Note: Chapter three was previously published in Beatdom.
Pre-emptive of 1960s counter-culture, in which exploded artistic self-expression and a freer way of relating to community and relationships, Ginsberg’s poetry deals with life at its bleakest and harshest: feelings of vulnerability and inadequacy; the pain of romantic rejection; fear of ageing and death; a sense of despair for the state of a society devoid of warmth and meaningful values. Yet through this blatant, sometimes brutal, portrayal of the world — both internal and external — at its lowest, Ginsberg seeks transcendence, an endeavour made even more meaningful by his willingness to confront life’s darker elements. I will be treating the concept of transcendence in this dissertation as the quality of surpassing ordinary limits, e.g. physical or social ones, in a way that is superior or supreme.1
Ginsberg’s drawing of hope through a climate of despondency can not only be hugely cathartic for his reader but more broadly offers the possibility of inner peace amidst challenge and turmoil, a theme of universal interest and timeless endurance. Reading Ginsberg’s poetry and its criticism, I was particularly engaged by how his approach to spirituality refuses to be neatly pinned into a familiar category, unlike other religiously-inspired poetry that I had studied. The fusion of a Jewish upbringing, whose religious and cultural aspects remained fiercely rooted within Ginsberg’s adult identity, with his cultivated interest in Buddhism and Eastern religious practice, crafts a vividly original and multifaceted spirit of reverence in his work. Yet as the spiritual consciousness presented in Ginsberg’s poetry colludes Abrahamic and Eastern doctrine, it also gives insight into something far beyond these scriptures and traditions — a truly universal vision grounded in the feeling of what it means to be meaningfully connected rather than in any concrete doctrinal formulation, and is thus accessible and impactful even to atheistic readers.
The transcendent undercurrent that runs through Ginsberg’s poetry merits investigation, for its understanding opens doors for us to search beyond and above the surfaces of the reality that surrounds us, at any place in human civilisation or moment in history. The closer we come to grasping Ginsbergian spirituality, complex though it may be, the better-equipped we grow to move towards light – an underlying sense of hope and beauty at the heart of our human condition — when faced with scenarios in which bleakness would threaten to obscure it, whether on a personal, societal or even global scale. Equally importantly, it is a theme which contextualises other focal points within Ginsberg’s work. For example, the intent to liberate self-expression for non-heteronormative sexual identities or to accurately depict the stigmatized world of contemporary subculture carries more weight when it is an endeavour bound up with transcendent motivations, rendering a reader further invested as he or she feels more to be at stake.
Certain themes arise recurrently in Ginsberg’s work in conjunction with his quest to unearth and linguistically generate the light of higher consciousness, such as homosexuality, mental illness, and the fragmentation of society due to industrialization, mass consumerism and widespread disillusionment at humanity which came in the aftermath of two devastating world wars. The breakthrough of a sense of man’s innate sanctity, no matter how threatening or harsh his outward conditions, seems even more vital when procured in an ambit of darkness. William Carlos Williams rounded off his preface to “Howl” by imploring us to “hold back the edges of your gowns, Ladies, we are going through hell”2 — a statement which encapsulates the bleak desperation of 1950s America and subsequent urgency for Ginsberg’s poetry to have its message disseminated. The address of the readership as “Ladies” also packs meaning; the poetic voice of Ginsberg’s work, due to its sensitivity of spirit, exultant and emotional qualities, and overt expression of gay sexuality, may in many ways appear more “feminine” than would be comfortable for the mainstream consciousness of heteronormative patriarchal society.
Yet in including the voices of this ideology in the address “Ladies,” Williams tacitly dismounts the ingrained notion that manliness — and associated strength — resides in the upholding of such structures. He rather aligns Ginsberg’s bold delving through the “teeth and excrement of this life,” and skill in translating his ventures into art, with warrior-like awesomeness. Williams elaborates on poets more generally as those who “avoid nothing but experience it to the hilt,” reinforcing their epic connotations as the word “hilt” evokes imagery of ancient battle-swords, infused with notions of gallantry and nobility.
Ginsberg ended his original dedication to Howl And Other Poems (to Kerouac, Burroughs and Cassady, mentioning some of their novels) with the phrase “all of these books are published in Heaven.” He pays homage to Beat artists and suggests their unity, placing literature in a transcendent and eternal space. There is an element of humour to the juxtaposition of the verb “published,” referring to an incredibly socialized and Earthly process, with the divine realm of “Heaven.” Yet in their coalescence, Ginsberg suggests the erroneousness of locating spirituality outside the everyday: rather, it is found within the fabric of our lives, which can encompass enlightenment “in spite of the most debasing emotions that life can offer a man,”3 as his poetry, and this dissertation, brings to awareness.
I will explore how the spiritual is expressed across Ginsberg’s writing, focusing on poetry published between 1955 and 1959, a time during which he emerged into public consciousness as a key figure not only in the literary world but also as an icon promoting mystical and social concepts of Beat philosophy. I have dedicated a chapter each to “Howl” and “Kaddish,” his most prolific and commented-upon works. While much of his poetry presents spirituality in fascinating ways, these two longer poems most clearly invite discussion due to their breadth of content.
In the third chapter I will look at how some of his other poems develop the theme of movement towards spiritual light: “Sunflower Sutra,” “A Supermarket in California,” and “Song.” I have chosen these three poems as, while sufficiently divergent in subject matter, there are elements of overlap in their ideas and presentation of spirituality. Each brings out a slightly different side of Ginsberg’s poetic focus; “Sunflower Sutra,” for example, is an incredibly visual work, outwardly disdaining of mechanistic, soul-deadening forces within modernized American culture, implied through images like that of a “dread bleak dusty imageless locomotive,” and favouring the authentic. Interspersed with the incarnation of these “dank muck”4 images, a sense of beauty and life-energy blooms into being, with Eastern religious tropes invoked from the word “sutra” in the poem’s title.
“A Supermarket in California,” depicting a dreamed or imagined encounter with Walt Whitman, is crucially concerned with Ginsberg’s position in relation to the literary canon, both how he relates to previous tradition and questioningly imagines its future. This theme of being in dialogue with a broader literary trajectory also emerges in many of his other poems, such as the descriptions of ashes in conjunction with materialism in “Sunflower Sutra” which are reminiscent of Scott Fitzgerald’s iconic valley of ashes in The Great Gatsby, and references to Emily Dickinson in “Kaddish.” Though also commenting on consumer culture, as represented through the motif of the supermarket, “A Supermarket in California” has a playfulness to its imagery, conveying a less severe social critique than works like “Sunflower Sutra” or “Howl” which employ bleaker imagery.
“Song” merges sexuality with notions of transcendence. The element of elevation that this poem bestows to sexual intimacy, implied through the radiant description “the warm bodies shine together in the darkness”5 echoes the biblical passage of the Song of Songs, an eroticised dialogue between two lovers in which the sustained metaphor of fruit represents sexual acts and parts of the body. Hints towards this biblical passage also arise through the wealth of fruit imagery used in “A Supermarket in California.” While containing some homoerotic implications, “Song” resonates on a far more universal plane, inspiring readers to recognise and celebrate the force of love which binds mankind at an essential level — a key idea of many theistic religions, particularly Christianity. Another element that has come to my attention is Ginsberg’s development of poetic self-consciousness. He frequently expresses an acute awareness of what words do, and how they are used in poetic function. Linked with this, I have also carefully considered how he innovates form, and the integral part that such formal arrangements play in his communication of ideas.
My overall aim is to reveal how spiritual conscience as portrayed in the poetry of Allen Ginsberg is far from stilted, flat or dogmatic, but spurns these qualities in favour of a complex, burning source of light, whose many facets prompt us to continue contemplating questions of spirituality and its place in the world around us instead of preaching doctrine to be blindly received. This fluid light triumphs through an ongoing process of movement, animating readers to seize life with the same gusto that overflows from Ginsberg’s work, while retaining sensitivity to its intricacy.
“Howl,” Ginsberg’s most famous work, has been a source of controversy since its publication in 1956, facing accusations of obscenity that were ultimately overturned due to the poem’s artistic value. Its genre occupies a liminal space between the confessional and epic, and while Ginsberg echoes these styles, “Howl” is characteristically his own, stubbornly rebelling against past formal constraints. Thematically as well as formally, the poem is permeated by a spirit of rebellion. Complementing the provocative content voiced in “Howl,” its long lines give the sense of a stream-of-consciousness-style explosion of self-expression which refuses to be curtailed, with anaphora employed throughout the poem like a subversive echo of religious mantra. The titular word “howl” identifies the work as a guttural outcry of the disenchanted, associated with pain and the overflow of feeling into oral expression. Through using an utterance that is closer to essential sensation than descriptive words, Ginsberg intentionally casts this poem as a raw and carnal entity. Its “starving hysterical naked” characters, actions a chaotic blur of “yacketayakking screaming vomiting whispering”,6 are depicted to be as wild and impulse-driven as the energetic, stretching lines of “Howl” itself. Yet within the framing of an unpremeditated outburst which defies the regimentation of poetic convention arises something far more lucid and careful, enabling a spiritually enlightened voice to override the poem’s outward effect of chaos. In analysing “Howl,” I will pay specific attention to how its form and imagery culminate in a sense of spiritual revelation, mitigating forces which threaten to oppose this effect.
