Since Allen Ginsberg is in his seventh decade, a professor at the City University of New York Graduate Center and a member of the American Institute of Arts and Letters, it would not be surprising if his important work as a poet were behind him, if he had essentially retired from the field to enjoy the radical shift in literary sensibility that has moved the work of his fellow artists from the outer banks to the strongest currents of American literature. Yet in a volume that collects the poems he has placed in a very wide variety of periodicals and pamphlets since the publication of White Shroud in 1986, Ginsberg’s immediately recognizable, distinctive voice retains the high energy and linguistic invention that has marked his writing since the groundbreaking “Howl” of 1956. This new poetry covers many familiar themes from the perspective of a “poet professor in autumn years,” as he describes himself in “Personals Ad.” The dazzling virtuosity with language, the heart-cheering spiritual generosity, the seriousness of political purpose, and the wry, self-reflective humor that characterize Ginsberg’s extensive output are as striking in Cosmopolitan Greetings: Poems, 1986-1992 as in any previous collection. Nevertheless, Ginsberg, who has always been extremely conscious of his physical presence (“the body/ where I was born”), has brought his concerns with the inescapable consequences of time’s passage into poems illuminating the anxieties of an aging man trying to assess his own role in the cultural and historical patterns of his era. The exuberance and the antic humor that have always been a feature of Ginsberg’s poetry of sexual candor remain, but there is a modulation in tone and mood toward the rueful and contemplative. Similarly, while the poems presenting strong positions about governmental policy are immediately contemporary, Ginsberg often refers to earlier works on related subjects as if he were adding links to a chain of historic commentaries.
In “Author’s Preface, Reader’s Manual,” which he wrote as an introduction to his Collected Poems: 1947-1980 (1984), Ginsberg referred to “strong-breath’d poems,” which he saw as “peaks of inspiration” that occurred every few years. Using what he called his “Hebraic-Melvillian bardic breath,” Ginsberg developed long, momentum-building line structures in poems like “Howl,” “Kaddish,” “Kral Majales,” “Mind Breaths,” and “White Shroud”—poems that are designed to pull the reader/listener into an emotional force field so that the intense conviction of the poet is, ideally, re-created in the mind and heart of the audience. Cosmopolitan Greetings does not contain any single poem with the historical sweep of the epiclike “Witchita Vortex Sutra,” but Ginsberg still manipulates a strong, rhythmic base figure that accumulates power through repetition while a series of images gradually assemble a picture of a place or ecstatic moment. This strategy accounts for the success of poems such as “On Cremation of Chögyam Trungpa, Vidyadhara,” “Improvisation in Beijing,” “Get It?” and “Graphic Winces.” The fundamental technique of these poems is either to sustain and expand an essential position through incremental addition or to place disparate images within a large framework so that the subject becomes a multidimensional construct with unlimited boundaries.
“Improvisation in Beijing,” which Ginsberg has placed as a preface at the beginning of the book, is a poetic credo in the form of an expression of artistic ambition. Using the phrase “I write poetry because . . .” to launch each line, Ginsberg juxtaposes ideas, images, data, and assertion in a flux of energetic intent, his life’s experiences revealing the desire and urgency of his calling. From the explicitly personal:
I write poetry because my mind wanders subject to sex politics Bud-
I write poetry to make accurate picture my own mind.
to the overtly political:
I write poetry because overgrazing sheep and cattle Mongolia to U.S.
Wild West destroys new grass & erosion creates deserts.
to the culturally connected:
I write poetry because I listened to black Blues on 1939 radio, Leadbelly
and Ma Rainey.
I write poetry inspired by youthful cheerful Beatles’ songs grown old.
to the aesthetically ambitious in the concluding line:
I write poetry because it’s the best way to say everything in mind within
6 minutes or a lifetime.
Ginsberg has gathered, from a lifetime of reflection on the subject, his responses to a request for his “sources of inspiration.” The rambling, discursive nature of the poem, with its abrupt shifts in focus, is designed to enable Ginsberg to emphasize one of his primary principles from Walt Whitman: “I am large, I contain multitudes.” In this sense, he is continuing to function as a spokesman for an epoch, a time-honored tradition for the poet.
“On Cremation of Chögyam Trungpa, Vidyadhara,”...