Allen Ginsberg

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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

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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.


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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.

Well, in one poem, you say, "I missed my chance."

For salvation. Artistically I've got it made, but in terms of spiritual salvation, who knows? I certainly haven't taken advantage of all the good teachings I've been given, I must say. Otherwise, I wouldn't see anybody these days, and be on a three-year meditation retreat.

I can understand the need to feel that your life's work was worthwhile, but to feel the need that people will be reading you when you're gone I don't understand. You're not going to be around to enjoy it, anyhow. What's the big deal about immortality?

There's no total immortality. "The sun's not eternal, that's why there's the blues," as I wrote in a previous book. Even the sun goes out. There's "immortal as immortal is," which is temporary. However, it is important if you have the impulse of transmitting dharma or whatever wisdom you've got, writing "so that in black ink my love might still shine bright"—Shakespeare.

There is a Buddhist reason for fame and for immortality, which is that it gives you the opportunity to turn the wheel of dharma while you're alive to a larger mass of sentient beings and after you're dead that your poetry radio continues broadcasting dharmic understanding so that people pick up on it and the benefits of it after you're dead.

In a previous book, I wrote: "While I'm here I'll do the work. And what's the work? To ease the pain of living." You can ease the pain of living for people after you're dead through your art-work by creating a thing of beauty, like Poe, by creating a thing of political understanding, by creating a thing of psychological self-recognition like Walt Whitman, by making the ground safe for gays like Gore Vidal, Burroughs, and Jean Genet, by making the ground safe for straight people like Henry Miller and D. H. Lawrence.

Those works continue raying out wisdom even after the author's gone, and to the extent that your ambition is to relieve the mass of human sufferings, that can be accomplished with art, whether or not the planet survives. Even if it is in extremis, at the edge of death, as an individual or as a planet, there still is the consolation of insight and wisdom that you might get from a work of art that will ease the pain of passing from this life to whatever emptiness comes, and alchemize that sorrow into blissful recognition.

Allen Ginsberg with Gary Pacernick (interview date 10 February 1996)

SOURCE: "Allen Ginsberg: An Interview by Gary Pacernick," in The American Poetry Review, Vol. 4, July/August, 1997, pp. 23-27.

[In the following interview, Ginsberg discusses inspiration and his role in American poetry.]

[Pacernick]: The tape is on now; this is the beginning.

[Ginsberg]: "This is the forest primeval, the murmuring pines and the hemlocks, bearded with / moss …"

Allen, what have you found the hardest thing about being a poet?

Nothing particular. I mean—nothing particular. No hard part.


Making a living at it. Making a living.

Well, what about inspiration? Has it always been easy?

Inspiration comes from the word spiritus. Spiritus means breathing. Inspiration means taking in breath. Expiration means letting breath go out. So inspiration is just a feeling of heightened breath or slightly exalted breath, when the body feels like a hollow reed in the wind of breath. Physical breath comes easily and thoughts come with it. Now that's a state of physical and mental heightening, but it's not absolutely necessary for great poetry. Though you find it's a kind of inspiration, a kind of breathing in Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind" or "Adonais" or Hart Crane's "Atlantis," or perhaps the Moloch section of "Howl." But for subject matter, which is what you mean, for ideas, ordinary mind and thoughts that occur every day are sufficient. It's a question of the quality of your attention to your own mind and your own thoughts.

Where does this breath come from that you find in the second part of "Howl," for example?

Well, it's a more excited breathing, longer breath, that you find in the examples that I cited which build sequentially as a series of breaths until finally there's a kind of conclusive utterance. "Moloch whose name is the Mind."

You talk in the Paris Review interview and other places about being inspired by Blake reciting "Sunflower."

An auditory hallucination, hearing it, but that's a different kind of breath, completely. That's a quieter breath from the heart area. Like my voice now rather than the stentorian breath of "Atlantis" or "Howl."

So you're not talking about what we usually talk about in terms of prophesy, in terms of some divine voice.

Now wait a minute. You're switching your words now. We were using the word inspiration and voice. Now what are you talking about? What's your question, really?

What is a breath unit?

A breath unit as a measure of the verse line? Why, a breath unit as a measure of the verse line is one breath, and then continuing with the sentence is another breath. Or saying "or" is another breath, and then you take another breath and continue. So you arrange the verse line on the page according to where you have your breath stop, and the number of words within one breath, whether it's long or short, as this long breath has just become.

Okay now, you're talking about great poetry—.

No, no, I'm talking about how you arrange the verse lines on the page by the breath.

No, I understand, but when we were talking about inspiration you used the word breath again.

Because the word inspiration comes from the Latin word spiritus, which means breathing. So I was trying to nail down what the word inspiration means rather than have a vague term that we didn't know what we were talking about.

But to me, and obviously I could be totally off, it sounds like you're talking about poetry as a kind of series of breathing exercises.

Well it is, in a way, or the vocal part, the oral part, is related to the breath, yes.

What inspires the breath?

The breath is inspiration itself. Breath is itself, breath is breath: Where there is life, there is breath, remember? Breath is spirit, spiritus.

So every once in awhile this spirit breath visits you and other poets?

No, you're breathing all the time, it's just that you become aware of your breath. Every once in awhile you become aware that you're alive. Every once in awhile you become aware of your breathing. Or of the whole process of being alive, breathing in the universe, being awake, and so you could say that that's the inspiration or the key, that you become aware of what's already going on.

You probably didn't know this when you were sixteen, eighteen, twenty years old and first writing poetry.

Oh, well, pretty soon. A sort of latent understanding, yeah. That notion of awareness, conscious awareness.

Did Williams or Pound influence this?

Pound and Williams specialized in this. They broke the ground for this kind of thinking. Williams trying to write in vernacular speech and dividing it up into pieces, and dividing the verse line into pieces of vernacular speech, sometimes by counting syllables, sometimes by the breath stop, sometimes by running counter to the breath stop. Do you know what I mean by the breath stop?

You were in Dayton years ago and I was there with my wife and child, and I said to you, "What is a breath unit?" and you were sort of showing me with your hand as I spoke. Charles Olson talks about it. But Pound and Williams don't talk about breath, do they?

Well, it's implicit in what they were doing, because they were talking about actual talk.

I understand.

And measuring the measure—what Williams talks about was an American measure, a measure of actual speech.


And his disciples like Olson and Creeley drew from that the notion of projective verse or verse by breath or measuring the verse line by where the breath stops.

But we both know that your breaths in"Kaddish"and"Howl"and your other inspired poems are

Different from somebody else?

Not only different, but so long.

Everybody's is different. Everybody's breath is different. Everybody, like Creeley's is short and minimal, in a way.

Well, it's beyond short and minimal. It's like one one-hundredth of what yours is in some of your longer lines.

Well, sometimes. But on the other hand the poems that are like those, too, like Williams or Pound.

Does that mean, since your line is the longest, that you're the most inspired?

Well, the deepest inspiration, probably, yes, the deepest breath.

So you are, you're literally equating poetic inspiration with breath.

That aspect of it. There's two kinds I said. There is the deep breath, but there is also, in the more common use of the word inspiration, i.e., where do you get your ideas, is also just ordinary mind and ordinary breath, and short breath, too. Ordinary mind means what passes through your mind while you're sitting on the toilet.

But in your poem"Kaddish"you're doing more than that.

But I'm saying there are different kinds of poetry. In "Kaddish" what I'm doing is a longer breath, yes. Then in other poems like in White Shroud the poem to William Carlos Williams, "Written in My Dream by W. C. Williams," it's a short breath.

Let's switch it a little bit, then maybe we can come back to that. In"Howl"you affirm the beat lifestyle.

You know, one thing is, you're fixated on poems of thirty, forty years ago. I don't mind talking about them, but in context of a whole curve of poetry up to the present. But go on.

Okay, fine. You affirm the beat lifestyle that often leads to madness and/or death.

I didn't use the word "lifestyle." That's a later sort of media term and I don't like you to use it. I think it's bullshit.

You said "Mad generation! down on the rocks of Time!" A lot of the people, most of the people have died.

Not so. Just the opposite, sir. Just the opposite. You've got it all wrong, inside out. Burroughs is alive at the age of eighty-three and just had a birthday. Huncke just had his birthday in February also, and he's eighty-one. Gary Snyder is in very good health in California and is a world-renowned influence in poetry. Philip Whalen is a Zen master now. I'm doing quite well at Naropa and Brooklyn College and writing poems: Michael McClure is touring with Ray Manzarek. So Kerouac died, Neal Cassady died, and Lou Welsh died. But on the other hand Gregory Corso is living across town. We're all in touch with each other. Ann Waldman has founded the Kerouac School of Poetics at Naropa and John Ashbery and everybody go there, and I go there between terms. So we have a better actuarial span than most insurance people. But you've got the stereotype I'm trying to get away from.

Let's go to"Howl"itself.

As I keep saying, you're fixated on images of that. Anyway, go on.

Well, those people are very unhappy, the people you portray in the poem.

Yes. They were young.

Okay. Let's just say you have survived.

And so have most of my friends.

Where do you draw your strength?

Oh, inspiration. I keep breathing. Also I never drank.

You never drank?

No. I never drank. And I was very moderate in my use of drugs. I was more interested in the politics than the drugs themselves.

But you have all those poems that are titled after drugs.

If you'll notice, it's about one percent of my poetry.

Okay. I'll go back and take a look.

You'll find a poem called "Nitrous Oxide" and another called "Ether" and another called "LSD," another called "Marijuana Notation," another called "Mescaline". And that's about it. And your have Peyote for the central section of "Howl"—

The religious visions.

And a couple other things, then you have some stuff from the "Yage" and that's it. Out of about eight hundred pages, you've got about fifty pages of drugs.

All right, that takes care of that.

You have the media stereotypes you're dealing with.

Well, I don't know you.

Well, you don't have to. Just look at the texts. I've named all the texts that are on drugs.

In"Kaddish"were you responding to the Hebrew prayer in any particular way, or were you responding in a more general way to your grief over Naomi's death?

Both. You know, I had never heard the formal rhythms of the Kaddish before, pronounced aloud, or never consciously heard them. They sounded familiar. But all of a sudden I realized it was some kind of interesting, moving, powerful cadence.

You must have been to a service.

Yes. But I have never noticed or heard or consciously heard it, as I said.

But you have said it, though.

No. I've never said it. I don't read Hebrew. I wasn't Bar Mitzvahed. And I was kicked out of Hebrew school for asking questions. I don't know.

Were you being sentimental when you named it"Kaddish"?

No, 'cause I used the basic rhythm of the Kaddish and I quoted the Kaddish.

But you said you didn't know it.

I heard it that morning. Someone read it to me that morning.

The morning you wrote the poem?

Yeah, when I started writing it, or that evening. About 3 A.M. And I was impressed by the cadence and the rhythm and the depth of the sound, as it says in the very opening line, "rending the Kaddish aloud … the rhythm the rhythm—and your memory in my head three years after." It says exactly what it was. Mixed with "Ray Charles blues shout blind on the phonograph." With a similar rhythm, by the way. "I got a woman, yes indeed."


A sort of repeated cadence that was right, like Ray Charles or the Kaddish.

So you're inspired by that prayer, you're inspired by music, by the rhythm of the music. What about the image, though?

What's the image? Which one?

Williams and the emphasis on

Minute particular details. Now the phrase that I am thinking of is "minute particulars." Do you know that phrase? Do you know where that's from?

"Minute particulars."

Yes. "Labor well the minute particulars. Take care of the little ones." That's from William Blake's "Jerusalem." Little ones, the little details. And Kerouac says, "Details are the life of prose." And Pound says, "The natural object is the adequate symbol." And Trungpa says, "Things are symbols of themselves."

Well let me ask you this

So the image comes from, or the image is related to the following idea. If you want to give a mirror of your consciousness and you become aware of your consciousness, conscious awareness manifests itself sacramentally in the quality of the attention to clear-seeing focus on chance, minute, particular details that present themselves with charismatic vividness to author and to reader.

You do both that and hear music also? Simultaneously?

No. You have a picture in your mind, as Pound points out, in "Chinese Written Language as a Medium for Poetry," published by City Lights now. The Chinese is interesting as a poetic language because it consists in little pictographs. So you can't be vague and talk about beauty. You have to talk about something concrete and process. At the same time, the language has got a sonorous aspect or sound or vocal sound, so you hear it in your head sometimes. Sometimes you make the language up out of the picture. Sometimes the language itself has its own melodic part that comes up by itself. Like the other day I got up off the toilet, and I said, "That was good, that was great, that was important!" And stood up to pull the chain. And I heard myself saying that, and I noticed I had said that, and I said, that's fairly interesting, that's like a haiku. How many syllables was that? "That was good, that was great, that was important!" That's eleven syllables.

Maybe twelve.

Ending on the twelfth. "That was good, that was great, that was important!" No, that's eleven. "Standing up to pull the chain" adds another six, so that's seventeen all together. So, okay, I noticed the situation, that there was the visual element, standing to pull the chain, the picture there, and there was what ran in my mind, so the picture gave the context for the interior utterance.

Okay, so the picture can sometimes inspire the music.

Not inspire! No, no, no! I hear you using that word over and over again, abusing it, using it out of its meaning. You're making it into oatmeal.

How would you say it? The picture induces?

The picture originates the poem or the origin or the flash. You flash on a picture, and you write it down. Or you flash on something you say to yourself, and you write it down.

And sometimes that can have music.

You can hear a tune. But the words "That was good, that was great, that was important!" have a rhythm. (Demonstration of rhythm.) That has its own cadence, you know what it's saying and the rhythm of the sounds are both the same.

It's not metrical obviously.

It is metrical. (Demonstration of rhythm.) That's a meter. That's an old classic Greek meter.

Anapest? Short, short long?

It's an anapest. Ta ta ta ta-ta. One, two, three, four, five. There's a Greek rhythm that is a four beat rhythm or a four syllable rhythm. I don't know what its called, maybe dithyrambic or something.

Do you know Greek?

No, but I know some of the Greek rhythms.

You're the prototype, I guess it's a stereotype, of the free verse poet, but you're saying you hear meters.

Yes, sure I hear meters. My father was a poet, it's a family business, and I grew up with a facility for rhyme and stanza from when I was very young, without even trying. I know yards and yards of poetry, like Edgar Allen Poe's "Bells" or Vachel Lindsay's "Congo," poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay and Elinor Wylie.

But didn't you, I mean you've said many times you had to go beyond that in order to write"Howl"and"Kaddish."

Well, naturally, you know, but the point is those forms are appropriate, they're called lyric poetry or the shorter forms which have short stanzas, they're called lyric poetry. Now, what is the root of the word lyric?

Song, isn't it?

No, no. Think. What is the root, literally, of the word lyric? What instrument?


Right, right! And what was a lyre? It was a stringed instrument played by Homer or Sappho or the early poets, the Muse's lyre. So it's just like Bob Dylan or something, a stringed instrument, where you sing to stanza with rhyme and you have a melody that revolves around itself and has a recurrence, right? So because the melody has a recurrence, you therefore have a recurrence, a cadence for the stanza, and you use rhyme. When you stop using the stringed instrument and just write the form without the music, then it begins to degenerate and lose its muscularity and its variety and its syncopation. So when I came in in 1950, people were trying to write those lyric stanzas, but without music. And that was the complaint that Pound and Williams had. And so historically—and also Whitman—so they moved away from a fake lyric, that is to say a half-assed lyric that did not have the musical accompaniment, but just spoken language, but arranged as if it were a song. They moved away to the use of living language rather than a dead form and began rewriting the idea of rhythm and measure. And so Williams had the idea of an American measure rather than the old English lyric, which was being imitated in the twenties by Edwin Arlington Robinson and Elinor Wylie and Sara Teasdale and Edna St. Vincent Millay and all the minor poets of that time. He moved out into trying to isolate the rhythms of actual speaking and that led to my own generation of projective verse, writing in the living speech rather than in an imitation of an older English cadence. It didn't mean that there wasn't rhythm, it meant that the rhythms were the rhythms that you heard in speech, like "da dada da da dada dada." It didn't mean that there wasn't rhythm. That's a rhythm.

Frost supposedly hears a meter. There's meter in Frost as well as the rhythm. "Something there is that doesn't love a wall."

Okay, that's a metronomic meter, where it's recurrent. But you know, the classic meters of Greece were much more varied than the four or five, four usually, used in English. We have iamb, trochee, dactyl, and anapest.


And that's usually the range. Spondees are used less, but they come in. So now there are the two syllable and three syllable meters. We have mostly the iamb and the trochee, but then there's also molossos, the three syllable meters. "Oh, good God!" Da da da. Or there is the bacchius meter, "Is God love? Believe me." Dada da, dada da. Then there are four syllable meters, like, oh, insistently. Dadadada dadadada dadadada dadadada. Insistently, insistently, insistently. Or the ionic A minor, which is "in the twilight" dadadada dadadada dadadada. Or delightfully, delightfully, delightfully. That's the second ionic. Or the epitritus primus, "your sweet blue eyes," "I hate your guts." So then there's the epitritus secundus. "Bite the big nut," dadadada, or "Give her a dime" dadadada. And then there are the five syllable ones. "I bit off his nose," da da da dada. Or the dulcimaic, which Hart Crane used, "Lo, lord, thou ridest!" Bom bom dadada. "Fall fruits and flowers." That's Ben Jonson. Dom dom dadada. Those were the ones we used as the climax of Greek plays, with the revelation of the moment. Bom bom dadada.

So there's a lot more, you're saying, than the simple two syllable foot.

So, and they could use these different feet like a Lego set and could build very various musicality, complex musical things, like Sappho? You know the Sapphic stanza?

No, I don't know much about it.

You know the the rhythm of it.


Trochee, trochee, dactyl, trochee, trochee. Trochee, trochee, dactyl, trochee, trochee. Trochee, trochee, dactyl, trochee, trochee. Dactyl, trochee. (Demonstration of rhythm.)

So the first line of"Howl":

No, I wasn't thinking of that, but I was so trained and I had all those in my bones. But the one that pointed out to me, many years later, that the Moloch section (demonstration of rhythm), "Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows," was Ed Sanders, who's trained in classical prosody and versification. Then I got interested in what the names of these were.

Let me ask you something else.

Yes, well that's what you're doing.

Have you ever considered yourself a Jewish poet?

Yeah, I am a Jewish poet. I'm Jewish.

You are? You surprise me.

I'm Jewish. My name is Ginsberg. I wrote a book called Kaddish.

No, that's great!

My last book has a long poem called "Why I'm Jewish."

I'll have to take a look. I've got it.

It's called "Yiddishe Kopf."

Cosmopolitan Greetings?

Yeah, "Yiddishe Kopf."

I'll have to look it up. So you're a Jewish poet.

I'm also a gay poet.

I know that.

I'm also a New Jersey poet.

You're a Buddhist poet.

And I'm a Buddhist poet. And also I'm an academic poet, and also I'm a beatnik poet, I'm an international poet,—

What was the Jewish influence? Your mother, essentially?

No. My mother, my father, my grandparents were all Jewish. My whole family is Jewish and that's just the whole thing in my bones.

What about the Bible? Did that influence you?

Yeah, I read a lot of the Bible, sure. I read it all through, a number of times. But you know, like I know wherever the golden bow be broken and the silver cord be loosed wheel be broken at the cistern and so forth.

Is there a cadence

The cadences of Ecclesiastes and the Psalms. The Song of Songs.

And you probably get some inspiration from the parallelism of the Hebrew prophets.

Oh, of course. But also, you know, indirectly. One of my great models as a poet, or for me a great model, is Christopher Smart.

Right, "Jubilate Agno."

Right. And he was a fantastic translator of the Bible, of Hebrew.

Of psalms?

Of psalms and everything like that. And his "Jubilate Agno"—I don't know if you've seen my annotated "Howl"?

I have, yeah.

Well, at the end you'll find a selection from Smart.

That's right. I remember that.

If you'll notice, it's done in the parallelisms of the Bible. And my own verse line in "Howl" and elsewhere is drawn from that. The Bible via Smart, as well as the Bible itself that I'm familiar with. You know, my father was a poet and so all this stuff, the Song of Songs, was part of the family heritage.

Are being Jewish and being gay connected in any way? I mean, being oppressed?

I've known gay Jews. Who was it, David and Jonathan? I mean, that's an old business. What is it, Jesus and young John?

Here's a chance to talk about the present. Because I started out interviewing Stanley Kunitz and Carl Rakosi, who are in their nineties.

Yeah, marvelous people. Rakosi, I love. I love Rakosi.

Well, I was in Maine and I talked to him a lot. I was in Maine when he did that reading with you.

And I saw him last summer at Naropa.

And I interviewed him in December in San Francisco, and he's great.

I think he is our greatest poet, Jewish or non-Jewish.

He told me you like Reznikoff even more.

No, I like both.

It's good that you like him.

I think Rakosi—you know, his Collected Poems is a great volume.

Yeah, I have that. I got it in Maine. I really fell in love with it.

Did you think I liked Reznikoff more?

Well, Rakosi said that. He said that when I saw him in San Francisco.

I discovered him earlier.

But he hasn't gotten enough attention.

He got a lot from me.

Most of the attention has gone to the other Objectivists: Zukofsky and Oppen.

Well, fortunately we pay a lot of attention to him at Naropa.

That's great.

And in Maine.

Are you going to go to Maine again?

I won't be able to this summer. It's there when I'm in Naropa.

I was there, I talked to you a lot. I'm going to England this time.

What's your business?

I teach creative writing and I write poetry and criticism.


At Wright State University in Dayton.


At Wright State University in Dayton.

I think I've been there.

Yeah, well, you were at the University of Dayton. You were with a poet named Herb Martin.

Long ago.

A long time ago.

Where is he now?

He's still there. He's become famous for his reading of Paul Laurence Dunbar.

He's doing Dunbar's work.

Right, he's doing a lot of that. Well let me ask you another line of questions. Let's go on. Does maturity give you any kind of new, fresh perspective?

Look at my new poems. Cosmopolitan Greetings is all about that. There's one particular poem, but you know there are lots of poems about being a senior citizen in there.

Yeah. That's right.

But there's one particular poem that begins, "At 66 just learning how to take care of my body." Do you know that?

I've got it right in front of me. I'll look at it.

Hold on. I'll get it.

The one I really like is the one where you've got the photograph.

"May Days."

And then you've got all the details about the apartment. There's great concentration of imagery, the minute particulars.

Yeah, that's a good one. That was translated, incidentally, into Hebrew by Natan Zach, a Hebrew poet.

Did you take the picture? "May Days 1988" with the New York Times on the window sill.

The new book has similar stuff, a thing called "Charnel Ground," which is going out the window and looking around at the neighborhood. Anyway, there's poem called "Autumn Leaves."

It's also in Cosmopolitan Greetings?

"Autumn Leaves."

All right. How does one face death? You've written poems about death.

Every poet does. Shelley did when he was twenty-seven. Keats did when he was twenty-four.

Does poetry help?

Yes. I think poetry helps because you imagine your death, and you begin to blueprint and plan and realize mortality and then after awhile you become consciously aware of the fact that mortality is limited and then you begin to appreciate living more. As well as appreciate the great adventure of dying and then realize that it is part of the vast process and an occasion for lamentation and rejoicing and everything. The whole thing comes together. It's the great subject. Because, you know, without death there's no life. Without life there's no death.

So, sort of like "death is the mother of beauty."

I think in "Kaddish" I said, "death is the mother of the universe."

What about love?

Well, what about it?

That's not as big? Okay.

I think above death and above love, I would say, in a poem I did say, awareness encompasses love, death, and everything.

Awareness of mortality?

No. Awareness itself. Conscious awareness. It leads to, encompasses compassion, love, and awareness of death.

What has poetry taught you about language, words?

I don't know. What have words taught me about poetry? You could say that's the same thing.

Well, how about it?

It taught me not to bullshit. It taught me not to indulge in abstract language which is undefined, but to try and nail down any generalization with a "for instance." You know, like "give me a for instance." So it taught me that. "No ideas but in things," as Williams says. Or "The natural object is always the adequate symbol," says Pound. And again, I'll repeat, as Trungpa said, "Things are symbols of themselves."

Okay. I like that.

That's a great one.

I believe in all that. It's just that it's all being challenged today.

By whom?

The Language poets.

Well, they're saying that language is language. A word is a word.

But it doesn't symbolize anything. It's just a nonsense sound.

No, they're saying that it actually—there are conditions. Their angle on symbolization is something different, that the conditioning, the social conditioning is built into the use of the word. That the social conditioning outweighs the visual or the auditory meaning.

Well, they deconstruct or break down all the syntax and the meaning and you end up with nothing but sound.

But the purpose of the deconstruction was to break down the social conditioning associated with the sounds.

Right. And then you end up breaking down poetry, I think, as well.

Ah, I wouldn't worry about poetry. Poetry can take it. And sometimes it's interesting, like Burroughs's cut up aspect was very interesting. A deconditioning to conditioned language. A whole way of inventing new, interesting phrases like "wind hand caught in the door" which is a by-product of Burroughs's cut-ups. "Wind hand caught in the door."

Your poetry always makes sense to me. I mean you don't seem to try to distort

Well, I try, and you know, I'm out of Williams. I come from the Williams lineage and Kerouac. Kerouac wrote spontaneously and wrote nonsense, but there was always this basic theme. Burroughs cut up his stuff, but there was always this basic theme. No matter how you cut it up, it's still Burroughs talking about authoritarian hypnosis from the state.

And you can always see that?

Yeah. It comes through no matter how you cut up his works.

Because when I read these language poets, it's more like Gertrude Stein. I don't know what they're talking about.

