reading performance. He has written, is writing, a long poetic expression of this morality, all of it implicit in the lines of the long segments, "Howl" and "Kaddish," and as clearly stated, as intensely, in the shortest poem and fragment. The poem, from this view of it, has become Ginsberg, and he, in an involved, complex reflection of the realities of his life, has become his dark, tense, tangled poem.
Samuel Charters, "Allen Ginsberg," in his Some Poems/Poets: Studies in American Underground Poetry Since 1945, Oyez, 1971, pp. 71-6.
The best-known poem of the Beat movement is Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" (1956)…. Written in long-line parallel verse-clauses that pile up into huge sentences, "Howl" invites comparison with the "Song of Myself" of Whitman, whom Ginsberg claims as a father. But unlike Whitman's poem of praise, "Howl" is a frenzied protest against the indignities of life in Ginsberg's America…. Also unlike Whitman's poem, which is addressed to all men and proclaims the universality of human experience…. [It is, in] its appeal to the special attitudes and experiences of an alienated group, rather than to mankind at large,… an in-group poem….
Written at great speed, according to his own testimony, Ginsberg's lines give the impression of an excited outpouring of language rather than a "combing out" or selection from common speech. Because of its sensationalism and frequent obscenity, Ginsberg's verse often makes a considerable initial impact upon readers or listeners. Despite his frequent protestations of cosmic piety and disinterested benevolence, "Howl" is largely a tirade revealing an animus directed outward against those who do not share the poet's social and sexual orientation.
Walter Sutton, in his American Free Verse: The Modern Revolution in Poetry (© 1973 by Walter Sutton; reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation), New Directions, 1973, pp. 182-84.
In [The Fall of America: Poems of These States 1965–1971] Ginsberg has further brought to perfection certain poetic techniques introduced in the memorable poem "Wichita Vortex Sutra," published in his previous book, "Planet News." Ginsberg has pointed out a wonderful new direction for poetry to take—that is, for poetry to become once again, as in ancient days when history was sung and chanted, the vehicle for the description of history.
The poetry is difficult. Every image, every line, has its "data," i.e. its references which engender satellite data-clusters hanging together in the best poems like an exquisite painted Buddhist world-wheel. But you have to be willing to jump into the Ginsbergian brain-stream, where the ride is gentle, comradely, and brilliant. He has become a master at the description of nature, and he has tied up and captured the horror and gore of the world within the frame of anarcho-buddhist-Sky Art, if you can dig where I'm coming from, muh fuh, so that one can cry, sneer, laugh, or sigh in the safety of a friendly bard's Words.
It is a seething poetry, restless with energetic data-fragments and data-clusters, a technique used with stunning possibility by Ezra Pound in the "Cantos," and later by Charles Olson when he opened his wonderful case file on Gloucester, Massachusetts, in the "Maximus Poems." The poetry emerges, as it were, from a plexus of memories, historical references, quotes, newspaper headlines, radio broadcast shrieks, auld lang blowjobs—whereupon, on a sudden, flash! an exquisite line begins and a cadence of purest verse thrills the eye-brain. Maybe it's time for the poets to bump the Schlesingers from the set.
Ed Sanders, in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; © 1974 by The Village Voice, Inc.), April 18, 1974, p. 27.
One hesitates to say it, but Allen Ginsberg's … The Fall of America: poems of these states 1965–71 is not a very good book. The title—an uneasy blend of Whitmanian majesty with Cummings-like whimsy—pretty well sums up the author's intentions: to continue "Planet News chronicle tape-recorded, scribed by hand or sung condensed, the flux of car bus airplane dream consciousness Person during Automatic Electronic War years …" Huh? Despite evocative traces of Flash Gordon and Fu Manchu, this last is sheer Newspeak, no more distinguished or less chilling than the flood of Bureaucratalk issuing from Washington these days. The text of The Fall of America is similarly disappointing. Ginsberg the Constant Enemy of the oppressors continues to write poetry that is baldly oppressive…. In Ginsberg's favor it can be said that his new book contains passages of true poetry, moments of touching whimsy … or flashes of delicate urban lyricism…. Unfortunately, passages like this seem only to be the accidentally poetic by-products of some more cosmic, more pretentious design….
