Allen Ginsberg Ginsberg, Allen (Vol. 109) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Allen Ginsberg 1926–1997

American poet, essayist, playwright, and nonfiction writer.

For further information on Ginsberg's life and career, see CLC, Volumes 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 13, 36, and 69.

A founder of the Beat movement, Allen Ginsberg is one of the most noted and popular poets of post-war America. His most famous poem, "Howl" (1956), is a post-modern classic. Born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1926, Ginsberg grew up in the same neighborhood as poet William Carlos Williams, who would later write the introduction to "Howl." Ginsberg's father, Louis, taught high school literature and published lyrical poetry. His mother, Naomi, a Russian immigrant committed to the Communist cause, suffered from mental illness. Ginsberg attended Columbia University where he met Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs and Neal Cassady, with whom he would later form the Beat movement. Ginsberg's social dissent began at this time and continued throughout his lifetime. In the 1950s he moved to San Francisco to take part in the counter-culture movement. In October 1955 Ginsberg gave a public recital of "Howl," impressing critics and establishing himself as a noteworthy voice of his generation. The poem became a success with the public after the government charged that it was pornographic; a judge ruled in favor of Ginsberg. In "Howl," Ginsberg established the traits which he would continue to develop throughout his lifetime: his candor, his focus on sexuality, particularly homosexuality, and his non-traditional writing style. One of Ginsberg's most famous poems, "Kaddish" (1958), centers on his mother's life and mental illness. Loosely patterned on a traditional Jewish prayer, the poem established Ginsberg as a Jewish writer. Critics often compare Ginsberg to Walt Whitman, largely because both poets emphasized the interdependency of political and sexual freedom. While some critics praised Ginsberg's unstructured form and controversial subject matter, others considered his skill overestimated, arguing that Ginsberg won his fame through his behavior, such as political protests, the advocacy of drug use and homosexuality, poetry readings, and collaboration with rock bands. Ginsberg continued to write until his death on April 5, 1997, in New York City.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Howl and Other Poems (poetry) 1956
Siesta in Xbalva and Return to the States (poetry) 1956

Kaddish and Other Poems, (poetry) 1958–1960
Empty Mirror: Early Poems (poetry) 1961
The Change (poetry) 1963
Reality Sandwiches: 1953–1960 (poetry) 1963
The Yage Letters [with William Burroughs] (letters) 1963
Kral Majales (poetry) 1965
Wichita Vortex Sutra (poetry) 1966
TV Baby Poems (poetry) 1967
Airplane Dreams: Compositions from Journals (poetry) 1968
Ankor Wat (poetry) 1968
The Heat is a Clock (poetry) 1968
Message II (poetry) 1968
Planet News (poetry) 1968
Scrap Leaves, Tasty Scribbles (poetry) 1968
Wales—A Visitation, July 29, 1967 (poetry) 1968
For the Soul of the Planet is Wakening … (poetry) 1970
Indian Journals: March 1962—May 1963; Notebooks, Diary, Blank Pages, Writings (journals and diary) 1970
Notes after an Evening with William Carlos Williams (nonfiction) 1970
The Moments Return: A Poem (poetry) 1970
Ginsberg's Improvised Poetics (poetry) 1971
Bisxby Canyon Ocean Path Word Breeze (poetry) 1972
Iron Horse (poetry) 1972
Kaddish (play) 1972
New Year Blues (poetry) 1972
Open Head (poetry) 1972
The Fall of America: Poems of These States, 1965–1971 (poetry) 1973
The Gates of Wrath: Rhymed Poems, 1948–1952 (poetry) 1973
The Visions of the Great Rememberer (letters) 1974
Allen Verbatim: Lectures of Poetry, Politics, and Consciousness (lectures) 1975
Chicago Trial Testimony (nonfiction) 1975
First Blues: Rags, Ballads, and Harmonium Songs, 1971–1974 (poetry) 1975
Sad Dust Glories: Poems during Work Summer in Woods, 1974 (poetry) 1975
To Eberhart from Ginsberg (letters) 1976
Journals: Early Fifties, Early Sixties (journals) 1977
Careless Love: Two Rhymes (poetry) 1978
Mind Breaths: Poems, 1972–1977 (poetry) 1978
Mostly Sitting Haiku (poetry) 1978; revised and expanded, 1979
Poems All over the Place: Mostly Seventies (poetry) 1978
Plutonian Ode (poetry) 1982
Collected Poems: 1947–1980 (poetry) 1984
White Shroud: Poems, 1980–1985 (poetry) 1986
The Hydrogen Jukebox (play) 1990
Snapshot Poetics (poetry) 1993
Cosmopolitan Greetings: Poems 1986–1992 (poetry) 1995
Selected Poems 1947–1995 (poetry) 1996

∗This work was also published in a revised edition as Howl: Original Draft Facsimile, Transcript and Variant Versions in 1986.


