Legacy Of Allen Ginsberg: Poet To Pedophile
Copyright © by Ben Smith 8/17/12
I really wanted to write a piece on Ginsberg, dealing primarily with his poetry, with the angle that he experienced a decline as an artist as he grew older. Although I still believe this to be true, the artistic decline that is (although it’s swifter than I first thought), I am having difficulty deciding how to depict this, for, as you most likely know, Ginsberg’s works of note tend to be exceedingly long, and I am writing an essay, not an entire book. To show the decline in his poetry, I have chosen two of his less celebrated works, both of medium length (in terms of Ginsberg’s works). These works, although they are not the lauded poems one expects to read when confronting this poet, clearly show the difference that nearly thirty years make in a poet’s output. Both poems are at least worth reading, and the first, the earlier poem, is actually one of his best.
To start though, I would like to give some idea of my own history in relation to the works of this famous poet. Growing up, as a late teen and in my early twenties, I really liked Ginsberg; as a bisexual myself, I found his forthright declaration of the sensuality of homosexuality to be very daring; I appreciated this open and forceful depiction of gayness. But as a young man my standards for writing and art in general were not high; to give an example, I also enjoyed the works of Henry Miller and William Burroughs—i.e. I was into the hipper writers, as I’m sure many other young well-read men were. (It is actually a shame that at the time I lacked an appreciation for true value in literature considering that at that time I was capable of reading ten or more books a week, and even all at the same time, while I now, at the age of thirty-five, take forever to finish one work, but have the ability to judge the value of this work.) Well, long to the short, returning to the works of Allen Ginsberg, I was surprised that the poems in his collection, the Collected Works, were not quite as good as I remembered, or more accurately I found I could not judge them in the way I typically like to, I could not approach them with my regular sense of aesthetics. Perhaps my old lingering memories of his work were getting in my way, filling me with false expectations. In fact, I, for some reason, didn’t know how to handle the creations of Ginsberg; I was doing something wrong, holding them to a standard not their own, weighing them with a collection of poetic standards that the man himself had abandoned or decided to lampoon for the most part before he found his voice. Although Ginsberg does make use of the many poetic techniques common to the lineage of poesy, the primary appeal of his works actually rests in his ability to express a sensibility over a great expanse. Much like his idol, Walt Whitman, in many of his better poems he writes in long breaths without losing his connection to the core of the writing, maintaining a consistent tone and adhering to the unity of the work. As an example of my incorrect approach, even “Howl,” that supposed masterpiece of twentieth-century literature, appeared to be lacking in figurative language and the various poetical manipulations, in the tricks of rhetoric I commonly enjoy exploring in the works I read; because of my misstep, my inadequate attack, at first the best I could say of his poems is that they show a good grasp of polemics and rhetorical skill, speaking more of the political sort. But, to me, this was not enough. I couldn’t see his magic. But when I came upon his ode to Whitman (and Lorca), “A Supermarket in California,” it all came to me, what made his work good. I could see that this poet could mix both wit (and deliberate humor) and a heightened moral authority together with a definite skill; this mingling of pathos and humor in the poem at hand bought me back to a point of appreciation. Yes, then I looked back at the other poems and saw their magic working before my eyes. “Howl” was indeed a work of great skill. This was a man who could express emotion through things. His depictions of character and image aim to express emotion and a sensibility that must be authentic—and nearly ridiculous. All this is to say, I again understood the depth and quality of his work—on its own terms.
Before moving on to the works, I must also reflect on the fact that Ginsberg was quite influential, both to his fellow Beat writers and to later generations. He is even known to have helped Bob Dylan discover his authentic voice, if I’m not mistaken. As the most powerful voice in the Beat movement he had an effect on the counterculture, the various movements of the 60’s, and on gay rights. Unfortunately, I must extend his homosexuality to include pedophilia—whether or not he actually practiced it, he did advocate for the legitimacy of pedophilia. So, this gay hero is for whatever reason lacking in what most believe to be moral integrity exactly what he shows in artistic, that is poetic, ability. All else aside, let us try to rediscover what made Allen Ginsberg a quality writer at a time in history when, strangely enough, people seemed to be receptive to such.
The first poem we’ll examine is one of my favorites of his earlier works, like I said, the one that connected me with what made him a real talent.
A Supermarket in California
What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for I walked down the sidestreets under the trees with a headache self-conscious looking at the full moon.
