"Notes on Allen Ginsberg"

by Larry Morris 

(Academic paper for English 490 at the University of New Mexico)


Radio interviewer: "Mr. Ginsberg, in the first line of your poem, Howl, you said, 'I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness.' What did you mean by that?"

Ginsberg: "By that, I meant that I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness."

Prim little old lady at poetry reading: "Mr. Ginsberg, when you speak of 'naked poetry' what do you mean?"

Ginsberg, beginning to peel off his clothes: "When I speak of naked poetry, I mean..." 

On Ginsberg: 

R. Creeley: "The most tortured consciousness I've ever met." 

W. C. Williams: "Say what you will, he proves to us, in spite of the most debasing experiences that life can offer a man, the spirit of love survives to ennoble our lives if we have the wit and the courage and the faith--and the art! to persist."

A. Ginsberg: "I thought I wouldn't write a poem, but just write what I wanted to without fear, let my imagination go, open secrecy, and scribble magic lines from my real mind--sum up my life--something I wouldn't be able to show anybody, write for my own soul's ear and a few other golden ears."

Bob Dylan says that a poem is a "naked person" and Ginsberg's nudity peeks out from every line of Howl, Kaddish, and Reality Sandwiches. Confessional poetry? So what's wrong with confession--if it's honest? And what's wrong with dishonesty if it isn't? To say that Ginsberg is trite and hollow implies that 'something' is fuller, less trite, more real. What? 

In contemporary poetry--show me. If one accepts the premises of Ginsberg's world, then how deny the validity of its conclusions? Is Ginsberg merely a sophist--spraying words across a blank page--hoping to discover, in the act, himself? If so, so what? Meaning/feeling--are they lacking? I leave it up to the reader's sensibility. But perhaps this Ginsberg is too naked for us who are afraid of too much exposure--perhaps seeing too many of our own flaws and blemishes against the skin of his poems. Is, as Bergson thought, too much exposure to reality destructive? Is the mind overwhelmed by a direct confrontation with itself.

But what do we have to lose, really? The pettiness of our days and ways? Fine, so be it. If I'm afraid to face myself in the mirror of poetry, then where else look? If this glorified self-image should be blasted to bits, I'm creative (too creative) and can make another: "What else you got, to show me?" Ginsberg, finding himself by losing himself in his poetry--we might get lost too. But--"You lose yourself, you reappear, suddenly, you have nothing to fear." So what if the "drunken taxicabs of Absolute Reality" run us down? We get up and walk away or disappear into "nowhere Zen New Jersey" but at least we are confronting ourselves openly, nakedly, without that slick veneer of intellection.

People won't read the Cantoes for fear of going mad, but who is sane? Would a 'sane' person take contemporary poetry (or life) seriously? No. It's too incoherent, irrational--demonic. And does Ginsberg take it seriously? One takes one's madness as he finds it--whether "moving through the negro streets at dawn/looking for an angry fix" or otherwise. Ginsberg, certainly the "drop-out" poet--but the poet of enlightenment? Maybe. But then why Guru-worship? Why honor 'false' gods- but as an escape from one's own tangled consciousness?

Certainly his poetry is punctuated with 'heroes' and divinities other than himself: Kerouac, Snyder, Burroughs, N. C. (Neal Cassidy), Carl Solomon, Naomi Ginsberg (heroine?), Corso, et. al. But then where's A. G.? Of course, he's all of these—who have fluttered through his consciousness at one time or another—some sticking briefly, then disappearing, others perhaps firmly entrenched in the deepest layers of his sensibility. And in peeling through these layers (like peeling off layers of an onion) he reveals not only the cross-sections of his self/friends but also the whole garbage can network of the mind.

One of my students asks, "Why is so much of contemporary art so concerned with garbage?" Because perhaps it's a new mode of expression? Or, more simply, as they say of the mountain, "Because it's there, boy."