Engaging and likable a culture hero as Ginsberg may be, those same qualities that have gone to earn him his super-stardom in life turn sour on the page, emerging in The Fall of America as mindless ticker-tape rhythms, hackneyed political sentiments, and a pseudo-Futurist vocabulary that would, I think, make a Martian blush. Why then do I hesitate to dismiss Ginsberg's work? Maybe it's because he's such a very good culture hero, one whose heart is wholeheartedly in the right place—which is to say, always on his sleeve. There's no doubt that Ginsberg takes an enormous risk in gathering the effects of that slapdash, patchwork sort of journalism-of-the-soul that he goes in for and calling it poetry, laying himself bare to all sorts of criticism and, indeed, mockery. Again, though, the impulse here would seem to be more melodramatic than poetic, or, more precisely, more messianic than aesthetic—an impulse which no critic of poetry is really empowered to judge. In the midst of this confusion I come back, with qualification, to my original statement: the poems in The Fall of America aren't much as poems, but there's one whale of a mensch behind them.
Gerrit Henry, "Starting from Scratch," in Poetry (© 1974 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), August, 1974, pp. 292-93.
Ginsberg is not the best, and surely not the most typical, poet of the [sixties] but the impulses that find exaggerated statement in his life and poetry are found in more muted tones in the writings of nearly every poet at work in this period; and though his poetry and poetic creed may still be at the periphery of general poetic practice, he seems to express the Zeitgeist, or that portion of the larger poetic spirit that is peculiar to this moment in history, unique to this time….
If the reader is to appreciate the integrity of Ginsberg's outcry against all forms of spiritual and psychological oppression, he needs first to appreciate how cruel Ginsberg's experience of those forces has been. If Ginsberg's poetic rantings are generally successful and convincing where others fail, it may be largely because he speaks from experience and has earned his right to shout….
Though it is not overtly political, anti-war, or social protest, the little Empty Mirror volume demands treatment here because (1) it establishes the autobiographical nature of Ginsberg's poetry and demands from us a different critical approach, (2) it records the origin and source of Ginsberg's rebellion, (3) it demonstrates that his poetry is essentially all "anti-war" poetry, and (4) it points to an important relation between the content and form of his writing….
We must, if we care about humanity and are not entirely caught up in art, objects, abstractions, and arguments, find something interesting in the passions and doubts displayed in such poems. It is true that Ginsberg's poems are not so polished and permanent as to be interesting as finished figurines and sculpture; but they are interesting as flowing amoebas engulfing or fleeing the random particulate experience they encounter, or as naked, shaggy, fibrillating paramecia, shuddering with excitement or revulsion. They offer the soul, brain, guts, and jissum of the man with unique honesty—fully and boisterously in the later work, tentatively and sadly in these early poems….
Apparently written before Ginsberg had his Blakean visions, this poem encapsulates many of the issues with which his entire life and poetic career have been concerned. There is here the painful gap between known spiritual facts and vitally experienced truth; the alienation and separateness; the inadequate and guilt-ridden self-image; the feeling of sordidness; the sensation that all things lack any ultimate significance; and the societally conditioned response….
In many of the poems Ginsberg is simply talking to himself, sorting through things, implicitly or explicitly formulating precepts by which to endure. Occasionally [as in "The Terms in Which I Think of Reality," p. 29] he achieves an objectivity free of guilty self-laceration and captures his own and modern man's predicament, the predicament against which he later devotes all his energies….
The Empty Mirror is the one volume of Ginsberg's poems that is not "anti-war." It is the volume in which he is busy discovering the enemy. Subsequent poetry is a war against the Moloch not named but experienced in The Empty Mirror. In Empty Mirror he is not on the outside describing and criticizing but on the inside agonizing….
["Sakyamuni Coming Out from the Mountain" represents] a new vista opening for Ginsberg, a new avenue of adjustment, a new stance to take with regard to the "separation" he experiences. The poem … shows that he understands and identifies with a "beatness" that need not be guilty, but which is common to spiritual men. It is the opening of a new and alternative reality, the beginning of his experiences of the "spiritual facts" he had known were true but didn't feel in The Empty Mirror…. This poem … marks a beginning and is an important milestone along the road toward "Howl" and beyond….