The debate surrounding “Howl”
Tension arises in the narrative tone of “Howl,” marked by a sense of struggle between a voice delivering prophetic wisdom and the threat this faces from internal and external forces of darkness. Such a fraught identity is mirrored in its critical reception. Lee in Modern American Counter-Writing outlines how “for true believers Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ still signifies break-through illumination, a transcendental spirituality fused of Whitman and Manhattan, Zen, Veda and Torah.” Yet “at the same time it still faces dismissal as mere incantation, even dirty-word graffiti.”
One cannot deny that “Howl” seems at times earthly, base and lewd, cluttered in format, and comprised of half-finished ideas rather than cogent argument. Such factors point towards any claims for enlightenment within the poem being wildly misplaced; hence “detractors go on insisting upon dishevelment, the upshot of a mind fatally shrill or divided.”8 The response to “Howl” amongst the poetic community of the time was ridden with ambivalence.
Contemporary poet Richard Eberhart commented that while he admired the poem’s rebellion against “everything in our society which kills the spirit” and how it “lays bare the nerves of suffering and spiritual struggle,” he also looked scornfully upon its “assuming that the louder you shout the more likely you are to be heard.”9 This is at the crux of the debate relating to the artistic worth of “Howl” which questions whether Ginsberg’s claims to its profundity, describing it as part of the Beats’ so-called New Vision, are justified or are sheer pretensions held up by a shabby scaffolding of shock-value only content.
Yet, close examination of “Howl” leads one to inevitably conclude its value not solely on an aesthetic plane but as the carrier of spiritual wisdom framed within a socio-political context. The elevated perspective that it presents to its 1950s readers disillusioned by a climate of industrialised capitalism and post-war financial depression seems even more needed following the early twenty-first century’s economic recessions and more recent descent into global political crisis.
Through understanding the transcendental message of “Howl,” we can reconnect with the core voices of America’s poetic tradition who inspired Ginsberg and uncover an emotional and intellectual bedrock of support for the current era and global situation. Jay Stevens talks of the Beat writers “observing the world’s follies and in return beaming a little light into the fog of desperation,”10 a spirit embodied by Ginsberg and brought out in his masterpiece, “Howl.”
The light that this poem offers is no flashy torchlight aimed at entrancing impressionable beatnik youths, but beams across decades to all. Much of its continual relevance emerges in more recent critical discussions. For example, the 2010 critical text Beats, Outriders and Ethics posits: “six decades on, and even more than at first airing and publication, “Howl” refuses to be denied.”11 Rodosthenous attributes the poem’s persistence in public consciousness to “its honest and personal perspective on life, and its nearly journalistic, but still poetic, approach to depicting a world of madness, deprivation, insanity and jazz.”12 He compares “Howl” with “A Season in Hell,” written almost a century beforehand by Rimbaud, who strongly influenced Ginsberg. Rodosthenous claims that Rimbaud and Ginsberg share “an urgent need to run away from the system, flee the routine, engineer a strategy of escapism through art.”13
The effect of form
“Howl” escapes ordinary poetic patterns of form, employing extremely long lines which give the impression of the poem bursting forth independently from the speaker’s consciousness. This contributes greatly to its spiritual status, echoing notions of the prophetic. Religious texts are often envisaged in terms of having been “revealed” to a prophet, as their energy derives from beyond the realm of human activity and creative potential. This is true not just of commonly-recognised Abrahamic scriptures such as the Bible, Torah and Qur’an, but also of texts from Eastern religions: namely the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which Ginsberg was inspired by after reading cover-to-cover. One element which distinguishes “Howl” from the confessional genre occupied by poets such as Lowell, Plath and Sexton is its uniqueness of form.
While confessionalism generally centres its attention within the private world of the speaker’s concerns, the sense of overflow in “Howl” pertains to a humanity-scale narrative of ecstatic spiritual revelation, situating the reader’s focus beyond personal anecdote. In accordance with the definition that Michael McClure, another Beat writer, gives of a poem as “a porthole of consciousness and experience,”14 “Howl” utilises form to open and elevate the reader’s awareness. McClure elaborates on the diversity of this poetic function as enabling “opening to the feeling of blood pulsing in the wrist, or the taste of a red-black cherry, or the sound of a rock being placed on a table.”15
The idea of poetry as “opening” the reader to the presence of the magical within the mundane, and drawing out miracles from everyday objects and scenarios, may be linked with Beat psychedelic drug use. Yet poetry’s ability to pay attention to the world in a manner which draws from it a previously unseen or unacknowledged quality long predates the advent of psychedelic substances like mescaline and LSD, usage of which influenced the Beat vision. Shelley, for example, in his essay “A Defence of Poetry,” wrote of poetry that it “is a mirror which makes beautiful that which is distorted.”16 Such a definition can be applied clearly to “Howl,” from its first line in which the poem’s characters are introduced as “the best minds of my generation.” Shelley’s quote suggests that rather than the poet distorting reality to fit his own artistic aims, it is rather everyday non-poetical perceptions which “distort” the truth of the world, doing reality a disservice by not acknowledging the beauty that is there.
The mirror that “Howl” holds to contemporary US society reflects luminescence, transcendence, and something of the eternal – for example, an “ancient heavenly connection” and the “cosmos instinctively vibrat[ing]”17 – where mainstream social forces would interpret grime, seediness, and despair. While images of “burned cigarette holes in their arms,” “shoes full of blood,” “granite steps of the madhouse” and “fetid halls” continue to dwell in the sphere of the abject, the form within which these are presented and moments of spiritual victory which surround them hold such light that the poem generates more epiphany than disgust. It is, however, the intermingling of these two conflicting sensations which gives “Howl” such a lingering power.
While “Howl” is skilfully scaffolded, Ginsberg’s use of free verse makes its trajectory seem uncontrived and hence an honest and relatable form of exhibiting reality, as free verse mimics the natural rhythm of human speech. At the same time, anaphoric repetition of “who” in the poem’s first section, “Moloch!” in Section II and “I’m with you” in Section III generates a mantra-like rhythm, intermingling a sense of mysticism with the flow of description. The poem’s spirit of sincerity is augmented throughout, recurrent exclamation marks in Section II generating an urgent horror at the barren spiritual wasteland that society has become, and breaking up the syntax in reflection of the speaker being overwhelmed by impressions that are poured forth as they occur to him. Citing “Howl” as an example of free verse, Duncan writes:
. . . the poem does not find or make but expresses, and [..] has its virtue in the ecstatic state or emotional state aroused by rhythms and rime even, where the poet can pour forth what he feels and/or God speaks through the poet once his voice is free.18
When speaking of “Howl,” Ginsberg commented on its form: “Ideally each line of “Howl” is a single breath unit. My breath is long – that’s the measure, one physical-mental inspiration of thought contained in the elastic of a breath. It probably bugs Williams now.”19 It is a careful lexical choice that he describes the line length of “Howl” in terms of “inspiration,” a word which at once refers to the act of breathing in, “the process of being mentally stimulated to do or feel something, especially to do something creative,” and “Divine influence, especially that supposed to have led to the writing of the Bible.”20 His description of breath as “elastic” suggests a certain fluidity and freedom of the reader to explore these different elements of the poem’s meaning, in addition to his own flexibility as a creative agent. Indeed, he implies that spiritual revelation is not the reception of commonly-accepted wisdom but an active quest intimately linked with human vitality.
