Allen Ginsberg's poetry never attempted short lines. I say this despite his frequent placement of four words or fewer on a line. Even with such structure, those poems retained the effect of the forty-word lines that typify his style: a pauseless cataract that might occasionally slow, but always spills on and on. To read Ginsberg is to be submerged in the process of his consciousness. He permits you only to breathe when he does.

A primary aim in these poems is to keep form and content an unbroken whole -- Ginsberg maintained that their separation lowered poetry to mere artifice, and that musicality was the necessary link between them. So he spun out lines heavily influenced by the organicity of jazz solos -- lines belonging only to the moment in which they were written, and rooted in the natural rhythms of speech. Form and content unite perfectly here. The form is bad.

I can talk about content, then, to make my case. Ginsberg rambles. He offers no hint of a point that we might tell him to stick to. For this reason, any analytical examination of his poetry is misguided, unless of course we are deconstructionists who want to stick him with sundry accusations.

	Magpie, Meadowlark, rainbow
		apparitions shifted transparent
	     down from gray cloud.
				Dogs see
				in black & white. (1)
This is a stanza, obviously, that makes no sense out of context. One may proceed to take it in context, whereupon it makes no sense. It merely fits the tone, and the tone is a disjointed spew -- slapped together are absentee leprechauns, sheep who downplay the efficacy of divine intervention, and seemingly-arbitrary transcriptions of radio personalities. Chairman Mao sticks his head in, and Hindu theology immediately flies around like it's his dandruff.

Clearly we're not dealing with T.S. Eliot here. Ginsberg, ideologically opposed to rigorous composition, left no room for a rigorous reading. This poetry arrows from his subconscious toward the reader's. In this unrelenting quest to imitate his subconscious -- to bring onto the page an internal language that was uniquely his -- Ginsberg managed only to parody human thought processes. He did not understand that putting authentic stream of consciousness up on a soapbox can only demean the source-material. Minds are made of more than words, and human experience cannot be conveyed by merely reproducing what minds say to themselves.

His undeniable flair comes from a sort of glossolalia -- language inflamed, geysering out, defying meaning. It illustrates the central difficulty of self-exploration for poetic material -- it's easy to find the way in, but not the way back. His poetry is stoned on itself, lost in an endless solipsistic trip. Talent per se has nothing to do with his failure. These lines ooze with talent, but are subverted by an absolute lack of discipline. They are never more than ejaculations, containing no more ideas than any other cumshot.

More abstractly, he failed because of a seemingly absolute faith that his work, once set down, could not be improved. His artistry was incredible, but denied craft. For this reason, he came off sounding like a tenth-grader who's just discovered free verse. He was far and away the best tenth-grader in the business, but his flabby, perfunctory structure demonstrated the need for an English teacher to kick his ass.

Ginsberg might have accused me of misunderstanding his goal. (Indeed, I do not understand it.) It's certainly true that he's not writing for readers who demand depth and conceptual integrity -- but I wonder who he's writing for. Much has been made of his Buddhism, and meditative practices in general; he viewed his poetic experience as a direct extension of this belief-system (2), with a focus on poetry-writing as continuous with meditative breathing technique. He spoke as he exhaled, with rhythm, and the lines flowed from him; they were inseparable from some of his mindstates. They seem, then, only intended for the reader secondarily. They are consequences of the poet, not truly his creations.

Ginsberg was a Tibetan Buddhist of the Kagyu school, but his central error reminds me of the charge often levelled at Theravadan Buddhists, who believe that no person can help any other achieve enlightenment. Ginsberg's poetry is unclear because he did not acknowledge the reader's place in poetry: to engage with the poem in an active process of understanding. His work precludes any understanding but the most passive, which can only be vacuous. Imitating too closely the technique of his beloved jazz solos, he forgets the thoughtful interplay and communication that is the meaning of that music. Perhaps to truly know Ginsberg's poems I'd have to become him. I'm not holding my breath, though, for my next incarnation.



(1) Ginsberg, Northwest Passage, in the collection Fall Of America.

(2) Ginsberg, Words And Consciousness, in Allen Verbatim (ed. Gordon Ball)
This node's title is lifted from a Maakies comic. (The strip is absolutely brilliant. You should read it.)

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