COLLECTED POEMS, 1947-1997
By Allen Ginsberg.1,189 pp. HarperCollins Publishers. $39.95
Gay, in the lotus position, with a beard, wreathed in a cloud of marijuana smoke and renowned as the author of a “dirty” poem whose first public reading in a West Coast gallery was said to have turned the 1950s into the ’60s in a single night, Allen Ginsberg embodied, as a figure, some great cold war climax of human disinhibition. Ginsberg, the hang-loose anti-Ike. Ginsberg, the Organization Man unzipped. The vulnerable obverse of the Bomb. He had the belly of a Buddha, the facial hair of a Walt Whitman and — except for the ever-present black glasses that hinted at a conformist path not taken — he was easier to imagine naked than any Homo sapiens since Adam.
But it’s difficult to memorialize such a personage. When Ginsberg died in 1997, he was a 70-year-old beatnik, which made him a cultural antiquity. Now, however, almost a decade later (and exactly 50 years after the publication of “Howl”), he still seems too familiar for immortality. Wasn’t he, just a few days before yesterday, hanging out backstage with rock stars? Wasn’t he just marching against the Persian Gulf War? Come out, Allen Ginsberg — you’re around here somewhere. If Dylan is, then you must be.
But he isn’t. He’s gone. And now here’s proof: a full-scale posthumous literary tribute consisting of an exhaustive yet not exhausting, swiftly readable new biography — Bill Morgan’s “I Celebrate Myself: The Somewhat Private Life of Allen Ginsberg” — and a handsome and overstuffed “Collected Poems.” Despite feeling prematurely solemn, the arrival of these honors may be well timed in a karmic, historical sense. While poetry’s best-known subterranean has been recharging his essence underground, aboveground America has returned to form by joining another colossal global conflict of the sort he made his name lamenting.
Not that Ginsberg was only a protest writer. He was also, the new volume shows, a lyric poet of the old school preocuppied with passion, place and fate, whose consciousness, under pressure from the Bomb, released weird new isotopes into the atmosphere. Since everything was on the verge of being destroyed, it wasn’t enough any longer, Ginsberg realized, to focus on certain phenomena over others, favoring the natural and the shapely over the man-made and the monstrous. He sensed the new ironies of ecstasy: that it could arise in the least exalted settings, from bus stations to supermarkets, and that it was available to anyone, including bored office workers, such as he’d been, and shifty drifters, like certain of his pals. With the help of the joint, the jazz club, the paperback and the great meditation aid called Armageddon, beholding the universe in a grain of sand was not just for William Blake types anymore. Hell, with the right chemicals in his brain, the right music on the stereo and the right classics in his knapsack, a guy could glimpse the cosmos in the grit trapped between his roommate’s filthy toes. What’s more, it was incumbent on him to glimpse it — and, if possible, to celebrate it — since it might be the last of God’s objects he’d see before the final equalizing flash.
Even Whitman, Ginsberg’s spiritual mentor, had never dreamed of such democracy. The egalitarianism of looming extinction. No wonder so many of Ginsberg’s poems, especially those he wrote in his full potency, took the form of roll calls, lists and litanies, dispensing with time-consuming traditional syntax and substituting ampersands for “ands.” Cold war America, in Ginsberg’s view, was Now or Never Land. Either speak up immediately and fully or, perhaps, miss the chance to speak at all.
Which doesn’t mean that Ginsberg was merely torrential — a passive channeler of psychotic energies. Take “Howl,” which it’s impossible not to take, because, as legend has it and Morgan’s biography confirms, “Howl” took the world from the moment it was born in 1955. In the popular literary memory, it is chiefly a work of high decibel social blame, but what’s less remarked upon is its sure, deft timing, worthy of a borscht belt comic. The poem’s surging momentum is a setup for all sorts of affecting dying falls and unanticipated reversals. It lets Ginsberg bring his audience up short just when they’re bracing to be steamrolled and make them grin while they’re still scowling.