Different depictions of light
A fierce internal pace to “Howl” is generated as descriptions of night and day are coalesced, echoing the intensity of a counter-cultural existence fuelled by caffeine, alcohol, recreational drugs and late-night liaisons. Ginsberg was keen to present himself as a prophet for these voices, which had previously lacked a literary platform. “Howl” generates the impression of having been written under the same extreme circumstances that it describes, aligning its poetic voice with those whom it appeals to. Rather than simply describing urban bohemia in a series of vignettes, its impression is evoked through a form bursting with passion, creativity and unbridled sexuality. Light is not only conveyed through metaphorical spiritual allusions; it is a visual presence across “Howl,” appearing imbued with varying degrees of sanctity. The poem crafts an interplay between external light and the inner light of love, drive and creative inspiration: a glow of “internal lightning” which illuminates “brilliant eyes.”21 Communication and synergy between these two elements builds dazzling majesty and a sense of ecstasy. The depiction of light as intricately linked with notions of personal identity and the victory of self-expression over systemic suppression which emerges in “Howl” also appears as a running theme through Ginsberg’s other works. “Sunflower Sutra,” for example, builds towards the conclusion in its final stanza that “we’re not our skins of grime,” but “beautiful golden sunflowers.”22 Human nature is defined in terms of a connection to the organic and not the materialistic.
“Howl” arrests the reader’s attention in associating natural beauty with imagery wildly out of line with Romantic tradition. One clear instance of this occurs in the line: “who sweetened the snatches of a million girls trembling in the sunset, and were red eyed in the morning but prepared to sweeten the snatch of sunrise, flashing buttocks under barns and naked in the lake.” The “red eyed” people depicted may be hungover or still sleepless from a night of debauchery; thus, they can only attain sunrise in a “snatch” and so this concept, that is usually linked with purity and the fresh opportunity of a new day, is turned on its head, coloured instead with the exhaustion of a wild night’s tail-end. Yet repetition of both words “sweeten” and “snatch” in this line and evocation of balance in the tender movement from sunset to sunrise also conveys a yin-yang-like notion of harmony.
Such equilibrium is reinforced in the internal rhyme of “naked in the lake.” Nudity may stand as a mirror of the spiritual liberation engendered within transparent self-expression, re-appearing as a theme throughout “Howl” right until its penultimate line declaring: “O victory forget your underwear we’re free.” The spiritual terrain inhabited by characters in “Howl” is fragile; while resting on the cusp of total dejection and a psychological annihilation leaving them “battered bleak of brain all drained of brilliance,”23 they ultimately succeed in rising to a status of elevation.
Light later appears in the image of the “wartime blue floodlight of the moon,” a description which though brief is striking in its combination of synthetic, natural and sociological elements. The labelling of the moon’s illuminating property as “wartime” is unusual in that it equates conflict with light, which would more often represent peace. Thus here even moonlight, an ostensibly passive element of background scenery for the enacting of “great suicidal dramas,” holds a combative energy which mirrors that channelled through “Howl”; as the poetic voice seeds light throughout the poem, exemplified in this line, it does so not meekly but with a fierce note of uprising. Light’s sanctifying energy here carries a level of aggression, implying that spiritual purification may be a fearsome and even violent process: an idea that preoccupied the Metaphysical poets, exhibited in John Donne’s 1633 sonnet “Batter My Heart,” in which the speaker pleads with a bestial incarnation of God to cleanse him through an implied act of sexual violence, which has the power “to break, blow, burn and make me new.” While Ginsberg’s conjoining of “waking nightmares, alcohol and cock and endless balls”24 with a quest for spiritual liberation may seem counter-traditional, the connection between religious experience and violent sexual energy is in fact an established conceit whose existence within literature predates even the birth of the USA.
The legacy of Ginsbergian moonlight
It is fascinating to discuss the significance of moonlight as an elected illuminator rather than sunlight in Ginsberg’s work. In an oft-quoted 1989 interview on the theme of self-expression, he advised budding writers: “Follow your inner moonlight; don’t hide the madness.”25 This comment coheres with the implications of Ginsberg’s poetry that in the sphere of night, the softer glow of moonlight liberates a creative authenticity and freedom that daytime preoccupations can obscure — a theme that I will further develop discussing “A Supermarket in California.”
The sacred space of night-time creative output prevails in the artistic mood of Ginsberg’s contemporaries, as is clear in the anthemic 1965 song “Mr Tambourine Man” by Bob Dylan, Ginsberg’s friend and fellow socially and politically conscious artist. While the speaker in this song is physically beaten down by the exhaustion of staying awake to play music, his “senses stripped” and “toes too numb to step”26 much like the “angel-headed hipsters” portrayed in Ginsberg’s “Howl,” it is only in this state of physical dejection that he is reduced to the simplicity of creative flow and hence “ready to go anywhere.”27
Self-actualization, in Dylan’s music as in Ginsberg’s poetry, is re-configured not as the conventional “American Dream” which hails capitalist monetary gain and career-ladder ascension but as its very opposite. True fulfilment is achieved through a marked discarding of the Dream’s spirit of financial aspiration, paving the way for one to attain creative freedom, live according to one’s “own parade” and access “the absolute heart of the poem of life.”28 This theme continues to grow in power and presence in US popular culture, as in the 1970 hit song “Oh Sweet Nuthin’” by the Velvet Underground, whose lyrics affirm society’s down-and-outers, their lives worthy of celebration and embodying beauty despite the fact that they “ain’t got nothing at all.”29 This nothingness is deemed “sweet,” becoming a lifestyle worthy of emulation with simplicity more desirable than the ambitious materialism enshrined by traditional US values.
Ginsberg foregrounds the fusion of this Buddhist ideal of asceticism, and uncovering more truth through possessing less, with mainstream popular culture. The splendour of “inner moonlight” can shine only when social obligations, structures and rhythms have been stripped away, a revelation boldly put forward in “Howl” whose legacy cannot be underestimated. Indeed, this preoccupation remains at the forefront of modern-day Western culture, evidenced by media such as Matt D’Avella’s 2015 documentary Minimalism and the viral growth of the “van life” concept.
If we are to accept Merton’s identification of “the fashion of Zen” as “a symptom of western man’s desperate need to recover spontaneity and depth in a world which his technological skill has made rigid, artificial and spiritually void,” then technological advancements seen since the publication of “Howl” heighten a need for recourse to its spiritual message. As Ginsberg’s most famous and widely-discussed work, this poem forms an essential springboard from which to explore the themes with which his art is most preoccupied. It has both dynamic solo power and exists as part of the wider discourse of US literature and culture, commenting on mainstream values and forcing their re-appraisal. Nelson outlines the function of language as “a road map to the luminous in an era where the darkness appears overwhelming.”30 Nowhere is such an aim better executed than through the stellar project of “Howl,” whose guiding force towards luminosity makes it an ever-relevant piece in the quest for meaning that our human condition compels us to navigate.
“Kaddish” is a poem fraught with tension, reconciling the trauma of memory with the ability of poetic creation to deliver catharsis. Its title “Kaddish” refers to a Jewish prayer of mourning recited following the death of a parent, “one of the most sacred rituals observed by all Jews throughout the generations.”31 The overtly holy resonance of this term makes the poem’s explicit evocation of horrors ranging from mental illness to the degeneration of the human body, base physical functions such as excretion and the taboo subject of incest even more shocking. We therefore encounter a central irony; while “Kaddish” directly takes its title from spiritual practice, in contrast to the atavistic cry of “Howl,” discerning a pervasive tone of spiritual elevation may here be a more challenging and uncomfortable task than in Ginsberg’s other poems.
“Kaddish” contains a dedication “For Naomi Ginsberg 1894 – 1956” (Allen Ginsberg’s mother); it is an elegy, ostensibly more personal than “Howl” as it narrates intimate family relationships. Yet, formally it echoes “Howl” with energetic, long lines, which layer onto each other a myriad of detailed images. Like in “Howl,” these are a diverse mix of personal anecdote, socio-historical, political, and spiritual probing. Whereas “Howl” grounds its reader in a quasi-dystopian present, from which bursts the force of beatific light, “Kaddish” explores a more complex relationship with time, journeying into the past spanned by Naomi’s life and also considering the historical narrative that is invariably carried within religious traditions (such as the Kaddish prayer) and the broader motif of poetic discourse. The speaker balances the evocation of childhood memories — both his own, and Naomi’s — and recalled episodes from her life with amalgamated segments of imagery recalling a range of historical eras, delving into holocaust trauma and hinting at the consequential events and rapid processes of change which unfolded during Naomi’s lifetime. The text Cruising Utopia connects the disruption of linear chronology with the liberation of queer identity:
To see queerness as horizon is to perceive it as a modality of ecstatic time in which the temporal stranglehold that I describe as straight time is interrupted or stepped out of. Ecstatic time is signalled at the moment one feels ecstasy, announced perhaps in a scream or grunt of pleasure, and more importantly during moments of contemplation when one looks back at a scene from one’s past, present, or future.32
While “Kaddish” features less homoerotic imagery than “Howl,” it remains located upon this “horizon” of queer form, pushing against heteronormative functions of relationships within a nuclear family and how grief within this framework “should” appear. If “Howl” queers the horizon by acting as the ecstatic “scream” that Munoz outlines, “Kaddish” does so through its exercise in re-working “moments of contemplation,” revisiting the trauma of past scenes to permit their reconciliation.