In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went into the neon fruit supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations.
What peaches and what penumbras! Whole families shopping at night! Aisles full of husbands! Wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes!—and you, García Lorca, what were you doing down by the watermelons?
I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys.
I heard you asking questions of each: Who killed the pork chops? What price bananas? Are you my Angel?
I wandered in and out of the brilliant stacks of cans following you, and followed in my imagination by the store detective.
We strode down the open corridors together in our solitary fancy tasting artichokes, possessing every frozen delicacy, and never passing the cashier.
Where are we going, Walt Whitman? The doors close in an hour. Which way does your beard point tonight?
(I touch your book and dream of our odyssey in the supermarket and feel absurd.)
Will we walk all night through solitary streets? The trees add shade to shade, lights out in the houses, we’ll both be lonely.
Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of love past blue automobiles in driveways, home to our silent cottage?
Ah, dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher, what America did you have when Charon quit poling his ferry and you got out on a smoking bank and stood watching the boat disappear on the black waters of Lethe?
I am inclined not to repeat the sections of the poem as is my wonted way. Instead I’ll try to remark on what I find significant. First of all, the poem begins with what comes across as a romantic confession of feeling for his idol, who doubles in the poem as an imagined or ghostly loved one. Indeed this first section of the first line achieves a sort of ethos, a connection to his primary subject and therefore to his audience. And we are thrust immediately into a vignette descriptive enough to pull us in to the development of the work’s ideas. There is the self-conscious headache, a notion that makes one wonder if self-consciousness has not perhaps led to having a headache—perhaps he’s even poking fun at the idea of inspiration, that mental state many artists hope to begin with. But it is made quite clear that this stroll under the full moon is what led to the poet’s thoughts of his hero. Then we have two excuses for going into the supermarket, because of physical hunger and because of the poet’s need for images in the poem (an idea that is a real punch in the gut to the idea of inspiration, without a doubt). This dichotomy already points to the dual nature of the work, part of it a sentimental relation between kindred spirits, the other a humorous adventure through a fictional market, a “neon fruit supermarket.” We are returned to Whitman, his enumerations, in the course of reading Ginsberg’s enumerations. Like I said, kindred spirits. Here he is almost declaring that he plans to write a poem in the vein of Whitman. Note the love and the aim to express an authenticity; Ginsberg’s thirst is for a poetic authenticity, one that comes of skill in artifice; to express what is true by means of what is not; but he is also making his own every effort the target of his own comical ridicule. And he pokes fun at himself and his aims throughout, admitting the fiction of his endeavor by impersonating a fantasy supermarket. Because the peaches are so closely juxtaposed with the penumbra, the peaches are in a way seen as heavenly bodies, which cast the shadow we know as the penumbra, or the two can be seen as more literally connected—and again we have the chance that he is making fun of his use of this over-poetic term. This begins a self-parody, the lumping together what is earnest with what is ridiculous. (It may be interesting to note that a few of his fellow Beat poets along with some others have appropriated this humorous approach that pokes fun at traditional solemnity in some of their works.) Next we have the family, the husbands, wives, and babies, mingled with the aisles, avocados, and tomatoes, again at the same time trying to convince us of an authenticity while intermingling a laughable situation. The exclamations express a sort of reverence, meanwhile contrasted with the ridiculous details of the supermarket. Then García Lorca, the Spanish poet, another kindred spirit, is equally reverenced in contrast to the appearance of watermelons. Again, a wink of an ironic joke.
Ginsberg addresses Whitman at the beginning of each of the three stanzas. Here, in the second, he appeals to a pathos, Whitman’s loneness and age, with which Ginsberg clearly commiserates, kindred spirits in an atmosphere of the preposterous. This invention of thwarting his supposed intentions makes a certain madness come to life. The ghost of Whitman pokes meat and ogles the young workers—Ginsberg often likes to make known that he is a sort of pervert, perhaps because that’s how gays were seen at the time or perhaps for the sake of humor and offensiveness, and here he makes Whitman the pervert. Then we have Whitman’s questions artificially intermingled, the first two relating to products in the store, the last an appeal for the affections of one of the grocery boys. We get the indirect admission of fantasized voyeurism as he follows the ghost around stacks of canned food, then a further removed imagination within imagination, or a questioning of ones own imaginings, something belonging to dream, maybe further establishing that this is a dream. Notice that the “solitary fancy” is shared by both the first-person poet and the ghost of Whitman; they are made one right before the idea is squandered on tasting artichokes. The idea of possessing frozen delicacies contains the second possibility of the ghost possessing delicacies, perhaps frozen in time; a sense of something joyous and silly is imparted. This before the suggestion that they are not paying, or even not buying anything; another possibility is that the dream skips the cashier entirely and moves directly into its conclusive act.
