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Allen Ginsberg: Prophet of America

But Jesus said to them, "A prophet is not without honor except in his own country and in his own house." -- Matthew, 13:57

If we take a step back from Blake and see him in his historical context we see that he marks the beginning of a fundamental change in English language poetry. The poet, rather than representing the voice of the civilized, cultured society, became the voice of alienation and separation from society. The poet was outside the culture's limiting structure, disillusioned by its elitism, social injustice, industrialism, materialism, and by its headlong plunge into a vacuum of spiritual deterioration and directionlessness. Urizenic industrialism, justified and driven by scientific progress, alienated not only the artist from society but man from the work of his hands, man from the land, man from man.

The voice within has never spoken of material things. It has always spoken in the spiritual language of things spiritual, leading those who listen to it into alienation from this world, even into madness. The upside of this equation is a cliche of the modern era: that out of alienation and madness comes great art. In America this cliche is a comforting proposition for the culture, because it implies that rampant materialism and mass conformity to a capitalistic material dream leads to a harmless, alienated, artistic minority which creates art and hence ironically justifies the societal structure it condemns. The alienated artist, then, becomes living proof to which the society can point to prove its freedoms of expression, tolerance, and diversity; but at no time does the society lose control of its rebellious minority, at least in theory. As artistic trends appear, the society does its best to adopt the trend into the mainstream of the culture, in a watered-down form, stripped of its original meaning and context.

The Beat poets, among whom was Allen Ginsberg, found themselves by the late 1950s faces with a grotesque caricature of themselves in the American media: the goateed hip-talking beatnik drinking espresso in dark coffeehouses, listening to jazz. The Beats were absorbed into the mainstream of the American consciousness through the media image of goofy, off-the-wall, but ultimately harmless objects of comic relief.

The creative artist of this nation has more to worry about than the vast inertia of a materialistic-oriented society. He or she must also avoid being absorbed and perverted by the clever enemy. If the mainstream media, the image-making instrument of this society, cannot latch onto a generic type, it will take an individual artist and create a dazzling facade, a sparkling, palatable media idol: the celebrity. Before becoming a celebrity, before being scrambled on the skillet of the public media-mind, before being edited and re-manufactured into a media phenomenon (though never losing control of his personal or artistic integrity) Allen Ginsberg began what he saw as his mission. He later described the original intent of his poetry:

"The presumption was of prophecy, part Blakean inspiration, part ordinary mind from Whitman...that is to say, the poet who speaks from his frank heart in public speaks for all hearts."

(Ginsberg, Foreword, X)

And then wryly comments on his celebrity status:

"Diabolic egoism? Unthinkable to presume in advance that this path might lead to a Hell of media Selfhood replicated vulgar, obnoxious Ginsberghoods troublemaking throughout America with spiteful lecherous hypocrite trips, projecting cowardly, and aesthetic forms o'er the world, in Ossianic yawps."

(Ginsberg, Foreword, IX)

Ginsberg generally holds the established media, of which he was a victim, in low regard. In looking for articles and interviews on Ginsberg, in fact, the usual sources are useless, and one finds oneself seeking out obscure publications, many of which are now defunct. So although Ginsberg declares that "An early impulse to treat scholars, newsmen, agents, reporters, interviewers as sentient beings being equal in Buddha-nature to fellow poets turned me on to answer questions as frankly as possible." (Ginsberg, Bib. IX) he still felt that "the fugitive speech imagery of Underground Press was closer to literary history beauty than the more truncated and style-censored 'above ground' newspaper interview prose."

Despite their subsequent fate in the minds of the American public, the Beats were in the early 50s making an important literary and historical statement. The nucleus of the "Beat Generation" was in San Francisco, where Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso, Philip Whalen, Gary Snyder and others gained widespread attention for their public readings. The movement found allied movements in Boston, Berkeley, Black Mountain and New York City. All of these movements rejected academic verse as a viable model for the composition of poetry. Looking to Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams as groundbreaking forebears, they expanded upon their achievements and developed a totally new conception of poetry, making a complete break from the established literary world. They created their own press, their own public, and their own conception of poetry as a public performance art in the ancient oral tradition.

