Allen Ginsberg

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Allen Ginsberg

Unread postby Gilbert's Girl » Sat Jan 13, 2007 12:21 pm

An article in the Financial Times Weekend Magazine, Books

Primal dream
By Daniel Swift

Published: January 12 2007 15:42 | Last updated: January 12 2007 15:42

‘I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,

dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night

who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz’

So begins Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”, probably the most controversial poem ever written in America. “Howl” is an 80-line visionary epic which blends sexual slang with a tangle of mystical fantasies. Along with Jack Kerouac’s novel On The Road, it gave voice to a generation of countercultural American youths opposed to capitalism, conformity and social convention. In its time, the poem was put on trial for obscenity. Now it features in English literature courses and The Norton Anthology of Poetry, the standard reference work for every university student.

This winter “Howl”, this great scream of youthful rebellion, turned 50. Allen Ginsberg is no longer around to welcome it - he died in April 1997 - but the date has been marked by a flurry of publication. There is a new biography of the poet, I Celebrate Myself, by Bill Morgan, Ginsberg’s literary archivist; The Book of Martyrdom and Artifice, a selection of his early journals and poems; and The Poem That Changed America, a collection of essays by American writers touched by Ginsberg. The manuscripts of “Howl” have been republished, with related documents and letters about the poem’s obscenity trial. And, for the first time, Ginsberg’s complete poems have been collected in one volume. Each of these new works insists on the radicalism of Ginsberg and “Howl”, and on the ways the poem still has the power to stir its readers.

For Bill Morgan, Ginsberg was “one of the best examples of the true American hero” and a man who “had a greater impact on his times than his times had on him”. As such, he deserves a hagiography rather than conventional literary biography - and Morgan is clearly the right man for the job. He was a friend of the poet and compiled a bibliography of his works; he was with Ginsberg when he died and, in his foreword, states his belief that: “I’m the only person to ever have read everything Allen ever wrote.” That encyclopedic confidence gives a certain buoyancy to this biography, which is stuffed to bursting with facts about Ginsberg.

I Celebrate Myself is a rigorous year-by-year account of Ginsberg’s life, beginning with his childhood in Paterson, New Jersey and ending with his death in his loft in Manhattan’s East Village. Morgan retells the well-known stories of the Beats - Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Lucien Carr - meeting at Columbia University, and the famous first reading of “Howl” at the Six Gallery in San Francisco on October 7 1955, when Ginsberg was accompanied by Kerouac “who kept rhythm by tapping a wine jug”.

We follow Ginsberg on his travels in America, to Mexico and across the Middle East. He attends be-ins and founds poetry institutes; he teaches, and gives endless readings; he appears on stage with Bob Dylan, and drops in on John Lennon and Yoko Ono.

Morgan tells bizarre and entertaining anecdotes. Ginsberg had a series of unusual jobs: as night porter at a department store, worker at a ribbon factory, and - in order to pay his analyst - yeoman on a commercial freighter. But we hear little of the poems, which are quarantined in little boxes on the margins of the page. One poem is described simply as “one of his important late poems”, while `”Kaddish”, Ginsberg’s haunting and devout funeral elegy for his mother, is covered in a paragraph. We hear about where he wrote “Howl” (”at his typewriter in Montgomery Street” in San Francisco) and about reactions to the first reading; but of the poem’s contents, nothing. “Trying to tell someone what a poem means is a waste of time,” writes Morgan.

This is a book about Ginsberg’s social centrality rather than his literary achievement. “The entire Beat Generation phenomenon could be seen as a group of writers who had little in common stylistically, but who were united by their friendship with Allen Ginsberg,” writes Morgan. He repeatedly reminds us that Ginsberg acted as literary agent for his friends, worried about how Kerouac’s works would be published, and lent money and cooked meals for broke acquaintances.

