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"Howl" revisited. The poet as Jew.

I have reverenced Allen Ginsberg - man and poet - for three decades, and see no reason to stop now. The first time I met Allen I was amazed, as this essay suggests, by his voice: the power and sweetness and humor of it. His breath, I thought, was the breath of the spirit. The last time was the same, but more so. We were at the Dodge Poetry Festival in Waterloo, N.J., in the soft weather of early fall, 1996. At dinner I told him I had written an essay about him as a Jew, that he would probably disapprove of, and he shrugged. this off and talked about his new apartment. He was looking ailing and fraiL He was ailing and frail, until he went on stage, seated with his harmonium, and then - what can one say except that Allen's voice was channeling huge quantities of spiritual energy, joy, pain, love, hope, laughter, from the Great Beyond, or wherever that stuff comes from, and spraying it like a cosmic fire hydrant into the big tent and out into the warm night. For forty-five minutes he hosed us up and down, and we all rode the billows of delight, I imagine he is having a fine time now, in the holy company of Whitman, Blake, Williams, and the Prophet Jeremiah.

i Ginsberg the Yid

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. It was 1966. We were in Vietnam but thought in our antiwar innocence that we might be out soon. Medgar Evers and Malcolm X were dead but Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were still alive. The Chicago riots, the invasion of Cambodia, the killing of four students at Kent State hadn't happened yet. Allen Ginsberg was giving a reading at Princeton University with Gary Snyder. In Princeton I lived at that time disguised as a young faculty wife and mother of two. Simultaneously at Rutgers University I went to work disguised as a promising young scholar of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century poetry and prosody. Officially I was a Blakean. My own poetry remained in the closet during the years of my assistant professorship; had my colleagues known of my folly I would probably not have gotten the job, since most of them considered creative writing the equivalent of basket weaving, an activity for the retarded. Also in the closet were my two daughters in diapers. One did not discuss family in my department, where my senior colleagues were witty and charming men who all looked and behaved as if they had never in their lives laid eyes on a diaper.

I had already heard Allen once, at Rutgers, where he took off the top of my head in the standing room only vault of Voorhees Chapel by introducing as his opening act, of all people, his father Louis Ginsberg. Louis, with considerable self-importance, read some of his own poetry - rhymed, refined, culturally anonymous lyrics - as if to say this is how it should be done, here's the real thing, now you can listen to my son. Louis's condescension was not a joke, it was real. Equally real was Allen's affectionate graciousness toward his dad. As the daughter of a mother who also wrote rhymed poetry, of the same vintage as Louis's, I was overwhelmed. I couldn't dream of doing a reading with my mom. Embarrassing! Impossible! Couldn't dream of achieving the spiritual state that would make such openness possible for me. . . . But what if . . .? And indeed, a mere twenty years later, I found myself able to do it, give readings with my mother. Not often, not easily, but with a certain amount of grace which would have been impossible for me without that distant model.

In Princeton Allen read "Please Master," and I was scandalized. But I had a question to ask him and at the post-reading party I fought my way through the crowd of adoring boy undergraduates to ask it. It concerned his voice. That sonorous, sweet, deep, vibrant, patient baritone seemed to emerge from some inexhaustible energy source, manifesting the double sense of spiritus as simultaneously breath and spirit. But I had listened to an early recording of "Howl" in which, far from having the long lines express the poet's "natural" breath units as he so often claimed, the voice was high-pitched and short-breathed - entirely unequal to the long lines. What about it? Did he really develop the voice to go with the lines, and not the other way around? Yes, he cheerfully agreed, he had written the lines to go with his potential voice. And how, I asked - for this was what I wished to learn - did he train his voice to do what it did now? Could I do that? Allen smiled and suggested filling the bathtub and lying in the water face down reciting poems. Then he took another look at me and said: It's not so hard. Just do the breathing exercises you learned in childbirth classes.

The breathing exercises I had learned in childbirth classes. How did this gay guy, who knew nothing about women, know at a glance that the shy chick in front of him had taken childbirth classes? How did he know that pregnancy and childbirth had been, for her, peak spiritual experiences? i wanted to kiss his sandals. I watched him then with the flock of Princeton boys and saw how he listened to each one with the same focused attention, responding to each according to his need. It occurred to me that he didn't just want to sleep with them. He wanted to love them.

There is a word in Hebrew for a virtue at the core of Ginsberg's character and his writing, a virtue that has been noticed by infinite numbers of people - chesed. It means kindness, or lovingkindness.(1) Chesed is one of thirteen attributes of God according to Maimonides (who gets it from Exodus 34.6); it is, in addition, a quality of Torah (a Jew expresses gratitude each day to the God who has given us a Torah of life, and lovingkindness, and righteousness, and compassion, and peace); it is a quality highly regarded among traditional Jewish men, whom Talmud praises as "compassionate sons of compassionate fathers."

