Like his immediate predecessor and greatest influence Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg was a seminal, universal poet. Ginsberg’s seminality was of a different kind than Whitman’s, however. Both poets had similar approaches and world views, but their influence was different largely due to historical/cultural context.
So much has already been written about Ginsberg’s life and work that it would be redundant of me to repeat it here. Instead, my goal is to point out those aspects of his that characterize the universal poet. If I had to describe Ginsberg in two words, I’d use “open” and “expansive.” He drew his strength from an ever-expanding ego that identified with humanity.
There is little doubt that Ginsberg had a profound influence on both American and international literature. He consciously adapted the world view and methods of Whitman, acknowledged in excerpts from one of his last collections, Cosmopolitan Greetings – Poems 1986-1992:
I write poetry because Walt Whitman gave world permission to speak
I write poetry because Walt Whitman opened up poetry’s verse-line for
* * *
I write poetry to talk back to Whitman, young people in ten years, talk
to old aunts and uncles still living near Newark, New Jersey.
* * *
I write poetry because Chuang-tzu couldn’t tell whether he was butterfly or
man, Lao-tzu said water flows downhill, Confucius said honor elders, I
wanted to honor Whitman.
* * *
I write poetry because Walt Whitman said, “Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”
from Improvisation in Beijing
Ginsberg departs from Whitman in his lifelong devotion to other poets whom he admired. He was adept at promotion like Whitman, but he focused it more on promoting
the work of others than Whitman did. Few of these poets had Ginsberg’s energy or talent, but that never seemed to bother him. Many of these poets would not have come to widespread recognition had they not been associated with Ginsberg, but beyond that, Ginsberg himself wouldn’t have been as recognizable if he wasn’t (along with the reluctant Jack Kerouac) the leader of a literary and social movement. Indeed, his influence on society went far beyond literature.
His humanistic perspective had its roots in the ideas of his parents. His mother was a Marxist and his father a poet/schoolteacher. He came from a family of Russian Jews who were politically active and humanistically oriented.
Ginsberg was influenced by Kerouac more than any other peer. Kerouac’s theory that the “first thought is the best thought” intrigued Ginsberg, who frequently attempted to write spontaneously, seldom with the success of his longer, carefully wrought early poems like Howl and Kaddish. When he was spontaneous, he was often silly. He wrote poems that were simple rhymes, often single-layered, humorous or even sarcastic. Like Whitman, Ginsberg’s best poems were long-lined barrages of imagery and direct, declarative statement. But, his shorter, more spontaneous poems (again like Whitman) reveal a more personal side of him. For all his campaigning, he still tried not to take himself too seriously.
Like Whitman, Ginsberg wasn’t accepted by the academy or the established literati until after he became the most popular poet in America. Like Whitman, he took his case directly to the people.
The “beatnik” phenomena, which began in the fifties in the bohemian Greenwich Village of New York City and quickly spread to San Francisco’s North Beach, deeply affected the post-war baby boomers and transmogrified into the hippie youth culture of the sixties that produced major paradigm changes in music, politics, race relations and social values. Allen Ginsberg was a seminal figure in all of it, going far beyond the norm for the influence of any other poet of his time or of poets in general. His openness about his sexuality foreshadowed the gender pride movement of today, and he asserted that the role of the poet should be to influence mankind toward greater tolerance and altruism.
Significantly, the Beatniks
entered the consciousness of the baby boom generation before the literary
Beats. I was in Junior High School (AKA
“Middle School”) when a half-hour sitcom, Dobie Gillis, captured the
imaginations of adolescents with its Beatnik character Maynard G. Krebs (played
by Bob Denver). Maynard had a chin
beard, wore a black sweater with the sleeves pushed up and sneakers. He played a bongo drum and used hip
jargon. He called everyone “man” and
objected to work of any kind with a loud “Work!” He was the perfect cartoon Beatnik and
completely stole the show from the main character. It wasn’t long before a small group of the
more creative kids at my school began playing the bongo drums, talking and
dressing like Maynard G. Krebs. When
High School came the next year, phase two began.
