Allen Ginsberg:
The Voice of
The Poet

(Random House Audio)
Howl is as good as we always imagined it. I take that back: read by Ginsberg --- it's even better. It's flat-out exhausting, gripping, funny. It takes a few lines for Ginsberg to get himself cranked up, but then, all pistons going, it drives itself (and the listener) beyond the horizon, beyond reason.

It was 1950s America, the years of bleak Dwight Eisenhower and eerie Stalin; gray Russia and the dark United States prepared to hurl missiles at each other, no place for any of us to hide. The poem is dedicated to Carl Solomon in Rockland Mental Hospital "where the faculties of the skull no longer admit the worms of the senses," but it may well be dedicated to a world gone crazy, the leaders willing to destroy all for a couple of hazy political systems.

Howl says it is about hipsters, the "best minds of my generation, destroyed by madness," but throughout, there is the sense of comic waste, not only young men destroying themselves in the alleys, but, too, old men who run the world show wasting all on a would-be war of fall-out, radiation, and death.

There wasn't anything like it before in American poetry. They say Whitman was an inspiration --- but if you study "Leaves of Grass," there is an unpleasant me-ness that makes one want to distance oneself from the poet. Whitman simply isn't crazy enough to make it in this bailiwick.

Ginsberg's rant works because it's probably the first shopping list of lunacy --- sex and dope and madness raised to high art, breathlessly enumerated as brief sketches of those who have gone to the edge.

There are sixty Who's --- a who's-who of who's --- dopesters going into total recall, jumping off fire escapes, suffering Eastern sweats, cowering in unshaven rooms in their underwear, jumping in limousines "with the Chinaman of Oklahoma." It's a jazz riff dedicated to madness, madness as a state to be desired, something to be sought with peyote and heroin, and "an angry fix: Hipsters out walking with their shoes full of blood ... waiting for a door in the East River to open to a room full of steam-heat and opium."

We are, in brief, being asked to honor the mad --- both those who are institutionalized, and those who are courting lunacy on their own. And to recognize, even be amused at, the lunatics who run our lives, run the country.

Before this, it was unheard of for anyone to write open-ended verse in praise of dope and nuttiness and sex, especially gay sex. Despite its wide-open structure, there is a delicious craft to be found in Howl. It's awash in strange juxtapositions, and Ginsberg brings them off: "The tubercular sky surrounded by orange crates of theology;" or "Hotrod-Golgotha jail-solitude watch;" or "Trapped the archangel of the soul between 2 visual images;" or "The ghostly daze of Chinatown soup alleyways and firetrucks."

It's interspiced with classical, poetic allusions: "the three old shrews of fate," the "Adonis of Denver," the "Blake-light tragedy," "Zen New Jersey," and throwing "potato salad at CCNY lecturers on Dadism."

Howl got the ultimate accolade in the community where it was born. Someone called the cops to bust City Lights for publishing it. Perfect: the cops came, arrested Ferlinghetti for obscenity, he and Ginsberg become stars --- poetic stars! --- overnight. There was a trial, at which learned professors from Berkeley commuted across the bridge to cite the poem as high art.

The question: who called the police? The rumor at the time was that it was Ginsberg's pals ... friends who wanted to make sure the poem was heard far and wide. Nothing succeeds at garnering notoriety like a good artistic bust.

§     §     §

Ginsberg reads eleven poems on this CD. The best are Howl, A Supermarket in California --- ("Where are we going, Walt Whitman? ... Which way does your beard point tonight?") --- and the beautiful and winsome late-in-life Personals Ad from 1987. Ginsberg never lost his touch, neither in his writing, nor in his life. His public self was his persona, but that never stopped him from being Allen Ginsberg. He was not only a man of wit, he had a daring: once on a visit to Cuba, he demanded that Che Guevara dance around a maypole with him.

I got this last bit by e-mail from Paul Krassner, who noted

    I'm reading American Scream, a new bio of Ginzy by Jonah Raskin. G's diary indicates that in his transformation from angry beatnik to pacifist hippie he decided to re-write Howl; the new opening line would've been, "I saw the best minds of my generation turned on by music."

I had recalled part of an obituary that Krassner had written when Ginsberg died:

    In July '88 Allen and I were booked to perform at Lincoln Center in NY, along with poet & performance artist Karen Finley, whose infamous reputation for shoving a sweet potato up her ass preceded her appearance. My opening line: "Well, Allen Ginsberg is very disappointed. He thought that Karen Finley was gonna shove a sweet potato up his ass." I heard his laughter from backstage, like a Tibetan gong, and when I came offstage, we embraced, and he said, "How did you know?"

--- Lolita Lark
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