Ginsberg, Allen 1926–
Ginsberg, an American poet, was one of the founders of the Beat Movement and continues to be a major literary personality. Although he has kept pace with the counter-culture, he is still best known for his first published work, the long poem Howl. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
However much Allen Ginsberg may be Henry-Luce-as-poet—the perfect media image of the révolté from whom society has nothing to fear, the allowed clown—he nevertheless is a remarkable poet. The person in the past whom he most resembles is Vachel Lindsay, another shopkeeper's idea of a poet, equally noisy and equally sincere. As an effective denunciation of a totally hypocritical society, Ginsberg's Howl did its job well, especially with the many thousand young people who bought it. Its literary merit can be measured by the running and barking fits it still gives older academicians long after it's forgotten in campus coffee shops. Whatever its faults, and they are not actually very serious, it is a great vatic poem in the tradition of Hosea.
Kenneth Rexroth, "Poetry in the Sixties" (1965; originally published in Saturday Review), in his With Eye and Ear (copyright 1970 by Herder and Herder, Inc.; used by permission of the publisher, The Seabury Press), Herder, 1970, pp. 69-77.
It was left to the sixties (which got off to an even earlier start than most decades somewhere around 1955) to celebrate psychosis; and to attempt, for the first time, not to pretend that schizophrenia was politics, but to make a politics of schizophrenia recognized for what it is: a total and irrevocable protest against Things-as-They-Are in a world called real. And behind this movement, too, there is a Jewish dreamer, yet one more Joseph sufficient unto his day. I mean, of course, Allen Ginsberg who has escaped the hang-up of finding or not finding the ear of Pharoah, by becoming a mock-Pharaoh, a Pharaoh of Misrule, as it were. Think of his actual presence at the head of parades or his image looking down at us from subway hoardings—crowned with the striped hat of Uncle Sam.
Ginsberg, however, unlike the Joseph before him, is no father's darling at all, not even such a baffled aspirant for paternal favor as was Kafka. He is a terminal son, to be sure, like the others—but a mama's boy this time, unable to imagine himself assuming papa's role ever ("Beep, emit a burst of babe and begone/ perhaps that's the answer, wouldn't know till you had a kid/ I dunno, never had a kid never will at the rate I'm going"), or saying kaddish, that traditional Jewish mourner's prayer which becomes an endearing synonym for "son"—except for his mother, called Naomi, and identified in his mythological imagination with her Biblical namesake, and with Ruth and Rebecca as well, though not with Rachel, that favored second wife of Jacob. She was a life-long Communist, that mother who haunts Ginsberg, who died—lobotomized and terror-stricken—in the nuthouse: "Back! You! Naomi! Skull on you! Gaunt immortality and revolution come—small broken woman—the ashen indoor eyes of hospitals, ward grayness on skin."
But her post-Marxian madness, the very paranoia which persuaded her that she had been shut away at the instigation of "Hitler, Grandma, Hearst, the Capitalists, Franco, Daily News, the 20's, Mussolini, the living dead," becomes in her son vision and a program fostered by that vision: "vow to illuminate mankind … (sanity a trick of agreement)." And when his own insanity fails to sustain him, he turns to drugs, singing—on marijuana and mescalin, Lysergic Acid and laughing gas and "Ayahusca, an Amazonian spiritual potion"—a New Song, appropriate to a new sort of Master of Dreams, the pusher's pusher, as it were. He does not sell the chemical stuff of dreams directly, of course (was this, then what the Jews did peddle in the market place of Juvenal's Rome?), but sells the notion of selling them—crying out in protest: "Marijuana is a benevolent narcotic but J. Edgar Hoover prefers his deathly scotch/And the heroin of Lao-Tze and the Sixth Patriarch is punished by the electric chair/but the poor sick junkies have nowhere to lay their heads…" or insisting in hope: "The message is: Widen the area of consciousness."
Leslie Fiedler, "Master of Dreams: The Jew in a Gentile World," in Partisan Review, Summer, 1967, pp. 339-56.
We often speak of "fine arts" and "popular arts" as though there existed an absolute distinction between the two…. Occasionally a figure will link both worlds, and we will be forced to look at three things before we can understand him; we will have to look at his artistic creation, at the world in which he lives, and at his characteristics as a human being. Such a figure was Lord Byron, who has been to many scholars more interesting than his art, and who in many ways can serve us as a symbol of his age. As it is with Byron, so it is with Allen Ginsberg; we must attempt to understand what his writing means to the poet in the context of mid-twentieth century America, and we will be far richer for the additional effort than we would be if we were to restrict our analysis to the poems alone. Often the task of the critic goes beyond textual analysis or explication….
We can see in the anthology of early poems, Empty Mirror, published by Ginsberg in 1961, that Ginsberg's early concerns were the hells of modern society, as they affected others as well as how they affected him. He seeks a solution throughout the work, but nothing is satisfactory. More precisely, he has not yet really begun his search for a solution; but it is evident that he is seeking some kind of frame through which to look at America, which would reconcile his difficulties and the difficulties of the citizens….
