lives of the poets

lives of the poets

   Language and the Body

Theodore Roethke numbered among his "more tedious contemporaries" in America the "roaring asses, hysterics, sweet-myself beatniks, earless wonders happy with effects a child of two could improve on." The loudest poetry voices of the second half of the twentieth century were the Beats, preeminent among them Allen Ginsberg, who made noises about the American system and way of life, about sexual and spiritual liberation, about war and repression. "I want to be known as the most brilliant man in America," he says in "Ego Confession."

He also wrote poems. "His poetry made things happen," said one obituary. That's not quite right. His performances, his polemics, his affronting or affirming presence made things happen. His example as a performer touched poets remote from him in temperament, like Lowell and Bob Dylan. But the poems, the ones that are regarded as "great": Do they exist apart from his voice, apart from their aurality, on the page as poems? With Robert Duncan and Paul Goodman, we are told, he "invented gay liberation": "It was Ginsberg, perhaps more than any other individual, who helped turn marginal forms of behaviour into norms: psychedelic drugs, distrust of government institutions, sexual explicitness, guiltless hedonism, fear of nuclear energy." His political and social impact was considerable; I remember his smoky, thronged performances in the 1960s as experiences in which nine tenths of my fellow undergraduates underwent temporary conversions, gratefully surrendering to the power of an event from which few of us stood back in disbelief. There was something medieval in the hysteria that the "sweet-myself" leader (he was a leader) evoked, emancipating us from the American dream into an alternative order. Rejection implies a system; anarchy is the most exacting political form and seldom lasts for long.

Apart from the congregation's suspension of intelligence during those performance events, I most remember the homespun textures, the voluminous hair and the smells--smoke of several varieties, sweat, scents. Ginsberg was a body and his mission seemed to be to deliver us back to a sense of our bodies as a place of grace and an instrument of praise.

Everything is holy! everybody's holy! everywhere is holy! everyday is in eternity! Everyman's an angel!

But after the priest and prophet has departed and we are left clutching his book, what do the poems do?

There are three Allen Ginsbergs. First and most arresting is the young poet struggling under the constraining patronage of Williams, but with the soulful spirit already bubbling away in him:

The warm bodies
shine together
in the darkness,
the hand moves
to the center
of the flesh,
the skin trembles
in happiness
and the soul comes
joyful to the eye...

Then there is the second Ginsberg (already a friend of Burroughs and Kerouac), visited by William Blake in the privacy of his room, Ginsberg being in the last throes of masturbation. Blake brushed him with angel dust and gave him wings--or filled him with helium, as well as social anger--and in the wake of these visitations came the poems Howl and later Kaddish. Then, traveling on a Japanese train, he became Allen Ginsberg III: a Buddhist no longer burning toward death but celebrating life (through his own) in all its muzzy "wholeness." A gentler poet. American still, ambitious and--when need be--unscrupulous, playing to the gallery.

Ginsberg is not Blake, lacking the craft, the formal and spiritual skills of that master. Nor is he Whitman, though he's often presented as Whitman's heir. "I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eying the grocery boys." This is Ginsberg's appropriation, simplified and sentimentalized. Whitman's "I" was indeed inclusive. It is not that he "spoke for America" but his voice included everyone. Whitman's poetry is full of characteristic detail rather than specific imagery. He is the poem's vehicle but not systematically its subject. He honors the body politic and its wounds hurt him; his own wounds he regards as trivial, beneath the dignity of the larger poem. America is registered through him. By Ginsberg's day, perhaps the body politic was too old and raddled to draw from the poet the passion it commanded from Whitman. If Ginsberg gets anything from his predecessor, it is a rhetoric, a long line (but, in Howl crammed full of chaotic specifics, rather than representative shapes). Ginsberg's passion is for the marginal, the other societies which the empowered society excludes. Wounding the whole America of Whitman is his mission--perhaps to force into it, through those wounds, the Americas that America excluded. Like an anti-Savonarola, he loves to polarize the damned and the saved, the beat and the square, the "heads" and the gays over the straights, men over women. It is the female body he cannot get his imagination around: he observes it with horror and awe. His "I" is himself.

Ginsberg could be the priest of holy madness, anti-authoritarian, a man of generosity, a voice of the future; but he signed the papers to have his mother lobotomized, supported authoritarian individuals and regimes as long as they were ranged against his primary foe, the United States, was ungenerous to fellow poets if they were not of his camp and promoted himself at the expense of those around him, even after he had shaved off his beard and assumed the quiet demeanor of an almost dapper professor. The big days were in the 1950s, and his last four decades fed off the fat of the huge and unexpected pop-star success of his setting out. He remained a compelling performer, even of the awful later poems. Self-projection was his incomparable skill and it proved fatal to the work in the end: the voice could imbue a shopping list with transcendent significance.

It is to his first three books that future readers will attend, Howl and Other Poems (1956), Kaddish and Other Poems (1960) and Reality Sandwiches (1963). In 1963 Buddhism claimed him on the Kyoto-Tokyo Express. Nothing he subsequently wrote was wholly without interest, but, subdued by his new beliefs, the later work is after-echo.

