Allen Ginsberg Ginsberg, Allen (Vol. 2) - Essay

Ginsberg, Allen (Vol. 2)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Ginsberg, Allen 1926–

American Beat poet of prolixity, Ginsberg is still best known for his first published work, the unmistakable Howl (1956). (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Everything about Ginsberg is … blatantly Whitmanian: his meter resolutely anti-iambic, his line-groupings stubbornly anti-stanzaic, his diction aggressively colloquial and American, his voice public. The title of his first book was, we remember, Howl; and though the Whitmanian roar has become in him a little shrill and tearful, it is no less obnoxiously loud. Yet he is a follower of Whitman along utterly unforeseen lines, owing no debt to such professional Westerners as Sandburg or Masters, much less to the Popular Front or liberal-Philistine bards, who long claimed exclusively to represent the Master. The Whitman he emulates is the "dirty beast" out of the East who once shocked even Emerson; and he manages to be dirtier and more bestial, a deliberately shocking, bourgeois-baiting celebrator of a kind of sexuality which the most enlightened post-Freudian man-of-the-world finds it difficult to condone.

Ginsberg is, moreover, an urban Whitman, frankly a city-dweller and a singer of cities, as his prototype was but did not always admit; and he is, like that prototype, a homosexual, though, unlike Whitman, he has abandoned all subterfuge and disguise….

Whatever the merits of Ginsberg's poems—and they possess merit in considerable measure—he has not destroyed a world, but only displaced a tired style; has not created a new heaven and new earth, but only made a school; has not reached everybody, but only pleased a tight circle of friends. In the imagination of those friends, and in that of the popular press, he has seemed sometimes an Attila at the gates; but it was wish and fear, more wish than fear, that fed such fantasies.

Leslie A. Fiedler, in his Waiting for the End (copyright © 1964 by Leslie A. Fiedler; from the book Waiting for the End; reprinted with permission of Stein and Day, Publishers), Stein & Day, 1964, pp. 242-43, 247.

Allen Ginsberg, of course, is the most important of the beat poets. His first book, Howl and Other Poems, expresses some of the themes and attitudes of the whole group: their aspiration toward holiness and blessedness, their attacks on the establishment from a generally leftist but unprogrammatic point of view, and their sense of the interrelationship between madness, sex, drug addiction, and poverty….

In assessing the work of Allen Ginsberg, one can say that he is a sort of Theodore Dreiser of American poetry. He is as awkward in phrase and as ungainly in manner as that novelist often was. His poems find their shape only after fighting almost insuperable obstacles in rhythm, grammar, and diction. Sometimes his phrase-making is completely ludicrous. Although it is true that incongruities can produce humor and counteract sentimentality, the poet must keep them under control in order to prevent them from destroying the mood he is trying to create….

[For] all his crudity, Ginsberg does convey a sense of the holiness of all things, the ugly and the beautiful alike. He keeps building bridges between them for the passage of love.

Stephen Stepanchev, "Popular Poetry: Allen Ginsberg," in his American Poetry Since 1945 (copyright © 1965 by Stephen Stepanchev; reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.), Harper, 1965, pp. 166-74.

Ginsberg's first poetry to come to public notice did rely heavily on rhetorical shock, supported by the reiterated insistence that a generation of Americans had been betrayed and psychically crippled and by a wild and whimsical humor that helped save his work from sentimentality and rodomontade. The shock seemed to come first of all from the gross vocabulary of vulgar speech, but actually Ginsberg never gives us the unadulteratedly elemental speech of the streets, the farm, and the factory….

His imagery of sexual activity, finally, is hysterically frenzied, suggesting a compulsive search for love and acceptance through ceaselessly self-defeating, external, almost automatic activity….

Part II of 'Howl' identifies the hostile universe with which the vulnerable sensibility cannot cope. It is, essentially, our indifferent but man-devouring mechanical civilization. This identification is not really a new idea, but Ginsberg sometimes succeeds in isolating the simple human fact within a familiar theme…. Most of the fashionable criticism of modern civilization fastens on its affronts to taste and to the values of the educated classes. Ginsberg looks directly at the suffering it imposes on the mass of ordinary people….

The long, crucial 'Narrative' [of 'Kaddish'] is, line by line, careless in diction, syntax, and rhythmic movement. It can be defended, to a reasonable extent, as deliberately having the quality of a series of memories noted down in haste lest the details be forgotten, or snatched up out of the storehouse of the subconscious against the speaker's conscious will. The lines, too, are highly charged with the emotional compulsions underlying the whole of the poem, and there is no denying their gathering momentum. Still, far too large a proportion of the poem relies on short gasps of thought or statement, separated usually by dashes. They have a staccato eloquence that can move us but that contributes little—for there are too few strategic points—to the poetic synthesis. This is achieved mainly through special incantatory passages or through sensational detail at scattered moments….

