12
Sep
15

Quick Notes on Allen Ginsberg

These are mostly notes and observations I am writing for myself as I prepare for the Contemporary Poetry section of my comps. I will try to do this with each poet I read. Maybe the notes will be useful to others, too. Again, they are notes and observations. They are not thesis-driven arguments.

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Allen GinsbergAllen Ginsberg (1926 – 1997) is an American poet, who is usually associated with the Beats. His major book is Howl & Other Poems (1956), and when he read the poem “Howl” at The Six Gallery Reading in San Francisco on October 7, 1955, some say the Beat Generation began.

On one of the walls at The University of Southern Mississippi’s English Department is the following quote from Ezra Pound, which I am currently looking at: “Great literature is simply language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree.” With Ginsberg, in Howl & Other Poems (1955), we don’t get that. We don’t get formal poems of self-contained meanings, meters, rhetorical poetic devices, all of which is designed for close reading. We get a series of images that leap around paratactically. We get images provoking ideas and emotions. We get open form poems, often with long lines. We get long lines filled with a big breath, which seems to recall Olson’s “Projective Verse.” These long lines allow for Ginsberg to more accurately trace his mind in action. Philip Whalen says something like, “Poetry is a graph of the mind moving,” and that is how most of Ginsberg’s poems appear to operate in Howl & Other Poems. In addition, according to David Perkins:

Ginsberg absorbed [W. C.] Williams’ belief that poetry must reflect contemporary social reality, present images rather than ideas, and base its idiom on immediate speech rather than a poetic tradition. (547)

The open form also allows Ginsberg a larger space in which to confess. (I think Ginsberg is a type of Confessional poet, but whereas Lowell, Plath, and Snodgrass confess within the worlds of suburban families, Ginsberg confesses among the drug addicts, hobos, artists, outcasts, patients in mental asylums (like Carl Solomon and his mother).) With the long poetic line, he is able to confess “out the soul to conform to the rhythm of thought in his naked and endless head” (“Howl” 131). He confesses his homosexuality, he confesses to being a Communist, he confesses to being a poet, and he confesses to the value of work.

Some concerns in these poems are work and value and nostalgia. For instance, “America” opens: “America I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing. / America two dollars and twentyseven cents January 17, 1956” (146). Ginsberg is saying he’s given it his all, but despite that, despite capitalism’s promise that working hard will make one rich, Ginsberg feels nearly valueless ($2.27). This poem shows the effects of capitalism on the American worker, who is a hero in many of Ginsberg’s poems. By the end of the poem, he announces, “America I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel” (148). In essence, he’s announcing he’s getting back to the old ways of working. The capitalist’s “machinery is too much for” him (146). The capitalist working conditions create homogenized products and make people too serious – “Businessmen are serious. Movie producers are serious. Everybody’s serious but me” (147). So like an independent smith (pre-capitalism), he’s going to put his shoulder to the wheel stone and make his own products his own way. His value will come from his self-worth, his own industry. And he will sell his poems, his “strophes $2500 apiece.” He will be able to buy supermarket food with his own “good looks” (146). He is his own worth. His genius and good looks should be more than enough to survive.

We can even see some of this in the closing poem “In back of the real” (113), where the “hay flower” acts allegorically as the working person. This flower – with a “brittle black stem,” “dirty spikes” (though appearing crown-like and one of three crowns in Howl & Other Poems (one is the skyscrapers in “Howl” and one is in the flower in “Sunflower Sutra”)), and as worn down as an old hair brush “that’s been lying under / the garage for a year” – is the “flower of industry.” It is an “ugly flower” in appearance having grown in the environment of industry by a tank factory and railway station and tracks, but within it is the “great yellow / Rose in your brain! / This is the flower of the World.” This might be the underlying theme of the whole book – no matter who you are, how beaten down you’ve been, how much electroshock therapy you’ve had, there’s beauty in you and your madness.

Ginsberg poems are very accessible and in a simple language, but prompting complicated issues of economics, religion, sexuality, politics, drugs, and war. Some have claimed that Howl was the second most influential poem of the 20th century, with The Waste Land being the most influential.

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Works Cited

Ginsberg, Allen. Collected Poems: 1947-1980. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1984. Print.

Perkins, David. “Allen Ginsberg.” A History of Modern Poetry: Modernism and After. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1987. Print.

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Here’s where you can find the poems in Howl & Other Poems as they appear in the Collected Poems: 1947-1980.

Howl, 126-133

Footnote to Howl, 134

A Supermarket in California, 136-37

Transcription of Organ Music, 140-41

Sunflower Sutra, 138-39

America, 146-48

In the Baggage Room at Greyhound, 153-54

An Asphodel, 88

Song, 111-12

Wild Orphan, 78-79

In the back of the real, 113

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