Arpine Konyalian Grenier

Ginsberg Waves Back, Smiles

Reading The Poetry and Politics of Allen Ginsberg by Eliot Katz
ISBN 978-0-9934099-0-5; Beatdom Books, 2016
330 Pages, Paperback, $28

So if Ginsberg was 29 years old when he wrote Howl, holy holy; what a shame he passed at 71. You and me and the howl, Allen; and a string of unsuspected questions we rehearse, having served the right side and the left side of an equation, the invisible sides dimmer and dimmer a developing act. Yours was one striking howl among the so many, for which reason it obliges comprehensive, objective and trans-disciplinary approach. Coopting your poetry may otherwise raise brutal capital; we need capital that breathes.

This book is a compendium of Ginsberg stuff, a period study reference resource perhaps. It is said to have come from a late 1990s dissertation. The period is the second half of the 20th century with mild stretches into the first decade of the 21st. It is obvious the author loves to talk about unrest, revolution, celebrated people and what they said and did, and when. The cover photo is fascinating but may fit better inside the book; otherwise sensationalist, therefore insistent on subject; and Ginsberg deserves better. Another (petty?) observation is that the page margin and fullness of text do not complement one another. But this is a well put together volume; it has a preface, followed by chapter 1, the introduction – a mélange of surrealism, modernism, Derrida, Stephen Spender, Hart Crane and the Brooklyn Bridge, and more. An eight point list of what a poem needs to do follows. Then, redundant biographically charged nostalgia, now and then sprinkled with more redundant recounting of events, often self-referential, other times as if the author stands in court for Allen, to validate him, as if.

The author states, “… there has not yet been a serious, book-length attempt to take a deep look at Ginsberg’s politics or at his poetry as political poetry.” He also quotes Paul Carroll, “Ginsberg’s real accomplishments as a poet do not come from his public image or his political and social poems.” Later we read, “But at least from my own personal view, I think it is fair to say that what has resonated most in the minds and imaginations of readers across the planet for over half a century has been the keen sense that here is a poet devoting considerable literary skills and energies to help envision and create a more just, peaceful and egalitarian world.” Ginsberg is attributed to having radicalized youth, to have helped open a wide range of doors to worlds of progressive politics and culture. Katz continues, stating that narrative and reasoned argument develop principles of unity and solidarity; then he mentions the deconstructive approach, and follows with a quote from Terry Eagleton which neutralizes steps towards developing a feasible argument as to art or poetry vis a vis politics. Political views and aesthetic pleasure are important to Katz, he therefore relishes in Ginsberg’s delving into both. This volume will display Ginsberg’s exceptional vision, tools, strategies, imagination, he says. Do we not experience all that in Ginsberg’s work already? Tell us something new, Author. You also say you shall avoid being dogmatic about key aesthetic issues, but your tone and approach do seem so. You then say that the 20th century saw a variety of theories regarding the relationship between poetry and politics; what are they, pray?

Perhaps politics much like poetry is part of the physics of the universe. The unconscious expands. It is bruised matter, often cut, scratched, nicked or notched perhaps, but never severed. Add some conclusion dust to the bit of sound it makes; so then, another candles-plates-wine or candles-wine or just candles and a public throat – life, a ubiquitous carnival encounter.

the momentum skips the hour returned to us colubrine
out there the breeze and nothing else but the howl
a day’s accident before the recording of it
just cause red the menu once more

                thinking beats for syntax from a semantics that never sets
                                              red and blue and white and musical

There is room between Cioran and Celan, also beyond; no need to flagellate within short term views of history and culture. If poetry is to matter universally, it is best when it’s less day to day reactionary to world affairs. Poet and activist are similar but only as to the radical and inexorably creative ways they approach humanity, as politics comes from the administration of fear while poetry from that of love (the poet is smitten by humanity). And while Ginsberg’s lyric instinct and serious aspirations are well portrayed in this volume, the beat has moved on. Today, William Carlos Williams’ ‘no ideas but in things’ faces the reality of ‘things but also in ideas’. As always, we do the same differently today as we face violence and the human condition (see Beckett). I miss a discussion about the trajectory of social psychology before, during and after the Ginsberg era, as it continues to influence and suppress US poetry today.

Chapters 2 to 5 are titled after Ginsberg’s work, beginning with Howl which is considered (and understandably so) next to Eliot’s The Waste Land; however, constant references to Blake, Whitman, the Beatles, Stephen Bronner or Adrienne Rich take away from the distinctive and uncompromised reality of who Ginsberg was and how he handled life during the precarious post World War II period, which still remains our poorly addressed and processed inheritance. Trigilio and Thomas Frank citing and discussions are interesting, but the Reichian and Erich Fromm sections do not connect Ginsberg insightfully with the social psychology of the period. Theatrical politics has been indigenous to the US (it may be the reverbs of a pent-up longing for pomp and circumstance). The beat goes on, however, as it says in the song; and it morphs. We’ll focus on the beat instead of person or place or time. That would not be all about Ginsberg, one could say; but then it is never about one or an other but all of that and more. Was he a warrior, revolutionary, a prophet? Perhaps his genius rolled away as he more and more delved into reacting and recording the politics of the day, rapidly and intensely too, instead of utilizing some ‘Walden Pond’ approach. The need for notoriety may have played tricks with the psyche of the muse. Breaking free from psychic or institutional repression may have helped. Left and right are rigid concepts when it comes to Howl or Militarism and McCarthyism. The path is inner and outer yes, you have my attention there, Eliot. But references to conceptual poetry and how it works are tepid. Human subjectivity within a de-humanizing environment? We embrace and transcend. There will always be unpayable debt, we’ll walk it off. We cannot measure firmament, can only build on it, convinced that we remain mortar to whatever cohesive block excludes us. Howl inspires and nurtures cosmic communities of self and other; activism can be blinding.