In the “HYMMNN” section of the poem, holy language is explicitly morphed with these ideas which threaten heteronormativity, most overtly in the proclamation “Blessed be He in homosexuality!”33 We see here how integral to the spiritual freedom envisaged by Ginsberg are both the celebration of queer sexuality and its platform to be vocalised. The union of religious institution with homosexuality makes a bold claim, the format of “HYMMNN” echoing a biblical passage through the words “exalted,” “blessed” and “He.”
On the one hand, this link appears radically ahead of Ginsberg’s time and could even continue to elicit controversy in a twenty-first century context, as the Church remains one of the few institutions in the modern Western world which remains actively opposed to homosexuality. Yet on another, he is re-expressing in more direct terms a queer spirituality previously conjured in the poetry of Walt Whitman over a century earlier. While nineteenth-century convention inhibited Whitman’s homoerotic allusions from being so overt as Ginsberg’s, his vision of spiritual fulfilment dwells in nature and employs sensual imagery, with homosexual desires often implied. Hermann suggests that in Leaves of Grass, the “urge to unite with individuals of the same sex is a primal urge to unite with the Self within everyone,”34 so as in “Kaddish,” the act of gay sex is given a transcendent quality. This set of incantations driven forwards by the word “blessed” also sanctifies “the madhouse,” “Paranoia” (made deific in the capitalisation of its first letter) and “Hospitals.”
Ginsberg implies an emotional connection with his mother created by their mutual occupation of spheres deemed unacceptable by mainstream society — she in madness, and he in homosexuality. He does not demonise his mother’s mental illness but touchingly sympathizes with the position as a social pariah that it pushes her into, due to his own experience of ostracized queerness. The format adopted in this section of “Kaddish” is replicated in the 1966 song “Blessed” by Simon & Garfunkel, which declares “blessed are the sat upon, spat upon” and later “blessed are the meth drinkers, pot sellers, illusion dwellers.”35 Whether or not this song is directly influenced by Ginsberg, it is further evidence for the point made in Chapter I which asserts the influence that the Beats’ inclusion of the downtrodden within their narrative of sanctity exerted on popular culture — not just in America but throughout the Western world — in ensuing years.
Religious conceit is explicitly employed as Yiddish is interspersed with viscerally personal, anecdotal modern imagery. Ginsberg equates the Yiddish word “tsuris,” best translated into English as “trouble,” “grief” or “strife,” with the Buddhist concept of “dukkha” (meaning suffering, which Buddhist philosophy holds central to human life) in a talk to a group of students, suggesting that these two terms pertain more or less to the same thing. Such a link provides crucial background for reading “Kaddish,” as we unpack Ginsberg’s understanding of his Jewish identity as one combined with spiritual approaches from other religions. Austerlitz aptly summarizes: “Ginsberg’s Jewishness, too, was of a universal kind, less attuned to tradition than a pan-historical embrace of the spiritual.”36
This bears out near the start of “Kaddish” as Ginsberg evokes “prophesy as in the Hebrew Anthem, or the Buddhist Book of Answers — and my own imagination of a withered leaf,” suggesting that Jewish and Buddhist texts are interchangeable in value. In universalizing spirituality, Ginsberg ensures that no reader is excluded, offering insight to all in a mood of open-armed inclusiveness. That these icons of spiritual wisdom are placed beside a description of the “imagination” of poetic vision implies that equally valuable transcendent perspective can be gleaned from poetry. The “withered leaf” symbolizes decay in a manner typical of the elegiac genre, and conveys more of a sense of peace than many other images in “Kaddish” through its simplicity and close attentiveness to the natural world.
Poetry itself is crucially integral to Ginsberg’s vision of spiritual light. “Kaddish” goes on to conjure the simile “like a poem in the dark,” poetry here taking on the role of a candle, which hints at its ability to cast metaphorical illumination. While this connotes the speaker’s own ability to find sanctuary in reading and writing poetry from the darker sides of reality that “Kaddish” explores, it also suggests that the poem that we are currently engaging with through reading can be a candle for us, an incandescent beacon of hope offering relief from the same dukkha-ridden world that it describes.
Further links between poetic creation and sanctity are drawn in “Kaddish,” as the speaker urges “take this, this Psalm, from me, burst from my hand in a day.” That it is something to be handed over frames the poem within a context of transaction, yet the ordinary spiritually draining exchange of material items for money is inverted. What we are offered instead is a “Psalm,” a melodic entity providing spiritual guidance; that it is “burst from my hand in a day” indicates its freshness and embodiment of artistic inspiration. Unlike within the consumerist structures of industrialized capitalism which permeate twentieth-century America, one is not required to pay in order to receive the object of the psalm; all we need to give back to the speaker is an openness of mind and willingness to read. Hence, the act of reading “Kaddish” engenders social as well as spiritual illumination, in its ability to place the exchange of spirit and ideas above monetary contract.
Estrangement in “Kaddish”
Strikingly, the poem begins with the word “strange,” immersing the reader in a subversive narrative, not appealing to holy or peaceful language that a poem called Kaddish would perhaps more suitably suggest. This word “strange” is repeated in the speculative description of Naomi’s nomadic lifestyle “moved thru Paterson, and the west, and Europe and here again.” There is a kind of fatigue to this description that polysyndeton helps to generate. The words “here again” enhance this and convey a sense of circularity as the emotional alienation to the speaker’s meditations becomes imposed onto his imagined past life of the deceased Naomi.
On one level, this recurrent notion of “strangeness” reflects the speaker’s sense of estrangement from his selfhood resultant from grief, as the profundity of mourning causes a feeling of disconnection from what were previously ordinary thoughts and memories relating to his mother, now posthumously infused with pain and a self-inflicted distance with the aim of protecting from that pain. Yet tied into this highly personal sensation of disjointedness there may also be a more general sense of the absurdity of the human condition, particularly our processes of thought — a uniquely flawed and incomplete method of computing the world — and arbitrary pursuits, illustrated here by Naomi’s upheaval to different homes. When the familiar realm of human thought and life is rendered “strange,” one is by implication pushed towards finding meaning in a transcendent space. Fascinatingly, the Kaddish prayer, though used as a crucial element of Jewish mourning rituals, does not mention death, but is focussed on celebrating God’s glory and praying for “abundant peace, and life, for us and for all Israel.”37 Likewise, Ginsberg’s elegy dwells not in death but in life, drawing out miracles from the torpor of the mundane, which arise amidst a fragmented and confused psychological landscape.
The depiction of trauma
The second section of “Kaddish” presents an opening line punctuated by dashes, perhaps in allusion to the poetic style of Dickinson who Ginsberg previously mentions in section I: “Over and over — refrain — of the Hospitals — still haven’t written your history — leave it abstract — a few images.” This line is thus not just in “remembrance of electrical shocks”38 but in remembrance too of one of the founding figures of US poetry, aligning Ginsberg’s poetic voice with Dickinson’s, so simultaneously paying homage to American literary tradition and infusing its narrative with the concerns of Ginsberg’s time.
Evidently, dashes connote fragmentation, in both the mind of the bereaved speaker, and that of Naomi while receiving electric shock treatment for madness in sanatoriums. There is thus something particularly disturbing about these lines as they seek to phonetically render the traumatizing experience of shock treatment, a relatively common process also described in Plath’s The Bell Jar, which would have been horrific to endure. The corrupted syntax here could also serve to illustrate the brokenness of life when haunted by mental illness — not just for Naomi herself, its sufferer, but for Allen Ginsberg during his childhood and the rest of their family.
The initial evocation “Over and over — refrain — of the Hospitals” suggests the invasive presence of hospital noise, either as literal sounds or the metaphorical resurgence of waves of disturbing hospital-based memories, cutting into the speaker’s psyche like a warbling alarm bell and obstructing his consciousness. This hinders his capacity for self-expression, which is reduced to the description of “a few images run[ning] through the mind,” perhaps because the full details of these memories are too painful to fully unearth and have so been consciously or subconsciously repressed.
Paradoxically, these flashes of recollection are elevated to the status of a “saxophone chorus of houses and years” — a musical image which carries with it beauty, and in the encompassing of “houses and years” pertains to the transcendent. Stilted by both internal pangs of trauma, and the mind-numbing stings of recalled electric shocks, this line packs the sense of its meaning being just beyond what is expressible through the speaker’s words. This tone of frustrated self-expression urges the reader to consider what is implied rather than said in this line, as in much of the rest of “Kaddish”; it is in these moments of silence that the dashes invite, especially in readings aloud, that the epiphanic occurs. In the poem’s conflict between light and darkness, lucidity and chaos, which gives it a fierce and at times unsettling energy, here emerges the triumph of stillness. This is an auditory representation of the serenity that the traditional Kaddish prayer in the Jewish faith attempts to deliver. The fact that snatches of peace are only attainable through the strife and extreme turmoil that is outlined in the poem’s harrowing imagery makes them more valuable, and we are given just enough transcendent elements to recognise this higher state as more powerful than Earthly confusions.
