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Poetry from Outside the Pale - Allen Ginsberg

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The poet from Turtle Island - Gary Snyder

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Joyce Jenkins and the Language Troubles

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Poetry from Outside the Pale
Allen Ginsberg

May, 1987

It was a rainy night in 1964 when I first felt the power of Allen Ginsberg's great long poem, "Howl." I was a sophomore in high school, attending a speech tournament at San Diego State College. A friend of mine had made it to the finals in the poetry interpretation category. I can still clearly see him, bony, tall and slightly bug-eyed, standing in front of a large auditorium with one arm outstretched as he intoned:

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,
angel headed hipsters burning for the ancient
heavenly connection to the starry dynamo
in the machinery of night . . .

Heavy chills ran down my body. This was every promise of poetry fulfilled beyond anything I'd ever dreamed. What danger, what power, what wild music! In a sense, I've never recovered from that first jolt of electricity. Not that my teachers didn't try to lure me back to the world of literary decorum. "His work is so uneven . . . a fad . . . here today, gone tomorrow . . . it's embarrassing, so immoderate . . . in 10 years he'll be forgotten . . .”

Photo by Michael Simon

Now, 20 years later and 30 since the poem was first published by City Lights Books in San Francisco and not only has Ginsberg not been forgotten, he's widely recognized as the greatest bard working in America, heir apparent to the legacy of Walt Whitman. With utter fearlessness, he has poured his heart into such poems as "Kaddish" (an epic concerning the life and death of his mother, who ended up lobotomized in an insane asylum), "Wichita Vortex Sutra," "Wales Visitation," "Mind Breaths," "Plutonium Ode" and "Fall of America." He's a member (along with William Burroughs, the novelist who put a limit to the term "experimental" with Naked Lunch, and Ginsberg's close friend of many decades) of the American Academy of Arts and Letters; he's been instrumental in spreading the gospel of spontaneous writing as enunciated by another of his close friends, the novelist Jack Kerouac (who died in 1969); and he's been a mover and shaker in radical movements of every kind. He stands in 1987 as more than a poet—as a prophetic character out of the Old Testament, a modern-day Blake full of fire and vision.

Recently, two volumes of Ginsberg's work have been published by Harper and Row that provide a first-rate opportunity for exploring the full length (to date) of his poetic career: White Shroud, a book of new poems, and a facsimile edition of "Howl" (which was written while Ginsberg was living in San Francisco and Berkeley), complete with author's annotations, photos of the period (many by Ginsberg himself), documents relating to the poem's critical and legal reception (it was the subject of an obscenity trial), and a wealth of other fascinating material—including reproductions of the first typescript draft and subsequent drafts of "Howl" Part I, as well as early drafts of Part II, III and IV.

Looking through White Shroud (poems from 1980-1985), I became aware for the ten-thousandth time that on one score my teachers were right: Ginsberg's work is uneven. Here, mixed in with such original and autonomous writings as "Porch Scribbles" and "Memory Cousins," are several poems that I, for one, wouldn't have missed if they hadn't found their way into this book—"Industrial Waves" (forced, rhyming political rhetoric), "Jumping the Gun on the Sun" (philosophic doggerel) and "The Guest" (somewhat embarrassing confessions about the poet's current love life). But you don't get to write lines like "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" (in "Howl" Part I) or " as you fly off to the moon on your translucent sexual wings forever" (in "Throw Out the Yellow Journalists of Bad Grammar and Terrible Manners") if your main concern is to write and print material that isn't going to embarrass readers, or try their patience. The number of American poets since World War II who have been more consistent in their output is very large: the number who have produced poems as great-hearted as "Howl" or "Kaddish" is as close to zero as it can get.

As I made arrangements to speak with Ginsberg by phone (he lives in New York), one fine poem from White Shroud entitled "Black Shroud" haunted my thoughts. In it, the poet relates a dream wherein he decapitates his mother while she's in the throes of a mad fit, then tries to conceal his crime from the family.

RA: The poem in White Shroud that reached right out and shook me up was "Black Shroud," which I would call a terrible poem—terrible in the sense of terrifying and pathetic. It's difficult to imagine being able to write something like that down.

AG: Well, remember—although it does contain the emotion of a real life situation, it's just a dream. You wake up, so it's harmless; the sting has been taken out of it. To be able to accommodate such a dream emotionally is characteristic of that turn of mind cultivated by the Buddhists, which is letting go of thought forms—relating to them, seeing them as simultaneously real and empty and then letting go of them. Taking a certain pleasure or delight, even, in such a hideous image is a Buddhist attitude—seeing it as a play of mind, rather than as a reality trap.