Stein is interesting in her own way, you know what I mean? Have you ever heard her record?


There's a Caedmon record of Stein, and if you hear her once you really get the idea what she was after. Williams told me that she had one specific simple thing and it was really great and you know, if you get that then you get something. An inimitable voice. Speaking voice. A Yiddish voice, too.

A Yiddish voice. Not Stein! What place do you most identify with, in other words, what physical location, like Jersey or

Living Lower East Side, probably.

Have you lived there much of your life, even though you've traveled all over the world?

Well, I've had this one apartment where I am now for twenty-one years.

I didn't know that.

And then before that I had—see, my mother, when she came to America, moved to about a mile from here on Orchard and Rivington. That was her first place of residence. Then they moved to Newark. So Orchard-Rivington is about a mile from where I am now.

So it's really your roots.

So, I'm really back where my mother's family—my father's family came to New York and then Newark. But before I lived here, I moved here in '75, I lived for five years or so on East 10th Street, a couple blocks away. And before that on East 2nd Street in the sixties. And in the fifties, where I took all those photographs, early photographs of Burroughs and Kerouac, that's East 7th Street.

You wrote a powerful poem about being mugged. It must have been down in one of those neighborhoods.

That was in 1972 on 10th Street, when I was living there. Two blocks from here.

And where are you now?

East 12th Street.

In the Village?

East Village. Lower East Side.

If you could do it again, what would you do differently, if anything?

There's a certain guy I was in love with when I was young who invited me to bed and I was too shy, because I was in the closet. And I've always regretted it. And I wrote a poem about it. I wrote about it in Sapphic verse. In Mindbreaths, something like that. One of the books. It's in my Collected Poems—1978 or so.

Helen Vendler sort of surprisingly to me wrote very warmly of you, I think, in her anthology.

Yeah, I was surprised.

Right, I was surprised.

She likes me and Snyder and she has no reaction at all to Creeley or Corso or Kerouac's poetry or anyone else.

Maybe it was another critic I was reading, and she talks about what must have been the great difficulty for you, especially as a young Jewish man being gay. I thought that was a sensitive remark.

I didn't think it was that difficult, you know? I was in the closet until I was about seventeen. But then I had such nice company, with Kerouac and Burroughs, who were themselves so far out and Burroughs was gay. Kerouac was very straight, but none the less—

He wasn't gay or bisexual?

I wouldn't say so.

What about Neal Cassady, whom you're always writing about?

Cassady was a lady's man, but he was sort of pan-sexual. I made out with him, but I was one of the few people he made out with. Maybe he hustled as a younger kid, as a young orphan.

In a sense, you always had a family.

Yeah. I had my regular family. I was pretty close. And also an alternative family.

I mean a family of brothers. Because I've thought over the years that poets like Roethke and Berryman and Lowell, they were alone, even though they were straight.

They did have that community. Berryman, Lowell, they were all part of that southern agrarian second generation, from Ransom and Robert Penn Warren and Allen Tate. But the people who were their elders were such puritanical, such mean people, like Allen Tate was an alcoholic, and he kept putting down Hart Crane for being gay, and drank himself to death. Or drank too much.

I think he smoked too much, too.

Or smoked. And then I remember when Big Table was going to have a post-Christian issue, they invited him and Burroughs and myself and others to contribute, and he said he wouldn't appear in a magazine with Burroughs. So what kind of model is that for those guys? No wonder they didn't have a sense of family. Sort of intolerant snobs.

Well, I think in certain ways maybe it worked for you to have those people you mentioned.

Yeah. The funny part was that I had also connections with that Kenyon Review crowd through Lionel Trilling.

Now, when you say Kenyon Review crowd, you don't mean Ransom and

Yes, I knew Ransom later, but Trilling was one of the major icons of the Partisan Review.

Were you published in the Kenyon Review?

No. Yes, later on, yes. It's now under the hands of a lesbian editoress.

I don't think she is editor anymore. I know whom you mean, Marilyn Hacker?

Yeah. She's a nice girl. Nice woman.

What is the most amazing thing about life?

Oh, the fact that it's here at all, and that it disappears.

What's the most amazing thing about your life?

I'm pretty dumb, quite stupid in a way. Even backward. I don't know how I got where I am now, to be like a kind of great poet of some kind. And I don't understand how it happened.

Well, from what you told me at the beginning, it had to do with breath.

Breath, but also the other quality was because I ran into Kerouac and Burroughs when I was sixteen and seventeen. I suddenly realized how provincial and dumb I was, and I resolved, rather than asserting myself constantly and arguing and being argumentative, which would have been my normal nature, I should shut up and listen and learn something. So I always took a kind of back seat and listened to my elders. I always had teachers and gurus, you know, from the very beginning. So actually I learned a lot from other people and had the quality of attention, to listen to Burroughs and serve him, in a way. You know, like work with him and be his amanuensis or his agent or work with him and encourage him and listen to him and do what I could to make his life workable, and I learned a lot that way. And I have relations, had relations like that with Chogyam Trungpa, the Tibetan lama, and Gelek Rinpoche right now, since Trungpa did, a Tibetan lama. And so I've always had teachers and I've always listened to them. And I think that's really delivered me to some kind of workable, practical self-confidence.

But you wrote"Howl,"no one else did. I think that's what made you famous.

Yeah, but you know, I was trying to imitate Kerouac.

That's interesting.

I was a student of Kerouac's, Kerouac broke ground, and I moved in on that territory. And he said, "You guys," me and Gary Snyder, "you guys call yourselves poets. I'm a poet, too, except that my verse line is longer than yours. I write verses that are two pages long!" Like the opening sentences in The Subterranians. Which are beautiful, poetic sentences, you know.

He was the key influence, then.

Yeah. I would say him and Burroughs. He was the key vocal influence or verbal, and Burroughs the key intellectual.

And then, of course, as everyone's written about, also Blake and Pound and Whitman and Williams.

Well, I had a good education, I had a regular Columbia education, but I also had the advantage of an education through Kerouac and Burroughs and the books they suggested, but also through my father, who was very well cultivated in poetry.

And wrote in a very, very traditional lyric style.

Yeah, well, you know, he would stomp around the house, not stomp, walk around the house reciting Milton and Shakespeare and Poe, "The Bells," "The Raven," "Annabell Lee." I memorized those when I was a kid. When I was eight years old I could recite a lot of "The Bells."

Your parents are in the poem"Kaddish,"which to me is probably the most powerful one. Did Naomi actually speak about the key in the window?

Yes, she did speak. No. After she died, a day or so after I got a telegram saying she was dead, I got a letter from her that had been posted just before she died of a stroke. And I'm quoting that letter, yeah.

And then that wonderful talk in there, that Yiddish talk, where she's talking about soup. That's pretty much what she sounded like?

She likes lentil soup. That's literal. Now that I look back, I said, how come she said that? How come I didn't ask her what she meant? That I wasn't more persistent. It was so vivid but I was a little shy of pursuing the subject. For fear that she was completely nuts rather than discovering that she had a good sense of humor.

You put more of the personal into that poem than just about anyone I can think of. I mean of that kind of material. And your father comes off, to me, as a very sad man.

In that poem.

But he wasn't that sad?

Then, but a little later on he and I read a lot together and we got closer and closer. We went to Europe together, and he blessed me on his deathbed, and I blessed him.

He remarried, I gather, at some point.

He remarried a very nice woman who was a very good influence on him, and brought us together quite well, and just had her ninetieth birthday this week.

A Jewish woman?

Yeah, yeah, Edith Ginsberg. She just survived, at the age of eighty-nine, two valve transplants. A pig valve and a sheep valve, so she says, joking, she's no longer kosher.

Let me ask you one

I don't know if you know this, about a little film, The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg?

I saw it.

She's in there. Very nice.

I'd have to see it again. I saw it in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Have you ever been to Yellow Springs, Antioch College?

Yeah, sure. Long ago, though.

I saw it there. It was too short, almost.

Well, enough for me. But mainly family oriented, in a way.

How do you see your place in American poetry?

Well, I have a poem called "Ego Confessions," which is sort of like a grandiose vision. Take a look at that. Because I want to be known as the most intelligent man in America. Worst case scenario of megalomania. But the whole point of poetry is not to be afraid of worst case neurosis, but to reveal it, go right into the wind rather than being afraid of admitting it.

Well, you certainly showed us that.

So I'd like to be remembered as someone who advanced, actually advanced the notion of compassion in open heart, open form poetry, continuing the tradition of Whitman and Williams. And part of the honorific aspect of the whole beat generation.

You seem to have accomplished a lot of that.

Well, not really, because you know my major poems that we're talking about are banned from the air, from radio and television now, with a law suggested by Jesse Helms. He directed the FCC to ban all so-called indecent language off the air, I think it's between 6 A.M. and 10 P.M. And the Supreme Court just affirmed that by refusing to hear our appeal. And that's just been extended to Internet. So it may be that the text of "Howl" or "Please Master" or "Kaddish" or "Sunflower Sutra" will be soon inadmissible on Internet because of foul language that might offend the ears of minors. So the right wing is reimposing the same kind of censorship on the electronic media that we overthrew in the written, printed media '58 to '62.

That was the famous Berkeley trial?

Yeah. Well, that, and also the trials of Henry Miller, D. H. Lawrence, Jean Genet, up to Naked Lunch in 1962, which liberated literature.

So, we're back there.

No, on a more grand, international scale, we're back with censorship in the electronic world, but not in the written book world.

Are we at the end of the long journey of poetry, then?

What do you mean?

I mean—let's put it this way. What can a late twentieth-century poet, given what you've just told me about Jesse Helms and all that what can a late twentieth-century poet hope to accomplish?

Oh, the poetry doesn't depend on electronic media. You could pull all those plugs and it wouldn't affect poetry. Or plug them all in. Poetry is an individual thing that gets around by word of mouth. It's an oral tradition, as well as a written, printed tradition, as well as a spoken tradition. So it'll get around. Anything really good will get around.

You have that faith.

Well, it's experience. I mean, when Howl was on trial, I didn't care one way or the other. Well, I mean, I cared, but I realized if I lose the trial, I'll be a big hero and everybody will want to read my book. All the police did was do me a big favor by publicizing my poetry. They always do that. They're so dumb. Like, do you think Mapplethorpe would be so famous if it weren't for Jesse Helms trying to quash him or something. It's amazing!

Well, they made you famous.

They made Mapplethorpe famous. They're going to make Michelangelo famous when they start censoring his statues of Bacchus or the Slaves. They're already censoring his David.

Oh, you're kidding me.

Yeah, you can't put that on the Internet, because its got a big dick that minors might see. Frontal nudity. (Laughter.) So they just make people more conscious of the censorship and of the restrictions and of the mentality and mindset and then they'll cause a counter-reaction.

One base we haven't touched: How has Buddhism helped you?

Oh, it's made me more aware of the fact that everything can be done 'twixt earnest and joke. Things are completely real and simultaneously and without any contradiction, they are also completely empty and unreal. Just like a dream.


Both at once. Without contradiction, i.e., a dream is real while you're dreaming but when you wake up it vanishes. There's no inherent permanence. Life is real while you're alive, but then when you die, it vanishes. It has no inherent permanence. So it's like—so it's real, but it also simultaneously has that aspect. One aspect is the reality, the other aspect is the transitoriness or mutability, as Shelley said.

And you see both?

Well, everybody sees both. So it's the ability to see both simultaneously that gives life its sort of charisma and glamour and workability. You're never stuck. There's no permanent Hell. There's no permanent Heaven.

So that liberates you.

Sure! It liberates you from the nightmare of thinking, "Oh god, I'm stuck, I'm gonna die, blah, blah, blah."

You're not afraid?

What's there to be afraid of? It's like being in a dream and realizing it's a dream, so then you're not afraid anymore.

And where do you end up? In the dream, just an extension of the dream?

Well, you end up waking up somewhere else. I guess. Or maybe you don't wake up. Maybe you just go to sleep and that's the end of it.

May be that wouldn't be so bad.

Well, have you ever been in a dentist's chair with nitrous oxide?


Have you ever been put out? Okay, so what's the last thing you hear? Or what's the last sense that disappears? To me, it was sound. The music, the Muzak. So what if the last thing to go is the end of the symphony? Like, the pain is gone, physical feeling is gone, sight is gone, taste is gone, smell is gone, the only thing left is sound. The sound is the music, then you hear the last note of the symphony and—

Well that's a nice one. But then there's all the folks during the Holocaust who were butchered every second by the Nazis.

Yeah, but on the other hand, the last thing they heard was the sound of a scream and then the scream ended. And there was nice, peaceful—

Let's hope.

Well, unless they were reborn. Do you think they went to hell or something?

I don't believe that.

They wouldn't have gone to hell. Do you think they went to heaven?

I don't think so.

I don't think there's a heaven. So therefore where did they go? They certainly went to a peaceful place.

I hope so.

Well, where else?

I think you're right!

Can you imagine anywhere else? Can you even imagine someplace that wasn't peaceful?

I'm Jewish. I'll have to go with that.

The Sheol, or maybe Sheol.

Sheol. Okay.

The Buddhists might give the worst case, that they get reborn to go through it all over again. Reborn as Nazis. Reborn in Israel and persecuting the Palestinians.

That would be hell.

Okay. I gotta stop.


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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 said that Mr. Ginsberg wrote right to the end. "He's working on a lot of poems, talking to old friends," Mr. Morgan said on Friday. "He's in very good spirits. He wants to write poetry and finish his life's work."

William S. Burroughs, one of Mr. Ginsberg's lifelong friends and a fellow Beat, said that Mr. Ginsberg's death was "a great loss to me and to everybody."

"We were friends for more than 50 years," Mr. Burroughs said. "Allen was a great person with worldwide influence. He was a pioneer of openness and a lifelong model of candor. He stood for freedom of expression and for coming out of all the closets long before others did. He has influence because he said what he believed. I will miss him."

As much through the strength of his own irrepressible personality as through his poetry, Mr. Ginsberg provided a bridge between the Underground and the Transcendental. He was as comfortable in the ashrams of Indian gurus in the 1960's as he had been in the Beat coffeehouses of the preceding decade.

A ubiquitous presence at the love-ins and be-ins that marked the drug-oriented counterculture of the Flower Children years, Mr. Ginsberg was also in the vanguard of the political protest movements they helped spawn. He marched against the war in Vietnam, the C.I.A. and the Shah of Iran, among other causes.

If his early verse shocked Eisenhower's America with its celebration of homosexuality and drugs, his involvement in protests kept him in the public eye and fed ammunition to his critics. But through it all, Mr. Ginsberg maintained a sort of teddy bear quality that deflected much of the indignation he inspired.

He was known around the world as a master of the outrageous. He read his poetry and played finger cymbals at the Albert Hall in London; he was expelled from Cuba after saying he found Che Guevara "cute"; he sang duets with Bob Dylan, and he chanted "Hare Krishna" on William F. Buckley Jr.'s television program. As the critic John Leonard observed in a 1988 appreciation: "He is of course a social bandit. But he is a nonviolent social bandit."

Or as the narrator in Saul Bellow's "Him With His Foot in His Mouth" said of Mr. Ginsberg: "Under all this self-revealing candor is purity of heart. And the only authentic living representative of American Transcendentalism is that fat-breasted, bald, bearded homosexual in smeared goggles, innocent in his uncleanness."

J. D. McClatchy, a poet and the editor of The Yale Review said yesterday: "Ginsberg was the best-known American poet of his generation, as much a social force as a literary phenomenon.

"Like Whitman, he was a bard in the old manner—outsized, darkly prophetic, part exuberance, part prayer, part rant. His work is finally a history of our era's psyche, with all its contradictory urges."

Allen Ginsberg was born on June 3, 1926, in Newark and grew up in Paterson, N.J., the second son of Louis Ginsberg, a school-teacher and sometime poet, and the former Naomi Levy, a Russian émigrée and fervent Marxist. His brother, Eugene, named for Eugene V. Debs, also wrote poetry, under the name Eugene Brooks. Eugene, a lawyer, survives.

Recalling his parents in a 1985 interview, Mr. Ginsberg said:

"They were old-fashioned delicatessen philosophers. My father would go around the house either reciting Emily Dickinson and Longfellow under his breath or attacking T. S. Eliot for ruining poetry with his 'obscurantism.' My mother made up bedtime stories that all went something like: 'The good king rode forth from his castle, saw the suffering workers and healed them.' I grew suspicious of both sides."

Allen Ginsberg's mother later suffered from paranoia and was in and out of mental hospitals; Mr. Ginsberg signed an authorization for a lobotomy. Two days after she died in 1956 in Pilgrim State Mental Hospital on Long Island, he received a letter from her that said: "The key is in the window, the key is in the sunlight in the window—I have the key—get married Allen don't take drugs…. Love, your mother."

Three years after her death, Mr. Ginsberg wrote "Kaddish for Naomi Ginsberg (1894–1956)" an elegy that many consider his finest poem.

Strange now to think of you, gone without corsets & eyes, while I walk on the sunny pavement of Greenwich Village, downtown Manhattan, clear winter noon, and I've been up all night, talking talking, reading the Kaddish aloud, listening to Ray Charles blues shout blind on the phonograph the rhythm, the rhythm—and your memory in my head three years after

"Kaddish" burnished a reputation that had been forged with the publication of "Howl!" three years earlier. The two works established Mr. Ginsberg as a major voice in what came to be known as the Beat Generation of writers.

Mr. Ginsberg's journey to his place as one of America's most celebrated poets began during his college days. He first attended Montclair State College. But in 1943, he received a small scholarship from the Young Men's Hebrew Association of Paterson and enrolled at Columbia University. He considered becoming a lawyer like his brother, but was soon attracted to the literary courses offered by Mark Van Doren and Lionel Trilling, and switched his major from pre-law to literature.

At Columbia he fell in with a crowd that included Jack Kerouac, a former student four years his senior, Lucien Carr and William Burroughs, and later, Neal Cassady, a railway worker who had literary aspirations. Together they formed the nucleus of what would become the Beats.

Kerouac and Carr became the poet's mentors, and Kerouac and Cassady became his lovers. It was also at Columbia that Mr. Ginsberg began to experiment with mind-altering drugs like LSD, which would gain widespread use in the decade to follow and which Mr. Ginsberg would celebrate in his verse along with his homosexuality and his immersion in Eastern transcendental religions.

But if the Beats were creating literary history around Columbia and the West End Cafe, there was a dangerous undercurrent to their activities. Mr. Carr spent a brief time in jail for manslaughter, and Mr. Ginsberg, because he had associated with Mr. Carr, was suspended from Columbia for a year.

In 1949, after Mr. Ginsberg had received his bachelor's degree, Herbert Huncke, a writer and hustler, moved into his apartment and stored stolen goods there. Mr. Huncke was eventually jailed, and Mr. Ginsberg, pleading psychological disability, was sent to a psychiatric institution for eight months. At the institution, he met another patient, Carl Solomon, whom Mr. Ginsberg credited with deepening his understanding of poetry and its power as a weapon of political dissent.

Returning home to Paterson, Mr. Ginsberg became a protégé of William Carlos Williams, the physician and poet, who lived nearby. Williams's use of colloquial American language in his poetry was a major influence on the young Mr. Ginsberg.

After leaving Columbia, Mr. Ginsberg first went to work for a Madison Avenue advertising agency. After five years, he once recalled, he found himself taking part in a consumer-research project trying to determine whether Americans preferred the word "sparkling" or "glamorous" to describe ideal teeth. "We already knew people associate diamonds with 'sparkling' and furs with 'glamorous,'" he said "We spent $150,000 to learn most people didn't want furry teeth."

The poet said he decided to give up the corporate world "when my shrink asked me what would make me happy." He hung his gray flannel suit in the closet and went to San Francisco with six months of unemployment insurance in his pocket. San Francisco was then the center of considerable literary energy. He took a room around the corner from City Lights, Lawrence Ferlinghetti's bookstore and underground publishing house, and began to write.

During this period, Mr. Ginsberg, also became part of the San Francisco literary circle that included Kenneth Rexroth—an author, critic and painter—Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, Robert Duncan and Philip Lamantia. He also met Peter Orlovsky, who would be his companion for the next 30 years.

His first major work from San Francisco was Howl! The long-running poem expressed the anxieties and ideals of a generation alienated from mainstream society. Howl! which was to become Mr. Ginsberg's most famous poem, was dedicated to Carl Solomon, and begins:

      I saw the best minds of my generation
         destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
      dragging themselves through the negro
         streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
      angelheaded hipsters burning for the
         ancient heavenly connection to the
         starry dynamo in the machinery of night….

Mr. Ginsberg read the poem to a gathering arranged by Mr. Rexroth, and those present never forgot the poem, its author and the occasion.

Mr. Rexroth's wife privately distributed a mimeographed 50-copy edition of "Howl!" and in 1956, Mr. Ferlinghetti published "Howl!" and Other Poems in what he called his "pocket poets series."

With its open and often vivid celebration of homosexuality and eroticism, "Howl!" was impounded by United States Customs agents and Mr. Ginsberg was tried on obscenity charges.

After a long trial, Judge Clayton Horn ruled that the poem was not without "redeeming social importance."

The result was to make "Howl!" immensely popular and establish it as à landmark against censorship. The outrage and furor did not stop with the sexual revolution. As late as 1988, the radio station WBAI refused to allow "Howl!" to be read on the air during a week long series about censorship in America.

There were almost as many definitions of Beatniks and the Beat movement as there were writers who claimed to be part of it. As John Clellan Holmes described it, "To be beat is to be at the bottom of your personality looking up." But if the movement grew out of disillusionment, it was disillusionment with a conscience.

Mr. Ginsberg tried to explain the aims of the Beats in a letter to his father in 1957: "Whitman long ago complained that unless the material power of America were leavened by some kind of spiritual infusion, we would wind up among the 'fabled damned.' We're approaching that state as far as I can see. Only way out is individuals taking responsibility and saying what they actually feel. That's what we as a group have been trying to do."

On another occasion, he described the literary rules more succinctly: "You don't have to be right. All you have to do is be candid." Mr. Ginsberg was nothing if not candid.

As he wrote in "America," another 1956 poem, which took aim at Eisenhower's post-McCarthy era:

      America I've given you all and now I'm nothing
      America two dollars and twentyseven cents January 17, 1956

      America this is quite serious
      America this is the impression I get from looking in the television set
      America is this correct?

Mr. Ginsberg claimed that the poets who formed the prime influence on his own work were William Blake, Walt Whitman, Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams. He declared he had found a new method of poetry. "All you have to do," he said, "is think of anything that comes into your head, then arrange in lines of two, three or four words each, don't bother about sentences, in sections of two, three or four lines each."

His disdain for poetry's traditional rules only gave ammunition to his critics. James Dickey once complained that the "problem" with Allen Ginsberg was that he made it seem as if anybody could write poetry.

Mr. Ginsberg used the celebrity he gained with Howl! to travel widely during the next two decades. He went to China and India to study with gurus and Zen masters and to Venice to see Pound. On his way home, he was crowned King of the May by dissident university students in Prague, only to be expelled by the Communist Government. He read his poetry wherever they would let him, from concert stages to off-campus coffeehouses.

He was in the forefront of whatever movement was in fashion: the sexual revolution and drug culture of the 1960's, the anti-Vietnam war and anti-C.I.A. demonstrations of the 1970's, the anti-Shah and anti-Reagan protests of the 1980's. In 1967 he was arrested in an antiwar protest in New York City, and he was arrested again, for the same reason, at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968. He testified in the trial of the so-called Chicago Seven,

Through it all, he kept writing. After Kaddish in 1959, major works included TV Baby in 1960, Wichita Vortex Sutra (1966), Wales Visitation (1967), Don't Grow Old (1976) and White Shroud (1983).

In a celebrated career, Mr. Ginsberg received many awards, including the National Book Award (1973), the Robert Frost Medal for distinguished poetic achievement (1986), and an American Book Award for contributions to literary excellence (1990).

In 1968, Neal Cassady died of a drug overdose. Kerouac died of alcoholism the next year. By the mid-1970's, Mr. Ginsberg had helped start the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics of the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colo., a Buddhist university where he taught summer courses in poetry and in Buddhist meditation. He also was becoming one of the last living voices of the Beat generation and the keeper of the flame.

In 1985, Harper & Row published Mr. Ginsberg's Collected Poems, an anthology of his work in one volume that firmly established the poet in the mainstream of American literature. The poet again made tours, showing up on television shows, but this time he was in suit and tie offering a sort of explanation of his work.

"People ask me if I've gone respectable now," he said to one interviewer. "I tell them I've always been respectable."

During another interview, he confessed: "My intention was to make a picture of the mind, mistakes and all. Of course I learned I'm an idiot, a complete idiot who wasn't as prophetic as I thought I was. The crazy, angry Philippic sometimes got in the way of clear perception.

"I thought the North Vietnamese would be a lot better than they turned out to be. I shouldn't have been marching against the Shah of Iran because the mullahs have turned out to be a lot worse."

But despite his suit and tie, the censors continued to look over Mr. Ginsberg's shoulder. During the interviews, David Remnick, then of The Washington Post, accompanied him to CBS's "Nightwatch." A producer, unfamiliar with the poet's work, asked if he would read something on the show.

"How about reading that poem about your mother?" she suggested.

"'Kaddish,' yes. Time magazine calls it my masterpiece," Ginsberg replied. "But I don't know…."

The poet pointed to a word in the poem he doubted would make prime time. As Mr. Remnick reported, the producer's eyes glazed over and there was a long silence.

"Your mother's …?" the producer said in horror.

"Couldn't we just bleep that part out?" the poet offered, always helpful.

"No," the producer said.

"It's O.K.," the poet replied. "I've got other poems."