As an American phenomenon, the Beats drew their rhythmic inspiration from a uniquely American source: jazz. The revolutionary bebop movement in jazz in the 1940s gave the Beats their notion of the poetic line being a breath, like the spontaneous saxophone line in the music of Charlie Parker, Lester Young, and other pioneers in free musical expression. For Allen Ginsberg, this meant resurrecting the bold, breathing line of Walt Whitman. Whitman, the self-mythologizing American of Mankind, whose heaven of brotherhood existed here, in the flesh and blood of living people, was an important influence on Ginsberg's thought and on his conception of himself as poet/prophet of America. What Ginsberg owes to Whitman first and foremost, however, is his line. Ginsberg here describes his poems of the Howl era as experiments with the formal organization of the line:

"...I realized at the time that Whitman's form had rarely been further explored (improved upon even) in the U.S. Whitman always a mountain too vast to be seen. Everybody assumes (with Pound?) (except Jeffers) that his line is a big freakish uncontrollable necessary prosaic goof. No attempt's been made to use it in the light of XX Century organization of new speech-rhythm prosody to build up large organic structures."

(Ginsberg, New American Poetry, 416)

Allen Ginsberg's aim, at the advice of Williams, was to utilize the everyday language which he heard around him as Whitman had done, speaking poetic inspiration in the language of America to whoever would listen. Like Blake, Whitman's stance was that of a poet/prophet. Whitman differentiates himself from Blake in the manner of their visions, saying Blake's was too uncontrolled and ethereal for his taste:

Of William Blake & Walt Whitman. Both are mystics, extatics, but the difference between them is this -- and a vast difference it is: Blake's visions grow to be the rule, displace the normal condition, fill the void, spurn the visible, objective life, & seat the subjective spirit on an absolute throne, wilful & uncontrolled. But Whitman...always holds mastery over himself, & even in his most intoxicated lunges or pirouettes, never once loses control, or even equilibrium.

(Whitman, Sparks of Fire 236)

Allen Ginsberg's idea of visionary poetry seems to lie somewhere between those of his predecessors. His first serious efforts as a poet began when he was a student at Columbia College in the late 1940s. The beginning of his close association with prophecy and Blake can he narrowed down to one evening in the summer of 1948 in his Harlem apartment. Ginsberg sets up the scene as one of loneliness and calm; his friends Kerouac and Burroughs were traveling, and his ex-lover Neal Cassady had just sent him a letter which had essentially ended their love affair. On his lap, as he sat alone in his bed at dusk, was Blake's poem, Ah Sunflower.

"...the poem I'd read a lot of times before, overfamiliar to the point where it didn't make any particular meaning except some sweet thing about flowers -- and suddenly I realized that the poem was talking about me...Now I began understanding it, the poem I was looking at, and suddenly, simultaneously with understanding it, heard a very deep earthen grave voice in the room, which I immediately assumed, I didn't even have to think twice, was Blake's voice..."

(Ginsberg, A Blake Experience, 122)

In 1974, Ginsberg, in an interview said that the voice he heard was essentially his own mature voice, his mature voice being the voice of Blake. (Allen Verbatim, 21) At the time he heard it, though, he heard only the voice of Blake, "completely tender and beautifully...ancient." (Ginsberg, A Blake Experience, 122) Upon hearing Blake's voice, Ginsberg also claims to have experienced a "newness" of vision of the world around him.

"Looking out the window, through the window at the sky, suddenly it seemed that I saw into the depths of the universe, by looking simply into the ancient sky. The sky suddenly seemed very ancient. And this was the very ancient place I was talking about, the sweet golden clime, I suddenly realized that this existence was it! And that I was born in order to experience up to this very moment that I was having this experience, to realize what this was all about -- in other words that this was the moment I was born for."

(Ginsberg, A Blake Experience, 122)

This was Ginsberg's first feeling of having a "calling" in life as a visionary poet. His reaction was to make a personal vow to live up to his calling, a vow which influenced his entire career as a poet.

"Anyway, my first thought was this was what I was born for, and the second thought, never forget -- never forget, never renege, never deny. Never deny the voice -- no, never forget it, don't get lost mentally wandering in other spirit worlds or American or job worlds or advertising worlds or was worlds or earth worlds. But the spirit of the Universe was what I was born to realize."

(Ginsberg, A Blake Experience, 123)

Although Ginsberg at the time had experimented with consciousness-altering drugs, his "Blake experience" occurred without the influence of any drug. He said he experienced this mystical state of "universal consciousness" again several times in the following weeks. and the responsibility of his vision, to communicate it to others, became his primary aim as a poet. He saw himself at the time as a poet with a mission: to set people free from their slavery to the material world and its insane demands, the worst of which was that they deny their common, universal humanity in their daily lives, that they deny the finality and holiness of existence. He developed out of his "Blake experience" a theory of poetry as a means to altering the audience's thought processes, so that the infinite and eternal would become visible.