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Allen Ginsberg with Matthew Rothschild (interview date August 1994)

SOURCE: "Allen Ginsberg: 'I'm Banned from the Main Marketplace of Ideas in My Own Country.'," in The Progressive, Vol. 58, No. 8, August, 1994, pp. 34-39.

[In the following interview, Ginsberg discusses censorship of his works, politics, and his reaction to fame.]

I arrived at Allen Ginsberg's apartment on the lower east side of Manhattan at noon on April 15, two months before his sixty-eighth birthday. The Beat poet, icon of the 1960s counterculture, gay pioneer, had just published a new book of poetry, Cosmopolitan Greetings, almost forty years since he shattered the poetry scene with "Howl." I wanted to talk to him about his latest work and his current political views.

The narrow passageway leading into Ginsberg's small living room was clogged with equipment from a WGBH/BBC crew that was there to interview Ginsberg for a film on the history of rock-'n'-roll. I'd been told ahead of time that he'd be doing other interviews that afternoon, so I sat on a small squishy futon under the sole window and looked around. A framed and illustrated copy of Blake's "The Tyger" was at the entranceway. A large bookshelf stood against one wall, with an oversized volume about Lenin lurking on top. Poetry filled the top two shelves, and then nonfiction, including Citizen Cohn, and J. Edgar Hoover, and Edward Herman's and Noam Chomsky's Manufacturing Consent. Tapes of Bob Dylan and CDs of John Trudell, along with videos (The Panama Deception) gathered on another bookshelf.

After about half an hour, Ginsberg came out of his tiny bedroom. He was dressed in a deep blue shirt, gray slacks, black slip-on shoes, and a red-and-black tie. He introduced himself to me, and then engaged the film makers. They wanted his recollections of meeting Bob Dylan and John Lennon, so he dutifully performed in his kitchen through numerous takes as the film crew fidgeted with the sound and the light—a process that took about two hours. A framed, if slipping, portrait of Walt Whitman hung on one wall, along with a print of St. Francis in Ecstasy. On the refrigerator, next to low-fat food lists and Buddhist chants, was a leaflet: TEENAGERS! TIRED OF BEING HARASSED BY YOUR STUPID PARENTS? ACT NOW. MOVE OUT, GET A JOB, PAY YOUR OWN BILLS … WHILE YOU STILL KNOW EVERYTHING.

As the film crew was cleaning up, Ginsberg and I retreated to his bedroom for the interview, Buddhist shrine next to the bed, writing table nearby, and bookshelf of poetry at the front. Ginsberg was alternately impassioned and professional, even occasionally disputatious as he resisted being labeled a political poet. There was one magical moment when he took down an old hardback copy of Whitman and started to read passages he had marked up. Halfway through the interview, Ginsberg broke to go upstairs in his building to Philip Glass's apartment to work with the composer on a memorial for a mutual friend who had died of AIDS. When Ginsberg returned, we talked for two more hours, and I left exhausted at 6:30 in the evening.

[Rothschild]: In Cosmopolitan Greetings, you have a phrase, "radioactive anticommunism." What do you mean by that?

[Ginsberg]: Well, the bomb was built up beyond the Japanese war as a bulwark against communism. The extremist anticommunism went in for mass murder in El Salvador and assassination in the Congo, when we killed Lumumba and put in Mobutu. The military extremism was not much help in overthrowing communism, except maybe in bankrupting both sides, but that only left the communist countries helpless when they switched over to the free market.

But beyond that I think as much was done to subvert Marxist authoritarian rule by Edgar Allan Poe, blue jeans, rock-'n'-roll, Bob Dylan, the Beatles, modern American poetry, and Kerouac's On the Road—that was more effective in subverting the dictatorship and the brainwash there than all the military hoopla that cost us the nation, actually.

Why did these works undermine communism?

The authoritarian mind—Maoist, Hitler, Stalinist, monotheist, Ayatollahist, fundamentalist—shares a fear and hatred of sexual libertarianism, fear of free-association spontaneity, rigid control over thought forms and propaganda, fear of avant-garde and experimental art. The Stalinist word for this kind of avant-garde is "elitist individualism" or "subjectivism"; the Nazi word was "degenerate art"; the Maoist word was "spiritual corruption"; the fundamentalist word is "spiritual corruption and degenerate art"; the Jesse Helms argument is why should the average American taxpayer have to pay for this "elitist individualistic filth"? It's exactly what Stalin used to say: "Why should the Russian people have to pay for the avant-garde to display their egocentric individualism and immorality and not follow the Communist Party line?"