London Times (obituary date 7 April 1997)

SOURCE: "Allen Ginsberg," in London Times, April 7, 1997, p. 23.

[In the following obituary, the critic discusses Ginsberg's role as a voice of protest and his contribution to the Beat movement.]

Whether as a prophetic bard or a pretentious beatnik, Allen Ginsberg has survived for four decades as an icon of American counterculture. He was one of the last survivors of the Beats, a cool cabal of mid-Fifties writers who, centering on Jack Kerouac, sought to rebel against staid, middle-class convention.

"Hold back the edges of your gowns, Ladies, we are going though hell," wrote William Carlos Williams in his introduction to Ginsberg's 1956 poem Howl. A court case ensued in which the publisher was, unsuccessfully, prosecuted for obscenity. Howl at once became one of the most widely circulated books of the time; a bible for a beatnik youth. Its opening lines remain one of the most notorious passages in postwar American poetry. "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by / madness, starving hysterical naked, / Dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn / looking for an active fix".

It was never quite clear what exactly the Beats stood for. Jack Kerouac had coined the name, playing with its punning overtones of "beaten down" and "beatified". But broadly speaking, its key writers—Kerouac and Ginsberg, William Burroughs and Gregory Corso—aimed to cast aside the proprieties of English prosody and to play with the rhythms and improvisations of American jazz, instead. Their work had a dramatic immediacy.

To his admirers Ginsberg was seen to have liberated American poetry, in the same way as John Osborne revitalized English theater with Look Back in Anger. He recorded the rhythms of voices around him and conveyed his most vivid feelings in the long tumbling lines which became his trademark style. His work has now become mainstream. It is found on university syllabuses all over the world.

Yet Ginsberg never won a major literary prize. And there is another school of thought which finds his work freewheeling and shallow—the rantings of a drug-befuddled mind. Ginsberg did, indeed, experiment with a bewildering array of narcotics from mescaline to morphine, from dope to LSD. Bob Dylan, with whom he collaborated for some time, once described him as a "con man extraordinaire"; while John Giorno, the poet and former lover of Andy Warhol, described him as "the founding father of bullshit liberals".

But, whatever the criticisms, Ginsberg was, as one of his biographers put it, "the most practically effective drop-out around". He was the model non-conformist, the archetypal gay rights activist, the classic campaigner against censorship. And in later age he would hold forth on any of these subjects in lengthily repetitive monologues. He virtually invented "flower power" and the fashion for bald, bearded men in home-stitched sandals.

He became something of an institution, renowned for such declarations as "poetry is best read naked" and such outlandish feats, as the time he removed all his clothing at a party, except for his underpants which he balanced on his head. A "please do not disturb sign" was suspended from his penis. At one point he spent some time learning to dance like a kangaroo from an aboriginal instructor.

Yet if his exploits sometimes appeared ludicrous, Ginsberg proved an adroit survivor. He outlived most of his enemies including J. Edgar Hoover, who declared covert war on the Beats, and McCarthy and his witch-hunters. And if he saw one generation grow out of his work, a new one arose to show themselves interested. In later years he collaborated with such bands as The Clash, Sonic Youth and, most recently, Bono of U2.

Allen Ginsberg was born in New Jersey, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants. His father, Louis, was a schoolteacher, and a poet of modest repute. He and his wife Naomi—in her youth an articulate and idealistic Marxist—were enthusiasts of naturism. But as a boy Allen led a disturbed life. Few visitors came to the house for, as his mother's periodic bouts of schizophrenia intensified, she routinely walked about naked crying out that her mother-in-law was trying to kill her with poison gas.

At the age of five Ginsberg watched from his cot as his mother set fire to the house and when he was nine he was standing outside the bathroom door while she, locked inside, slashed her wrists with a knife. His second major poem Kaddish (1960) was inspired by a memory of his mother cooking him supper while she told him of her meeting with God: "the Charity of her hands stinking with Manhattan, madness, desire to please me, cold undercooked fish—pale red near the bones. Her smells—and oft naked in the room, so that I stare ahead, or turn a book ignoring her." In 1947—long after the divorce of their parents—Allen Ginsberg and his elder brother Gene were finally to sign consent for their mother to be lobotomized.

Ginsberg was educated in Paterson, New Jersey, and went on to Columbia University intending to become a lawyer. Although he proved himself extremely bright, he was suspended for writing obscene graffiti on the dirty windows of his dormitory. Eventually allowed to resume his studies, he graduated in 1948.

In the interim, however, Ginsberg had already started on his unofficial education. He had worked several short stints as a messman in the Merchant Navy and had his first homosexual encounter with a middle-aged sailor. He had fallen under the influence of William Burroughs who, 12 years his senior, had a flat nearby. Burroughs had not yet written a book; it was to be Ginsberg who eventually persuaded him to do so. He had also been in trouble with the police after his flat was used as a base for a robbery. "Genius Columbia Student, Master of Crime Ring," read the headlines of the local paper.

To avoid prosecution as an accomplice, Ginsberg pleaded insanity and spent eight months in a mental hospital. But perhaps he was not altogether unsuited for the place. He had been using hallucinogens heavily-God had spoken to him while he was reading Blake, he said. He met Carl Solomon in the asylum, to whom he later dedicated Howl.

On his discharge Ginsberg found desultory employment: on a magazine, in a ribbon factory in New Jersey and as a market research consultant in San Francisco. But then in 1954 he met Peter Orlovsky who was to remain his lifelong companion. And in that year he finally decided to dedicate himself to "Blake, smoking pot, and doing whatever I wanted to do". He never looked back.

Drawn to San Francisco by what he called "its long tradition of Bohemia", he met and mixed with such San Francisco poets as Robert Duncan, Gary Snyder and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. It was the last who, in 1956, published the poem Howl. Ferlinghetti was charged with obscenity and Ginsberg's reputation was made.

He went on to publish some ten more volumes of poetry as well as copious journals. He also made a number of "spontaneous films". During the 1960s he traveled extensively, including to India to study Buddhism, to Cuba where he publicly attacked the Castro Government for its repression of homosexuals, and to England where he accompanied Bob Dylan on his Don't Look Back tour. In London he performed at the Royal Albert Hall, accompanying himself on the harmonium. He and his friend, Gregory Corso, took the opportunity to visit W.H. Auden in Oxford. Corso attempted to kiss the turn ups of Auden's trousers. During another encounter with a famous poet, the 82-year-old Ezra Pound, Ginsberg played him the Beatles Yellow Submarine. "He seemed to like it," he said. "He tapped his stick."

All over America, Ginsberg gave countless poetry readings and held "office hours" at universities. He was a presence at everything from "be-ins"—mass outdoor festivals of chanting costumes and music—to anti-war protests. He spoke out at first, for the legalization of drugs, although gradually he came to regret his involvement in the drugs scene and toured universities instead preaching the superiority of yoga and meditation over narcotic abuse—although he still claimed that LSD had enabled him to pray for President Lyndon Johnson instead of hating him.

For the last 20 years of his life Ginsberg devoted much of his time to a Buddhist college, the Naropa Institute in Colorado, where he taught poetry. His principal guru Chögyam Trungpa, whose nirvanic state never quite overcame his earthly passions for women, cars and cannabis, died in 1987. But Ginsberg continued to defend him and his somewhat unconvincing habits—which included staffing his house with devotees rigged out as English butlers and teaching his students Oxonian English "so that they would be conscious of speech as a formulated aesthetic act like flower arranging".

Ginsberg suffered from diabetes and in later years from heart problems and hepatitis. In 1970 he contracted Bell's Palsy. The disease affected his eyes which were left, as Time magazine unkindly put it, "one wide and innocent, gazing at eternity; the other narrow and scrutinising, looking for its market share". Perhaps this was unfair. Ginsberg gave large proportions of his money to a charity he set up in aid of struggling poets. He lived in a run down-flat on New York's Lower East Side where he ate macrobiotically and meditated daily. He always resisted being lionized as poet. Yet today his work sells more copies than it did even in the Sixties.

He leaves no survivors.


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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 point of view, he is emerging from parochialism into the mainstream of writing in English, and he is bringing with him a cultural mystery arising out of his centrality in history as a sufferer, and also out of his relation to a vast body of literature in another language. The Irish at the end of the nineteenth century discovered rather suddenly that their political experience had a symbolic relation to modern history as a whole, and that their ancient literature provided an inexhaustible resource of mythology by which to interpret that history. The Jewish poet in America at this time is engaged in the attempt to express the meaning of his own historical centrality, and he too possesses a vast body of literature in another language—the Zohar, for example—which constitutes a symbolic resource as yet unworked in terms of English literature.

None of the Anglo-Irish poets of the Celtic renaissance began as celebrants of the Irish subject matter, or practitioners of a style which might be called peculiarly Irish. They, all of them, "went Irish" when it became professionally useful for them to do so. Similarly, there is a tendency at the present for Jewish poets, whose work appeared at first under culturally neutral auspices, to present their work again (Karl Shapiro is the most obvious example) as Poems of a Jew. In the case of Allen Ginsberg, the development is quite clear. His earliest poems (reprinted as Empty Mirror, Totem Press, 1961) are culturally anonymous. His first published volume of poems (Howl, the Pocket Poets' Series, 1955) draws its title from Blake, and presents itself as part of a completely formed artificial subculture called "Beat" which takes the place of the lost real ethnic and political subcultures which in the past succored and gave identity to the outcast by forming a community of outcasts. Ginsberg's most recent volume, Kaddish, is presented under an aggressively Jewish title despite the fact that it is in no simple sense a Jewish book.

The Beat movement, which is now more or less done with, is antinomian and predominantly mystic in substance, and Ginsberg, though still from a position within the movement, is quite clearly invoking the Jewish cultural mystery as a new ground for poetic identity beyond the disintegrating coterie which first gave him notoriety and a language.

Ginsberg's poetry belongs to that strange and almost post-humous poetic literature which began to be produced in America after World War II, and in which the greatest figure is the spoiled Calvinist (Catholic), Robert Lowell. The characteristic literary posture of the post-war poet in America is that of the survivor—a man who is not quite certain that he is not in fact dead. It is here that the Jew as a symbolic figure takes on his true centrality. The position can be stated hypothetically from the point of view of a European survivor who has made the Stygian crossing to America: "Since so many like me died, and since my survival is an unaccountable accident, how can I be certain that I did not myself die and that America is not in fact Hell, as indeed all the social critics say it is?" Ginsberg's poetry is the poetry of a terminal cultural situation. It is a Jewish poetry because the Jew is the prime symbolic representative of man overthrown by history.

It must be remembered that the image of the Jew in America as it underlies the poetry of Ginsberg is not in any sense the same as the image of the Jew in Europe, such as we find, for example, in the poetry of Eliot. Eliot's Jew is a familiar figure resembling Shylock and the Ugly American. Eliot's Jew is the phantom of a dead cultural situation. Ginsberg's Jewish protagonist is the apotheosis of the young radical Jewish intellectual, born out of his time and place, possessing now neither social nor political status. Having exhausted all the stratagems of personal identity, sexual and ethnic, he is nonetheless determined to celebrate his state of being and his moment in history.

From a general point of view, what Ginsberg says in Kaddish is that there is no longer any wisdom in experience. In a conversation not long ago with another poet of the "Beat scene," I was astonished to learn that Ginsberg is regarded as a "Dionysian" writer. One must hope that the Dionysian man has more joy in his ecstasy. Certainly the opposite is the case. Howl, Ginsberg's only major poem, is a lament for the passing of experience as a resource for wisdom. In Ginsberg and the Beat writers generally the word "wisdom" is an important technical term. If there are two traditions of wisdom-education, the first proposing that the greatest wisdom arises from the most intense transaction with experience, as exemplified, for instance, in the career of Oedipus; and the second, that wisdom arises from the least transaction with experience, Socrates and Jesus being the examples—then Ginsberg represents a culture that has exhausted the first of these resources and that has turned, with hardly more certitude than the mere assertion, to the second. Ginsberg represents himself as the last wise child in a secular culture, whose mission it is to reconstitute the relation of the world and its soul.

The symbol of the ultimate transaction with experience for Ginsberg, as for Sophocles, is possession of the mother. Nothing, needless to say, could be more predictable from the point of view of the popular sociology of the Jewish family. But what represents Ginsberg's point of view as so entirely desolating is that he documents the death of the mother, and therefore of the ground of experience itself, as a source of value. At the end of the great sentence which constitutes the first 150 lines of Howl, the speaker has reproduced the crime of Oedipus, and found guilt without transformation. The New York of Ginsberg is a kind of Thebes through which the poet wanders like a king become prophet by some terrible and inappropriate transformation; but beyond Thebes there is no Colonus where the prophet becomes a king once again outside of life. In Kaddish Ginsberg laments the death of the mother herself, the ground of all being both physical and ethnic. In Kaddish the archetypal female is a mutilated and paranoid old woman ("scars of operations, pancreas, belly wounds, abortions, appendix, stitching of incisions pulling down in the fat like hideous thick zippers …") haunted by the image of Hitler and dying, obscene and abandoned, in a sanatorium.

This is Ginsberg's version of the Jewish mother and, simultaneously, of the Shechina, the wandering soul of Israel herself. Ginsberg is the last dutiful son of Israel reciting kaddish at the grave of his mother and of the symbolic image of his people. The mysticism of Ginsberg is peculiarly Jewish in the same sense that the Zohar is Jewish. As Gershom Scholem has recently shown, the origins of Zoharistic mysticism lie deeply embedded in Christian Gnosticism. For Ginsberg, as for the Jewish mystic in general, the gnostic attitude represents the attempt of the Jewish mind to reconstitute itself outside of history. The Jewish mother in Kaddish phantasies herself hunted by friend and enemy alike, by her own mother, by her husband, by Roosevelt, Hitler, by Doctor Isaac, by history itself. She possesses an insane idealism of which her son is heir, and in the end she dies in a fashion so ignominious as to be obscene. Ginsberg erects on her grave an image which is no longer ethnic and which therefore is no longer obsessed by the mystery of the Jewish people in history. To Naomi dead he cries out:

O glorious muse that bore me from the womb, gave suck first mystic life & taught me talk and music, from whose pained head I first took Vision—

Tortured and beaten in the skull—What mad hallucinations of the damned that drive me out of my own skull to seek Eternity till I find Peace for Thee, O Poetry—and for all humankind call on the Origin,

Death which is the mother of the universe!—Now wear your nakedness forever, white flowers in your hair, your marriage sealed behind the sky—no revolution might destroy that maidenhood—

O beautiful Garbo of my Karma—

In his poetry Ginsberg attempts simultaneously to document the death of history itself, of which the Jewish people personified by his mother Naomi is the symbol, and to erect a new ground of being beyond history of which his own poetry is the type and of which the symbol is the mother, or Israel, transformed as Muse.

Curiously enough, Ginsberg finds a tradition for his peculiar form of Jewish Gnosticism in the history of American stylistics. Ginsberg, and to some extent the Beat movement in general, regards himself as the heir of the American transcendentalist rhetoric. He himself refers to his style as "Hebraic-Melvillian." The transcendentalism of Emerson, founded as it is on the Metaphysics of Leibnitz rather than on the Ethics of Spinoza, provides a national strain upon which Ginsberg, who is at once casual and profoundly serious about his references to history, attempts to graft his "Angelical Ravings." This mixture of nationalism and ethnicism represents the peculiar position of the American Jewish poet who regards himself as simultaneously native and, in the special sense which always pertains to the Jew, alien.

Significantly, Ginsberg's attempt to trace his particular form of transcendental ambition to Whitman is, in all but the grossest sense, absurd. The Whitmanian style is founded upon the celebration of the secular world as an inexhaustible resource of sensation and identity. The world of Ginsberg, on the other hand, is the world of the ruined mind presiding over the death of its physical being and attempting to refound itself in a new reality. The culture of Ginsberg's poems, despite its attempt to naturalize itself, is fundamentally an international culture, as the mind of the Jew is fundamentally an international or extranational phenomenon. Kaddish opens with a neo-Platonic reference to Shelley's Adonais, a prophetic memory of the Hebrew anthem, and echoes of Christian apocalypse. His style recalls successively Yeats, Hart Crane, William Blake, the Jacobean prose of the Authorized Version, the ecstatic prose of Moby Dick, the translations from the Thirties of the Chinese wisdom literatures. Whereas the national image in Whitman is a stable symbol of an ideal form of the self, Ginsberg's reference to America is an effort to naturalize a fundamentally alien consciousness. For Ginsberg the poetic identity must supersede the ethnic identity if the poet is to survive.

Ginsberg's poetry, insofar as it is American poetry, represents an attempt to refound moral culture from a point of view outside any given tradition. The form of his poetry—that of the enormous unifying syntax of the single sentence—is proposed as a model or archetype of some new language of personal being. Like the Jewish Kabbalist, Ginsberg regards his words and indeed the letters of which they are composed as living things which in their form represent the recreation of "the syntax and measure of poor human prose." The ideal of unity in the self, which represents a legitimization of both the body and the soul in terms of one another, finds its source in the English poetic tradition in William Blake. Blake himself drew on Swedenborg, Law's translations of Boehme, Milton and other sources many of which are themselves identical with the culture out of which Jewish mysticism arises. Ginsberg gathers together in his peculiar way all these ancient cries of ecstatic being, and lays them down on the page as a kind of epitome of failed hopefulness.

The enemy in Ginsberg is Moloch, who is quite simply the image of the objective world of which the economic culture of America is the demiurgic creator. Moloch, or Capitalism, destroys the soul and drives the "angel" to a frenzied search for new worlds. Similarly, in the Jewish mystical tradition the neophyte attempts to uncreate himself and to return turn back along the developmental continuum to the womb and primal substance in which he had his origin. Curiously, the symbols which Ginsberg employs to identify the moral enemy are in part the symbols by which the Jewish role in culture is traditionally defined. Throughout Ginsberg's writing there is an ambivalence towards Jewishness which should be recognized, as it seems to be an emphatic part of his public statement.

The death of the Jewish mother in Ginsberg's Kaddish, and the succession of cultural generations implied in the burden of identity laid by the mother on the son, is unquestionably the most momentous record in English of the problem of the passing of the older sociology and meaning of the Jewish family-centered culture in America. But the mysticism with which Ginsberg faces the problem of the death of Israel is, perhaps, less momentous than the poetry which he makes the vehicle of that problem. There is, as I stated at the outset, no major tradition of Jewish poetry in America, as there was before Robert Lowell no major tradition of Catholic poetry, or as there was before Yeats no major tradition of Irish poetry in England. On the one hand Ginsberg uses his Jewishness as a way of representing the general condition of the culture of value in America without relying on meaninglessly familiar symbols. On the other hand he represents himself as the only surviving son of a Jewish universe which died with the death of his mother. We may note that the Jewish symbology becomes available in American poetry just at the point at which the Jewish poet finds it necessary to document the death of the Jewish cultural fact.

The earlier poetry of Ginsberg, that represented primarily by the volume entitled Howl, is a great deal more buoyant than the poetry which we are here considering. Between Howl and Kaddish Ginsberg has lost his humor and gained a kind of horror which even he cannot accommodate to the necessary reticence of the poetic mode. Ginsberg's chief artistic contribution in Kaddish is a virtually psychotic candor which effects the mind less like poetry than like some real experience which is so terrible that it cannot be understood. In America, which did not experience the Second World War on its own soil, the Jew may indeed be the proper interpreter of horror.

Allen Ginsberg himself was too young to experience the Second World War either as a soldier or civilian. For him, as for other American poets in this decade, the extreme situation, the American analogy of the bombed city and the concentration camp, is mental illness and the horrors of private life. In this sense the Jewish family, as Ginsberg represents it, becomes the type of the private suffering of the American soul. The tendency of recent American poetry to represent the terrors of history in terms of purely mental agony is almost universal. This is the subject of Snodgrass' Heart's Needle, Sexton's To Bedlam, and, most recently, Dugan's Poems. Ginsberg's image, however, is more extreme than any of these, and I am inclined to think that it is the Jewish mystery which makes that stern agony possible.

Now I should like to return to the general problem of Jewish poetry in America with which I began. It is clear that Ginsberg uses Jewishness as a way out of the cultural cul de sac of the Beat style, and as a way into the soul of the American intellectual. It is clear also that Ginsberg can entertain the Jewish subject matter only as it is in the process of being transformed into something else. Quite possibly the documentation of the death of Judaism is, and will always be, the characteristic Jewish subject. However that may be, Ginsberg has had the sense to perceive that the only significant Jewish poetry will also be a significant American poetry in the sense that its style will be dictated by the universe of recognition formed by the discourse of American poetry as a whole, and not by the universe of recognition constituted by the parochial concern to which the typical Yiddish-American writer addresses himself.

The basic criterion for an American poetry which is also Jewish is an intimate commitment to the stylistic canons of the English and American literary community. It is only under the stylistic auspices of the great literary tradition of the English-speaking peoples that Jewish symbols and Jewish historical attitudes will become significant poetic subjects in America. The fact that Ginsberg seems to be a Jewish poet less by design than by the habitual candor of his nature is the sanction for such Jewish meaning as truly exists in his verse. What is happening in Ginsberg is that a sense of the disintegration of past cultural identities has led to a return to even more ancient symbols of moral being, such as those embedded in the matrix of medieval Jewish mysticism. The death of the mother in Kaddish represents the death of parochial culture, and the poem emerges at the point when it is necessary to lament that loss and to refound the sense of identity on more essential and less time-limited images.

Judaism is an a-historical religion and the entry of its symbols into the English and American literary community at large has been prevented by a perverse commitment to history which is represented by cultural and linguistic parochialism. There is more essentially Jewish mystical symbolism in the use of Kabbalah by Yeats and the French Symbolists than there is in the current Jewish poetry which is presently appearing in the periodicals. Ginsberg represents a brilliant though uncertain invasion of the American literary community by the Jewish sensibility in the process of transcending parochial definitions. It is an irony, though not necessarily an unproductive one, that the kaddish which is recited for the death of the archetypal Jewish mother should be embedded in the language of Yeats and Whitman.

Paul Zweig (review date 10 March 1969)

SOURCE: "A Music of Angels," in Nation, Vol. 208, No. 10, March 10, 1969, pp. 311-13.

[In the following review of Planet News, Zweig argues that Ginsberg pushes poetry forward in subject matter and style.]

Communicating vases: so the French sur-realists described them. Between the inner and the outer vase, a boil of suffering: memories churning over the psychic obstacles, on their way to be captured in the nets of grammar and consecutive statement. If there is one man who has helped us to believe in and to practice the mystery of these communicating vases, it is Allen Ginsberg, whose new book, Planet News contains some of his finest poems. Between the planet earth and the planet Ginsberg, a banter of loves and disasters has been carried on; between this aging space of ecstasies, who insists aloud:

     I am that I am I am the
        man & the Adam of hair in
        my loins This is my spirit and
        physical shape. I inhabit
        this Universe

and that other jet-diminished globe, riddled with places. Warsaw, New York, Calcutta, Wales … titles of so many personal, gritty moments from which poems arise.

What Ginsberg forced us to understand in Howl, twelve years ago, was that nothing is safe from poetry. His argument was not for new poetic subjects, for speech rhythms, for more emotions, or for mysticism. Argument in fact, is not the word for the unsettling spell Ginsberg-as-shaman chanted, suffered and danced in Howl. In life, as in poetry, the shaman does not argue. He climbs the psychic hill, beyond the last familiar stone, and then disappears. Later the wind will blow disquieting noises back to us. Morality has pursued him like a clean razor and dismembered his body; his spirit has been assaulted by righteous chancres; rumors abound that he has been nailed to a tree, where the animals will play upon his bones forever, like a harp. But then the poet-shaman reappears, carrying the sick soul he had gone to save: anyone and everyone's soul, his own too, for the shaman must have suffered from all the ills he can cure. He comes back, but he is changed, for he has seen, played before him, all the fantasies of the hidden psyche, and all the possibilities of the will. He has learned the demanding truth that Montaigne discovered in his tower: "I am a man, and nothing human is foreign to me." Here, I think, lies the generous fantasy of Planet News. Ginsberg has brought back the sick soul—his own, mine, yours. In payment, he has received the gift of love. Now nothing human is foreign to him.

We know how much what we are is bound up in what, and how, we remember. Our character, and therefore what we do, depends upon—and is—the style of our remembering. I insist upon the word "style," for quantity, the sheer bulk of what we have been, has nothing to do with it. It is like stringing beads out of a huge box of beads. I work in reds, you in shades of green, and you in sharp edges. The "I" is selective, distrustful. And when, beguiled by travel, drugs or women, I recklessly string a rainbow stone, or a piece of turd, that too is part of the pattern. I have learned to be selectively reckless. On principle I open a certain third eye, let it flicker on the marvel of endless possibility, and then hurry it shut, afraid I will be convicted of "too much."

Ginsberg has made "too much" the affair of his life. Like Whitman, Blake, Traherne, Rabelais, he has enacted what it means to say: "I am the greatest lover in the universe." It is the mystery of seeing, and not judging, of understanding, and not discriminating. If such a life can have a program, then Whitman formulated it:

     This is the meal equally set, this the meat for natural hunger.
     It is for the wicked just the same as for the righteous,
        I make appointments with all,
     I will not have a single person slighted or left away,
     The kept-woman, sponger, thief, are hereby invited,
     The heavy-lipp'd slave is invited, the venerealee is invited;
     There shall be no difference between them and the rest.

