Allen Ginsberg in the 1940s: The Making of a Poet in New York City

By Emile Anceau

 

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Allen Ginsberg — as photographed by William S. Burroughs — on the rooftop of his Lower East Side apartment, between Avenues B and C, in the Fall of 1953.

 

Allen Ginsberg lived fully through the second half of the 20th century. As America was then the dominant nation in the world, Ginsberg was at the very core of what was also the dominant scene – both cultural, and political. Throughout his life, he was involved in several political and social issues which divided America (his relationship with communism, his protest against Vietnam war and more generally for peace, his fight for homosexual recognition and legalization of marijuana… these are the main issues that public opinion remembers of the poet as an “activist” and which are all very tinted with the ideas of the movements appearing in the 1960s) and in this respect it could nearly be possible to write an American history through Ginsberg’s experiences and involvements as it seems that he was present on the scene of every major events of the second half of the 20th century in America. Even when he was still a young man in formation, Ginsberg was already at the very core of what moved America, since New York City in the 1940s was then undoubtedly “the place to be” for a twenty years old aspiring poet eager to discover the intellectual, poetical and musical scene of America, but also for a young man struggling with his sexuality.

I shall endeavor here to draw a picture of the city in the 1940s as Ginsberg may have seen and experienced it, through several aspects of his life, and to show how this decade shaped what was to become the so-called Beat Generation and influenced Ginsberg’s most famous poem Howl–which, although it first hit America in the 1950s, was profoundly informed by Ginsberg’s experience living in New York during the previous decade.  I will not consider the end of the 1940s as a strict border not to be crossed in my reflection since the aim of my paper is precisely to draw a link between the early experience of Ginsberg in the 1940s and his work in the 1950s, when he wrote some of his masterpieces.


A Student in New York City: The Columbia Years and Lionel Trilling

 

who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy among the scholars of war,
who were expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull 

Ginsberg entered Columbia University in 1943 at the age of seventeen, after graduating from Eastside High School in Paterson, New Jersey. He was interested in literature but did not plan to make a career in this field. He considered studying government, legal work or labor law. He thus began as a law student but changed his major to English Literature during his sophomore year. He got involved in the Columbia Jester and the Columbia Review, the school’s humor and literary magazines and became president of Columbia’s literary society, “Philolexian”.  It became clear that his first political interests were being taken over by literary interests. Being a student at Columbia was for Ginsberg a significant change . While he was considered a smart student in high school, at Columbia, he was confronted for the first time to other very smart students. He also developed for the first time a social life, entering circles of intellectual, learned and scholarly ambitious students who generally came from upper classes – another change from his working-class youth in Paterson. He enjoyed this company and considered his new friends important guides in the development of his literary sensibility and critical sense.  These were, in short, his years of literary apprenticeship.

At Columbia took the legendary “Great Books” course, and it rapidly became his favorite class. The much-respected Lionel Trilling taught it. This meeting was to be the starting point of a close relationship that played a significant part in Ginsberg’s poetic formation. Despite the age difference, the two men had a similar political background.  Trilling had a background in New York’s left literary circles and since 1937 had been associated with Partisan Review, the influential Marxist and anti-Stalinist little magazine.  Ginsberg’s mother had provided her son with a Marxist background, and he kept most of her political convictions. However his position concerning Stalin was at first not that clear. As Ginsberg’s biographer Bill Morgan states, in the early 1940s, “Allen, like many liberal Americans, still believed that Stalin’s politics were ‘progressive and healthy nationalism’”(Morgan 32).

Beyond these political concerns, Ginsberg was able to “test” and develop some early literary views in his essays for and letters to Trilling. After leaving Columbia and joining the Merchant Marine in 1945, Ginsberg began a correspondence with Trilling.  (Ginsberg had been expelled from the University ironically for writing “Fuck the Jews” on the dust of his windows–an attempt to show her that she was not doing her job properly and a response to the fact she had reported to the Dean that Ginsberg had illegally hosted Kerouac in his room.) From the training station of Sheepshead Bay, NY, he wrote a letter to Trilling on September 4, 1945 (The Letters of Allen Ginsberg, 10) in which he reacts to Trilling’s own response to a poem (“The Last Voyage”) Ginsberg had sent him earlier. Ginsberg expresses some ideas about style and rhyme, invoking other poets. (He writes for instance: “I’m increasingly pleased by the effect of the sort of ‘muted’ rhymes of Auden and cummings. So I would rhyme ‘touched’ and ‘watched’ and ‘flesh’ and ‘death’ or even ‘birth’ and ‘death’” (Letters, 11). He then elaborates extensively on his admiration for Rimbaud, a fascination that Trilling obviously does not understand. A few months later, on January 7, 1946, onboard the SS Groveton, Ginsberg continued to seek Trilling’s advice. He encloses in a letter a new poem (“Ode to Decadence”), and in a  provocative mood he describes its diction: “The vocabulary of the part of the enclosed poem beginning with ‘Right around the block is Huncke’s pad’ may be unfamiliar to you. It is a sort of jive talk I found in use among the ‘hepcats’ and dope addicts on both the ships I’ve been on – and it is also prevalent in the ‘Underworld’ of New York, especially around Time Square.” (Letters, 15) This letter seems to herald the spontaneous, slang-influenced, speech-like style that Ginsberg was to adopt for his well-known poems.  It also suggests that Ginsberg wanted to appear to Trilling as a connoisseur of New York’s underworld, which he may have learned about from William S. Burroughs, but which he certainly did not frequent in the early and mid 1940s.