The whole authoritarian set of mind depends on suppression of individual thought, suppression of eccentric thought, suppression of inerrancy in the interpretation of the Bible, or of Marx, or Mein Kampf, or Mao's Little Red Book in favor of mass thought, mass buzz words, party lines. They all want to eliminate or get rid of the alien, or the stranger, or the Jews, or the gays, or the Gypsies, or the artists, or whoever are their infidels. And they're all willing to commit murder for it, whether Hitler or Stalin or Mao or the Ayatollah, and I have no doubt that if Rush Limbaugh or Pat Robertson or Ollie North ever got real power, there would be concentration camps and mass death. There already are in the police-state aspect of the "war on drugs."

In one of your new poems, you mention your frustration that Jesse Helms and the FCC have banned your works from the airwaves except during the wee hours of the morning. How did that happen?

As part of the totalitarian political-correctness mind-control movement on the fundamentalist Right, the makers of beer, Coors, funded the Heritage Foundation, which presented a position paper and the legal technical language for Jesse Helms, who is subsidized by the tobacco interests, to direct the FCC to forbid all so-called indecent language from the air twenty-four hours a day. It passed in October 1988 when the Senate was empty, and was signed by Reagan. I found out about it because there was a column in The Village Voice by Nat Hentoff in which the head of the Pacifica stations said they used to play my poetry quite a lot but now it was controversial—not that they didn't like it, not that it wasn't popular, but they were afraid it would be too expensive to defend in court. They couldn't afford an argument for free speech. So I helped organize a consortium of the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee, Harvey Silverglate, the then-head of the ACLU in Massachusetts, the Rabinowitz and Boudin law firm, and William Burroughs, myself, and the PEN club as friends of the court, and we helped bust the law.

You won?

Well, we won once. The FCC was directed to hold hearings as to whether or not it was legitimate to reduce the entire population of America to the level of minors, because the law was supposedly to protect the ears of minors. They agreed to define minors as eighteen, eliminating youth, teenyboppers—everybody'sa minor now. The FCC came up with a homemade prejudiced thing, saying, "OK, the ban's not for twenty-four hours, it's only from 6:00 A.M. to midnight. And you can have sort of open passage, midnight to 6:00 A.M., when nobody is listening, for your art, your poetry, and your filthy books."

Then I participated in a roundtable discussion at an FCC lawyers' convention with James Quello, the oldest member on the FCC, and Quello pulled out a copy of "Howl," and said, "This is a perfectly good poem you could broadcast on the air—all you have to do is eliminate a couple paragraphs." That was his idea of art! It was like a Soviet bureaucrat's statement. There's no difference between that Stalinist bureaucratic mentality and what's going on with these fundamentalist bureaucrats.

So we took it to court again. And the court said there was not sufficient proper scientific sociological investigation of when the kids were listening, but that it might be legitimate to protect their ears. So the FCC made it from 6:00 A.M. to 8:00 P.M. And that's being fought in court still on constitutional grounds.

How does this censorship affect you?

I'm a poet who specializes in oral recitation and performance. I am pleased that my work is good on the page—it should be solid on the page—but there is a dimension of sound, which Ezra Pound emphasized. I'm a specialist in that, I'm very good at vocalization, I'm famous for that around the world, and yet I'm banned from the "main marketplace of ideas" in my own country—radio, television, and God knows what they can do when the FCC gets a hold of the information highway. That means the entire brainwash is all under the control of the FCC so that "who got fucked in the ass by handsome sailors and screamed with joy" will be banned from electronic media. People don't read as much these decades but they hear. Like John Lennon heard my poetry on radio before he read it and was moved by it. That means that a main avenue that I would have for articulation of my own thinking, my own ideas, whether social or political or aesthetic, is closed off.

Do you see the Far Right gaining power in the United States?

They have power. They've got control of television now; they've censored television and radio. They already have power. You've already accomplished your censorship of the media, and intimidated them as well as legally censoring them. You got it. You have this organized gang of listeners who will write in at the drop of a hat—you know, they'll say, "Write in and denounce this or that politician, or this or that abortion, or this or that poem," then bam, you've got it. They mobilize all these relatively innocent people to be writing in denouncing art. It's demagoguery, and the media caved in to it.

