After the accomplishments of late nineteenth and early twentieth century experimentalists Whitman, Dickinson, Rimbaud, and the Modernist poets Apollinaire, Cendrars, Mayakovsky, Stevens, Williams, H.D., Lorca, Vallejo and Neruda—every poet runs the risk of being trite in subject matter or derivative or retrograde as a stylist, or drastically both. Taste is a loaded factor, but the standards of taste depend on sophistication of sensibility, so there are legitimate disappointments about the trends of the general poetic expressions of the last fifty years.
A poet I don’t usually read, Donald Hall, was on one of the right tracks when his exasperation flared up about the McWorkshop manner, consistency, and production of the prevalent styles and emotional depths of what was then the current poetry spawn. Following the standards of his critique against blandness, there is a good argument that the McStatus of Hall’s output—doesn’t often rise much higher than the context of his denunciations. But his complaint, transparently clothed in whining about proliferating MFA programs (as though they were the sole source of literary production or frustration), is about the decline of urgency in content and originality of style and, I would guess, too short of a reading list for young poets…in and out of programs.
And experience? Don’t poets get anymore what Rimbaud in A Season In Hell or Cendrars in Prose Of The Transsiberian or Nicanor Para in Antipoems were hounded after or driven to, and what the sources of such delirious irritation and sardonic humor or passionate introspection might be for each of them, as well as its particular historical relation to culture?
This is not to say the plain-spoken works of Louise Gluck or William Stafford are without authentic intimate vision, but a large segment of our poetry is over-involved with a contemplative poetic sobriety that is not touched with an awareness that uncontrollable catastrophic realities run simultaneous to the events of that poetic expression. There are exceptions, but in American poetry from the Deep Imagists to the Language Poets, the reservoir containing the more unpredictable, passionately disruptive or ecstatic elements of the interior life and its historical or cultural connection remains mostly undisturbed. You will find neither an expression of Nietzsche’s “frenzy,” in which there is a transformative overload of expression; or Whitman’s “flood-tide” and “similitudes” or Dickinson’s passionate spiritual dread and resilience, among most of the awards winners over the last fifty years. And the earlier concerns over the spiritual impasse of Western society depicted by Nietzsche in The Anti-Christ (“2,000 years and no new myths!”), or that of Whitman in his Democratic Vistas looking “…at our times and land searchingly in the face, like a physician diagnosing some deep disease” are virtually absent from mainstream poetry.
There’s a sound argument that language vitality appears more often in literary criticism, and it is no wonder that many poets feeling the accelerated advance of the myth-less impasse and the “disease” turn to—among others—Kristeva’s outstanding interpretation of Celine in her Powers of Horror; Bakhtin’s historical, linguistic, and radical folkloric study of Rabelais; Cary Nelson’s generous extensive cultural restoration of poetry in the U.S. 1910-1945 in Repression and Recovery; or Marjorie Perloff’s reclamation and restitution of William Carlos Williams’s early writings in Poetics Of Indeterminacy than to most of the recent culminations of domesticated and homogenized talent resulting in the majority of AWP, NPS, National, Pulitzer or other award winners. Better turn to Absalom, Absalom! Better rely on A Cloud in Trousers, better head for The Tropic of Capricorn.
In his Cosmopolitan Greetings: Poems 1986-1992, a somewhat disorganized Allen Ginsberg continued the anti-poet tradition relevant to the Modern and Late Modern tradition and their related theories. Though the majority of poems in the U.S. remain notable for an accessibility that resounds with flatness derived from linguistic limitation lacking individual imaginative depth and collective critical reckoning, Ginsberg in his second-to-last book still retained an absurd but paradoxically vital quest for personal individuation—and, like Gary Snyder, a left-of-Kropotkin-Buddhist-inspired-communalism that includes all life forms.
The poetic considerations in many of the poems in Cosmopolitan Greetngs have a sense of irony that locates the narrator and his audience in the moral predicament of the nearly total lack of a semblance of even the minimal New Deal social contract, and also how the act of one’s action ultimately flops—however sincere—with as much certainty as the inescapable absurdity of approaching death and still asking questions about how many actions or perceptions of any kind are left:
How many mornings to be or not be?