The style of [Ginsberg's shorter] pieces has generally lost its way. They are for the most part merely derivative from William Carlos Williams and the Black Mountain poets and, except for a very few beautifully inward moments, are uninteresting. These shapeless improvisations spell out the need for this author, the single writer of the 'Beat' poets who has shown outstanding imagination and feeling for a strong poetic line, to restudy his art and make the poems of which he is very probably capable.

M. L. Rosenthal, in his The New Poets: American and British Poetry Since World War II (© 1967 by M. L. Rosenthal; reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.), Oxford University Press, 1967, pp. 89-112.

Howl and Other Poems (1956) by Allen Ginsberg is one of the milestones of the generation. Although these poems offer an excitement coupled with fury over contemporary America, the voice we heard also had some of the toughness and quality of familial piety and sweetness of some Jewish immigrant burdened by centuries of suffering and lamentation at the Weeping Wall of European ghettoes and also the exhilaration of loony Hasidic revelation: "The universe is a new flower. America will be discovered. Who wants a war against roses will have it. Fate tells big lies, & the gay Creator dances on his own body in Eternity." Some of Ginsberg's work is redundant, ungrammatical, prosy, boring, and smug: the most poorly written of any potentially major American verse since Whitman. Those poems that are Ginsberg classics, however, not only provide a primer of techniques and embody with compelling authority intimate angers, hopes and anxieties but they reveal a poet who appears to be of that company of whom the Evangelist of the Book of Revelation spoke: "From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away."…

[Ginsberg] is bone-serious, erudite, intelligent and, most of all, a poet deeply involved in the problems of his craft and in the literary scene. In truth, Ginsberg strikes me as that rare person: the committed artist. No member of the generation—with the exception of Bly—has done more to help hack away polite literary junglerot and to promote a lot of the good contemporary American writing. His energy and generosity are legendary….

Allen Ginsberg has both the talent and the ambition to become a major American poet. Sometimes, I feel he cannot fail to become one; at other times, I wonder if in order to write major work about the eternal human verities, a poet must also allow himself to know what it's like to love one's own woman for herself and to appreciate what many men experience daily in the worlds of business, politics, science and education when they accomplish something valuable which benefits themselves and also others. So far, Ginsberg's work doesn't indicate he cares about such realities. I hope it's clear that I say this with respect for a man who is one of the princes among the poets of his generation. Whatever the direction his future work will explore, in fact, Ginsberg may become the first American poet to win the Nobel Prize.

Paul Carroll, in his The Poem in Its Skin, Follett-Big Table, 1968, pp. 214-17.

Ginsberg evangelizes America, exerting pure will power, declaring all by himself the end of the Vietnam war (in his role as unacknowledged legislator of the world), casting himself as the descendant of Blake, Christopher Smart, Whitman and Williams….

Ginsberg's daily-life poems, with their fermenting specificity, are a repository of the data of American life in the fifties and sixties, and may on that account become unintelligible to the next, non-Pepsi, generation. His current project—a long chronicle-in-progress, "These States," is represented [now] by an extract called "Wichita Vortex Sutra," a "mind collage," which is depressingly no-where near so good as his sublime elegy for his mother, "Kaddish," which showed how good a long poem he could write.

In this collection ["Planet News"], the shorter poems, with their impressive grip on exact description, are the best, and remind us of how Ginsberg sees everything—railroads, cloverleafs, Dino Sinclair signs, "tiny human trees" in the plains, newspaper stories and their reduction of the real to the … verbal, football fields, J. Edgar Hoover, and above all himself. For his contemporaries, he is the biographer of his time—its high schools, its streets, its telephones, its monsters …, its bland head counts, its drugs, its cops, its cities, its freeways, and most of all its short-cut language.

Helen Vendler, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1969 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 31, 1969, p. 8.

Because of "Howl," poets writing in the sixties became ill-at-ease manufacturing their tried-and-true delicate nuances. Fashion decreed that they howl instead. Ginsberg's poem had the effect of a sort of natural disaster. The country deserved it—and poetry deserved it—but it was a disaster nonetheless, one that left us in a state of poetic emergency. Rightly or wrongly, "Howl" knocked hell out of earlier images of what best minds say and do. Not only was it descriptive of a vast social-spiritual death, but it provided a villainous cause, the god Moloch who in the poem is simply the System. Not since the thirties had the System had such an inclusive raking over—in fact, "Howl" singlehandedly did much to restore the thirties vogue of supercolossal system-damnation we are still suffering from, and it did so without providing a Marxist antidote. It was what D. H. Lawrence would perhaps have called a death-energy poem.

Having dropped his bomb, Ginsberg looked around for a next step—and that of course was to rehabilitate us. Any powers effectively restorative of the blasted American landscape would obviously have to come from outside the country; and so, with the remarkable timing that has marked his career Ginsberg went thoroughly Eastern…. [He] scouted out nirvana and suchlike for us….