But we now understand that they still wander the aisles of the supermarket, for “The doors close in an hour.” The poet first asks directly where the two are headed then by reference to the direction of the point of the ghost’s beard, perhaps poking a bit of fun at the grave image often cast of such a poet. (In another poem he parodies Dostoyevsky’s popular grave image.) Next, we are out of the dream and dreaming of the dream over Whitman’s book and feeling absurd about the tale of the supermarket. Soon we are returned to the introduction’s streets, where trees add darkness to darkness; and because all are asleep, both will be lonely together, again suggesting the two are one. A nostalgic stroll, with an idealistic patriotism (with perhaps a comic chiding), leads to more loneliness while suggesting a further intimacy, and leading to the final line. A more direct address to Whitman’s ghost, replete with commiserating and loving descriptive pet names (most likely playing tongue-in-cheek)—Ginsberg asks what America Whitman had once the courier of the dead had taken him across the rivers Styx and Acheron to Hades, the land of the dead, and stood staring at Charon disappearing across the river Lethe, whose waters when drunk lead to forgetting; what a fitting end. Hades is given a hellish character by the mention of smoke. In this long last line, the poet is clearly offering a good-bye to his ghost in addition to asking what impression of America Whitman took into the afterlife. The fact that he is almost opaque in the last line, hiding the meaning in myth, yet not countering its authenticity with silliness, suggests that authenticity survives, yet the over-seriousness of the ending gives it a somewhat ironically humorous cast by default. Let us remark the seemingly effortless continuity of tone and poetic delivery throughout. As he makes fun of poetry, he offers a wonderful poem, tracing many elements used throughout centuries in line after line. His rhetoric, as usual at that time, is always well done. There are no awkward sudden changes, there is no letup to his humorous solemnity. He gives of the goods while laughing at them. He never loses us in his brilliant display of technique. It, the magic is there. He even manages moments of seriousness in which he shows himself a master of imagery.
Why does Ginsberg, though, mock his own search for authenticity with fantastic scenes from an imaginary supermarket? It is a sort of contrast, and after everything is said, the ridiculous mockery only adds to the sense of sincere admiration and sheer solemnity, making light of what should be heavy. This dream narrative that leads to Hell is frozen in the mind, something free of excess despite its excesses. This is the ironic cheerfulness of Ginsberg that we will later see lacking, at least in its skillful application.
Next, we’ll explore a poem written around twenty-three years later by Ginsberg. By this poem, another one most dream-like in its presentation, we’ll see that, after all the years of penning poems, expressing himself through his unique talent and technique, technique got the better of him, coming across to the reader without the intended sentiment, lost in attempts too sentimental to make their imprint, the magic gone, every effort unfortunately wasted and lost in detail after detail.
Manhattan May Day Midnight
I walked out on the lamp shadowed concrete at midnight May Day passing a dark’d barfront,
police found corpses under the floor last year, call-girls & Cadilacs lurked there on First Avenue
around the block from my apartment, I’d come downstarirs for tonight’s newspapers—
refrigerator repair shop’s window grate padlocked, florescent blue
light on a pile of newspapers, pages shifting in the chill Spring wind
‘round battered cans & plastic refuse bags leaned together at the pavement edge—
Wind wind and old news sailed thru the air, old Times whirled above the garbage.
At the corner of 11th under dim Street-light in a hole in the ground
a man wrapped in work-Cloth and wool Cap pulled down his bullet skull
stood & bent with a rod & flashlight turning round in his pit halfway sunk in earth
Peering down at his feet, up to his chest in the asphalt by a granite Curb
where his work mate poked a flexible tube in a tiny hole, a youth in gloves
who answered my question “Smell of gas—Someone must’ve reported in”—
Yes the body stink of City bowels, rotting tubes six feet under
Could explode any minute sparked by Con Ed’s breathing Puttering truck
I noticed parked, as I passed by hurriedly Thinking Ancient Rome, Ur
Were they like this, the same shadowy surveyors & passers-by
scribing records of decaying pipes & Garbage piles on Maple, Cuneiform,
ordinary midnight citizen out on the street looking for Empire News,
rumor, gossip, workmen police in uniform, walking silent sunk in thought
under windows of sleepers coupled with Monster squids & Other-Planet eyeballs in their sheets
in the same night six thousand years old where Cities rise & fall & turn to dream?
