Allen Ginsberg has been endlessly talked and written about for the better part of the 20th century. His works have altered the evolution of poetry and prose in a manner that few contemporary poets have been able to achieve. His first collection of poems were written in the late 1940’s and ushered in a style of poetry not yet seen before by critics and intellects alike. William Carlos Williams eloquently speaks of Ginsberg’s early prowess as “This young Jewish boy, already not so young any more, has recognized something that has escaped most of the modern age, he has found that man is lost in the world of his own head.
The early poem I have chosen is The Terms in Which I Think of Reality written in 1947, which emulates Ginsberg’s troubled and confused mind in relation to what he might call a period of personal dishonesty and neglect. This stage of his writing precedes the impending fame he garnered with the poem Howl and subsequently offers an intense, mystified, uninhibited understanding of his philosophy on human realities. As his career developed further, I noticed an insistence in his writing that continued to focus on the realities of life and the potential it inherits, all the time keeping his work extremely intimate.
Doing this despite the pressure of fame, political backlash, drugs, changing generations, and tragic personal events is amazing in itself. His work is a testament to his life experiences which he attempts to translate in poetic form that rarely changed in principal. In my interpretation of his work, I noticed a strong spiritual force that evolved over the years (which his Blake vision and involvement in Buddism clearly did) but more importantly, a constant progression of his intention to uncover what lies underneath the ‘shit’ (as Ginsberg might say) in our world.
To argue this point, I chose the poem Excrement written in 1994, which shows how basic forms of humanity are overlooked and enlightens people on the realities of human life which he did in a much different way in his earlier poem The Terms in Which I Think Of Reality. This is an attempt to conceptualize his theory of the past and then into his future poems which were evidently unaltered. In Excrement he does so in a humorous manner, which Ginsberg duly enjoyed adding in his latter day poetry.
Allen Ginsberg was born in Paterson, New Jersey to a conventional father who was a high school teacher and a poet himself. His mother was obsessed with politics and suffered from a mental illness that landed her in an institution for many years which had a deep, troubling affect on him. He viewed himself as a “mystical creep” in his high school days having good times but for the most part a lonesome young man. 2 He went on to Columbia University where he originally studied economics but was encouraged by friends to write poetry and eventually majored in English.
He had some troubled years at Columbia where he was expelled for writing profanities on his dorm window and forced to move off campus where he befriended William Burroughs, another outcast who introduced Ginsberg to the world of drugs, gaybars, and crime. Nonetheless, Ginsberg began to learn under Burroughs and even claimed that he “educated me more than Columbia, really”. 3 Upon his graduation in 1948, Ginsberg held many odd jobs the most important being a reporter for a labor newspaper where William Carlos Williams worked, and who was to become his mentor and major literary influence.
In June of 1948, Ginsberg was arrested and sentenced to eight months in a psychiatric institution where he met Carl Solomon, who was the inspiration for the epic poem Howl and his intense political awareness. Ginsberg went on to become a poetic icon in the Beat Generation and that eventually transcended into future generations. To the conservative majority, the Beat Generation during the 1950’s was characterized by kids who were fed up with traditional rules and were hedonistic by nature.
Society sensationalized their mystique and generally labeled them as outcasts who do drugs and had no respect for the law (much the same as the hippie movement in the 60’s). The beats saw society as a wasteland of materialism and lost in values that were mercifully put upon them. The beats were more interested in the truth which they thought had to come from within, which they believed couldn’t happen through rationalizing feelings and moods but rather to exploit them and uncover their meaning.
So beat writers were exposing their innermost feelings and intimate acts without censorship, and this was difficult for many contemporary authors to relate to and hence it was labeled as “shameless exhibitionism”. 4 Essentially the beatniks were concerned with changing society from within and not fighting for their causes overtly. The poem The Terms In Which I Think Of Reality was published in the collection Empty Mirror , and most of the poems were written between 1947 and 1952.
This is extremely important because in June 1948, Ginsberg had a revelation which involved William Blake that changed the direction of his vision and expanded the vastness of his conscious. Many of these early poems explore this new realm of consciousness and can be observed in The Terms in Which I Think of Reality. The poem is broken up into three distinct sections. The first section seems to outline Ginsberg’s philosophy of reality, as the title suggests. The first three lines “Reality is a question/ of realizing how real/ the world is already” gives the reader an abrupt introduction to a metaphysical theory of reality.
