Allen Ginsberg, Selected Poems – Andy isn’t howling in adulationMay 7, 2012
I was supposed to love this. I read Kerouac in my 20s, read Burroughs in my 20s, loved them both, re-read them both. They were awesome. Somehow Ginsberg escaped me, I guess because he was a poet and I didn’t read poetry in my 20s. He escaped me for another two decades. I’ll admit his bizarre and repellent and utterly indefensible championing of the “right” of male pedophiles to have sex with pre-pubescent boys might have had something to do with me avoiding him. But not a huge amount. So he was fucked in the head. Lots of cool writers are fucked in the head.
Ginsberg was supposed to be awesome.
And he’s not. He just isn’t. He’s not even remotely awesome.
There are some good poems in this collection. One or two of them might arguably verge on greatness although if I was told to argue the case I’d be arguing against it. Howl is OK. It’s not great. The less celebrated Kaddish, about Ginsberg’s mother’s battles with mental illness and her death, is better. There are better poems than Kaddish, mostly Ginsberg’s shorter work. The poems he wrote to mark the deaths of Kerouac and Neal Cassady (whom he claims to have fucked, but then everyone from the Beat Generation seems to have fucked Neal Cassady and that’s understandable because the man was fucking gorgeous), these poems are good. Enjoyable, memorable. Great? Probably not.
I think I realised just how big my problem with Ginsberg was when this happened: I read something that I quite liked. Maybe I didn’t even quite like it, but at least I didn’t mind it. Effectively a poem that was, at best, little better than mediocre made me stop and go “Oooh! That’s not bad!” Which made me realise just how low my opinion of what surrounded it was.
There are those (not looking at Netty) who believe all poetry must be read aloud to be truly appreciated. I’m not in that camp but if there is anything that might redeem the majority of Ginsberg’s canon it might – might – be hearing it read aloud. My understanding is that most of what he wrote was performed to an audience before it was published. Perhaps most poets work that way (I seriously doubt it). Perhaps if I’d heard Ginsberg read, my opinion of his work would be different.
Or … perhaps not.
This is among the most disappointing of the books Netty and I have read over the past five years. I was looking forward to it. I expected to love it. It was supposed to be awesome. Geez, Ginsberg was gay, he was a hippie, he was down with what was going on geopolitically possibly before even bloody Chomsky was. Even if the poems aren’t great, they certainly have some historical value on that level. But as poetry so much of it just doesn’t work. It truly doesn’t. Comparisons between Ginsberg and another gay, hippie, drug-fucked poet like – oh, I don’t know, Thom Gunn perhaps? – are just embarrassing. Gunn doesn’t have Ginsberg’s rep, but in terms of talent and achievement there is no comparison.
Like all of my books of poetry this one will come off the shelf every so often. I’ll find a page or two that I like and I’ll re-read it. Perhaps I’ll even grow to like it as a whole a little more than I do now – there is after all, a hell of a lot of cock and arse in there. Although I can’t say I think a poem called Sphincter, written when Ginsberg was 60 and hoping that his “still rubbery, muscular, unashamed wide open for joy” asshole would last another 20 years (it didn’t, or at least Ginsberg didn’t) adds much to his cachet. In my estimation, obviously. And my estimation is irrelevant because Ginsberg is adored by so many.
So I guess I got this one wrong.