In no way could the young Allen Ginsberg have known any of this in the secular family in which he grew up, which was not merely secular but adamantly atheist, And yet these ideals would have saturated the air he breathed, for Jewish atheism in its Eastern European sources is fueled by the dream of social justice which is also a dream of human kindness. In the classic East European Yiddish literature whose shtetl ethos was the mulch from which Louis Ginsberg's socialism and Naomi Ginsberg's communism fed, Irving Howe describes what he calls the value of "sweetness," "the tone of love . . . with which such masters as Sholem Aleichem and Peretz faced the grimmest facts about Jewish life." Howe's further remarks on the fictions of Mendele and Scholem Aleichem, Peretz, Singer, and Jacob Glatstein, might well describe "Howl": "The virtue of powerlessness, the power of helplessness, the company of the dispossessed, the sanctity of the insulted and injured - these, finally, are the great themes of Yiddish literature"(2) in which, as well, we find the humor (self-mocking, buffoonish, absurd), the acerbity, the irremediable pain and melancholy a millimeter below the surface, which we find also in Allen Ginsberg.

Sholom Aleichem's village of Kasrilevke and Greenwich Village? Singer's saintly Gimpel the fool and Ginsberg's angelheaded hipsters? Or, still more appallingly/appealingly, a "chosen people" - chosen for persecution, for pogroms, for the chimneys - reincarnated as "the best minds of my generation"? Like the Jews of Europe, Ginsberg's "best minds" suffer for a stubborn adherence to their faith. Yiddishkeit and Ginsberg? A mere generation of partial American assimilation divides them. Ginsberg in "Howl" will record, in veiled fashion, the humiliation and crippling of a population of immigrants to shores which promised hope and produced despair. He will gather the threads dropped by the revolutionary poetry of the thirties, left dangling in the winter of McCarthyism. He will schpritz shamelessly alongside Henny Youngman and Lenny Bruce. Think of his extraordinary language. Ginsberg's beat lexicon, his determination to write a low dialect opposed to the literary diction promoted by his onetime mentor Lionel Trilling, may have been supported by William Carlos Williams. But it is also a tribute to his Yiddish-speaking ancestors and the obscure longevity of their gift for juicy emotional tragicomedy.

ii Ginsberg the Prophet

"People have been comparing me to Whitman, and although I love and adore and am a child of Whitman, both of us come from the Bible . . . We are talking about the endless quarrel between the establishment and the prophets, and I hope to be forever on the side of the prophets."

That is not Allen Ginsberg, it is Muriel Rukeyser, a poet a generation earlier, sprung from an assimilated Jewish family of quite another class from Ginsberg's; but one feels it might be Allen. Here, I want to argue, is the second area of the poet's Jewishness: if his personal style is an American incarnation of the Yiddish personality, his moral power descends in a direct line from the power of Hebrew prophecy. Certainly "prophet" and "prophetic" are terms that are freely used about his work? and that he often uses himself. Describing his 1948 Blake-inspired visions, "he realized," Paul Portuges tells us, "that his visionary experiences were not unlike the calling forth of the Hebrew prophets by their Creator" and that his task as a poet would be to recreate "prophetic illuminative seizure." But the notion of the poet as prophet is a loose one. From the Greek prophetes, interpreter or proclaimer, or one who speaks for a deity, the term has been used in the English tradition since the late eighteenth century to denote a variety of sublimities opposed to neoclassic rationality. Jean Wojcik and Raymond-Jean Frontain define a "prophetic" stance in Western art as implying private vision, an insistence on the righteousness of the prophet and the corruption of his society, passionate and hyperbolic language, social radicalism, stylistic obscurity or incoherence, and "obsession, fine or frenzied," as "with every technique of language he can muster, the prophet delivers a message that never arrives." Herbert N. Schneider proposes a definition of the prophet as one who forces people to "look at their culture and see a myth . . . they can no longer believe in, for it is a living lie."(4)

In his 1967 Paris Review interview, Ginsberg describes the genesis of "Howl": "I thought I wouldn't write a poem but just write what I wanted to without fear, let my imagination go, open secrecy, and scribble magic lines from my real mind." Beginning Part I he found himself composing "a tragic custard-pie comedy of wild phrasing, meaningless images for the beauty of abstract poetry of mind," and got excited and went on, "continuing to prophecy what I really know, despite the drear consciousness of the world."(5) In Ginsberg's 1971 New York Quarterly interview with William Packard he remarks of "Howl" that "The poetic precedent for this situation is like Ezekiel and Jeremiah and the Hebrew prophets in the bible who were warning Babylon against its downfall . . . they were talking about the fall of a city like Babylon, or the fall of a tribe, and cursing out the sins of a nation." Now, what is wrong with this picture is that it suggests a view of the Hebrew prophets which charity might call at best sketchy. Jerusalem, not Babylon, for example, is the city warned and mourned in by Ezekiel and Jeremiah. The degree to which Ginsberg nonetheless reproduces not merely the King James cadences and rhetoric but the essential contradictions of Hebrew prophecy (as against Christian adaptations) is all the more startling. I want to argue here that the "prophetic" work "Howl" most resembles is the Lamentations of Jeremiah.(6)