Ginsberg returned to Columbia in 1946 and continued his correspondence with Trilling, whom Morgan identifies as a “surrogate father” for the aspiring poet.[1] In June 1948, while struggling with college as well as with his poetic style, Ginsberg addressed a letter to Trilling in which his endeavors to find his own poetic voice are striking. He also expressed his desire to abandon his studies. “I’m sick and tired of Columbia University,” Ginsberg told Trilling. “I don’t think I want to study anywhere either” (Letters, 23). Having shifted from law to literature, Ginsberg now seemed to plan to shift from theory to practice.  In the same letter, Ginsberg asks Trilling to read Kerouac’s just finished novel (“I tell you there is a Great American Novel under our noses”) and mentions Alfred Kazin as “the best fish [Kerouch] can catch at the moment, besides agents” in order to launch the book. The letter ends with a  quote – supposedly from Trilling – concerning the literary path Ginsberg was then taking: “I am willing to take responsibility for that even if it means my ‘final exclusion from the world of letters’.”(Ginsberg, The Letters of Allen Ginsberg 24).

As time went by, Ginsberg took his distance from Trilling, at least in terms of writing style, choosing a way that his former professor most obviously did not consider as true literature.  Robert Genter sees in their connection a significant meeting in terms of modern criticism: “Present in the work of both writers since their initial meeting at Columbia was a deliberate attempt to respond to the literary challenges of the other, a critical discourse between a former teacher and a talented ex-student that set the framework for postwar literary criticism.” (Genter 25). According to Genter, the reciprocal influence of the two writers is constantly to be seen in their works, even if the student/teacher relationship they had at first turned over the years into a “literary battle over the contours of literary modernism” (Genter 49).

 

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Allen Ginsberg, standing, with Columbia class mates (Fritz Stern, left)

Allen Ginsberg, standing, with Columbia class mates (Fritz Stern, left)


“Madness”: Naomi, Carl Solomon, Allen

 

the madtowns of the East,
Pilgrim State’s Rockland’s and Greystone’s foetid halls, bickering with the echoes of the soul, rocking and rolling in the midnight solitude-bench dolmen-realms of love, dream of life a nightmare, bodies turned to stone as heavy as the moon

. . .

who threw potato salad at CCNY lecturers on Dadaism and subsequently presented themselves on the granite steps of the madhouse with shaven heads and harlequin speech of suicide, demanding instantaneous lobotomy,
and who were given instead the concrete void of insulin Metrazol electricity hydrotherapy psychotherapy occupational therapy pingpong & amnesia

When reading about Ginsberg’s life, mental instability appears to be a recurrent background. And Howl is obviously crowded with ghosts from the mental institutions that Ginsberg experienced both as visitor and patient. Indeed, Howl is dedicated to Carl Solomon, a friend whom Ginsberg met when institutionalized in the New York State Psychiatric Institute in 1949. It is certain that madness or mental disorder as lived by Ginsberg in the 1940s and early 1950s influenced his work.  The first sentence of the poem invokes the theme: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness”.

Ginsberg’s personal familiarity with mental disorders begins with his mother, Naomi Ginsberg. Naomi’s mental illness started early in her son’s life.   The late 1940s were, according to Morgan, were “some of [her] darkest days” (Morgan 22). She underwent frequent institutionalizations, and her illness often manifested as paranoid delusions. After a suicide attempt, she entered Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital, and young Allen would spend long hours visiting her. He ended up signing — half-heartedly but somehow convinced it would help – an authorization for lobotomy. He regretted this choice for his whole life. Naomi died in Pilgrim State Hospital on Long Island in 1956.

In an essay on “The Origins of ‘Howl’ and ‘Kaddish,’”  James Breslin discusses the significance of Ginsberg’s mother to his poetry (On the Poetry of Allen Ginsberg 401). Of course, Kaddish more than Howl appears as a testimony to this influence. The lines from Howl quoted above refer to some of the institutions (Pilgrim State and Greystone) where Naomi was hospitalized and seem to match rather exactly her experience of illness. However, in truth, these lines also refer to Carl Solomon, who was hospitalized in the same institutions as Naomi. Rockland State Hospital in New York is subject to anaphoric repetition in the third part of Howl, addressing Solomon directly: “I’m with you in Rockland.” (In fact, Solomon was never hospitalized in Rockland,  Ginsberg choose the name for poetic significance. [2]) The connection between Solomon and Naomi is stressed by Ginsberg himself when he declares: “I’m with you in Rockland where you imitate the shade of my mother”(Ginsberg Selected Poems, 1947-1995 55). As Raskin points out , Ginsberg also created a deliberate confusion of the treatments Naomi and Carl respectively received. In the poem, Solomon is given “insulin Metrazol electricity/ hydrotherapy psychotherapy.”  Solomon later denied ever receiving this therapy. (“No Metrazol for me or electricity for me” [Ginsberg and Miles 131]).  But Naomi was subject to these treatments. In 1986, Ginsberg eventually explained his assimilation of two different persons into one character: “I’d used Mr. Solomon’s return to the asylum as occasion for a masque on my feelings toward my mother, in itself an ambiguous situation since I had signed the papers giving permission for her lobotomy.”(Ginsberg and Miles 111, cited by Raskin p.156-157)