In Planet News, the quintessential poem of "too much," is "Television Is A Baby Crawling Toward That Death Chamber." It is a poem which, like electricity, is sustained by its own movement. And the movement arises from Ginsberg's magical ability to know all the beads, and yet select none, for he selects all. Here as elsewhere, Ginsberg opens a hot line to every recess of his roomy, endless body. Like the infinite interconnection of all phenomena in the physical world (when I spit into the ocean, it rises; when I blow, the wind changes direction), the tangled relationships of everything with everything speak in Ginsberg's poem. He has faith that this is so; that all fishing in the dark water is successful. When Ginsberg is at his best, his mad leaps of association are perfect; they imitate the ideal knowledge of a Monad linked, lovingly, to the whole planet: even to cat vomit, Peruvian skulls, disappointed old body, or LSD pastoral worships:

      That's what I came here to compose,
            what I knocked off my
         life to Inscribe on my grey metal
      borrowed from somebody's lover's
            mother got it from Welfare,
         all interconnected and gracious
            bunch of Murderers
      as possible in this Kalpa of Hungry
            blood-drunkard Ghosts—

The shape of "Television …" is the shape of "too much", which is to say that it works against the very idea of poetic form. And yet, by creating the experience (or enchantment) of "too much," it claims for itself all the privileges of form, i.e.: the privilege of being this irreplaceable, absolutely achieved word-vision. Ginsberg, like Whitman, does not forget the place he occupies in the spectrum of cultural forms. He has the pleasure of knowing, from some shy Victorian refuge in his own psyche, that he is being a bit ridiculous. And so he acts out for us our temptation to judge his "too-muchness", and to contain it. What I mean is that Ginsberg, like his spiritual godfather, Walt Whitman, has a sense of comedy. He is an American humorist:

     Dusty moonlight, Starbeam riding its
           own flute, soul
        revealed in the scribble, an ounce
           of looks, an invisible
        Seeing, Hope, The Vanisher be-
           tokening Eternity
     one finger raised warning above his
           gold eyeglasses—and
        Mozart playing giddy-note an hour
           on the Marxist


     The Bardo Thodol extends in the millions
           of black jello for
        every dying Mechanic—We will
           make Colossal movies—
     We will be a great Tantric Mogul &
           starify a new Hollywood
        with our unimaginable Flop—
           Great Paranoia!

The humor is part of the generosity of Planet News. Ginsberg, in his expansive way, is trying to convince us to wade out from the moralizing beaches where we have learned too well to string our beads. The water is fine, he says. If only we could stop judging and disdaining, we would realize how simple it is to paddle around in the world (and in ourselves).

Often Planet News modulates from the glutted, sexual fantasy of "too-muchness," to a quieter, more intimate vision. When the Kalpas of extended space collapse momentarily, Ginsberg remembers himself: the citizen of an aging body, uprooted, humanly unhappy, and yet far from lament, for—and this is the peculiar strength of these moments—he has learned to love even his own aging despair:

     Allen Ginsberg says this: I am
        a mass of sores and worms
        & baldness & belly & smell
        I am false Name the prey
        of Yamantaka Devourer of
        Strange Dreams …


     and I lay back on my pallet contemplating $50 phone bill,
        broke, drowsy, anxious, my heart
            fearful of the
        fingers dialing, the deaths, the
            singing of telephone

Ginsberg, in Planet News, has given us a music of angels. Not Christian holy angels, but the angels of which Rilke spoke: "those almost deadly birds of the soul." They are almost deadly, because they ask what is most difficult to do: to love even what is not lovable, to serve up the meal for everyone, to love fate while seeing with intelligent, discriminating eyes what fate is.

I have insisted on evoking the ancestry of Ginsberg's vision because there is in this poetry of "too-muchness" a tradition and a genre which deserve to be noticed. In "Journal Night Thoughts," for example, Ginsberg echoes a conventional form and uses it, with humor, to express his continuous fantasy. It is a poem of night images, traveling a path of the mind's peregrinations in New York. One thinks, inevitably, of Young's "Night Thoughts," of Whitman's lovely poem, "The Sleepers." Ginsberg has confidence that form, once rhetorical shapes have been discarded, can arise from life itself, referring backward and forward, in the fashion of a psychic genre, to a larger shape of human experience. Here Ginsberg writes the "night-ode" or whatever name we give it: a form more ample for our total needs than sonnet, epic, or other hanger for old clothes.

Thomas Parkinson (essay date Spring 1969)

SOURCE: "Reflections on Allen Ginsberg as Poet," in Concerning Poetry, Vol. 2, No. 1, Spring, 1969, pp. 21-24.

[In the following essay, Parkinson considers whether Ginsberg is truly a poet, centering his discussion on Planet News.]

Allen Ginsberg is a notoriety, a celebrity; to many readers and non-readers of poetry he has the capacity for releasing odd energetic responses of hatred and love or amused affection or indignant moralizing. There are even people who are roused to very flat indifference by the friendly nearsighted shambling bearded figure who has some of the qualities of such comic stars as Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin. And some of their seriousness.

His latest book Planet News grants another revelation of his sensibility. The usual characteristics of his work are there, the rhapsodic lines, the odd collocations of images and thoughts and processes, the occasional rant, the extraordinary tenderness. His poetry resembles the Picasso sculpture melted together of children toys, or the sculpture of driftwood and old tires and metal barrels and tin cans shaped by enterprising imaginative young people along the polluted shores of San Francisco Bay. You can make credible Viking warriors from such materials. Ginsberg's poetry works in parallel processes; it is junk poetry, not in the drug sense of junk but in its building blocks. It joins together the waste and loss that have come to characterize the current world, Cuba, Czechoslovakia, the Orient, the United States, Peru. Out of such debris as is offered he makes what poetry he can.

He doesn't bring news of the earth but of the planet. Earth drives us down, confines, mires, isolates, and besides there is less and less earth available to perception and more and more artifice. The late C. S. Lewis might not have enjoyed having his name brought into this discussion, but his great trilogy that begins with Out of the Silent Planet and ends with That Hideous Strength demonstrates the same concern with the planet as Ginsberg's new book. Both of them see Earth as a planet, part of a solar system, part of a galaxy, part of a universe, cosmic. But where Lewis wrote out of hatred, indignation, and despair at the destruction of tradition by mindless technology, Ginsberg writes from sad lost affection. I think Ginsberg is our only truly sad writer, sad with a heavy, heavy world, and somehow always courageous and content to remain in the human continuum with all his knowledge of human ill and malice clear. He persists.

But is it poetry? This question is so often asked that it does require answering not only within the confines of Ginsberg's work but generally. I am not entirely sure what the question means, since it could legitimately be asked of Whitman or Hart Crane, has been asked of them. What Ginsberg's work represents is an enormous purging and exorcising operation; it is in the area of religious and spiritual exploration rather than that of aesthetic accomplishment. In the dispute between Whistler and Ruskin over the concept of artistic "finish," Ginsberg's poetry would stand with Whistler's painting. He tends to use the term "poet" not as "maker" but revealer at best; at worst he accepts the notion that makes "poets" out of all confused serious persons who are genuinely unquiet about their souls and the condition of the planet. This is a widely embracing category. What troubles many readers of Ginsberg's work, if they are frank about it, is the continuous and consequently tedious reference to semen, excrement, masturbation, buggery, fornication, and the limited series of variations on such substances and processes. Who needs all the soiled bed-sheets? The only proper answer is that Ginsberg does—or did. They were reminders of the shame, guilt, and disorder that apparently afflicted his sexual life and obsessions; they needed to be purged and declared innocent, and the poems attend seriously to that very problem. To some readers they are frank, courageous, out-spoken; others find them violations of the artistic principle of reticence. Both arguments seem to me trivial, having to do with civil rights or social formalities. What occurred in Ginsberg's work seems to me at once more rational and more historically determined than many readers seem willing to admit.

If Ginsberg is nothing else, he is a large contributor to the Zeitgeist. Legally and linguistically, he not merely reflected the drift of his time but diverted and channeled it, not out of any sensational interest in so acting but out of the necessities that his being exacted from history. The co-incidence of his particular hang-ups and there is no other way to describe them—with the taboos of the society generated a freely inevitable kind of writing. For in addition to the concern for his own troubled being, he was involved in liberating his body and liberating his mind so that both could function properly: spontaneous me. I sing the body electric. In their most considerable work, both Whitman and Ginsberg are intent on destroying those cerebral bonds that impair their sympathy with their bodies and with others. For others appear only in the body. The irony in both writers is that their most rationally ordered poems are those that argue against the rational faculties. In fact, their real quarrel is with the misuse of cerebral power; they share this sense of imbalance with Blake and Lawrence. And there must be moments when Ginsberg would ruefully agree with Lawrence who answered a correspondent who questioned his intellectual fulminating against the intellect by saying, in effect, that yes, he reminded himself of Carlyle who once said that he had written fifty books on the virtue of silence.

When such paragraphs as the preceding one place Ginsberg in the realm of Whitman, Blake, Lawrence, and Carlyle, a certain uneasiness might justly prevail. I think that this is more a matter of habit than of perception. When the Epstein statue of Blake was placed in Westminster Abbey, I felt slightly miserable it seemed that the British talent for retrospectively accepting the eccentric had over-reached itself. I don't want to see Ginsberg canonized because it would take the edge off his work. With contemporary poets, all question of relative evaluation with the mighty dead is impertinent. Some years back an acquaintance of mine was bad-mouthing Robert Frost and ended with what he took to be an unanswerable question, "Will he last?" and I tried to bring him back to biological reality by murmuring, "None of us will." What we can ask from our writers is a willingness to face up to the troubled planet.

Returning again to the sexuality of Ginsberg's work, I find that in this book, arranged chronologically, there seems to be a steady diminution of concern with the vocabulary and processes that bother many otherwise sympathetic readers. Several of the poems are among his very best work: "Kral Majales"; "Who Be Kind To"; "Wichita Vortex Sutra"; "Wales Visitation." I can't imagine Ginsberg ever solving to his satisfaction the problems that have troubled his being for so many years; but he does seem to have undergone some profound religious experiences during the past five years that give his work a new density and fullness. He is one of the most important men alive on the planet. We should all be grateful for his presence.

But is he a poet? Again I find the question meaningless. He has written over a dozen first-rate poems; he has brought back to life, through his studies in French and Spanish verse, the Whitman tradition and informed it with a new pulse; he has served as a large part of the prophetic conscience of this country during its darkest period; he has been brave and productive. He has gone off on side-tracks; he has indulged himself publicly in some poems that seem better confined to note-books. But when a man liberates the sense of prosodic possibility and embodies in his work a profoundly meaningful spiritual quest that is compelling and clarifying to any reasonably sympathetic reader, well, yes, he is a poet. Only envy and spite could deny the title.

Gregory Stephenson (excerpt date 1990)

SOURCE: "Allen Ginsberg's 'Howl': A Reading," in The Daybreak Boys: Essays on the Literature of the Beat Generation, Southern Illinois University Press, 1990, pp. 50-58.

[In the following excerpt, Stephenson argues that Ginsberg's focus in "Howl" is transcendence in contemporary life.]

In the quarter century since its publication by City Lights Books, Allen Ginsberg's poem "Howl" has been reviled and admired but has received little serious critical attention. Reviewers and critics have generally emphasized the social or political aspects of the poem, its breakthrough use of obscenity and its allusions to homosexuality, or its long-line, free-verse, open form. For these reasons "Howl" is already being relegated to the status of a literary artifact. I want to consider "Howl" as essentially a record of psychic process and to indicate its relationship to spiritual and literary traditions and to archetypal patterns.

The concept of transcendence with the inherent problems of how to achieve it and where it leaves us afterward is central to romantic literature. This complex has its antecedents in Orphism, Pythagoreanism, Platonism, heterodox Judaism, Gnosticism, and the mystical tradition. "Howl" expresses a contemporary confrontation with the concept of transcendence and examines the personal and social consequences of trying to achieve and return from the state of transcendence.

Transcendence and its attendant problems may be summarized in this way: the poet, for a visionary instant, transcends the realm of the actual into the realm of the ideal, and then, unable to sustain the vision, returns to the realm of the actual. Afterwards the poet feels exiled from the eternal, the numinous, the superconscious. The material world, the realm of the actual, seems empty and desolate. (Poe, in The Fall of the House of Usher, describes this sensation as "the bitter lapse into everyday life, the hideous dropping off of the veil.") The poet (like Keats' knight at arms) starves for heavenly manna. This theme of transcendence is treated in the work of Coleridge, Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, Nerval, Rimbaud, and many other poets and writers. "Howl" describes and resolves the problems, using as a unifying image the archetype of the night-sea journey.

The night-sea journey (or night-sea crossing) is perhaps the earliest of the sun myths. "The ancient dwellers by the seashore believed that at nightfall, when the sun disappeared into the sea, it was swallowed by a monster. In the morning the monster disgorged its prey in the eastern sky." Carl Jung discusses the myth in his Contributions to Analytical Psychology and Maud Bodkin applies it to "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" in her book Archetypal Patterns in Poetry. The essential situation, in one form or another, may be found in a number of myths, legends, and folktales, and in literature.

For Jung and Bodkin the night-sea journey is a descent into the underworld, a necessary part of the path of the hero. It is "a plunge into the unconscious … darkness and watery depths…. The journey's end is expressive of resurrection and the overcoming of death." The swallowing of Jonah by a great fish in the Old Testament, the Aeneid of Virgil, and the Inferno of Dante are records of night-sea journeys.

The movement of "Howl" (including "Footnote to Howl") is from protest, pain, outrage, attack, and lamentation to acceptance, affirmation, love and vision—from alienation to communion. The poet descends into an underworld of darkness, suffering, and isolation and then ascends into spiritual knowledge, blessedness, achieved vision, and a sense of union with the human community and with God. The poem is unified with and the movement carried forward by recurring images of falling and rising, destruction and regeneration, starvation and nourishment, sleeping and waking, darkness and illumination, blindness and sight, death and resurrection.

In the first section of "Howl," Ginsberg describes the desperation, the suffering, and the persecution of a group of outcasts, including himself, who are seeking transcendent reality. They are "starving" and "looking for an angry fix" in a metaphorical more than a literal sense. Both metaphors suggest the intensity of the quest, the driving need. (William S. Burroughs uses the phrase "final fix" as the object of his quest at the end of his novel Junkie.) The metaphor of narcotics is extended by their search for "the ancient heavenly connection." (Connection suggests not only a visionary experience in this context—a link to or a union with the divine—but also refers to the slang term for a source of narcotics in the 1940s and the 1950s.) These seekers are impoverished, alienated, arrested, and driven to suicide both by the hostility of the society in which they pursue their quest and by the desperate nature of the quest itself, by its inherent terrors and dangers.

Ginsberg's "angelheaded" seekers follow a sort of Rimbaudian "derangement of the senses" to arrive at spiritual clarity; they pursue a Blakean "path of excess to the Palace of Wisdom." They "purgatory" themselves in the manner of medieval flagellants with profligate and dissolute living (alcohol, sexual excess, peyote, marijuana, benzedrine). And through these means they achieve occasional epiphanous glimpses: angels on tenement roofs, "lightning in the mind", illuminations, brilliant insights, vibrations of the cosmos, gleanings of "supernatural ecstasy," visions, hallucinations; they are "crowned with flame," tantalized when "the soul illuminated its hair for a second," "crash through their minds," receive "sudden flashes," and make incarnate "gaps in Time & Space"; they trap "the Archangel of the soul" and experience the consciousness of "Pater Omnipotens Aeterna Deus." For such sensualized spirituality and for their frenzied pursuit of ultimate reality, they are outcast, driven mad, suicided (as Artaud says) by society, driven into exile, despised, incarcerated, institutionalized.

Ginsberg has phrased the issue in the first section of the poem as "the difficulties that nuts and poets and visionaries and seekers have…. The social disgrace—disgrace—attached to certain states of soul. The confrontation with a society … which is going in a different direction … knowing how to feel human and holy and not like a madman in a world which is rigid and materialistic and all caught up in the immediate necessities…." The anguish of the visionary in exile from ultimate reality and desperately seeking reunion with it is intensified by a society which refuses to recognize the validity of the visionary experience and maintains a monopoly on reality, imposing and enforcing a single, materialist-rationalist view.

A number of the incidents in the first section are autobiographical, alluding to the poet's own experiences, such as his travels, his expulsion from Columbia University, his visions of Blake, his studies of mystical writers and Cézanne's paintings, his time in jail and in the asylum. Some of the more obscure personal allusions, such as "the brilliant Spaniard" in Houston, may be clarified by reading Ginsberg's Journals. Other references are to his friends and acquaintances—Herbert Huncke, William S. Burroughs, Neal Cassady, William Cannastra, and others. (Certain characters, incidents, and places in "Howl" are also treated in Jack Kerouac's The Town and the City, John Clellon Holmes' Go, and William S. Burroughs' Junkie.)

Ginsberg presents not only the personal tragedies and persecutions of his generation of seekers but alludes back to an earlier generation with embedded references to Vachel Lindsay "who ate fire in paint hotels" and Hart Crane "who blew and were blown by those human seraphim, the sailors." And for the poet, the prototype of the persecuted and martyred visionary is his own mother, Naomi Ginsberg, who is twice mentioned in the poem and whose spirit provides much of the impetus for the poem. "'Howl' is really about my mother, in her last year at Pilgrim State Hospital—acceptance of her later inscribed in Kaddish detail."

The personal nature of the references in "Howl" do not make it a poem á clef or a private communication. Nor is the poem reduced or obscured by its personal allusions. To the contrary, as images the persons, places, and events alluded to have great suggestive power. They possess a mythic, poetic clarity. We need know nothing of Ginsberg's experiences at Columbia University to understand the poetic sense of the lines

      who passed through universities with radiant cool
       eyes hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light
       tragedy among the scholars of war,
      who were expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing
         obscene odes on the windows of the skull.

And we do not have to know that the line "who walked all night with their shoes full of blood…." refers to Herbert Huncke before we are moved to pity and terror by the picture. For Ginsberg, as for Whitman, the personal communicates the universal. The images are ultimately autonomous and multivalent engaging our poetic understanding by their very intensity and mystery.

Ginsberg was not alone in lamenting the destruction of a generation of frenzied, Dostoyevskian questers. In an early article on the Beats, Jack Kerouac mourned "characters of a special spirituality … solitary Bartlebies staring out the dead wall window of our civilization. The subterranean heroes who'd finally turned from the 'freedom' machine of the West and were taking drugs, digging bop, having flashes of insight, experiencing the 'derangement of the senses," talking strange, being poor and glad, prophesying a new style for American culture … [but who] … after 1950 vanished into jails and madhouses or were shamed into silent conformity." Ken Kesey, in his novel One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, also treats the issue of the imposition of a false, shallow, materialist-rationalistreality on the human spirit and the consequent persecution and oppression of those who cannot or will not accept the official reality.

Several lines near the end of the first section (from "who demanded sanity trials" to "animal soup of time—") describe the exploits and sufferings of the dedicatee of the poem, Carl Solomon, the martyr in whom Ginsberg symbolizes his generation of oppressed celestial pilgrims. Ginsberg's statement of spiritual solidarity with Solomon—"ah Carl, while you are not safe I am not safe"—presages the climactic third section of the poem. This compassionate identification with a fellow quester-victim is very similar to the Bodhisattva vow in Buddhism and anticipates the poet's later interest in Buddhist thought.

After a statement on the technique and intention of the poem, the section ends with strong images of ascent and rebirth and with a suggestion that the martyrs are redemptive, sacrificial figures whose sufferings can refine the present and the future.

The second section of the poem continues and expands the image of pagan sacrifice with which the first section concludes. To what merciless, cold, blind idol were the "angelheaded" of section one given in sacrifice?, Ginsberg asks. And he answers, "Moloch!" Moloch (or Molech), god of abominations, to whom children were sacrificed ("passed through the fire to Molech"), the evil deity against whom the Bible warns repeatedly, is the ruling principle of our age. To him all violence, unkindness, alienation, guilt, ignorance, greed, repression, and exploitation are attributable. The poet sees his face and body in buildings, factories, and weapons—as Fritz Lang saw his devouring maw in the furnace of Metropolis.

Ginsberg presents a comprehensive nightmare image of contemporary society, an inventory of terrors and afflictions that is as penetrating as Blake's "London." And like Blake in "London," Ginsberg places the source of human woe within human consciousness and perception. Moloch is a condition of the mind, a state of the soul: "Mental Moloch!"; "Moloch whose name is the Mind!" We are born, according to Ginsberg, in a state of "natural ecstasy," but Moloch enters the soul early. (See Blake's "Infant Sorrow.") We can regain that celestial, ecstatic vision of life ("Heaven which exists and is everywhere about us!") by emerging from the belly of Moloch, the monster that has devoured us, who "ate up … [our] brains and imagination." We can "wake up in Moloch!"

The remainder of the second section returns to a lament for the visionaries of section one. American society is seen as having consistently ignored, suppressed, and destroyed any manifestation of the miraculous, the ecstatic, the sacred, and the epiphanous.

In the pivotal section two of "Howl," Ginsberg names Moloch as the cause of the destruction of visionary consciousness and describes the manifestations of this antispirit, this malevolent god. Ginsberg also indicates that the Blakean "mind forg'd manacles" of Moloch can be broken and that beatific vision can be regained. In this section the poet has also made clear that transcendence is not merely of concern to poets and mystics but to every member of the social body. Ginsberg has shown the effects of a society without vision. Commercialism, militarism, sexual repression, technocracy, soulless industrialization, inhuman life, and the death of the spirit are the consequences of Mental Moloch.

The third section of the poem reaffirms and develops the sympathetic, affectionate identification of Ginsberg with the man who for him epitomizes the rebellious visionary victim. The section is a celebration of the courage and endurance of Carl Solomon, a final paean to the martyrs of the spirit, and an affirmation of human love.

The piteous and brave cry of Solomon from the Rockland Mental Hospital is the essence of the poem's statement; his is the howl of anguished and desperate conviction. "The soul is innocent and immortal it should never die ungodly in an armed madhouse." The image of the "armed madhouse" is both macrocosmic and microcosmic. Each human soul inhabits the defensive, fearful "armed madhouse" of the ego personality, the social self, and the American nation has also become "an armed madhouse." (Kesey also uses the madhouse as metaphor in his novel One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest.) The psychic armor that confines and isolates the individual ego selves and the nuclear armaments of the nation are mutually reflective; they mirror and create each other. At both levels, the individual and the national, the innocent and the immortal soul is starved, suffocated, murdered.

The imagery of crucifixion ("cross in the void," "fascist national Golgotha") reemphasizes Ginsberg's view of the visionary as sacrificial redeemer. Such images culminate in the poet's hope that Solomon "will split the heavens … and resurrect your living human Jesus from the superhuman tomb." I understand this to mean that Solomon will discover the internal messiah, liberate himself from Mental Moloch ("whose ear is a smoking tomb"), and attain spiritual rebirth.

The final images of "Howl" are confident and expansive, a projected apocalypse of Moloch, the Great Awakening "out of the coma" of life-in-death. Confinement, repression, alienation, and the dark night of the soul are ended. The "imaginary walls collapse" (walls of egotism, competition, materialism—all the woes and weaknesses engendered by Mental Moloch), and the human spirit emerges in victory, virtue, mercy, and freedom. The "sea-journey" of Solomon and of the human spirit is completed.

"Footnote to Howl," originally a section of "Howl" excised by Ginsberg on the advice of Kenneth Rexroth, extends the poet's vision of Blake's phrase "the Eye altering alters all" in "The Mental Traveller." The poem is a rhapsodic, Blakean, Whitmanesque illumination of the realm of the actual, the material world. If we accept and observe attentively, if we see, Ginsberg tells us, then all is reconciled and all is recognized for what it in essence truly is: holy, divine.

The eye can become discerning in the deepest sense. Perceiving the inscape of each object, each event and life, we can perceive the divine presence. We can see the angel in every human form; we can see "eternity in time"; we can even see "the Angel in Moloch." Perception is a reciprocal process. You are what you behold; what you behold is what you are. ("Who digs Los Angeles IS Los Angeles"—i.e., we can see either the dirty, lonely city of woe and weakness or the City of the Angels.) The essence of everything, of every being, is holy; only the form may be foul or corrupted; therefore, "holy the visions … holy the eyeball." In this way Ginsberg's earlier assertion that "Heaven … exists and is everywhere about us" is extended and fulfilled. If we can wake up in Moloch, we can awake out of Moloch.

The acceptance of the body is essential for Ginsberg, for the senses can be a way to illumination. The body is where we must begin. Throughout Howl sexual repression or disgust with the body or denial of the senses have been seen as forms of Mental Moloch: "Moloch in whom I am a consciousness without a body!"; "where the faculties of the skull no longer admit the worms of the senses." That is why the "Footnote" proclaims: "The soul is holy! The skin is holy! The nose is holy! The tongue and cock and hand and asshole holy!" Body and spirit are affirmed and reconciled.

Heracleitus taught that "the way up and the way down are the same way." For Ginsberg, in his night-sea journey, the path of descent described in the first two sections of "Howl" has become the path of ascent, of victory and vision, as presented in section three and in "Footnote to Howl." "Howl" records a solstice of the soul, a nadir of darkness, and then a growth again towards light. The poem exemplifies Jack Kerouac's understanding that to be Beat was "the root, the soul of Beatific."

For many of the romantic writers the loss of vision and the return to the actual was a permanent defeat: their lives and their art became sorrowful and passive; they languished and mourned; their behavior became self-destructive, even suicidal. Ginsberg transforms his season in hell into new resolve and purpose. Like Coleridge's ancient mariner, he has returned from a journey of splendors and wonders and terrors and intense suffering with a new vision of human community, a new reverence for life. Like Blake's Bard, his is a voice of prophetic anger, compassion, and hope. Implicit in Ginsberg's vision in "Howl" of human solidarity and ultimate victory is the Blakean vow as expressed in "A New Jerusalem": "I shall not cease from mental fight … till we have built Jerusalem…."