One of my favorite poems in Cosmopolitan Greetings is "After the Big Parade"about the American public's reactions to Bush's Iraq war. Were you actually at one of those parades here?

I was down in the parade with a tiny group of people protesting it in front of City Hall. There was a group of maybe ten people amid the millions that were out there under the confetti, and the bunting, and the bands, and the police.

How did the crowd respond to you?

They ignored us, or they threatened us. So I saw it first hand, the mob hysteria, as in the old Roman mob. And then within two days the entire enthusiasm had evaporated, and within a few months, people realized more and more that the Iraq war was one of the most successful instances of brainwashing ever turned out by Madison Avenue and Government—by control of the airwaves and mass-media censorship.

In hindsight, people realize that they were taken in, that alternative views weren't presented, and that in order to present this war as heroic, you had to ignore some very obvious things—like the fact that we were building up Saddam Hussein until the very day that we bombed him, and that we had played one gang against another in the Iran-Iraq war. In a way, we were responsible for the whole Middle East situation. We had overthrown Mossadegh, as I've got in my poem, "Just Say Yes Calypso." Norman Schwarzkopf's father was directly involved in the overthrow of Mossadegh and the training of the Savak. People weren't aware of that. People thought Schwarzkopf was some sort of country bumpkin from the Midwest who got to be general rather than a sophisticated Persian-speaking son of a man who trained the Shah's secret police.

So it was some kind of American karma we were bombing, and people weren't really aware of the historical relevance of the land they were bombing, that this was the Garden of Eden we were bombing, the land of Ur and Abraham. And they didn't realize in a way that it was child molestation, because the average age of Iraqis at the time was only sixteen. The people being bombed were kids!

Trying to concentrate all that information into rhymed stanzas takes ingenuity, and interest, and curiosity. I think it's a really good poem because it's totally understated and it's a fact. "Have they forgotten the corridors of death?"—which was the boastful phrase that was used when we bombed the Iraqis. And "Will another hundred thousand desert deaths across the world be cause for the next rejoicing?" is a strangely sardonic compassionate touch—I don't know where I got that tone. It's not Pound; it might be Herman Melville's poetry. Melville has some thing like this in his poem, "On the Slain Collegians," who rushed into the battle and perished, "enlightened by the volleyed glare."

The specter of AIDS is in many of the poems in your latest work. How has the AIDS plague affected you?

There's this decimation of genius, particularly in theater and film and music and poetry. One of the greatest modern poems is called "Ward 7," written by Jim Dlugos, who was dying of AIDS. It's one of the most humane, heartfelt, sincere poems I've ever read. It's one of the great poems of this part of the century. So there's been a lot of loss.

My taste tends to be for young men and straight young men, so in a way in the early days of AIDS that sort of kept me a little bit safe. Now I'm very careful. It hasn't affected me all that much in terms of my love life, though lately I must say I'm getting older, I'm less successful in bedding young men and young straight men. And I like to be screwed, or screw, but I can't get it up anymore anyway (because of diabetes and other things that I mention in this book) unless there's a great deal of stimulation and rapport and real interest, so I'm not inclined to screw anybody because it's hard and I'd be a little scared to be screwed—though with people that I know real well and I know their situation and their history and have been tested, I wouldn't mind. But I don't know anyone that I like that well or that likes me enough to get it up.

Even in these days of AIDS, you're like the last apostle of desire. You still celebrate sex.

Safe sex is just as good as unsafe sex. And with safe sex you get something which I always liked anyway—you have these long pillow talks about what you're going to do with each other, how you're going to make love to each other, what you should do, and what you want to do, and who's going to be on top, and who's going to be on the bottom. You have a chance to talk it over if you're verbal at all, and that's fun because it's like opening up your secret recesses of desire to each other.

You seem to suggest that there's something not only human but liberating about sex.

I think it is. I always remember Kerouac saying, "Woe to those who deny the unbelievable joy of sexual love." The joy, the exquisite joy. I've found sexual communication to be one of the most thrilling and exquisite experiences in my life. With people I love, all shame is gone, everybody is naked, as Hart Crane said, "confessions between coverlet and pillow." And I think the best teaching is done in bed also, by the way, as did Socrates. It is an old tradition: transmission in bed, transmission of information, of virtue. I think Whitman thought so, Whitman pointed out that "adhesiveness" between the citizens was the necessary glue that kept democracy from degenerating into rivalry, competition, backbiting, dog-eat-dog. I think that's true. One of the problems of the Reagan-Bush era was the lack of cohesiveness, the competition, the rivalry, the Darwinian dog-eat-dog, which fed egocentricity, exploitation, and cruelty and indifference and left three million people out on the streets homeless.