Ginsberg was born in Paterson, New Jersey, his father a poet and teacher, his mother a woman who suffered from mental illness. It was the presence of his father that at once inspired and inhibited his development. When he wrote Howl he dreaded not the censor but his father's response to the lines "who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy, / who blew and were blown by those human seraphim, the sailors, caresses of Atlantic and Caribbean love, / who balled in the morning in the evenings in rosegardens and the grass of public parks and cemeteries scattering their semen freely to whomever come who may" and so on. Once he had got these facts down on paper and into print, he had broken a personal taboo and could say anything he liked in the future. The radical element in his work is not his politics, his homosexuality, his drug-taking, so much as the purging of inhibition, personal reserve, self-pity, the abandonment of the "bourgeois first person singular." Egocentric he remains, but his is not the suffering lyrical "ego" of most of his contemporaries, even of some of his contemporaries among the Beats.

Paterson: William Carlos Williams. It is not surprising that Williams--who admired the early Ginsberg--should have written the preface to Howl and Other Poems. "Hold back the edges of your gowns, Ladies, we are going through hell." Ladies are in particular peril from the poem. Hell must be defined before "Holiness" can get to work. Another Beat poet, Gregory Corso, said, "I am the substance of my poetry." Ginsberg is substance too: he pours all the verbal jewelry and garbage in his mind into the poem, and then performs it in those long, hectic, racing lines where the best we can do is snatch at the sense. Reading it on the page, do we try to "construe" it as we do other poetry? Do we try to read quickly so as to replicate the poet's vocalities? Do we take the long lines as single aphoristic units? It is a poem to be heard. On the page it is like a complex musical score. Not only does it need to be performed, it should be heard by a group. It is not a poetry for the private reader. The performance poets who have learned from Ginsberg say that they will alter their poems in response to a specific audience, to immediate public events, to the city in which they are performing. Textuality is beside the point. When you slow it down every assertion (it is a poem of assertions) becomes questionable, even the opening lines:

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...

The sentence runs on and on, syntax not so much abandoned as dissipated. Were these indeed the best minds of his generation? What had happened to their intelligence? "Minds" is wrong--"spirit," "soul" or "imagination," might have served better. But points of diction are beside the point. If we strip away the more rhetorical adjectives and adjectival phrases the poem says as much:

I saw the minds destroyed by madness,

dragging themselves through the streets at dawn looking for a fix,

hipsters burning for the connection to the dynamo in the machinery of night,

who sat up smoking in the darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz...

The poet's mouth needs to cram itself full of words: half a mouthful won't do.

Williams had never seen anything quite like Ginsberg before. He was astonished by the way the poet let himself say anything: he "experiences it to the hilt." This is not quite right: the language goes to places the poet would not and could not go. Rising on his own enthusiasm, Williams declares: "We are blind and live our blind lives out in blindness. Poets are damned but they are not blind, they see with the eyes of angels." Nonsense, but good sales copy. "4 Sniffs & I'm High."

Ginsberg studied at Columbia University, knew Burroughs, whose prose electrified him, and Jack Kerouac. He fell miserably in love with Neal Cassady, whose full-voiced letters to Kerouac affected the style of the author of On the Road and The Dharma Bums quite as much as it did Ginsberg's own. Conversation and the intimate epistle that let rip with rage, fantasy, affection, description--language that allowed itself maximum liberty--were the crucial elements that formed Ginsberg's style.

He dropped out of college for a year, traveling and doing odd jobs. Wandering became a vocation. The reading tour was a way of life, a heroic progress around the globe again and again. He was the guru of the Beats, and he spread the word, so that throughout Europe he became an icon and fathered dozens of would-be Beats. His most celebrated stopover was in Prague, where, in 1965, students elected him king of the May and he was immediately deported. He wrote "Kral Majales" to commemorate this heroic martyrdom at the hands of"the Marxists who "have beat me upon the street."

In interviews he told how his poems came to him, what combinations of drugs helped him to release the language of Howl (Part II was "composed during a peyote vision") and other poems, including his most important, Kaddish (written after "an injection of amphetamine plus a little bit of morphine, plus some Dexedrine later on to keep me going, because it was all in one long sitting"). "First thought, best thought" he declared.

Kaddish is a long lament, following a Hebrew form, for his mother. The pain is real, and with grief, guilt and anger he evokes the world of which she was made and by which she was unmade.

Strange now to think of you, gone without corsets and eyes, while I walk on the sunny pavement of Greenwich Village
downtown Manhattan, clear winter noon, and I've been up all night, talking, talking, reading the Kaddish aloud, listening to Ray Charles blues shout blind on the phonograph
the rhythm the rhythm--and your memory in my head three years after--And read Adonais' last triumphant stanzas aloud--wept, realizing how we suffer

This poem in particular belongs to Ginsberg; the other poems belong to his generation. It was Kerouac who described his friends as the "beat generation." He might have been alluding to the jazz beat, or to the sense of being "beat"--tired out with things as they were, dropouts. Or is there a connection with "beatitude"? That is the spin Ginsberg would have given it. By that token, writers remote from the druggy subculture aspects of the Beats in the 1950s and 1960s might be gathered into its fold.
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Excerpted from Lives of the Poets, edited by Michael Schmidt. Copyright © 2000 by Michael Schmidt. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.