Believing that the world is entirely real would lead to the assumption the world is physically real. This is followed by a paradoxical statement in the line “Time is Eternity” and then “ultimate and immovable” which essentially begins to progress the poem forward in its purpose. The philosophy of reality being “Heaven’s mystery/ of changing perfection” is conveying the message that reality changes as does time and eternity. He gives evidence of this in the lines “absolutely Eternity changes! / Cars are always going down the street,/ lamps go off and on. He uses these mundane examples for such a significant event (Eternity changing) as an attempt to simplify his complex theory.
In the line “everyone’s an angel” Ginsberg portrays his deep affection for human life under the unfortunate reality that not all believe this to be true, which is revealed in the third section of the poem. Ginsberg ends the first section with reference to the nature of Dialectics,5 that everything is constantly changing, coming into being and passing away: “Clams open on the table,/ lambs are eaten by worms/ on the plain. The motion/ of change is beautiful,”.
As Ginsberg outlined his theory in the first section, he attempts to put it into practical use in the second section. The first two stanzas are an affirmation of what Ginsberg believes should be done to improve society in terms of reality. It is done in a language that is very complex and consistent with his method of writing which is “First thought, best thought”. 6 Asking for people to “distinguish process/ in its particularity with/ an eye to the initiation/ of gratifying new changes/ desired in the real world” is a credo that Ginsberg supported tirelessly in his early and late poetry.
As a contrast and evidence of his impending transition, he uses rhetoric in layman’s terms in the lines “For the world is a mountain/ of shit: if it’s going to/ be moved at all, it’s got/ to be taken by handfuls”. This is the form that Ginsberg chose to use more often in his later years, one that is easily comprehended and identifiable to people in the ‘real world’. The third and final section of the poem reveals the tragedy of reality for Ginsberg. The theory of reality in section one of the poem, is reflected in a situation of humanity and the issues of a prostitute.
The woman prostitute can be viewed as a metaphor of society in general, where many search for “physical love” or a “difference in the heart” yet never achieve it because we don’t know how or believe it’s not meant to be. For Ginsberg, this is society’s “worst misery”, the theory in section one outlines the idea that Eternity or time can change, but yet does not work in the reality of society. This early poem of Ginsberg shows a metaphysical and mystical element that took control of his mind starting with the Blake vision in 1948.
From this point on, he was searching for a deeper meaning of reality through various levels of consciousness outside the body. This can be observed in many of his early poems and directly affected his literary style from that of formalism, to an irregular spontaneous way of writing that began his legacy. There was an emphasis on letting the mind wander in thought and subsequently recording what transpired while concentrating on rhythmic breathing. This style is best observed in the poem Howl, but clearly evolved from his poetry in Empty Mirror.
While traveling through India he had many encounters with holy men and began conversing with theologian Martin Buber. This inspired Ginsberg to write The Change in 1963 which spiritually and emotionally solved many of his haunting issues, and was evident in his writing. The intentions of his writing were maintained in his later years (1980-1997), yet there was a sense that serenity and humor could present the same effect on his readers. The ability to simplify his poetry and keep it raw and real as humanly possible was still evident in his last writings.
The poem Excrement was written in 1994 and published in the collection Death & Fame. The opening line “Everybody excretes different loads” is something so basic and universal the reader is almost surprised with this revelation. He uses names such as Marilyn Munroe, Eleanor Roosevelt, Rudolph Valentino, President’s of the United States, The Eminent Cardinal, Empress of Japan, and Polyhymnia the Muse as a means of justifying that no matter how different we may seem, in nature, we are the same (or as Ginsberg puts it “we all drop”).
He mentions in stanza four that “It never appears in public” as if to say we are too scared to talk about shit when its one of the most natural forms of human life: “down thru the butthole/ relaxed & released from the ton/ of old earth, poured back/on Earth”. Excretion is a necessity for all human life, and like our lives differ, so does our shit: “Editors their wives and children/ drop feces of various colors/ iron supplement black/ to pale green-white sausage”. How can we ever progress into a descent civilization if we can’t fathom subjects about basic realities such as shitting?
The humor involved in this poem brings out undertones of expanding social consciousness which is such a prominent element in his work, early or late. I chose this poem to show how Ginsberg’s latest poetry is more of an urging process where nothing is sacred or mystified. His life became uneventful compared to the 1950’s, 60’s, and 70’s and because he was a poet that didn’t separate form from content (or life from art), his poetry revealed something was missing. Yet, everything and anything was still talked about in order to challenge the mind.
The inspiration of the Beat Generation was gone and political activism was at an all-time low during the impending years of his death, but he remained true to his poetic principle “First thought, best thought”. By not choosing any of Ginsberg’s most analyzed and famous poems (Howl or Kaddish), his growth as a poet was more difficult to extract, yet I believe that the choice of poems clearly represents a distinction in two vastly different eras of his literary career.