How many morning Mays to come, birds chirp insistent on six-story
buds rise in backyard cities? Forsythia yellow by brick walls & rusty
bedsprings near the fence?
How many Sundays wake and lie immobile eyes closed remembering
7 A.M. Spring Sunlight out the window the noise a Nuyorican drunkard
on the corner,
reminds me of Peter, Naomi, my nephew Alan, am I mad myself, have
always been so
waking in N.Y. 61st year to realize childless I am a motherless freak
like so many millions, worlds from Paterson Los Angeles to Amazon
Humans & Whales screaming in despair from Empire State Building
top to Arctic Ocean bottom––?(39)
Sightings and details within the immediate environment—reportage and interior monologue discussing botched individuality, alienation, the passing of what’s left of sentiency, pleasure, or the human poisoning of the hunted extinction listed whale’s habitat and every other species living within it—may not be everyone’s virtue or desire to create or explore in poetry, but poetry is enfeebled by the general absence of such imminent concerns. Especially a poetry which registers the horror of whales “screaming in despair” (thirty-years before the ongoing Fukashima nuclear power disaster) provides us with an image of the extent prevailing economic systems are permitted internationally by the purveying powers to maximize their profits and minimize environmental protection and outlay at the expense of a conservation that is already without maintenance and encroaching on us all. As with the whales, instances of this kind of pollution destroying plants and animals, as well as intentional withholding of information about poisonous environments in the workplace, the playground or in neighborhoods nationally, have become common.
There are several instances in CG in which Ginsberg refers to the toxic waste at Rocky Flats Nuclear Facility located near The Naropa Institute in Colorado where he lived and taught part of the year. I note this because of the Miltonic tenor above in his “am I mad myself/ have always been so,” echoing Satan’s “Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell” (Paradise Lost 279, ln. 75). The cultural Hell of Ginsberg’s poetics has always been linked with the international military industrial police state of the twentieth century, Democratic or Communistic, and its nuclear weapons and power offspring.
In Ginsberg’s most lucid and forceful writing on the subject of destruction, a language emerges capable of reaching the reader with the sense of urgency it demands. The political passion of the prophetic, naturalistic and sometimes surrealist strophes of the successful passages in Howl are now, sixty years later, packed into sentences of inter-related common sight-specific perceptions and associations, even statistical information presented as a kind of ruminative choir, impishly comic in his “Numbers in U.S. File Cabinet (Death Waits to Be Executed),”
110,000,000 man-made deaths Wars holocausts fatality camps
3––8 Fahrenheit increase earth temperature next century computers
Lambert 3-6606 Louis Ginsberg’s phone 20 years in Paterson N.J. […]
$1,000,000,000,000 to 2,000,000,000,000 estimate nuclear weapons
complex cleanup costs […]
70,000 Salvadorians killed in Civil War majority by Government
Paramilitary Death Squads funded by U.S.A. […]
1 in 10 Salvadorians displaced in decade’s counterinsurgency war
1 sun per known solar system
1 set Wisdom teeth
1 mother of all
1 wrong move
1 bad apple
1 way street
1 anus each
1 down 2 to go (40-41).
When Antonin Artaud wrote the poem “All writing is pigshit,” he meant the ideology of language that is theoretically molded to the repressive and conforming policies of institutions either literary or political, perverting authentic expression. Hall’s comment, however mild in relation to Artaud’s, amounts to the same thing if one cares to even superficially pursue the social psychology of the fast-food analogy through its associations to commodified reproductions of sameness in ready-made burgers and fries; television programming and the packaged actors’ and athletes’ personas; or the obvious DemoGoogles and RepubYahoos, their leading men and a couple of women––identically wrapped after sterilized packaging.
The work of very few past or current writers or critics can justify an argument for subversion to such a claim as Artaud’s. What Artaud does not elaborate on enough in his accurately vulgar cynicism about the shitty status of certain types of writing and those who produce it—concerns why these writers are pigs in the context of what Adorno and Horkheimer coined as the “culture industry.” Hall to his credit does make the commercial desensitizing language parallel, though he does not elaborate in any way what the larger sources and meanings are for the type of mechanization he so deplores.