Ginsberg's sense of our common human necessity to redeem light from darkness, to seek vision and to practice virtue, is communicated in verse by the breath-measured, long-line, chant rhythm of "Howl." Andrew Welch observes that:

The chant rhythm is a basic use of language that both reflects and directs social action toward community goals, a force that seems never to be far away when this rhythm enters poetry. In the Eskimo dance song, in the Navaho and Australian chants, in the prophecies of the Ghost Dance and of the Maya poet Chilam Balam, and in the poems of Ginsberg and Baraka, there is rhythmically and thematically a strong sense of movement and action, a communal rhythm enforcing communal participation and communal identity.

In this way, "Howl" is linked not only to the romantic tradition but also to the preliterary, oral, magic incantations of the universal shamanist tradition.

"Howl" not only invokes and participates in the tradition of vatic poetry but significantly contributes to and furthers that tradition. The poem's considerable achievements, by Ginsberg's use of myth, rhythm, and prophetic vision, are the resolution of the problems associated with transcendence and the embodiment in verse of a new syncretic mode of spiritual awareness, a new social consciousness. A quarter of a century later, "Howl" is still on point, still vital and still pertinent. Rather than a literary artifact, the poem is likely to become a classic.

Alexander Theroux (review date 11 June 1995)

SOURCE: "Bits from a Beat," in Chicago Tribune Books, June 11, 1995, p. 5.

[In the following review of Journals Mid-Fifties, Theroux argues that the journals are often dull and reveal little of Ginsberg's life.]

A pile of pages, scribbled odds and ends, Allen Ginsberg's Journals Mid-Fifties (1954–1958), the thoughts and observations of a young would-be poet between ages 28 and 32, are nothing like the polished records of Virginia Woolf, James Boswell or Anais Nin, certainly nothing like the studied and deliberate journals of Hawthorne or Henry James.

"The instigation for getting things together, finding all these old notebooks," writes Ginsberg, who back in the early '50s "thought it would be a good idea to keep track of it all"—the social foment, new consciousness and hip restlessness of the "Beat" movement—"was the advantage of having apprentices at Naropa during the mid-seventies, late seventies, and early eighties, who were beginning to type the whole mass of material up." Forgive me if I find it difficult to picture a Beat poet with typing "apprentice," never mind that being the occasion, formally stated, of publishing a book. In any case, Ginsberg had his pages. He had his typists. And he had his editor. He had his ducks in a row.

Gordon Ball has spent 12 years unearthing, sorting through, Ginsberg's breast-pocket spirals, manuscripts, letters, visual sketches, photographs and materials relating to this period in the poet's life. The third collection of Ginsberg's journals, following Journals Early Fifties Early Sixties (1977) and the earlier Indian Journals (1962), this new volume represents the period from his entering the Bay Area, where he would write "Howl," through his first trip through the Arctic and to North Africa and Europe, where he made notes that would lead to "Kaddish" several years later.

This is a true potpourri, an agglomeration of personal notes, booklists, dreams—he dreamt a good deal about Kerouac, Brando, Truman, his mother Naomi, fumbling young men and fellatio—reveries of childhood, pages of porno, fragments of poems, fantasies, stories of pickups and the general complications of love and friendship.

It is in places desperately confessional ("I'm consumed with envy of Jack's holiness & devotion to single-minded expression in writing") and at times monstrously self-deluded ("I'm the greatest poet in America I know it and others know it too") and almost always utterly humorless.

Ginsberg writes in one entry, "I myself write nothing and am sick of fragment sketching. The poems I build out of them are fragmentary, slight." In another "Tiring of the Journal—no writing in it—promotes slop—an egocentric method."

What we do find to a degree in these pages is passion. Ginsberg develops intense feeling—often, it seems, born of insecurity and the need to belong—in the case of both friends and lovers. An intense yearning for an erotic encounter with Neal Cassady—the prototype for Dean Moriarty in Kerouac's On the Road—at last comes true, and when he is discovered in bed with Neal, Carolyn, Neal's wife, boots him out.

Ginsberg's expectations are always huge. In 1955 he meets Peter Orlovsky, 21 years old and recently discharged from the Army, and his journal entries are aflame—not only with considerable pangs of love for Orlovsky but also with his own trip through the "karma" of the whole complex situation.

He has a constant admiration for, competition with and jealousy of Kerouac, Lenin to his Trotsky. ("The droppings of the mind on the page," he grumpily writes of Kerouac's poems at one point. And later, "I didn't realize that Jack's self-pity was so akin—so imitative—of Wolfe's … Even to the very language of brooding, mysterious swirls and red October afternoons.")

A considerable passion in Ginsberg's life was his mother, Naomi. When she died, on June 9, 1956, he wrote: "Tenderness and a tomb—the world is a tomb of tenderness. Life is a short flicker of love. Went out into the grass knelt down and cried a little to heaven for her. Otherwise nothing."

It is Ginsberg's feeling that his childhood disappeared when she died—and his memory. The intermittent entries on Naomi constitute perhaps the most "felt" and sincerely committed motif in these pages and serve as first drafts towards the elegy that he eventually wrote, "Kaddish."

What sort of personality emerges in Journals Mid-Fifties? A tourist, an observer, a lonely gay man who is steeped in poetry and who loves poetry and who in studying past models, especially Christopher Smart, William Blake, Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, is himself trying to grow.

Ginsberg's search for guidance takes its cue, on several levels, especially from Whitman. "I Allen Ginsberg Bard out of New Jersey take up the laurel tree cudgel from Whitman." And all the rant and cant and chanting of the Square Deific we've come to know Ginsberg by—"America, when will you be angelic? / America when will you take off your clothes and be human? / America when will you give me back my mother? / America when will you give me back my love?" etc.—owes a lot to his immersion in the Good Gray Poet. He trembles with the same ecstasy—one of Ginsberg's favorite words—raids the same vocabulary and, with the same insistence on taking a national overview, ransacks the same chaos.

Sadly these pages are often remarkably dull and rarely original and insightful. Readers seeking more, and wider details of Ginsberg's life at his period are better referred to the biographies by Barry Miles and Michael Schumacher and to the forthcoming edition of Ginsberg's selected letters edited by Miles. When midway through the pages of Journals Mid-Fifties 1954–1958 you come across these lines. "The notebook is holy the poem is holy. The voice is holy the audience is holy the typewriter is holy,"—my advice is, don't believe it.

Brian Docherty (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: "Allen Ginsberg," in American Poetry: The Modernist Ideal, edited by Clive Bloom and Brian Docherty, St. Martin's Press, 1995, pp. 199-217.

[In the following essay, Docherty compares Ginsberg's work with that of Walt Whitman, arguing that they are similar in subject and philosophy but not style.]

Allen Ginsberg nowadays looks like a successful Jewish dentist since he cut his hair and beard and donned suit and tie at the instigation of his Guru Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. As the half-title page of his Collected Poems notes, he is a 'Member of the American Institute of Arts and Letters and co-founder of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at the Naropa Institute' and he describes himself gleefully in an interview with Jim Burns as 'a most respectable figure'. A founder member of the Beat Generation, along with Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs, circa 1944, Ginsberg is still best known for Howl, Kaddish and the poems of his first ten years or so as a public figure. (The early poems written from 1945 to 1952 did not appear until 1972 as Gates of Wrath, since the 'ms was carried to London by lady friend early fifties, it disappeared and I had no complete copy till 1968 when old typescript was returned thru poet Bob Dylan—it passed into his hands years earlier'.) Although Ginsberg clearly belongs to that neo-modernist grouping which derives its poetics from Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, he is a more social and political poet than either. He also derives parts of his poetics from William Blake, from the eighteenth-century poet Christopher Smart, the French Surrealists, Cézanne (whom he studied at Columbia with Meyer Shapiro), Herman Melville, Céline, and fellow Beats Kerouac and Burroughs. Another influence was his father Louis, a traditional lyric poet who appears in anthologies, such as May Days and Unrest, of radical poets of the 1920s and 1930s. He read his parents' magazines, such as The New Masses which published Mike Gold and Arturo Giovanitti, who used the long line and declamatory style of Walt Whitman and Carl Sandburg. Ginsberg also states that 'the poem from that period that had a big effect on me was Ben Maddow's The City. That influenced me a lot when I was writing "Howl"'.

Along with the radical politics, and the complex matrix of literary influences, there is also the transcendentalist philosophy of Thoreau, Emerson and Whitman. According to John Tytell, 'the Romantic militancy of the Beats found its roots in American transcendentalism … the Beats' spiritual ancestors were Thoreau, Melville and Whitman optimistically proclaiming with egalitarian gusto the raw newness and velocity of self renewing change in America while joyously admiring the potential of the common man'.

I would argue that the influence of Whitman has been most important to Ginsberg, and this essay will focus on Ginsberg's relation to Whitman, and the conjunction of sexuality and politics which informs their writing. There are, of course, several competing views of Whitman to be found and the view expressed in this essay does not aim to be full or complete. Whitman, of course, embraced contradiction and diversity and had no doubts about the value in social and political terms of an American poetry. Ginsberg, too, has from the start had a messianic faith in his ability to be a spokesman and chronicler, as set out in the opening line of Howl:

     I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed
     by madness, starving hysterical naked.

Nakedness; physical, emotional, psychological, was to become a recurrent theme of Ginsberg's poetry. This openness to life and experience is characteristic of the Beat project, and would in itself be enough to mark it as an oppositional tendency in the late 1940s and 1950s without the spirit of protest and revolt picked up on by most critics when Howl and Other Poems appeared in 1956. The shift in post-war values to Cold War hysteria and McCarthyite repression is well documented; the enemy without became the enemy within and the prosperity brought by the military-industrial complex had its accompanying tensions. Significantly, the major establishment poet of the fifties, Robert Lowell, talked of 'the tranquillized fifties', reflecting the Confessional poets' (Lowell, Berryman, Sexton et al.) obsession with interiority and public exorcism of private demons. Ginsberg's work has some superficial similarities with these poets, but it is always firmly grounded in the social and political as well as employing fundamentally different strategies (i.e. the ideogrammatic method of Pound rather than the procedures authorized by the New Criticism of Allan Tate and John Crowe Ransome).

Lifestyle and sexuality are celebrated, even paraded, in Beat writing, and their tender nakedness is quite different from, say, John Berryman's use of the poem as public psychoanalyst's couch. Since Ginsberg could be more open that Whitman, and was temperamentally inclined to be so, it quickly became apparent that this nakedness was offered as visions of the unspeakable individual, the homosexual. The love that dared not speak its name had not only come out of the closet, but followed Whitman's recommendation to 'unscrew the doors from the jamb' in a democratic gesture of inclusiveness, at least as far as men were concerned. There were, of course, other poets in the 1950s writing as gay men, notably Robert Duncan and Frank O'Hara, but Ginsberg is the pioneer closet dismantler. Whitman, however, is the American trailblazer.

It is in the 'Calamus' poems, even more than in the 'Children of Adam' poems, that Whitman's enduring quality as an American original resides. The first edition of Leaves of Grass makes clear Whitman's views on democracy and liberty, and many readers will consider that being the great poet of democracy is a sufficient claim to originality. We must look for more in a great poet, and I would argue that the open celebration of physicality and homosexuality, linked to democratic politics, constitutes Whitman's distinctive claim to be regarded as one of the major figures in world literature. This characteristic pluralism of expression, both personally and politically, represents the Whitmanian legacy to future writers, although the next generation, the poets of the 1890s such as Edwin Arlington Robinson, mainly conventional and conservative, turned away from Whitman's poetics. Even the arch-revolutionist of poetry, Ezra Pound, only came to terms with Whitman reluctantly, describing him as an exceeding great stench. Pound, in many ways a generous supporter of other poets, could also be a cantankerous bigot on occasion, and his remarks on homosexuality in The Cantos are in his cracker-barrel fascist mode. William Carlos Williams recognized Whitman as an innovator and major poetic force and resource, but he believed that Whitman had not succeeded in the search for a distinctive American vernacular which would form the basis of a specifically American poetry that owed nothing to Europe. Vachel Linsday, Robinson Jeffers and Carl Sandburg were virtually alone in pursuing a parallel course to Whitman in terms of a long-breathed line, and, of the three, only Sandburg's early works have much in common with Whitman. Lindsay's populism is that of the music hall and tent show while Jeffers's iconoclasm and 'inhumanism' are a severe corrective to Whitman's effusive optimism.

Whitman's qualities were undervalued or misunderstood by the 'New Critics', and were contrary to the prevailing spirit of the 1950s, characterized by Ginsberg as 'the syndrome of shutdown', so it was perhaps natural, even inevitable, that Ginsberg should have reached back past Williams and Communist versifiers such as Mike God to Whitman as a source of inspiration. He must indeed have screamed with joy reading Whitman for himself, since Ginsberg has characterized the way Whitman was taught at Columbia as stupidity and ignorance. Whitman also provided a way out of the psychic impasse induced by his earlier Blake fixation. Whilst a student at Columbia in June 1948, he had a mystical experience as a result of simultaneously reading Blake's 'Ah! Sunflower' and masturbating. Ginsberg heard a voice he took to be Blake's and, as Paul Portugés notes, 'suddenly he felt with Blake's voice guiding him that he could penetrate the essence of the universe. He felt himself floating out of his body and thinking that heaven was on earth.' Soon afterwards he heard Blake's voice chanting 'The Sick Rose,' then a third experience of Blake chanting 'The Little Girl Lost'. Ginsberg gained a new sense of purpose from this experience, feeling that everything which had happened in the past few years, such as problems in his relationship with Neal Cassady, and the illness of his mother, had been some sort of preparation for the vision. Following this, Ginsberg, in an exalted state of mind, attempted to communicate his experience to his tutors, who doubted his sanity. During this period he had the opportunity of reading a collection of religious and mystical texts belonging to Russel Durgin, left in the flat where he was living. As well as Blake, he was reading Marvell, St Teresa of Avila, Plotinus, Martin Luther, St John of the Cross, Plato and St John Perse.

An intense reading of authors such as these is undoubtedly conducive to mystical events, and Ginsberg had two further episodes, one in the university bookshop, one in the field near the library. After this he felt compelled to tell everyone he met, with the result that people thought he was either lying or on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Even Jack Kerouac failed to take him seriously. About a year later, Ginsberg was committed to Columbia Psychiatric Institute, but this was the result of an incident where a gangster living in his apartment managed to crash a stolen car full of stolen property. Ginsberg, who was in the car but not party to the robbery, was arrested but later escaped prison through the influence of his tutors at Columbia. Howl resulted from his stay in hospital, but, perhaps more importantly, his Blake experiences gave him a direction and role as a poet, that of visionary prophet. He spent the years from 1950 to 1953 mostly in his father's house in Paterson, and the poems of this period, collected in Empty Mirror and Gates of Wrath are largely a sustained attempt to record his experiences.

These early poems are mostly archaic and derivative, densely packed with mysticism and abstraction, although a few fine poems, such as "The Bricklayers' Lunch Hour", show the influence of Williams. The influence and example of Williams was decisive, turning Ginsberg towards a poetry packed with closely observed detail from the everyday world, concerned with literal accuracy and less with expressing ideas or abstract concepts. Prose journals supplied the basic material for the new work, organized by the physical breath, not by literary rules. Ginsberg derived a theory of the poetic line from his understanding of William's practice. One breath equalled one line of spoken poem and the poems were transcribed to show this on the page. Williams, who was in his sixties by this time, had a somewhat sparer line than the rhapsodic young Ginsberg, who started to write a long Whitmanian line as well as the more 'controlled' short-line poems. Ginsberg's poetry has always been more varied than Howl, of course, and he has been a keen student of Pound's and Charles Olson's use of the facilities of the typewriter to provide a score for the reading voice.

Ginsberg's voice, manner and tone are quite distinct from Whitman's and their affinity lies in their affirmative responses to life, their proclamation of the physicality of life, and the insistence on the link between sexual freedom and political freedom. As Tytell remarks, 'Ginsberg is feared in America just as Whitman was feared: to believe in democracy is the first step toward making it possible, and such seriousness is dangerous.' The extent of this fear became apparent in 1957 when Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Shigeyoshi Murao were prosecuted under Section 305 of the Tariff Act 1930, for allegedly selling or publishing obscene writings, namely Howl and Other Poems and issue 11/12 of The Miscellaneous Man (The Miscellaneous Man was actually published by William Margolis in Berkeley so this charge was dropped). Ferlinghetti and Murao (City Lights Bookshop Manager) were defended by three formidable lawyers as an ACLU test case, supported by testimony on the book's literary qualities from a variety of eminent critics and writers including Kenneth Rexroth, while the prosecution produced one tutor from a Catholic University and one private elocution teacher who proved totally inept. Hardly surprisingly the case was dismissed, but the judge established an important principle, namely that if a text could be demonstrated to have some literary value or worth, then the test of 'obscenity' could not be applied no matter what form of words was employed. It will not be forgotten that Whitman lost his job because of official disapproval of Leaves of Grass, and that in April 1882 his publisher James R. Osgood withdrew the 1881 edition after the Boston District Attorney ruled that certain poems were obscene. Whitman found another publisher in Philadelphia, and the publicity arising from this official censorship stimulated sales to the extent that he earned $1439.80 royalties that year, much more than in previous or subsequent years. Thus, in both cases, the state achieved exactly the opposite effect from what had been intended. Ginsberg's book sales run into millions world wide, he is probably the best selling poet ever.

It is clear that this last failed attempt at McCarthyite repression is a reflex of the corporate state's inability to deal with social criticism, and a recognition that Ginsberg stands in a long line of poets who have dissented publicly from the dominant values of their society or culture; and that, as Tytell reminds us, 'Ginsberg's most significant relation to Blake has been ideological—a sympathy with social concerns, a desire to transform consciousness to use poetry as an instrument of power or as sacramental invocation.' This of course applies equally to his relationship with Whitman. The rejection of American values, or at least the bourgeois values of the post-World War II era, is clearly expressed in the 1949 poem 'Paterson.'

The rejection of bourgeois values, whether the 'protestant work ethic', the immigrant (e.g. Jewish and Italian) drive for business success and suburban respectability, or the 'cleanliness is next to Godliness' ethos, contributed to the public perception of the Beats which saw them labelled as 'beatniks' or 'the great unwashed', and users of 'dangerous drugs'. The poem's second section features Ginsberg's vision of himself as a crucified and persecuted Christ figure, an expression of a desire for death or annihilation which is a recurrent characteristic of his poetry between 1948 and 1963, the year when Ginsberg finally rejected the influence of his Blake experiences, although Blake remained important in other ways. Nevertheless, in spite of the negativity of this poem it is clear that Ginsberg's poetry, as much as Kerouac's novels, epitomizes the Beat desire to be, and that it is affirmative, if at times a rather grim celebration of existence as a positive value in an era of apathy and dull conformity. The poem's insistent anaphoric 'rather' does express a positive choice, a claiming of the freedom to live life to the full, to experience everything and reject nothing. Thus the Beats were able to claim saint-like status, and ascribe 'beatitude' to their way of life.

Living life to the full meant accepting all aspects of sexuality and refusing to be limited by heterosexuality and monogamous pair-bonding. In practice, as far as Ginsberg was concerned, this meant homosexuality or bi-sexuality. As in all the best American movies, the Beat story was very much a 'buddy' story, with women featured only as 'minor characters'. Neal Cassady was the central figure in the drama, hero of On the Road and Visions of Cody and man of action who lacked Kerouac's Catholic inhibitions. Although basically heterosexual, he was capable of intimate relationships with men, including Ginsberg, who fell in love with him at first sight. The many poems to or about Cassady make it clear that Ginsberg virtually worshipped him. Marriage, first to Luanne, and then to Carolyn Cassady, did not restrain Neal Cassady, as the 1954 poem 'Love Poem on a Theme by Whitman' makes clear. This poem is in Ginsberg's most Whitmanian manner, yet there are clear differences in tone and style. The announced 'theme' is based on Whitman's own poem 'The Sleepers', particularly lines 11-20

     The married couple sleep calmly in their beds, he with his
     palm on the hip of the wife, and she with her palm on the
     hip of the husband,
     The sisters sleep lovingly side by side in their bed,
     The men sleep side by side in theirs,
     Another mother sleeps with her little child carefully wrapt


     I go from bedside to bedside, I sleep close with the other sleepers
     each in turn

                                       —Leaves of Grass
     I roll myself upon you as upon a bed, I resign myself to the dusk

                                       —Leaves of Grass

The poem can be read as a celebration of homosexual love and companionship and a rejection of monogamy, and the 1855 edition contained a passage excised from subsequent editions, perhaps to avoid prosecution:

      The cloth laps a first sweet eating and drinking,
      Laps life-swelling yolks … laps ear of rose-corn, milky and just ripened:
      The white teeth stay, and the boss-tooth advances in darkness,
      And liquor is spilled on lips and bosoms by touching the glass, and the best liquor afterward

It seems clear that Whitman is describing the act of fellatio, probably by another man; Martin takes the view that nineteenth-century women were unlikely to indulge in fellatio, and that Whitman wrote "The Sleepers" as an example of 'the role of sexuality in the establishment of a mystic sense of unity'. This is close to Ginsberg's approach to sex, in so far as he views buggery as a means of achieving religious ecstasy and union with the godhead. Whitman's poem is structured as a vision, while Ginsberg enters unambiguously into the bedroom to interpose himself between the married couple.

Ginsberg is more explicit and less mysterious than Whitman, but the poem gains from its directness, whilst having a strong rhythm and a solidity of expression which make it one of the best of the pre-'Howl' poems. Ginsberg's literary relationship, in the sense of writing poems to or about Whitman, is made plain in 'A Supermarket in California', which addresses Whitman directly as both a father figure and a lover. The poem is both funny and poignant, yet critics often describe Ginsberg's work as neurotic and joyless, usually failing completely to appreciate its moments of humour. Ginsberg speaks to Whitman man to man, but he also speaks poet to poet, inviting Whitman to share his view of modern America, where monopoly capitalism has turned the entire nation into a supermarket, where art and sex are commodities to be sold alongside the other 'frozen delicacies'.

One of Ginsberg's recurrent themes is that of bodily ageing and death, and it is significant that he imagines Whitman not as the brawny vigorous thirty-seven-year-old portrayed in section nine of 'I Sing the Body Electric', but as a 'lonely old grubber poking / among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys'. His sad old man is, however, funny rather than pathetic as he cruises the aisles with manic determination, accosting the grocery boys. Ginsberg does not mock Whitman, but rather uses the humour to offer an ironic critique of a mercenary society where a lonely old man whose desires are undiminished is no longer able to obtain sexual satisfaction. Ginsberg's own appetite for juvenile flesh is well documented in his writing, and it may be that he is expressing his own fear that as he grows older he will no longer be able to compete successfully in the sexual marketplace. His imaginative compensation of 'possessing every frozen delicacy, and never passing the cashier' is disturbed, but not prevented, by the figure of repressive authority, the store detective.

However, Whitman's expansive confidence and his faith in America's ability to achieve an egalitarian democracy where adhesive love would be the norm, is not available to Ginsberg. His America, even the golden state of California, is a place where 'we'll both the lonely.' 'The lost America of love' has been replaced by 'blue automobiles in drive-ways', the suburban conformity which the Beats set out to subvert. For Ginsberg, Whitman is surrogate parent and teacher, the figure of liberation his own father Louis could not be. The affection for Whitman, and the recognition of his indebtedness, is clear in Ginsberg's poem, but it is also clear that the America of 1956 is not the America of 1856. The corporate state, dominating every aspect of people's lives, is a powerful and oppressive force in Ginsberg's poetry, just as it is absent in Whitman. The great industrial empires of such capitalist 'übermenschen' as Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Pierpont Morgan are not dealt with in Whitman's poetry, even though the various monopolies were well established by the time the later editions of Leaves of Grass were published. Instead he describes American working men as craftsmen and small masters, picturing them in heroic terms. Ginsberg, by contrast, grew up with the organized militant working class, taken to political meetings as a child by his mother. In 'America', one of his finest fusions of Jewish humour and social comments, he describe his cultural heritage. He grew up surrounded by the rich Jewish, Communist, and Anarchist political traditions and this background should not be forgotten even though poems like 'Kral Majales' show a demonstrable disenchantment with Communism in its Eastern European formulations.

'Kral Majales', written on 7 May 1965, is one of the texts where sexuality intersects with politics in Ginsberg's writing. He returns to the insistent anaphoric technique of Howl to document his outrage at his treatment by the Czechoslovakian bureaucracy and its police henchmen. In Ginsberg's hands, the anaphora gives the impression that the poem has started in mid-sentence or mid-stanza. It gives the effect of a television news interview where what is transmitted is obviously an excerpt of the complete interview or statement. Geoffrey Thurley describes Ginsberg as 'the public dropout, the guru, the subterranean jet-setter, the King of the May', a sneer which imputes a lack of sincerity of Ginsberg's past. Thurley is, however, correct to point out the public stance of poems such as 'Kral Majales', as demonstrated by p. 355 of the Collected Poems, which is a reproduction of a broadsheet, with art by Robert La Vigne, showing the poem's text flanked by two silhouettes of a naked Ginsberg in tennis shoes, with six hands and finger cymbals. Each figure is enclosed in a large penis column. This broadsheet provides a conclusive answer to those critics who claim that Ginsberg's work is formless: form and content are perfectly fused in a gesture which not only illustrates his underlying principles, but also functions as a definitive reply to the Czechoslovakian authorities.