What finally may be most interesting is Ginsberg’s own mental health, since – as noted above – he was himself institutionalized at Greystone in June , 1949. Prior to that, he had tried to undergo several psychotherapies and psychoanalyses, more or less without success. It was yet rather unclear what exactly he was trying to cure: depression, troubles due to his sexual doubts. . . .  Yet he found later in the 1950s in San Francisco a psychiatrist whom he was attached to and could trust, Dr. Philip Hicks. According to Raskin, “the therapeutic sessions with Dr. Hicks helped Ginsberg write Howl, and the process of writing Howl proved therapeutic too” (Raskin 154). Hicks considered that Ginsberg’s main problem was not madness itself, but the fear a being mad like his mother or Carl. Howl would consequently stands as a cathartic resolution of this fear.


 

Meeting the “Angelheaded Hipsters”: Gathering a Generation

 

who talked continuously seventy hours from park to pad to bar to Bellevue to museum to the Brooklyn Bridge,
a lost battalion of platonic conversationalists jumping down the stoops off fire escapes off windowsills off Empire State out of the moon 

 

According to Morgan, New York City in the 1940s, and the circle of friends that Ginsberg developed there would be the significant turning point for Ginsberg’s early career as a poet and would define the so-called Beat Generation to come (Morgan 38). The first significant meeting for Ginsberg was with Lucien Carr, a fellow Columbia student whose personality impressed and intimidated Ginsberg. Ginsberg immediately had a crush on Carr, but a friendship developed between the two around their common interests in music and literature.   Both found themselves more and more bored by the poetry taught in the academy, a verse strictly defined by metric rules, rhyming patters, and conventional rhythms.  While Carr developed a theoretical approach to a new poetry, Ginsberg tried to enact it in writing his first poems.

Carr also served as the catalyst of the Beat Generation, since he introduced Ginsberg to the two other major figures of the movement: William S. Burroughs, and Jack Kerouac. Carr also introduced David Kammerer to the newly forming group. Kammerer, an English teacher was older than the others, with the exception of Burroughs. He had had an ambiguous relationship with Carr and pursued the young man sexually.  Carr – who was most probably bisexual – although not interested in Kammerer was yet flattered to be an object of desire for an older man. At the time Ginsberg was introduced to Kammerer, Carr’s relationship with the older man had already become to crumble, with the younger man expressing boredom with Kammerer’s insistent sexual requests. The two maintained an amicable unity in the group of friends for a time, drinking and experiencing drugs together, listening to jazz concerts in bars and walking through the city, and they developed in a manifesto the theoretical basis for the Beat writing–a new approach of poetry based on the deconstruction of metric and rhyming patterns and stressing a spontaneity of writing that should parallel the spontaneity of the mind. They called it the “New Vision,” in an allusion to Yeats’s book, A Vision.

This attempt of a literary revolution, however, remained mainly theoretical.  In August 1944, the friendship of the emerging Beat group was sent into crisis by the event referred to by biographers as the Carr/Kammerer affair.  On the night of August 13th, Carr stabbed Kammerer to death in Riverside Park and drowned the corpse in the Husdon River.  He then went for help to Burroughs, who told him to find a lawyer and surrender to the police, and Kerouac, who helped Carr to get rid of the knife and then, strangely enough, went to the movies with him. Carr eventually surrendered to the police and claimed that he had acted to defend himself from sexual assault.  The event, which disturbed Ginsberg deeply, revealed the violence that played a significant part in the lives of the Beats.  This murder was to be the first of several very violent events that members of the Beat Generation or persons closely related to them would experience in the coming years.  Bill Cannastra – a Cassady-like character who joined the group of friends in 1949 –  died in 1950 at 28, when he was decapitated trying to climb out of a moving subway window [3].  In 1951, Burroughs accidentally shot his wife Joan Vollmer in the head as they played a drunken game of William Tell.  Natalie Jackson – an unnstable young women who had an affair with Cassady and was close to the group –  killed herself in 1955, slashing her throat and jumping from the sixth story of her building.

