In the forward to Wait Till I’m Dead—a selection of Allen Ginsberg’s uncollected poems published earlier this month—Rachel Zucker explains why we should read his poetry: He’s “dangerous! So, come and get some!” and he never disappoints. “Years later,” she writes, “after countless readings, his poems still feel hot to me.” In slightly more adult language, he subverts traditional morals and is stunningly original.
She’s right that almost all of Ginsberg’s poems are about sex or spirituality, which are more or less the same for him (“the endless Being / one creature that gives birth to itself / thrills in its minutest particular”—to give one of the few quotable passages on the topic). When they aren’t, they’re about politics, except “Kaddish” (1960), which is about his mother and is probably his best poem, and various occasional pieces and songs.
But one thing Ginsberg isn’t is original. Or, to put it more accurately, he is original but almost always in the same way.
In his Collected Poems, Ginsberg occasionally shows an excellent ear and an eye for suffering or joy. Poems like “Who Be Kind To” (1965) is, at least initially, a wonderfully practical poem infused with sympathy. “Be kind to your neighbor who weeps / solid tears on the television sofa, / he has no other home, and hears nothing / but the hard voice of telephones,” he writes. Focusing on the smallest details instead of the striking ocean view, “Bixby Canyon Ocean Path Word Breeze” (1971) is an example of concision and evocative description. “Tiny orange-wing-tipped butterfly / fluttering sunlit / from violet / blossom to violet / blossom,” Ginsbergs writes, “red brambled mature sour / blackberry briars, / yellow budded / Lupine / nodding stalkheads / in Sunwarm’d / breezes.”
But his work as a whole is surprisingly predictable. “Howl” (1956), his most celebrated poem, may have been new in its assimilation of various influences and its use of smut. Following the surrealists, it combines religious language with vulgarity and uses clashing noun phrases instead of narrative, replacing end rhyme (which Ginsberg used regularly in his early work) with Walt Whitman’s catalogs (the repetition of a single word to begin each line). After “Howl,” however, these techniques overwhelm almost every poem. Once the drumbeat of noun phrases takes hold of Ginsberg’s mind, there’s nothing to do but wait until the fit passes.
“Wichita Vortex Sutra,” for example, is one of his better efforts in his effusive, chanting, semi-disconnected, Whitmanesque style. Still the oscillation between an accumulation of clauses and catalogs can be tiresome. “I life my voice aloud,” Ginsberg writes in one section, “make Mantra of American language now, / I here declare the end of the War! / Ancient days’ Illusion!— / and pronounce words beginning my own millennium. / Let the States tremble, / let the Nation weep, / let Congress legislate its own delight / let the President execute his own desire— / this Act done by my own voice, / nameless Mystery—.” The not-too-subtle Messianic pose aside, the repetition of sentence structures and certain key words with some variation vaguely mirrors the parallelism of Hebrew poetry. The problem is that, unlike Hebrew poetry, it has the effect of blurring differences and similarities rather than making them clear, transforming the poem into a soup of adjectives and nouns. In the section above, Ginsberg offers a mushy equation of sex and peace and spirituality rather than a meaningful comparison of distinct things.
This happens again and again in his work, but it’s not just Ginsberg’s syntax that’s repetitive. The reader who finds Ginsberg’s phrase “machinery of night” in “Howl” to be wonderfully original will be disappointed to find the construction sprinkled throughout his Collected Poems. We have “Machinery of mass electrical dream,” “machinery of a new toilet,” “frail machinery,” “great machinery,” “remote control machinery,” “milk-house machinery,” and “city machinery,” among many others. There may be “Robot apartments” in “Howl,” but elsewhere there are also “robot ravings,” “robot faces,” “robot signals,” “Robot towers,” “illustrious robots,” “robot obsession” “robot sofas,” “robot proliferation,” “Robot airfields,” “robot pumps,” “robot glove boxes,” and “robot drones,” again among others.
A favorite noun of Ginsberg’s is “meat.” In “Howl,” we have “meat trucks.” That might sound strangely perverse at first, but the phrase loses its punch as we encounter a “clock of meat,” “mad meat,” “Saintly Meat,” “meat-phantom,” “ganja meats,” “Meat God,” “meat hand,” “meat-nest,” “Maya-meat,” “meat walls,” “family meat,” “meat throne,” as well as other “meat-trucks.”
Or there is “vibrating”—a favorite adjective of Ginsberg’s, perhaps unsurprisingly, that refers to the movement of the universe, the song of poetry, and other movements. In “Howl,” trees vibrate, but in other poems, so does the cosmos (repeatedly), meter, geometrical planes, trucks, cheekbones, machines, “foreign mercy,” dollar bills, dashboards, and a copper kettledrum. Even a phrase like “eyeball kicks,” which is almost universally associated with “Howl,” was used a year earlier in “Over Kansas.”
Sometimes the metaphors make sense. Other times, they are an end in themselves, and, freed of any obligation to be meaningful, they are the easiest things to create.
Sex, of course, is in high relief in “Howl,” as it is in Ginsberg’s other poems. A particular word for male genitalia—not including its cognates—appears 104 times over 500 poems. Instances of sex acts are too numerous to count. Bodily fluids spring eternal.
The accumulated effect of all of this, however, is not shock but a numbing boredom. After reading a certain number of Ginsberg’s poems, you can almost predict, as with some Hollywood films, when it will shock our bourgeois sensibilities. Can you be avant-garde and so unintentionally predictable? A question for the ages.
Every writer has a limited bag of tricks. Henry James has his ornate sentences. Frank O’Hara, his proper nouns. Joyce, his parataxis. The problem with Ginsberg’s tricks is that they don’t work, or not anymore, or, if they still do, only partially. The point of his poems is to shock us to some political-spiritual-sexual realization that everything is one. What they do instead, at best, is create a vague sense, to borrow Rachel Zucker’s words, that Ginsberg is “dangerous” and “hot.” But he’s not. This is the problem with a purely subversive poetry. Once the revolution has been won, it’s not worth reading anymore—if it ever was.
All of these missteps are repeated in Wait Till I’m Dead, but there are some shorter concrete poems that shows Ginsberg’s real talent at capturing a mood or feeling indirectly. To give but one example: In “On Farm” (1973), he writes:
Noisy beets boiling in the pressure cooker
Gas mantle mirrored white gold in the window
Answering letters, September first midnight.
Alas, the volume also makes obvious Ginsberg’s pederasty. He had claimed that his affiliation with the notorious North American Man-Boy Love Association in the 1980s was in support of free speech. A handful of poems in Wait Till I’m Dead, which are more explicit on this score than anything in his 1200-page Collected Poems, would suggest otherwise.
There is a Ginsberg who is worth reading, but what he needs is a volume of poems about half the size of the current 480-page Selected Poems—very selective selected poems, and not more uncollected poetry, of which there is apparently still a good amount. The title of the present volume comes from a letter in which Ginsberg wrote: “Want more poems? Wait till I’m dead.” He should have said “Go to Hell.”