Anyone who has attended one of Allen Ginsberg’s poetry readings will come away with vivid impressions of his musical and lyrical talent (not always apparent in the printed format of his poetry), his exuberant energy, and his shameless revelations of the most intimate autobiographical details. In short, Ginsberg onstage becomes a formidable artistic presence—at once boyish, venerable, meditative, provocative, public, and private. All these qualities appear in White Shroud: Poems, 1980-1985, a work by the authentic “bad boy” of modern American poetry, the quintessential poète maudit who continues in the tradition of Walt Whitman and William Carlos Williams while speaking a language that is undeniably his own.
Allen Ginsberg appeared on the poetic map with the publication of Howl and Other Poems (1956), a work that is often considered the litany of the beatnik movement. In many readers’ minds, Ginsberg is permanently linked to that literary style and to such memorable figures as Jack Kerouac and Gregory Corso. In fact, the name Allen Ginsberg almost automatically conjures an image of the little black books published by City Lights Books, since Howl is the most famous title in that series. Although Ginsberg has never abandoned some of his early concerns (pacifism and asceticism, among others), he cannot be pigeonholed as an aging beatnik or displaced “flower child” (Ginsberg was also strongly identified with the 1960’s, often appearing in a sort of psychedelic Uncle Sam outfit). The publication of Ginsberg’s Collected Poems, 1947-1980 (1984) endowed him with mainstream status while clearly demonstrating his wide formal range (from his early rhymed lines to Oriental imitations and Whitmanesque free verse) and bold stylistic evolution (from wild-eyed Blakean mystic to antiwar protester to self-contented Buddhist sage).
In his homage to William Carlos Williams, “Written in My Dream by W.C. Williams,” Ginsberg assimilates the minimalist style of the old master and puts his own philosophy in Williams’ mouth:
No needto distortWhat’s notstandardto beunderstandable.
Many of Ginsberg’s beliefs are overwhelmingly “not standard,” and White Shroud could be fairly described as the poet’s attempt to report honestly (“No need/ to distort”) on the most eccentric and controversial aspects of his behavior. Hence, Ginsberg includes no fewer than five poems on the theme of homosexual love. Never prurient or tawdry, Ginsberg is nevertheless anatomically exact and unfailingly graphic in his celebrations of love affairs with various young men. The poems are joyous and tender in tone, for, like all great love poets, Ginsberg recognizes the central paradox of all lovemaking—the more physical the love, the more spiritually and aesthetically aware the lovers become, as in “Love Comes”:
I clenched my gut tightin full moon lightthru curtained windowfor an hour or sothin clouds in the skyI watched pass bysigh after sigh
In “Old Love Story,” Ginsberg pleads for sympathy: “I want people to understand!” He enlists for his support famous historical figures, including Gilgamesh, Achilles, David, Socrates, Hadrian, and Michelangelo. Yet revelations about his love life are only one of many kinds of confessional utterances in White Shroud. Ginsberg examines his own body with the same disarming honesty he exhibits in the love poems. In poems such as “Thoughts Sitting Breathing II,” “What You Up To?” and “Sunday Prayer,” readers learn of the poet’s high blood pressure (treated with clonadine hydrochloric pills), athlete’s foot (treated with Tolnaftate cream), chronic hepatitis, sore gums, kidney stones, back pain, and Bell’s palsy (which causes a permanent nosebleed). All these bodily woes cause the poet to speculate:
When I walk with bent spine & cane will my nose be caked withblood black & ulcerous? tears running down my cheeksA bony pinkie picking at the scarlet scab that got thickovernight, I forgot to grease my wrinkled snout the nite of my eightieth...
(The entire section is 1998 words.)