Allen Ginsberg

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked….

-from ‘Howl’

Allen Ginsberg’s “Collected Poems 1947-1997” is a thick and heavy volume, and every page of it is packed with rich chunks of language. Reading it is an overwhelming experience, somewhat like eating a double-chocolate brownie. Some of Ginsberg’s poems are long, and many are very personal. There are a lot of references to politics from the 1960s and 70s, and a lot of very graphic sexual descriptions. I’ve always thought that to really appreciate poetry you had to sit down and become immersed in one poem, one line, one group of words. But there’s so much in this collection that I jump quickly from one poem to the next, and the words wash over me like a wave. But maybe this is the way Ginsberg is meant to be read – not slowly and ponderously but fast and frenetically, letting images come and go like traffic on a busy street.

Reading Ginsberg is like nothing else. Ginsberg widened the parameters of poetry when he created his own free form, a form based on rhythm and breath. The result is writing that is often long and rambling, seemingly disconnected, a jumble of obscure words and phrases. Is this literature? Here the same question that plagues abstract art rears its head – what differentiates Pollock from a 4-year-old’s finger-painting? And what differentiates Ginsberg from me scribbling down words that just sound nice?

The answer, I think, lies in the origin of the work. The journey, rather than the outcome. Ginsberg’s poems were not created by simply picking words at random. They arose out of a deep and complicated process, a process that was almost spiritual or meditative in nature. In the 2010 film Howl (directed by Jeffrey Friedman and Rob Epstein) James Franco (as Allen Ginsberg) describes the way poems would come up out of him. They would come from a deep physical impulse, almost like a sexual impulse, up from his stomach and through his throat. Real poetry, Franco goes on to say, comes from complete honesty about how you feel. But you have to work at that honesty – sometimes you have to work all day to get it flowing. And when it does finally flow it is beautiful. The lines that come up from that pit-of-the-stomach-place are the lines that will make people weep forever because they are so true. This is great advice for all artists, I think. Sometimes it is easy to become paralysed by structure, to box ourselves in so much that we either don’t create at all or we create something that feels forced and unoriginal. To just write – even if you write all day and end up with only one page that you love – is the most important thing. You need to write through the bad to get to the good; you need to almost hypnotise yourself with writing to get right down deep to that place where real feeling comes from.

The rhythm of Ginsberg’s poems, also, comes from instinct. Ginsberg apparently felt the rhythm when he started to write a poem. He would begin with a word and feel the beat that the rest of the line would follow. He wrote poetry like music in this way – hearing the sound and then adding the words to fit. He often let the lines follow the length of his breath.

Until I read Ginsberg I thought poetry had to be written after deep and careful thought, with structure and working things out and picking over words and punctuation until they were perfect. But working at poetry in this way doesn’t always lead us to the honest, raw feeling that Ginsberg was able to create. Now I think that writing is often best done without too much conscious thought; that it is useful to take a step back and let the unconscious take over for a while. And to save the pondering and pencil-chewing for editing.


 … who cut their wrists three times successively unsuccessfully, gave up and were forced to open antique stores where they thought they were growing old and cried …

This poem is an ode to the poets, artists, and thinkers of Ginsberg’s generation; recognition of their fight against the American-capitalist-war-machine, and of their experiences with drugs, jazz, sex, imagination, and adventure. It is a poem of restless youthfulness and frustration, of sexual energy and anger and joy. It is a poem on heat. The pace of ‘Howl’ is amazing. It pumps you up the way an intense musical beat would. In Friedman and Epstein’s film the animation that accompanies James Franco’s reading of the poem is busy, colourful, and frantic. The fast-moving cartoons capture the poem’s mad, helter-skelter feeling. Flashes of light, the dark city at night, roof tops – so many rooftops – sex and death, skeletons and fire and despair, people flying through the air like fireflies or shooting stars. The animation illuminates the poetry and brings out the richness of the language often better than my imagination can.

Each line of ‘Howl’ is as long as a Ginsberg breath, beginning with “Who” and flowing until the breath runs out:

 … who howled on their knees in the subway and were dragged off the roof waving genitals and manuscripts …

… who scribbled all night rocking and rolling over lofty incantations which in the yellow morning were stanzas of gibberish …

… who threw their watches off the roof to cast their ballot for Eternity outside of Time, & alarm clocks fell on their heads every day for the next decade …

Angkor Wat

Angkor – on top of the terrace

in a stone nook in the rain

Avalokitesvara faces everywhere

high in their stoniness

in white rainmist…

A long poem about Ginsberg’s visit to Cambodia in the 1960s, during the Vietnam War but before the Khmer Rouge. It is nice to think of Ginsberg visiting temples, riding motorbikes, and sipping sweet coffee in this country that I (for the moment, at least) call home. Like so much of Ginsberg’s work, politics is palpable in this poem. There is also a lot about sex, drugs, religion (Buddhism), and food.

 … Slithering hitherward paranoia, Banyans trailing, high muscled tree crawled, over the roof its big, long snaky toes spread, down the lintel’s red, cradle-root, elephantine bigness …

… and riding in the rain in the, anxious motorcycle putting, in the wetness my shirt, covered with green plastic, apron shivering, and throat choking …

All well in this solitude, plenty money, for a long ride thru the forest in a, rainy afternoon with, long hair wet beard, glasses clouding – and that, nausea – passing out, of the Churning of the Ocean …

… the huge snake roots, the vaster, serpent arms fallen, octopus over the roof …

… slow girl dance bent elbow and inspring fingers snaking it thru the middle …

… walked on the rainy. run out of ink, market, To write a letter to President Norodom Sihanouk to live in the flower-jazz palace at Phnom Penh, Kingly neutrality enter China …

… to drink, Iced coffee with sweet evaporated milk …

… I’ll go down and get a cold coffee at Midnight …

Ayers Rock/Uluru Song

And finally a poem that reminded me of my first home. Much more formally structured than Ginsberg’s other poems, but lovely in its simplicity:

When the red pond fills fish appear

When the red pond dries fish disappear.

When the raindrop dries, worlds come to their end.


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