RA: Later, when I got the facsimile edition of "Howl," I saw in your annotations a reference to the fact that you had okayed the lobotomy of your mother.

AG: And thereby hangs another tale.

RA:and that illuminated "Black Shroud" for me.

AG: Oh, sure! That's what "Black Shroud" is about. It was a situation where my family and myself wound up abandoning my mother in the madhouse. The doctors told me that her blood pressure had risen so high and her fury had become so intense, that she was banging her head on the wall and was likely to have a stroke. They said she needed some kind of intervention, and a lobotomy might relieve the tremendous anxiety she was going through and that's what it did, actually. That was 30 years ago. The decision, for some reason, came down to me of all the people in the family.

RA: In a lot of your poetry you address the topic of the mentally ill and what their true condition is—van Gogh, your mother, Carl Solomon, to whom "Howl" is dedicated.

AG: It's not so much the mentally ill; my inclination is more toward the socially rejected because mentally ill—or people who were abandoned, including myself in that abandonment; myself feeling abandoned in certain respects, socially, when I was younger; at the same time, having abandoned my mother; both experiencing abandonment and abandoning.
I'm interested in the whole notion of being outside the pale, being rejected, which fits in with a certain American preoccupation. You find Whitman writing about those who are outcast or abandoned, and that relates to the whole question of homosexuals, junkies, etc.; it also relates politically to the question of communists here in the U.S. and those who the communists abandon abroad— the political dissenters and exiles and people sent to bughouses. It's a sort of general anxiety or unease about those who are outcast and abandoned, rejected and condemned.

RA: In light of your "first thought, best, thought" principle, it's interesting to see in the "Howl" facsimile the amount of revision the poem actually underwent.

AG: Yeah, but it's the free improvisational parts that produced the best things in the poem; the revisions just locked them into place. The method of free improvisations seems to produce the genius elements, the key phrases. It's a question of learning the process, learning to trust the inspiration, learning to ride your own energy.

RA: When "Howl" first came out, you heard a lot of objections—many of which, quite justifiably, you saw as poorly informed. Critics and academic types were saying, "Oh, this is very anarchic." Yet you knew it came out of a great tradition going back to the Old Testament.

AG: Exactly. That's what was so astounding, that the people who were supposed to be academic scholars really weren't. They were just bullshitting. Their field of scholarship was so narrow that they didn't recognize the precedents—particularly, say, Christopher Smart—although I had already written about Smart in earlier poems. But nobody wanted to pick up on that.

RA: In the original draft of "Howl," you broke through to a very long, flowing line. By now, with "White Shroud," you're still basically working with a long line, but it's not as long as in "Howl." What evolution has your line, or breath, gone through over the years?

AG: Well, in "Kaddish" it got even longer, and more and more like someone talking excitedly and telling a story. "Howl" was more lyric; "Kaddish" is more narrative. But if you look at "White Shroud," which is a continuation of the "Kaddish" line, it's still narrative conversation. But in "White Shroud" you've still got some of the surrealistic condensation of "Howl"—like "Works/ Progress Administration newspaper/metropolis/double-decker buses in September sun near Broadway El . . . " They're like portmanteau sentences with a lot of words juxtaposed solidly together to make chains of flashing images.

It's like the thing Bob Dylan picked up on from me and Kerouac, the chain of images that you get in "Motorcycle black madonna two-wheeled gypsy queen," in " Gates of Eden," which is basically a surrealistic conjunction, concatenation. It's not only surrealistic, it's very logical; it's realistic and naturalistic. It could almost pass for somebody talking; you almost might not notice that it's poetry. So I think my verse line evolved so that you take the same variety of information, that surrealistic juxtaposition that sounds like hyperbole and now it's more naturalized, which after all is the way the mind thinks. It may lose a certain edge of fire-siren-like excitement; on the other hand, it's absolutely solid and clear and transparent. There's no sleight of hand, except that it's so condensed it's kind of strange. But something like that is a gift; it's a dream, I didn't make it up. All I had to do was transcribe. I trusted my mind at this point, like an old painter. You know, after a while you get that old-dog view of things. You train your mind, then speak spontaneously. You revise your mind rather than revise the page.

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