Ginsberg met Neal Cassady, who had recently arrived in New York from Denver, in 1947, and Casady soon joined the circle of friends that included Kerouac, Burroughs and Carr. Hal Chase entered the circle as well approximately at the same period. The Beat Generation then took on the face that is now remembered. Carr was replaced by Cassady, and, while Lucien had been the center of gravity of the early Beat Generation, Ginsberg took his place for this new one. From then on, it was around Ginsberg that Beat-related poets, musicians and other personalities would meet and work together.

 

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Hal Chase, Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs in Morningside Heights, 1945

 

But, although Carr soon became less important to the Beat circle than he had first been, it is certain that the major works of the Beat Generation that we now remember –  Howl and some other poems by Ginsberg, along with Kerouac’s On the Road – developed out of the “New Vision” manifesto. The writing techniques developed by Ginsberg and Kerouac would also receive another fundamental influence from a famous 18 pages letter that Cassady wrote Kerouac on December 17, 1950 known as “The Joan Anderson Letter”. This letter also contributed to the Beat legend since critics had found many references to it in Ginsberg’s and Kerouac’s correspondence which referred to the letter’s literary power and the efforts both writers made to imitate Cassady’s style in their work.  (The letter, which was lost in the 1950s, had been missing for decades until its recent recovery this year [4].) Ginsberg wrote about the letter in 1951:

I read it with great wonder, stopping and laughing out loud every few paragraphs, so much clarity and grace and vigor seemed to shine in the writing, [composed with] speed and rush, without halt, all unified, one molten flow; no boring moments, everything significant and interesting, sometimes breathtaking in speed and brilliance (qtd by Morgan 132-33).

Morgan comments: “In . . . [Ginsberg and Kerouac’s] future written work they strove to capture the spontaneity of Neal’s pure speech.” (Ibid.) Ginsberg acknowledged this influence in 1953 in a letter to Cassady, at the time of the writing of his Empty Mirrors poems (Morgan 157). The last lines of the first stanza of “The Green Automobile” from that collection embodies the oral-like spontaneous writing Ginsberg saw in Casady:

If I had a Green Automobile
I’d go find my old companion
in his house on the western ocean.
Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!” (Ginsberg Selected Poems, 1947-1995 23)

The lines combined Casady’s style with the poetic agenda Carr had sketched in the early “New Vision.”

 

Discovering New States of Consciousness: Intoxications and NYC Drug Scene

 

who got busted in their pubic beards returning through Laredo with a belt of marijuana for New York

Ginsberg’s relationship with drugs would be defined as something more like an experiment than participation in an actual drug scene. Indeed, Ginsberg was never seriously “hung up” on any drugs, and he constantly maintained a will to avoid habit. According to Ginsberg’s journal, he had never gotten drunk before entering Columbia, and Morgan reports that when Lucien Carr, on his first meeting with Ginsberg,  proposed that the two go out drinking in the Village, Ginsberg “planned it all out in advance so he could get the most from the experience.”  In a letter to his brother, Ginsberg compared getting drunk to a chemistry experiment (Morgan 39). This was his first experience with intoxicating substances.  Ginsberg soon brought a similar experimental approach to other drugs. He tried a number of different substances, which were sometimes easily provided by his new friend William Burroughs, who frequented the New York drug scene much more deeply than Ginsberg.[5]

“It was Allen’s opinion that one could understand Baudelaire only if one had similar experiences with drugs and the same compulsion to take them.”(Morgan 77) Ginsberg had certainly found Baudelaire’s thoughts about drugs in the latter’s Les Paradis Artificiels (1860) which dealt mainly with experiences of hashish and (partly inspired by Thomas de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater) opium. We can see here how Ginsberg tried to stand in a kind of tradition of Bohemianism and cast himself as a poète maudit who consumed drugs as a literary experiment. Later in his career, Ginsberg wrote several poems either directly relating a drug experience or at least obviously referring to a psychedelic experience, and many of them were written under the influence of drugs such as mescaline and LSD.  His admiration for Baudelaire and Baudelaire’s “ideal” (travel, intoxications, women, poetry) is easily recognizable in Ginsberg’s own youth (certainly replacing women with men, or more generally sensuality).  Ginsberg saw similar qualities in Rimbaud, who treated drugs as a means to poetic experiences and (unlike de Quincey or Burroughs) never got really addicted to any of them. The very famous lines from Rimbaud’s letter to Paul Demeny (May 15, 1871) – also known as “the seer letter” – is quite relevant concerning Ginsberg’s own use of drugs: “ One must be a seer. The poet makes himself a seer with a long, huge and reasoned unsettling of all senses” (Rimbaud, Fowlie and Whidden #). This idea to use drugs as an “unsettled” of the senses in order to enter another state of consciousness, to alter one’s perception and provoke new visions, is thoroughly descriptive of Rimbaud, Baudelaire and Ginsberg’s conception of drugs[6].