This version of Ginsberg as a domestic hero is one the poet encouraged: he saw himself a father-figure for the generation of strays and drop-outs he welcomed into his apartment. But too often the biography sounds like a rehearsal of Ginsberg’s conception of himself. The main source, from the poet’s early childhood onwards, is “interviews and correspondence with AG”. This dependence gives the book the stone-washed texture of an oft-repeated anecdote. “He was a happy baby, the apple of his mother’s eye,” writes Morgan, “and took after her in many ways.”

Morgan’s second source is Ginsberg’s journals, which are curious documents. In the early 1950s, William Carlos Williams advised Ginsberg to use his journals as drafts for the poems; but even in early adolescence Ginsberg had used his diaries to try out literary identities. His journals of the 1950s and 1960s are already in print. The Book of Martyrdom and Artifice, edited by Bill Morgan and Juanita Lieberman-Plimpton, contains his diaries from 1937, when he was 11, until summer 1952.

The early journals are what you would expect: he lists movies seen and family grievances. But the self-consciousness and determination are there too. “If some future historian or biographer wants to know what the genius thought and did in his tender years, here it is,” he writes in 1941, at 15: “I have a fair degree of confidence in myself. Either I’m a genius, I’m egocentric, or I’m slightly schizophrenic. Probably the first two.”

There is little intimacy in these journals - the writing is often self-conscious and contrived. He revises, for instance, a draft of a suicide note - “Written in melancholy mood, consciously, to be used in a novel” - and arranges biographical events into plot-structures.

Reading these journals now, it is impossible to escape the sense that this was intended to be studied by others; that his personality, rendered in language, was a work in progress for future public consumption. But the force of Ginsberg’s character has, in the eyes of his admirers, often eclipsed the possibility of criticism or analysis.

In The Poem That Changed America, Jason Shinder - a poet and former assistant to Ginsberg - has collected a series of testimonies by American writers. As in Morgan’s biography, the dominant tone is awe, not attention. And, as in the biography, the implicit premise of this collection is that Ginsberg changed the world around him. It is of course impossible to evaluate such a sweeping claim, so the testimonies tend to play out political effect on a personal stage. Again and again, we hear tales of where these writers were the first time they read “Howl”. The novelist Rick Moody was hanging out with the punk rock poets in Providence, Rhode Island; Sven Birkerts was in the suburbs north of Detroit, thinking about becoming a writer and “avid for the Word”.

The strongest piece in the collection is by the New Yorker writer Jane Kramer, who is blessed with two gifts often absent elsewhere: a real friendship with Ginsberg, and a fine grasp of the wayward syntax of language, both Ginsberg’s and her own. Kramer knew Ginsberg well - her 1968 book about spending a year with him, Allen Ginsberg in America, is still the best work ever published about him - and here she writes with clear-sighted tenderness about the man and the emotions he inspired in others.

She comments: “Too many of his critics - and followers - tended to forget, as I did then, the fact that Allen had put years, and a great deal of anguish, into his own freedom, and that he was a disciplined artist and a thoroughly educated man. He had worked for his mysticism.”

In the poetry, and particularly in “Howl”, what we see is a man worrying about the mechanisms of eternity and working for his revelations. “Howl” is a poem of looking and longing for the apocalypse, here and now in America: it is about the search for bliss, not its achievement. Ginsberg sings of a generation of “angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night”; he celebrates those who “drove crosscountry seventytwo hours to find out if I had a vision or you had a vision or he had a vision to find out Eternity”. It is restless and beautiful, and never certain of its revelation.

As the 50th anniversary edition of “Howl”, edited by Barry Miles, makes clear, the genesis of the poem was never easy. This collection lays bare just how much Ginsberg worried about getting it right. Part 2 of the poem went through at least 18 separate drafts. “How cohere these inklings of extravaganza?” he asks in a note collected here. The rich and strange poetry of “Howl” arises from precisely this tension between inspiration and organisation. The final exclamation of the poem, the culmination of its long chains of repetition and praise, shouts: “Holy the supernatural extra brilliant intelligent kindness of the soul!” Here is the heady energy of inspiration for which we look to Ginsberg - but as the manuscript reveals, it was an afterthought. The poem originally ended a line earlier, with the single word “magnanimity!”

