as I walk towards the Lower East Side – where you walked 50 years ago, little girl – from Russia, eating the
first poisonous tomatoes of America – frightened on the dock –
then struggling in the crowds of Orchard Street toward what? – toward Newark –
toward candy store, first home-made sodas of the century, hand-churned ice
cream in the backroom on musty brownfloor boards –
Toward education marriage nervous breakdown, operation, teaching school,
and learning to me mad, in a dream – what is this life?
Allen Ginsberg wrote over 1000 poems in his lifetime. Some were sonnets, some ballads. Most were free verse, with a Whitmanesque form and imagery that recalled William Blake, Shakespeare, and Arthur Rimbaud at their best. Ginsberg’s erotic poems resembled those of e.e. cummings and D.H Lawrance, except they were edgier and more prolific. He explored dreamscapes and madness, life and death, love and loss. Ginsberg explored just about any theme using his literary processors to guide him, while simultaneously creating a new style that was unique to himself.
The Beat Generation birthed a new literary aesthetic. What does this mean? They used words in different ways in order to reflect changes in society, in politics, in nationality, and in the human condition. The Cold War, an era the spanned the 1950s into the late 60s, was an age of terror. The Communist threat pervaded suburban homes throughout America. Xenophobia, homophobia, misogyny: all of these were stark realities during this time. Ginsberg, along with Beat writers Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso, Michael McClure, Amiri Bakara, and Kenneth Rexroth, and Ken Kesey (to name a few) wrote works that took the pro-offensive against fear of any kind.
The Beats were just that: writers who spoke about and against fear. Check out Kenneth Rexroth’s “Thou Shalt Not Kill: A Memorial for Dylan Thomas”:
A poem about war and the fear of conscription. Rexroth wrote the during the Vietnam war, when conscription was forcing young men to go to war, regardless of their consent. Rexroth’s dedication to Dylan Thomas echoes Thomas’s own opposition to war, galvanized in Thomas’s poem, “The Hand that Signed the Paper”:
Thomas, like his successors, the Beats, broke form to create new form, which enabled a new aesthetic for a new era. The Beats wrote mostly in free verse because they usually performed their poetry. Similar to the rise of West Indian poets at the time, who migrated to New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans (not surprisingly, the big jazz cities at the time), the Beats wrote to a beat. If their poetry was protesting some issue or another, it was like a jazz rift. Jack Kerouac’s poetry collection, Mexico City Blues, explores the intersection of Japanese Haiku, Harlem jazz, and Taoism: a wildly beatific combination that influenced the likes of Charles Bukowski, a post-Beat poet (his aesthetic was the lovechild of Kerouac and William Burroughs – a drunken lovechild at that).
The lives of poets inform their poetry. In the case of the Beats, their lives were burdened by the media (or perhaps the mainstream popular culture), who demanded some reasoning with these leftist, non-conformist, bohemian, freaks. Freaks with talent. Rebels with causes. The 50s was a conformist age in America. An age of complacency and conformity. Liberal attitudes were questioned, perhaps even suspected as dangerous.
And the Beats couldn’t care less. In fact, their ‘performance’ as artists (if you want to call being an artist a social performance) was to be apathetic to authority, especially authority that demanded submission of any sort. Madness was a common theme in the content and form of their works. A mad style of writing was symptomatic of a shackled mind, caged and beaten down by society. The Beats worshipped nature, since nature was the opposite of society, or the opposite of everything man-made. Poet Gary Snyder best exemplified this worship in his works, which were influenced by Whitman and Henry David Thoreau:
Ah to be alive
on a mid-September morn
fording a stream
barefoot, pants rolled up,
holding boots, pack on,
sunshine, ice in the shallows,
Rustle and shimmer of icy creek waters
stones turn underfoot, small and hard as toes
cold nose dripping
creek music, heart music,
smell of sun on gravel.
I pledge allegiance
I pledge allegiance to the soil
of Turtle Island,
and to the beings who thereon dwell
under the sun
With joyful interpretation for all
Nature provided an escape. Nature enabled transcendence.
In a sense, the Beats were the Neo-Romantics, or Neo-Transcendentalists. Their confessional works encouraged expression from the reader, breaking down the emotional boundaries constructed by society. The Western literary tradition has been influenced and guided by so many schools. Poetry becomes institutionalized without the interference of some rebel poets, who desired poetry to be felt, not studied, nor appropriated.
Ginsberg’s “Howl” is a good example. The poem uses free verse form and ‘unofficial language’ to express the tensions of the time; tensions that were creating madness, or as Ginsberg portrays it a stark-raving King Lear type of madness. Recall Lear’s “Howl” soliloquy in Act V.iii of Shakespeare’s King Lear:
Howl, howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stones:
Had I your tongues and eyes, I’d use them so
That heaven’s vault should crack. She’s gone for ever!
I know when one is dead, and when one lives;
She’s dead as earth. Lend me a looking-glass;
If that her breath will mist or stain the stone,
Why, then she lives.
Lear’s maddening howl to the insane world reflects a man – no, a king of men – driven mad by his own people. The maddening world that Shakespeare wrote about was the maddening world faced by Ginsberg: a world of bombs, war, violence, insensitivity, phobia, and fear – all of which were blanketed by social ideologies and nationalism.
The Beats weren’t so mad, really. The world was. Perhaps the old adage is still true, that the inmates are the ones running the asylum. Ginsberg’s, “Kaddish,” speaks of his mother’s loss of sanity, her struggle with schizophrenia, and her eventual frontal lobotomy – a procedure that Ginsberg had to sign for. “Kaddish” intentionally struggles with form. It is wild and unconventional; frustrating the reader with twist and turns of poetry and prose. Yet, in the poem there are moments of complete realization. Through the scattered words with their scattered meaning comes perception. In the following passage, Ginsberg recites a letter left by his mother to him, just after she arrived at the asylum:
The key is in the window, the key is in the sunlight at the window
I have the key-Get married Allen don’t take drugs-the key
is in the bars, in the sunlight in the window.
In spite of her insanity, she was still a mother: “Get married Allen don’t take drugs.” The “key” symbolized all the answers to life – all the answers that parents wish to give their children (at least, that’s how I read it). And the key is invisible.
Ginsberg understood madness and he knew that institutions didn’t help suffering. Perhaps that is why he sought poetry and performance. Confessional performance allowed the expression of private feelings in a very public place, thus, connecting the public and private spaces that were so finely divided by social normatives (normatives that put his mother in an asylum and tried to ‘cure’ her by helping her lose her mind). Ginsberg, along with his Beat fellows, used form to protest, cure, and create. Perhaps even to heal memories of a lost generation, destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked on every street at dawn.