The quest for visions became even more important for Ginsberg after a formative, mystic experience in his Harlem room in 1948–the renowned “Blake-vision” in which Ginsberg William Blake’s voice after reading and rereading the poem “Ah Sun-flower!” and failing each time to understand it. Morgan reports that just after the auditory hallucination, “Allen was intensely alive and alert for those few minutes” as “the entire universe was revealed to him”(Morgan 103). Although no drug was involved in this experience, Ginsberg’s use of drugs actually increased after the vision since he tried to provoke it again, especially by mingling drugs and other mind stimuli such as music.  Listening to jazz while smoking marijuana became one of his privileged ways to seek for visions. The turning of music into visions that Ginsberg sought when smoking pot while listening to jazz may be seen as a first intuition of his poetics of visions that pervaded his thought later[7].

In 1966 Ginsberg delivered the so-called “U.S. Senate Statement” (officially reported as “Statement of Allen Ginsberg, Poet, New York City, Hearing Before a Special Subcommittee of the Committee on the Judiciary – U.S. Senate), in which he extensively described his many experiences with drugs and the value he gave them. He refers early in the statement  to the Blake experience, as “a crucial experience . . . that deepened [his] life” (Ginsberg and Morgan 67). He then states that after this vision he took peyote several times and declares: “In 1955, I wrote a poem describing this, a text which is now taught in many universities – a central part of the poem called “Howl” was written when I was in a state of consciousness altered . . .  by peyote”(Ginsberg and Morgan 70). Ginsberg endeavors to be an advocate of psychotropic experiences, pointing out to the Senate that he is now a much-respected author whose texts written under the influence of drugs are recognized as valuable literary objects by the academy, which Ginsberg suggests means that society in general should logically recognize the literary value of psychedelics. Ginsberg continued to explored the effects of drugs throughout his life, recording his experiences in journals, and one should not underestimate the influence of these experiences upon his poetry.  (The entire second part of his collected prose writing, Deliberate Prose, deals with the “Drug Culture.”)

 

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Ginsberg, in New York in the 1960s, demonstrating in favor of the legalization of marijuana

 


Being Queer in NYC: Sexual Confusion, Romance and Affirmation

 

who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy

I shall briefly focus here on the question of homosexuality concerning the formation of the poet. One should at once note that New York City was not the most hostile place for the gay community. However, if society – and especially the student community – tended to accept homosexuality, the official authorities and part of the society were still reactionary concerning this reality and Ginsberg had great difficulties affirming his sexuality and openly declaring himself “queer” among his friends, even if some of them were queer as well, or at least keeping a sexual ambiguity: Burroughs was openly homosexual (it is clearly stated and enacted in Junkie, and of course in the sequel significantly called Queer), Carr was most probably bisexual and he kept this ambiguous status since he had had this pseudo-romance with older David Kammerer that ended tragically with Carr stabbing Kammerer to death; and Neal Cassady – that Ginsberg met in 1947 – was also sexually ambiguous: Ginsberg fall in love with him at once and they had for a while frequent and regular sexual intercourses. Only Kerouac seemed to be totally straight and not too much confused by his sexuality. Therefore one could wonder why, in such a group of friends, Ginsberg had so much difficulty to come out. Anyway, Ginsberg’s sexuality in the 1940s is characterized by discovery and confusion, which had a major impact mainly on his early poetry. As Morgan ironically states it, “sex was the most interesting, mysterious, and exciting thing that Ginsberg discovered at college”(Morgan 36). However, his difficulties to find a real lover led young Ginsberg to very frequent melancholia periods and depressions. His journals of the 1940s – before his meeting with Peter Orlovsky who was to be his lover and with who he kept a strong relationship for all his life – is crowded with tormented laments, suicidal thoughts, such as “my mind is crazed by homosexuality” (quoted by Raskin 152). A significant fact can be noted concerning the Carr/Kammerer affair previously evoked. According to Raksin, this repeatedly told story, more than simply entering into the book of legends of the Beat Generation, is also an event that “shaped Ginsberg”: ‘it taught him, at the age of nineteen, about the persecution of homosexuals in America […], it was dangerous to be a homosexual, certainly as it was dangerous to be a communist.”(Raskin 53) What leads Raskin to this statement is the way Carr defended himself during the trial and succeeded in being sentenced to only 18 months of prison. Indeed, he concealed his bisexuality and portrayed Kammerer as an aggressive homosexual predator stalking the innocent young student he said he was.

 

5GinsbergOrlovsky1955

Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky, 1955

 

Concerning the poetic bearings of Ginsberg’s sexuality, his confusion and his longing for a homosexual romance gave one of the major themes of his early poems written in the 1940s, such as 1947 “A Further Proposal” where he stands as a romantic figure giving a poetic dimension to love (“Come live with me and be my love / And we will some old pleasures prove. / Men like me have paid in verse / This costly courtesy, or curse;”), but also “A Lover’s Garden” and “Love Letter” (both written in1947 and having Cassady as loved subject).[8]

After his meeting with Orlovsky and the setting of a stable relationship, Ginsberg let the theme of confusion and longing for a true lover being replaced by affirmation – if not pride – of his queerness, as embodied by the quotation from Howl opening this part, especially the very provocative “and screamed with joy” which was most probably judged even more obscene than the very fact of being “fucked in the ass”. Howl is crowded with other references to homosexual sex, and this motif was to remain a leitmotiv in Ginsberg’s work. Another dimension one could take into account to understand Ginsberg’s acceptance of his homosexuality may be a literary dimension in the sense that he may have found a literary pride to be a homosexual poet imitating two of his model: Rimbaud and Whitman[9].