Extremity is the groundnote of prophecy. Condemnation and warning dominate pre-exilic prophecy, eschatological promises dominate post-exilic. But where Isaiah and Ezekiel are inspired by and speak for the God of the Covenant, the voice of Lamentations howls in a void: God is terrifyingly present as an agent of destruction, yet terrifyingly absent from discourse. Invoked and prayed to out of the depths, he does not reply. But it is precisely the failure of divine response which has produced, as Alan Mintz argues, a literature of catastrophe which itself is an agent of survival:

Jewish society . . . has had many massive individual catastrophes visited upon it and still survived; and in each case the reconstruction was undertaken in significant measure by the exertions of the Hebrew literary imagination. . . . It is the story of the transcendence of the catastrophe rather than of the catastrophe itself which is compelling.(7)

The City of Jerusalem was sacked, its temple destroyed, in 587 B.C.E. Most of the population sought exile; those who remained suffered famine. If the witness of the Book of Lamentations is to be believed, some of those who remained fed on the bodies of dead children. Emerging from a prophetic paradigm according to which "destruction is . . . a deserved and necessary punishment for sin," which "allows a penitent remnant to survive in a rehabilitated restored relationship to God," Lamentations deviates from the paradigm in that confession of sin in this poem is vastly secondary to "the experience of abandonment and the horror of destruction." The task of the poet is "to find adequate language for the horror." Crucial to Lamentations - and to the genre which will succeed it - is first of all that God, and not a mere human adversary, is the ultimate destroyer, and second that "God remains silent . . . but the sufferer's emergence from soliloquy to prayer enables him at least to recover God as the addressible other"(8) and not merely as a brutal enemy.

Between Lamentations and "Howl" the parallels are numerous and uncanny, commencing with the one-word title promising a discourse in the semiotic register of meaningless sound. Outside, or prior to, the Law: the lament. Beyond or before the symbolic register, a howl. A language of vowels. A memory between or among the lines, of the universal inconsolable infant for whom the umbilicus to the Absolute is broken. The infant without boundaries, the I who is Other, or infinite, or zero, witness and victim, betrayed by the word, unable to speak a word. The shriek of the powerless feminized male child.

In both poems the voice is exclamatory, impassioned, hyperbolic, intensely figurative, and virtually impossible to pin down, to locate, to identify. In both, the speaking or shrieking or wailing "I" oscillates between the individual and collective identity. In the first chapter of Lamentations the baffled third-person lament - "How doth the city sit solitary, that was full of people! How is she become as a widow!" (1.1) slides without warning, in mid-verse, into first-person: "All her people sigh, they seek bread; they have given their pleasant things for meat to relieve the soul: see, O Lord, and consider; for I am become vile" (1.11). Note that "pleasant things" in this passage is a euphemism for sexual organs; the image is of a starving woman prostituting herself. And again, "Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass by? Behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow which is done unto me, wherewith the Lord hath afflicted me in the day of his fierce anger"(1.12). Is this "I" the defiled and deserted Jerusalem speaking? Or a narrator identifying with her? Impossible to say, and the whole opening chapter refuses to differentiate. Chapter 2 is inhabited by a voice recounting, with horror, the unthinkable hostilities of the Lord against his own people and artifacts: "The Lord was an enemy, he hath swallowed up Israel, he hath swallowed up all her palaces, he hath destroyed his strongholds . . . And he hath violently taken away his tabernacle . . . he hath destroyed his places of the assembly" (2.5-6). But the voice shifts into first person to exclaim, "Mine eyes do fail with tears, my bowels are troubled, my liver is poured out upon the earth, for the destruction of the daughter of my people" (2.11) and then to bewail the impossibility of metaphor or comfort. "What thing shall I liken to thee, O daughter of Jerusalem? What shall I equal to thee, that I may comfort thee . . . For thy breach is great like the sea; who can heal thee?" (2.13). In 3.1 an "I" witnesses distinctly: "I am the man that hath seen affliction" - it is this line which produces Whitman's "I am the man, I suffered, I was there" - and almost immediately is afflicted: "My flesh and my skin hath he made old; he hath broken my bones" (3.4). Toward the close of Lamentations 4 and throughout 5 the pronouns shift again, toward a first-person plural, a "we."