His poems of this period are of a much stronger literary orientation than we will find in his later work. He refers to Dostoyevsky, Thomas Hardy, Baudelaire, even Hemingway and Shakespeare! We can see him working, hoping to find some kind of myth, but this seems to be rather an instinctive move for him, for he doesn't reveal any great knowledge of comparative religion, such as he will later show. And he fails. He is young, and the problems he faces overwhelm him. His world is the nightmare of America, a dream that has failed; he who lives in a Harlem tenement and sees the effect of the failure on the slag of society, tries to convince himself that there is, indeed, meaning….
Toward the middle of the 1950's, Ginsberg's tone begins to change, largely because he has had a spiritual experience, a vision. His vision, of the poet Blake, came while he was alone in his Harlem flat…. Ginsberg saw immediately a Force, a Life behind everything, even the slums of Spanish Harlem in which he lived. Ginsberg says that this vision was "more real and more blissful" than any he has since experienced, which should not surprise us, for it showed the young man that perhaps there was a truth which would make life acceptable after all.
The first major poem in which Ginsberg put this vision to work was "Howl," which gained notoriety in 1956 when it was tried, and acquitted, of obscenity charges. "Howl" organizes Ginsberg's vision of Hell into lyric poetry, heavily influenced by Walt Whitman, and the reader is shown the lives of the "angelheaded hipsters," whom Ginsberg has loved and seen "destroyed by madness" and the crass insensitivity of American society, which ignores and crushes many of its most beautifully human souls. Make no mistake, Ginsberg identifies America as Hell, and "Howl" is one of the most frightening explorations of Hell ever created….
After his Blake vision, Ginsberg searched for a comprehensive mythology. Obviously he was set up to receive one, the aged, honorable Jewish tradition, which he would never wholly forsake, but which was not entirely suitable. To begin with, it did not agree with his mystical experience. Jewish mysticism consistently experiences itself as sitting in glory at God's throne, and the only kind of Union permitted with God is a Union of Adhesion, whereas Ginsberg had seen Everything as God-filled. So Ginsberg, along with his companions in the Beat movement …, searched through the various religions, and religious experiences, of mankind, including Zen, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, and drugs; Ginsberg's poems, from their very titles, "Sunflower Sutra," "Sakyamuni Coming Out from the Mountain," etc., indicate some of the stops Ginsberg has made on his quest.
But Ginsberg had yet to create his deep exploration of Jewish myth, and perhaps his greatest poem, "Kaddish," his burial hymn for his mother. In "Kaddish," Ginsberg returned to the form of "Howl," with a long expository prose-poem (which he calls the Proem) followed by litany. His litany is based upon the Hebrew burial service, for his mother was a Jewish emigrant from Russia. He uses the Hebrew text only occasionally, primarily in the "Hymmnn" [sic] section, but his piece continually plays his emotions, and the emotions of his family, against the tone of the ancient psalm. His use is also determined by the historical meaning of the Kaddish, which originally was a doxology recited by the rabbi at the end of his discourse, meant to fill the congregation with messianic hope. It eventually came to be recited for the dead at the end of seven days' mourning (today it is recited immediately after burial), and some came to believe that the recitation redeemed the dead from the sufferings of Gehenna. In a sense, Ginsberg's recitation is likewise an attempt to redeem his dead mother, Naomi Ginsberg, at least to redeem her in his own mind. The poem is tragic and hard-hitting, and cathartic….
Ginsberg has found in mythology and mysticism a feeling of oneness with the universe, with God, which has enabled him to live freely and sanely and personally in a world that is cruel, brutal and impersonal. His unifying vision is a personal one, modified by factors that are not relevant to all men of his time, but he has attempted to circumvent that problem by revealing himself as completely as is painfully possible, thereby allowing what is personal to the poet to show itself as such, while the archetype remains pure. Thus the poet hopes to transmit his myth.
George W. Lyon, Jr., "Allen Ginsberg: Angel Headed Hipster," in Journal of Popular Culture, Winter, 1969, pp. 391-403.
Allen Ginsberg is in the direct line of the nabis, those wild men of the hills, bearded and barefoot, who periodically descended upon Jerusalem, denounced king and priesthood, and recalled the Chosen People to the Covenant. If any writer in America is true to his tradition, it's Ginsberg. Behind him stretches away for generations the prophetic, visionary and orgiastic tradition of Hassidism. He is a Zaddik. Immediately behind him stands Whitman and the founders of communal groups from Oneida to New Harmony, from the Schwenkfelders to the Mormons, those noble souls who almost won, who almost established America as a community of love….
Unless Ginsberg is understood as a religious leader of the same kind as his younger colleague, Gary Snyder, he cannot be understood at all. Although it was his fame and his loyalty to his old friends from Columbia, who used to get drunk in the San Remo on MacDougal Street, that launched the actually very small Beat movement, he was anything but a beatnik, and it is only as the counter-culture has caught up with him that he has come to play his full role.
Kenneth Rexroth, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1969 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 11, 1969, p. 8.