 

Dancing Words with Bebop: the Intuition of a Jazz-Poetry Wedding

 

and rose reincarnate in the ghostly clothes of jazz in the goldhorn shadow of the band and blew the suffering of America’s naked mind for love into an eli eli lamma lamma sabacthani saxophone cry that shivered the cities down to the last radio

In the 1930s, Ginsberg received a musical education. He took violin and piano lessons when he was nine, but rather reluctantly. His real musical education was in fact due to his parent’s taste for classical music, and Ginsberg – rather early in his life – got then acquainted with music, especially Mozart and Rosa Ponsalle operas which he learned to enjoy. (Morgan 17). By the late 1930s, his taste for classical music developed (adding Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Chopin, Schubert and Wagner to his listening’s). Little by little he also leaned toward swing music, Johnny Messner’s popular song “Alexander the Swoose” is reported by Morgan to be particularly liked by Ginsberg.

However, the decisive turning point for Ginsberg concerning his musical sensibility most probably happened during his Columbia years in the 1940s. As I evoked before, he met during the winter of 1943 Lucien Carr with whom he developed a strong relationship. Morgan reports that he actually met Carr through music, as Ginsberg – being nearly alone in the dormitory – was attracted in Carr’s room by Brahms’s Trio no.1 that he could hear from his room. Anyway, Morgan also states that “One thing they shared from the beginning was a love of music” (Morgan 37). Carr knowing much more than Ginsberg about music, he became a sort of mentor for him, completing his knowledge and appreciation of classical music, and awakening his taste for jazz; this education being facilitated by the fact that New York City offered then the opportunity to explore and enjoy its numerous jazz bars.

As discussed before, he had discovered the effects of marijuana with Cassady, and he experienced the association of grass with music, jazz especially: mainly Lester Young, Illinois Jacquet, Gene Krupa, Dizzy Gillespie and Count Basie. By the late 1940s Ginsberg had completed his jazz taste with other names such as Billie Holiday, Lenny Tristano, Dinah Washington or the group Three Bips and a Bop. This group along with Jacquet, Gillespie and Tristano embodies his taste for bebop jazz that was to strengthen in the next few years. In the summer 1947, Ginsberg underwent a depression, as he felt left alone in Denver. He found in jazz a haven to escape it, a diversion, which most certainly had the effect to consolidate his relation with music, which is embodied by the lines he wrote there to a friend in New York, Paul Bertram: “Listen to the jazz for what they are, the life force and profundity of personality as distinct from formal exposition of personality and old cultural forms” (quoted by Morgan 89).

This relation Ginsberg had with jazz – and music in general – deeply influenced his poetry, as the experience he drew from music paralleled his views on poetry. Indeed, he found in the developing Bebop jazz the aesthetic disorder created by the spontaneity of improvisation. The frantic aspect of a musician blowing his chorus corresponded in his mind to the way to write, a characteristic of the Beat writing also relevant for Kerouac, as stressed by Barry Wallenstein: “The jazz of the beats was bebop, and among their heroes were Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonius Monk. As bebop expanded jazz’s possibilities, it also provided the model of spontaneous composition that Kerouac and his circle followed.”(Wallenstein 612). Concerning Ginsberg’s poetry, he has acknowledged the influence of this kind of jazz. In the “Note Written on Finally Recording Howl”, he wrote:

By 1955 I wrote poetry […] arranged by phrasing or breath groups into little short-line patterns […]. So the fist line of Howl […] the whole first section typed out madly in one afternoon, a tragic custard-pie comedy of wild phrasing, meaningless images for the beauty of abstract poetry of mind running along making awkward combinations […], long saxophone-like chorus lines I knew Kerouac would hear sound of. (Ginsberg and Morgan 229)

He also evoke in these lines a “bardic breath” and the word “who” “to keep the beat” Once again one can find the idea of spontaneity. However, what also come out here is the “meaningless images” and the “abstract poetry”. The idea is to push the musical – sounding – dimension beyond the meaning, just like bebop jazz pushes its musical prosody beyond harmony and melody to reach for an elemental sound of music. The tends towards abstract poetry putting the emphasis primarily on sound may have found its origins for Ginsberg in his meeting with Carl Solomon in Greystone Hospital in the late 1940s. Indeed, Solomon introduced Ginsberg to the book Introduction à une nouvelle musique et une nouvelle poésie (“Introduction to a New Music and a New Poetry”) by Isidore Isou published in 1947, both a theoretical and poetical attempt to push poetry toward abstraction and pure sound, especially with the creation of words without meaning except the one we can infer from their sound. Another element descriptive of Ginsberg’s poetical music is the idea of breath. In this respect, Jacques Darras explains that Howl is a breathing poem since each verse (or paragraph, most often introduced by “who”) represents one instrumental blow – one breath (Darras). Reading – playing – the poem out loud then turns out to be a physical performance, just like a jazz session. Finally, the beating dimension of words used by Ginsberg is not to be underestimated. One of the most particular aspects of Ginsberg’s poetry is most certainly his use of anaphora. Anaphoric repetition then often stands as a beat for the poem (as Ginsberg has acknowledged it concerning the “who” in Howl), around which he plays a spontaneous chorus.