Some of us were into reading and writing, and the fun of the Beatnik thing morphed us into receptors for the literary Beats. A group of us used to go into the city often, making
the rounds of the bookstores, going to the Art Museum (which had no entry fee then) and identifying as budding Bohemian artist types. The boys grew sparse chin beards and the girls had long, straight hair. Both wore black almost exclusively. On one such excursion, I bought a trade paperback, The Beats, an anthology edited by Seymour Krim. This book proved to be the final piece of the puzzle. Writers weren’t bookish nerds as we had gathered from the sneers of our more conformist peers, they were cool! Especially the one named Allen Ginsberg. He was the quintessential Beat, and he captured our attention like no other. Then we read Howl.
The worldwide effect of Howl alone would quality Ginsberg as a great poet. But he did much more than that. He inspired a generation to transcend convention and conformity. Ginsberg told us it was okay, even admirable, to forge your own trail. This is the message that made him the most influential poet of his time.
Sure, the Life Magazine article featuring Ginsberg’s performance of Howl in San Francisco’s Gallery Six had already been published, alerting the adults, but we baby boomers were early teens. We didn’t read Life Magazine. But we watched Dobie Gillis. Maynard G. Krebs led us to Allen Ginsberg. While this may seem like a tenuous and even superficial premise, I know that this was indeed the route for the post-war generation that eventually became hippies. The social contagion was first, and those of us with a literary bent combined the influences. I believe my experience to be representational because I was born in 1948, which was the big bump of the baby boom, with more people born than any other year of that period. Ginsberg was always a pop star. His popularity opened the way for his poetry, and for that of numerous others of his own generation and those to follow.
Like Whitman before him, Ginsberg’s approach had wide popular appeal because it emphasized social content that related to real people and was not decorous or obscure, but relied instead on strong rhythm, repetition and direct, declarative statements.
It is well known that Ginsberg worked diligently his whole life to promote himself, a wide variety of other writers and a large number of social causes. Like Whitman, he firmly believed that the role of the poet goes far beyond the merely literary. His ego was expansive and, like the confessionalists, he felt strongly that openness and candor have both cathartic and healing value. Kaddish is the greatest “confessional poem” ever written, far superior to anything by Lowell, Plath, Snodgrass or Olds because it is also a complex love poem. The poem is more about his mother than him.
By the time of the Gallery Six reading which debuted Howl to the world, he had already begun connecting with other avant garde poetry scenes. The Beat movement began in New York’s Greenwich Village, expanded to San Francisco’s North Beach, and quickly spread throughout the major cities of America. Ginsberg’s purpose (and sense of humor, greater than Whitman’s) had already been broadcasted in his famous early poem America:
America you don’t really want to go to war.
America it’s them bad Russians.
Them Russians them Russians and them Chinamen. And them Russians.
The Russia wants to eat us alive. The Russia’s power mad. She wants to
take our cars from out our garages.
Her wants to grab Chicago. Her needs a Red Reader’s Digest. Her wants our
auto plants in Siberia. Him big bureaucracy running our fillingstations.
That no good. Ugh. Him make Indians learn read. Him need big black
niggers. Hah. Her make us all work sixteen hours a day. Help.
American this is quite serious.
American this is the impression I get from looking in the television set.
America is this correct?
I’d better get right down to the job.
It’s true I don’t want to join the Army or turn lathes in precision parts
factories, I’m nearsighted and psychopathic anyway.
America I’m putting my queer should to the wheel.
My first direct experience of Ginsberg came in 1972, when he was a featured poet at the 2nd National Poetry Festival sponsored by my alma mater Grand Valley State University. I was asked to give a reading on one of the evenings of the week-long event, and Ginsberg was in the audience three rows back to my left. I couldn’t take my eyes off him and I’m afraid I read almost exclusively directly to him. He smiled his encouragement throughout, and I can still see his face clearly in my memory. There were a number of famous poets in that audience, but I had eyes only for him because I was so impressed with his poetic/social act to that date. He exuded unmistakable warmth and charisma. When he entered a room, all eyes were on him.