Concentration and exactness of focus are, when he is able to summon them, among Ginsberg's undeniable powers. "Kaddish," his great elegy for his mother Naomi, is full of visualized moments comparable to the presented isolation of the leper, and Ginsberg's shorter poems, like the wonderful "American Change," depend equally on making us see, to paraphrase Yeats, "as though a sterner eye looked through our eye." Ginsberg had cried to the crowds at Sather Gate in Berkeley: "I have a message for you all—I will denote one particularity of each!" and for years he believed, with Blake and Yeats, that it was necessary that "eye and ear … silence the mind/With the minute particulars of mankind."
The trouble with the present book ["The Fall of America"] is that the minute particulars of mankind seem to be vanishing from Ginsberg's latest verse in favor of the minute particulars of geography. In the "Indian Journals" Ginsberg declared that since we now know that visions are "no longer considerable as objective & external facts, but as plastic projections of the maker & his language" we must stop being concerned with these "effects," eliminate subject matter, and concentrate on language itself….
"The Fall of America" arrives … as we see in Ginsberg the disappearance or exhaustion of long-term human relations, an unwillingness to continue the "old means of humanistic storytelling," a persistent wish (evident since "Howl") for some "non-conceptual episodes of experience," and a theory of poetry intending to "include more simultaneous perceptions and relate previously unrelated (what were though irrelevant) occurrences." Under these pressures, Ginsberg has become a geographer, and his one inexhaustible subject is the earth and what it looks like….
Mostly, the conclusions of the Ginsberg census are apocalyptic ones. America is going to fall because of its sins, chiefly the sins of crushing its dissidents and conducting war…. The indictment is made repeatedly through the book, because "The Fall of America" is really a daily newspaper—a "chronicle tape-recorded scribed by hand or sung condensed, the flux of car bus airplane dream." What spontaneity gains, reiteration loses. But as soon as that easy criticism rises to the lips, a countertruth stills it: it may be boring to read the map aloud …, but it is true that Ginsberg lights up territory when it is land familiar to me, and so maybe the ideal reader of this poem is someone who knows Kansas City and Wichita and Salt Lake and Bixby Canyon and Sonora Desert as I don't. "Know me, know my map," says Ginsberg: it's not an unfair demand for a poet to make….
Ginsberg belongs, if we accept Blake's two categories of "the Prolific" and "the Devouring," to "the Prolific": there will always be more of him, and more of his excesses, than we can quite want. On the other hand, he is never negligible, and he is often (the only true test) unforgettable. This book, for instance, in the midst of a lot of ephemeral poetry, contains the supreme summing-up of this decade, a perfectly-finished 14-page poem called "Eclogue."…
Sadness, and not his intermittent hysteria, underlies Ginsberg's most eloquent poems. Though he is recognizably the native heir of Emerson, Whitman and Williams, he was not born with their regenerative sporadic optimism; nor does he participate, like Whitman, in heroic human action, nor descend, for that matter, as far as Whitman into despair…. Ginsberg, a naturally elegiac poet, is at present repressing his own elegiac spirit, attempting a poetry where, to quote Coleridge …, "all is purely external and objective, and the poet is a mere voice." The elegiac side of Ginsberg still seems to me the winning one, but it may be that in the sparseness of middle age Ginsberg needs the plurality of notations and enumerations accumulating to fill these pages. It is nothing new for a poet to need filler….
Helen Vendler, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 15, 1973, p. 1 ff.
Allen Ginsberg's new book [The Fall of America] is beautiful, the best of his books….
Ginsberg is more lyrical, more mellow, more warm than he ever was. I went back to Howl to make sure. It stays where it was, electric and imperative, but The Fall of America is better poetry; images instead of rhetoric…. These poems include everything. They have the openness, and the associationism, of the Cantos, without the spasmodic coherence, and without Pound's sweetness of speech; nobody, not even Keats, has that sweetness. But Ginsberg includes more emotional experience than Pound does, and his energy is compassionate like Whitman's, and he shows spiritual endurance and adventurousness as well as the energy of observation.
Donald Hall, "Knock Knock: A Column," in The American Poetry Review, August/September, 1973, pp. 37-8.
On sex Ginsberg is maudlin and hysterical [in The Fall of America]; on Vietnam and pollution at home he says all the right things but doesn't do much more than say them. His world is filled with good guys and bad guys: Cleaver and Tim Leary hurrah; Lyndon Johnson, J. Edgar Hoover, Rusk boo. There is endless moaning about Neal Cassady, Jack, Gregory and the rest of that broken up old gang of his…. [All] Ginsberg has left to do now is cross and recross the country, celebrating places, sights, smells and sounds while aging and waiting for death's inexorable doom….
Often with Ginsberg the solemn and the silly are in too close company for this reader's comfort; it is the lack of complex ideas that for all its incidental virtues finally make his poetry mean less to me than it does to some. But the very idea of reviewing Ginsberg, certainly our most incorrigible poet, has its ludicrous aspect….
William H. Pritchard, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1973 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVI, No. 3, Autumn, 1973, pp. 593-94.