Cosmopolitan Greetings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 487

The dazzling linguistic invention, the heart-cheering spiritual generosity, the seriousness of political purpose and the endearing wry self-conscious humor that marked Allen Ginsberg’s work from the publication of his landmark poem HOWL in 1956 are still present in his latest collection of poetry. Issued on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of his historic meeting with Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs, COSMOPOLITAN GREETINGS shows Ginsberg faithful to his visionary goals for humankind while writing from the perspective of a man who sees himself now (in “Personals Ad”) as a “Poet professor in autumn years.”

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The great themes and primary concerns of Ginsberg’s life continue to form the substance of his poetic inquiry, but now, the inescapable consequences of time’s passage have added a dimension of rueful reflection to the exuberant physicality and sexual candor that have been a part of Ginsberg’s groundbreaking personal voice and style. As the shape of American literary history now clearly indicates the importance of the best writers of the Beat Generation, Ginsberg’s own reflections on his fellow artists and friends have taken on the added interest of a significant commentary by an energetic advocate for the work he supported and taught.

The deep feeling for longtime friends and the awareness of loss as his contemporaries seem to merge in his mind with prominent older historical personages has not led to a diminution of the surging rhythmic energy that Ginsberg made into his signature in HOWL. Using what he has called his “Hebraic-Melvillian bardic breath” to develop long, momentum-building line structures, Ginsberg brought a stir of excitement to his readings that was instrumental in the mid-century shift from an academic poetry of the parlor to a kind of poetry accessible to a wider audience. In COSMOPOLITAN GREETINGS, while there is no real equivalent of the epiclike “Witchita Vortex Sutra,” the sustained power of poems like “Improvisation in Beijing” which works on the trope, “I write poetry because . . . ;” the wide-ranging, probing, seeking eye of the poet in “On Cremation of Chogyam Trungpa, Vidyadhara,” expressed in the repeated “I noticed . . . ;” or the staccato jabs of “Get It?” show how effective Ginsberg’s careful repetition of phrases with variations still is.

Consistent with the lyric, evocative poetry Ginsberg has written since his tribute to Walt Whitman, “A Supermarket in California,” poems such as the tender “London Dream Doors,” the warmly appreciative “To Jacob Rabinowitz,” or the poignant lament for a friend with AIDS entitled “John,” are an indication of Ginsberg’s ability to handle quieter, softer modes with the same craft he brought to the high-energy constructs. While this book is unlikely to convert readers who do not already admire Ginsberg’s work, it is likely to be indispensable for his devotees.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XC, April 15, 1994, p. 1503.

Library Journal. CXIX, May 1, 1994, p. 107.

The Progressive. LVIII, May, 1994, p. 50.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLI, March 28, 1994, p. 87.

The Virginia Quarterly Review. LXX, Autumn, 1994, p. 134.

Cosmopolitan Greetings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2113

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-
dhadharma meditation.
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,” a tribute to a spiritual guide Ginsberg admired, reverses the structural thrust of “Improvisation in Beijing” so that its long lines beginning “I noticed the . . .” spiral inward toward a composite portrait built by “minute particulars”—Ginsberg’s term for William Carlos Williams’ injunction “No ideas but in things.” He concentrates on specifics in tightly wound lines that present the observations of an extremely aware, actively thoughtful participant:

I noticed the grass, I noticed the hills, I noticed the highways,
I noticed the dirt road, I noticed car rows in the parking lot

Eventually he includes interjections that suggest the importance of the event for the poet:

I noticed the palanquin, an umbrella, the stupa painted with jewels the
colors of the four directions—
amber for generosity, green for karmic works, noticed the white for
Buddha, red for the heart—

The poem concludes with a summation of the impact of the event, a fusion of awe, delight, and wonder joining the mundane with the cosmic:

I noticed the houses, balconies overlooking a misted horizon, shore &
old worn rocks in the sand
I noticed the sea, I noticed the music, I wanted to dance.

Again, Ginsberg is acting in a classic poetic position, speaking as the recorder who sees, understands, and appreciates the significance of important events, and who can find language adequate for their expression.

“Get It?” and “Graphic Winces” utilize similar forms, but without the immediately personal location of the poem in the consciousness of an “I” whose individual history is inherent in the subject. The staccato jabs of “Get It?” and the precise evocations of unsettling sensations in “Graphic Winces” indicate that this pattern, which Ginsberg described in “Notes for Howl and Other Poems” as “a base to keep measure, return to and take off from again,” is sufficiently versatile for many different poetic occasions. Nevertheless, in spite of Ginsberg’s pleasure with and expertise in this structural arrangement, his work has never been limited to or confined by any single signature style. In accordance with Robert Creeley’s comment that “there’s an appropriate way of saying something inherent in the thing to be said,” Ginsberg fuses form and subject with the craftsmanship available to an artist who has not only worked steadily for four decades but also acquired a true scholar’s knowledge of poetry in the English language.