Dashes are used recurrently throughout the second section of Kaddish, punctuating almost every line. On one hand, this generates a sense of breakdown, the increased puncturing of the text mirroring Naomi’s psychological collapse and ultimate physical deterioration into death. More broadly, this could demonstrate the inevitable succumbing of all human life to ageing and decay, and/or allegorically represent the social context of the mid twentieth century, in which Western society had lost faith in a homogenous set of religious values, a phenomenon termed “the death of God” by Nietzsche. Thus, the formal evocation of disintegration throughout “Kaddish” could also be Ginsberg alluding to the breakdown of a cohesive identity shared within his society — a collective crisis, creating a void that materialism attempted to fill, a theme that I will explore in analysis of the poem “A Supermarket in California.”
On another level still, the deployment of dashes indicates the dissolution of language as an adequate vehicle for expressing the vast complexities of the human experience. What we see, therefore, in the second half of Kaddish, is not a disintegration into doom and despondency but in fact a firework display of language and image whose embers fizzle into obsoletion to permit vision of the spiritual truth that lies beyond their expressive capacities.
An instance of elevation which arises amidst the myriad of distress in “Kaddish,” in which darkness is explored on both a personal and national scale as the speaker moves from recounting a memory of “feeling depressed” to one of “the grey Depression,” is a pastoral image of the younger Naomi. The chaotic references to mental illness and political disruption are transcended by image of her “sitting crossleg on the grass — her long hair wound with flowers — smiling — playing lullabies on the mandoline,” a scene that is significantly immortalized as it is captured through Louis’ photography, and then through the second lens of the poem. The fact that Naomi is thus photographed while the disturbing images of her breakdowns are related only through the subjective camera of the speaker’s memories may suggest that it is when as an archetypal maternal figure “playing lullabies” and “smiling” that she is the realest form of herself.
Though temporary, this state of simple beauty and bucolic engagement is at the core of how the speaker remembers his mother. Our glimpse at Naomi immersed in peaceful creativity is framed by images of darkness, appearing after the words “Before the grey Depression” and directly preceding the sinister evocation of “poison ivy smoke in left-wing summer camps”; contrasting against these so dramatically, the image stands out as a pearl of spiritual conscience. Though transitory, it is powerful, connoting the pastoral genre and perhaps even reminiscent of the figure of Christ, the floral adornment of her hair an allusion to his laurel wreath. It is a touching image eliciting compassion, which may allow the reader to understand the less sympathetic depictions of Naomi throughout the poem (as “fat, ugly, doomed” or even more notably when the speaker suggests that “she was trying to make me come lay her”) not as signs of her essence but of an ugliness that results from the confusion that swallows her when her fragile mind attempts to make sense of a hostile and morally alienating universe.
Arguably the reason that “Kaddish” succeeds in being so disturbing is not just that it broaches grotesque themes, some of the most shocking scenes in all of Ginsberg’s poems occurring in the descriptions here braved of “red vomit coming out of her mouth,” “diarrhea water exploding from her behind,” genitalia cast as “ragged long lips between her legs.” More haunting and crucial is the sustained portrait that the poem conjures of the fragility of the human mind; in forcing the reader to confront this theme, Ginsberg tacitly destabilizes our relationship with a sense of the certainty of mental balance and an associated selfhood.
The poem’s shock-horror value and ability to penetrate the reader’s psyche lies not merely in its crudeness, but in the proximity that it places unsavoury concepts to familiar elements of our own reality: universal bodily functions and repressed demons, and their respective abilities to go awry or to rise up and derail our taken-for-granted sanity. Throughout “Kaddish,” he uses the story of Naomi to unearth the precarity of the position generally dwelt in by humanity, resting on the cusp of sanity and never far from its loss – a state exacerbated by the tensions of the modern world. This is a deeply unnerving realisation: a reality commonly obscured by social narratives for the sake of comfort and encouragement of subservience to the mythic constructs which underpin the functioning of Western civilisation.
Ginsberg’s “Sunflower Sutra” bursts with a range of vivid imagery, connecting the pastoral with a landscape of urban decay. Like “Howl,” this poem reveals spiritual conscience within a dejected environment which would conventionally appear incongruous with spirituality; rather than in a garden of Eden, Allen, and Jack are sat amongst “gnarled steel roots of trees of machinery.”39 A growth of consciousness and elevation in tone occurs throughout the poem, which is initially tethered in personal anecdote and describes the two men “rheumy-eyed and hungover like old bums,” then moves to encapsulate a sense of the collective, affirming “we’re all beautiful golden sunflowers inside” thus evoking a broader universal narrative.
Though “the dress of dust”40 can blanket individual experience, the word “dress” bringing with it connotations of pretension or artificiality, it is posited that when united, humankind is not comprised of “smut and smog and smoke” but a pure, sacred essence permitting creative authenticity, unearthed throughout the poem’s progression. “Sunflower Sutra” pays attention to the falsity of surface appearances versus the truer realm of soul, where people are more united, as in Allen and Jack sharing “the same thoughts of the soul.” Such a concern with the pretension of peripheries and need to move beyond the external is reiterated in the affirmation “we’re not our skins of grime,” favouring the inner above the outer self: a contentious statement in a culture whose ill-founded obsession with appearances is revealed in the debris of its “artificial worse-than-dirt” junkyard.
Ginsberg uses disorderly syntax like asyndeton to toy with the theme of madness, as if attempting to undermine the authority of his poetic voice and instead communicate a sense of unrestrained outburst, while also providing just enough lucidity to create an intricacy and intelligence which demands further analysis. Such an effect, used in both “Howl” and “Kaddish,” is clear in the final lines of “Sunflower Sutra”; the decrease in the number of conjunctions used culminates in an arresting image of the “mad locomotive riverbank sunset Frisco hilly tincan evening sitdown vision,” giving a sense of the speaker’s train of thought spinning wildly out of control. To some extent, this image also trivialises the poem itself, reducing it to a “mad vision” whose hectic stream of impressions viscerally generates the effect of madness. This mounting intensity echoes the mood which evolves in the third section of “Howl,” in which the speaker reiterates his solidarity with the mentally ill Carl Solomon.
At the close of “Sunflower Sutra”, Ginsberg comments on how the scene is “spied on by our eyes,” drawing attention back to the significance of subjectivity and personal impression. This humanises his narrative by bringing back our focus to the concrete presence of spectators Allen and Jack, yet also alludes to the transcendent through communicating a sense of rapturous celebration of the process of sight, and human ability to not only be aware of our world, but to recognise and appreciate this awareness.
Use of the word “sutra” in the poem’s title yokes together Eastern and Western modes of thought, deriving from the Sanskrit word sutra meaning thread or rule. As sutra describes a rule or aphorism within Sanskrit literature, its inclusion in the titling of Ginsberg’s poetry implicitly overturns the authoritative precedence of ordinary codes of rule which govern Western discourse. His project to “bring Hindu and Buddhist practices into the American mainstream” is clearly exposed here, linked to his identity as “a new kind of Jew: one who […] actively created a more complex identity than modern society had previously allowed.”41 Like much of Ginsberg’s poetry, “Sunflower Sutra” alludes to the active role that the poem plays in the process of spiritual revelation.
What is first cast as a “dead gray shadow” has life breathed into it through the process of being poetically depicted, evolving into “a perfect beauty of a sunflower.” As poetry re-injects life into this sunflower, it holds the implicit power of re-igniting spiritual conscience in a deadened universe. Such a wasted state of modernity is implied by the motif of the “dread bleak dusty imageless locomotive.” The automobile as a symbol of US identity recalls Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby in which cars, flashy embodiments of motorized, industrialized consumerism, are central to characters’ downfall. The dialogue that Ginsberg strikes with Fitzgerald is enhanced by ash-related imagery in “Sunflower Sutra,” recalling Gatsby’s valley of ashes.
Parallels can also be drawn between “Sunflower Sutra” and Whitman’s “A Passage to India,” as both express “the importance of returning to and acknowledging humanity’s roots through the characterization of the Eastern and Western worlds juxtaposed against each other.”42 Whitman’s poem, “reverent and hopeful” like Ginsberg’s, pays homage to the natural world and seeks peace in “the infinite greatness of the past.”43 We can recognise how Ginsberg’s drawing a folkloric sense of spirituality from within a contemporary landscape is intimately connected with past poetic tradition, implying its position beyond time and subsequent appeal for future readers.