Next question: "Is Ginsberg's garbage holy?" Original definition of holy: 'whole.' Does it reflect his whole being, total organism of A. G.? No. As the Indian Gurus told him, "You can't attain enlightenment until after you've had a satisfactory (holy?) relationship with a woman." This is what's lacking (not only in A. G. but probably also in most of contemporary poetry/life). Poets/men don't seem to be able to relate 'satisfactorily' ("Can't get no satisfaction"-the sign of our frustrated times) to women. Hence we see no pictures of 'whole' women in Ginsberg, merely fragmented collages of the feminine mind/body. A serious lack? Yes, but this lack may extend (I feel) to almost all of Ginsberg's contemporaries: loneliness, hollowness, vicarious discontent. How to relate to another being (any being) wholly (holy)? So not only garbage, but also the solitude, the isolation from garbage, or its higher/lower implications, creeps in.

Thus we have the 'howl' of the "desolated" angel! with mother finally ******, and the last fantastic book flung out of the tenement window, and the last door closed at 4 AM and the last telephone slammed at the wall in reply and the last furnished room emptied down to the last piece of mental furniture, a yellow paper rose twisted on a wire hanger in the closed, and even that imaginary, nothing but a hopeful little bit of hallucination--

But I'm not really capturing, nor conveying, the excitement, the frenzy of Ginsberg's poetry/life. Hence: I think Ginsberg sees his poetry as he sees himself: a cloudy focus rambling through unknown variables which he would like to, but can't quite control or even presuppose. Everything is hidden, with only occasional (and these perhaps mild) hints. Perspectives of fog unfold before every presumed direction. Yet we can distinguish certain places where Ginsberg isn't. He's not T. S. Eliot, "Nor was meant to be." 

Transmutations and metamorphoses of ontological categories done to the tune of syntatical abortioning of which his current game seems to consist. He plays with contexts in terms of sound sense time patterns in relation to beings and their ultimate relativity to each other and themselves. Without explaining or defining the puzzle, he perpetuates it as he sees it tastes it touches it smells it feels it—all in a shifting breathing present which transforms itself through itself into varieties of illusory categories which are promptly burst. In other words: You tell a man that it's raining; he rushes desperately to get an umbrella; the sun melts the umbrella and the man drowns in the downpour. The ultimate 'realism'. One takes the Humean position at face value and proceeds to destroy rationalism and empiricism, replacing them with a simple Zen fitted to and by the circumstance. One moves through a tangle of contradictory images toward humorous nothingness which gapes out of a primitive idealism. The rug of reality continuously slipping out, spilling one into unfashionable voids of contextual frameworks—leaving one, as it were, in the hash-hish of time-space dimensions.

The controlled utterance is the dilemma of our times. As if life itself were that controlled by each and every one of us shambling apparitions before the dust. The writer of the well-made anything is merely perpetuating the delusion of his own rational adequacy in the irrational face of the present—the present: multiplicity of conflicting desires—ambivalences, paradoxes—the whole erratic network of motions and emotions, generating hollow patterns of supposed intent. One puts himself into a game, forgets that it's only a game, begins taking it seriously and dies for lack of humour—mowed-down by stimulus-response connections which were unreal to begin with.

Thus the direction of Ginsberg's poetry—as I see it—toward a visceral art. An objective art of the emotions which will hit the reader in the guts where he resides—make him cry scream laugh roll on the floor but at least FEEL. Feel that he is alive in every intense splitted tick of the present tock. Hence away from social-political-scientific-philosophical-commentaries toward vibrational 'energy transfers' of emotional-gut-commentaries. No more hollow melanges of strung together words, emptied and abstracted from feeling, but rather (hopefully) intensities of images which will leap-out on befuddled readers—branding the skull with indelible electricities, shot-full of meaningful feelings, feelingful meanings... 

A naked lunch is natural to us

For we eat reality sandwiches

Allegory is so much lettuce

Don't hide the madness....