The Poetry and Politics of Allen Ginsberg.
Beatdom Books, 2016
The Poetry and Politics of Allen Ginsberg is a fully-developed analysis of Ginsberg's political poetry; Eliot Katz deals directly with the political inspirations, implications, and influences of Ginsberg's bop prosody in a book-length study. (1) As might be expected of a poet with leftist political views, Katz writes for a general readership, not just for those steeped in critical theory. Using multiple approaches, Katz creates a portrait of Ginsberg that emphasizes his political commitment while defining the origins and ongoing influences of Ginsberg's politics, establishing a proper understanding of Ginsberg's contribution to political activism in his lifetime while expounding on how that contribution informs the twenty-first century.
The book began in the late nineties as a Rutgers University dissertation advised by Alicia Ostriker, a William Blake scholar, feminist, poet, and Ginsberg's colleague. Yet, the single biggest influence on Katz's work is Ginsberg himself; Katz met Ginsberg while a student at the Naropa Institute (now University) in 1980, and their relationship continued until Ginsberg's death in 1997. Apersonal relationship with an artist does not necessarily enhance one's analysis of that artist's work, of course. However, here the matter is both more complicated and possibly more relevant, as Katz's general subject is the conflation of the personal and the political.
Katz contextualizes the positions of literary critics in regard to political poetry, using the philosopher Jurgen Habermas and the literary critic Terry Eagleton to clarify his own theoretical position. Katz explains:
According to Habermas, under postmodern theory "all genre distinctions are submerged in one comprehensive, all-embracing context of texts".... This "false pretense of eliminating the genre distinction between philosophy and literature," according to Habermas, only "robs both of their substance".... Instead, Habermas embraces a Kantian notion of sphere-differentiation, where the boundaries between disciplines are seen as drawn in dotted lines, something like semi-permeable membranes. Terry Eagleton defines this view as maintaining a "necessary differentiation of the cognitive, moral and cultural spheres," which are seen as "interrelated but not conflated".... In other words, art and politics are conceptually seen as different spheres which can interact, overlap, embrace, or stand apart in different historical contexts and different geographical locales. (16)
What connects the theories of Habermas and Eagleton to Katz's thesis about Ginsberg's political importance is not the political significance of his art, but rather that it can inspire others to get involved in larger political movements.
Katz rightly argues that the social movements often associated with the sixties owe a great debt to the Beat Generation and Ginsberg, in particular. As Lawrence Ferlinghetti attests, "[Ginsberg] had functioned as a great literary catalyst for the Beat Generation, just as Ezra Pound had done for his time, dragging a whole gang of writers into print with him, many of whom would never see print if it hadn't been for his insistence to editors" (284). Arguably, Ginsberg's networking and promotion of poets helped to create a recognizable body of writers who would be known as "Beats." And in another key way Ginsberg superseded the other prominent Beat writers, and the exploration of this decision is the core of this study. As Katz argues, "Ginsberg dismissed [the advice of Burroughs and Kerouac], writing about politics from the start and becoming a public activist beginning with his early 1960s participation in protests against the Vietnam War and remaining publicly and politically active throughout his entire life" (247). As a result, much of the political consciousness that has come to be associated with the Beat Generation owes a debt to Ginsberg's politics. While as Katz points out, "most of the Beat writers were politically progressive" (10), he also notes that when J. Edgar Hoover portrayed the Beat Generation in 1960 as one of the three most threatening subversive groups inside the United States, it was Ginsberg's political influence that concerned Hoover (250).
Echoing the volume edited by Jason Shinder, The Poem that Changed America: "Howl" Fifty Years Later (2006), which includes an earlier version of Katz's chapter on the poem, Katz calls "Howl" "the most influential American poem of the second half of the 20th century" (1), explaining that "'Howl' is structured like many meaningful projects in politics, psychology, or science. A problem is first examined, so that it can be identified. Once the problem is identified, a solution is proposed--and, if the solution seems like a potentially effective one, the project's designer celebrates" (51). Yet what truly makes "Howl" a politically important poem is not so much its creation but, as Habermas and Eagleton would argue, its impact. When the poem became the center of an obscenity trial, it made the poet and his work notorious, but the political impact of the poem on its readers made it historic. Katz notes that" [i]t is difficult to imagine what American culture, in the sixties and in subsequent decades, would have looked like without the impact of Bob Dylan and The Beatles," who were influenced by Ginsberg, and argues, "by extension, it is therefore difficult to conceive what it would have looked like without Allen Ginsberg and the Beat Generation" (2). The true heirs of Ginsberg's poetry, Katz posits, were not fellow poets but some of the most influential pop stars of the 1960s.
