by Allen Ginsberg
Harper Perennial Modern Classics 2007
Reviewed by Mike Corkery
“Spirit shrunken in a bounded / Immortality.”
As long as there is something for people to fear—communists, terrorists, death—and as long as there is such a thing as a status quo, Allen Ginsberg’s poetry will be essential. Words can seem powerless in a cluttered socio-political landscape where truth is a matter of opinion. But Ginsberg’s approach to the political and spiritual potency that poetry can embody is challenging, messy, and wide open. In fact, there’s no better way to describe Ginsberg’s work than with his own words: “The only thing that can save the world is the reclaiming of the awareness of the world. That’s what poetry does.” That’s what Ginsberg does.
Spanning his entire career, from his earliest poems in 1947 to pieces written only days before his death in 1997, Collected Poems 1947-1997 documents the psychological revolution that launched the Beat Generation and co-sponsored the youth movements of the 1960’s. This thorough collection, released by Harper Perennial in 2007, includes all of his published works. Ginsberg offers insights into everything from the social unrest of the Vietnam War to finding oneself spiritually, while ultimately paying homage to all those poets before and after him.
These sometimes topical poems pertain just as much to the present as they do to the age in which he wrote them. And while the collection contains his most famous work—“Howl” and “Kaddish” have aged magnificently, and are worthy of their reputations—its hundreds of often overlooked pieces are no less important. Like these classics, his early and late poems can establish an emotional state as a cosmos; when he is in love, he once said, he writes about who he is love with. And when he faces old age, he finds open-ended terms with passage beyond the physical realm, all the while professing faith in a near-physical intimacy with his reader.
Writing his earliest poems in the era directly following the first use of the atom bomb, Ginsberg writes of a certain sensuality of the soul, combating the fear of Cold War culture. His early poems, lyrical and often traditional, show restraint, but hint at the exuberance of his later work. “On Reading William Blake’s ‘The Sick Rose’,” composed in East Harlem in 1948, concludes,
What everlasting force confounded
In its being, like some human
Spirit shrunken in a bounded
Immortality, what Blossom
Gathers us inward, astounded?
Is this the sickness that is doom?
He appears equally in touch with the emotion of man and the divine, man as the divine, but also with natural and metaphysical blossom, and faintly echoing the politics, sex and drug use that branded him with youth culture for decades. While his lyrical poetry reads as an ode to the great poets before him, particularly Blake and Whitman, Ginsberg generally finds his own poetic identity in his more spontaneous, free-flowing verses, the rhythm of growing grass on a spinning planet. His well-chronicled Whitmanesque ability to sprawl makes his poems grow out of the book like vines.
Of his poetic political statements, it is perhaps with his bold declaration “I lift my voice aloud, / make Mantra of American language now, / I here declare the end of the War!” that Ginsberg is at his strongest. He picks up from Whitman’s Civil War, trying to assure us that the imaginative power of poetry and domestic power of words during wartime are potentially more devastating than bombs–if they are. Crossing through Macpherson and Wichita, Kansas on a cross-country trip in “Wichita Vortex Sutra,” Ginsberg compares newspaper headlines, government statistics, and his visions on the open road — poetry during crisis, showcasing the danger of misleading language:
Cars passing their messages along country crossroads
To populaces cement-networked on flatness,
giant white mist on earth
and a Wichita Eagle-Beacon headlines
“Kennedy Urges Cong Get Chair in Negotiations”
Headlines are always headlines. But in the diverse and fearful world that Ginsberg writes about, he always manages to offer glimmers of hope—like the prophet Whitman, hope of something as extreme as spiritual ascencion. In “Capitol Air” (1980), he exclaims,
Aware Aware wherever you are No Fear
Trust your heart Don’t ride paranoia dear
Breathe together with an ordinary mind
Armed with Humor Feed & Help Enlighten Woe Mankind
Ginsberg is a self-contradicting exclaimer of music. (It should be noted that the book also contains some of Ginsberg’s sheet music melodies that correspond to certain poems.) These lines arrive with deep insistence on the human soul and its ability to overcome. He preaches love and connection to all things to overcome, declaring in “Improvisation in Beijing” that “I write because poetry can reveal my thoughts, cure my paranoia also other people’s paranoia.” His words becoming the bleak truth and the saving grace. Like Whitman, he seems primed to assume the role of prophet.
Perhaps the sum of his career, and this volume of poetry, comes in “Death & Fame” (composed on February, 22, 1997, 42 days before his death). In the poem, he creates the image of his own funeral, declaring first, “When I die / I don’t care what happens to my body.” The voice from the body that once declared “the tongue and the cock and the asshole are holy” declares in part that he is more spiritual entity than body. The body is an earthly, physical thing—the life, eternal. Ginsberg pictures a ghost version of open-road icon Neil Cassady at his funeral:
So there be gossip from loves of 1946, ghost of Neil Cassady
commingling with flesh and youthful blood of 1997
and surprise—“You too? But I thought you were straight!”
“I am but Ginsberg an exception, for some reason he pleased me,”
“I forgot whether I was straight gay queer or funny, was myself,
tender and affectionate to be kissed on the top of my head,
my forehead throat heart & solar plexus, mid-belly, on my prick,
tickled with his tongue my behind.”
It is this level of sensuality that carries throughout the volume whether his inspiration is political, physical, romantic, or of the cosmos. When it comes to Ginsberg’s poetry, nothing is untouchable or too vulgar, no one is safe, and everything is approached with a worldly sensitivity and ecstasy. This book reaffirms at least that those exposed mostly to “Howl” and “Kaddish” have barely begun to reap the benefits that Ginsberg showered on the world for five decades and several generations.