“A Supermarket in California”
The power of Ginsberg’s allusion towards and ultimate achievement of transcendence in his work is heightened by his engagement with the broader tradition of US literature. While flouting convention, Ginsberg acknowledges a debt to past US poets who have inspired him: most notably, Whitman. Allusions to the discourse between poets across generations in their shared attempt to “make the private world public”44 suggest a historical as well as personal value to the truths struck at in Ginsberg’s poetry. Nowhere in his work is the consideration of trans-epochal emotional and thematic ties between his own artistry and that of his literary predecessors more evidently demonstrated than in the poem “A Supermarket in California.” Apostrophe is employed throughout this poem as he directly addresses the long-deceased Whitman in a spirit of admiration, camaraderie and play which unifies the writers as friendly companions.
It is fitting that the poem is set in a supermarket — a symbol of consumerism and capitalism, of a society in which the commodification of goods results in an amplified choice of consumer products, but a widespread sense of spiritual confusion as worship of the material replaces religious faith and community bonds. In “A Supermarket in California,” “everyday matters are evidenced with a critical and transcendentalist approach.” David Willis comments:
The Beats and the Transcendentalists came one hundred years apart, but were surprisingly similar literary and cultural movements, protesting against tradition, conformity, commercialism, industrialisation and urbanisation. Both sets of poets and writers tended to portray the wilderness as divine, contrasted against the gaudy human nightlife of the city. And both groups of poets wrote in times when danger loomed: Whitman before and during the Civil War, and the Beats following World War II, when the threat of nuclear war became very real.45
Despite a general Beat mood of disenfranchisement with the “gaudy human nightlife of the city,” in “A Supermarket in California,” access to the kind of enlightened experience that would be attainable in “the wilderness” doesn’t require leaving the supermarket environment. Rather, it can be achieved even from between its aisles if one knows where to look. That the supermarket which opposes spirituality through embodying the corrupt values of superficiality, commodification, and materialism is here home to a pilgrimage of poetic “odyssey,”46 fights against preconceived ideas about spiritual revelation, even contesting other voices within the Beat movement.
For example, Kerouac’s seminal text On the Road is driven forwards by a relentless hunger for speed, symbolised by the motif of the road, Sal and Dean’s recourse to constant motion acting as a quest to out-run the soul-destroying conformity of the static suburban American Dream that mainstream society would have them follow. In contrast, Ginsberg’s work finds a potential for spiritual fulfilment within and around symbols of cultural corruption, such as the supermarket, which are inimical to the realisation of Whitman’s Transcendentalist values.
It may be in part owing to this sense of spatial paradox that a tone of confusion is seeded in the poem, a lively and playful energy sustained as we are accosted by the juxtaposition of the miraculous with repeated tethers to arbitrary realities which appear to frustrate this effect, leading the speaker to “feel absurd47 in entertaining notions of transcendence. Unlike Kerouac, Ginsberg does not propose running across the continent, but rather turning to the inner self to unearth spiritual truth. His suggestion is that through looking within, one can uncover universal wisdom and a connection with figures like Whitman from America’s past who possess the capacity to guide an alienated individual in the twentieth century.
In dissecting the relationship between Walt Whitman and the writing of Ginsberg, Wills asserts:
Whitman’s American vision was one of criticism yet optimism, rather than the Beat philosophy of laying back and making their own little space in an essentially doomed society, while looking back to the past and lamenting the losses of freedoms and the rolling tide of development that led to the crushing weight of an uncaring world.48
Yet I would argue that contrary to Wills’s assertion, “A Supermarket in California” presents a world-view which is far from “doomed,” Ginsberg calling upon Whitman not to mourn the extinction of his Transcendentalist ideals but to resuscitate them. Though able to acknowledge negative forces at play in society, Ginsberg overturns their power with the light of hope, setting him apart from bleaker voices of his era and movement such as Bukowski, whose comparable poetry touches similar themes to negative conclusion. Ginsberg does not simply mourn what has been lost since the time of Whitman’s pre-industrial optimism but gleans from Whitman a spirit able to face modernity with forward-thinking power.
Poems like “A Supermarket in California” have continued resonance as they reconfigure Whitman’s ideological legacy for the eyes of a disenfranchised contemporary readership facing the political instabilities of 1950s America, with post-war communist suspicions and the looming threat of nuclear war. Though on the one hand markedly of its era, Ginsberg’s “A Supermarket in California” generates a timeless rhetorical appeal to the discourse between past and present in the voices of the speaker and the imagined Whitman. The speaker entreats Whitman to help both him and the reader make sense of America’s contemporary state in relation to its history, attempting to revive, or recreate a new set of values as the conventional American Dream has transpired to be a bitterly disappointing illusion. The question posed “where are we going, Walt Whitman?”49 is in one sense literal as the pair plan their stroll; it also metaphorically alludes to the future of culture and hope offered by literary exploration for subsequent generations as a pathway to break from restrictions of mainstream thought.
One of the poem’s most charming and quirky features is how it coalesces the arbitrary with the magical or transcendent. An example of this is in the exclamation “what peaches and what penumbras!”50; a peach, something tangible and sensory, is placed beside a far more abstract concept, a “penumbra” – the area of partial shade cast by an opaque object, a term used in relation to lunar eclipses. A supermarket aisle, arguably the most humdrum setting imaginable, here becomes colluded with concepts of astronomical gravitas.
The word “penumbra” directly corresponds to the overarching narrative of spiritual light dominating Earthly forces which shines through Ginsberg’s poetry, taking its origins from the Latin “paene” meaning “almost” and “umbra” meaning “shadow.” The evocation of an “almost shadow” is overall a lighter image than that merely of a shadow, necessarily implying the presence of light alongside partial darkness. We are at once made aware of full clarity being obscured and pointed towards the possibility of illumination, a physical allegory for the process of spiritual epiphany that can occur through engaging with poetry. Similarly, the description of how “trees add shade to shade”51 later in the poem gives an effect of layering, connoting a subtle gradient of tones, rather than stark blackness.
In “Howl,” the vivid portrayal of minds “starving hysterical naked” and third section’s mantra-like exclamations of holiness infuse its mood of spiritual uprising with strength and even a sense of rage; in contrast, “A Supermarket in California” generates a tone of tentative questioning and is riven with ambiguities.
One example of this is how the theme of light is exhibited in diverse forms ranging from the natural source of the “full moon” — a galactic entity that was also linked by Ginsberg with conceptions of individual identity, as he urged his supporters to “follow their inner moonlight” — to the artificially glimmering promise of the supermarket’s “neon” colouring, and gleam of its “brilliant stacks of cans.” These latter descriptions carry with them a falsity, indicating the dangerous myth perpetuated within 1950s US culture that the “hungry fatigue”52 of man’s spiritual needs could be satiated through consumer purchase, a “game of consuming items that can only cover physical needs (like hunger) in order to satisfy emotional needs.”53
It is only through harnessing awareness of this fallacy promoted by the voices of mainstream media and advertising, and engaging with the alternative pathway to fulfilment presented by art and poetry, that one can avoid falling prey to it. Tellingly, the poem closes with “lights out in the houses”54 — the insincerity of electric light finally dimmed at the end of the day to clear space for a silent, deeper place of spiritual understanding. While the poem’s final state of “lights out in the houses” could be perceived as an image of darkness, it in fact symbolises peace as the artificiality of electric light has been turned off to make way for a purer spiritual contemplative space.
“A Supermarket in California” was supposedly composed following a psychedelic drug trip that Ginsberg took in a supermarket one night. The impact of psychedelic experimentation on one’s perception can be seen as a metaphor for how poetry too affects understanding of reality. Using psychedelics and reading poetry are comparable experiences in that they both permit the ability to perceive ordinary reality through an alternative lens. While it is questionable whether tripping genuinely provides a higher perspective or simply gives the illusion of transcendence, the function of psychedelic drugs in offering space to step outside the mundane processes of everyday perception — a project also at the heart of the practice of poetry — paves the way to critique social values.
Such critique requires a level of psychological distance from one’s surroundings and their associated codes of value, possible only when mainstream convention is held up for external scrutiny. Ginsberg’s warning against consumerism remains sadly highly pertinent in the twenty-first century, arguably even more so than in 1955 when “A Supermarket in California” was published. In a climate of the democratically-elected presidency of Donald Trump, a figure who enshrines the USA’s cultural valuing of financial success and capitalist expansionism above humane ethics, the need to detach from these tenets of US life and rediscover authentic human connection in a “dreaming stroll”55 as outlined by Ginsberg is more pressing than ever before.
