Allen Ginsberg Ginsberg, Allen (Vol. 1) - Essay

Ginsberg, Allen (Vol. 1)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Ginsberg, Allen 1926–

An American poet, associated with the Beats, Ginsberg won fame with Howl, published in 1956. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

[Among] modern poets, Ginsberg is the perfect inhabitant, if not the very founder of Babel, where conditions do not so much make tongues incomprehensible, but render their utterances, as poetry, meaningless. Howl is the skin of Rimbaud's Une Saison en Enfer thrown over the conventional maunderings of one type of American adolescent, who has discovered that machine civilization has no interest in his having read Blake. The pattern of introduction of works of this type is familiar: they are offered as "confession," with the warning (here by William Carlos Williams) that their authors have indeed "descended into Hell" and come back with a marvelous and terrible Truth to tell us, all about ourselves and the world we have made. The principal state of mind is thus hallucination; everyone in Ginsberg's book is hopped-up on benzedrine, pot, or whiskey, and is doing something as violently and loudly as he can, in "protest" or "fulfillment." What emerges from all this is an Attitude, since most of the writing itself is in no sense distinctive. The Attitude, however, is really not worth examining either, since Ginsberg's idea of "revolt" seems essentially to consist in making of oneself "cocksman and Adonis of Denver." (From the 1957 essay.)

Confession is not enough, and neither is the assumption that the truth of one's experience will emerge if only one can keep talking long enough in a whipped-up state of excitement. It takes more than this to make poetry. It just does. (From the 1961 essay.)

James Dickey, in his Babel to Byzantium (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968 by James Dickey), Farrar, Straus, 1968, pp. 54-5.

[Allen] Ginsberg hurls not only curses but everything—his own purported memories of a confused, squalid, humiliating existence in the 'underground' of American life and culture, mock political and sexual 'confessions' (together with a childishly aggressive vocabulary of obscenity), literary allusions and echoes, and the folk-idiom of impatience and disgust…. In his adaptations of cadence to rhetorical and colloquial rhythms, Ginsberg shows the impact of such poets as Whitman, Williams, and Fearing. Once in a while he falls entirely into the cadence and voice of one or another of them. But he does display enough originality to blast American verse a hair's breadth forward in the process.

M. L. Rosenthal, in his The Modern Poets: A Critical Introduction (© 1960 by M. L. Rosenthal; reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.), Oxford University Press, 1960, pp. 267-68.

For better or for worse the name Allen Ginsberg has come to stand for something in contemporary America. Twenty years ago, a few literary-minded people might have recognized him as a budding young protégé of William Carlos Williams; ten years ago [i.e., in the late 1950's], almost every literate person knew him as the Beatnik author of the notorious Howl. Today, we tend to think of him as the nucleus of a very nebulous attitude that has bloomed across the breadth of the land (and abroad) to which we have given the name Hip. The point is that Allen Ginsberg is now recognized more as a phenomenon than a poet. He makes news wherever he goes. He is the Guru for a whole generation of perplexing, disturbed, dissatisfied young Americans. Most of all, he is a gentle man—a point too often overlooked under the hoopla. (Preface)

In Ginsberg's work … content and form are so mutually interdependent that if often seems folly to attempt a separation. Feeling, rhythm, religion, and many times drugs conspire in him to produce a vision which, by the brute force and honesty of its essence, bulldozes its way into poetic validity. The ingredients, moreover, often achieve a quality of wholeness that cannot be fully appreciated by technical analysis alone. In short, it is not merely a question of art imitating nature in Ginsberg's esthetic position but of art in fact being nature. The ultimate rationale for such a conviction inevitably leads to the ubiquitous assertion that everyone is an angel, and who would dare assert that the discourse of angels could be anything but poetry? (pp. 46-7)

In many of Ginsberg's best poems—particularly those in which he has exploited the technique of cataloguing objects for a dynamic cumulative effect—this principle [of rendering the truth of things] has been followed with superb results. But there is a wilder side to Ginsberg that grows increasingly more apparent throughout his development: rendering gives way to rhetoric; and the rhetoric, in turn, yields unabashed prophetic verse…. There are reasons, of course, for Ginsberg's movement in this direction. He has been strongly influenced by an assortment of Romantic mystics: Blake, Whitman, Christopher Smart. His own mystical experiences cannot be discounted either. A myriad of pressures both personal and derivative have nudged him from the position of the cool-headed and disciplined poem-maker, William Carlos Williams, toward a free-wheeling mysticism that celebrates deliberate derangement of the senses. (pp. 58-9)