To conclude this part, an interesting fact may be noticed, as Wallenstein points it out: “A major irony of the beat movement, which has not been noticed, is that, despite its emulation of black culture, its practitioners were almost exclusively white. Anthologists of the period have to search far in order to include a few black poets, such as LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) and Ted Joans.”(Wallenstein 612) This is particularly true in the 1940s and 1950s at the moment Ginsberg received this musical influence and first tried to transcribe it into poems. Black poets like Baraka may be associated with the beat movement later, in the 1960s. And in this respect, Meta du Ewa Jones restates this musical filiation of white poets among black poets performers, seeking even further in the past the black origins of the beat poets:

While Black writers reflected the Beat’s influence […], writers such as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, whether they acknowledged it or not, were benefiting from the technical innovations – in live jazz poetry performance and its written counterparts – established by Langston Hughes and others who had experimented with the translation of a jazz ethos into a poetic aesthetic. (Jones 71)

 

6CharlieParker1949

Charlie Parker, 1949

Charlie Parker in 1949


 

Conclusion: “The real posthumous son of Whitman” getting free

 

who dreamt and made incarnate gaps in Time & Space through images juxtaposed, and trapped the archangel of the soul between 2 visual images and joined the elemental verbs and set the noun and dash of consciousness together jumping with sensation of Pater Omnipotens Aeterna Deus
to recreate the syntax and measure of poor human prose and stand before you speechless and intelligent and shaking with shame, rejected yet confessing out the soul to conform to the rhythm of thought in his naked and endless head

Mrs. Durbin at Eastside High School was the first to introduce Ginsberg to Walt Whitman and Hart Crane. When Ginsberg entered Columbia University, he considered Whitman as the best American poet, along with Carl Sandburg. In the 1971 compilation of thoughts of divers writers Attacks of Taste[10], Ginsberg evokes his early influence: “Hart Crane’s Atlantis also hypnotized me with its mighty rhyme”. He also evokes Blake’s poems and Rimbaud.(Ginsberg and Morgan 208). From the last two, Ginsberg was to borrow their poetics of visions mingled with the “bardic” voice more specifically from Blake (“Hear the voice of the Bard/ Who present past and future sees” Blake wrote in the introduction poem of his Songs of Experience). From Crane and Sandburg, Ginsberg most probably saw two admirers of the whitmanesque verse, a filiation he also perceived in William Carlos Williams with who he developed a genuine poetic relationship. Jacqueline Saunier-Ollier explored this filiation between these three poets and affirms that Ginsberg stands as “the real posthumous son of Whitman”. She then explain: “For Ginsberg has everything of Whitman: the verbal flow, the prophetic dimension, the visionary power and of course the form.” (Saunier-Ollier 102). Williams was consequently a bridge between Whitman and Ginsberg, at first constantly hesitating between two influences (Pound and Whitman, “order and disorder, discipline and freedom, Kulchur and nature” (Saunier-Ollier 95), and then at the end of his career and under the influence of Ginsberg – the young poet who came to him seeking for advice – definitely chose the whitmanesque spontaneity and cosmic dimension as especially enacted in The Desert Music and Paterson V. Indeed, in 1950 Williams wrote to Robert Lowell:

I haven’t written a poem in a year. I’ve become interested in a young poet Allen Ginsberg, of Paterson – who is coming to personify the place for me. Maybe there’ll be a 5th book of Paterson embodying everything I’ve learned of ‘the line’ to date. […] I must make the new meter out of the whole cloth. […] I want to see the unknown shine, like a sunrise. I want to see that overpowering mastery that will inundate the whole scene penetrate to that last jungle. (Letter to Robert Lowell, cited by Saunier-Ollier 101)

The way Williams mingles here his evocation of Ginsberg and his will to set “the new meter” is quite significant, moreover as he uses a cosmic writing conveying Whitman’s voice. Ginsberg was also to remember and use this cosmic writing, full of the entire world, immensity if not infinity, an epic and prodigious ecstasy. It seems that the relationship between Whitman and Williams is somehow retroactive, as this influence became clearly visible after younger Ginsberg was himself influenced by Whitman and passed it back to Williams. This very fact that Ginsberg was able to influence a more experimented poet to whom he had first come for help certainly embodies how already powerful was his use of the whitmanesque American verse recreating “the syntax and measure of poor human prose”and conforming withthe rhythm of thought in his naked and endless head”.