In addition, Katz points out the direct influence of Ginsberg on activists such as Abbie Hoffman, Al Haber, Tom Hayden, Roz Baxandall, Paul Krassner, Ed Sanders, and Jerry Rubin. Hoffman, for instance, saw Ginsberg as a prophet of social revolution. Rubin credits Ginsberg with the idea that protest could be theater: "[Ginsberg] suggested we march to Beatles' music... He suggested there be huge floats. So instead of its being a march of 10,000 angry people who wanted to stop the war, it would be a parade.... I think it was the first time I ever thought of politics being theatrical. Allen's ideas opened my mind to the possibility of what you might call, psychedelic politics, a politics that's inspired by imagination" (qtd. in Katz 5). Ginsberg also had an uncanny knack of being at the right place at the right time--not only participating but being a significant player in some of the most politically relevant events of his time, such as the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, where he was among the leaders of the protest movement into which he sought to instill peace rather than violence and famously chanted "Om" in an effort to ease tension at the fractious event. Katz also debunks Lee Siegel's October 2010 New York Times Book Review article that gave the false perspective that Ginsberg was mainly committed to personal freedoms rather than championing peace, egalitarianism, and ecological sustainability (10). As John Tytell says in one of the first works of Beat scholarship (1976), "Ginsberg sees his poetry as transmitting a sacred trust in human potentials... his role would be to widen the area of consciousness, to open the doors of perception, to continue to transmit messages through time that could reach the enlightened and receptive" (18-19). Catherine A. Davies in Whitman's Queer Children (2012) analyzes "the conflation of the personal and the political" in Ginsberg's poetry, finding this synthesis to be "a trope that Ginsberg returns to again and again in his writing." By way of example, Davies shows how in "America," Ginsberg seeks unconventional methods to simultaneously "protect and represent the nation," claiming a status that makes him at once an individual and a representation of the nation: "It occurs to me that I am America." Davies also sees significance in the physical placement of "America" adjacent to "Howl" in Howl and Other Poems, where it "speaks through a melding of the public and private, [offering] a more humorous and condensed politicization of the concerns voiced more obliquely in 'Howl'" (98-99).
Later in his chapter on "Howl," Katz quotes Kenneth Rexroth, the pater familias of the San Francisco Renaissance, who believed Ginsberg could be "the first genuinely popular, genuine poet in over a generation" (35). Rexroth's lines, "Three generations of infants / Stuffed down the maw of Moloch" (239) from his 1953 poem for Dylan Thomas, "Thou Shalt Not Kill," may have been (as T. S. Eliot says mature poets are apt to do) "stolen," as is suggested by Ann Charters (232), for his own use in "Howl" Part II. Ginsberg's Moloch also has a striking resemblance to the Moloch of Fritz Lang's anti-capitalist film Metropolis (1927), which Ginsberg recalls he may have seen as a child ("Author's Annotations" 140). Providing a broad context from which to grasp Ginsberg's most famous poem, Katz places "Howl" against the background of McCarthyism (and its homophobia), segregation, nuclear paranoia, Erich Fromm's emphasis on alienation, and the sociological work of C. Wright Mills. Katz calls the Moloch of Ginsberg's poem "the power elite" (72), President Dwight D. Eisenhower in his 1961 farewell address to the nation called it the "military-industrial complex," while Michael McClure called it the "military-industrial-corporate complex" (Aronson). Ginsberg himself called it the "military-industrial-nationalist complex" ("Author's Preface" xii)--and today I might call Moloch the "military-industrial-prison complex."
It is not insignificant, then, that the site of Ginsberg's first reading of "Howl"--with the emphasis on the performance, not the poet--is honored with a plaque in San Francisco. Katz believes:
Ginsberg deserves primary credit for the exponential growth of poetry readings that first appeared in the late 1950s through the 1960s, and that has exploded more than ever since the last decade of the 20th century. This is especially significant in a consideration of poetry and politics, since in this television-and-internet age of so much stay-at-home entertainment, the resurgence of poetry readings has created new public spaces that provide additional opportunities for social meetings and public discussions, especially among young people. (45)
Kerouac's prose rhythms are credited by Katz for the sound of "Howl" Part I (55), which Tytell points out in Naked Angels were an evenbigger influence than Whitman on the rhythm of the poem (216-17). Emphasizing Charles Kaiser's perceptive observation in Gay Metropolis: 1940-1996, Katz notes that "Ginsberg and other Beat writers were influential in large part because they were the first American writers to present gay themes as hip..." (98). Katz also reads "Howl" in light of William Blake's influence on Ginsberg, yet Katz distances his reading of "Howl" from what Tony Trigilio calls the influence of "Blake's Biblical revisionism" (125), which Trigilio sees as part of a grander deconstruction of the "impulse toward system-building" found in Ginsberg's work (174). "I think it would be a mistake," writes Katz, "to fit Ginsberg's ideas into a kind of postmodern 'anti-system' theoretical framework. Rather than opposing all notions of 'authority' and 'system-building,' it seems to me that it is the particular repressive characteristics of actually existing authority and systems that Ginsberg is criticizing" (68). In one passage, Katz writes, "[I]t is important to acknowledge that, as a result of social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, American culture has generally become far more open and tolerant than it was in the 1950s" (85-86).
