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The Poetry & Politics of Allen Ginsberg – Review by Marc Olmsted

By Eliot Katz
Beatdom Books

In the last 25 years of his life, Allen Ginsberg championed a half-dozen young poets with some regularity. One of these poets was Eliot Katz, who has proven to be the most politically active voice of that amorphous group.

One key to understanding the vast range of Ginsberg’s impact is to see how these once-young poets, such as Antler, David Cope and Andy Clausen, have taken aspects of his perception and forged ahead with them. Katz’s specialty is politics, but he is not Buddhist, nor is he gay. None of the young poets Ginsberg found promising were active in all the arenas of Ginsberg’s life. That is why there is only one Allen Ginsberg.

The Poetry & Politics of Allen Ginsberg

In his later years, Allen tried very hard to make clear what he meant by Buddhism, meditation, politics, ecology and sexual desire. But as one dials back Ginsberg in time, before he relied on a mediation teacher or even practiced at all, to understand him we must turn to the scholars who have excavated that meaning.

Luckily, Ginsberg is a scholar’s delight, because, thanks to the likes of Gordan Ball and Bill Morgan, a good deal of his journals and letters have been organized, and present an excellent portrait of an earlier Allen..

Still, the best insights into Allen’s ouvre come from those like Katz who knew him personally and directly ASKED him about his work. This astounding treasure trove of unwritten anecdotal evidence is, unfortunately, not honored in the current form of academic inquiry, which puts more weight on primary written sources that can be cited. The task of scholars like Eliot Katz is thus to create those primary sources. The more these anecdotal stories are written down, the less defensible are certain conclusions reached by academics writing in isolation,. whose only real connection is, at best, shaking their subject’s hand at some literary event. The academic exception is Ann Charters, who sought out Jack Kerouac in his final years and is an important source of information on a largely reclusive figure. But Charters is unique. And, her biography of Kerouac is the first, but it is not the best. (Gerald Nicosia’s Memory Babe remains unsurpassed.)

The crown jewel of Katz’s book is the final essay, where he not only thoughtfully examines Ginsberg’s various strains of political thought and influence, but continues on to reflect on the impact of Ginsberg’s political poetry.. It is an extremely sharp analysis of poetry as a social force. Still, Katz can only go so far. For instance, Ginsberg described his own Tibetan teacher Trungpa’s organizational structure as an “experiment in monarchy” (Tom Clark’s Great Naropa Poetry Wars, pg. 32). This non-democratic aspect doesn’t enter into the discussion at all, and frankly, even with my own sympathies for the “Shambhala Court”, I don’t want to have to defend it, any more than Allen’s joining NAMBLA is a choice I would want to attempt to explain. What we are left with is a lot of questions for a man who is no longer there to answer them, even if he wrote or spoke about them while alive. Many of us caught up with his thinking too late to carry on a dialog to clarify it.

Since “Howl” is Ginsberg’s most famous poem, (though “Kaddish” is his highest critical achievement), it is no surprise that Katz turns to this work to begin his analysis. What Katz does, masterfully, is recreate the political climate that “Howl” rose out of, so that Katz does not have to address the political statement of “Howl,” just merely show how it assaulted the conceptual hallucination that America shared at that time. Though Katz does bring up some excellent precursors of “Howl”‘s poetic composition, and acknowledges Kerouac’s influence, he doesn’t come to the point John Tytell makes in his book Naked Angels (p.216-217), where Tytell arranges a passage of Kerouac’s pre-“Howl” novel Visions of Cody (published posthumously) into poetic line and essentially shows a major influence of “Howl”. Ginsberg, always expressed his literary debt to Kerouac, but scholars who prefer Ginsberg to Kerouac tend to regard this gesture as one of friendship.. Katz begins a very promising line of thought regarding Ginsberg’s Reichian analysis experience and “Howl”, underlining the connection between politics and sexuality so prominent in this poem. But Katz does not seem to understand that, Wilhelm Reich’s theories aside, the therapy itself is experientially based on observing and manipulating how a patient breathes, not an intellectual talk-therapy extension of Reich’s writings. So “Howl” Part One can’t be seen as a Reichian “therapeutic maneuver,” but instead, a possible product of the therapy Ginsberg already experienced, including even the long breath-line that is at the core of its structure, suggesting an “unarmored” solar plexus allowing such a deep breath.

“Kaddish” can also be placed in a political context without a political agenda. Allen’s mother, Naomi Ginsberg, was a Marxist-Leninist, and when madness overtook her, the demons she experienced were not from the Pit, but from the American government, which, she thought, was spying on her, wiring her, manipulating her—in short, demented accuracy. One of Ginsberg’s greatest regrets was agreeing to the lobotomy prescribed for her by the Institution that was the projection of all she feared. He is barely into puberty when he had to make this decision. His democratic socialist poet-father Louis has already separated from Naomi, unable to deal with her anymore. This terrible choice allowed for Allen’s great tolerance for the mad behavior of his future friends.