"Since a physiologic ecstatic experience had been catalyzed in my body by the physical arrangement of words in so small a poem as "Ah, Sunflower", I determined long ago to think of poetry as a kind of machine that had a specific effect when planted inside the human body, an arrangement of picture and mental associations that vibrated on the mind bank network: and an arrangement of related sounds & physical mouth movements that altered the habit functions of the neural network."

(Ginsberg, To Young and Old..., 18)

To Ginsberg, Blake's poems are so constructed that the very arrangement of the words themselves triggered his moment of intense awareness. In his own poetry, he strived to utilize the rhythms" of his own visionary consciousness, the idea being that such constructions would induce similar states of consciousness in his readers or audience. To Ginsberg "Mind is shapely; Art is shapely." (Ginsberg, The New American Poetry, 415), and so the form of his poetry corresponds to the form of his consciousness in a visionary state.

"...the ambition is to write during a prophetic, illuminative seizure. That's the idea: to be in such a state of blissful consciousness that any language emanating from that state will strike a responsive chord of blissful consciousness from any other body into which the words enter and vibrate."

(Ginsberg, Craft Interview, 72)

Poetry, then, is no longer words on a page, but rather symbolic energy of transformation on a page, a Bard's song which when sung, transforms all hearers into visionaries as well. Ginsberg's "Blake experience" was a turning point in his life. At age 22, he was a directionless, sensitive, rebellious young man, troubled by his homosexual feelings and doubtful about his ability as a poet. This moment of mystical consciousness, whether it was simply a hallucination of a confused mind, or a true voice from both past and future, gave Ginsberg a definite identity and purpose in life. This vision carried with a negative side as well. Soon after his initial visions, he experienced another vision, only this time it was a horrifying realization of his own mortality, and of the duality of the universe when seen as the creation of a godhead.

"The sky was not a blue hand anymore but like a hand of death coming down on me - some really scary presence, it was almost as if I saw God again except God was the devil."

(Ginsberg, A Blake Experience, 130)

Shortly thereafter Ginsberg spent eight months at the New York State Psychiatric Institute. The next three years he spent searching for a method for his poetry, experimenting with Elizabethan forms. He gave up on these experiments after sending William Carlos Williams some of his poems and receiving an accurate but painful answer: that Elizabethan form requires a disciplined perfection, which Ginsberg's poems lacked. This, coupled with his failed spiritual search for a cohesive conception of Eternity and God, led to his use, beginning around 1951, of colloquial American speech and events from his own life as the raw materials of his poetry, rather than religious abstractions. This change led directly to the development of his unique style as seen in the Howl era. His early poems are interesting, however, in that they show the poet groping for eternal truths and for a poetic vision.

In Psalm I, written in February 1949, Ginsberg adopts the form of the Old Testament psalm, describing himself as a visionary prophet/poet who, though mortal, partakes of eternal knowledge. He does not address God like many of the psalms of the Bible, but rather speaks to an unknown audience, one he feels will be a future audience. The poem lacks the supplication and hope of the Old Testament psalms. The poet seems detached and resigned to being an ignored prophet.

Psalm I

These psalms are the workings of the vision haunted mind and not that reason which never changes.

I am flesh and blood, but my mind is the focus of much lightening.

I change with the weather, with the state of my finances, with the work I do, with my company.

But truly none of this is accountable for the majestic flaws of mind which have left my brain open to hallucination.

All work has been an imitation of the literary cackle in my head.

The gossip is an eccentric document to be lost in a library and rediscovered when the Dove descends.

The fact that Ginsberg uses the psalm as a model for his poem raises the issue of what Ginsberg's attitude toward the Bible was at this time. The Jewish wisdom tradition, of which the psalms and proverbs are a part, is closely intertwined historically and culturally with the prophetic tradition. He states the relationship between poetry and the Old Testament prophetic tradition succinctly:

"The only poetic tradition is the voice out of the burning bush. The rest is trash, and will be consumed..."

