A poet at the bottom of his personality looking up
. . . He glows a moment on the extremest verge. -- Walt Whitman Poet Allen Ginsberg, a primal force and primal screamer of the ``beat'' movement, first captured public attention in 1957 with his 800-volt poem ``Howl'' -- a kind of Angst-ridden glossolalia of the mid-20th century. In it, Ginsberg introduced Eisenhower's America to an underground community made up, as he put it in the poem, of ``angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night.''
For a long time, Ginsberg's poetry was available only in the clandestine-looking volumes published by City Lights. Not anymore. Harper & Row now has come out with his ``Collected Poems.'' And soon it will be possible to purchase the entire Ginsberg oeuvre -- six volumes of letters, lectures, essays . . . and still more poems.
Not that one would necessarily want to. Today Ginsberg and the other beats -- Gregory Corso, William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, among them -- seem more part of a historical moment than a serious literary school.
And yet there was something serious about these young men who burned with an incandescent nonconformism for almost a decade before they were ``discovered'' in the late '50s.
From the start, they had identified themselves as ``beats'' -- as people whose social identity had been beaten down by a world suddenly acquainted with the hydrogen bomb, the mass duping of McCarthyism, and the predatory ``urban jungle.'' The beat was one who lived, as John Clellen Holmes wrote in a famous defense of them, ``in a state of mind from which all unessentials have been stripped. . . . To be beat is to be at the bottom of your personality looking up.''
It was disillusionment with a new twist. The beats were not merely a domestic version of Gertrude Stein's bewildered and depressed post-World War I ``Lost Generation.'' Rather, they were ``found'' -- they ``dug'' the frenetic life they lived. Nor were they unsophisticated imitation James Dean rebels without a cause. They had a cause -- to discover meanings and modes of expression more appropriate for their times than the stainless-steel religions or small-town mindscapes of their parents or peers. They burned to find an essence they knew existed, even if they didn't know what it was.
To a degree it was a spiritual search. As Dean Moriarty lectures in Kerouac's ``On the Road'': ``No one can tell us that there is no God. We've passed through all forms. . . . Everything is fine, God exists, we know time. . . . Furthermore we know America, we're at home. . . . We give and take and go in the incredibly complicated sweetness.''
But the search was ``spiritual'' in a social rather than a theological sense. It was the kind of populist redefinition of America that had roots in Whitman's ``Leaves of Grass'' or ``Democratic Vistas.'' Whitman wrote: ``And thou America, For the scheme's culmination . . . thou hast arrived . . . . All forms, objects, growths, humanities, to spiritual images ripening. Is it a dream? Nay, but the lack of it the dream.''
In the 1950s, the beats were aware of ``the lack of it'' -- of the contradiction between America's ideal potential and the present evidence that the country was undergoing a tragic hibernation of the soul. Even the usually optimistic Whitman warned of this. Ginsberg took up the call.
In a 1957 letter to his father, Ginsberg noted, ``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 -- which is an enormous human achievement in any society. That's what we as a `group' have been trying to do.''
No poet was more beat than Ginsberg, and ``Collected Poems'' may secure him as the movement's major artist. The book is both a social artifact and a valuable poetic record -- still stimulating to read.
The earliest poem, ``Eastern Ballad'' (1945-49), is a foreshadowing of Ginsberg's next 30 years. In an early style more like Longfellow than a hipster who ``threw potato salad at CCNY lecturers on Dadaism,'' he writes: ``I never dreamed the sea so deep/ The earth so dark; so long my sleep./ I have become another child./ I wake to see the world go wild.''
Ginsberg's awakening as a poet was much influenced by William Carlos Williams, whose modernist slogan ``No ideas but in things'' became a battle cry for countless young writers. It was Williams who helped Ginsberg leave his formal syntax and who wrote introductions to his first books. The early poems in this collection are raw, fresh, ecstatic. They could not have come out of the cerebral academy, nor from a cerebral Europe -- a fact that endlessly pleased Williams. He wrote: ``This young Jewish boy . . . has recognized something that has escaped most of the modern age, he has found that man is lost in the world of his own head.''
In ``Green Automobile,'' Ginsberg's second book, he left behind his rhyming schoolboy imitations to make way for a bigger sound. Williams's themes and stanzaic patterns poked through. If Ginsberg had a Green Automobile he'd burn all night on the jackpine peak seen from Denver in the summer dark, forestlike unnatural radiance illuminating the mountaintop: childhood youthtime age & eternity would open like sweet trees in the nights of another spring and dumbfound us with love.
