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.