Here are two successive stanzas, the first as dense and heightened as they come, and the second more plain and conversational and ending with a witty, offhand change-up that reminds us that Ginsberg, even at his fieriest, could stand off to the side of his material, cool, amused and in control. He’s writing, we’ll remember, of his friends, whose varied failures to adjust to cold-war-era social norms (and whose amped-up ambitions to discover new norms) had seen them jailed, institutionalized and otherwise humbled by folks in authority who seemed just as whacked:
who were burned alive in their innocent flannel suits on Madison Avenue amid blasts of leaden verse & the tanked-up clatter of the iron regiments of fashion & the nitroglycerine shrieks of the fairies of advertising & the mustard gas of sinister intelligent editors, or were run down by the drunken taxicabs of Absolute Reality, who jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge this actually happened and walked away unknown and forgotten into the ghostly daze of Chinatown soup alleyways & firetrucks, not even one free beer.
The success of “Howl” among his peers and with the larger circle of tastemakers who’d mostly ignored him up until then gave Ginsberg a certified crowd-pleasing routine that he reprised upon occasion, but not as often as he might have. The poem was not one of his favorites, Morgan reveals, and he skipped the country while it was echoing loudest, heading off to North Africa and Europe to resupply himself with the experiences, not to mention the hallucinations he used to enrich his private psychic plutonium. As a method, this rowdy rambling seems almost quaint — now that a high-toned education is seen as sufficient preparation for a serious literary career. Ginsberg had undergone such training too, of course (at Columbia University, where many of the Beats, including Kerouac, did their academic straight time while being tugged sideways by the New York street scene), but his time in the tower had shown him vistas he was powerless not to visit physically and immerse himself in their mystic waters. He was a worldly writer in the best sense, who knew that the path to heaven starts on earth and isn’t a short one, but winds all over the place.
His talent for geographic sketching is one of the least esteemed of Ginsberg’s gifts. The poet who grew renowned for spacing out was even better at zooming in. Life did not present itself to him as a confusing psychedelic mishmash, despite sometimes emerging that way on his pages, but a streaming procession of specific places. In “Kaddish,” the long lament for his dead mother that must still be regarded as his masterpiece, he conveys the flavor of certain locales as carefully as a realistic novelist. Here is a landscape from his native New Jersey:
Bridges by deerless creeks, old wampum loading the streambed — down there a tomahawk or Pocahontas bone — and a million old ladies voting for Roosevelt in brown small houses.
Ginsberg, almost as much as his friend Kerouac (who the biography reminds us spent as much time politically disagreeing with him, socially shunning him and ethnically slurring him as he did chumming around with him), believed that visions shimmer up out of the ground more often than they swirl down from the sky. Similarly, he viewed society not as some soup of blended types and classes but as a chunky stew of individuals. References to actual personages crowd Ginsberg’s work to a surprising extent, especially considering his reputation as a trippy generalizer. An index of names in the “Collected Poems” runs to eight closely printed pages and includes such entries as “Crosby, Bing,” “Cronkite, Walter” and “Rainey, Ma.” Here was perhaps the most jarring and surprising of the nuclear ironies Ginsberg wrestled with: the persistence of irreducible identities in an age of looming obliteration. Perhaps that’s why, in the typical Beat fashion, he exalted his friends and fellows, no matter how deranged or unaccomplished, to the rank of demigods. Against the coming radioactive curtain drop, their faces glowed like Greek dramatic masks.
Ginsberg, too, was not one but several people. Some of them cohabited — the savvy marketer of his friends’ work, who, Morgan tells us, was also something of an instinctive, status-conscious social climber; the idealistic self-abnegator who refused to take money for his readings but donated them to a fund for needy colleagues — and some of them emerged in sequence. As the becalmed age of Eisenhower changed into the agitated Kennedy years and nuclear dread soured into paranoia, Ginsberg’s rhetoric grew broader, his juxtapositions jaggeder and his rhythms heavier. The title alone of “Television Was a Baby Crawling Toward That Deathchamber,” written in the early ’60s, demonstrates all of these quailities, as does this snippet from its expansive tirade against media mind control:
mature capitalists running the State Department and the Daily News Editorial hypnotizing millions of legional-eyed detectives to commit mass murder on the Invisible / which is only a bunch of women weeping hidden behind newspapers in the Andes, conspired against by Standard Oil.