In the first moment of "Howl," "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,/ dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix," and the voice dissolves into what is seen. The "I" releases itself or is released into its surge of empathic madness. In Blakean terms, Ginsberg becomes what he beholds, an anaphoric catalogue of self-destructive souls whose search for the "ancient heavenly connection" which is simultaneously revelation and drug dealer, fails to find the "fix" which would be simultaneously a practical repair and a drugged ecstasy. No further "I" enters the poem until the middle of Part II, where Ginsberg briefly interrupts his invocation/exorcism of the sacrificial deity of industrial capitalist rationality, "Moloch whose name is the Mind," with a spurt of self - "Moloch in whom I sit lonely! Moloch in whom I dream Angels! Crazy in Moloch! Cocksucker in Moloch! Lacklove and manless in Moloch!" - and almost immediately disappears from his own text again. Only in Part III, with the intimate and affectionate address to a friend which parallels the "we" of Lamentations chapter 4, and the refrain "I'm with you in Rockland," does the poem at last imagine a possibility of coherent identity, an "I" in relatively stable relation to a "you." In the "Footnote," personal identity is again transcended: no "I" interrupts the absurd utterance of ecstasy.

The importance of geography in both Lamentations and "Howl" is likewise central and likewise paradoxical and contradictory. In both poems, identity is not only collective but requires rootedness in place. The city, Zion, the daughter of Zion, Jerusalem, the cities of Judah. Hallucinating Arkansas, poles of Canada and Paterson, Battery to holy Bronx. In both, the connection of place and people has been ruptured - by starvation literal and figurative, by conquest and exile: place does not sustain what should be its people, and hence identity is impossible.

The rhetoric of both poems relies on sexual figures and on body images, especially images of sexual humiliation and public disgrace. The pain of Jerusalem is also shame: "The adversaries saw her"(1.7). "They have seen her nakedness"(1.8). "Her filthiness is in her skirts"(1.9). "The adversary hath spread out his hand upon all her pleasant things . . . the heathen entered into her sanctuary" (1.10). "Jerusalem is as a menstruous woman" (1.17). The male speaker experiences God as fire in his bones, a net for his feet, a yoke on his neck (1.13-14). In 2.11, "Mine eyes do fail with tears, my bowels are troubled, my liver is poured out upon the earth for the destruction of the daughter of my people." In 2.16, Zion's enemies "hiss and gnash the teeth." In 3.4, "my flesh and skin he hath made old, he hath broken my bones." In 3.16, "he hath broken my teeth with gravel stones." Likewise in Ginsberg Part I, the body is constantly at issue and the issue is commonly exposure, humiliation, deprivation: "starving hysterical naked" comrades" bared theft brains to Heaven under the El," "got busted in their pubic beards," "purgatoried their torsos," "broke down crying in white gymnasiums naked," were dragged off the roof waving genitals and manuscripts," "let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy," "walked all night with their shoes full of blood on the snowbank docks," "cut their wrists three times successively unsuccessfully," and so on. Extremity of spirit is enacted through bodily extremity, the crowning image of which in both poems is cannibalism. In a moment of climactic horror after describing famine in the city, and accusing God of causing it, Lamentations asks," Shall the women eat their fruit, and children of a span long?" (2.20). At the close of "Howl" Part I, Ginsberg evokes "the absolute heart of the poem of life butchered out of their own bodies good to eat a thousand years."

What Lamentations and "Howl" share most crucially is the anguished and intolerable sense of a divine power which thwarts, punishes, and destroys, which seems absolutely cruel rather than merely indifferent to human suffering, which cannot be appealed to and which remains silent, and yet which must be appealed to because it is God. It is ultimately God who is cannibalistically gorging on the bodies of babies in Lamentations, as the poem makes clear in its images of mouth and hand. "The Lord hath swallowed up all the habitations of Jacob, and hath not pitied . . . he hath bent his bow like an enemy . . . he hath not withdrawn his hand from destroying" (2.2, 4, 8). The horrifying sublime prepares for, explains and contains the horrifying pathetic: "The hands of the pitiful women have sodden [i.e. boiled] their own children; they were theft meat in the destruction of the daughter of my people. The Lord hath accomplished his fury" (4.10-11). Ginsberg's generation has likewise been swallowed up by a more than human force, as the figurative conclusion of "Howl" I - the butchered heart of the poem of life "good to eat a thousand years" is literalized in the opening line of Part II: it is likewise a God who "bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination."

A pause here for Ginsberg's "Moloch," that sublimely elaborate invention of Part II:

Moloch! Solitude/Filth! Ugliness/Ashcans and unobtainable dollars/Children screaming under the stairways! Boys sobbing in armies/Old men weeping in the parks!

Moloch/Moloch/Nightmare of Moloch! Moloch the loveless! Mental Moloch/Moloch the heavy judger of men!

Moloch the incomprehensible prison/Moloch the crossbone soulless jailhouse and Congress of sorrows! Moloch whose buildings are judgment; Moloch the vast stone of war! Moloch the stunned governments! . . .