On the typed manuscript, Ginsberg added “Holy the supernatural excess” in pencil; crossed out “excess” and wrote “natural brilliant kindness”; then crossed that out and, through several more rewritings, reached the line as it stands.

America is full of mock prophets - demagogues and cultists clamouring their own revelation. Allen Ginsberg’s poetry emerges from a mainstream literary tradition of visionary, Romantic verse: Blake, Wordsworth and Keats are his forefathers. But he is also a figure and a voice specific to his time and his place. As he hopes in his great poem “America”, “America after all it is you and I who are perfect not the next world,” and goes on to confess: “You made me want to be a saint.” Ginsberg handled carefully the powerful language of divine poetry, conscious of both its literary formality and its potential for humour. In annotating “Howl”, he footnotes Ezra Pound, Aristotle, Keats and Whitman.

The anniversary edition of “Howl” includes a list of commandments Ginsberg tacked on a wall above his bed in his San Francisco apartment a year before the poem was published. “Be in love with yr life,” he ordered; and “Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for yr own joy.” But such a fantasy of separateness was never enough for this wildly gifted man, or for his followers: his secret notebooks are now in print, and he himself rewrote and edited his own wild typewritten pages for the further enlightenment of others. His poems are holy in that they are touching, loud, honest and full of doubt about the availability of eternity. If we miss the work and the doubt, we lose the real poetry - and the real reason why “Howl” at 50 should still move us today.


I CELEBRATE MYSELF: The Somewhat Private Life of Allen Ginsberg
by Bill Morgan
Viking $29.95, 720 pages

HOWL: Original Draft Facsimile, Transcript, and Variant Versions, Fully Annotated by Author
by Allen Ginsberg
edited by Barry Miles
Harper Perennial Modern Classics $18.95, 208 pages

edited by Jason Shinder
Farrar, Straus and Giroux $14, 336 pages

THE BOOK OF MARTYRDOM AND ARTIFICE: First Journals and Poems, 1937-1952
by Allen Ginsberg
edited by Juanita Lieberman-Plimpton and Bill Morgan
Da Capo Press $27.50, 416 pages

by Allen Ginsberg
HarperCollins $39.95, 1,216 pages

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Unread postby DeppInTheHeartOfTexas » Sat Jan 13, 2007 12:46 pm

Thanks for posting, GG! I wish someone would just pay me to read for a living so I could get around to everthing!
Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming -
Wow! What a ride!

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Unread postby Parlez » Sat Jan 13, 2007 1:36 pm

Please don't throw me out of the group when I say that reading this conjured up the image of the Shaman in TPAOL for me!! :shocked:
"Belay that! ...Do something else!" ~ Hector Barbossa
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Unread postby Liz » Sat Jan 13, 2007 1:49 pm

DeppInTheHeartOfTexas wrote:Thanks for posting, GG! I wish someone would just pay me to read for a living so I could get around to everthing!

There's the solution...... I would love to read that book. Thanks for telling us about it, GG.
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Unread postby Xaxis » Sat Jan 13, 2007 3:09 pm

:reader: Excellent GG! Thanks for the HOWL out! :reader:
“Know thyself” and “Nothing to excess” inscribed on the temple of Apollo at Delphi.

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Unread postby gemini » Sat Jan 13, 2007 4:06 pm

A while back when I first made a list of Johnny's reading material, I tried to find "Howl" at my local library to no avail. I did find the book "The Beat Hotel: Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Corso in Paris, 1958-1963" by Barry Miles. It is also along the lines of the above list and reading it , I did enjoy learning about how they lived. I wondered if Johnnys facination with them lead to his love of Paris. Thanks GG, I will take a copy of the listed books with me on my next library visit. :reader:
"If there are no dogs in Heaven, then when I die I want to go where they went." Will Rogers

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