(Ginsberg, Second Coming Magazine, 40)

It has been argued that as an American Jew in the mid-20th century, Ginsberg resembled the Irish of the 1890s, both emerging into the mainstream of English language literature, yet both being on the outskirts of the artistic worlds within their cultures, and each carrying the burden of a subculture's mythology and centrality. It has also been argued that the position of Jews and the Irish at different times as outsiders to the artistic circles of European and American culture led to disaffection with religion and identity and explorations into other paths to wisdom and art. The gnostic attitude becomes for the Jewish mystic an attempt to re-define himself outside of his historical and religious identity. (Grossman, 102-105) This may explain Ginsberg's familiarity with and reverence for Old Testament literature, as well as his experimentation with and divergence from its forms, but Allen Ginsberg as a Jewish American seems to have taken much more of his influence from Christian heretics and mystics (such as Blake, St. John of the Cross, Christopher Smart) than from the Hebrew mystical tradition, though he was surely not unaware of the literature. The important thing to remember is that, as a free-thinking mystic, Ginsberg's identity as a Jewish American remains important in that he uses the symbols of the biblical cosmology in his mystical explorations, but that this identity is secondary to his identity as a mystical/visionary poet of America.

In Psalm II, Ginsberg continues his musings on his visionary poetry, this time taking the more conventional stance of the psalmist, calling upon the Lord. As Paul Carroll said in his essay, The Pentecostal Poems of Kaddish, "For the first time in our poetry we have a poet who celebrates the ancient ritual - Invoking of the God." Ginsberg begins Psalm II in a conventional manner, speaking directly to God.

Ah, still Lord, ah, sweet Divinity He goes on later in the poem in a stance which is also in keeping with the Hebraic psalmist - asking God for guidance and wisdom.

Translate the speechless stanzas of the rose

Into my poem, and I vow to copy

Every petal on a page; perfume

My mind, ungardened, and in weedy earth;

Let these dark leaves be lit with images

That strike like lightening from eternal mind..."

Again Ginsberg uses lightning as an image of prophetic inspiration. Unlike the Greek poet who invokes the Muses - the daughters of memory according to Blake - the poet in the Hebraic tradition looks directly to the Creator for inspiration. As an interesting comparison, here is an excerpt from Psalm 25 in the Bible. Although it is a translation, it is still obvious that it employs the simplest of language, its beauty being its purposeful, honest simplicity. Ginsberg's psalm borrows from the steady, calm line, and the punctuation pattern, but uses language in a richer, more colorful way.

"Make me to know thy ways, O Lord;

teach me thy paths.

Lead me in thy truth, teach me,

for thou art the God of my salvation;

for thee I wait all the day long."

In much of Ginsberg's work of this period (1948-1951), his quest for the "Supreme Entity" ends in despair and a desire for death as an ultimate union with Eternity and an ultimate escape from the physical world's cruelties. As James Breslin indicates, Ginsberg's early poems had more than a little bit of pessimism and self-aggrandizement:

"Allen Ginsberg is a mystical and messianic poet with intense suicidal wishes and persistent self-doubts, a would-be spontaneous artist whose most spontaneous thoughts characteristically turn toward longings for some painful, apocalyptic deliverance - ultimately death itself."

(Breslin, 403)

In his quest for divine knowledge, Ginsberg formulated many ideas which, if not taken from Blake, are nevertheless very Blakean. In his strange courtship of the idea of death, he seems to find some comfort in the idea of Error's destruction in the Apocalypse. Near the end of Psalm I, Ginsberg says: "Our souls are purified of Time by Time/And Ignorance consumes itself like flesh."

In the aptly titled Metaphysics, Ginsberg speaks Blake's ideas, if not words, almost verbatim:

"I am living in Eternity.

The ways of this world

are the ways of heaven."

Likewise, in Blake's scheme of things, art is seen as a vehicle for the Eternal to enter this world of space and time through inspiration, and Ginsberg's formulation is similar, but tempered by a more Whitmanesque faith in this existence as representing some kind of eternal good.

"Art recalls the memory

of his true existence

to whoever has forgotten

that Being is the one thing

all the universe shouts."

(Ginsberg, Collected Poems, 35)

The influence of Blake on Ginsberg in this early period cannot be underestimated: however, there are some gaps in the relationship between the poets. Ginsberg's understanding of Blake is derived almost entirely from his readings of Blake's shorter poems and pieces, not from the prophecies. This is not to say that Ginsberg was unacquainted with the prophetic books, but simply that his interest and emphasis have always been on Blake's shorter works. In his later, Buddhist years, Ginsberg has been animated in equating Blake with Eastern philosophy and religion, giving somewhat shaky historical explanations of an ancient connection between them. When Ginsberg went to India in search of a guru, he evidently could have saved the plane fare, because a "lady saint from Brindiban", Srimata Krishnaji, recommended that he take Blake for his guru. (Partisan Review, 1971, 292) Ginsberg here defends the notion of William Blake as a guru:

"In a personal way, though historically Blake has always been in that context, cause he's an eighteenth century vehicle for the Western gnostic tradition that historically you can trace back to the same roots...that gave rise to Aryan, Zoroastrian, Manichean pre-Hindu yogas."

