Around the same time two of my friends asked me about the poetry of Beat poet Allen Ginsberg. At the risk of more shit-stirring, here goes. In my 20s I read Ginsberg's poems in Donald Allen’s groundbreaking New American Poetry
and his later collection Planet News
. Donald Allen's anthology collected the Beat poets as well as those from Black Mountain College, the New York School and the San Francisco Renaissance. I preferred the work of Denise Levertov, LeRoi Jones (aka Amiri Baraka) and Frank O'Hara. In the midst of identity crises I would’ve been a bit afraid by Ginsberg’s depiction of explicit gay male sexuality. But O'Hara work's, though queer too, was conversational, funny,artful and campily subversive. My teacher called him a “permission-giver.” My friend Alfredo said my reaction to Ginsberg's work was "the anxiety of influence," but that isn't quite right; rather, it was a reaction against the influence of excess. Bob Holman said that after he read the City Lights pocketbook "Howl" edition he stuffed it in his backpocket and hopped a bus to New York City. That would've been a problem for me. I was already in New York.
At Holman's invitation last September 2009 I participated in the HOWL Festival, but abstained from the group reading, because while I believe in Moloch, I don’t buy the "holy" section of Ginsberg’s poem for a minute, which seems to me reminiscent of all the hippie softmindedness I couldn't abide in the Sixties counterculture. Kurt Vonnegut commented that the “best minds of my generation” were to be found not in English Departments but in Physics and Engineering. When Ginsberg chanted "Om," he failed to levitate the Pentagon. One of my colleagues at California College of Arts in Oakland was Beat poet Michael McClure—whom I actually liked—and Michael did
have the power to levitate three inches off the ground. But in art school there was a boho cult of personality surrounding McClure and the Beat scene. Along with Charles Bukowski (Pukeowski, to me) and Hunter Thompson, the Beats were the artsy students’ writers of choice—if they read at all.
While I credit the Beats' sociological importance and their contribution to green lifestyles and gay rights, as a poet Ginsberg encouraged a kind of sloppiness and his "first thought, best thought" was utter bullshit as poetics. Morally, it was hypotypical of the Beats that they'd want their satori and consume their drugs and boys too. And, strangely, there was less resistance when Ginsberg assumed the role of poet-guru than when Robert Bly pulled the same shtick. I don’t want to be overly ungenerous. Ginsberg’s work does express an important capacity for male tenderness and the recognition of the skull beneath the face. However, of all the Beat poets Gary Snyder has been the most consistent in his Buddhist practice in the Sierra wilderness, living with his family, and I do admire some of Snyder’s work, particularly Earth Household
Norman Mailer once wrote that Ginsberg follows a strong line with a fart. That sums it up for me. At a benefit for Nicaragua in NYC in the ‘70s Ginsberg was doing William Blake songs accompanied by his awful harmonium. Afterwards, an angel-headed hipster friend and I went to see him. Allen was only interested in leering at my friend. Later I heard rumors of his predatory habits. August Kleinzahler wrote of Ginsberg’s incessant need for distraction.
Like Walt Whitman (who wrote anonymous reviews praising Leaves of Grass
) and Bob Holman after, Ginsberg was a master at self-promotion, and I don’t begrudge any of them if they got game. But when I was living in the Bay Area in the '80s and '90s, I swear to God that every few months there'd be a feature article about the Beats in the Pink Section of the San Francisco Chronicle, an execrable newspaper. I mean, who was their phantom publicist? With Howl
Ginsberg did his best work in the 50s, coasting on his fame and celebrity everafter.
During this period, there was a multiethnic contemporary poetry scene in the Bay Area that included Ishmael Reed, Maya Angelou, Victor Hernandez Cruz, Lorna Dee Cervantes, David Henderson, Lucha Corpi, Jeff Tagami, Janice Mirikitani, Jaime Jacinto, Marilyn Chin and myself which could’ve been more fully acknowledged. So, yes, there’s an edge of resentment here.
Lionel Trilling, Ginsberg’s teacher at Columbia University, thought he was crazy. While Ginsberg certainly wouldn't have been alone among poets of the time—plenty of them were ending up in the nuthouse or killing themselves— I'm not sure that’s necessarily a recommendation for Ginsberg's telegraphic conspiratorial-paranoid thinking. As for Jack Kerouac’s novels, Truman Capote’s comment that “That’s not writing, that’s typing” may be a little too strong, but after a reading of On The Road
and Dharma Bums
, I wasn’t enticed to read more of Kerouac’s prose, which seems more like a series of word-riffs, except that Charlie Parker mastered the alto saxophone by woodshedding months in the Kansas wilderness. Kerouac had Benzedrine. And Kerouac’s sentimentalizing of “Negro life” is blatantly embarrassing. William Burroughs’ hallucinatory cut-up novels about addiction are an acquired taste I’ve never acquired. I haven’t been able to read Gregory Corso, the Francois Villon jailbird of the bunch. How many Beat histories mention the black poets Bob Kaufman and Ted Joans?
And considering all the women who either died like Burrroughs' wife and artist Jay DeFeo or were marginalized like poets Hettie Jones, Joanne Kyger and Janine Pommy Vega, I'm not about to genuflect at the altar of the Beat boys' club.