The poem condemns both State Communism and capitalism, and notes Ginsberg's dismay at discovering that the Communist State has a backward and repressive attitude towards homosexuality. Most of the poem, though, is a gesture of triumph, the personal being privileged over the narrowly political—'And I am the King of May, which is the power of sexual youth' … 'and I am the King of May, naturally, for I am of Slavic parentage and a / Buddhist Jew.' "Kral Majales" ends with the political reality, a Kafka-esque note of repression by the all-powerful and unaccountable bureaucratic state. The poem has a powerful symbolic force, because although Ginsberg has been beaten up and deported, he has turned the occasion into a ringing statement of his personal beliefs which invites comparison with Whitman's optimism. Whitman was never faced with this sort of state power, and indeed writes as if the state did not exist. The state cannot censor poems such as "Kral Majales" and cannot prevent Ginsberg acting as witness to the change in consciousness he is helping to bring about. Twenty-five years after he was thrown out of Prague, Ginsberg returned to recover the notebooks confiscated by the secret police and reclaim his crown. Ginsberg was the last King of the May to be elected. In the new democratic Czechoslovakia, where the president is a former dissident playwriter (Vaclav Havel), his crown is 'ceremoniously handed back to him by the Major of Prague ("who just happens to be the Czech translator of Gary Snyder's poetry", Ginsberg adds to stress how the Beat poets were admired in Eastern Europe)'. Poems such as this reached a huge audience and helped to radicalize attitudes, and give people the strength to start the process of changing their lives. Sexual liberation and political liberation are inseparably linked, and Ginsberg's poetry was an important part of delivering that message in the 1960s. The long Whitmanian line was essential to carry the stream of energy which flowed out as Ginsberg combined 'the rhetorical voice of American populist tradition with a passionate, personal intelligence and wit'. However, as Ginsberg explains to Jim Burns, the reactionaries are fighting back.

'It's similar to McCarthyism', Ginsberg insists, and you can also draw parallels with Nazi book burning and Stalinist attacks on intellectuals broadcasting Howl, not to mention work by Kerouac, Genet, Henry Miller, and many others. Ginsberg sees it as part of a pattern which includes censorship of student publications, restrictions on press reporting of certain events, FBI surveillance of libraries and a long list of similar activities. 'It's an attack on language' he claims, and an attempt at thought control. 'Much of my poetry is specifically aimed to rouse the sense of liberty of thought and political social expression of that thought in young adolescents. I believe I am conducting spiritual war for liberation of their souls from mass homogenization of greedy materialistic commerce and emotional desensitization. Pseudo-religious legal intolerance with my speech amounts to setting up a state religion much in the mode of intolerant. Ayatollah or a Stalinoid bureaucratic party line'. The interesting thing is, Ginsberg points out, that the neo-conservative and religious fanatics who are behind much of the drive for censorship are the types who, a few years ago, would have been in the forefront of anti communist agitation. Now they use the same tactics as their one time opponents 'to enforce the authority of their own solidified thought police and ethical systems'. And is it strange that this should happen? 'No', answers Ginsberg, 'Blake put his finger on it when he said "They became what they beheld".'

Ginsberg also tells Jim Burns that although he has not written much poetry since White Shroud he is working on a collection of photographs and that his opera Hydrogen Box, written with Philip Glass, has been performed at the Spoleto Festival in Italy. It is to be hoped that the enemies of free speech, so intent on denying Ginsberg's constitutional right of free speech and thought, are suitably dismayed (or enraged) to note that in 1990 Ginsberg has a new recording of poetry and music (The Lion for Real on Antilles Records) and still draws audiences of thousands for public readings in London and elsewhere. The message of Blake and Whitman is still being carried to all corners of the world in person and on compact disc.

One of the ways in which Ginsberg differs from Whitman is in the personalized nature of his poems. Whitman of course was not in a position to write openly to, or about, Peter Doyle, or to dedicate a volume to him, because of the enormous social pressure which made absolute discretion imperative. The year after Whitman died, another notable homosexual, the Russian composer Tchaikovsky, was forced to commit suicide. Ginsberg, writing one hundred years later, and more concerned with recording his full experience openly and honestly, rejected all constraints. There are many beautiful passages depicting male intimacy in Whitman, but nothing resembling Ginsberg's 'Many Loves'. Appropriately, the poem has an epigraph from Whitman, 'Resolved to sing no songs henceforth, but those of manly attachment'. Taking this as a starting point, 'Many Loves' is the first of a number of poems about Ginsberg's relationship with Neal Cassady. It is explicit without being pornographic, and answers the old question, 'what do homosexuals do in bed?.

The poem details the physical pleasures of lovemaking with a man as well as giving a potted biography of Cassady's youth in Denver, and describes him in heroic terms. The emphasis on Cassady's juvenile career as a car thief, and on his physical beauty, no doubt contributed to the myths surrounding Cassady, and to an underestimation of his talents, and his influence on the writing of Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. In May 1968, Ginsberg wrote 'Please Master', another love poem to Cassady, but in a different mode. In 'Many Loves', Ginsberg writes that his 'first mistake' was to make Cassady his 'Master', a statement which a reading of their correspondence will bear out. 'Please Master' places Ginsberg in the position of acolyte, anxious to please even by acts of self-abasement. The tone is pleadingly submissive, expressing 'a desire to be fucked, a desire which one supposes is the equivalent to the poet's desire to be fucked by the universe, to be overcome by its sensations'.

As Martin points out, this is a long way from anything in Whitman, where the sexual act is mutual and reciprocal, but he notes that 'Please Master' is a 'necessary political—sexual statement of the need to admit openly one's desire for anal intercourse'. He goes on to make the curious statement that 'Ginsberg's master is unnamed, undescribed, totally anonymous; he is the coming to life of a statue, a fantasy embodied', which suggests that his reading of Ginsberg has been somewhat cursory. It would be clear to anyone who had followed the careers of Ginsberg and other Beat figures, and who had read the poems, journals and letters attentively, that it is Cassady who is being addressed. Martin was also presumably unaware that Neal Cassady had died in miserable circumstances only four months before the poem was written. It was printed in The Fall of America as part of Section III, 'Elegies for Neal Cassady'. The first of these elegies is dated 10 Feb 1968, making it clear that Ginsberg was mourning the death of a friend and former lover. This knowledge gives the elegies a real poignancy, and point to the difficulties involved in coming to terms with the death of someone you have known for over twenty years.

Another important difference between Whitman and Ginsberg lies in their respective attitudes to women. Whitman believed in social and political equality for women, and he urged women to be open, frank, and active in their relationships. He was opposed to nineteenth-century concepts of femininity, and believed that his own greater openness about sex might make a contribution to women's emancipation by encouraging similar openness in women. In Section 5 of 'Song of Myself', he declares that all 'the women are my sisters and lovers', and in Section 21 claims

    I am the poet of the woman the same as the man,
    And I say it is as great to be a woman as to be a man,
    And I say there is nothing greater than the mother of men.

                                    —Leaves of Grass

In "A Woman Waits for Me", he states 'all were lacking if sex were lacking' and

    Now I will dismiss myself from impassive women
    I will go stay with her who waits for me, and with those
    women that are warm-blooded and sufficient for me

                                    —Leaves of Grass

However, although Whitman wanted American women to be 'warm-blooded', like most nineteenth-century men (and twentieth-century men?) he had a blank spot regarding female sexuality. 'Adhesiveness' was a male preserve, and active female desire, especially for other women, does not feature in Whitman's view of women's capacities. He may not have appreciated that a positive, active, emancipated woman might well be a lesbian. Apart from this limitation, Whitman's attitudes to women are considerably more progressive than most male writers. Ginsberg's attitudes in many respects form a sorry contrast, especially for a poet committed to Gay Liberation. The attitude of fear and disgust encountered in his poetry may derive in part from his reaction to Naomi Ginsberg's behavior after her breakdown, but negative attitudes to women are commonplace among Beat writers. Burroughs, in particular, exhibits a particularly unpleasant brand of misogyny, and it is perhaps fortunate that it was not Burroughs who became the 'public guru' of the 60s counter-culture. Gary Snyder, although weak in his understanding of sexism, is one of the few Beat figures who actually likes and respects women.

The first poem the reader encounters in the Collected Poems, 'In Society', is dated Spring 1947, and the second stanza is an ugly tirade against a woman who says she doesn't like the speaker of the poem. In 'The Blue Angel', Marlene Dietrich is portrayed as a 'life sized toy' who needs 'a man / to occupy my mind'. Women, for Ginsberg, are machines with no life of their own until they can capture a man, from whom they will drain the mental and emotional energies. This concept perhaps owes something to the Jewish idea of the 'golem'. Woman is seen as an object, the 'other' to be avoided by men if they wish to remain alive and independent, a view strikingly at variance with Whitman's. In 'How Come He Got Canned at the Ribbon Factory', a male apprentice intrudes into the female sphere of operations, and is perceived as 'this character', inadequate and incompetent, and dismissed by the women as 'not a real man any way but a goop'. Relations between men and women are clearly problematic for Ginsberg and it is significant that he needed Whitman's guidance and example to write 'Love Poem on Theme by Whitman'. Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac were both bisexual to some extent, and even Burroughs fathered a child by the wife he shot in Mexico City, but Ginsberg celebrates the exclusivity of sex with younger (blond) men, as the opening two poems in Section III testify. Ginsberg's partner for many years from 1954 on was Peter Orlovsky, and 'Malest Cornifici Tuo Catullo' presumably records the start of this relationship. 'Dream Record: June 1955' records the stereotype of casual relationships and drunken sex, a paradigm of pre-AIDS innocence. Versions of this poem, such as 'Sweet Boy Gimme Your Ass' are scattered throughout the Collected Poems and White Shroud.

'Kaddish', Ginsberg's elegy for his mother, written after her death in 1956, is in some senses an antiphon to 'Howl' and necessary to an understanding of the pressures which inform 'Howl'. It is a true epic in that it includes history; the history of Naomi Ginsberg's life in America, the history of her relations with her family, the history of her breakdown and treatment, the history of political radicalism in twentieth-century America, and the history of her troubled relationship with Allen. It is a complex occasion, and one of the few instances where Ginsberg actually makes use of his Jewish heritage, rather than merely referring to it. The response by Jewish literary critics was divided, with one critic denying the poet's right to use the ritual term 'kaddish', claiming that the use of tradition was illegitimate. Other critics were able to be more positive, and respond to the personal and historical imperatives of the poem. A selection of these responses to 'Kaddish' can be found in Lewis Hyde's invaluable compendium of Ginsberg criticism.

The physical decline which accompanied Naomi Ginsberg's mental breakdown is graphically described, with the poet's attitudes to his mother portrayed as a mixture of disgust, compassion, indifference and Oedipal fascination. Nothing is withheld. Although, according to the poem, her first breakdown occurred in 1919, the poem is mainly concerned with events from the mid 1930s to the late 1940s, the years of Ginsberg's adolescence and early manhood. Whitman demonstrated that male homosexuality could be compatible with positive attitudes to women, and Ginsberg's attitudes cannot be ascribed to his gayness. However, given the traumas of his family life as related in 'Kaddish', his views are understandable although not excusable. The contradictions in his position are revealed in 'This Form of Life Needs Sex', a poem which mixes fear of women with wry humour, and a knowledge of mutability. It starts out 'I will have to accept women / if I want to continue the race' and goes on to talk about 'ignorant Fuckery' asking 'why have I feared' the 'one hole that repelled me 1937 on'. He can still, however, be wryly funny about both the joys and limitations of homosexuality.

His 'situation' is that the sexual revolution and the accompanying revolution of consciousness has no place for women, since Ginsberg has difficulty seeing women as people, human beings in their own right. Given these attitudes from someone perceived as a leader of the American radical movement it is now clear why there was a feminist backlash from about 1968 onwards. I do not wish to caricature the complex history of Women's Movement, but that history is outside the scope of this chapter. However, as Gloria Steinem has said, 'the sexual revolution was not our revolution'. Yet according to John Tytell, the Whitmanian adhesiveness which inspired Ginsberg was 'his feeling of Kinship with all classes and kinds of people'. The Women's Movement was obliged to work out its own version of adhesiveness, often in angry rejection of men and male sexuality, but it may be that attitudes towards women encountered in Beat writing, and in Beat-influenced songwriters such as Bob Dylan, provided a necessary catalyst for the development of modern feminism.

In 1968, Ginsberg provided an eloquent definition of adhesiveness, in testimony before Judge Hoffman at the 'Chicago Seven' trial. In reply to a question by prosecutor Foran on the religious significance of 'Love Poem on Theme by Whitman', he replied:

Whitman said that unless there was an infusion of feeling, of tenderness, of fearlessness, of spirituality, of natural sexuality of natural delight in each others bodies, into the hardened materialistic, cynical, life denying, clearly competitive, afraid, scared, armored bodies, there would be no chance for spiritual democracy to take root in America—and he defined that tenderness between the citizens as in his words, an 'Adhesiveness', a natural tenderness, flowing between all citizens, not only men and women, but also a tenderness between men and men as part of our democratic heritage, part of the Adhesiveness which would make the democracy function: that men could work together not as competitive beats but as tender lovers and fellows. So he projected from his own desire and from his own unconscious a sexual urge which he felt was normal to the unconscious of most people, though forbidden for the most part.

The obvious question must be, where are the women in all this, except as adjuncts to men? Ginsberg's 'demos'—the people—appears to be men only. No wonder Joyce Johnson called her book Minor Characters, an accurate reflection of the importance of women in the lives of the Beat writers, and of the part women were allowed to play in the counter-culture revolution. If that revolution was a failure, it was because any revolution which incorporated the oppression of women into its structure (as well as alienating the working classes) could not succeed. Nevertheless there were significant gains, and Ginsberg and the Beat writers achieved a great deal in terms of sexual liberation and personal liberation, and helped to bring about a change of consciousness which cannot be reversed. As Kenneth Rexroth, who supported some aspects of the counter-culture noted, the contempt for women and the Beat practice of 'treating a girl exactly as one would treat a casual homosexual pick up in a public convenience' cannot be ignored or glossed over. Rexroth also points out that

it is pretty hard to dismiss anyone who can fill the largest auditorium in any city he chooses to appear in like Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, or the Beatles—and who has produced thousands of followers, in all the civilized and many uncivilized languages.

Rexroth, who as both a major poet and a trenchant critic was perhaps uniquely qualified to comment on the development of American poetry, places Ginsberg as '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…. Ginsberg meant something of the greatest importance and so his effects have endured and permeated the whole society. Rexroth was the master of ceremonies at the historic Six Gallery reading which launched the Beat Generation as a public phenomenon, and in the 1950s acted as Godfather to the San Francisco poets. Although his initial enthusiasm waned, his judgement recorded here must have been gratifying recognition, especially after some of the things written by critics and academics, who have largely failed to recognize the value of the Beat project. But then, Ginsberg expressed his attitude to Norman Podhoretz and other critics in Notes for Howl and Other Poems:

     A word on Academics; poetry has been attacked
     by an ignorant & frightened bunch of bores
     who don't understand how its made, & the trouble
     with these creeps is that they wouldn't know Poetry
     if it came up and buggered them in broad daylight

Appropriately, this statement is dated Independence Day, the occasion of the celebration of the American Revolution.

Helen Vendler (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: "The Reversed Pietà: Allen Ginsberg's 'Kaddish'," in Soul Says: On Recent Poetry, Belknap Press, 1995, pp. 9-15.

[In the following excerpt, Vendler discusses Ginsberg's use of traditional Jewish prayer, the influence of other writers, and his observations on his mother in the poem "Kaddish."]

The poem "Kaddish," now thirty years old, appeared in 1961 with two manifestos by Ginsberg bracketing it. The first, on the copyright page of the volume Kaddish, announced that "the established literary quarterlies of my day are bankrupt poetically thru their own hatred, dull ambition or loudmouthed obtuseness," and, in acknowledging previous appearances of the poems in journals, remarked that two of those publications were begun by "youths who quit editing university magazines to avoid hysterical academic censorship." This Ginsberg manifesto is one of irritated satiric energy; the other, appearing on the back cover of the volume, abounds in passionate phrases like "broken consciousness," "suffering anguish of separation," "blissful union," "desolate … homeless … at war," "original trembling of bliss in breast and belly," "fear," "defenseless living hurt self," and "hymn completed in tears." Things that are separate in the manifestos—satire and pathos—come together in Ginsberg's great elegy for his mother. Though "Kaddish" will always remain a son's poem, a poem which we enunciate in the position of a mourning child, it is now more than ever Naomi Ginsberg's poem, too—a poem bringing into representation, with both tragic and comic energy, a woman's hideously afflicted life. In this reversal of the cultural icon we call the pietà, we see not the mother holding the broken body of the son, but the son holding the broken body of the mother. "I saw my self my own mother and my very nation trapped desolate," says Ginsberg in his manifesto; but it is his mother that is the chief icon of the trappedness.

"Kaddish" declares its descent from classical elegy in its epigraph from Shelley's Hellenizing "Adonais"—"Die, / If thou wouldst be with that which thou dost seek!" Personal extinction becomes real at the death of the sheltering parent; and Ginsberg, through his own resistance to death, has to find a way to the identity of idealization and dissolution understood by Shelley.

"Kaddish" is chiefly an elegy of the body—the physical body and the historically conditioned body of Naomi Ginsberg. Is it the first such elegy of the body (rather than the transcendent self) of another? Leaves of Grass was the first American book to expose at length the physical and historical body, but that body was Whitman's own; in "Kaddish" it is Naomi's body that is born, grows, gives birth, is scarred in flesh and brain, rots in a living death, dies, and is buried. The absence of a developed Jewish doctrine of the afterlife may in part explain why this poem—named so defiantly with a title foreign to non-Jews—is a poem of the body. The biblical history internalized as the history of the Jewish people may explain why it is also so much a poem of history. Finally, besides being a poem of the body and a poem of history, it is a poem of balked prayer. The prayer of the Kaddish, quoted in the second part of the poem, forms, as Ginsberg has said, "the rhythmic substrate" of the poem: "Yisborach, v'yistabach, v'yispoar, v'yisroman, v'yisnaseh, v'yishador, v'yishalleh, v'yishallol…." Ginsberg, in California when his mother died, missed her funeral, where (as Ginsberg's brother wrote him) there were not enough people present to form a minyan, so Kaddish could not be said for her. Several years later, Ginsberg wrote his own "Kaddish" to repair the lack. The rhythm of the Hebrew Kaddish shows itself chiefly at the end of the first part of the poem, the elegy proper: "Magnificent, mourned no more, marred of heart, mind behind, married dreamed, mortal changed …/ almed in Earth, balmed in Lone"; and, a moment later, "This is the end, the redemption from Wilderness, way for the Wonderer, House sought for All … Death stay thy phantoms!"

A poem of the body, then; and a poem of history; and a balked rhythmic prayer or hymn. "Kaddish" has five numbered parts, and one extra-numeric "Hymmnn" between Parts II and III. Part I is a lyrical overture addressed to Naomi, sounding the themes that will follow. Part II is a history—a recapitulation of Naomi's life intertwined with that of her son; in it, Naomi is alternately addressed in the second person and described in the third person, so that this part of the poem is both a colloquy with her and a history of her life. This is the part that is savagely comic—stucco'd (as Whitman might say) with birds and quadrupeds all over. In the "Hymmnn" of chanted blessings (imitating the recital of blessings in the Kaddish) that follows Part II, Naomi is both a living "you" and a dead "Thee." Part III is a prayer against forgetting—"Only not to have forgotten"—followed by a summary historical list of the insults to Naomi's body. Part IV is a litany with the refrain "Farewell." And Part V is a fugue in which the idealizing voice of prayer is repeatedly mocked with the crow's voice of mortal dissolution—"Lord Lord Lord caw caw caw."

In the Part I overture, the poet calls himself hymnless and Heavenless. How then does he arrive, many pages later, at his heavenly "Hymmnn" of blessings? It is Part II that lies between, the unbearably graphic, scandalous, farcical, and horrifying narrative of events in Naomi's life. "How can he write such things about his mother?" I was asked by one shaken student. Ginsberg spares us nothing of the maternal body: "Convulsions and red vomit coming out of her mouth—diarrhea water exploding from her behind—on all fours in front of the toilet—urine running between her legs—left retching on the tile floor smeared with her black feces—unfainted." In Ginsberg the Jewish immigrant novel meets lyric existentialist farce: "We're all alive at once then—even me & Gene & Naomi in one mythological Cousinesque room—screaming at each other in the Forever." The son, in the moment in which the poem looks satirically at its own parallel doings in life, tries to hold back madness with words: "I pushed her against the door and shouted 'DON'T KICK ELANOR!'" And at the moment in which the poem looks most tragically at its own doings, the mother does not recognize the son: "You're not Allen—." Can a poet elegize someone who no longer recognizes him? Can words, futile against madness in life, conquer madness after death?

In expanding elegy to take in such "un-English" details as Camp Nicht-Gedeiget, quotations from the Hebrew Kaddish scenes in the Bronx and Newark, and Naomi's half-delusional list of enemies including "Hitler, Grandma, the Capitalists, Franco, Mussolini," Ginsberg wrenched the form away from its classical gravity and taught his contemporaries a lesson in American colloquiality (as Robert Lowell later acknowledged while loosening his own style). The poem is Ginsberg's own story as well as his mother's story, and it inserts into American lyric the self-conscious and alienated Jewishness of at least one of its poets, a Jewishness that Ginsberg's father, Louis, in his more innocuous "assimilated" poetry, had been unable to voice. The androgynous nature of "Kaddish," as the son-poet becomes stronger than his father by defining his own life as half Naomi's life, recalls the way the poet John Berryman eventually found his own voice through appropriating the sensibility of Anne Bradstreet as he imagined it. Ginsberg's "Kaddish" is not so much an incorporation of woman as a capitulation to her: she is "Naomi, from whose pained head I first took Vision." The Muse, so helpless in "Lycidas"—"Nor could the Muse herself defend her son"—has moved into a position of power here, appearing as a "Communist beauty, Russian-faced" (in defiance of American fears in the fifties of both Russia and Communism). But Naomi's eventual collapse into madness makes the Orphic son-poet wonder whether he can defend his mother.

The dignity of "Kaddish" is not compromised by, but is rather constituted by, its shameful and embarrassing disclosures, as well as by its hysteria, argot, and theatricality—all "Jewish" qualities by conventional English and American Protestant standards, qualities largely suppressed in earlier immigrant Jewish poetry in deference to those standards. The madness of Naomi—and the consequent diction of the poem, which has to match her weird sublimity and hyperbole with its own—are clearly shown to be overdetermined phenomena; there are so many cultural and historical causes erupting into madness and poetry that it is impossible to list them all, though the extraordinary litany of Part IV makes the attempt.

This litany requires some explanation. It seems to resume much that the first three parts—the overture, the life history with its hymn, and the memorial recapitulation "Only not to have forgotten"—have already described. And at first the litany seems merely an extension of the Part III memorial that preceded it ("Only not to have forgotten") in its opening, "O mother / what have I forgotten." But it then modulates from a farewell into an undaunted physical inventory of Naomi's body—its appearance and its history. We can, perhaps, see the first half of this section as the elegiacally conventional, but always shocking, ritual viewing of the corpse before burial. The poet's steady gaze passes without flinching to each body part in turn, in a posthumous blazon disarticulating the once unified parts from each other. But then this section of the poem comes to a halt on, and remains fixated on, the least physical of body parts, Naomi's eyes. It dwells on them for twenty-eight lines, while they painfully fill to overbrimming with the physical, mental, familial, and political sufferings of Naomi's history—Russia, no money, false China, Aunt Elanor, starving India, pissing in the park, America taking a fall, failure at the piano, Czechoslovakia attacked by robots, killer Grandma—all the way down to the surgical attacks on the body itself—pancreas removed, appendix operation, abortion, ovaries removed, shock treatment, lobotomy—and the last crippling blows (one inner, one outer), divorce and stroke. It is an extraordinary passage, acting out to extremes and beyond Keats's words, "Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a soul?" The blank eyes of the Russian child Naomi, arriving as an immigrant in the New World, gradually fill with consciousness through pain, and then move from consciousness to Vision—till they decline from Vision to madness. As they fill with experience, they become repositories of all sorrowful human awareness. They finally stand alone as spiritual wells of knowing:

     with your eyes alone
     with your eyes
     with your eyes
     with your Death full of Flowers

The flowers recall Ginsberg's Blakean talisman the Sunflower, which, whatever the cost, follows the light of reality, which Ginsberg here calls "Sun of all Sunflowers"; and they recall the apotheosized Naomi before madness, her "long black hair … crowned with flowers."

The ascent to the eyes crowned with flowers counters, while not eradicating, the horror of Naomi Ginsberg's end in the lunatic asylum, and reasserts Ginsberg's belief—or hope—that somewhere behind schizophrenia and lobotomy lingered Naomi's early saner self, a belief vindicated by the consoling letter he receives after her death, in which Naomi once again knows him: "Get married Allen don't take drugs." The letter releases the son, too, from his last visual image of his mother in the locked ward of the state asylum, as it says, "The key is in the sunlight at the window—I have the key."

