November 15, 2009

Ben for 11/17 in which he geeks out about Ginsberg

Filed under: Uncategorized — wordbreaker @ 6:09 pm

Ok, ladies, gentleman, boys, girls, and Whitmaniacs of all ages, we have hit the point where I might just lose my cool and start fanboying out completely.  See there are two poets that served as my gateway drug into poetry, and they are possibly still my two favorite poets.  The first is T S Eliot, who we are obviously not talking about today, but the other is the infamous beat poet, Allan Ginsberg.  See, this Whitman/Ginsberg connection started with me in high school, where I was in the poetry event in forensics with a paring of “I Hear America Singing” by Whitman, and “A Supermarket in California” by Ginsberg, and predictably, I completely flopped with it, mostly because I was not using a traditionally narrative poem.  That being said, Ginsberg was my original pathway to Whitman, and this is the moment I’ve been waiting for patiently all semester.

Ok, now that that bit of personal history is out of the way, it is not surprising at all to see why Ginsberg felt such closeness with Uncle Walt.  First, the were both writing out of periods of incredible redefinition of America, what it was as a country, and perhaps more so, what it was as an ideal.  In the same way that Whitman claims that Leaves of Grass could not have existed without the Civil War, Ginsberg’s entire generation of writers could not have existed without World War II.  The phrase “The Beat Generation” stems from the concept that the generation following the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had received a ‘beat deal’ and it was a generation of those lost.  Namely, how could one trust in an America that resorted to an act of such destruction to win a war?  Where, though, we see Whitman lining up his idea for a new America with himself, as it’s grand high poet, Ginsberg is lost and searching.  This might be why there is so much of the structure of Whitman’s poetry reinvented in Ginsberg’s work.  Whitman had the answers, Ginsberg just has questions.

Likewise, they both were at the cutting edge for poetry in their time, coming out of New York with a new idea of how they wanted the world to function and how they could change the world with their work.  Between this and Whitman as one of a handful of gay role models running around, it is not wonder Ginsberg gravitated towards his work.  Here was someone for a young, gay poet to model himself after.  This both shows up in the blatant sexuality of ‘Howl’, which functions as much as a ranting beast of a poem as “Song of Myself” in some spots, and how ‘Howl’ mimics this focus on the body as a mystic thing, a very Whitmanic turn of phrase.  This closeness with Whitman, though is not more obvious anywhere else as it is in “A Supermarket in California” where Ginsberg describes a very odd date between himself and Whitman and uses it as a springboard to describe how Whitman’s America was so distant from the America that Ginsberg lives in that he cannot imagine it, thus the reference to Lethe, the river of forgetfulness in Greek mythology.  I guess though, that seeing this is a blog post and not my personal soapbox to rant about the amazingness that results as a combination of these two poets, I will stop myself here, but anyone else who posts on Ginsberg beware, as I might be in the supermarket of your posts, eyeing your grocery boys.

4 responses to “Ben for 11/17 in which he geeks out about Ginsberg”

  1. Oh, Ben 😉

    When the semester began I was quite unaware of Whitman’s grand influence on Ginsberg. Having studied only the latter, I had no idea that the sprawling long lines, the cataloging, and the basic “calling out” of America had all been done before. Ginsberg has always caught my attention for his incessant intensity and his refusal to sit back and let society destroy itself; I had no idea he had an ancestor in this arena. However, despite the great similarities in both of these effectual poets, the greatest difference I find between them is their level of hope. We’ve discussed Whitman as a great optimist who always believed in the American potential even in the face of the Civil War, but I feel that Ginsberg is mostly embittered and melancholy in his view of the country. The poet who writes, “America when will we end the human war? / Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb” (Ginsberg in “America”) is quite different from the one who suggests, “The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem” (Whitman 5). Though Whitman undoubtedly had concerns about our country, he never gave up on it. Ginsberg, on the other hand, seems at times ready to jump ship.

  2. Avatar of wordbreaker wordbreaker says:

    See Chelsea, I think as I see it, the difference in hope has to do with the size of the wars that influenced both poets so much. Yes, the Civil War for Whitman was a terrible event that he witnessed first hand, but it did not dawn on the terrors that World War II brought. It also bares mentioning that while much of the work of the beats had a very cynical tone, Ginsberg’s earlier work carried much more of it, at least in what we are reading. Some of this comes from Ginsberg’s identity not only as a homosexual, but also a Jew, which means that he is coming out of the generation just following a war where so many people died with either yellow stars or pink triangles sewn on their shirts. Likewise, the war was ended in an act of sheer destruction the likes of which no one had or has ever seen. Whitman was not functioning under this concept of a beat deal. Also, for a bit of hope in Ginsberg, one needs not look farther than the ‘Footnote to Howl’ which we did not read, but I am linking at the bottom of this response, in which Ginsberg spends much of the poem declaring things holy, even starting out with a litany of the word, much in an attempt to proclaim the language itself holy by shear repetition.

    (this is the ‘Footnote’)

  3. Avatar of Mara Scanlon Mara Scanlon says:

    “Footnote” was in the pdf reading of Ginsberg I copied, but not the links.

    I think Chelsea’s comment has a lot of truth in it, but Ginsberg could also be a very playful poet. Most important to me are the lines at the end of his excellent poem “America” (in the pdf): “America I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.” That isn’t celebratory, but it is a realistic (hopeful?) dedication to improve a nation that marks him primarily as other.

  4. Avatar of s-words s-words says:

    I think it’s important to note here that Ginsberg’s “ranting beast of a poem,” as Ben calls it, emerges in the wake of such a massively destructive war, while Whitman’s appears 6 years before his comparable wartime experience. (By the way, remember that Civil War’s proportionate impact on America readily equalled WWII’s, at least in terms of lives lost. Our war did not have a global scale, but it might have seemed just as enveloping.) This distinction actually makes Ginsberg seem more “hopeful” than we might realize, at least to the extent that the generative energy necessary to create “Howl” indicates Ginsberg’s conviction that writing poetry matters a damn in a postwar nation.

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