Category Archives: Allen Ginsberg

Allen Ginsberg’s Indian Journals

The poet Allen Ginsberg went to India, when he was already a well-known figure of the Beat Generation. Flower children, the representatives of the hippie culture movement, sought to find themselves in the unexplored countries of the East. In the lands, where life was different from the bustling cities of the second half of the 20th century, to which they were accustomed to.

Indian Journals were a true revelation for their times. Being nothing like a single whole work, in fact, Journals look like a sort of rubbish dump – or the cave of Ali Baba full of treasures. Scrappy thoughts, short sketches, and images flash in front of the reader in the same way, as they were flashing in front of the author when the book was being created.

The travel notes, describing mostly not the places visited by the author, but his own feelings, Journals also include rather frivolous episodes. Drawings, notes, and poems barely have anything in common, except for the time (1962-63) and the place of creation (India). The romantic escape to “the lands unknown” is characteristic to the Beat culture, one of whose founders was Allen Ginsberg. The escape to the lands unknown, to narcotic trance, to sexual perversions.

Some critics have called Allen Ginsberg’s Indian Journals a source of knowledge about the culture and history of India for young people. This work, however, doesn’t contain encyclopedic information. Yet it was this book that became the first and the strongest stimulus for the protesting youth in Western Europe to leave off in search for happiness and alternative life. Hundreds of romantics looking for the unusual and full life and new sensations followed Allen Ginsberg to India decades after his trip.

Indian Journals are surprisingly rich in footnotes. Having returned from the trip, Allen Ginsberg tried to edit his diary entries.

However, even the author himself couldn’t always provide his own notes with clear explanation. In all likelihood, many of them were created in the state of narcotic trance. For Allen Ginsberg, drugs were an indispensable part of Indian culture.

It was narcotic unconsciousness that many young hippies were looking for in India – in the same way as Ginsberg was looking for it there.

The book is provided by detailed translator’s comments, but even they can’t make Indian Journals a single whole. Yet, the readers who are already familiar with the Allen Ginsberg’s poetry feel the specific rhythm of Indian Journals rather quickly. Indian Journals give a chance to immerse into the atmosphere in which one of the founders of the Beat culture lived. The atmosphere of lack of sense, lack of aim, the atmosphere which nourished a whole generation.

Reviewed by Katerina Sidoruk

‘A Desolation’ by Allen Ginsberg

Now mind is clear
as a cloudless sky.
Time then to make a
home in wilderness.

What have I done but
wander with my eyes
in the trees? So I
will build: wife,
family, and seek
for neighbors.

Or I
perish of lonesomeness
or want of food or
lightning or the bear
(must tame the hart
and wear the bear) .

And maybe make an image
of my wandering, a little
image—shrine by the
roadside to signify
to traveler that I live
here in the wilderness
awake and at home.

I am intrigued and captivated by this poem, though I admit that (as with many Ginsberg poems) I find it difficult. I think the poet is exploring the idea of a life lived in harmony with nature, as opposed to a conventional life – perhaps city life? – within modern Western society. Allen Ginsberg was an avid student of Buddhism (he even founded his own school based on its principles), and I think there are clear influences of that interest in this piece.

The opening stanza describes a state of mind, “clear/ as a cloudless sky”. In this state of peace and calm, the poet decides it is “Time then to make a/ home in wilderness”. These two lines suggest that when the poet’s mind is uncluttered by the mess and bustle of life within the confines set out by society (i.e. in a state of meditation?), his overriding desire is to live in the “wilderness” – in the purity of nature – abandoning ego, ambition and material greed. The poet’s desire to live in the “wilderness” also reflects the way in which Ginsberg masterfully rebelled against the inherited conventions of poetry, abandoning strict form and permitting himself the colloquial and sometimes even vulgar diction, and of course taboo subjects such as sex, homosexuality, racism etc.