What Williams loved and what distinguishes the early work is Ginsberg's gushing confessional immediacy. He wrote like an oil prospector who had hit pay dirt -- and then scrambled around to get the gusher of images onto the page.
In ``Howl,'' his third volume, Ginsberg is fully himself. Now he is writing on the move, on the road. Everything becomes poetry: random newspaper headlines, speech in the restless coffee shops, neon scenes, moments in a bus station, reactions to laundromats, the Moloch-like ``face'' of a high-rise hotel at midnight.
In the new consumer culture, the poet dreams of strolling with Walt Whitman, not on a wind-swept seashore, but in a California supermarket: ``Whole families shopping/ at night! Aisles full of husbands! Wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes! . . . We strode . . . in our solitary fancy/ tasting artichokes, possessing every frozen delicacy, and never passing the cashier.''
If Whitman's world had resembled a majestic landscape from the Hudson River School, Ginsberg's was an expressionistic blast by Pollock. In 1855, Whitman could see America whole. One hundred years later Ginsberg could see it only in fleeting impressions.
This is reflected in the poet's language, where disparate nouns are juxtaposed (``hydrogen jukebox'') and images crowded together (``mad locomotive riverbank sunset Frisco hilly tincan evening sitdown vision''), allowing a more subjective response. Raushenberg's collages worked on a similar principle.
In ``Howl'' Ginsberg emerges as a social poet -- stripping society of its mask, holding up a mirror to its emotional repression, its bleakness, its formal pretensions. He was simply saying: This is what I see. But he said it not in a discreet whisper, but right to America's face:
``America,'' he wrote, ``I'm addressing you./ Are you going to let your emotional life be run by Time Magazine?/ I'm obsessed by Time Magazine.''
Ironically, it was in the liberated '60s that things changed. Though the humanism of the beats helped feed the politics and life styles of the ``new left,'' the beat movement itself began dissipating, losing its energy and focus. And, in many ways, so did Ginsberg's poetry.
After ``Kaddish,'' a beautiful tribute to his mother, the poems begin to blur into colorful word patterns merely rearranged. Ginsberg is also writing now as a public radical. And in ``Planet News'' and ``King of May'' he sounds a bit too much the part. ``Fall of America'' begins strongly, but misses its potential.
Yet, unlike some artists who derail when their identifying Zeitgeist ends, Ginsberg managed to keep his balance. His Buddhist leanings, which are now almost total, gave him stability and a religious tradition from which to work.
Several of the poems in the two later books, ``Mind Breaths All Over the Place'' and ``Plutonian Ode,'' are notable attempts to translate Eastern meditation practice into modern American poetry. ``Gospel Noble Truths'' is an Eastern chant set to rockabilly music!
Ginsberg's technique of ``First thought, best thought'' produced some of the old flashes, but there is also much chicken scratch in these later poems. Some of our first thoughts need finishing.
The amount of sexual and homosexual material also seems disproportionate. Following faithfully W. C. Williams's precept of finding ideas in things, Ginsberg turned increasingly to the body and its functions. Alas, there were really no ``ideas'' there -- though the poet seemed intent on examining every possibility.
But to focus on such poems alone misses the point. Ginsberg's aim all along had been to offer an ``alternative,'' as he told the Monitor, ``to one's neurotic continual obsessional selfhood network of thoughts . . . hyperintellectualized consciousness . . . and maybe for a moment relaxing that whole syndrome and getting a glimpse of the sky.''
His poems offer sky and muck alike.
Ginsberg traced his poetic lineage to visionary William Blake and English mystic Christopher Smart. Yet, though he claims his later work is ``visionary,'' it really isn't. Ginsberg seems a poetic dirigible, capable of floating high above the earth, offering wide-ranging views. But he can't maneuver well and is confined within certain by-now-familiar horizons.
Still, it's absurd to subject Ginsberg, pop poet of a pop culture, to the mighty sledgehammers of Western intellectual criticism. Ginsberg gets crushed, and the reader misses what there is to learn from those less learned -- the unpolished artist of the street who can be more aware of ``what's happening'' in his society than the experts. Ginsberg knows this. His poems are the record. It's nice to have them all in one book. -- 30 --