Within the scope of American society, a poetry that does not at least make implicit with an elegiac or frustrated tone its privileged distance from—or is not forthright about the reality of—the culturally unpopular and unpoetic lives of the at least forty-five million people living at the poverty level in the U.S. is not worthy of a broad audience, assuming the phenomenon could exist. Certainly the fact that Ginsberg presents a poem of lineated statistics about dumped mental patients, the malnourished and the homeless does not guarantee the poem will be moving or interesting, or even by some standards a poem worth reading at all. But he is often successful in getting outside the pigshit-style of a satisfied inoffensive to The State poet-employee mentality. Compiling statistics about cultural ruin with seemingly ridiculous or random numerical items such as his dead father Louis’s telephone number mixed in with other numerical idioms, prices, clichés and self-evident facts gives the poem the “defamiliarizing” component Schlovsky and the Russian Formalists believed essential to a work of art. It also poetically dramatizes Brecht’s alienation-affect in the way it lists, juxtaposes and thereby throws into question facts exposing the inconsistencies of scientific statistical information making implicit a portion of the Humanist failure that produced the method. From Issiah or Villon to the present, there has been a judgment-making style organic to poetry that tells it like it is. What thrives at the end of the advertisement? Not a thing, and Ginsberg knows it, which is part of the knowledge behind exposing the lies of the subliminal or calculated under-statements of the media. Noting the enormous numbers of the dead and the expense that was and continues to be made to create the new dead, ironically allows those numbers to denude themselves in a self-mirrored manner. Ginsberg successfully took on the factual content of mathematical information and data to expose the dead-end of our something more than a “botched civilization” by mimicking it on his own calculated terms. It is a comic assault against the IBM mentality that knowingly exported adding machines to the Nazis for the purpose of exact data of their mass murders.
You would think that rural and urban poverty and the poverty of poets in adjunct or other part-time teaching jobs—coupled with the fact that the nature Wordsworth and Dickinson celebrated—and Rexroth, Snyder, Oliver, and Bly celebrate—has become polluted or clear cut—would inspire an even more pervasively engaged literature. You would think that our witnessing would be a part of our testimony and rage. But there’s not much, especially among recent poets. Interestingly, few poets took account of Diane Wakoski’s statement that there is no place for politics in poetry (NPR interview 1987). This is an unfortunate statement when we consider the remarkable poetry of social consciousness of such poets as Mayakovsky, Artaud, Rukeyser, Patchen, Rexroth, McGrath, Levertov, Ginsberg, Para, Rothenberg, Eshleman, Rich, Neruda, Bly, Oppen, Levine, Hirschman, Doubiago, Forche, Cortez, Cardenal, MacDiarmid, Stern, Hikmet, C.K. Williams and others. Bukowski should also be included, not for writing specifically political poems (his are usually sentimental or superficially informed, as when he writes elegiacally about JFK); but with the exception of Thomas McGrath and Philip Levine, Bukowski’s depiction of working-class alienation and disgust is a significant and singular contribution to what is generally left out of the American mimesis.
Political rage is a conscientious and furious dynamic to the modern narrative of these poets. Who can convincingly explain why Wakoski and others who think like her have formed such negligent perspectives? It seems ludicrous in the twenty-first century under a hole in the ozone layer more than 200,000 times the size of all the libraries that ever existed—to stand in the wings of pure poetry, pure confessional poetry at that, if that’s what it is. Wakoski further believes Ginsberg should not bring politics into his poetry but run for office like Mailer or Vidal, as though Mailer and Vidal weren’t political in what they wrote alongside of their activism. For a poet like Wakoski to come up with reductive conclusions of this kind is foolish and disheartening, but it is the same foolishness of her early mentor Wallace Stevens (and later, Mark Strand) who also believed in a bordered exclusivity for the imagination, that the imagination itself should hold off “the pressure of reality.”