The name is derived from the Canaanite God of fire, Molech, to whom children were offered in sacrifice and whose worship by the Israelites is condemned in Leviticus, 1 and 2 Kings, Jeremiah, Amos and Ezekiel: "Moreover thou hast taken thy sons and daughters whom thou hast borne unto me, and these thou hast sacrificed unto them to be devoured. Is this of thy whoredoms a small matter, that thou hast slain my children and delivered them to cause them to pass through the fire for them?" (Ezekiel 16.20-21). Israelite society for several centuries intermittently practiced human sacrifice which in theory it rejected. America, "Howl" Part II tells us, does the same William Blake's Moloch represents the obsessive human sacrifice of war, especially as connected with perversely suppressed sexuality. Ginsberg's mind-forged Moloch likewise has this aspect, and is a broadly Urizenic figure for the oppressiveness of a modern industrial and military state, exuded from Reason Ginsberg's Moloch is also the modern version of Mammon, the capitalism of "Unobtainable dollars . . . running money . . . electricity and banks!" But although you cannot worship both God and Mammon, Moloch is not an alternative to God, Moloch is God: "heavy judger of men . . . endless Jehovahs . . . They broke their backs lifting Moloch to Heaven!" Inorganic, abstract, Moloch is simultaneously within us and without us, incubus and whale's belly: "Moloch who entered my soul early! Moloch in whom I am a consciousness without a body!" Inescapable Moloch parallels the God of Lamentations.

The contradiction of a God who is also an enemy leads to a deeper contradiction central to the genre of lamentation and, it has been argued, to Jewishness itself. Chapter 3 of Lamentations, its longest chapter, centers on a fusion of despair and hope: "He hath turned aside my ways, and pulled me in pieces" turns itself inside out with "The Lord is my portion, saith my soul; therefore have I hope" (3.11, 21). "Out of the mouth of the Most High proceedeth not evil and good?" (3.38). As literature and as consolation, the poem of lamentation "must communicate its own inadequacy. Its success, in a sense, depends on its failure."(9) When Ginsberg's manic "Footnote to Howl" announces the holiness of everything, it produces an absurd, irrational, extravagant inversion of Part I. Like the hope of the author of Lamentations, Ginsberg's celebration is not logical but willed:

Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy!

The world is holy! The soul is holy! The skin is holy! The nose is holy! The tongue and cock and hand and asshole holy!

Everything is holy! everybody's holy! everywhere is holy! everyday is in eternity/Everyman's an angel!

This ecstatic revelation has its literary source in the "Holy, holy, holy" shout of the seraphim praising God in Isaiah 6.3, but as in Blake's "Marriage of Heaven and Hell," which is clearly one of Ginsberg's most important models here, "everything that lives is holy." Whitman, too, had claimed "Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch or am touched from; The scent of these arm-pits is aroma finer than prayer." Further, as "Holy" inverts "howly," what has previously been interpreted as monstrous by the poet himself may now be re-interpreted:

Holy the solitudes of skyscrapers and pavements/Holy the cafeterias filled with the millions! Holy the mysterious rivers of tears under the streets!

in a spurt of hilarity, even Moloch can and must be included:

Holy time in eternity holy eternity in time holy the clocks in space holy the fourth dimension holy the fifth International holy the Angel in Moloch!

And finally

Holy the supernatural extra brilliant intelligent kindness of the soul!

Kindness again. That almost imperceptible Yiddish kindness. It is perhaps of interest that Ginsberg apparently thought the poem finished after Part III, and mailed copies to numerous friends and critics, including Richard Eberhart to whom he wrote an extended formal discussion of the poem without the footnote on May 18, 1956; and including his father. He received a letter from Louis dated February 29, 1956: "I am gratified about your new ms. It's a wild, rhapsodic, explosive outpouring with good figures of speech flashing by in its volcanic rushing. . . . It's a hot geyser of emotion suddenly released in wild abandon from subterranean depths of your being." Louis insisted, however, "there is no need for dirty, ugly words, as they will entangle you unnecessarily in trouble," and added his anxiety that the poem "is a one-sided neurotic view of life, it has not enough glad, Whitmanic affirmations" (Miles, 204). Sweet, embarrassed, embarassing Louis. And did Allen perhaps compose the footnote under the invisible pressure of his father's admonition?

iii It Occurs to Him That He Is America

To be a Jew in the twentieth century Is to be offered a gift. If you refuse, Wishing to be invisible, you choose Death of the spirit, the stone insanity. Accepting, take full life. Full agonies: Your evening deep in labyrinthine blood Of those who resist, fail and resist; and God Reduced to a hostage among hostages.

The gift is torment. Not alone the still Torture; isolation; or torture of the flesh. That may come also. But the accepting wish, The whole and fertile spirit as guarantee For every human freedom, suffering to be free, Daring to live for the impossible.

That is of course Rukeyser again, the Rukeyser of "Letter to the Front," published in 1944, stylistically a world away from "Howl," chronologically a decade away, morally shoulder to queer Jewish shoulder. How Jewish then is the Ginsberg of "Howl"? I have been attempting to suggest both a low Yiddish element and a high Hebraic element in that poem, notwithstanding what must also be spoken of: the poet as a "Jew in flight from Judaism," or what Isaac Deutscher called "the non-Jewish Jew."