Katz shows spectacular literary insight into “Kaddish,” in particular limning its structural influences from Emily Dickinson; aspects of Hart Crane and Percy Shelley also enter into Katz’ discussion. Katz also speaks briefly of other Ginsberg poems during this period, which represent Ginsberg’s beginning experimentations with LSD. Katz refers to an essay of Allen’s that I always found fascinating, “Prose Contribution to the Cuban Revolution,” written in 1961. The main thesis is clearly stated: “Widen the area of consciousness.” In some ways, Katz minimizes this statement as related to drugs alone, though I posit that it is the core of Ginsberg’s political thrust from this time on. It is not limited to drugs, but to a solution that Allen believed was the root of any political change; from his connection with Chogyam Trungpa, beginning in 1970, his public appearances were dominated by actual meditation instruction for the audience. This political agenda can be understood as follows: to end the abuses of capitalism, one must cut through greed. To end war, one must cut through personal aggression.

I was pleased to see “Wichita Vortex Sutra” as the next poem for analysis, as it is one of Allen’s most significant works.

       Approaching Salina,

Prehistoric excavation, Apache Uprising

      in the drive-in theater

  Shelling Bombing Range     mapped in the distance,

  Crime Prevention Show, sponsor Wrigley’s Spearmint

  Dinosaur Sinclair advertisement, glowing green—

South 9th Street lined with poplar & elm branch

   spread over evening’s tiny headlights—

  Salina Highschool’s brick darkens Gothic

       over a night-lit door—

 or this section...

Put it this way on the radio

Put it this way in television language

          Use the words

           language, language:

        “A bad guess”

Put it this way in headlines

  Omaha World Herald—Rusk Says Toughness

         Essential for Peace

Put it this way

  Lincoln Nebraska morning Star—

       Vietnam War Brings Prosperity


Katz refers frequently to Buddhism, but try as he might to present it accurately, he must rely on others to elucidate what Allen’s Buddhism was. Katz depends solely on Tony Trigilio’s Allen Ginsberg’s Buddhist Poetics, which certainly sounds like a reputable text, but many of its inferences are the author’s alone. I feel it leads to questionable conclusions that further blur rather than clarify. ( See my review.)

Far more clarifying are Ginsberg’s own words late in life: “The problem I had in India was that I didn’t know what to ask for. I went there looking for a teacher and I saw many swamis, but I didn’t know enough to ask them for a meditation practice. Which was the simplest way in? What kind of meditation do you do, and can you suggest a practice? I was too dumb to ask that.”

As mentioned in my critique of Allen Ginsberg’s Buddhist Poetics, the chanting of “Om” itself is not a Buddhist practice, but Hindu, as is his chanting of “Hare Krishna” which he can be seen doing on William F. Buckley’s Firing Line in 1968.

So the idea of Ginsberg returning from India with some sort of Buddhist practice is not really supportable. Regardless of how he declared himself, Allen didn’t distinguish between the conclusions of Eastern religion in general. Later, under Chogyam Trungpa’s tutelage, he would come to understand that Buddhism’s departure is in its non-theism (no Creator God – meaning there is no divine plan or scheme other than an agreed upon mutual hallucination) and its invalidation of any fixed reference point, including an immortal soul (the consciousness that achieves rebirth is once again a perpetuating hallucination of ignorance, not a divine spark). The concepts of no Creator God and no soul would have a huge impact in how he regarded the early Blake visions he experienced in the late 1940s and later drug trips on LSD and yagé (ayahuasca).

Instead, Ginsberg’s lineage into the spontaneity and cut-up montage of “Wichita Vortex Sutra” comes directly from Keroauc’s Buddhism and Burroughs’ own “homemade yankee tantra” (as Allen later called it) – the cut-up developed with Brion Gysin that would preoccupy Burroughs for a good deal of his life, due to its synchronistic and sometimes startlingly prophetic results. Ginsberg allowed this cut-up to occur in his direct perception.

An in-depth analysis of “Wichita Vortex Sutra” can’t be done without examining where Ginsberg got the phrase “Wichita Vortex”. There is the long version, which can be found in my article in Beat Scene 68, Summer 2012 (“Mapping the Wichita Vortex: Conversations with Robert Branaman, Michael McClure, and Charles Plymell” pg. 45-50). The short version is summed up by Robert Branaman in the recent half-hour documentary “Wichita Vortex, ” a KPTS documentary: “The center of America…is what the Vortex is…immense energy that bespeaks of America that radiates out and in…”

In “Highway Poesy: L.A. – Albuquerque – Texas – Wichita” (Ginsberg, Collected Poems pg. 396), another poem written around the same time as “Wichita Vortex Sutra,” Allen mentions all of these Vortex players: Bruce Conner, Michael McClure, Robert Branaman and Charles Plymell. (McClure is also mentioned briefly in “Wichita Vortex Sutra.”)

“Plymell and his friends inventing the Wichita Vortex contribute to a tradition stretching back to Poe…” Ginsberg also stated in his intro to Plymell’s 1966 Apocalypse Rose.