Go tell it to what’s left of the returning Veterans of the last twenty-five years of American wars in the Mideast. Say it in the 23rd circle of the 95th hell on 18th to 118th Street in South-Central, L.A., or in the Barrio in East L.A. Say it to the surviving families of any of the people randomly shot down on those streets, who would say: Fuck her. And who would blame them? I wouldn’t, as much as Wakoski’s work meant to me as a young poet. Obviously there are poets who desired to be invited to the Bush-Clinton-Laura Bush-Obama White House, just as there are throngs of other poets—or generally cultured people—there in the garden or catching the scene on CSPAN who are enthused about “poetry.”
In terms of both empathy and satire, Ginsberg is an engaging political poet. However, his individual collections have always been inconsistent and Cosmopolitan Greetings is not an exception. There are several poem duds in the CG. For example, a very un-zen boredom of notated perceptions runs for 1 1/2 pages in his “On Cremation of Chogyam Trungpa, Vidyadhara.” Such details stand out as “I noticed the grass, I noticed the hills, I noticed the highways/ I noticed the dirt roads” (25). Here Ginsberg’s maxim “Ordinary mind includes eternal perceptions” (12) from a preceding poem carrying the book’s title glaringly contradicts the premise it makes. Dylan realized there was a better place than in his songs for the prose poetry of his liner notes, and Ginsberg’s songs should be compiled separately so as not to interfere with his poems which are specifically to be read on the page and/or recited. The political themes of the songs are usually better handled in his poems, and, a song like “Put Down Your Cigarette Rag (Dont Smoke),” is packed with trite images or politics-of-cancer-info more urgently and sardonically expressed in a publication like The Nation.
Toward the end of CG there’s a Voznesenski poem translated by Ginsberg and Nina Bouis. It is a fair, if only too short, poetic critique of the resultant Superpower mess in Russia and the scene—from a distance, from an airplane (!)––of Watts (U.S.A.). But Voznesenski (or is it Ginsberg and Bouis?) cannot be indulged for a line like “Any light at the end of the tunnel of pain?” not for a post—and present—ethnic cleansing death camp preemptive stricken killing streets world, any more than it can for a people that currently registers up to 28.5% of its Black and 18% of Hispanic male population between ages 15 and 40 either in jail (mostly on grass and crack possession charges) or living (is it a kind of living?) as ex-convicts. The only convincing poem I’ve read on the Rodney King beating, “Hardball,” is written by the white man from Indiana, Clayton Eshleman (see his Under World Arrest, Black Sparrow Press, 1994).
The strength of the book revives in Ginsberg’s noted political black humor and self-deprecated clowning in “Elephant in the Meditation Hall.” After listing the more recent scandals of Buddhist religious organizations; the Communist regimes in Russia, China, Cambodia; U.S. Savings and Loan; C.I.A.; Iraq; he concludes
El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala we paid death squads for decades
Nobody does anything right! Gods, Popes, Mullahs, Communists,
My own life, scandal! lazy bum! secondhand royal scarlet ties & Yves St.
Laurent Salvation Army blazers
How many boys let me caress their thighs!
How many girls cursed my cold beard? I better commit suicide! (44).
It also comes through in what is still a risky sexual (outside of pornography) subject matter, in the poem “Sphincter,”
I hope my good old asshole holds out
60 years it’s been mostly OK […]
eager to serve—
out with the dumps, in with the condom’d
old folks got troubles everywhere—
necks, prostates, stomachs, joints—
Hope the old hole stays young
till death, relax.(8)
I’m sure that Ginsberg, as a homosexual growing up in the United States in the 30s and coming into his manhood in the 40s, experienced his share of being emotionally screwed up the ass by the dominant duel-gendered machismo of American culture. It is something of a triumph for Ginsberg to write poems in a hilarious tone hiding nothing about his sexuality. It is also a triumph for the audience capable of being entertained whatever their preference (“relax”). In fact, as far as the ongoing sexual-preference and free-speech wars go, it is astonishing that the majority of poets didn’t rise up more vocally in defense of Robert Mapplethorpe’s work. The uproar over his homosexual character with the handle of a bullwhip up his ass (up his, Jack!) was and is ridiculous and, in the photo anyway, a harmless self-satire, sexual satire, or whatever. Another facet to what I occasionally perceive as satiric humor in Mapplethorpe’s work is not that the souls of pink blood that arbiter taste struggled to keep this self-portrait and other works of his out of the pantheon of high art (as they struggle to keep Ginsberg and others who use the whole lexicon off the air-waves and out of the libraries, bookstores and schools), but that they are incapable of seeing it as satire or grotesque symbolism. It is a type of satire of the foundation of pantheon-making flunkies and taste-makers. Similar to one of Goya’s Caprichos, Mapplehorpe’s character pops open the manhole cover of propriety, and the pun here is planted for the denounced-celebrated whip to hopefully and threateningly be placed all the more securely.