The crucial issue for Ginsberg is that nothing is automatically unacceptable, that the open field of American poetry has been enriched by infusions of elements from many regions of cultural exploration. Thus, there are three poems set to a written musical accompaniment—“C.I.A. Dope Calypso,” “N.S.A. Dope Calypso” and “Just Say Yes Calypso”— each with four-line stanzas and a recapitulating two-line chorus. They are followed by Ginsberg’s “Hum Bom!” of 1971, with a second section written twenty years later that performs linguistic gymnastics on a core phrase, “Whydja bomb,” to the point of hilarious, mindless syllabic absurdity. There is a comic-strip “Deadline Dragon Comix,” in which primitive panels accompany what might be poetic lines cast in speech bubbles, notes, and comments. Is this a poem? There is another song, “Violent Collaborations,” with four lines of music from a 1944 melody and (in collaboration with Peter Hale) erotic/scatologic improvisations. There are three pages of “American sentences,” which are, in effect, a version of haiku, as in “Crescent moon, girls chatter at twilight on the busride to Ankara.” There is a new set of verses to the “Internationale,” in which Ginsberg pays homage to the dreams of a social republic of justice while parodying current manifestations of self-important salvationists. None of these may be examples of great poetry, yet they reflect the mental process that shaped the great poems, interesting in that sense and important to the poet as a part of his method of composition.

The poetry in Cosmopolitan Greetings that shows Ginsberg at his most effective beyond the “strong breath’d poems” occurs in two modes. Ever since his tribute to Walt Whitman, “A Supermarket in California,” which was written at the same time as “Howl” in 1955, Ginsberg has used the lyric form as a means of conveying his deeply romantic vision of an idealized existence set in opposition to the social disasters he has resisted. These are poems of appreciation and gratitude, celebrating the things of the world that bring delight. “To Jacob Rabinowitz” is a letter of thanks for a translation of Catullus and recalls with satisfaction their initial love and continuing friendship. “Fun House Antique Store” conveys the poet’s astonishment at finding a “country antique store, an/ old fashioned house” on the road to “see our lawyer in D.C.” The lovingly evoked intricate furnishings of the store suggest something human that is absent in “the postmodern Capital.” Both of these poems sustain a mood of exultation crucial to a lyric. In other shorter, sometimes fragmentary poems Ginsberg also achieves a feeling of heightened emotional response through the musical pulses of word clusters carefully placed for their pitch and duration, a demonstration of the poet’s own application of the advice he includes in the title poem: “Syntax condensed, sound is solid./ Intense fragments of spoken idiom, best./ Consonants around vowels make sense./ Savor vowels, appreciate consonants.”

The other mode that Ginsberg employs here is a familiar one. The opening lines of “Mescaline” were written in 1959:

Rotting Ginsberg, I stared in the mirror naked today
I noticed the old skull, I’m getting balder

They were harbingers of a continuing preoccupation in Ginsberg’s poetry. Aside from the emphasis he has always placed on physical sensation and the exploration of how extremes of sensory response affect artistic consciousness, the poems that closely examine the self reflect the romantic concept that the poet is a register and recorder of common human existence, a witness to the world whose reactions give tongue to universal perceptions. The humor that Ginsberg has always brought to these meditations has darkened somewhat. In “Not Dead Yet,” he counsels himself, “Drink your decaf Ginsberg old communist New/ York Times addict, be glad you’re not Trotsky.”

There is a note of desperation in the translation of the Bengali poet Lalon Shah, “After Lalon,” where Ginsberg’s characteristic hopefulness is overcome with soured self-recollection, implying that he has wasted his earthly gifts:

Then what’s this heavy flesh this
weak heart leaky kidney?
Who’s been doing time
for 65 years
in this corpse?

The poem concludes with one of the most disheartened cries in Ginsberg’s writing: “Allen Ginsberg warns you/ don’t follow my path/ to extinction.”

This note of despair, however, is neither permanent nor pervasive. “Autumn Leaves,” which cheerfully proclaims, “At 66 just learning how to take care of my body,” and “In the Benjo,” which expresses Ginsberg’s appreciation for Gary Snyder’s lessons in transcendent wisdom, have purposefully been located at the end of the volume, not merely because of their place in a chronological progression but also because they provide a note of affirmation. Ginsberg, after cataloging physical decline (“Return to Kral Majales”), loss of friends (“Visiting Father & Friends”), the sorry state of the world (“You Don’t Know It”), the fraudulent nature of so-called leaders (“Elephant in the Meditation Hall”), and other afflictions, can still be powerfully moved by the possibilities of love and the promises of art—the twin poles of the cosmic compass guiding him through his poetic life.

The “poet professor” who describes himself in “Personals Ad” as “alone with the Alone” is still comforted and inspired by a visionary enthusiasm for human capability. As he says in “Now and Forever,” the faith he holds, finally, is in language. Immortality may be reached

thru words, thru the breath
of long sentences
loves I have, heart beating
still,
inspiration continuous, exhalation of
cadenced affection

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XC, April 15, 1994, p. 1503.

Library Journal. CXIX, May 1, 1994, p. 107.

The Progressive. LVIII, May, 1994, p. 50.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLI, March 28, 1994, p. 87.

The Virginia Quarterly Review. LXX, Autumn, 1994, p. 134.

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