Last summer there was a review of Allen Ginsberg’s photography in the New York Review of Books, featuring Edmund White in all his saucy urbanity casting a cold but not censorious eye on the Beats:
I love the story of White’s straight friend who let Ginsberg screw him, and when White expressed surprise, said “Dude, it was Allen Ginsberg.” That certainly says something for the power of AG’s celebrity, at least around Greenwich Village, but at least Ginsberg earned his fame by writing actual poems, and I’ve been reading some of them.
One of my favorites is “America”:
As he so often does, Ginsberg here honors our father Walt Whitman, in his use of anaphora (beginning lines or phrases with the same words, in this case “America”) and in his ideas: “America after all it is you and I who are perfect not
the next world. ” Unlike Whitman, he can be funny, even when expressing a very Whitmany sentiment: “America when will you be angelic? / When will you take off your clothes?”
I enjoy the crabby rejoinders, presumably spoken by America (“I’m sick of your insane demands”), the goofy comparison of his poetry to Ford cars, including the offer of a reduced price if you trade in your old poem, the wistful and maybe a bit self-mocking litany of left-wing saints (with a name like the Wobblies, who wouldn’t get sentimental about them?). Even lines that would now be embarrassingly tired and strident (“Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb”) must have had some punch in the anesthetized conformist America of 1956.
But the poem also shows the weakness of the Beat aesthetic, encapsulated in the motto “first thought, best thought.” Surely even in 1956, intelligent readers winced at the ‘dialect’ section about the Russians; I suppose he was trying to make fun of ignorant American idiots, but come on:
Her wants to grab Chicago. Her needs a Red Readers’
Digest. Her wants our auto plants in Siberia. …
Him make Indians learn read.
Him need big black niggers. Hah. Her make us
all work sixteen hours a day. Help.
Putting your opponents down by having them talk baby talk is not very sophisticated, and doesn’t result in poetry (I assume this is supposed to be baby talk, it certainly isn’t a real variety of English, though the last bit resembles fake Hollywood generic Native American English). That this crap was included in the original publication is unfortunate. That it was reprinted in his Selected Poems is just insulting. There is a famous story about the painter Bonnard, that he had a friend go to the Louvre with him so the friend could distract the guards while Bonnard made some little touchups on a painting of his that was on display there. This is a bit extreme, but a bit of that spirit might be good for those who wholeheartedly embrace the Romantic dogma that the only reat art explodes spontaneously from our brilliant intoxicated brains.
Ginsberg’s most famous line is that he saw the best minds of his generation destroyed by madness. That, or self-indulgence. But Ginsberg makes a lovely recovery in his final testament of somewhat tongue-in-cheek patriotism (and what other kind is tolerable?); he may not be up for the Army or the factory, but “America, I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.” All is forgiven, AG.