(I apologize for the poor presentation of the elongated lines; I’m technologically challenged. That said, how could I take anything away from this poem anyway?)
I can see in the first two lines already a lack of continuity of thought. The first line must go to make room for the second. The third line at first continues the second, then we have one and a half lines of description. Eventually we reach the newspapers fluttering in the spring wind. Yes, newspapers and garbage in the wind. Then working men and a hole, a “bullet skull?” A gas leak? And tubes six feet down, like a coffin, one supposes. Rome and Mesopotamia too were like this, perhaps down to the detail of a poet writing of the workings of workers. Wedge-shaped characters were used in Mesopotamian writing, yes. A man walking through the night as people sleep. And the last line taken by itself is good, but when considered in the poem as a whole the line comes off ineffectual. So, in a breath, we have a poem with one worthwhile line. That said, Ginsberg has some shadow of his former ability on display, a lyrical play, but it just doesn’t achieve what it means to. The images are offered in detail, but whatever they are supposed to hold for the reader is lacking, nothing is underneath. Even his delivery seems to be off, the lucidity and ease of expression gone. He is just, after all, describing something that holds little meaning or significance, and certainly lacks the joy of the earlier work—as well as it’s somberness.
I have no idea why he thought this writing had any significance. It’s as if his aesthetic sense had left him years ago. We know he kept himself busy with religion and politics and teaching, probably giving speeches and meeting other famous people, chasing young men, addressing issues of homosexuality and even pedophilia, meeting fans, wondering after friends alive and gone, making sure the legend of the Beats never dies, and going on for another nineteen years. We know this phenomenon from rock music, the outdated star, a true hero of artistic expression but a shade of himself. Strange it is how long one can live on ones own legend. I guess Ginsberg worked as a teacher, and most likely he made money as a speaker or lecturer, but he essentially lived on his early fame, whether or not it brought him much money. At least I myself feel blessed to have had this man as an accomplished poet, an inspiration and source of quality art, but I find myself wondering what led to his talent’s early demise—meaning, his talent died before his body.
But what are the lessons of this examination? Poetically speaking, we can see that the first poem was written with a single-mindedness of purpose, it added up to something somewhat complex and complete. The entire thing goes together seamlessly, nearly every element essential. The ending is interesting if not exactly mysterious. The sentiment and sensibility is achieved, authenticity wins out and is expressed successfully and with a humorous twist. It is a quality poem, an ode to Whitman written in a style somewhat similar to Whitman’s but using a different, even a novel substance within its structure and with a flare for the humorous.
But what of the second poem? How can a man lose his connection to his aesthetic core? Are we all to become the subjects of such a fate? My own opinion is that Ginsberg’s grasp of aesthetic workings was purely instinctual, something borrowed from his influences, used for a time, yet it expired. Perhaps he read poetry obsessively at the beginning. His impressive talent turned into a gimmick, and no matter how desperately he tried to plagiarize himself, he couldn’t even come close to being the poet he was in his younger days. Kurt Cobain’s quote of the Neil Young song in his suicide note comes to mind: “Better to burn out than to fade away.” That’s a new one, end with rock lyrics.
Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black [the famous live version]) by Neil Young
My my, hey hey
Rock and roll is here to stay.
It’s better to burn out
Than to fade away.
My my, hey hey.
Out of the blue and into the black,
They give you this, but you pay for that.
And once you're gone, you can't come back,
When you're out of the blue and into the black.
The king is gone but he's not forgotten.
Is this the story of Johnny Rotten?
It's better to burn out than it is to rust.
The king is gone, but he's not forgotten.
My my, hey hey,
Rock and roll is here to stay.
Hey hey, my my,
Rock and roll can never die.
There’s more to the picture
Than meets the eye.
Hey hey, my my,
Rock and roll can never die . . .
Ginsberg at some point seems to have desired to be a songwriter. I’m guessing Neil Young may have, at some time, desired to be a poet. . . . Now pull up the song on YouTube, and the essay’s done.
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