The one poem of The Empty Mirror ["Paterson," p. 39] where the verse form points toward the later cataloguing and bardic breath of "Howl" is also the one poem that threatens open rebellion against the system; and it is here that Ginsberg first speaks of this contention as war…. Implicit here is the assumption that the same dispositional complex or "wrath" that brings physical mutilation on the battlefield is also the source of the psychic scars and existential wounds of competitive American society….
Surprisingly, Ginsberg's special way of juxtaposing war and sex was anticipated at the time of World War I by none other than the surprising Amy Lowell…. Like Ginsberg, Amy Lowell senses that war is a "pattern" closely related to other patterns that constrict, stiffen, and stifle life….
"Howl" is the moment of breakthrough, the violent externalization of the ulcerous guilt of Ginsberg's discontent. Poetry is act, not object; but the more genuine the act, the more fully shaped is the object that is left behind….
More so than most readers have realized, "Howl" is a vehement anti-war poem. It is anti-war in its specific statements and in its stance towards "control." The poem describes, blames, purges, and transcends the world of relative consciousness, the It-World as described by Martin Buber in his I and Thou classic, the world of things, of walls, and doors, and inhibitions, and discriminations….
As Ginsberg draws it, the twentieth century is the dotage of the once vigorous enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the prurient and senile old man suffering from the hardened arteries of the intellect. Now that there is little further room for beneficial exploration, the values that were so necessary to man as he pushed back the frontiers of science and the New World have turned to rend their master and suck his soulblood….
It would be wrong to think that Ginsberg is describing only a particular American culture; he is attacking the radix or soul of which our culture is but the body. In that sense Ginsberg is indeed a radical poet and thinker. His particular radicalism is not by any means original (it is essentially Christ's battle with the Pharisees, Siddhartha's struggle with Vedic Brahmanas, Tolstoy's struggle with Russian orthodoxy, Lear's struggle with Goneril and Regan), but it is unique in its passion and in its grounding in Ginsberg's own personal suffering….
[Surely] with Ginsberg one ought to avoid what Northrop Frye has called the "debauchery of judiciousness." A poet and a poetry that draw inspiration from the battle against Moloch, the heavy judger, may perhaps be granted the boon of our nonjudgment. They deserve attention and description, but are not illuminated by qualitative tags. This poetry purposely seeks to throw away, violate, and make such standards inoperative. It is perhaps formless, but it may be formless as a living amoeba compared to an inanimate clam shell; it is perhaps mixed, but it may be mixed as a rich stew compared to purer but plainer broth. It may be without art, but it is also without artificiality and carries its own natural inscape….
As a poet Ginsberg associates language with the deepest spiritual impulses of man. Language that has been made to serve the judgmental rational faculty rather than the imagination and the deeper self will necessarily become as superficial and dangerous as the master it serves. The proliferation and prostitution of language through the mass media has transmogrified the natural magic power of language, words to express the ineffable and the transcendent, into evil black-magic language that denies the ineffable and transcendent and elevates the spiritless untruths of modern politics and culture.
A chief virtue of "Wichita Vortex Sutra" is that it makes the reader experience the proliferation and abuse of language. Its technique is to notice and reproduce the language that inundates the senses everyday, and in doing so it makes one painfully aware that in every case language is used not to communicate truth but to manipulate the hearer….
Ginsberg is not a great poet, but he is a great figure in the history of poetry. We do not win from him many new insights or subtle understandings, but we do take from his poetry a simple intensity and a certain freedom. His poetry has made it easier for others to speak honestly. His unabashed admission of his own insufficiency and anguish have helped make others aware of their own deprivations and insensitivity. Certainly we might have wished for a more tidy apostle of compassion, one who would spare us the unhappy details of his sex life, one who might combine reticence and discrimination with his genuine openness and honesty…. But prophets do not come made to order. Ginsberg is a flawed but necessary prophet, a man desperately crying in the wilderness for love, searching the world's religions for a sustaining vision, witnessing nakedly to man's timeless spiritual and physical desires….
James F. Mersmann, "Allen Ginsberg: Breaking Out," in his Out of the Vietnam Vortex: A Study of Poets and Poetry Against the War, University Press of Kansas, 1974, pp. 31-76.