His ethnicity was never exactly invisible to others. "Naive, he was incredibly naive," recalled Lucien Carr of his fellow student at Columbia. "He was just an eager young Jewish kid from Paterson who wanted to know everything about books and writers and art and painting" (Miles, 42). Kerouac fictionalizes the young Allen in The Town and the City (1946): "Levinsky was an eager, sharply intelligent boy of Russian-Jewish parentage who rushed around New York in a perpetual sweat of emotional activity" (Miles, 74). And in The Vanity of Duluoz: "I was sitting in Edie's apartment one day when the door opened and in walks this spindly Jewish kid with horn-rim glasses and tremendous ears sticking out, 17 years old, burning black eyes, a strangely deep voice" (Miles, 44). Introducing Empty Mirror, William Carlos Williams calls Ginsberg "this young Jewish boy," before going on to compare him with Dante and Chaucer, but then comes around to paralleling him with the prophet Jeremiah."(10) Richard Eberhart, describing Ginsberg's performance of "Howl" at the Six Gallery reading for the September 2, 1956 New York Times Book Review, writes, "My first reaction was that it is based on destructive violence. It is profoundly Jewish in temper. It is Biblical in its repetitive grammatical buildup. It is a howl against anything in our mechanistic civilization which kills the spirit. . . ."(11) M.L. Rosenthal reviewing "Howl" in The Nation in 1957 wrote that the poem had "the single-minded frenzy of a raving madwoman" (brilliant guesswork, one might say; Naomi is that madwoman, for it can be argued that "Howl" ventriloquizes her voice just as the speaker of Lamentations ventriloquizes Jerusalem's, although "Kaddish" has not been published yet) but that some of Ginsberg's early poems at the back of the book "have a heavy Yiddish melancholy."(12) (Rosenthal in conversation with me called the "madwoman" a "typo" which he feared was insulting to both women and homosexuals and later changed to "madman," but I would say he guessed better than he knew.) Edward Albee remembers Allen in the late fifties as you young, a young old testament prophet."(13) For Hayden Carruth he is "mindpetal, spectre, strangest jew, cityboy" (Best Minds, 53). Yevgeny Yevtushenko, who with a charm equal to Allen's own calls him the "Omm-issar of American Poetry," remembers the beats as "the uprising of the garbage dumps of the suburbs. . . . And riding bareback on a garbage can, careering wildly past the Plaza and the Hilton, like a Jewish Mowgli of the concrete jungles, came Allen Ginsberg, prophet of the outpouring" (Best Minds, 298).

As to Allen's own testimony, "At 14 I was an introvert, an atheist, a Communist and a Jew, and I still wanted to be president of the United States."(14) His family listened to Eddie Cantor on the radio, and "It was a . . . high point of the week. I guess because he was Jewish and a national comedian and everybody in the family identified with him."(15) In the last year of high school Ginsberg vowed to devote his life to helping the working classes if he got into Columbia University. The simplicity of these identifications and that identity failed to outlast his crossing the river to Columbia and his immediate attraction to the bohemian likes of Lucien Carr, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Neil Cassady, all non-Jews, apolitical, amoral. What was a nice Jewish boy doing with these types? Poor Louis kept asking. What did he have in mind by writing "Fuck the Jews" accompanied by a skull and crossbones on his dusty dorm window? Ginsberg's biographer Barry Miles takes Allen's word at face value that his little haughtiness was to catch the attention of an Irish cleaningwoman he suspected of being anti-Semitic. "Trilling and his wife were utterly unable to accept that Allen was simply goading the anti, Semitic Irish cleaner, and years later Diana Trilling was still using the incident as an example of Ginsberg's 'Jewish self-hatred'" (59-61).

A few chapters later Barry Miles observes that Ginsberg "was unable to relate to his Jewish heritage" (210). How very Jewish. Carl Solomon, the dedicatee of "Howl," publishes his "Report from the Asylum: Afterthoughts of a Shock patient" under the name Carl Goy. Allen's brother Eugene changes his surname to Brooks when he becomes a lawyer. It would be years before Allen started identifying himself humorously as a Jewish Buddhist. When Ginsberg cites the sources and precedents for "Howl," he includes Blake, Shelley, Whitman, Christopher Smart, Charlie Parker, Cezanne, Wilhelm Reich, Leadbelly, William Carlos Williams, Rimbaud, Celine, Brecht, Jean Genet, Hart Crane, and Tristan Corbiere, to name a few. He names no Jewish source, and commenting on the phrase "bop kabbalah" distances himself from it as a bit of "mystical name-dropping" and says he had read "little on kabbalah."(16)