Are you hopeful about the lesbian and gay rights movement in the United States?

Oh, sure. Everybody's gay in one way or another. "Everybody's got a big dong." Everybody's sexualized, and everybody's sex is somewhat repressed, and no one can really do any fingerpointing anymore. Everybody's a freak, so to speak, and I think people understand that. Certainly the younger generation does. I mean how long can you keep it secret that Cardinal Spellman was a flaming queen? How long can you keep it secret that J. Edgar Hoover was a transvestite blackmailed by the Mafia? How long can you keep it secret that Jesse Helms is overobsessed with homosexuality and is politically addicted to alcohol and tobacco interests? Even the press is sooner or later going to catch up with the hype.

What is the hype? The hype is hypocrisy, double standard, people coming on in public less intelligent than they are in private—say on something like marijuana. Everybody knows that marijuana is more or less harmless, but they won't say it in public. Everybody except maybe some crazed fundamentalists has smoked some grass or knows someone who's smoked some grass.

There's a schizophrenia between private knowledge and public knowledge. On sex, there's a schizophrenia between what people do in private and the way they talk in public. There's a schizophrenia about stimulants. A schizophrenia about politics: The contradictions are so big that it's a kind of public schizophrenia that people aren't in on what, say, the CIA in-group knows. The public never knows what the consequences of the hidden deals are. No one knows the ecological consequences or the political cause or consequences of an H-bomb, a Lumumba assassination, a Panama invasion—and the Government is supposed to be a democracy. That's schizophrenia.

Schizophrenia is no way to run a government or a society. You can't have a schizophrenic society without the results we're seeing: pollution of the air, pollution caused by conspicuous consumption, the very schizophrenia of thinking that we can continue to consume the vast amounts of raw material that we do disproportionate to our population, and saying everyone should aspire to be like us. If everybody were like us, the Earth would burn out overnight.

What's your assessment of President Clinton so far?

Bush was pretty much a sourpuss, a depressed and depressing person. I think Clinton is much more cheerful; I think that's always a help. I don't know that he can climb out of a pit that Reagan and Bush have dug in terms of national debt and exhaustion of national resources. But I like his attitude and I like his attempt to do something—I like his trying to do something about health, trying to do something about gays in the military. So I think he's a better person in terms of being more honest and inquisitive. At least he had the amusement to put a stick of grass between his lips. He's dealt with some real problems—like health, smoking, and ecology—which were being avoided or even subverted by Reagan and Bush.

In the book, you have a couple of criticisms of 1960s activists. New Leftists—"peace protesters angrier than war's cannonball noises," and you talk about "the scandal of the '60s"—people carrying pictures of Mao and Che and Castro.

It seems to me that the extreme one-dimensional politics of the New Left—which had no spiritual or adhesive element or direction but relied on "rising up angry" rage, which was considered by some to be the necessary gasoline or fuel for political action—was a great psychological mistake. Any gesture made in anger is going to create more anger. Any gesture coming from rage and resentment creates more rage and resentment. Any gesture taken in equanimity will create more equanimity. The 1968 Chicago police riot was, after all, to some extent provoked by the attitude, behavior, and propaganda of some of the members of the New Left, who had promised a Festival of Light but delivered an angry protest. The original Yippie idea, as announced, was to have a festival that would be cheerful, affirmative, ecologically sound, and generous emotionally sound, and generous emotionally so that it would outshadow the "Death Convention" of Johnson's war.

Before the Chicago thing, Jerry Rubin came over to my house, and I wanted reassurance that he didn't have any intention of starting a riot. I didn't want any blood. He swore, "not at this time." I should have suspected it then and there, but actually I do think unconsciously or consciously some wanted to precipitate an "exemplary" riot.

The result of the riot was to knock out Humphrey. And then many Leftists out of their hatred of Humphrey and their parents and their liberal middle-class background refused to vote and dropped out and so Nixon squeaked in by half a million votes. Millions of people didn't vote on the Left, angry at Johnson and his war, angry at Humphrey for going along (although everybody knew that Humphrey wanted to end the war, but it was just this totalitarian insistence on having it your way, the way you wanted to end the war, the method you wanted to end the war, rather than let the war decline in a way that was politically possible). In 1968, the Gallup Poll reported that 52 percent of the American people thought the war was a mistake. The question is, how come the Left could not lead America out of the war when the middle class was already disillusioned? I think it was because they were threatening the middle class with anger, because one motto was KILL YOUR PARENTS or BRING THE WAR HOME. They weren't leading the middle class, they weren't providing space for the middle class to change, they were threatening the middle class.