He often refers to God in his poetry, but the precise character of his deity is usually clouded in ambiguity. While at times Ginsberg's God is spoken of in transcendent terms, the general impression one gets from the poetry is that "God" is an imminent kind of depth-dimension who is accessible through vision, love, introspection, and hallucination. God's residence is definitely in this world, and His presence is unlimited: "The world is holy!… Everyman's an angel!" (p. 74)

Despite the fact that it has been fashionable to say that Howl exploded on the American literary scene like a bombshell, that San Francisco finally "turned Ginsberg on," and that this poem heralded in the Beat Generation, it is difficult to find in this admittedly extraordinary poem much that has not been anticipated in inchoate and sometimes even mature form in Empty Mirror. Howl is perhaps a crystallization of many incipient attitudes and techniques that had been residing in Ginsberg for years, but it is hardly the beginning of a new poetic direction or even a sudden eruption of outrage. It cannot even be said that Howl is necessarily uniquely modern in form or intention. Most would have to agree with Kenneth Rexroth that this type of poetry is "in one of the oldest traditions, that of Hosea or the other, angry Minor Prophets of the Bible." Howl, therefore, is not a genesis; it is an amplification. (p. 86)

Intensely autobiographical and intensely present in its projection, Kaddish can safely be designated as Ginsberg at his purest and perhaps at his best. (p. 107)

It is very difficult to classify Ginsberg's work as a whole under any … labels…. Ginsberg always seems ready to leap to the defense of Kerouac's "Spontaneous Prose," and his own disregard for syntax, spelling, and punctuation seems to confirm his allegiance to this point of view. Nature, in this case, would be defined by both Ginsberg and Kerouac as whatever happens to them in thought or deed. A more comprehensive way of describing their attitude might be to say that they are interested in making the real more real. This description seems to be a workable premise for looking at Ginsberg's poetry until one runs head-on into his drug-induced Surrealistic productions, and then the problem becomes complicated by the consideration of whether drugs or trances serve to make the real more—or less—real. At once the problem ceases to be the concern of literature and becomes one for psychologists and biochemists. If one insists on keeping the situation in the purview of literature (as Ginsberg forces one to do), one must expand the definitions of reality to include all subjective occurrences and legitimize hallucination as a viable access to an inward reality. (pp. 153-54)

Ginsberg achieves energy in his poetry through two modes: the tightness of his catalogues and his meter. To deal with the first method, it can be said that his success stems from his ability to select potent images and to connect them in a fashion that accords with Olson's counsel that "ONE PERCEPTION MUST IMMEDIATELY AND DIRECTLY LEAD TO A FURTHER PERCEPTION." Speed, as well as selection of images, is certainly a factor; but even more important as far as Ginsberg is concerned is the fact that, when he deals with concrete images as in Howl and Kaddish, the effect is more poetically pungent than when he makes his narcotic assaults upon the unknown ("Aether," for example). When Ginsberg surrenders to his abstractions the consequences are usually Surrealistic disaster…. The second source of Ginsberg's energy is his meter, which is a consideration closely aligned with vocal utterance…. Of course, he is correct; and one must constantly remind himself that to read a Ginsberg poem is to read a score. (pp. 157-58)

Thomas F. Merrill, in his Allen Ginsberg, Twayne, 1969.

The poet of "Howl" and "Kaddish" was not just a new hero to the young, but a new kind of hero. When he presented himself before them to read his poems, they found him a sort of self-appointed shaman—intense, voluble, irascible, and obviously convinced of the holiness of his mission as a poet. He was as far as could be from the going "cool" style, just as his poetry—naked, gauche, and crudely confessional as it was—seemed the very antithesis of the dry, precise, and calculated verse of the academic poets who were just then thought to be the only American poets worthy of the name. (p. 7)

The central fact that one must come to grips with in understanding Allen Ginsberg and his present importance as a prophet and teacher (and only incidentally as a poet) is that he is now very different from that intense, wrathful young man who first exploded onto the scene, snarling out his "Howl" to the world…. Today he is much different: certainly one of the most completely open and altogether decent people you are likely to meet among the great public personalities of our age. (p. 102)

Bruce Cook, in his The Beat Generation (reprinted by permission of Charles Scribner's Sons from The Beat Generation by Bruce Cook; © 1971 Bruce Cook), Scribner's, 1971.