Chapter 3 is Kaddish, a mourner’s prayer, naked and raw. But what is mourning and what is prayer? Here’s truth, unavailable yes; but there can be no testimony. There have been so many quotes, reviews and curation on the subject; do we need another? Both Kaddish and the next chapter on Wichita Vortex Sutra tackle various criteria for politics and aesthetics. Thankfully, we have come to realize over time and with furthered technology that all forms of rule are both simple and complicated; we relish the dialectic thereof. In chapter 4 there’s a spread of history, 1960s to the more recent invasion of Iraq; ‘weapons of mass destruction’ are mentioned, Muriel Rukeyser’s influence on Ginsberg, Ginsberg’s influence on language poets, and so on. Some of it is informative but the author’s insistent connecting of Ginsberg’s poetics to the cultural pressures of the times dilutes the realm of the creative impulse beholden to the poet. I would argue here that erecting the imaginary and exploring the real are one and the same. Moreover, listing personages from the East or traditions of the East and West is much like Ginsberg’s listing the holy cities, simplistic. What does that accomplish, really; how is all that relevant to inclusiveness or to the making of a man like Allen who gave us America and Howl and and –

Chapter 5 (Plutonium Ode) maintains the established drift. I would argue that exploring the political, social and spiritual is where every human comes from, whether artist, businessman, politician or other; that’s like being alive and connected with one’s surroundings and beyond. That is what we humans do. The author repeatedly considers this as some unique faculty Ginsberg possessed; that does not sit well with the reader. Moreover, the labels, ‘leftist, old left, new left, right-wing, Marxist, Communist’ lack scholarly attribution (we still defining what is Marxist, Marx himself was still working on that). But here’s one potent sentence “... if there is a language for peace, then there can potentially be a vision of it – “, that’s a lovely thought; a bit of perfume works, doesn’t it? Ginsberg’s poetry is transparent as hell; further contextualization of it would be interesting only as exploration of the dark personal and familial aspects of the poet, the rage, the ennui, the distractions he created as he curated himself so he could live with the Allen in the mirror. Flamboyant passion creatively expressed is art.

And the business of politics is much like the business of making art; Ginsberg must have been aware of that. Case in point, the last chapter titled, To Breathe Freely: A Progressive Political Poetics. I suspect, however, that his was not a politics of inclusion as stated by the author. The words: progressive, political and poetics relate cautiously to one another. Towards the end of the chapter some pages are devoted to women’s equality; they feel like pastiche. Then Katz talks about modern poetry belonging to either the spoken word camp or to that of the language poets, again simplistic. It is easy for a non-third-world citizen to spew rationalizations with wordage; that’s what Ginsberg did, and that’s what Eliot Katz is doing in this volume. We do find interesting quotes and mentions here and there, like the time-honored principle Stephen Bronner states about accountability versus participation or autonomy. The historical and anecdotal references can be considered valuable as well, in that they clearly express how someone like Eliot Katz felt around the 20th century. But then, is this work about the author’s relationship with Ginsberg, or about Ginsberg or his poetry or political aesthetic? Persoal views as well as numerous references from repeated sources and anecdotal windings seem to interrupt the flow. The wistful is rampant, culminating in a section titled, Elegy for Allen at the end. It is interesting to hear that Burroughs and Kerouac tried to dissuade Ginsberg from deepening his involvement with the political, but then we all use some measure of concrete reality to attach our wings to and fly in creative reasoning, don’t we? On the other hand, assigning –isms to or labelling a poet with -ists is a sin against creativity, I’ll say.

Allen Ginsberg was an icon when I came to poetry, for which reason I resonate to the author’s need for Kaddish in this volume. Here is homage to Ginsberg then, besides valuable reference resource. Oh yes, political philosophy regardless, Ginsberg’s need to be guru or activist actually was overshadowed by his acutely sensitive and creative persona in life; therein lies his legacy, I think. Still I hope we continue to remind ourselves that we face new frontiers in psychology, evolutionary biology and physics; all is the same but differently experienced because phenomenology insists, newer technologies dictate, and we follow suit. Yet, today’s urge for singularity is the same as yesterday’s poet turned activist’s itch; that tells me narcissism is still poorly regulated in the human blood. The Beat Generation’s howl, over time, has crystallized the burn/slam/want predicament of the human. Callow predicament resisting incarnations for l’avenir, shared language behind attitude and rites, negotiation to otiation tendered platforms. We’ll establish count then parse as nature and its travails dauntlessly deliver nuance, agency and beneficiaries to this self-organizing system – synthetic, dynamic and vocal, its dance.

Arpine Konyalian Grenier comes from science, music, languages and the arts. She has authored four collections: St. Gregory’s Daughter; Whores from Samarkand; Part, Part, Euphrates; The Concession Stand: Exaptation at the Margins. Recent and forthcoming work can be found in Columbia Poetry Review, Fence, Journal of Poetics Research, The Iowa Review, to name a few. She lives and writes in Los Angeles.
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