The Left, by not voting, let Nixon in. The Left, by discrediting the Democrats, let Nixon in. And once Nixon got in, the war got much worse—the bombing was escalated beyond the imagination of Johnson and Kennedy, the bankruptcy of the Treasury and the moral bankruptcy was escalated way beyond anyone's imagination.

It doesn't mean that the Left was wrong. The antiwar stance was correct. It's just that the method, which involved aggression and anger, was an unskillful means. The blood of the Vietnamese from 1968 on rests primarily on the right-wing conservatives and the Nixonites, but there is some blood on the Left for their ineptness in politics. That's what I meant by speeches "angrier than war's cannonball noises." It was the mistake of waving a Viet Cong flag—and half the people who did it were FBI agents anyway. In New York City, I remember parades being taken over by extremists, who later turned out to be FBI provocateurs. People don't realize the enormity of the infiltration of the Left by the FBI in the form of extremist provocation, which the neurotics of the Left went along with thinking it was more macho, holier than thou, "more revolutionary than thou."

To what extent does your Buddhism contribute to this attitude of yours about the need for equanimity?

The original Beat idea was a spiritual change, an attitudinal change, a change of consciousness. Then, once having achieved some reform of one's own, begin with yourself and work outward. Not quite Buddhist, but Eastern thought and "Beatnik" thought is pacifistic.

Do you consider yourself a pacifist?

Well. I haven't found a war I liked yet.

You write in one of your new poems about being offended as a Jew at violent Zionists. What was your reaction to the Hebron massacre?

The extremism among the Jews refusing land for peace and insisting upon that piece of dirt being theirs—you know, fighting over a piece of ground—seems to me to be some kind of awful chauvinism, creating a karma that may never end, like the Irish-English fight. Who knows where it will end now? They've started a circle of violence that may never finish until Armageddon.

You say in one of the new poems that "all the spiritual groups scandal the shrine room."

That's true, especially the monotheist religions. By their very nature, the Jews, the Christians, and the Islamic people claim that they're talking for God. As a Buddhist I don't even believe in God, much less talking for Him if there were one. But all these guys have the chutzpah or the brass or the egocentric anthropomorphic totalitarian idea that they are the mouthpiece of God. The Ayatollah could tell Salman Rushdie to get killed, or the reactionary Israelis can say the Arabs are inferior, the Christians can create a holocaust. That's why I wrote "Stand up against governments, against God"—the monotheist domination of consciousness that insists on its own party line.

What is your assessment of the state of poetry, or political poetry, right now?

I myself don't believe in so-called political poetry. I think what a poet does is he "writes his mind." And like everybody else, his mind is concerned with sex, dope, and everyday living, politics included, whatever his experience is, so the personal experience of the poet will differ from the media representation of reality. As far as I'm concerned, my interest in poetry is in representing my actual mind as distinct from the official party line of the media, which is to say, The New York Times, The Washington Post, even The Nation, and from the official party line of the White House and the Establishment.

So, private experience is different from the way it's recorded in the newspapers and on television. We have our own real worlds, and then there's the pseudo-event of newspapers. As Pound says, "Poetry is news that stays news," which is our actual emotions, our feelings, thoughts—Kerouac said "the unspeakable visions of the individual."

The subject matter is the nature of my consciousness, and the texture of my consciousness, and what passes through my mind spontaneously, not what immediate effect can I have on PR or public politics or day-to-day polemics.

Yet more than almost any poet in the mid-century and the late-century, you've written in your poems about America.

It's not that I'm specializing in America. I've also written a lot about my sex life, I've also written about my family, and I've also written about food, and I've also written about meditation, and Buddhism—because those are the participating elements of my life, so I write about what I'm involved with. Which is not much different from anybody else. Maybe the Buddhism is a little more specialized and maybe the homosexual content is a little more specialized but everyone has their own sex lives.

There is a strain of contemporary poetry that is shorn of politics, that is hyper-private.

Who? Who? Mine is hyper-private, is what I'm saying. I'm just writing about what I think about privately. I'm amazed that more people don't write about what they actually think about privately, day after day.

I'm not trying to pigeonhole you into this little box called political poetry, which you don't want to be shoved into.

