This “collection” is actually 13 collections bound together in one volume that presents much of the published poetry of the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg over the second half of the 20th century—till his death in 1997. Ginsberg is probably best known for “Howl,” which is both the name of the third collection in this book and the poem for which it was named (i.e. “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,…”) However, Ginsberg’s work is extensive, and one can find many a lesser known gem inside.
Ginsberg’s body of work isn’t just copious; it’s also highly varied stylistically. While Ginsberg most commonly uses free verse, he also uses rhyming / metered poems, shaped poems, variations on haiku, musical lyrics, and–in rare instances–prose form poems and puzzle poems.
While Ginsberg’s work is also thematically varied, there are a number of recurring themes. First, as one might expect of the author of “Howl,” Ginsberg’s work is highly politically charged. One gets a history review of the latter 20th century from reading this volume. Ginsberg rails against the war in Vietnam, against the Iran-Contra affair, and against alleged CIA drug dealing at home and abroad. It should be noted that while Ginsberg’s views are expectedly counter-culture, there isn’t the delusional glorification of the opposition that one often sees from many political writers. That is to say, as Ginsberg rebukes capitalists and conservatives, he also takes on the Soviets and other leftist regimes who engaged in human rights violations or war-mongering.
Second, as one might expect from the inspiration for Alvah Goldbook in Jack Kerouac’s “Dharma Bums,” Ginsberg frequently references Eastern spiritual traditions—notably Tibetan Buddhism and Zen. There are a number of poems set in places like Varanasi (Benares) and Siem Reap (Angkor) that reflect Ginsberg’s traveling exploration of these systems. Of course, Ginsberg was a traveler in general, and so there are a number of poems set in the Western Hemisphere and Europe as well. Ginsberg also writes a little bit on his birth religion, Judaism, but usually in a secular manner and sometimes while rebuking the actions of Zionists.
Third, there are many [mostly homoerotic] sex poems in the collection. For those who are sensitive about such matters, I don’t use the term “sex poem” as a sloppy substitute for the word erotica. These aren’t erotic love poems in the conventional sense, they are usually graphic and Ginsberg purposefully uses provocative, shocking, and sometimes lurid wording to evoke a response in the reader. If reading about Ginsberg’s sexual adventures will cause you emotional trauma, be forewarned.
There are end-notes that can be quite helpful, particularly if you’ve forgotten some of your 20th century history, are unfamiliar with Beat trivia (all of the characters from Kerouac’s “Dharma Bums” make an appearance), or aren’t familiar with the various yogic and Buddhist gurus who Ginsberg refers to. (The first set of notes oddly comes after the 10th collection. that’s because this collection is actually even more of a matryoshka doll than I suggested. The first 10 collections are actually collections inside a collection (“Collected Poems 1947 – 1980”) that’s inside a collection (“Collected Poems 1947 – 1997”.) The last three collections have their own end-notes immediately following them.
There are few graphics, mostly the music to poems that are—or can be—set to music.
I’d recommend this collection to poetry readers, particularly those who enjoy Beat period language. As I mentioned, the delicate political or sexual sensitivities of some readers may be offended. On the other hand, as I always say: If you’re not reading outside your comfort zone, you shouldn’t consider yourself so much educated as indoctrinated.