Provoked by the specifically political, Ginsberg could become tiresome in this mode of bullhorn-and-barricades excoriation. He’d succeeded to a difficult new role: official spokesman for something, or against it. These somethings grew more vivid as the War (Vietnam) replaced the Bomb as his nation’s defining offense. Vietnam was a less philosophical antagonist, and its dangers weren’t hypothetical. Global nuclear annihilation had been a hovering possibility, but death by napalm was a vivid circumstance, darkly at odds with the ecstatic urge. One of Ginsberg’s better Vietnam poems, “Hiway Poesy: L.A.-Albuquerque-Texas-Wichita,” narrates a failed attempt at blissful escapism. The road is still there, the intoxicants, the soulmates, but underneath it all is a bad trip that keeps cropping up in news flashes and billboards. The rolling Midwestern pavement, the speeding car, keep hitting little nauseating bumps. Ginsberg affects a jaunty stoned mellowness, but he’s on a highway to hell now, and he knows it, and sitting back with his feet up brings no ease.
The war, of course, ended, but Ginsberg’s career went on. An untimely death around this period might have lofted him to Parnassus permanently, or, failing that, he might have aped Bob Dylan and taken a turn toward the private and enigmatic. Instead he refined into an act what had once been a spiritual compulsion and exploited his fame, quite consciously and generously, with a keen sense of obligation to his audience, by taking up various causes of the week in his still-much-clamored-for grand manner. The poetic results were uneven, particularly when he started to fancy himself as an accessible pop troubador and turned in his work to rhymed and metered verse, as in “Industrial Waves,” from the early ’80s: “Freedom to buy Judges! Freedom for organized crime! / Freedom for the Military! ‘I got mine.’ ” By then he’d amassed quite a catalog of crimes to be outraged over, and the snappy way he shuffled the deck suggested he could play them any which way. He was aware enough of this development to title a poem “I’m a Prisoner of Allen Ginsberg,” but the acidic ditties didn’t stop. This is how “N.S.A. Dope Calypso” begins: “Now Richard Secord and Oliver North / Hated Sandinistas whatever they were worth / They peddled for the Contras to ease their pain / They couldn’t sell Congress so Contras sold cocaine.”
This descent from the cosmic to the topical, and this loss of agility in relating the two, may have stemmed from Ginsberg’s hectic schedule and his increasingly confounding love life. According to Morgan, who served for many years as the poet’s archivist, Ginsberg’s days as he grew middle-aged were a siege of letter writing, cross-country flying, teaching and political and cultural organizing. He’d become an institutional juggernaut. And his down time didn’t relax him. The poet Peter Orlovsky, his lifelong partner, remained as primarily heterosexual as ever, with less of a mind to make erotic exceptions for the queer celebrity who supported him. Worse, Orlovsky had gone bats from drugs, vanishing for hours and days, smashing up furniture and menacing girlfriends. Ginsberg, the most forbearing of human beings, who came late to the pop-pysch concept of codependency but found it revelatory when he did, repaired the damage he couldn’t ignore and concentrated on spreading the brand Ginsberg.
He was no longer addressing his peers by then but ministering to youthful acolytes, playing the pacifist pedant of the past. At Oxford in the mid-’80s I witnessed one of his performances, fully staged with drums and finger-cymbals and attended by a crowd more eager to witness a legendary sideshow than hear a poetry reading by a master. “Howl, you old Howler” roared our undergrad minds, and Ginsberg obliged us with a poem called “Birdbrain!” about some idealized agent of global lunacy. “Birdbrain” sold weapons, manipulated markets, degraded the environment and so on. The poem’s comic agit-prop relentlessness drew many cheers of nostalgic solidarity but few sighs of aesthetic stimulation, and it was clear, as the poem jangled on, that Ginsberg — charmingly and unembarrassedly — regarded himself as Birdbrain, too. He understood he’d become ridiculous. Prophets of change age harder than normal folks, even when some of the changes they glimpsed arrive. Especially then, since rebellion becomes outmoded. And though Ginsberg’s poetry hadn’t freed the world yet — or freed it just a little bit — it had certainly liberated Ginsberg. He could say anything by then, and did, and the fact that he said it made it poetry.
Or made it something. It hardly matters what now. Oracular spontaneity is rare these days, and heartfelt, inspired sloppiness underrated. The poets are pros now, like the software coders, and they function smoothly as nodes in the great network. Ginsberg was always a bug in the machine, though, and the chaos he caused rang alarms that brought repairmen. He made a racket, and, for stretches, a grand one, with subtler modulations than some appreciate and wittier undertones than they remember. I and many others can hear it still, even above the noise of the explosions.
Silence — the one mistake Ginsberg never made. And because of the work he left, the life he led and the care that’s been taken preserving them, it’s one that he probably never will.
Walter Kirn is a regular contributor to the Book Review. His most recent novel is “Mission to America.”