Wednesday, June 30, 2010

My Allen Ginsberg — Part One of Four

Anyone who majored in English in college during the late 1950’s will remember what a bombshell effect the appearance of Howl and On the Road had on American literature. Poetry at the time was pretty much the exclusive property of academics, just as it has again become today, a nerdy enterprise where an M.F.A. in creative writing is a minimum requirement and points are awarded for social irrelevance and twisted vocabulary formations and encryptions.

In those days one studied the early modernists Pound and T.S. Eliot; other prestigious figures like Robert Lowell and Charles Olson taught college courses, while institutionally unaffiliated poets were either gooey (Carl Sandburg) or quirky (Robert Frost). It seemed that the long tradition of confessionalistic prose and poetry that had its origin in the streets— which began with Francois Villon in the 15th century and continued intermittently until the novels of Thomas Wolfe in the late 1930’s—had all but disappeared.

Into this glass menagerie the beatniks appeared, and suddenly everything was different. Real things experienced by real people again became literary subjects: sex, politics, extraordinary states of consciousness, jazz, the language of the streets were all at once ok. It was very much like the explosion of post-modernism that radically opened up new cultural horizons on college campuses in the 1970’s. And, perhaps most endurably, the beat revolution introduced humor into the literary enterprise, which made the lofty formality of the “canon” seem very boring indeed. AG himself proudly maintained he had made it safe for poets to use the word “fuck” in their writing.

I don’t how college students today respond to reading Howl for the first time—whether they find it trite, unamusing, or just silly. I do remember that the poem had an electrifying effect on poetry students of my generation, to the extent that hairs rose on the back of your neck while reading it, assuming some sensitivity for poetry to begin with. Like women’s liberation, gay pride and radical politics—these are things that can’t really be understood outside the context in which they originated, in this case American society in the 1950’s.

In any event, Ginsberg’s masterwork had the effect of 1) creating a counter-cultural environment for young writers to operate in, (due partially to local police efforts to suppress the poem for obscenity); and 2) catapulting the author into a generational icon, the likes of which no American poet has experienced since. It was a role which Allen obviously enjoyed and played to the hilt, unlike his counterpart Jack Kerouac, who was anything but an exhibitionist.

I mention all this to background my own meager encounters with Ginsberg: they occurred while he enjoyed a public notoriety such as could be compared only with that of Bob Dylan in the mid 60’s, or of Andy Warhol somewhat later.

Photo: Allen Ginsberg's Business Card, from FoundSF.

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