There is something quite appealing and, at the same time, vaguely disturbing, about an announcement from the B. Dalton booksellers inviting the public to “Meet Allen Ginsberg,” with a picture of the poet, his hand curled behind his head, looking reflective in a dark suit and thin tie. On the occasion of the publication of his Collected Poems, 1947-1980, Ginsberg, always very accessible at numerous readings and other literary and political events, has momentarily moved into the spotlight of conventional celebrity. He is the subject of a respectful New York Times Magazine profile and has made an appearance at a branch of the Dalton chain to autograph “the first complete collection of his writing.” While it is gratifying to see Ginsberg, approaching sixty, finally enjoying the recognition a writer of his accomplishments deserves, there is an implication amid this aura of respectability that his active life as an original, even visionary, poet and thinker is over—that he has been absorbed, at last, into the quiet mainstream of polite literary acclaim. There is also, amid the professional pictures of Ginsberg that accompany reviews of his poems, a kind of revelation of just how much Ginsberg’s poetry has been read and heard as a part of a persona famous for outlandish observations, unconventional acts, and unpredictable enthusiasms. With all of the poems available in one solid seven-hundred-plus-page book (but without his striking reading voice), it is the writing alone that demands attention; the writing which must survive a scrutiny removed from the sympathetic reception his serious admirers have always extended.
The publication of Ginsberg’s Collected Poems, 1947-1980 offers the full sum of his life’s work so far. There is a gravity to the book, a kind of accumulated strength in totality beyond the City Lights series which presents six volumes of Ginsberg’s poetry. This book includes poems never collected in any previous edition and incorporates some important changes on which Ginsberg decided, “adjustments made after years of reading works aloud,” an unusual concession to posterity by a poet who always celebrated the virtue of spontaneity—“First thought, best thought” as the famous dictum has it. It has the sort of scholarly apparatus one expects from “definitive” major university press volumes, including explanatory appendices, fifty pages of the poet’s own notes, introductions to previous editions by William Carlos Williams, and a specially composed “Author’s Preface, Reader’s Manual” which demonstrates the vivacity of the poet’s prose style. In a sense, the entire publishing process suggests that Ginsberg has been a central figure in American literature throughout his productive years. In reality, like Walt Whitman, his spiritual mentor, who was not studied in American universities until after World War II, Ginsberg has been ignored or insulted by most of the literary establishment for much of his life, and his continuing struggle to handle this rejection is quite instructive in terms of developing an understanding of his work and its place in American letters.
The situation that Ginsberg faced can be seen clearly in an incident of the late 1940’s—John Crowe Ransom’s rejection for publication in the Kenyon Review of a poem by Robert Duncan which, upon rereading, he judged to be “an obvious homosexual advertisement.” Ransom was one of the most influential literary figures of this century, and along with his friends Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, was responsible for the establishment of the best-known and most widely accepted criteria for determining poetic excellence in mid-twentieth century America. The poetry which did not confirm the expectations of these criteria was usually dismissed. This meant that T. S. Eliot, Robert Frost, and Wallace Stevens were recognized in their greatness, but that Ezra Pound and Williams were regarded as curious aberrations, while people such as Louis Zukofsky, George Oppen, and Marianne Moore were simply rendered invisible. Like Whitman, Pound, and Williams, Ginsberg and his friends—Robert Creeley, Gary Snyder, Denise Levertov, Ed Dorn, Duncan, and others—were not a part of the Anglo-American tradition, a classical strain emphasizing the time-tested techniques of rhyme, metrics, and form, permitting refinement and readjustment, even extension and expansion of what had been done, but almost recoiling from “an opening of the field” as Charles Olson demanded in his revolutionary Projective Verse of 1950. Ginsberg’s respect for the great tradition of British poetry is clear from his own early work and from his frequent comments on English verse, but he believed that his voice required its own form for its fullest development. He was surprised when Lionel Trilling responded to his ideas at Columbia University with a kind of good-natured befuddlement, and one can guess his reaction to Diana Trilling’s arch comment that she was “curiously pleased for him” when “ he spoke of inspiration, or perhaps it was illumination, ecstatic illumination, as the source of his poetry.” These distressingly nonrational, almost mystical, certainly not measurable qualities were precisely what Ginsberg wanted to reintroduce to American poetry (and American life) when he was a student, and his insistence that all experience is suitable, even necessary, for poetry, is at the center of American literature.
As a result of the cultural and critical bias that Ransom, the Trillings, and many others perpetuated, Ginsberg’s mastery of traditional poetic devices was overlooked. Life magazine layouts of Ginsberg and his beatnik friends in their pads clashed so strongly with academic ideas of what constituted an acceptable poetic presence—Frost the farmer, Eliot the banker, Stevens the broker—that Ginsberg was regarded, at best, as the poet of an unimportant subculture. An ossified “genteel” literary tradition—itself a misreading and a reduction of the true spirit of New England gentility—was shrinking the boundaries of acceptable American poetry drastically. In 1960, however, the publication of the ground-breaking anthology The New American Poetry, 1945-1960 (edited by Donald Allen), twenty-two years after Brooks and Warren’s...
(The entire section is 2585 words.)