(Ginsberg, Partisan Review, 292)

This ancient tying-in of more modern philosophical and spiritual systems seems somewhat silly, since the common sources of language and culture all eventually converge in the foggy depths of human history. Ginsberg's understanding of Blake's cosmogony, however, brings this tying-in notion into better focus, explaining it in terms of mythic archetypes.

"The cosmic geography of the Prophetic Books, cosmology, that Blake outlines and changes around, year by year to the end, is parallel to the cosmography and cosmology that you find outlined in the gnostic religions, pre-Christian, pre-Christ, including the names Blake uses, like Ruha is the Mandaean gnostic name for the evil first female principle, otherwise known as Sophia, wisdom, in other places, and in Blake's Songs of Experience known as Tirzah, the chick who created the whole cosmic chaos because she was reflecting the empty light of the abyss. She was a reflection of that light, in fact. But once she began reflecting the mirrors multiplied until the entire Indra's net of creation was established, like billions of mirrors shining on each other, creating the illusions of space and time. So it all wound up in the Garden of Eden."

(Ginsberg, Partisan Review, 293)

According to Ginsberg, the historical connection between Blake and Eastern religion and philosophy was broken when Constantine became a Christian and had all of the heresies destroyed. The early Christian heresies were all lost, and all we have are the records of the Church Fathers who argued against the heresies.

" that it took people like Parnacelus, Bohme, Blake, Shelley, Coleridge, Emerson, to perpetuate that memory out of their own intuitions and glimmerings...Poetry carried it all along. Poetry's carried the dream-insight all along."

(Ginsberg, Partisan Review, 294)

Ginsberg's attempts to portray Blake as the inheritor of a lost gnostic, heretical tradition which has as its source the same source which spawned the Eastern religions, are fuzzy at best. Ginsberg is quite knowledgeable about Christian and Jewish history, however, and was influenced a great deal by the mystics and writers who have deviated through history from these religions' conventional interpretations of Biblical events. Ginsberg was particularly influenced by St. John of the Cross, whose message was that the visionary must suffer for his visions and perhaps even suffer not understanding them. This notion of "suffering for vision" perhaps explains Ginsberg's confessional style of despair and longing for God. There is another side to this, and that is guilt. The guilt is that of a Christian or Jew who creates a work of art which attempts to approach divinity -- the guilt of hubris. As Robert Duncan suggests, the Biblical mandate against "images" leads to a rejection of all art save that which is directly inspired by divinity.

"If we go to the Jewish world, to the Semitic world, the one out of which the main line of Christianity comes, and the whole line of the Old Testament, with its prophets (to which Allen Ginsberg belongs - but he also relates to Christopher Smart which shows the continuity of this idea of Christian Tradition)...there it is absolutely forbidden to "make" a poem. They read the commandment in the Old Testament "Thou shalt not make a graven image" to mean that one should not "make" a work of art. A poem is, in this sense, an image. But one should pour forth what is felt to come from God and that one thing, the arrival of the voice, is the doctrine of inspiration."

(Duncan, Allen Verbatim, 107)

In the early 1950s Ginsberg began to feel that his quest for God and vision was a failure, that God had eluded his grasp, becoming, in the end, nothing, at least nothing he can put into words. In his personal journal, Ginsberg made this entry in April 1952:

"I have to find, among other things, a new word for the universe, I'm tired of the old ones, they mean too many things from other times & people."

(Ginsberg, Journals, 10)

In Long Live the Spiderweb, Ginsberg speaks of his efforts as wasted time splitting hairs, but missing the point.

"Seven years' words wasted

waiting on the spiderweb:

seven years' thoughts

harkening the host,

seven years' lost

sentience naming images,

narrowing down the name

to nothing"

His failure to realize his ideal in his poetry led him in the early 1950s to radically shift his focus of attention from the heavens to earth, from carefully crafted utterances of mystical fragility, to robust, breathing lines of American speech. Leaving behind his personal search for communion with God, he entered into the world of language and men, on a new quest as a prophet of America. Ginsberg, like Blake, saw America as a place of great potential, and his mission as he saw it was to give America a vision of Eternity and of itself, to liberate his country from Urizenic rule. In the midst of the complacency, self-righteousness, and paranoia of Cold War America, Ginsberg began to question the American Scene, Dream, and Way.

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