“Song,” a meditation upon the vulnerability of the human condition, and the simultaneous pressure and relief of romantic and sexual union, differs markedly from the other poems looked at here. Its brevity of lines conveys a humility of tone which contributes towards its opening a space of peace. These short lines alternate as if sustaining cautious equilibrium with one another in illustration of the notion of contrasts at the poem’s centre, building a majesty and beauty which are both aesthetic and conceptual. “Song” both visually approaches weight and light, and addresses these themes metaphorically. The depiction of its central subject – love – carefully balances heaviness and lightness. While love is introduced as “the weight of the world,” there is an irony to this depiction; many of the poem’s other elements, such as the delicate brevity of its lines, its intermittent anaphoric playfulness, and images such as “the warm bodies/ shine together/ in the darkness,”56 convey the quality of lightness, which opposes love’s initial definition as “weight.” Up until its final stanza, the first person singular is avoided, another factor which distinguishes “Song” from many of Ginsberg’s poems, in which pronouns “I” or “me,” bringing with them a sense of the anecdotal and of personal emotional investment, tend to appear near the start of the poem, intermingling subjectivity with wider concerns.
Ginsberg commented that “there’s a tendency to exaggerate the strangeness of the mind, and to over-stylize it, and over-rush it, […] rather than resting with it, or resting with what’s there.”57 He described paying close attention to one’s immediate surroundings as an antidote to the danger of overly self-involved writing. This fed into his appreciation of the Japanese haiku form, which gives a detailed, impressionistic depiction of its subject, like how an impressionist painting approaches image, and of Williams’ poetry, which stresses the importance of rendering an image in its sensory forms. “Song,” perhaps more than any other of Ginsberg’s works, exhibits an intent to “rest with what’s there,” encapsulating great themes in a more compact form, one sentence often going over many short lines while in “Howl,” “Kaddish,” “Sunflower Sutra,” and “A Supermarket in California”; each line contains a flow of ideas.
The lines “and so must rest/ in the arms of love/ at last,/ must rest in the arms/ of love” seem particularly attuned with the melodic implications of the poem’s title, conveying a lullaby-like rhythm through repetition. Additionally, sibilance creates a soporific effect, and the exclusive use of monosyllabic words augments the delicacy of rhythm. “Song” at once nurtures a profound sense of intimacy, venturing into the private sphere as it exists “in dreams,” “in thought” and “in imagination,” and inhabits the universal. For example, when describing love’s dwelling in “the heart burning with purity,”58 this image is in one sense anatomical, “burning” conveying the tangible, fleshy notion of carnal desire, and grounding the image within that of a living, breathing human body.
On another level, “the heart” hints at the core or crux of something, such as the human experience, reinforcing love to be something that “we” rather than “I” bear the weight of. “Song” casts light onto universal traits of softness and vulnerability, deeply moving as it explores the tender aspect of Ginsberg’s spirituality. The sensitive essence that “Song” uncovers contrasts harsher notes which emerge across Ginsberg’s poetry, providing a perspective crucial to encompass within investigation of his spiritual project.
The blend of linguistic, formal and semantic frameworks which are interwoven to generate the unique form of spirituality in the poetry of Allen Ginsberg has the power to spark entire books of discussion and remain inviting further query. Therefore, summarizing how spirituality triumphs in Ginsberg’s works – and perhaps more crucially, why its doing so is a matter of importance now and in future generations – in the space of a few paragraphs will necessarily leave room for further investigation. Due to the expansive potential of this theme and wealth of pre-existing literature on the subject, I have found it necessary to hone my analysis to a targeted crop of Ginsberg’s poetry, and direct analytical energy with care amongst these richly textured works, as exhausting them in 12,000 words would be an impossible task. I have sought to harness and to transmute from abstract into essence the core of Ginsbergian spirituality: an entrancing energy whose nature is not so much scripturally religious as broadly transcendent, pulsing through the figures depicted in his poetry indiscriminately.
This “king kind light of mind”59 which flashes to the forefront across the darker themes raised in “Howl,” “Kaddish,” “Sunflower Sutra,” “A Supermarket in California” and “Song” is a signal of victory against all in the world which is contrived, prescribed and stifling: elements of our existence which mar the fulfilment of connecting with the higher self, in which state we are at our most authentic.
On one hand, such obstructions to direct engagement with spirituality are symptomatic of all human life: the interventions of worry imposed by our thinking mind onto experience, limiting our capacity to live in its flow; the emotional disappointments that we uncover in finding our relationships flawed and ourselves at times falling short of how we would wish to be; the conflict between individual desires and instincts against the pressures, expectations and structures of our governing societies. Other barriers that Ginsberg fights against in his quest for spiritual triumph are specific to his time and place of writing. These include consumerist capitalism, social stigma surrounding themes such as homosexuality and mental instability, an industrialized environment whose machinery jeopardizes man’s connection with the natural world, and dogmatic pursuit of the conventional American Dream.
Understanding Ginsberg as an American poet rather than simply a poet adds another layer of meaning to his mission. Another of his poems, “America,” explicitly develops a relationship between its speaker and an anthropomorphized figure depicting US society and culture, intermingling humour and wordplay with serious comments on the different facets of the America that Ginsberg was living in, from nuclear warfare and the arms race to celebrity-venerating media outlets (i.e. Time magazine) to wealth inequality and its denial by the government (“I say nothing about […] the millions of underprivileged who live in my flowerpots”).
More broadly, it depicts the sense of struggle between the individual and the establishment – a conflict which, though here linked with specifically American icons and entities, resonates with readers in societies around the world as we grapple to reconcile our personal identities with the confusions of the socialized world into which we are born. “America” culminates in the closing half-joking address “America I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel,”60 suggesting the speaker’s intention to take charge of the narrative of US history. This could be a response to the final line of William Carlos Williams’ 1923 poem “To Elsie,” whose image of “no one to drive the car”61 refers to the absence of an authoritative presence appropriate to drive US society forwards. The speaker in “America” self-elects as this figure, suggesting not simply that culture will be moved forwards in a direction that is more accepting of queerness but that those “queer” citizens previously suppressed and outcast will take the wheel moving American history forwards, paving the road of the future.
Movement towards spiritual light is part of a broader quest for freedom in many different areas striven towards in Ginsberg’s poetry. He pushes for liberation in spheres of the social, sexual and even historical, as the innovations of form exhibited in seminal works like “Howl” and “Kaddish” imply an attempt to re-work standard patterns of narrative. Even as a sense of rapture is brought to fruition in Ginsberg’s poems, the shades of confusion they encounter while reaching for this dynamic elevation remain present to some extent beyond their closing lines.
One such hint of unresolved struggle occurs in “Sunflower Sutra,” when the speaker cries: “O my soul, I loved you then!” There is a duality in the tone of this line which seems to engender both grief and jubilation – the poem’s primary function being the latter, as it blooms like a phoenix from the ashes of industrial decay and presents the promise of life in what is at first glimpse a wasteland.
While Ginsberg’s poetry brims with enthusiasm to sketch out a “New Vision” of uninhibited sensual freedom, emotional self-expression and spiritual self-actualization that reconnects man with his natural mode of being, it also exhibits the difficulties of loss and struggle in human life, occasionally faltering into self-doubt. “Kaddish” strongly typifies such complexities through its conflicted speaker voice, whose exultant sanctification of the deceased Naomi Ginsberg – and alongside her, exploration of the potential for holiness within multifarious aspects of life – must contend with the alienating factors of sickness, grief and shades of aesthetic horror.
The personal investment of Ginsberg’s bereavement makes “Kaddish” an incredibly raw and close to home poem, explicitly connected with a pivotal event in its writer’s life in a way that does not occur elsewhere in his poems that I have looked at, though they all contain confessional elements. “Howl,” peppered with vibrant allusions to higher consciousness, teases and challenges its reader by merging these with debased content and profane imagery, almost as if daring us to contest the poem’s assertions of metaphysical greatness.
Unlike “Howl,” which draws from an intense, brazen and at times harrowing field of imagery, “A Supermarket in California” is more delicate in tone. Its conflict relating to the theme of enlightenment and the poem’s capacity to deliver this is less war-like and more a teetering attempt to balance the playful discarding of cultural impositions with uncertainty about the future direction of literary discourse and developments in the broader trajectory of American culture. “Song” presents a more self-assured voice, anchored in the universality of the “miracle” of love and its portal to a higher mode of being, which is implied as its speaker rhetorically asks “who can deny?” this truth.