Two interesting essays by fellow poets touch on this matter of Ginsberg's reluctance to identify with Jewishness - his wish to "pass" as an unmarked member of the Euro-American avant-garde - through meditating on the ancient heavenly connection of Allen-Naomi. To Clayton Eshleman, Ginsberg's "visionary panic over the destructiveness of North American society, the way it titillates the self and then cold-cocks it," derives from how "on a very personal level, North America had done the same thing to his mother . . . it is the agony of the son who escorted his mother when he was twelve to the asylum . . . that flows through the magnificent first movement of 'Howl.' . . . Ginsberg would save Mankind since he was unable to save Naomi" (Hyde 109, 112). This seems to me entirely correct. Supporting Eshleman's intuition we might notice that the nominal "secret hero" of Part I may be Neil Cassady, "N.C. . . . cocksman and Adonis of Denver," but toward the close of Part I comes a set of lines whose reference is Carl Solomon, and in its midst "the mother finally ******" and the yellow paper rose twisted on a wire hanger in the nameless Naomi's madhouse closet. In a letter to John Hollander Ginsberg calls the "Footnote" "too serious a joke to explain," and then explains it by saying its real dedicatee is "my mother who died in the madhouse and it says I loved her anyway."(17) Having said this, the letter then hastens to return to technical talk about "open prophetic bardic poetry." Allen Grossman, in a partially skewed essay on Ginsberg, "The Jew as American Poet," argues that "the Jew, like the Irishman, presents himself as the type of the sufferer in history" (Hyde, 102) but that for Ginsberg the beat subculture "takes the place of the real ethnic and political subcultures which in the past succored and gave identity to the outcast by forming a community of outcasts" (103). "In 'Kaddish,'" Grossman continues, "the archetypal female is a mutilated and paranoid old woman ('scars of operations, pancreas, belly wounds, abortions, appendix, stitching of incisions pulling down in the fat like hideous thick zippers') haunted by the image of Hitler and dying, obscene and abandoned, in the sanitarium. This is Ginsberg's version of the Jewish mother and, simultaneously, of the shechina, the wandering soul of Israel herself" (105). Surely this is correct and surely what is expressed in "Kaddish" is repressed but powerfully latent in "Howl" - so much so that one may almost feel the son's voice to be that of the mother. Does he speak for her, or is she speaking through him? This is as impossible to decide as it is to identify the voice of Lamentations as witness or victim. And if Naomi is the invisible mother/matter of Ginsberg's first great poem, there is an uncanny connection between this mother who almost devoured her son and the mothers who cannibalize their infants in the streets of Jerusalem. Grossman goes on, however, to claim that Ginsberg "erects on [Naomi's] grave an image which is no longer ethnic and which therefore is no longer obsessed by the mystery of the Jewish people in history" (105), and to remark that "throughout Ginsberg's writing there is an ambivalence toward Jewishness which should be recognized as it seems to be an emphatic part of his public statement" (109). Grossman is implying, I think, that Ginsberg is somehow or other not a real Jew because of this.

Yet ambivalence toward Jewishness, like pepper in the stew, is a key ingredient of post-Enlightenment Jewish writing. Alan Mintz, tracing "responses to catastrophe in Hebrew literature" from Lamentations to the post-Holocaust era, stresses four historic stances: First, there is an early rabbinic theme of shame at Israel's humiliation before the nations, quite apart from the insistence on Israel's sinfulness. During the late medieval period, in response to arbitrary Christian massacres of Jews, there develops an exaltation of suffering as "an opportunity awarded by God to the most worthy for the display of righteousness." In the early modern period, from the 1880's to the early 1900's, writers like Shalom Abromowitsch, Saul Tchernichevsky, and Chaim Nachman Bialik respond to the devastating pogroms that swept Russia and Eastern Europe with a literature of profound and bitter ambivalence toward the masses of Jewish people - part pity, part contempt. And in the Palmach generation of Israeli writers the dominant stance toward the European victims of the holocaust was indeed contempt.

To be a Jew in diaspora is to be ambivalent. It is commonly also to take on the colors of the host culture. To be more German than the Germans, like Heine; more French than the French, like Dreyfuss, Sartre, and Simone Weil: more English than the English, like Disraeli; more Russian than the Russians, like Isaac Babel, who rode with the cossacks. Would someone named Bobby Zimmerman have had the extraordinary effect on American youth wielded by someone named Bob Dylan? To believe in the host culture's own ideals about itself, and then to write as an indignant social critic when the host nation fails (of course) to embody those ideals: this is all normal for the Jewish writer.

Yet Allen as Jew remains a good son. From his father's socialism, that tenderhearted materialism, Allen keeps and intensifies the tenderness while questioning the materialism. Of his mother's communism - her paranoid idealism - Allen tries to exorcise the paranoia (everything's holy, Moloch is holy, breathe deep and say Om) while holding fast to the idealism, free love and all, physical and emotional nudism and all. From Louis's poetry he retains a' devotion to form. From Naomi's madness he retains the outrageousness and outgrows the self-destructiveness.

From America Allen takes Whitman. The manly love of comrades, the open road, the democratic vistas stretching to eternity, and also the eyes of America taking a fall, which he plants, later, in his mother's head. America will always be, for him, infinite hope and infinite disappointment. That's very Jewish.

