January 28, 2009 in The New Illiterati
The text below is written as an introduction, or reference-frame for talks conducted later today with literary scholar Mathias Rosenlund at the Arkadia Bookshop, Pohjoinen Hesparienkatu 9, Helsinki (at 6PM).
Allen Ginsberg was born 1926 in Paterson, New Jersey. The son of Naomi and Louis Ginsberg, both of whom were a great influence and presence in his writing – Naomi principally because of her psychic illness, catalogued in length in the poem Kaddish, and in bits elsewhere in his writing, while Louis, who was also a poet, at times serves as the conservative standpoint from which Allen pushes himself. In places his poetry reads as a deliberate attempt at not being the poet his father was – to be neither timid nor conventional.
After moving to New York in the forties to pursue studies, first in law and later literature, Ginsberg meets the writers with whom he would share an aesthetic of writing and living, to a degree: Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Herbert Huncke, Lucien Carr, Gregory Corso, Neal Cassady and others. These young men – and practically there were only men in the movement, with a high concentration of homosexual men – tried to shed themselves of societal norms, experimenting with drugs, insanity, sexuality, excessivity, relegating themselves to literal outcasts (while some of them, including Ginsberg, still maintained a nicer ‘university front’ on the side). For Ginsberg, this resulted in eventually getting arrested and condemned to a lunatic asylum, where he met another great influence, Carl Solomon – to whom Ginsberg dedicated his most famous poem, Howl. While Solomon’s own work may not have had any greater impact on Ginsberg, he introduced him to the surrealist poets and painters, whose ideas of a socially redeeming, yet spiritually free and bondage-breaking, esthetic had a profound impact on Ginsberg.
Eventually the New York Beats split up and went their own ways, some of them coming back together in San Francisco in the fifties. That’s where and when things started looking up, and they started getting published. Howl & other poems came out in 1956, and became a major bestseller after a famous obscenity trial, when the book’s first printing, which was done in England, was stopped in customs. Seeing as the authorities couldn’t stop the book from being reprinted within the US, the book kept selling during the whole trial (although Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and one of his employees at City Lights Bookstore, got arrested for selling it). The case was eventually lost, and Ginsberg had become somewhat of a household name. A media-frenzy started about the Beat generation and their call for freedom, which later resulted in the hippie generation (hippie is originally a beat-term – the beats apropriated a lot of the Jazz-lingo into their vocabulary, including hip, as in hipster, someone who, according to my dictionary, “rejects the established culture; advocates extreme liberalism in politics and lifestyle”. Hippie, with it’s diminutive ending, was reserved for those not fully hip, those only half-hip, so to speak, but still making the effort.)
Many of the beats had reservations about the hippies, as well as the socalled beatniks – the mainstream deformed variation on their own ideals. Jack Kerouac felt he was being forced to become a symbol for something he didn’t agree with, and that his literature wasn’t being taken seriously, while Burroughs did not approve of the political correctness or buddhist spirituality associated with this new movement – likening buddhism to spiritual castration. Burroughs and Ginsberg, as well as many other Beat-poets, did keep in close contact with younger artists though – Ginsberg collaborated with Bob Dylan, The Clash and others, while Burroughs waited through the hippie generation and had later collaborations with artists such as The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy and Kurt Cobain. Kerouac shunned the lot, and died in 1969, before the hippie generation was over.
Ginsberg also played a big part in the protest movement of the sixties and seventies, attending and organizing many of the biggest rallies.
Ginsberg’s major poems are Howl, “a lament for the Lamb in America with instances of remarkable lamb-like youths,” as he himself called it, recollecting excessive events in the history of the Beat generation. It’s a highly personal poem, free-spirited and blunt. The opening lines are among the most quoted in American poetry: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro-streets at dawn”.
Another major-poem is Kaddish, Ginsberg’s liturgy for his deceased mother, Naomi.
Ginsberg is one of a few major twentieth-century promoters of the long-line in poetry – his poetry is blown-up, employs hyperbole and excessive rhetorics, that Ginsberg got principally from Walt Whitman. His sense of imagery, as well as his philosophy of prophetism, can be linked to William Blake – of whom he had an auditory hallucination, hearing the voice of the poet recite Ah Sunflower and The Sick Rose, lying in bed after a masturbatory stint. He was also influenced by Rimbaud and his theories of a systematic derangement of the senses, in order to attain a higher (poetic) being – using drugs, flirting with insanity and engaging in a very excessive lifestyle, including more sex-partners than any of us can count (mostly men, but also a few women).
Ginsberg’s vocabulary is often “dirty”, and as he said at one point: “I have achieved the introduction of the word fuck into texts inevitably studied by schoolboys” – and he put a great emphasis on using rhythms from normal conversations in his poetry – a method he picked up from another native of Paterson, William Carlos Williams, whom he got to know personally – as well as from his friend Jack Kerouac. His attitude towards sex was that it was holy – as indeed most things were to him – and this is evident in many of his poems, most notably Love Poem on a Theme by Whitman and Please Master.
Ginsberg’s poetics can be seen not only as being highly influenced by the abovementioned poets – Williams’ and Kerouac’s speech-writing, Whitman’s prophetic long-line, Blake’s incessant, delicate imagery, Rimbaud’s fierce drive – but also as being derived from more spiritual writing. In the poem Kral Majales he says: „I am of Slavic parentage and a Buddhist Jew who worships the Sacred Heart of Christ the blue body of Krishna the straight back of ram the beads of Chango the Nigerian singing Shiva Shiva in a manner which I have invented,“ – and indeed one could easily make the argument that his primary influences were Jewish religious writing, with the softness and anger of God in the mix, and the hypnotic repitition methods of buddhist chanting. If you add to that a touch of communist rhetoric, handed down from his mother – a card-carrying socialist – the only big piece missing is his ardent sexuality.
Ginsberg died on April 5, 1997, shortly after having been diagnosed with liver cancer. In one of his last poems, Death & Fame, he writes about his hopes for his funeral – who should come and why – and mentions that he hopes he’ll be remembered for giving good head.