No. I don't mind that, but there's a distinction I'd like to make. I grew up in the '30s and '40s during the controversy between the socialists and the communists and the Trotskyites about political poetry. Now the theory that they laid down, both Stalin and the Maoists, and Hitler for that matter, is that poetry should serve the nation. And Jesse Helms and Pat Robertson also believe this; it's all the same, the dictatorial monotheists from Pat Robertson to Stalin. They all believe that poetry should be moral, defined in their own terms whether serving Christ, or the People, or the Central Committee of the Communist Party—that poetry is the vanguard of the revolution and since the will of the revolution and of the people is represented by the Central Committee of the Communist Party, therefore the poet should take his politics from what the Central Committee says is the proper party line, or what Pat Robertson says the Bible says.

You've got to remember the inheritors of that political Left tradition, the Students for a Democratic Society up to the Weathermen, the New Left, also first disapproved of psychedelics, also disapproved of rock-'n'-roll poetry, also disapproved of individual cock-sucking poetry—you know, and thought that "no, this was not advancing the cause."

The primitive notion of a one-dimensional political poetry, up through Abbie Hoffman, even, maintained dominance over the notion of political poetry, especially reinforced by the poetry of the anti-Vietnam war. So I think it's important to make a distinction between poetry which is (and should be, as far as I'm concerned) Ivory Tower, the politics of which come as a secondary reflection or concomitant potential but not as the central purpose, and the distinction between that and deliberate, intentional …

Polemical poetry?

Yeah, but what you're nice enough to call polemical was the basic idea of political poetry all along. "Why aren't you taking responsibility for writing about blah, blah, gays, the blacks, or women?" Still, political correctness, party line. "Is your poem politically correct, Mister Mayakovsky?" That's where that notion, that phrase, political correctness comes from originally, from old Stalinists and Maoists. That still has a minor voice in poetics now, both from the Right and the Left.

If you want to go to the root of things and move people's consciousness, you can't do it in that vulgar or blunderbuss way of the Stalinists of the Left and the Right.

I'm more in the lineage of Poe. Why is Poe interesting? He gives you this sense of paranoia, modern Twentieth Century world paranoia, world nausea, "The Pit and the Pendulum," "The Telltale Heart," "The Descent Into the Maelstrom." He's the first, you could say, psychedelic poet.

Now who was Poe? He was the most Ivory Tower, art for art's sake, beauty for the sake of beauty, isolated, unpolitical poet in the world, yet he penetrates everybody's consciousness all over the world and is the first maybe adult poet prose writer people read from Russia to China to England to America. He has more influence on people's consciousness, and individuating them, and making them conscious of their individuality and their isolation than any other writer, and yet he's the least political.

Dig? I'm addressing myself directly to your question. It turns out that the one who went for the jugular of pure aesthetic beauty is the most politically influential in certain ways in terms of individuating people, empowering people, and making them conscious of themselves as individuals as distinct from members of a mass under hypnotic mass control—whether television or Hitler or American co-optation.

So there is no real distinction between political and unpolitical poetry, and I would advise a poet to avoid politics and get to what is his or her most deeply felt perception or impulse—that's way more politically effective than writing sonnets about the Republicans.

In a way, you seem to claim yourself as Whitman's heir.

I don't claim myself as Whitman's heir. I'm inspired by Whitman, but I wouldn't be so presumptuous. I don't think I'm as good as Whitman at all. He's much more ample. In my last book the Whitman influence is not the famous Whitman of "Song of Myself," but his Old Age Echoes, the little gay poems, and the poems talking about "my aches and pains" and all that. Whitman wrote geriatric poems that were quite interesting. There's a poem from Sands at Seventy: "As I sit writing here sick and grown old, / Not my least burden is that, dullness of the years, querilities, / Ungracious glooms, aches, lethargy, constipation, whimpering ennui / May filter in my daily songs."

Whitman is a very good model for the glooms and the delights of growing old and being energetic, aware, and vigorous and going on toward death, looking back and looking forward.

"Garrulous to the very last," do you know that phrase? "After the supper and talk—after the day is done, / As a friend from friends his final withdrawal prolonging. / Goodbye and goodbye with emotional lips repeating. / (So hard for his hand to release those hands—no more will they meet. / No more for communion of sorrow and joy, of old and young, / A far-stretching journey awaits him, to return no more,) / Shunning, postponing severance—seeking to ward off the last word ever so little, / E'en at the exit door turning—charges superfluous calling back—e'en as he descends the steps, / Something to eke out a minute additional, shadows of nightfall deepening, / Farewells, messages lessening—dimmer the forthgoer's visage and form, / Soon to be lost for aye in the darkness—loth, O so loth to depart! / Garrulous to the very last." It's the last poem of Sands at Seventy. Isn't it charming?