The wince caused by Walt Whitman, Kate Chopin, D.H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, Jean Genet, Nelson Algren, Philip Roth, Toni Morrison, Charles Bukowski, Erica Jong, Sharon Olds, Kathy Acker, Sharon Doubiago, and the certain-to-be-raised-eyebrows inspired by Dorriane Laux’s and Ellen Bass’s erotic poems, is necessary and morally irrevocable for the community of artists not willing to compromise their free expression. Let the hetero-middle-class or homophobic wince stay right where it is; it justly invokes what Blake meant, “They became what they beheld.” The respect for, not to mention the interest in, multiple orgasm and a Tantric or ESO understanding and evocation of sexuality so virtually non-existent in our literature (not counting some of the above writers), you have to ask who, as a coupled or a freewheeling member of a community of some kind of sexual liberation, does not find Ginsberg’s homoerotic poetry here and elsewhere an expression of the innocence of sexuality, and Mapplethorpe’s harmless leathered man to be a grotesque comic metaphor not of homosexual sado-masochism or masturbation per se, but of an authoritarian and tantalizing emblem the sexually repressed or uptight have carted themselves off to. What do they “behold?” Who cares. In The Making of Americans Stein wrote, “I like loving. I like mostly all the ways anyone can have of having loving feeling in them. Slowly it has come to be in me that any way of being a loving one is interesting and not unpleasant to me” (606).
If the “Sphincter” poem is a little too flip or casual for the weight on either side of its subject, the poem “To Jacob Rabinowitz” (a poet who had sent AG his translation of Catullus) better conveys the complexity of Ginsberg’s sexual love with a rueful yet endearing sense of the limits of his pleasure and friendship:
Glad to be your friend, 2,000 after Catullus,
Nothing’s changed poets or poetics, lovers or love
familiar conversation between the three of us,
familiar tears––Remembering you leaped in bed naked
and wouldn’t sleep on my floor, a decade ago? I was
half a century old, you hardly out of puberty gave me
your ass bright eyes and virgin body a whole month.
What a little liar you were, how’d I know you were cherry?
Put me down now for not hearing your teenage heartbeat,
think back were you serious offering to kidnap me
to Philadelphia, Cleveland, Baltimore, Miami, God
knows, rescued from boring fame & Academic fortune,
Rimbaud Verlaine lovers starved together in boondock houseflat
stockyard furnished rooms eating pea soup reading E.A. Poe?
First night in each other’s arms you chilled my spine whispering
lies till dawn––pubescent lovelife with a tiny monkey you claim’d
you’d tortured to death––how trust you take me to the moon?
Tho you gave your butt to others in St. Mark’s Baths’ steam room
that year I followed you to Chelsea Hotel kissing your boots (30).
The Congressional and Congressionally appointed NEA Inquisitors are correct, but for all the wrong reasons. Somebody should be threatening to hold back funding and publishing if writers do not create works that carry themselves to the furthest possible communicable extremes of interpretation, experimentation, and expression of protest, rage, frenzy, unadorned honesty, eroticism, and humility with an individual sense of craft that functions along the lines of what Whitman meant when he spoke of his work as a “language experiment”; that is, writing which in its form and content is always running the risk of offending, discovering what’s new, and thereby enlightening. To varying degrees, I would defend the poems discussed here, as well as the poems “Improvisation in Beijing,” “You Don’t Know It,” and “Salutations to Fernando Pessoa,” as works that fulfill those demands.