“What have I done but/ wander with my eyes/ in the trees?” asks the speaker in the second verse. I think Ginsberg is saying here that this is all he has been seeking throughout his life — searching the horizon, the wilderness, for a way in (or a way out!) He says that he will “build” a home there, in the wilderness, with “wife”, “family” and “neighbours”. For me, there is a sort of self-conscious acknowledgement here that – however much he longs to separate himself from the trappings of conventional society – he is always applying society’s measures – its mores and norms – to the ‘free’ life he is seeking in the “wilderness”. Even here, he seeks to furnish his new home with the usual “wife”, “family” and “neighbors” that signify success in the Western world’s terms. Likewise, perhaps, even as free as the Beat poets seemed from literary convention, they doubtless still felt the weight and draw of it at times.

As we move into the third stanza, the poet begins to contemplate the possible failure of his dream home. He imagines that he might “perish of lonesomeness”, “want of food”, “lightning” or “the bear”. These fears are very intriguing. He is afraid that his ‘pure’ life in nature might cause him to die from loneliness, hunger (that is man’s greed). The lightning I think might refer to love (the coup de foudreor lightning bolt) and the bear of course signifies the dangers of the untamed natural world. Ginsberg adds at the end of this stanza, in brackets, that he must “tame the hart” and “wear the bear”. This implies that he realises he must tame the wild creatures in order to be safe (or even to eat), and kill in order to defend himself. There must be destruction, murder – a desolation – for man’s survival.

In the final verse, the speaker tells us that he wishes to leave a trace of himself in his wilderness. Man has always told stories, left an imprint of himself, from the time he lived in caves. It’s a natural, human impulse. Ginsberg talks of a little “shrine by the roadside”, so that travellers might know that he lives there in the wilderness, “awake and at home”. He is determined to pursue his ‘pure’ and ‘natural’ life, and he will leave a small trace of it for other pilgrims. This “shrine by the roadside” is surely a symbol for Ginsberg’s poems, which are beacons of this incredible poet’s courage and genius – a signpost for other poets seeking the same freedom.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘Cezanne’s Ports’ by Allen Ginsberg

In the foreground we see time and life
swept in a race
toward the left hand side of the picture
where shore meets shore.

But that meeting place
isn’t represented;
it doesn’t occur on the canvas.

For the other side of the bay
is Heaven and Eternity,
with a bleak white haze over its mountains.

And the immense water of L’Estaque is a go-between
for minute rowboats.

This poem is about a painting by Cezanne called ‘The Gulf of Marseilles seen from L’Estaque’. You can see the painting below.

I think Cezanne’s Ports is a fascinating poem. Ginsberg fascinates (and often troubles) me anyway, but here I love how he finds such a poignant significance to this beautiful painting — significance that I admit I would not have found myself without nudging.

So, the poet starts by talking about the foreground of the painting, and describes it as “time and life/ swept in a race/ toward the left hand side of the picture.” I love this description, because there is a sense of the bustle of triviality (which I certainly get from the sand-coloured puzzle of roofs), and how it is always on its way to “Heaven and Eternity” (which the poet next tells us is represented by the far grey shore of hills, with their “bleak white haze”.)

The “meeting place”, where “shore meets shore”, is not represented in the painting; it “does not occur on the canvas.” Why does it not occur in the picture? Is it because “Heaven and Eternity” are impossible to depict in art? Because they are impossible to comprehend in life?

In the final verse, Ginsberg talks about the sea — the “immense water of L’Estaque” — as a “go-between/for minute rowboats.” I like the curt manner of this ending because it amplifies the sweetness and triviality of the tiny rowboats (I think the term “rowboat” is significant because he is using an almost childish word to describe the boats, and of course “minute” ensures that we visualise them in a certain way.)

For me, these little rowboats represent our human efforts to understand the divine — our attempts to understand “Heaven and Eternity” in life. These attempts are not futile, but they are perhaps, as I said before, sweet and trivial, when you consider how the whole of the foreground is being inescapably “swept” towards the left of the painting, and Heaven. Ginsberg was a Buddhist for much of his life, and I think that this may have influenced this poem a great deal.