My impression is that he didn't find it (heaven), nor did he escape "clinging to my human known me, Allen Ginsberg." He also failed—if the [Indian Journals] are evidence—to get very close to India. He describes encounters with a variety of holy men—and provides us with a few snapshots of them—but the encounters are tourist-like in their brevity and incompleteness….

For me this second stage in the Ginsberg saga has been even more calamitous than the "Howl" stage. The first had the genuineness of anger and despair about it—it was home grown and home felt—but the second has been clouded by great expectations, expectations that Ginsberg himself sometimes manages to temper with solid observations and with his striking death-obsession, but that his devotees infallibly leave raw: nirvana in the pad, nightly, forever. There is terror for me in their misconceptions of what inner fantasy-life can make of the stony world; and Ginsberg is one of the breeders of that terror. Saintly he may indeed be as a private sinner—I do not question his private credentials—but he has also been a most influential loudmouth, an eccentric evangelist for an apocalyptic faith (and aesthetic) that has in my opinion competed pretty well with Moloch in mind-destroying.

Reed Whittemore, "From 'Howl' to OM," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1970 by Harrison-Blaine of New Jersey, Inc.), July 25, 1970, pp. 17-18.

Ginsberg is one of the most traditionalist poets now living. His work is an almost perfect fulfillment of the long, Whitman, Populist, social revolutionary tradition in American poetry. In addition he is a latter-day nabi, one of those Hebrew prophets who came down out of the hills and cried "Woe! Woe! to the bloody city of Jerusalem!" in the streets. Howl resembles as much as anything the denunciatory poems of Jeremiah and Hosea. After Ginsberg, the fundamental American tradition, which was also the most international and the least provincial, was no longer on the defensive but moved over to the attack, and soon, as far as youthful audiences were concerned, the literary Establishment simply ceased to exist.

Kenneth Rexroth, in his American Poetry in the Twentieth Century (copyright © 1971 Herder and Herder, Inc.; used by permission of the publisher, The Seabury Press, New York), Herder, 1971, pp. 170-71.

Like his great master, Walt Whitman, Ginsberg is a poet of Orphic hopes: he wants to wed language to the flesh. But in his "angelic ravings," Jeremiah jostles Orpheus and Buddha: biblical anger, pantheistic joy, and mystic calm mingle. The sense of some irremediable outrage breaks through his sacred chants and litanies. The dual sense of apocalypse as revelation, completeness within the present, and as final, vengeful destruction, sustains his rhythms. Still, Ginsberg dreams of conjuring from "the national subconscious" of America a new language of the body.

Ihab Hassan, in his The Dismemberment of Orpheus (© 1971 by Ihab Hassan; reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.), Oxford University Press, 1971, p. 252.

Every so often, there is a play that redeems the theatre, transcends all our mundane absorptions, our concerns with making a living, our perusal of simple—simplistic?——minutiae. It does something—because it is alive, is human, is changing, is happening—that film, TV, radio, books, other media, cannot. Every so often there is such a play.

Allen Ginsberg's Kaddish (the Jewish prayer for the dead) … is such a play. It is a cry of pain, a cry of remembrance, a cry of love. It is an attempt at understanding, an attempt to say 'I love you.' An attempt to say it to someone now dead—dead since 1956 (and that is more than fifteen years; how long do we remember? how long do we respond?). It is an attempt to grasp a reality that was embodied in a fantasy—at least in a state of mind that was not, could not, be comprehensible to someone who did not share it. It is one human being saying to another: We must open ourselves to each other. We must be prepared to be rejected—we must expect to be rejected—we must recognise need, we must recognise difference. It is an attempt to be human—and that is often more difficult than we know, at least more difficult than we wish to acknowledge.

Ginsberg wrote Kaddish—the poem, that is—in 1959. It carries the notation 'For Naomi Ginsberg 1894–1956.' It is powerful, lyrical, shattering, perhaps the finest poem of the Beat Generation. But it is one thing—an enormously moving thing—to read it, yet another to see it; to see it embodied in fragile, vulnerable human beings…. They inject an entirely new dimension, complement the play, the poem, in a way that has seldom before been achieved in 'mixed media.' They provide an experience that stuns, shocks and demands that the audience acknowledge and be moved by something that at first glance might seem an experience of purely personal exorcism….

I happened to attend Kaddish with a friend who is a poet, a poet who happens to know Ginsberg. A day or two later I had a note from him. It talked of 'saintly insane Allen, a beacon to the age … a Whitman to us all.' I hope he will forgive me for quoting it, for in Kaddish, play and poem, shattering, draining, intensely human experience that it is, Ginsberg is all of that.

Catharine Hughes, in Plays and Players, April, 1972, pp. 52-3.