Photograph by Cynthia MacAdams
For the last couple of days, I’ve been spending quite a lot of time with the Beats. I read through Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mind (triggered by watching the Republican Iowa Caucus), followed by plenty of Gregory Corso, a little Rexroth, and some McClure, too. But today has been an Allen Ginsberg kind of day. Without planning to, I wove Ginsberg into my AP European History class via Blake and Romanticism (more on that in a minute), and I somehow even managed to work his poem “America” into my AP World History class.
During lunch, I sat and watched this BBC interview with him, which reminded me of the many reasons that I had fallen in love with him in college. He epitomized the kind person who lived with his eyes open to all around him, and his mind open to all the world had to offer. He was a kind, gentle soul with a keen mind. Needless to say, he was also an incredible poet.
As I talked about in a previous post, my love of the Beats stretches back about twenty years, when I was asked by an ex-boyfriend to write a paper for his twentieth century American history class. I chose to write about the Beat Generation’s role in the 1950’s countercultural movement because at the time, I was an English major focusing on English Romanticism and I had heard that there was a connection between William Blake and Allen Ginsberg. I found out that he had had an ecstatic vision while reading Blake’s “Ah, Sunflower,” “The Sick Rose,” and “A Little Girl Lost” from Songs of Experience. He claimed that it was a pivotal moment for him, one that shaped his views of writing, his life, and the nature of the universe itself. In his “A Blake Experience,” Gingsberg wrote,
…the poem I’d read a lot of times before, overfamiliar to the point where it didn’t make any particular meaning except some sweet thing about flowers — and suddenly I realized that the poem was talking about me…Now I began understanding it, the poem I was looking at, and suddenly, simultaneously with understanding it, heard a very deep earthen grave voice in the room, which I immediately assumed, I didn’t even have to think twice, was Blake’s voice…
Looking out the window, through the window at the sky, suddenly it seemed that I saw into the depths of the universe, by looking simply into the ancient sky. The sky suddenly seemed very ancient. And this was the very
ancient place I was talking about, the sweet golden clime, I suddenly realized that this existence was it! And that I was born in order to experience up to this very moment that I was having this experience, to realize what this was all about — in other words that this was the moment I was born for.
In 1948, Ginsberg immortalized that moment in his poem “On Reading William Blake’s ‘The Sick Rose.’
Rose of spirit, rose of light,
spirit whereof all will tell,
is this black vision of my sight
the fashion of a prideful spell,
mystic charm of magic bright,
o judgement of fire and fright?
what everlasting force confounded
in its being, like some human
spirit shrunken in a bounded
immortality, what blossom
gathers us inward, astounded?
is this sickness that is doom?
With that, I then set out to read as much Ginsberg as I could get my hands on, seeing in him what I had seen in Blake so many times… the ability to make simple language a thing of almost unbearable beauty, a depth of thought and feeling that seemed nearly unending, and a the gift of a sense of liberation as my eyes read their words. They were different, to be sure. Blake, the English Romantic, mystic and rebel, who challenged his contemporaries and his readers to think more clearly and to feel more deeply. Ginsberg, the gay poet from Patterson, New Jersey, mystic, and rebel, who also challenged… wait, maybe they weren’t so different after all. Different times, different voices, but connected by their ability communicate in a manner that transcended the words on the page.
An essay titled “William Blake and Allen Ginsberg: Poets of a Fallen World, Prophets of the New World,” states that,
Whether truth or madness, Blake’s voice was certainly that of a prophet in the more general sense of the word, for he was a denouncer of the evils of the world around him, calling for a return to God and a renunciation of worldly things for spiritual. William Blake wrote at one of the most important and turbulent junctures of history, at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution which in his day was radically transforming the fabric of life in city and country, creating totally new and alien problems with which the old monarchies of Europe could not cope.. . .As a poet and mystic, Blake took the stance of a radical visionary against the established order of his time.
The same can certainly be said of Allen Ginsberg. He and the Beats, like Blake, wrote during a pivotal time in Western society. For Blake and the Romantics, they were the responding and reacting to the unyielding rationalism of the Age of Enlightenment, and the complete transformation of the world around them triggered by the Industrial Revolution. For Ginsberg and the Beats, they emerged as America clamored for normalcy after the upheaval of World War II. They wrote as mainstream, white America fled from the cities and into the suburbs in an attempt to recreate the “Donna Reed” ideal that the mass media was selling. It was an America whose heterogeneity and diversity was being traded in for uniformity and conformity. Ginsberg and his fellow poets embraced Eastern mysticism over American Christianity, favored cold-water flats in crowded cities over the white-picket fenced in suburbs, and with their words attempted to lift the veil off of the country.
The same article later states that,
If we take a step back from Blake and see him in his historical context we see that he marks the beginning of a fundamental change in English language poetry. The poet, rather than representing the voice of the civilized, cultured society, became the voice of alienation and separation from society. The poet was outside the culture’s limiting structure, disillusioned by its elitism, social injustice, industrialism, materialism…
Once again, the same can be said of Ginsberg and his contemporaries. They, too, were fundamentally changing poetry, with, as Kerouac coined, their “spontaneous bop prosody,” the cadence of jazz, and the use of what Ginsberg called “kitchen English.” Their poetry became the voice of the people, and even more so, the counterculture. Their disillusionment was clearly, beautifully, and eloquently expressed in the language of the street.
Through my readings of Ginsberg this week, I came across this poem that I hadn’t read in years. It was published in 1972, the year I was born, and although not as famous as “Howl” or “Kaddish,” it’s always been among my favorites. It’s titled “Xmas Gift,” and there has always been something about it that strikes me as being reminiscent of Blake. Perhaps it’s the lines about invented universes, and creatures giving birth to themselves.
I met Einstein in a dream
Springtime on Princeton lawn grass
I kneeled down & kissed his young thumb
like a ruddy pope
his face fresh broad cheeked rosy
“I invented a universe separate,
something like a Virgin”–
“Yes, the creature gives birth to itself,”
I quoted from Mescaline
We sat down open air universal summer
to eat lunch, professors’ wives
at the Tennis Court Club,
our meeting eternal, as expected,
my gesture to kiss his fist
considering the Atom Bomb I didn’t mention.
Lastly, here’s a reading by Ginsberg, of Blake’s short poem “Ah! Sunflower.” One of the three that started it all. Just beautiful.