In some passages in the latest book, you write that you're bored with fame. Do you ever get tired of being Allen Ginsberg?

No, there's no Allen Ginsberg. It's just a collection of empty atoms.

But in several of your latest poems, you seem to be wrestling with immortality.

No, I'm not wrestling. I'm saying, "Immortality comes later," by definition. It's a joke.


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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Wilborn Hampton (obituary date 6 April 1997)

SOURCE: An obituary for Allen Ginsberg, in New York Times, April 6, 1997, pp. A1, A42.

[In the following obituary, Hampton eulogizes Ginsberg, providing a review of his life and work.]

Allen Ginsberg, the poet laureate of the Beat Generation whose "Howl!" became a manifesto for the sexual revolution and a cause célèbre for free speech in the 1950's, eventually earning its author a place in America's literary pantheon, died early yesterday. He was 70 and lived in Manhattan.

He died of liver cancer, Bill Morgan, a friend and the poet's archivist, said.

Mr. Morgan...

(The entire section is 4151 words.)


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Allen Grossman (essay date Fall 1962)

SOURCE: "Allen Ginsberg: The Jew as an American Poet," in Judaism, Vol. 11, No. 4, Fall, 1962, pp. 303-08.

[In the following essay, Grossman discusses Ginsberg's contribution to Jewish poetry, focusing particularly on Kaddish.]

The Jew, like the Irishman, presents himself as a type of the sufferer in history. At a mysterious moment near the end of the nineteenth century the Irish produced a literature of international importance without having previously contributed a single significant poem in English. The Jewish poet in America today resembles the Irishman in England during the 1890's. From a literary...

(The entire section is 29043 words.)

Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Bawer, Bruce. "The Phenomenon of Allen Ginsberg." In his Prophets & Professors: Essays on the Lives and Works of Modern Poets, pp. 193-214. Brownsville, Oregon: Story Line Press, 1995.

Reviews Ginsberg's career and concludes that his poetry is banal and his fame is the result of his flamboyant lifestyle.

Beam, Jeffrey. Review of Cosmopolitan Greetings, by Allen Ginsberg. Lambda Book Report 4, No. 6 (September/October 1994): 34-5.

Reviews Cosmopolitan Greetings favorably.

Berkson, Bill. Review of Planet News, by Allen Ginsberg. Poetry 114, No. 4 (July 1969): 251-56.

Argues that Planet News marks an improvement in Ginsberg's writing.

Everett, Nicholas. "Pushing Seventy." Times Literary Supplement (10 February 1995): 22.

Argues that while Ginsberg's form has not changed, he is tackling new subjects in Cosmopolitan Greetings.

Goldberg, Danny. "Allen Ginsberg Remembered." Tikkun 12, No. 3 (1997): 78-80.

Presents anecdotes from Ginsberg's life.

Haines, John. "Poetry Chronicle." The Hudson Review XLVIII, No. 4 (Winter 1996): 668-69.

Reviews Cosmopolitan Greetings and argues that the poetry offered is of mixed quality.

Nathan, Jean. "The forty-year Howl." New York 28, No. 45 (13 November 1995): 84.

Discusses the resurgence of the Beat movement in the 1990s.

Oppen, George. Review of Kaddish and Other Poems, by Allen Ginsberg. Poetry 100, No. 5 (August 1962): 329-30.

Praises "Kaddish" but finds the rest of the volume uneven.

Rosenberg, Harold. "Six American Poets." Commentary 32, No. 4 (October 1961): 349-53.

Reviews Kaddish and praises Ginsberg as an innovator.

Stein, Charles, Review of T.V. Baby Poems, by Allen Ginsberg. Nation 208, No. 7 (17 February 1969): 217.

Favorably reviews the collection and singles out "Television Was a Baby Crawling Toward That Death Chamber" for praise.

Trilling, Diana. "The Other Night at Columbia: A Report from the Academy." Partisan Review XXVI, No. 2 (Spring 1959): 214-30.

Remarks on incidents in her contact with Ginsberg and her efforts to understand him.

Tucker, Ken. "From Beat Poet to Pop Chic." New York Times (25 September 1994): 34, 39.

Favorably reviews a four-CD collection of Ginsberg's poems and songs.


Ganguly, Suranjan. "Allen Ginsberg in India: An Interview." Ariel 24, No. 4 (October 1993): 21-32.

Interview in which Ginsberg describes his visit to India and the influence of the Baul sect on his poetry.