In his chapter on "Kaddish," a poem thought by some to be Ginsberg's greatest achievement, Katz emphasizes the influence of Naomi Ginsberg's political commitment on her young son, which is expressed throughout the poem:" 'Kaddish' functions, perhaps even more than 'Howl,' as a poem of witness" (104). Katz points out the stylistic differences between "Howl" and the staccato rhythm of "Kaddish: "[T]he lines seem choppier, more condensed or economical than the lines of 'Howl,' punctuated throughout by dashes reminiscent of Emily Dickinson.... The short, choppy phrases of 'Kaddish' give the reader a sense of the fragmented life the poem describes--a fragmentation that is nevertheless connected to a whole poem and a whole, even though ill, psyche" (105-06). The choppiness of Ginsberg's lines in "Kaddish" reflects the psychological hesitancy between this masterpiece and the overflowing burst of energy characteristic of "Howl."
The fourth chapter moves on chronologically to the Vietnam War and Ginsberg's poem "Wichita Vortex Sutra." Katz reminds us that Ginsberg was publicly protesting the Vietnam War as early as October 28, 1963 (135), and that John Lennon and Phil Ochs had used lines similar to Ginsberg's declaration in "Wichita Vortex Sutra": "I here declare the end of the War!" (415). In December 1969, Lennon staged a "bed-in" with his wife, Yoko, as a statement of love and peace. Andrew Solt's documentary, Imagine: John Lennon (1988), captures an argument that occurred during this event between Lennon and a New York Times war correspondent, Gloria Emerson, who had just returned from an assignment in Vietnam and took issue with Lennon's form of protest. Emerson had seen the savagery of war up close while Lennon was writing songs in his hotel room. I believe that his songs did indeed save lives by inspiring young people not to join the military. According to Katz, Ginsberg's poetic impact was similar, with poet Andy Clausen, for instance, crediting "Wichita Vortex Sutra" for convincing him to leave the Marines in 1966 (154). Certainly, Ginsberg's pronouncement of the war's end in "Wichita Vortex Sutra" did not have an immediate magical effect, but as Katz states, "it did make an important cultural contribution toward the anti-war movement's long-term struggle to change the consciousness of many Americans and to force the U.S. government to eventually abandon its disastrous war policy in Vietnam" (161).
The last major poem that Katz focuses on is "Plutonian Ode," a poem calling attention to the destructive power of human-made plutonium, a key element of nuclear weapons. The cover photograph of Katz's book features a 1978 picture of Ginsberg on train tracks participating in a sit-in to stop the transportation of plutonium in Rocky Flats, Colorado. According to Katz, "Ginsberg's poetic and activist efforts were certainly at least a small part of the culture that educated the public about the dangers of nuclear power and that turned public opinion against the building of new nuclear power plants and toward treaties that at least somewhat reduced nuclear weapons stockpiles and nuclear waste" (183). There are few contemporary poets with the cultural cachet to bring national attention to such an act of sedition.
It is also important to note that Katz at times turns a critical eye to Ginsberg's shortcomings. Katz discusses the 1975 Naropa Institute scandal involving Ginsberg's guru, Chogym Trungpa Rinpoche, who ordered a forced stripping of the poet W. S. Merwin and his girlfriend, Dana Naone, by Vajra guards at Rinpoche's Halloween party. It must be noted that Ginsberg was not present at the event, but the ensuing debate about the unethical behavior of Rinpoche can be read about in The Party: A Chronological Perspective of a Confrontation at a Buddhist Seminary (1977), a report made by Ed Sanders's Investigative Poetry Group, and Tom Clark's The Great Naropa Poetry Wars (1980). Katz reveals that "[e]ven Ginsberg's own longtime guru, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, is not spared in [Ginsberg's "Elephant in the Meditation Hall"], which alludes to a well-publicized 1975 scandal at Naropa Institute..." (207).
