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I’ve always pictured Allen Ginsberg as a dominating figure with a stentorian voice, someone who would be the center of attention anywhere he went. A friend of mine set me straight after a recent visit to the Strand Bookstore, where I picked up Ginsberg’s Selected Poems.
“Hmph. Allen. Yoos’tuh see’m in the bars in the West Village. You’d never know who he was. Short little guy. ‘Hi, Allen.’ He’d shake his head and mumble, ‘Oh hello, hello.’”
Ginsberg made up for his small stature with work that had an immense impact. He chose the contents of this volume himself with the help of several close collaborators. No artist’s output is flawless, and while this book is not Ginsberg’s complete oeuvre, it is nevertheless uneven in quality. It seems that the older Ginsberg got, the more inconsistent his work became — poems were filled with unenergetic litanies and pointless onomatopoeias. Of these, “Hum Bom!” is probably the worst, it being a few pages of percussive sound effects with little content.
But none of this should take away from the respect Ginsberg deserves for his great work. Having forced society to contend with the line between art and smut with his iconic "Howl," he carved a stylistic path for himself by lulling the reader into complacency through flirtation with the prosaic, only to light the next page on fire with an unforgettable turn of phrase. He often does this while elevating the mundane or even the downright crude into poetry.
His frank conversations are tinged with beauty and even reverence, though the adult language he employs would turn off the prudish reader before this became apparent. If Ginsberg is lying in the gutter, his eyes are nonetheless on the stars, and his interest in a multitude of religions makes itself known in a number of paeans in what could be described as a theological potpourri.
It is fashionable and therefore easy to appreciate "Howl," but this volume, however inconsistent, is filled with gems that belong in the western canon. I found two eulogies — "Kaddish," for his mother, and "Elegy for Neal Cassady" — to be particularly poignant. "Manhattan May Day Midnight" makes poetry out of a sleepless downtown stroll, and "Birdbrain!" lambastes most aspects of modern existence. Another entitled "Personals Ad," in which Ginsberg is not shy about what he’s looking for, is reminiscent of a similar effort by pianist Glenn Gould. I suspect both these men were somewhat isolated by their genius.
Perhaps most intriguing is that Ginsberg wrote melodies to accompany some of his texts, often in painfully high voice registers and betraying an apparent fixation with A major. Many of them are no better than Bible school songs, but some rescue the words from innocuousness. A few are even pretty good, though mostly I envied any reader who can’t sight-read and would therefore remain untormented by these tunes. "Capitol Air" might be the best of them.
“I don’t like the government where I live,” he sings.
“I don’t like dictatorship of the Rich
I don’t like bureaucrats telling me what to eat
I don’t like Police dogs sniffing round my feet.”
"New Stanzas for Amazing Grace," accompanied by an altered version of the popular melody "New Britain," is a fine piece of work, possibly even fitting for church.
“O homeless hand on many a street
Accept this change from me
A friendly smile or word is sweet
As fearless charity”
Although this collection could be pared down a bit more, all of it shimmers with the creative spirit that burned in the breast of this great bard and representative of the Beat Generation. There is a lot of fair criticism to be made of Ginsberg, but he was far from ordinary, and good for him. There’s entirely too much mundanity going around these days.
What, When, Where
Allen Ginsberg, Selected Poems 1947-1995.Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2001.
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