P.S. Ginsberg was also greatly influenced by Blake and Whitman. From Whitman, in particular, he inherited his love of free verse, and his long lines that are ‘single breath units’. I love this style, and I would like to share with you some enlightening extracts from “When the Mode of Music Changes, the Walls of the City Shake”, which Ginsberg wrote in 1961:

“one must verge on the unknown, write toward truth hitherto unrecognisable of one’s own sincerity, including the avoidable beauty of doom, shame and embarrassment, that very area of self-recognition (detailed individual is universal remember)”

“For if we write with an eye to what the poem should be (has been), and do not get lost in it, we will never discover anything new about ourselves in the process of actually writing on the table, and we lose the chance to live in our works, & make habitable the new world which every man may discover in himself, if he lives — which is life itself, past present & future”

“The only poetic tradition is the Voice out of the burning bush. The rest is trash, & will be consumed”.

I think that final quotation is true and beautiful, and I also think the influences of Blake, and Buddhism are very evident there.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘Howl’ by Allen Ginsberg

According to Allen Ginsberg, his Beat-poem “Howl” was written in jazz style. The text abounds in description of feelings experienced by social outcasts – the group to which many of the author’s friends belonged. Along with emotions, we discover lines full of merciless and emotionless cynicism, which however, arouses a not less powerful emotional response. Due to this, Ginsberg’s work acquires a revolutionary quality, which perfectly matches its name. It’s a cry of a person and many persons who are going through never-ending attacks at their consciousness, their minds, and their bodies. Drugs, casual sex, hopelessness and the desire to take everything life has to offer without giving anything in return… This phantasmagoric, from the point of view of common people, whirl is presented as the only possible reality, the reality in which hundreds people live.

Words and images in the poem are often repeated, punctuation marks, required by grammar rules, are ignored – there is no place and time for them in the animal life of Harlem inhabitants. The young hipster Allen Ginsberg describes his life experience using a peculiar language, which was created by him and other young rebels of the 1940s and 1950s. Counterculture, to which the author belonged, gave birth to a whole new language and set of images, yet it didn’t enter the fight with classic literature. As a result of this, Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” actually stands by itself. In comparison with the mainstream literature of that period, it exists somewhere in the parallel reality.

The Beat-poem “Howl” was the work that literally opened the way for the new literature. For the refined poetry connoisseurs, it was like a journey to the ugly hell of slums. No wonder it caused a great public resonance. One of the reasons for this was that the author used the colloquial language of marginalized classes instead of classical literary language.

The author constantly uses sexual contexts, allusions and even openly discusses homosexual activity at some points, due to which critics blamed the poet and his work for excessive overtness and sexual liberalism. The author himself calls his poem “hell” or “abyss”. Lack of moral restraint, absolute licentiousness of the generation, which almost always finds itself in the state of drug intoxication, in fact is a howl, a cry in itself. To an independent, unbiased observer, this world, where sexual contacts matter no more than just a “hi”, is characterized by lack of any solid base, of any social responsibilities. In this world, a person can only hear and understand his own thoughts, desires, and needs, while completely ignoring those of his family or any other people.

Some of the words used in the poem have sacred meaning. Most of them are from Buddhism and paganism, but occasionally Christian symbols may be discovered, too. In Ginsberg’s poetry (provided you choose to call “Howl” poetry), the notion of sacred experiences a great shift, as compared to the common cultural code. For the author, the range of things sacred expands to human body, including genitalia, and any form of human interaction, including sexual relationship, as well as even the state of drug intoxication. Taking all this into consideration, you may discover that mere biological existence in Ginsberg’s poetry acquires the sacred status, and even anarchism, which was so attractive to the poet, is shown from the most appealing, for the Beat generation, point of view. The society is viewed as an inhuman monster, Moloch, who devours all the pleasures a human being may experience and turns each person into a robot or a slave.

Critics called “Howl” “a hymn to sincerity”, “a hymn to non-conformism”, “a hymn to nakedness in any form”, “a hymn to protest”. This protest, however, is nothing but live and bleeding parts of bodies and souls of the rebels. Whether one can consider this image romantic is a question, to which each and every reader finds his own answer.

Reviewed by Katerina Sidoruk