The next time I saw him (also at GVSU a few years later), I attended a workshop he gave. We sat on the floor in a circle and Allen led us in chanting Om.
The last time I saw him, in the late seventies, he played his little harmonium and sang his original blues songs. I remember that his rhythm was good and his singing was a cross between dramatic speech and enthusiastic screech. By then he traveled with an entourage that included Peter Orlovsky and several others. He was a bonafide pop star.
Ginsberg was very impressed with Bob Dylan and developed a relationship with the great poet/musician. I think his development of blues songs and the use of the little harmonium during the final phase of his poetry was mainly inspired by Bob Dylan’s success melding poetry and music (for which Dylan eventually won the Nobel Prize). Ginsberg wanted, above all, to spread the word, and he saw music as a means to that end.
Ginsberg didn’t care much about
having an original style. He was deeply
interested in the Big Picture issues of poetry, such as freedom of speech,
equal rights extending beyond political borders, open mindedness, tolerance and
spirituality. Ginsberg’s personal style reflected his many changing moods and
Although he is not known for his subtlety, there is a subtle, ironic sense of humor that runs through his various approaches to style as a common thread. He understood that style is a superficial difference between poets, but content (and its moral implications) is the fundamental value of poetry. Styles vary, even within the work of one writer. The original Beats (Kerouac, Burroughs, Corso, Di Prima, Ferlinghetti, et al) had little in common on a stylistic level except a tendency toward the first person autobiographical persona, but they shared a belief in personal freedom and open-minded tolerance of others.
He also worked toward mutual understanding between diverse schools of thinking. He knew that the potential of poetry is large enough to “contain multitudes” (Whitman). New York School poets, Black Mountain poets, Deep Imagists, West Coast Meat/Street poets and Language poets were all accepted, promoted and socially connected by Ginsberg, who maintained an extensive mailing list of poets, editors and artists of every leaning. It was poetry itself that Ginsberg championed, and this is a major trait of a true universal poet.
Ginsberg was able to reconcile their wide range of literary approaches, from the spontaneous bop prosody of Kerouac to the cut-ups of Burroughs to the mythological/archetypal breath units of Di Prima, all under one “movement” based on primarily an attitude. That attitude, that “anything goes,” was to become so integrated into
poetic practice that it is now on an assumptive level. Ginsberg appreciated the enormous resource that diversity brings to poetry (and life). His defense of democratic values was at least as great as Whitman’s. The nature of Ginsberg’s seminality was that he influenced others to ‘be themselves’ in their lives and art. He was a one-man Liberation Front.
Above all Ginsberg was a poet of ideas/ideals. He worked with various borrowed styles because content was his priority. He had this in common with Whitman, whose styles were original and innovative, but for whom content was also paramount. Both poets achieved universality primarily through the strength of their democratic ideas. Both conceptualized poetry as an instrument of social progress.
Content is the key to Ginsberg’s seminality. If it was based on style, he wouldn’t have been significant at all. But as a social activist who used poetry as a means of social change, Ginsberg was highly significant and influential.
The elevation of substance over surface is the very essence of a universal poet. Is it any wonder that Whitman and Ginsberg are the two American poets who have achieved the greatest international recognition? Ideas transcend the smoke and mirrors of simple style as evidenced by their greater translatability into other languages. Universal human truths are more powerful than mere cultural differences and pass through border walls as if they are built of mist.
First published in Trajectory,
Cosmopolitan Greetings – Poems 1986-1992; Allen Ginsberg; Harper Perennial; New York, NY; 1995.
Selected Poems 1947-1995; Allen Ginsberg; Perennial Classics; New York, NY; 1996.
The Beats; Seymour Krim; Fawcett Publications, Inc; Robbinsdale, MN; 1960.