From these diverse influences, Ginsberg shaped his first intuition of continuing this filiation in the “New Vision” manifesto. Then, with the influence of music, his quest for visions and a literary emulation coming from a whole generation expecting something new from America (“America when will you be angelic?” asks Ginsberg in the poem “America”), Ginsberg certainly participated in giving a sense of freedom to the American verse, in a “sensation of Pater Omnipotens Aeterna Deus”: the divine status of the poet being able to create forever more language.

 

 

Works Cited

 

On the Poetry of Allen Ginsberg. Under Discussion. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1984. Print.

Darras, Jean Pierre. Allen Ginsberg: La Voix. Paris: J.-M. Place, 2002. Print.

Genter, Robert. “”I’m Not His Father”: Lionel Trilling, Allen Ginsberg, and the Contours of Literary Modernism.” College Literature 31.2 (2004): 22-52. Print.

Ginsberg, Allen. The Letters of Allen Ginsberg. 1st Da Capo Press ed ed. Philadelphia, PA: Da Capo Press, 2008. Print.

—. Selected Poems, 1947-1995. New York: Perennial, 2001. Print.

Ginsberg, Allen, and Barry Miles. Howl: Original Draft Facsimile, Transcript and Variant Versions, Fully Annotated by Author, with Contemporaneous Correspondence, Account of First Public Reading, Legal Skirmishes, Precursor Texts and Bibliography. New York, NY: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2006. Print.

Ginsberg, Allen, and Bill Morgan. Deliberate Prose: Selected Essays, 1952-1995. New York: Perennial, 2001. Print.

Groden, Michael, Martin Kreiswirth, and Imre Szeman 1968. The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory & Criticism. Baltimore, Md: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005.

Jones, Meta DuEwa. “Jazz Prosodies: Orality and Textuality.” Callaloo 25.1 (2002): 66-91. Print.

Morgan, Bill. I Celebrate Myself: The Somewhat Private Life of Allen Ginsberg. New York: Viking, 2006. Print.

Portugés, Paul. The Visionary Poetics of Allen Ginsberg. Santa Barbara, CA: Ross-Erikson, 1978. Print.

Raskin, Jonah. American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and the Making of the Beat Generation. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004. Print.

Rimbaud, Arthur, Wallace Fowlie, and Seth Adam Whidden 1969. Rimbaud: Complete Works, Selected Letters: A Bilingual Edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Saunier-Ollier, Jacqueline. “Whitman, Williams, Ginsberg: Histoire D’une Filiation.” Revue française d’études américaines.5 (1978): 93-108. Print.

Wallenstein, Barry. “Poetry and Jazz: A Twentieth-Century Wedding.” Black American Literature Forum 25.3 (1991): 595-620. Print.

 

Notes

 

[1] This phrase may be understood in the sense that Ginsberg felt a lack of poetic cohesion with his own father, and felt uncomfortable asking for advices from him. As he explained to Trilling in a letter in 1945 : “my father and I differ so violently on poetic method that I hesitate to ask him for advice and criticism” (quoted by Genter, p.27)

[2] Why, then, choosing Rockland? Raskin put it on the fact that “Rockland sounded far more menacing than Pilgrim State – it was a cold hard place, not a place for pilgrims”(Ginsberg Selected Poems, 1947-1995 62) .

[3] Ginsberg makes a reference to Cannastra and his death in Howl: “who sang out of their windows in despair, fell out of the subway window, jumped in the filthy Passaic, leaped on negroes, cried all over the street, danced on broken wineglasses barefoot smashed phonograph records of nostalgic European 1930s German jazz finished the whisky and threw up groaning into the bloody toilet, moans in their ears and the blast of colossal steamwhistles,” It is here interesting to note how Ginsberg chose to reverse the course of the events of Canastra’s life.

[4] Here is the reaction of Jerry Cimino, founder of the Beat Museum in San Francisco, about the rediscovery of the letter: http://www.kerouac.com/blog/2014/11/neal-cassadys-joan-anderson-letter-found/

[5] Burroughs stands here as the contrastive element when I speak of the experimental aspect of Ginsberg’s uses of drugs; Burroughs had in this respect a very different relation with drugs – addiction and dependence – and really frequented New York drug scene and underworld of the late 1940s and 1950s as narrated in the first pages of his novel Junkie.

[6]It is in this respect quite significant to remenber that the literary revolution that Ginsberg sketched and tried to formulate in a first time with Carr, Burroughs and Kammerer was given the name of “New Visions” (though inspired at first by Yeats’ “A Vision”.)

[7] Paul Portugés developed many aspects of this visionary seeking poetry in his book The Visionary Poetics of Allen Ginsberg (Portugés, Paul. The Visionary Poetics of Allen Ginsberg. Santa Barbara, CA: Ross-Erikson, 1978. Print)

[8] These three poems are actually imitations of respectively John Donne, Christopher Marlowe and Andrew Marvell (Ginsberg and Morgan 208).

[9]Though this assumption has been discussed, Whitman is generally assumed to have been bisexual if not homosexual.

[10] Evelyn B. Byrne and Otto M. Plenzer, eds. Attacks of Taste (New York : Gotham Book Mart, 1971).

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