None of this is available by examining “Wichita Vortex Sutra” on the page, so Katz cannot be faulted for not stumbling on the few bread crumbs that lead back to unlocking the deeper truth of the poem.

Allen in no way makes this easy work, and it is a problem emblematic of this period of his oveure–what I call ‘psychedelic syntax’, a logical extension of Kerouac’s influence, an effort to record the mind as is, and then further influenced by mind observations during drug experiments. Ginsberg was attempting to get to the roots of language and image as they arose in his conscious and as he observed under psychedelics, yet he did not necessarily feel that the connections between synaptic flashes were important. Later, under the influence of Tibetan lama Chogyam Trungpa and a return to the objectivism of William Carolos Williams, he would not only make sure he was understood, but that his students did not imitate this style of self-involved recording of mind’s movement. For me, this is the real manifestation of Ginsberg’s own Buddhist poetics, as he himself took on both meditation practice and theory.

Katz next selects “Plutonian Ode” and “September on Jessore Road” as Ginsberg’s final major political statements.

While “Plutonian Ode” has the best of intentions and works well in Katz’s overall thesis, Ginsberg very much wanted it to be his new “Howl,” but it is too self-conscious to achieve that majesty. Tangled in elaborate footnotes, Ginsberg as teacher violates his own rules of spontaneity and becomes didactic. Critically, it will not likely be regarded as one of his greater late works, simply because Ginsberg tries too hard to place it there.

Still, it is perhaps the most complete package of political action from poem to protest. A photo from the protest in 1978 that followed is the cover of Katz’s book, perhaps one of the most compelling images of engaged Buddhism that currently exists, and ironically, considerably more powerful than the poem “Plutonian Ode” itself. It shows Ginsberg, among others, sitting in meditation on the train tracks into the Rocky Flats, Colorado nuclear plant that made plutonium triggers for these bombs. This stopped the train entering the facility until everyone was arrested and removed.

What does it suggest? Non-violence in the tradition of Martin Luther King and Ghandi, supported by basic Buddhist meditation, eyes open, head and shoulders erect in simple dignity. Both Allen and his long-time companion Peter Orlovsky look particularly heroic in their lack of distraction, suggesting actual accomplishment of practice, while cops hover about, the iconography of their uniforms and preparations in startk contrast to the protestors’ passivity.

Katz’s choice of “September on Jessore Road” is provocative and eye-opening. It made me reconsider the poem and the song, and I found myself agreeing with Katz’s assessment of its importance.

In “Versus Written for Student Anti-Draft Registration Rally,” Katz says that Ginsberg creates “a new mythic figure, the ‘Warrior.'” It is another example of Katz’s disconnection from Tibetan lama Chogyam Trungpa’s Shambhala teachings—-the “Sacred Warrior” of these Shambhala texts is the exact figure that Ginsberg is referencing, though again there would be no way for Katz to know this from the poem itself. In short, this warrior’s fearlessness is very similar to the goal of some of the more Taoist and Buddhist influenced martial arts: the greatest warrior has no need to fight and does not come from a place of aggression. Fearlessness is facing the facts of existence without paranoia and acquisitiveness. This kind of warrior can face the plutonium train by sitting on the tracks.

Less convincingly, Katz champions “Capitol Air,” a song that Ginsberg performed with the Clash and my own band the Job (as well as, I’m sure, many other New Wave bands, unknown to me). The biggest problem with “Capitol Air” is that 1) it is too long and 2) it has no chorus. Musically speaking, monotony almost immediately sets in. I myself only really “heard” the poem when Allen’s protégé Andy Clausen recited it without musical accompaniment; all of its humor and eccentricity were far more evident. It is strange to me that Allen, extremely successful crafting both his William Blake melodies and often-humorous harmonium songs, seemed, in spite of his enthusiasm for the genre, oblivious to some of the requirements of a punk song: brevity, energy, and a memorable chorus.

Far more musically satisfying is Ginsberg’s “CIA Dope Calypso,” an especially effective teaching tool about CIA drug trafficking. Of course, Allen’s ditties such as “Do the Meditation” are also wonderful and instructive. When sharing the stage with Tibetan lama Anam Thupten (DNA Lounge, San Francisco, October 3, 1996), Allen asked him to explain Tibetan Buddhism , he said Allen already had, referring to Allen’s having earlier performed this song. I can think of no higher praise.

Eliot Katz’s book The Poetry and Politics of Allen Ginsberg deserves to be part of any academic reading list. It is a labor of love, intelligence and humility. Outside of any classroom, one can almost hear the ghost of William Burroughs drawling, “Edify your mind, my dear.” Pick up a copy of this ground-breaking book.

Marc Olmsted

Poetry Reviews

1 thought on “The Poetry & Politics of Allen Ginsberg – Review by Marc Olmsted

  1. Marc’s review of Eliot Katz’s work is brilliant and elucidating. Insights into Allen G and Buddhism, in context of the political and personal, puts this book on my must read soon list.

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