Though formally and thematically, “Song” is the simplest of the poems I have looked at, its concision encapsulates allusive sophistication and its message is one of fortitude and power, summarizing the essence of Ginsberg’s spiritual conscience, which draws out strength from images of delicate beauty.
Ginsberg’s incredible skill as a poet lies not only in the ideas that he renders through original and creative imagery, sonic effects and formal innovation, or in the revelations that these concepts hold, but also in the questions that his poetry prompts readers to ask of themselves and the world they inhabit.
To understand Ginsberg, we must engage with profound considerations about what it means to be human and to feel truly alive – or truly oneself – in a corporate universe which deadens this capacity. That mainstream Western society has taken strides in developing more liberal and open-minded values than those of Ginsberg’s time of writing may render some of his work’s outspoken references to drugs, sex and other potentially blasphemous ideas such as the fusion of homoeroticism with spirituality less subversive now than they were to his contemporary readership.
This is evidenced through how “Howl,” once tried for obscenity, has been assimilated into the US canon and received academic acclaim, now celebrated in lecture halls and the subject of much academic writing. Yet never more than now does the legacy that shines through Ginsberg’s poetry glare with the need to be heard, as is revealed through the reference to “Howl” in 2014 collection Hold Your Own by seminal modern poet Kate Tempest. Her recrafting of Ginsberg’s epic verse in the line “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by payment plans”63 hammers home his relevance not only in the world of scholarly analysis but to the living, morphing rhythms of twenty-first century life and their outlets of cultural expression.
While Ginsberg may not offer us ten commandments that we can turn to in blind recourse, the prophetic brilliance which radiates through his work and overflows from it into his readers’ lives is infinitely more valuable. It re-ignites the eternal spark within us, fostering the seeds to make room for light and authentic connection over darkness, or apparent bleakness of inner conflicts, political gloom or other disillusioning factors in our surroundings. The infinitely unfolding possibilities of unpacking “inner moonlight” within the poetry of Allen Ginsberg and connecting this with higher consciousness render our doing so a quest of undying importance and interest.
1 Note: this is based on definitions from Dictionary.com <https://www.dictionary.com/browse/transcendent>
2 Allen Ginsberg, Howl, Kaddish and other Poems (London: Penguin Classics, 2009), p. viii
3 Ibid., p. vii.; Ibid., p. n/a, quoting Original Dedication to Howl and Other Poems (Allen Ginsberg, 1961); Ibid., p. vii.
4 Ibid., p. 12.; Ibid., p. 19.
5 Ibid., p. 31.
6 Ibid., p. 1.
7 A. Robert Lee, Modern American Counter Writing: Beats, Outriders, Ethnics (New York: Routledge 2010), p. 12.; Ibid., p. 12.; Ibid., p. 12.
8 Ibid., p. 14.
9 Jay Stevens, Storming Heaven: LSD and the American Dream (Flamingo: London 1993), p. 168.; Ibid., p. 168.; Ibid., p. 168.
10 Ibid., p. 164.
11 Lee, p. 14.
12 Rodosthenous, George, “The dramatic imagery of ‘Howl’: the [naked] bodies of madness.’”Howl for Now. Route Publishing. Pontefract, UK, pp. 53-72
13 Ibid., p. 53
14 McClure, Michael, Scratching the Beat Surface: Essays on New Vision from Blake to Kerouac (Middlesex: Penguin Books 1994), p.94.
15 Ibid. p. 95.
16 Percy Shelley, “A Defence of Poetry” (1840), cited on <https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/percy-bysshe-shelley>, [accessed 25 January 2019]
17 Ginsberg, Howl, Kaddish and Other Poems, p. 3.
18 Nelson, Paul, “Projective Verse: The Spiritual Legacy of the Beat Generation”, Humanities, 7, 102 (2018) – citing Duncan and Levertov.
19 Ginsberg, Allen, “Spiritual Poetics – 7”, The Allen Ginsberg Project, (8 August 2011) <https://allenginsberg.org/2011/08/spiritual-poetics-7/> [accessed 25 October 2018].
20 Definitions taken from Google dictionary
21 Ginsberg, Howl, Kaddish and Other Poems, p. 2.
22 Ibid., p. 21.
23 Ibid., p. 2.
24 Ibid., p. 5.; Donne, John, “Batter My Heart”, <https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44106/holy-sonnets-batter-my-heart-three-persond-god> [accessed 13 March 2019]; Ginsberg, Howl, Kaddish and Other Poems, p. 1.
25 Schumacher, Michael, On Being a Writer, (1989), p.47. (ed. By Bill Strickland) <http://ginsbergblog.blogspot.com/2011/06/mystery-of-inner-moonlight.html> [accessed 20 March 2019].
26 Bob Dylan, “Mr Tambourine Man,” track on Bringing it All Back Home (Columbia Records, 1965).
28 Ginsberg, Howl, Kaddish and Other Poems, p. 8.; Bob Dylan, “Mr Tambourine Man.”
29 The Velvet Underground, “Oh Sweet Nuthin’,” track 10 on Loaded (Cotillion Records, 1970).
30 Nelson, Paul, “Projective Verse: The Spiritual Legacy of the Beat Generation,” Humanities, 7, 102 (2018) p.1.; Ibid., p. 11.
31 Chabad.org, “Kaddish: About Kaddish” <https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/514160/jewish/Kaddish.htm> [accessed 20 February 2019].
32 Muñoz, José Esteban, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (Sexual Cultures), (New York: NYU Press, 2099) p. 25.
33 Ginsberg, Howl, Kaddish and Other Poems, p. 57.
34 Abram, Dario, “Walt Whitman: Homoeroticism in Leaves of Grass,” American Literature 2012, Academia.edu <https://www.academia.edu/1570057/Walt_Whitman_Homoeroticism_in_Leaves_of_Grass>
35 Simon & Garfunkel, “Blessed,” track 3 on Sounds of Silence (Columbia Records, 1966); Ibid.
36 Saul Austerlitz, “Allen Ginsberg,” My Jewish Learning <https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/allen-ginsberg/> [accessed 18 March 2019].
37 Chabad.org, “Kaddish,” [accessed 20 February 2019]
38 Ginsberg, Howl, Kaddish and Other Poems, p. 41.
39 Ginsberg, Howl, Kaddish and Other Poems, p. 19.
40 Ibid., p. 20.
41 Ariel, Yakov, “From a Jewish Communist to a Jewish Buddhist: Allen Ginsberg as a Forerunner of a New American Jew,” Religions 10(2), 100 (2019) <Ma href=”https://doi.org/10.3390/rel10020100″>https://doi.org/10.3390/rel10020100>; Ibid.
42 Beat Literature & the World, “A Comparison of Allen Ginsberg and Walt Whitman,” online blog posted by esprings, (7 November 2013)
<https://beatworldbeatitude.wordpress.com/2013/11/07/a-comparison-of-allen-ginsberg-and-walt-whitman/> [accessed 21 December 2018].
43 Ibid.; Ibid.
44 Columbia University online, C250, “Allen Ginsberg” <http://c250.columbia.edu/c250_celebrates/remarkable_columbians/allen_ginsberg.html> [accessed 20 March 2019].
45 Wills, David, “Whitman and the Beats,” Beatdom Vol. 1 p. 82-85, (2009) <http://www.beatdom.com/Whitman_and_the_beats.htm>, [accessed 28 January 2019] p. 83.
46 Ginsberg, Howl, Kaddish and Other Poems, p. 14.
47 Ibid., p. 14.
48 Willis, “Whitman and the Beats,” p. 83.
49 Ginsberg, Howl, Kaddish and Other Poems, p. 14.
50 Ibid., p. 14.
51 Ibid., pp. 14 – 15.
52 Ibid., p. 14.; Ibid., p. 14.; Ibid., p. 14.
53 San Cristóbal, María Margarita, “The Poem ‘A Supermarket in California’ Evidences how Self-identity is Commodified and Massified in Consumer Societies” (unpublished doctoral thesis, Universidad de Concepción, Chile 2009)., pp. 7-8.
54 Ginsberg, Howl, Kaddish and Other Poems, p. 15.
55 Ibid., p. 15.
56 Ibid., p. 30; Ibid., p. 31.
57 Ginsberg, Allen, “Spiritual Poetics – 7,” The Allen Ginsberg Project, (8 August 2011) <https://allenginsberg.org/2011/08/spiritual-poetics-7/> [accessed 25 October 2018].
58 Ginsberg, Howl, Kaddish and Other Poems, p. 30; Ibid., p.30.
59 Ibid., p. 2.
60 Ibid., p. 24.; Ibid., p. 25.
61 Williams, Carlos Williams, “To Elsie,” <https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46485/to-elsie>, [accessed 11 March 2019].
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