Katz also calls to task Ginsberg's less than exemplary involvement in the struggle for women's equality, believing that "it would be fair to acknowledge that Ginsberg does not explore or challenge dominant conceptions of gender with anything near the energy or insight with which he explores nearly every other key social and political issue of his time" (243). Regrettably, Katz avoids the greatest blemish in Ginsberg's career--his membership in the North American Man/Boy Love Association (NAMBLA). Ginsberg tried to dismiss this troubling misstep by proclaiming it as a defense of free speech in a hypocritical society that allowed heterosexuals to sexually objectify underage girls but denied this privilege to homosexuals. Perhaps it can be explained away by Bill Morgan's observation: "Deep down he enjoyed stirring up controversy..." (613). Yet, perhaps it cannot be so casually dismissed. If there is one thing that Katz should have addressed head on it is this troubling issue, which he probably avoided because there is no legitimate justification for this blunder. But then, too, Katz has opened the door to further study of Ginsberg's political activist perspectives, particularly volumes focused on Ginsberg as a gay activist and as a Jewish poet. Such studies are greatly anticipated, and their authors would be well advised to take Trigilio's and Katz's achievements as models of fine scholarship.
Ultimately, Katz views Ginsberg as promoting an inclusionary politics that calls for participatory democracy. Ginsberg's legacy, Katz says, is for progressive viewpoints--"internationalism, nonviolence, anti-racism, gay liberation, environmentalism, free expression, non-repressed sexuality, intersubjectivity, interpersonal solidarity, and opposition to the poverty and other economic injustices too often caused by unchecked capitalism" (231)--a spiritual social consciousness, the promotion of the poet as political participant, and an optimistic view of the potential for change based on an individual's actions. As Katz quotes Ginsberg from a 1995 interview about the victory of Beat Generation values:
Many of these values have entered mainstream thought--e.g., ecology, grass, gay lib, multiculturalism--but haven't seen fruition in government behavior, so that now we have more folk in our prisons or under government surveillance than any country West or East.... This "Beat generation" or "sixties" tolerant worldview has provoked an intoxicated right-wing "Denial" (as in AA terminology) of reality, codependency with repressive laws, incipient police state, death-penalty demagoguery, sex demagoguery, art censorship, fundamentalist monotheists televangelist quasi-fascist wrath, racism, and homophobia. The counterreaction seems a by-product of the further gulf between the rich and poor classes, growth of a massive abused underclass, increased power and luxury for the rich who control politics and their minions in the media. Prescription: more art, meditation, lifestyles of relative penury, avoidance of conspicuous consumption that's burning down the planet. (175)
Through Katz's explorations, it can be seen that Ginsberg melds politics and art. emerging as a poet who deliberately entwined his physical acts, his philosophical beliefs, and his art, creating a poetics that is at once personal and political.
--Kurt Hemmer, Harper College
(1) Predecessors include Thomas F. Merrill's Allen Ginsberg (1969), which connects Ginsberg to the poetic canon; Paul Portuges's The Visionary Poetics of Allen Ginsberg (1978), which places Ginsberg's verse in the mystic tradition; On the Poetry of Allen Ginsberg (1984), edited by Lewis Hyde, which collects the competing voices debating Ginsberg's aesthetic value; Jonah Raskin's American Scream: Allen Ginsberg s Howl and the Making of the Beat Generation (2004), which provides a cultural context for Ginsberg's most famous poem; and Tony Trigilio's Allen Ginsberg's Buddhist Poetics, which studies questions of poetics, religious authenticity, and political efficacy in Ginsberg's poetry.
Aronson, Jerry, director. The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg. New Yorker Films. 2004.
Charters, Ann. "Kenneth Rexroth." The Portable Beat Reader, edited by Ann Charters, Penguin, 1992, p. 232.
Davies, Catherine A. Whitman's Queer Children: America's Homosexual Epics. Bloomsbury, 2013.
Ferlinghetti, Lawrence. Writing Across the Landscape: Travel Journals 1960-2013. Edited by Giada Diano and Matthew Gleeson, Liveright, 2015.
Ginsberg, Allen. "Author's Annotations." Howl: Original Draft Facsimile, 50th Anniversary Edition, edited by Barry Miles, Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2006. pp. 121-46.
--. "Author's Preface: Reader's Guide." Howl: Original Draft Facsimile, 50th Anniversary Edition, edited by Barry Miles, Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2006. pp. xi-xii.
--. "Wichita Vortex Sutra." Collected Poems 1947-1997, Harper Collins, 2006, pp. 402-19.
Imagine: John Lennon. Directed by Andrew Solt. Warner Brothers, 1988.
Morgan, Bill. I Celebrate Myself: The Somewhat Private Life of Allen Ginsberg. Viking, 2006.
Rexroth, Kenneth. "Thou Shalt Not Kill." The Portable Beat Reader, edited by Ann Charters, Penguin, 1992, pp. 233-41.
Trigilio, Tony. "Strange Prophecies Anew ": Rereading Apocalypse in Blake, H. D., and Ginsberg. Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2000.
Tytell, John. Naked Angels: Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs. McGraw-Hill, 1976, rpt. Grove Weidenfeld, 1991.
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|Publication:||Journal of Beat Studies|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2018|
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