What would "Kaddish" be without the miraculous posthumous letter, the reprieve from despair? The letter stands as the crowning spiritual apotheosis of Naomi as mother and visionary, and is paired, thematically, with her physical apotheosis as a young Communist Muse with a mandolin. A traditional Western elegy would end with the double apotheosis. But Ginsberg goes beyond the consoling letter and gives his elegy a less transcendent Buddhist end, in which human experience, however full, is finally both spiritually and physically obliterated: "Naomi underneath this grass my halflife and my own as hers … / my eye be buried in the same Ground where I stand in Angel." Naomi's tear-suffused eyes and the poet's eye will both be buried in her grave. The only eye that remains at the close is that of the Universe: "Lord Lord great Eye that stares on All and moves in a black cloud." Against the impersonal, dark, and staring Eye of Necessity, Ginsberg sets the brief claim of lyric voice, "my voice … / the call of Time … an instant in the universe … / an echo in the sky the wind." He is remembering Hart Crane's "The Broken Tower":

    And so it was I entered the broken world
    To trace the visionary company of love, its voice
    An instant in the wind (I know not whither nurled)
    But not for long to hold each desperate choice.

The end of "Kaddish" is almost a standoff, as the ravens of unresting thought (Yeats's phrase) beast back the son's prayer in the desolate cemetery on Long Island. As Part V being, the crows' "Caw caw caw" antiphonally counters the son's "Lord Lord Lord," and at first the competing chants are held to a single anaphoric position at the beginning of each line. In the penultimate line, the standoff breaks down, and the crows begin to shriek after every halting broken phrase, phrases that summon up the poet's life or his mother's or father's—

    caw caw all years my birth a dream caw caw New York the bus
    the broken shoe the vast highschool caw caw

At this point, the poet summons up all his Blakean force and cries out to the crows that these horrors are nonetheless "all Visions of the Lord." With that, the crows, though persisting, are balked of ultimate victory; the last line begins and ends with "Lord":

        all Visions of the Lord
     Lord Lord Lord caw caw caw Lord Lord Lord caw caw caw

The necessitarian Lord here invoked is the Eye in the black cloud, the Eye that only "stares" (a Yeatsian stare remembered perhaps from "Lapis Lazuli"—"On all the tragic scene they stare"). This Eye does not mark the fall of the sparrow. It is observational, not providential. The tenderness of "Kaddish," which creates in some of its moments a "death full of Flowers," is not allowed finally to govern the poem. And of those two manifestos bracketing the Kaddish volume with which I began, the one on the back cover summing up the "broken consciousness of mid twentieth century suffering anguish of separation from my own body" is the one that relates most truly to the title poem. The irritable front-cover manifesto recalling the literary wars of the fifties between the university quarterlies and the Best poets tends to fade in memory, while the backcover testimony lasts. Though the topical quarrel is true, and lively, and worth remembering in literary history, the poem recalls itself to us now chiefly as memorable rhythmic speech. The monumental quality of "Kaddish" makes it one of those poems that, as Wallace Stevens said, take the place of a mountain. The eventual power of poetry always exists on an "exquisite plane," as Stevens said, beside which reality—even a reality as transfixing as the life of Naomi Ginsberg—is only, as Stevens concluded, "the base." "Reality is only the base," he wrote. "But," he added, "it is the base." In terms of literary history, we might say the same about the conventional elegy as we knew it in the past—with its Muse, its singer, its flowers, its eulogy, its dirge, its apotheosis. It is only the base of "Kaddish," but it is the base. And on that classical base Ginsberg created the most nonclassical poem in the American elegiac canon, the immigrant elegy that seemed waiting in the air to be written, as we found to out astonishment when we first read it thirty years ago.

Helen Vendler (review date 4 November 1996)

SOURCE: "American X-rays: Forty Years of Allen Ginsberg's Poetry," in New Yorker, November 4, 1996, pp. 98-102.

[In the following review of Selected Poems 1947–1995, Vendler argues that Ginsberg's poems raise consciousness.]

In a poem to Allen Ginsberg, Czeslaw Milosz wrote:

     I envy your courage of absolute defiance,
        words inflamed, the fierce
        maledictions of a prophet….
     Your blasphemous howl still resounds
        in a neon desert where the human tribe
        wanders, sentenced to unreality….
     And your journalistic clichés, your
        beard and beads and your dress of a
        rebel of another epoch are forgiven.

Allen Ginsberg, at the beginning of his Selected Poems 1947–1995, gives his own definition of his "absolute defiance": "I imagined a force field of language counter to the hypnotic force-field control apparatus of media Government secret police & military with their Dollar billions of inertia, disinformation, brainwash, mass hallucination."

Ginsberg's "force field" came to public notice with the publication of Howl and Other Poems, in 1956, when Ginsberg was thirty years old. The title poem of the volume cried out against an America that devoured its young as the pagan god Moloch had devoured the children sacrificed to him. Ginsberg had seen his mother, Naomi—an immigrant from Russia—decline into persecution mania and eventual institutionalization; and he himself, after an apparently successful transition from Paterson, New Jersey, to Columbia University, fell in with the petty criminality of friends, was briefly hospitalized in lieu of serving a prison sentence, and eventually left New York for San Francisco. Like his father, Louis, who was a high-school English teacher, Ginsberg wrote verse; but, while Louis's poetry was conventional and high-minded, his son's was tormented and ecstatic. In San Francisco, Ginsberg and others (Kenneth Rexroth, Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, Robert Duncan) emerged as the Beat movement, which in its frankness and its commitment to social and erotic reform provoked a storm in the world of writing. United States customs impounded as obscene copies of Howl printed in England, and the San Francisco police sent two officers to the City Lights bookshop, where the first edition was for sale, and arrested the publisher, the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. At the subsequent trial, the judge pronounced Howl not obscene, and declared Ferlinghetti not guilty; the attendant publicity made both Howl and Ginsberg famous.

Howl was followed by other remarkable books, of which the most notable was Kaddish and Other Poems, in which the title poem, a long elegy for Ginsberg's mother, widened the sympathies of the American lyric by incorporating into it the vernacular anguish of the Jewish immigrant experience. Ginsberg later, with some grandeur, called two of his volumes Planet News and The Fall of America. William Carlos Williams had written, "It is difficult to get the news from poems," but Ginsberg put the news of the day into poetry in a bold and irreverent way. The F.B.I., the C.I.A., the Vietnam War, gay life, urban decay—all appeared regularly in Ginsberg's bulletins. Yet Ginsberg's remarkable poetic powers have been less extensively commented on than his many charities, his indefatigable political investigations, his support of other writers, his thronged readings (accompanied by finger cymbals, harmonium, chants), his world travel, his theatrical protests, his moral injunctions (against the hydrogen bomb, against political lies, against eco-destruction). These actions make him a significant cultural figure, but it is the poetry that makes him a significant literary figure.

Against the high odds of fame, over-occupation, and aging, Ginsberg has continued to write poetry; and every one of his books has had its memorable pieces. But that success has also been perennially threatened, and at times undone, by his two opposing neurotic temptations, which are paranoia and emotional withdrawal, and by his two poetic temptations, which are populism and "spontaneity." In his best poems, the ever-flickering paranoia is tempered by self-irony, humor, wisdom, or sheer curiosity about being; and the Buddhist quietism that would turn every phenomenon into illusion is revoked, just in time, by an eddy of feeling. If Ginsberg's populism craves a platinum record, it is checked by a scruple of art; and the spontaneity that records bus voice-overs on his travels is corralled by a sense of shapeliness. (When the balance of powers fails, the poems become either rant or sermon, rock lyric or journal notes.) Taken all together, Ginsberg's poems are X-rays of a considerable part of American society during the last four decades.

Ginsberg's dark sense of social evil must stem in part from his imaginative symbiosis with his paranoid mother, "from whose pained head," he says in "Kaddish," "I first took Vision." On the other hand, the America in which he came of age defined homosexual acts as crimes, pursued undeclared wars in Korea and Vietnam, ran puppet governments in South America and elsewhere, was undisguisedly racist, had unsavory dealings with the drug trade, and spied shamelessly on its citizens through the F.B.I. Ginsberg differed from his apolitical contemporaries not only in that his political education had begun early (through his mother) but in that his own marginality as a homosexual made resistance to the status quo necessary for self-respect. He differed from many activist poets in eventually coming to recognize that all bureaucracies are much the same: he was as unwelcome in Communist police states (Czechoslovakia and Cuba both threw him out) as he was in the United States. And he was aware (as most reformers are not) that the underlying cause of his zeal was aggression within himself, which was projected outward as suspected aggression in others. The rage and despair in Ginsberg's early poems were as much a product of self-loathing as of objective criticism of the world. Yet his own crises of feeling enabled his violent insights into the suffering inflicted by a repressive society on its young,

     who were expelled from the academies
       for crazy & publishing obscene odes
       on the windows of the skull …
     who got busted in their pubic beards
       returning through Laredo with a
       belt of marijuana for New York …
     who howled on their knees in the
       subway and were dragged off the roof
       waving genitals and manuscripts.

Ginsberg was saved from suicidal depression by what he called an "auditory vision," in which he heard a voice—he took it to be that of William Blake—reciting poetry. Since Ginsberg's own poetry has always been scored for the audible voice—endorsing orality over the inhibitions of literacy—it is no surprise that the vision was an auditory one. And, since Blake is the greatest English poet of disinhibition—as Whitman is its greatest American poet—it was Blake who would be the instigator and Whitman the guru of Ginsberg's early verse. Whitman's "Unscrew the locks from the doors! / Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!" was the epigraph for Howl; and—to complete the revolutionary triad of precursors—Shelley's "Die, / If thou wouldst be with that which thou dost seek!" was the epigraph for Kaddish.

Blake and Shelley and Whitman were, on the whole, better poetic models for Ginsberg's verse than Buddhist sutras. Ginsberg's path resembles that of T. S. Eliot: both possessed exceptionally high-strung sensibilities, which when exacerbated plunged them into states alarmingly close to madness; both had breakdowns; both sought some form of wisdom that could ameliorate, guide, or correct the excesses of their reactions; and what Eliot found in Dr. Vittoz's Lausanne sanatorium ("Give … Sympathize … Control," words from an Upanishad quoted in "The Waste Land") Ginsberg found in Buddhist mantras and meditative practice.

Ginsberg's Buddhism seems to me to have had roughly the same effect on his lyrics that Eliot's Anglo-Catholicism had on his: a tension goes out of the poetry, and didacticism replaces it. In taming the uncontrollable, in regulating the nerves, the flinching person is made able to live; one cannot dispute the wisdom, in life, of staying out of the asylum. Yet the analysis of unregulated and baffling pain is a deep source of powerful lyric expression. The discipline that is taken up to regulate such pain is, of course, in itself a source of a different kind of deep pain—the pain of self-mutilation. Though the Eliot of "Four Quartets" recognizes this, Ginsberg is not very much interested in it. He finds consolation, rather than pain, in the atheist emptiness of his Buddhism.

The new Selected is not entirely satisfactory. Many wonderful poems—from "American Change" to "Chances R," from "Ecologue" to "Black Shroud"—have been omitted so that some sixty pages of Ginsberg's songs (none of which appeared in the 1984 Collected Poems) could be included. The songs may be convincing in performance, but they don't survive cold print, and Ginsberg's association with Bob Dylan is recalled rather too buoyantly: "I'm pleased with this intergenerational exchange of influence which confirms old traditions of artistic & spiritual transmission." Hardly an accurate interpretation: what of Ginsberg will enter the matrix of tradition is least likely to be the song lyrics imitating Dylan. But a truer statement follows: "The original task was to 'widen the area of consciousness,' make pragmatic examination of the texture of consciousness, even somewhat transform consciousness." That seems a fair summary of what Ginsberg's work has, in fact, done. Of course, his public appearances and his political activities have in their own way helped to "widen the area of consciousness," just as have Czeslaw Milosz's and Adrienne Rich's essays. But poetry has its own means, and they are not the same as marching in parades or writing persuasive prose.

Ginsberg's poetry gains much of its power from a cinematically detailed immersion in present-tense immediacy. You are there (as in any Ginsberg poem) when, in "Manhattan May Day Midnight," Ginsberg goes out at night to buy the newspapers and sees workmen tracking down a gas leak. He notices the bullet-shaped skull of the man in the manhole, he remarks the conjunction of asphalt and granite, he registers the presence of an idling truck:

     At the Corner of 11th under dim
       Street-light in a hole in the ground
     a man wrapped in work-Cloth and
       wool Cap pulled down his bullet skull
     stood & bent with a rod & flashlight
       turning round in his pit halfway sunk in earth
     Peering down at his feet, up to his
       chest in the asphalt by a granite Curb …
     Yes the body stink of City bowels,
       rotting tubes six feet under
     Could explode any minute sparked by
       Con Ed's breathing Puttering truck
     I noticed parked.

What is agreeable here is that there's no agenda. We are not asked to sympathize with the proletariat or to feel ecologically alarmed by the gas leak. Ginsberg's invincible interest in the real liberates us into a participatory disinterestedness. And his mind roams widely, in unpredictable ways. In another poem, the gas scene might have led to Ginsberg's own gas stove, or to comparable workers he had seen in India, or to the lure of night walking. In this case, his mind turns unexpectedly to Ancient Rome and Ur:

     I passed by hurriedly Thinking Ancient Rome, Ur
     Were they like this, the same shadowy surveyors & passers-by
     scribing records of decaying pipes & Garbage piles on Marble, Cuneiform,
     ordinary midnight citizen out on the street looking for Empire News.

One can't widen consciousness in poetry by having it follow a programmed path (as most ideologically committed poetry does). However noble its intentions, a programmed path narrows consciousness. Ginsberg, at his best, is alert, unprogrammed, free.

To examine "the texture of consciousness" means to find the million places existing in the interstices between our coarse terms for the activities of consciousness: "planning," "remembering," "memorizing," "grieving," "hoping." The texture of consciousness has had such marvelous explorers in our century (Joyce and Woolf in the novel, Eliot and Stevens in poetry) that it might seem that the task has already been accomplished. But Ginsberg has added something new. This has generally been thought to be the unspeakable (his mother's vomiting and defecating in the bathroom in "Kaddish," his own sexual grovelling in "Please Master," his embarrassment at the effects of Bell's palsy in "What You Up To?"). But, though Ginsberg has tracked shame and humiliation with great thoroughness, he has equally been the "Curator of funny emotions to the mob"—to borrow the title he bestowed on Frank O'Hara.

The comedy of consciousness was not the stock-in-trade of Eliot or Stevens, but it occurs with brio in Ginsberg, whose satiric eye is always ready to pick up a new contemporary genre—the "Personals" ad, for instance—and use it for a CAT scan of his own psyche:

    Poet professor in autumn years
    seeks helpmate companion protector friend …
    to share bed meditation apartment Lower East Side,
    help inspire mankind conquer world anger & guilt,
    empowered by Whitman Blake Rimbaud Ma Rainey & Vivaldi …
    Find me here in New York alone with the Alone.

Which of us, Ginsberg's poem suggests, has not read the "Personals" ads and mentally composed one? Which of us has not recognized the intrinsic absurdity of self-description? The very levels of consciousness that exist to be explored are mocked by their jockeying for place in Ginsberg's ad: the tabloid self-epithet, "poet professor"; the helpless stock of cliche, "autumn years"; the archaic reversion, "seeks"; the casting about for names for homosexual partnership, "helpmate companion protector friend." (The writer's mental state alters slightly with each of these: from the Biblical "helpmate" to the euphemistic "companion" and on to the feudal "protector" and the longed-for "friend.") The impossibility of enumerating all the levels of consciousness shows up in the forced coexistence on a single line of Rimbaud and Ma Rainey; and Ginsberg's self-silhouetting—the last line echoes Lionel Johnson, who wrote, grandly, "Lonely, unto the Lone I go; / Divine, to the Divinity"—shows his determination not to forsake the (parodic) sublime.

In lyric poetry one transforms the consciousness of others solely by transforming one's own. Ginsberg's self-transformations (rather like Whitman's) license his readers to go and do likewise. "Sunflower Sutra" is one of the famous rhapsodic self-transformations ("You were never no locomotive, Sunflower, you were a sunflower!"), but there are also satiric ones, of which the most outrageously cheerful is the famous "Pull My Daisy":

     Pull my daisy
     tip my cup
     all my doors are open
     Cut my thoughts
     for coconuts
     all my eggs are broken.

It's hardly possible to say this without losing a lot of pompousness (if one happens to be harboring any). To become Ginsberg as one reads his poems is to undergo a powerful, if transient, alteration of consciousness. Under his spell, one is both more excited and more noticing, more tender and more mocking. As humor bests aggression, and curiosity bests xenophobia, the world improves.

Finally, Ginsberg's ever reliable means of consciousness-raising is his rhythmic momentum, expressed by his long lines rolling in like breakers. Its urgency—at times strained, when Ginsberg is forcing the issue, but often genuine—means that some portion of life is demanding its place in the museum of history. If Ginsberg had not been mugged in New York, we would not have had the unstable rhythms of "Mugging":

     I went down shouting Om Ah Hum
        to gangs of lovers on the stoop watching
     slowly appreciating, why this is a raid,
        these strangers mean strange business
     with what—my pockets, bald head,
        broken-healed-bone leg, my softshoes,
        my heart—
     Have they knives? Om Ah Hum—
        Have they sharp metal wood to
        shove in eye ear ass? Om Ah Hum
     & slowly reclined on the pavement,
        struggling to keep my woolen bag
        of poetry address calendar & Leary-lawyer
        notes hung from my shoulder.

Ginsberg's nonresistant chanting drives the muggers crazy—"Shut up or we'll murder you"—and the poet concludes that it's easier to transform your own consciousness than that of the man in the street. Yet, though the poem descends from its idealist hopes, and closes ruefully in the realm of the real, it does not dismiss the premise that nonviolence as a response to violence is the only alternative to an endless chain of aggression. The new generation reading Ginsberg's Selected will find in such poems that Ginsberg's "force field of language" still exerts a powerful imaginative pressure.

Alicia Ostriker (essay date July/August 1997)

SOURCE: "'Howl' Revisited: The Poet as Jew," in The American Poetry Review, Vol. 4, 1997, pp. 28-31.

[In the following essay, Ostriker argues that while Ginsberg rejected elements of his Jewish heritage, it still influenced his writing.]

I have reverenced Allen Ginsberg—man and poet—for three decades and see no reason to stop now. The first time I met Allen I was amazed, as this essay suggests, by his voice: the power and sweetness and humor of it. His breath, I thought, was the breath of the spirit. The last time was the same but more so. We were at the Dodge Poetry Festival in Waterloo, N.J., in the soft weather of early fall, 1996. At dinner I told him I had written an essay about him as a Jew, that he would probably disapprove of, and he shrugged this off and talked about his new apartment. He was looking ailing and frail. He was ailing and frail, until he went on stage, seated with his harmonium, and then—what can one say except that Allen's voice was channeling huge quantities of spiritual energy, joy, pain, love, hope, laughter, from the Great Beyond, or wherever that stuff comes from, and spraying it like a cosmic fire hydrant into the big tent and out into the warm night. For forty-five minutes he hosed us up and down, and we all rode the billows of delight. I imagine he is having a fine time now, in the holy company of Whitman, Blake, Williams, and the Prophet Jeremiah.

i Ginsberg the Yid

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. It was 1966. We were in Vietnam but thought in our antiwar innocence that we might be out soon. Medgar Evers and Malcolm X were dead but Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were still alive. The Chicago riots, the invasion of Cambodia, the killing of four students at Kent State hadn't happened yet. Allen Ginsberg was giving a reading at Princeton University with Gary Snyder. In Princeton I lived at that time disguised as a young faculty wife and mother of two. Simultaneously at Rutgers University I went to work disguised as a promising young scholar of late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century poetry and prosody. Officially I was a Blakean. My own poetry remained in the closet during the years of my assistant professorship; had my colleagues known of my folly I would probably not have gotten the job, since most of them considered creative writing the equivalent of basket weaving, an activity for the retarded. Also in the closet were my two daughters in diapers. One did not discuss family in my department, where my senior colleagues were witty and charming men who all looked and behaved as if they had never in their lives laid eyes on a diaper.

I had already heard Allen once, at Rutgers, where he took off the top of my head in the standing room only vault of Voorhees Chapel by introducing as his opening act, of all people, his father Louis Ginsberg. Louis, with considerable self-importance, read some of his own poetry—rhymed, refined, culturally anonymous lyrics—as if to say this is how it should be done, here's the real thing, now you can listen to my son. Louis's condescension was not a joke, it was real. Equally real was Allen's affectionate graciousness toward his dad. As the daughter of a mother who also wrote rhymed poetry, of the same vintage as Louis's, I was overwhelmed. I couldn't dream of doing a reading with my mom. Embarrassing! Impossible! Couldn't dream of achieving the spiritual state that would make such openness possible for me…. But what if …? And indeed, a mere twenty years later, I found myself able to do it, give readings with my mother. Not often, not easily, but with a certain amount of grace which would have been impossible for me without that distant model.

In Princeton Allen read "Please Master," and I was scandalized. But I had a question to ask him and at the post-reading party I fought my way through the crowd of adoring boy undergraduates to ask it. It concerned his voice. That sonorous, sweet, deep, vibrant, patient baritone seemed to emerge from some inexhaustible energy source, manifesting the double sense of spiritus as simultaneously breath and spirit. But I had listened to an early recording of "Howl" in which, far from having the long lines express the poet's "natural" breath units as he so often claimed, the voice was high-pitched and short-breathed—entirely unequal to the long lines. What about it? Did he really develop the voice to go with the lines, and not the other way around? Yes, he cheerfully agreed, he had written the lines to go with his potential voice. And how, I asked—for this was what I wished to learn—did he train his voice to do what it did now? Could I do that? Allen smiled and suggested filling the bathtub and lying in the water face down reciting poems. Then he took another look at me and said: It's not so hard. Just do the breathing exercises you learned in childbirth classes.

The breathing exercises I had learned in childbirth classes. How did this gay guy, who knew nothing about women, know at a glance that the shy chick in front of him had taken childbirth classes? How did he know that pregnancy and childbirth had been, for her, peak spiritual experiences? I wanted to kiss his sandals. I watched him then with the flock of Princeton boys and saw how he listened to each one with the same focused attention, responding to each according to his need. It occurred to me that he didn't just want to sleep with them. He wanted to love them.

There is a word in Hebrew for a virtue at the core of Ginsberg's character and his writing, a virtue that has been noticed by infinite numbers of people—chesed. It means kindness, or loving kindness. Chesed is one of thirteen attributes of God according to Maimonides (who gets it from Exodus 34.6); it is, in addition, a quality of Torah (a Jew expresses gratitude each day to the God who has given us a Torah of life, and loving kindness, and righteousness, and compassion, and peace); it is a quality highly regarded among traditional Jewish men, whom Talmud praises as "compassionate sons of compassionate fathers."

In no way could the young Allen Ginsberg have known any of this in the secular family in which he grew up, which was not merely secular but adamantly atheist. And yet these ideals would have saturated the air he breathed, for Jewish atheism in its Eastern European sources is fueled by the dream of social justice which is also a dream of human kindness. In the classic East European Yiddish literature whose shtetl ethos was the mulch from which Louis Ginsberg's socialism and Naomi Ginsberg's communism fed, Irving Howe describes what he calls the value of "sweetness," "the tone of love … with which such masters as Sholem Aleichem and Peretz faced the grimmest facts about Jewish life." Howe's further remarks on the fictions of Mendele and Scholem Aleichem, Peretz, Singer, and Jacob Glatstein, might well describe "Howl": "The virtue of powerlessness, the power of helplessness, the company of the dispossessed, the sanctity of the insulted and injured—these, finally, are the great themes of Yiddish literature" in which, as well, we find the humor (self-mocking, buffoonish, absurd), the acerbity, the irremediable pain and melancholy a millimeter below the surface, which we find also in Allen Ginsberg.

Sholom Aleichem's village of Kasrilevke and Greenwich Village? Singer's saintly Gimpel the fool and Ginsberg's angelheaded hipsters? Or, still more appallingly/appealingly, a "chosen people"—chosen for persecution, for pogroms, for the chimneys—reincarnated as "the best minds of my generation"? Like the Jews of Europe, Ginsberg's "best minds" suffer for a stubborn adherence to their faith. Yiddishkeit and Ginsberg? A mere generation of partial American assimilation divides them. Ginsberg in "Howl" will record, in veiled fashion, the humiliation and crippling of a population of immigrants to shores which promised hope and produced despair. He will gather the threads dropped by the revolutionary poetry of the thirties, left dangling in the winter of McCarthyism. He will schpritz shamelessly alongside Henny Youngman and Lenny Bruce. Think of his extraordinary language. Ginsberg's beat lexicon, his determination to write a low dialect opposed to the literary diction promoted by his onetime mentor Lionel Trilling, may have been supported by William Carlos Williams. But it is also a tribute to his Yiddish-speaking ancestors and the obscure longevity of their gift for juicy emotional tragicomedy.

ii Ginsberg the Prophet

"People have been comparing me to Whitman, and although I love and adore and am a child of Whitman, both of us come from the Bible … We are talking about the endless quarrel between the establishment and the prophets, and I hope to be forever on the side of the prophets."

That is not Allen Ginsberg, it is Muriel Rukeyser, a poet a generation earlier, sprung from an assimilated Jewish family of quite another class from Ginsberg's; but one feels it might be Allen. Here, I want to argue, is the second area of the poet's Jewishness: if his personal style is an American incarnation of the Yiddish personality, his moral power descends in a direct line from the power of Hebrew prophecy. Certainly "prophet" and "prophetic" are terms that are freely used about his work, and that he often uses himself. Describing his 1948 Blake-inspired visions, "he realized," Paul Portugés tells us, "that his visionary experiences were not unlike the calling forth of the Hebrew prophets by their Creator" and that his task as a poet would be to recreate "prophetic illuminative seizure." But the notion of the poet as prophet is a loose one. From the Greek prophets, interpreter or proclaimer, or one who speaks for a deity, the term has been used in the English tradition since the late eighteenth century to denote a variety of sublimities opposed to neoclassic rationality. Jean Wojcik and Raymond-Jean Frontain define a "prophetic" stance in Western art as implying private vision, an insistence on the righteousness of the prophet and the corruption of his society, passionate and hyperbolic language, social radicalism, stylistic obscurity or incoherence, and "obsession, fine or frenzied," as "with every technique of language he can muster, the prophet delivers a message that never arrives." Herbert N. Schneider proposes a definition of the prophet as one who forces people to "look at their culture and see a myth … they can no longer believe in, for it is a living lie."