And from Judaism he takes the universal compassion and rejects the tribalism. Instead of professing victimization as Jew, his writing projects victimization onto the world, and in the same moment proposes, through the mystery of rhetoric, to save it. The power of prophetic rhetoric in the genre of Lamentation is that it must wring cosmic affirmation out of despair. God is your enemy, and you must trust him. Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows eats his children, but you must declare him holy. A decade after completing "Howl," Ginsberg at the climax of "Wichita Vortex Sutra" calls "all the powers of the Imagination" to his side and declares "the end of the War." Ridiculous, absurd, foolish, impossible. Daring to live for the impossible.


1. Ted Enslin is succint and typical: "Many years ago I wrote a collection of short takes on various poets, attempting to capture an outstanding characteristic of each one. When it came to Allen it was simply 'KINDNESS,' and I let it stand as that single word. One does not enhance such a quality by modifiers or explanation" [See Best Minds: a Tribute to Allen Ginsberg, ed. Bill Morgan and Bob Rosenthal (NY: Lospeccio Press, 1986) 100]. Tull Kupferberg, ex-Fug, accompanies a ditty to "Al the Gins/A Jewish Prins" with a cartoon of self and Ginsberg, the balloon of the first saying "Hey Allen what's the good word" and the second answering "Kindness" (Best Minds, 159). Jane Kramer's Allen Ginsberg in America (NY: Random House, 1969) represents Ginsberg as unfailingly generous, compassionate and saintly. On the other hand, Bruce Cook in The Beat Generation (NY: Scribner's, 1981) argues that the young Allen was "an aggressive, savage young man . . . a great hater," whose anguish was healed only by the satori experienced after his exhausting and fruitless stay in India, on the Kyoto-Tokyo Express. And at least two commentators on "Howl" seem, interestingly, offended by the poem's swerve from the "anger" they feel ought to be its core. Michael Rumaker in Black Mountain Review (Fall 1957) claims that "the impact of the anger" was corrupted "by sentimentality, bathos, Buddha." Clayton Eshleman appears to agree, complaining that "Howl III" "is very close to being cute" instead of pursuing "the direction toward an unqualified attack on the sensibility-destroying aspect of North America" (Idaho Review, 109).

2. Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg, eds., A Treasury of Yiddish Stories (NY: Viking, 1954) 37-38.

3. A notable example is Rexroth's defense of "Howl" in his trial statement: "The simplest term for such writing is prophetic, it is easier to call it, that than anything else because we have a large body of prophetic writing to refer to. There are the prophets in the Bible which it greatly resembles in purpose and in language and in subject matter . . . the theme is the denunciation of evil and a pointing of the way out, so to speak. That is prophetic literature." In Lewis Hyde, ed. On the Poetry of Allen Ginsberg (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1984) 50.

4. Jan Wojcik and Raymond-Jean Frontain, Poetic Prophecy in Western Literature (Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses, 1984) 9-10. Herbert N. Schneider, Sacred Discontent: the Bible in Western Tradition (University of California Press, 1976).

5. See Barry Miles, Ginsberg: a Biography (NY: Viking, 1989) 187-9.

6. I will not dwell here on the differences, which of course are also major - among them the fact that Ginsberg seems to have no conception of sin; that "Howl" is not literally theistic (Moloch and Jehovah are for Ginsberg mind-forged gods as they were for Blake): and that Parts I and III are very funny as well as sensationally plangent.

7. Alan Mintz, Hurban: Responses to Catastrophe in Hebrew Literature (Columbia University Press, 1984) 3-4.

8. Mintz, x.

9. Francis Landy, "Lamentations," in Robert Alter and Frank Kermode, eds., The Literary Guide to the Bible (Cambridge: Harvard University Press) 329-30. Landy argues (333) that "the enactment of inadequacy" and hopelessness in Lamentations is ultimately mitigated in the absence of a divine reply by the beauty and formality of the poetry - the acrostics whose "assurance and freedom counteract the loss of political and religious structure described in the poem."

10. William Carlos Williams, in Hyde 17-18.

11. Richard Eberhart, in Hyde 25.

12. M.L. Rosenthal, in Hyde 29, 31.

13. Edward Albee, "Dear Allen," in Best Minds, 5.

14. Allen Ginsberg, Journals, Early Fifties, Early Sixties, ed. Gordon Ball (NY: Grove Press, 1977) 17.

15. Miles, Ginsberg, 19.

16. Allen Ginsberg, Howl: Original Draft Facsimile, Transcript & Variant Versions . . . Fully Annotated by Author, ed. Barry Miles (NY: HarperCollins, 1995) 126.

17. Ibid., 163.

Alicia Ostriker's most recent volume of poetry, The Crack in Everything, published by the University of Pittsburgh Press, was a finalist for the 1996 National Book Awards, and has won a Paterson Poetry Prize.
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Author:Ostriker, Alicia
Publication:The American Poetry Review
Date:Jul 1, 1997
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