In his 1967 Paris Review interview, Ginsberg describes the genesis of "Howl": "I thought I wouldn't write a poem but just write what I wanted to without fear, let my imagination go, open secrecy, and scribble magic lines from my real mind." Beginning Part I he found himself composing "a tragic custard-pie comedy of wild phrasing, meaningless images for the beauty of abstract poetry of mind," and got excited and went on, "continuing to prophecy what I really know, despite the drear consciousness of the world." In Ginsberg's 1971 New York Quarterly interview with William Packard he remarks of "Howl" that "The poetic precedent for this situation is like Ezekiel and Jeremiah and the Hebrew prophets in the bible who were warning Babylon against its downfall … they were talking about the fall of a city like Babylon, or the fall of a tribe, and cursing out the sins of a nation." Now, what is wrong with this picture is that it suggests a view of the Hebrew prophets which charity might call at best sketchy. Jerusalem, not Babylon, for example, is the city warned and mourned in by Ezekiel and Jeremiah. The degree to which Ginsberg nonetheless reproduces not merely the King James cadences and rhetoric but the essential contradictions of Hebrew prophecy (as against Christian adaptations) is all the more starting. I want to argue here that the "prophetic" work "Howl" most resembles is the Lamentations of Jeremiah.

Extremity is the ground note of prophecy. Condemnation and warning dominate pre-exilic prophecy, eschatological promises dominate post-exilic. But where Isaiah and Ezekiel are inspired by and speak for the God of the Covenant, the voice of Lamentations howls in a void: God is terrifyingly present as an agent of destruction, yet terrifyingly absent from discourse. Invoked and prayed to out of the depths, he does not reply. But it is precisely the failure of divine response which has produced, as Alan Mintz argues, a literature of catastrophe which itself is an agent of survival:

Jewish society … has had many massive individual catastrophes visited upon it and still survived; and in each case the reconstruction was undertaken in significant measure by the exertions of the Hebrew literary imagination…. It is the story of the transcendence of the catastrophe rather than of the catastrophe itself which is compelling.

The City of Jerusalem was sacked, its temple destroyed, in 587 B.C.E. Most of the population sought exile; those who remained suffered famine. If the witness of the Book of Lamentations is to be believed, some of those who remained fed on the bodies of dead children. Emerging from a prophetic paradigm according to which "destruction is … a deserved and necessary punishment for sin," which "allows a penitent remnant to survive in a rehabilitated restored relationship to God," Lamentations deviates from the paradigm in that confession of sin in this poem is vastly secondary to "the experience of abandonment and the horror of destruction." The task of the poet is "to find adequate language for the horror." Crucial to Lamentations—and to the genre which will succeed it—is first of all that God, and not a mere human adversary, is the ultimate destroyer, and second that "God remains silent … but the sufferer's emergence from soliloquy to prayer enables him at least to recover God as the addressable other" and not merely as a brutal enemy.

Between Lamentations and "Howl" the parallels are numerous and uncanny, commencing with the one-word title promising a discourse in the semiotic register of meaningless sound. Outside, or prior to, the Law: the lament. Beyond or before the symbolic register, a howl. A language of vowels. A memory between or among the lines, of the universal inconsolable infant for whom the umbilicus to the Absolute is broken. The infant without boundaries, the I who is Other, or infinite, or zero, witness and victim, betrayed by the word, unable to speak a word. The shriek of the powerless feminized male child.

In both poems the voice is exclamatory, impassioned, hyperbolic, intensely figurative, and virtually impossible to pin down, to locate, to identify. In both, the speaking or shrieking or wailing "I" oscillates between the individual and collective identity. In the first chapter of Lamentations the baffled third person lament—"How doth the city sit solitary, that was full of people How is she become as a widow!" slides without warning, in mid-verse, into first-person: "All her people sigh, they seek bread; they have given their pleasant things for meat to relieve the soul: see, O Lord, and consider; for I am become vile." Note that "pleasant things" in this passage is a euphemism for sexual organs; the image is of a starving woman prostituting herself. And again, "Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass by? Behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow which is done unto me, wherewith the Lord hath afflicted me in the day of his fierce anger." Is this "I" the defiled and deserted Jerusalem speaking? Or a narrator identifying with her? Impossible to say, and the whole opening chapter refuses to differentiate. Chapter 2 is inhabited by a voice recounting, with horror, the unthinkable hostilities of the Lord against his own people and artifacts: "The Lord was an enemy, he hath swallowed up Israel, he hath swallowed up all her palaces, he hath destroyed his strongholds … And he hath violently taken away his tabernacle … he hath destroyed his places of the assembly". But the voice shifts into first person to exclaim, "Mine eyes do fail with tears, my bowels are troubled, my liver is poured out upon the earth, for the destruction of the daughter of my people" and then to bewail the impossibility of metaphor or comfort. "What thing shall I liken to thee, O daughter of Jerusalem? What shall I equal to thee, that I may comfort thee … For thy breach is great like the sea; who can heal thee?" In 3.1 an "I" witnesses distinctly: "I am the man that hath seen affliction"—it is this line which produces Whitman's "I am the man, I suffered, I was there"—and almost immediately is afflicted: "My flesh and my skin hath he made old; he hath broken my bones." Toward the close of Lamentations 4 and throughout 5 the pronouns shift again, toward a first-person plural, a "we."

In the first moment of "Howl," "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, / dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix," and the voice dissolves into what is seen. The "I" releases itself or is released into its surge of empathic madness. In Blakean terms, Ginsberg becomes what he beholds, an anaphoric catalogue of self-destructive souls whose search for the "ancient heavenly connection" which is simultaneously revelation and drug dealer, fails to find the "fix" which would be simultaneously a practical repair and a drugged ecstasy. No further "I" enters the poem until the middle of Part II, where Ginsberg briefly interrupts his invocation / exorcism of the sacrificial deity of industrial capitalist rationality, "Moloch whose name is the Mind," with a spurt of self—"Moloch in whom I sit lonely! Moloch in whom I dream Angels! Crazy in Moloch! Cocksucker in Moloch! Lacklove and manless in Moloch!"—and almost immediately disappears from his own text again. Only in Part III, with the intimate and affectionate address to a friend which parallels the "we" of Lamentations chapter 4, and the refrain "I'm with you in Rockland," does the poem at last imagine a possibility of coherent identity, an "I" in relatively stable relation to a "you." In the "Footnote," personal identity is again transcended; no "I" interrupts the absurd utterance of ecstasy.

The importance of geography in both Lamentations and "Howl" is likewise central and likewise paradoxical and contradictory. In both poems, identity is not only collective but requires rootedness in place. The city, Zion, the daughter of Zion, Jerusalem, the cities of Judah. Hallucinating Arkansas, poles of Canada and Paterson, Battery to holy Bronx. In both, the connection of place and people has been ruptured—by starvation literal and figurative, by conquest and exile: place does not sustain what should be its people, and hence identity is impossible.

The rhetoric of both poems relies on sexual figures and on body images, especially images of sexual humiliation and public disgrace. The pain of Jerusalem is also shame: "The adversaries saw her". "They have seen her nakedness". "Her filthiness is in her skirts". "The adversary hath spread out his hand upon all her pleasant things … the heathen entered into her sanctuary". "Jerusalem is as a menstruous woman". The male speaker experiences God as fire in his bones, a net for his feet, a yoke on his neck. In 2.11, "Mine eyes do fail with tears, my bowels are troubled, my liver is poured out upon the earth for the destruction of the daughter of my people." In 2.16, Zion's enemies "hiss and gnash the teeth." In 3.4, "my flesh and skin he hath made old, he hath broken my bones." In 3.16, "he hath broken my teeth with gravel stones." Likewise in Ginsberg Part I, the body is constantly at issue and the issue is commonly exposure, humiliation, deprivation: "starving hysterical naked" comrades "bared their brains to Heaven under the El," "got busted in their public beards," "purgatoried their torsos," "broke down crying in white gymnasiums naked," "were dragged off the roof waving genitals and manuscripts," "let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy," "walked all night with their shoes full of blood on the snowbank docks," "cut their wrists three times successively unsuccessfully," and so on. Extremity of spirit is enacted through bodily extremity, the crowning image of which in both poems is cannibalism. In a moment of climactic horror after describing famine in the city, and accusing God of causing it, Lamentations asks, "Shall the women eat their fruit, and children of a span long?" At the close of "Howl" Part I, Ginsberg evokes "the absolute heart of the poem of life butchered out of their own bodies good to eat a thousand years."

What Lamentations and "Howl" share most crucially is the anguished and intolerable sense of a divine power which thwarts, punishes, and destroys, which seems absolutely cruel rather then merely indifferent to human suffering, which cannot be appealed to and which remains silent, and yet which must be appealed to because it is God. It is ultimately God who is cannibalistically gorging on the bodies of babies in Lamentations, as the poem makes clear in its images of mouth and hand. "The Lord hath swallowed up all the habitations of Jacob, and hath not pitied … he hath bent his bow like an enemy … he hath not withdrawn his hand from destroying". The horrifying sublime prepares for, explains and contains the horrifying pathetic: "The hands of the pitiful women have sodden [i.e. boiled] their own children; they were their meat in the destruction of the daughter of my people. The Lord hath accomplished his fury". Ginsberg's generation has likewise been swallowed up by a more than human force, as the figurative conclusion of "Howl" I—the butchered heart of the poem of life "good to eat a thousand years" is literalized in the opening line of Part II: it is likewise a God who "bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination."

A pause here for Ginsberg's "Moloch," that sublimely elaborate invention of Part II:

      Moloch! Solitude! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and unobtainable
        dollars! Children screaming under the stair-ways! Boys
        sobbing in armies! Old men weeping in the parks!
      Moloch! Moloch! Nightmare of Moloch! Moloch the loveless!
        Mental Moloch! Moloch the heavy judger of men!
      Moloch the incomprehensible prison! Moloch the crossbone
        soulless jailhouse and Congress of sorrows! Moloch
        whose buildings are judgment; Moloch the vast stone
        of war! Moloch the stunned governments!…

The name is derived from the Canaanite God of fire, Molech, to whom children were offered in sacrifice and whose worship by the Israelites is condemned in Leviticus, 1 and 2 Kings, Jeremiah, Amos and Ezekiel: "Moreover thou hast taken thy sons and daughters whom thou hast borne unto me, and these thou hast sacrificed unto them to be devoured. Is this of thy whoredoms a small matter, that thou hast slain my children and delivered them to cause them to pass through the fire for them?" (Ezekiel 16.20-21). Israelite society for several centuries intermittently practiced human sacrifice which in theory it rejected, America, "Howl" Part II tells us, does the same. William Blake's Moloch represents the obsessive human sacrifice of war, especially as connected with perversely suppressed sexuality. Ginsberg's mind-forged Moloch likewise has this aspect, and is a broadly Urizenic figure for the oppressiveness of a modern industrial and military state, exuded from Reason. Ginsberg's Moloch is also the modern version of Mammon, the capitalism of "Unobtainable dollars … running money … electricity and banks!" But although you cannot worship both God and Mammon, Moloch is not an alternative to God, Moloch is God: "heavy judger of men … endless Jehovahs … They broke their backs lifting Moloch to Heaven!" Inorganic, abstract, Moloch is simultaneously within us and without us, incubus and whale's belly: "Moloch who entered my soul early! Moloch in whom I am a consciousness without a body!" Inescapable Moloch parallels the God of Lamentations.

The contradiction of a God who is also an enemy leads to a deeper contradiction central to the genre of lamentation and, it has been argued, to Jewishness itself. Chapter 3 of Lamentations, its longest chapter, centers on a fusion of despair and hope: "He hath turned aside my ways, and pulled me in pieces" turns itself inside out with "The Lord is my portion, saith my soul; therefore have I hope". "Out of the mouth of the Most High proceedeth not evil and good?". As literature and as consolation, the poem of lamentation "must communicate its own inadequacy. Its success, in a sense, depends on its failure." When Ginsberg's manic "Footnote to Howl" announces the holiness of everything, it produces an absurd, irrational, extravagant inversion of Part I. Like the hope of the author of Lamentations, Ginsberg's celebration is not logical but willed:

      Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy!
        Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy!
      The world is holy! The soul is holy! The skin is holy!
        The nose is holy! The tongue and cock and hand
        and asshole holy!
      Everything is holy! everybody's holy! everywhere is
        holy! everyday is in eternity! Everyman's an angel!

This ecstatic revelation has its literary source in the "Holy, holy, holy" shout of the seraphim praising God in Isaiah 6.3, but as in Blake's "Marriage of Heaven and Hell," which is clearly one of Ginsberg's most important models here, "everything that lives is holy." Whitman, too, had claimed "Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch or am touched from; The scent of these arm-pits is aroma finer than prayer." Further, as "Holy" inverts "howly," what has previously been interpreted as monstrous by the poet himself may now be re-interpreted:

      Holy the solitudes of skyscrapers and pavements! Holy
        the cafeterias filled with the millions! Holy the
        mysterious rivers of tears under the streets!

in a spurt of hilarity, even Moloch can and must be included:

      Holy time in eternity holy eternity in time holy the
        clocks in space holy the fourth dimension holy
        the fifth International holy the Angel in

And finally

      Holy the supernatural extra brilliant intelligent
       kindness of the soul!

Kindness again. That almost imperceptible Yiddish kindness. It is perhaps of interest that Ginsberg apparently thought the poem finished after Part III, and mailed copies to numerous friends and critics, including Richard Eberhart to whom he wrote an extended formal discussion of the poem without the footnote on May 18, 1956; and including his father. He received a letter from Louis dated February 29, 1956; "I am gratified about your new ms. It's a wild, rhapsodic, explosive outpouring with good figures of speech flashing by in its volcanic rushing…. It's a hot geyser of emotion suddenly released in wild abandon from subterranean depths of your being." Louis insisted, however, "there is no need for dirty, ugly words, as they will entangle you unnecessarily in trouble," and added his anxiety that the poem "is a one-sided neurotic view of life, it has not enough glad, Whitmanic affirmations." Sweet, embarrassed, embarrassing Louis. And did Allen perhaps compose the footnote under the invisible pressure of his father's admonition?

iii It Occurs to Him That He Is America

      To be a Jew in the twentieth century
      Is to be offered a gift. If you refuse,
      Wishing to be invisible, you choose
      Death of the spirit, the stone insanity.
      Accepting, take full life. Full agonies:
      Your evening deep in labyrinthine blood
      Of those who resist, fail and resist; and God
      Reduced to a hostage among hostages.

       The gift is torment. Not alone the still
       Torture, isolation; or torture of the flesh
       That may come also. But the accepting wish,
       The whole and fertile spirit as guarantee
       For every human freedom, suffering to be free,
       Daring to live for the impossible.

That is of course Rukeyser again, the Rukeyser of "Letter to the Front," published in 1944, stylistically a world away from "Howl," chronologicallya decade away, morally shoulder to queer Jewish shoulder. How Jewish then is the Ginsberg of "Howl"? I have been attempting to suggest both a low Yiddish element and a high Hebraic element in that poem, notwithstanding what must also be spoken of: the poet as a "Jew in flight from Judaism," or what Isaac Deutscher called "the non-Jewish Jew."

His ethnicity was never exactly invisible to others. "Naive, he was incredibly naive," recalled Lucien Carr of his fellow student at Columbia. "He was just an eager young Jewish kid from Paterson who wanted to know everything about books and writers and art and painting." Kerouac fictionalizes the young Allen in The Town and the City (1946): "Levinsky was an eager, sharply intelligent boy of Russian-Jewish parentage who rushed around New York in a perpetual sweat of emotional activity." And in The Vanity of Duluoz: "I was sitting in Edie's apartment one day when the door opened and in walks this spindly Jewish kid with horn-rim glasses and tremendous ears sticking out, 17 years old, burning black eyes, a strangely deep voice." Introducing Empty Mirror, William Carlos Williams calls Ginsberg "this young Jewish boy," before going on to compare him with Dante and Chaucer, but then comes around to paralleling him with the prophet Jeremiah." Richard Eberhart, describing Ginsberg's performance of "Howl" at the Six Gallery reading for the September 2, 1956 New York Times Book Review, writes, "My first reaction was that it is based on destructive violence. It is profoundly Jewish in temper. It is Biblical in its repetitive grammatical buildup. It is a howl against anything in our mechanistic civilization which kills the spirit…." M. L. Rosenthal reviewing "Howl" in The Nation in 1957 wrote that the poem had "the single-minded frenzy of a raving madwoman" (brilliant guesswork, one might say; Naomi is that madwoman, for it can be argued that "Howl" ventriloquizes her voice just as the speaker of Lamentations ventriloquizes Jerusalem's, although "Kaddish" has not been published yet) but that some of Ginsberg's early poems at the back of the book "have a heavy Yiddish melancholy." (Rosenthal in conversation with me called the "madwoman" a "typo" which he feared was insulting to both women and homosexuals and later changed to "madman," but I would say he guessed better than he knew.) Edward Albee remembers Allen in the late fifties as "you young, a young old testament prophet." For Hayden Carruth he is "mindpetal, spectre, strangest jew, cityboy." Yevgeny Yevtushenko, who with a charm equal to Allen's own calls him the "Omm-issar of American Poetry," remembers the beats as "the uprising of the garbage dumps of the suburbs…. And riding bareback on a garbage can, careering wildly past the Plaza and the Hilton, like a Jewish Mowgli of the concrete jungles, came Allen Ginsberg, prophet of the outpouring."

As to Allen's own testimony, "At 14 I was an introvert, an atheist, a Communist and a Jew, and I still wanted to be president of the United States." His family listened to Eddie Cantor on the radio, and "It was a … high point of the week. I guess because he was Jewish and a national come-dian and everybody in the family identified with him." In the last year of high school Ginsberg vowed to devote his life to helping the working classes if he got into Columbia University. The simplicity of these identifications and that identity failed to outlast his crossing the river to Columbia and his immediate attraction to the bohemian likes of Lucien Carr, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Neil Cassady, all non-Jews, apolitical, amoral. What was a nice Jewish boy doing with these types? Poor Louis kept asking. What did he have in mind by writing "Fuck the Jews" accompanied by a skull and crossbones on his dusty dorm window? Ginsberg's biographer Barry Miles takes Allen's word at face value that his little naughtiness was to catch the attention of an Irish cleaning woman he suspected of being anti-Semitic. "Trilling and his wife were utterly unable to accept that Allen was simply goading the anti-Semitic Irish cleaner, and years later Diana Trilling was still using the incident as an example of Ginsberg's 'Jewish self-hatred.'"

A few chapters later Barry Miles observes that Ginsberg "was unable to relate to his Jewish heritage." How very Jewish. Carl Solomon, the dedicatee of "Howl," publishes his "Report from the Asylum: After-thoughts of a Shock patient" under the name Carl Goy. Allen's brother Eugene changes his surname to Brooks when he becomes a lawyer. It would be years before Allen started identifying himself humorously as a Jewish Buddhist. When Ginsberg cites the sources and precedents for "Howl," he includes Blake, Shelley, Whitman, Christopher Smart, Charlie Parker, Cézanne, Wilhelm Reich, Leadbelly, William Carlos Williams, Rimbaud, Céline, Brecht, Jean Genet, Hart Crane, and Tristan Corbière, to name a few. He names no Jewish source, and commenting on the phrase "bop kabbalah" distances himself from it as a bit of "mystical name-dropping" and says he had read "little on kabbalah."

Two interesting essays by fellow poets touch on this matter of Ginsberg's reluctance to identify with Jewishness—his wish to "pass" as an unmarked member of the Euro-American avant-garde—through meditating on the ancient heavenly connection of Allen-Naomi. To Clayton Eshleman, Ginsberg's "visionary panic over the destructiveness of North American society, the way it titillates the self and then cold-cocks it," derives from how "on a very personal level, North America had done the same thing to his mother … it is the agony of the son who escorted his mother when he was twelve to the asylum … that flows through the magnificent first movement of Howl…. Ginsberg would save Mankind since he was unable to save Naomi." This seems to me entirely correct. Supporting Eshleman's intuition we might notice that the nominal "secret hero" of Part I may be Neil Cassady, "N. C. … cocksman and Adonis of Denver," but toward the close of Part I comes a set of lines whose reference is Carl Solomon, and in its midst "the mother finally∗∗∗∗∗∗" and the yellow paper rose twisted on a wire hanger in the nameless Naomi's madhouse closet. In a letter to John Hollander Ginsberg calls the "Footnote" "too serious a joke to explain," and then explains it by saying its real dedicatee is "my mother who died in the madhouse and it says I loved her anyway." Having said this, the letter then hastens to return to technical talk about "open prophetic bardic poetry." Allen Grossman, in a partially skewed essay on Ginsberg, "The Jew as American Poet," argues that "the Jew, like the Irishman, presents himself as the type of the sufferer in history" but that for Ginsberg the beat subculture "takes the place of the real ethnic and political subcultures which in the past succored and gave identity to the outcast by forming a community of outcasts". "In 'Kaddish,'" Grossman continues, "the archetypal female is a mutilated and paranoid old woman ('scars of operations, pancreas, belly wounds, abortions, appendix, stitching of incisions pulling down in the fat like hideous thick zippers') haunted by the image of Hitler and dying, obscene and abandoned, in the sanitarium. This is Ginsberg's version of the Jewish mother and, simultaneously, of the shechina, the wandering soul of Israel herself." Surely this is correct and surely what is expressed in "Kaddish" is repressed but powerfully latent in "Howl"—so much so that one may almost feel the son's voice to be that of the mother. Does he speak for her, or is she speaking through him? This is as impossible to decide as it is to identify the voice of Lamentations as witness or victim. And if Naomi is the invisible mother/matter of Ginsberg's first great poem, there is an uncanny connection between this mother who almost devoured her son and the mothers who cannibalize their infants in the streets of Jerusalem. Grossman goes on, however, to claim that Ginsberg "erects on [Naomi's] grave an image which is no longer ethnic and which therefore is no longer obsessed by the mystery of the Jewish people in history," and to remark that "throughout Ginsberg's writing there is an ambivalence toward Jewishness which should be recognized as it seems to be an emphatic part of his public statement." Grossman is implying, I think, that Ginsberg is somehow or other not a real Jew because of this.

Yet ambivalence toward Jewishness, like pepper in the stew, is a key ingredient of post-Enlightenment Jewish writing. Alan Mintz, tracing "responses to catastrophe in Hebrew literature" from Lamentations to the post-Holocaust era, stresses four historic stances: First, there is an early rabbinic theme of shame at Israel's humiliation before the nations, quite apart from the insistence on Israel's sinfulness. During the late medieval period, in response to arbitrary Christian massacres of Jews, there develops an exaltation of suffering as "an opportunity awarded by God to the most worthy for the display of righteousness." In the early modern period, from the 1880's to the early 1900's, writers like Shalom Abromowitsch, Saul Tchernichevsky, and Chaim Nachman Bialik respond to the devastating pogroms that swept Russia and Eastern Europe with a literature of profound and bitter ambivalence toward the masses of Jewish people—part pity, part contempt. And in the Palmach generation of Israeli writers the dominant stance toward the European victims of the holocaust was indeed contempt.

To be a Jew in diaspora is to be ambivalent. It is commonly also to take on the colors of the host culture. To be more German than the Germans, like Heine; more French than the French, like Dreyfuss, Sartre, and Simone Weil; more English than the English, like Disraeli; more Russian than the Russians, like Isaac Babel, who rode with the Cossacks. Would someone named Bobby Zimmerman have had the extraordinary effect on American youth wielded by someone named Bob Dylan? To believe in the host culture's own ideals about itself, and then to write as an indignant social critic when the host nation fails (of course) to embody those ideals: this is all normal for the Jewish writer.

Yet Allen as Jew remains a good son. From his father's socialism, that tenderhearted materialism, Allen keeps and intensifies the tenderness while questioning the materialism. Of his mother's communism—her paranoid idealism—Allen tries to exorcise the paranoia (everything's holy, Moloch is holy, breathe deep and say Om) while holding fast to the idealism, free love and all, physical and emotional nudism and all. From Louis's poetry he retains a devotion to form. From Naomi's madness he retains the outrageousness and outgrows the self-destructiveness.

From America Allen takes Whitman. The manly love of comrades, the open road, the democratic vistas stretching to eternity, and also the eyes of America taking a fall, which he plants, later, in his mother's head. America will always be, for him, infinite hope and infinite disappointment. That's very Jewish.

And from Judaism he takes the universal compassion and rejects the tribalism. Instead of professing victimization as Jew, his writing projects victimization onto the world, and in the same moment proposes, through the mystery of rhetoric, to save it. The power of prophetic rhetoric in the genre of Lamentation is that it must wring cosmic affirmation out of despair. God is your enemy, and you must trust him. Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows eats his children, but you must declare him holy. A decade after completing "Howl," Ginsberg at the climax of "Wichita Vortex Sutra" calls "all the powers of the Imagination" to his side and declares "the end of the War." Ridiculous, absurd, foolish, impossible. Daring to live for the impossible.

Further Reading

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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.


Ginsberg, Allen (Vol. 1)


Ginsberg, Allen (Vol. 13)