BOOK REVIEW: The Fall of America Journals, 1965-1971 by Allen Ginsberg

The Fall of America Journals, 1965–1971The Fall of America Journals, 1965–1971 by Allen Ginsberg
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: November 10, 2020

 

Not to be confused with the poetry collection that derived from the thoughts, drafts, and dreams contained herein, this is an edited and annotated journal from that period. In addition to drafts of poems from that collection, the journal includes prose descriptions of both real world and dream world events – as well as various notes Ginsberg made to himself. In addition to fans of Ginsberg and Beat poetry, the primary audience for this book will be poets and others with curiosity about how the [poetic] sausage gets made.

Many of the entries contained in this volume are dream journaling. That is significant both because one can see how dream images worked into Ginsberg’s poems, but also because it is crucial to understanding Ginsberg’s approach to poetry – an approach which highly valued the subconscious mind. One can see this in a June 6, 1966 entry in which Ginsberg, after complimenting Bob Dylan’s poetry, goes on to work through why he thinks Dylan’s lyrics are so effective. Saying, “…he takes no thought for superficial logic but reads into his mind like a Rorschach blot.” Drilling down into deep and unconscious bits of the mind is crucial to Ginsberg’s poetry, and may hint at why he was so drawn to the Buddhist and yogic teachers who were undisputed masters of this domain of the mind. Some might accuse those who attempt to tap into this stream-of-consciousness of being lazy, but it really is a challenge to draw from that mystical well. An April 8, 1969 journal entry tells of a dreamt meeting between Ginsberg and a collector of literary memorabilia. The two were looking over a Hemingway manuscript, and it says, “We talk ‘Hemingway wasn’t such a good writer,’ I guess, after seeing plodding paper of manuscript.” [It’s not clear whether this is the stated opinion of Ginsberg, the collector, both, or even whether Ginsberg remembered that detail.] Of course, Hemingway thought drafts were to writing as lumping together clay was to sculpting. [At least, I’d guess as much from Hemingway’s famous quote, “The first draft of anything is shit.”] These are very different approaches to the craft of putting words on paper – writer as shaman versus writer as sculptor. [Note: it’s not that Ginsberg didn’t believe in editing. Owners of “The Fall of America” collection might compare its poems to the drafts herein. It’s just a matter of giving more weight to respecting the voice tapped into and less to the pruning and shaping process.]

The poems include those of political protest, confessionals, calls to Eastern spirituality, image-centric poems from travels in America and abroad, poems that aren’t readily categorized, elegies, and ones that are some combination of the above. It was an intense period for Ginsberg both as one of society’s dissenting voices as well as a private person. The former because the war in Vietnam continued to be a charnel house for America’s youth and because the psychedelia witnessed a sharp turn from laissez-faire conditions to an outright war on drugs. The latter because of untimely deaths of some of his close friends, a couple of whom were also major figures in Beat literature, i.e. Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac (both of whom died in their 40’s.) This makes for a number doleful or angry poems. However, one can also see times – particular in the last couple years covered by the volume – where Ginsberg shifts tone to one more reflective of the yogic / Buddhist thought process. Perhaps, rage can only burn so bright and so long, or maybe those spiritual lessons were taking root.

At its best, Ginsberg’s poetry is mystically transcendent, caustically burning, or brutally candid. It takes one on a journey to scenic places and through a turbulent time. History is embedded in these journals because so much of Ginsberg’s subject matter is a reaction to what was going on in America at the time: politically, legally / judicially, and diplomatically. One can feel the influence of Blake and Whitman throughout. At its worst, Ginsberg’s poetry reads a little like either collected snippets from the news or a personal to-do list. However, if one is interested enough to read the poet’s journals, one will probably find these lines provide insight into his work and the forces that shaped him. There are few (not many) cryptic notes that will separate the super-fans from those of us who can only guess what Ginsberg was trying to note. Those who aren’t familiar with Ginsberg’s work and who have delicate sensibilities regarding erotic matter should be aware that his homoerotic poetry is explicit, graphic, and widespread throughout.

I thought the editorial comments, which are clearly differentiated from Ginsberg’s text, pulled their own weight. There isn’t a lot of this editorial commentary, mostly a paragraph at the beginning of each year’s entry and then a few here and there throughout as needed to offer background. However, this text does offer valuable insight. For example, one sees toward the end of the volume that Ginsberg begins writing in lyric verse (rhymed and [roughly/musically] metered) verse from his usual free verse. [He also writes the occasional haiku, and more commonly in free verse informed by haiku’s Zen sensibilities.] Through commentary, one learns that Ginsberg went through a phase of being hyper-aware of how easily people picked up lyrics like those of Dylan, while few could recite poetry [particularly modern vers libre poems.] So, Ginsberg went through a period of musically recording Blake’s poems (many of which are memorable / recitable,) as well as writing more lyrical poetry himself. The footnotes were also useful, pointing out where final versions of poems were published and clueing readers into the people, places, and events referred to in Ginsberg’s entries. (Many of which were unfamiliar to me as no more than words.)

If you are poet or a fan of either Ginsberg or the Beats, generally, I’d highly recommend this book.

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BOOK REVIEW: Collected Poems 1947 – 1997 by Allen Ginsberg

Collected Poems 1947-1997Collected Poems 1947-1997 by Allen Ginsberg
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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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.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac

The Dharma BumsThe Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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What one needs to know to get a feel for this book is neither a summation of events nor the description of some crisis that sets up those events; instead, one simply needs to know who dharma bums were. This may or may not be self-evident, despite the fact that it’s essentially what the two words crammed together suggests. Dharma Bums were members of the Beat Generation (i.e. Beatniks, the 1950’s predecessor counter-culture to the hippies) who followed (or were enamored by) Buddhism, and who eschewed a materialistic lifestyle—which is to say they worked only when they needed to in order to put bread on the table or when they found it [autotelicly] satisfying to do so.

The book is literary fiction and places more emphasis on character than plot, and–furthermore—the events of the book read as though loosely autobiographical. Therefore, the happenings of the book are as scattershot as real lives tend to be.

The book begins with Ray Smith (the fictional counterpart to the real Kerouac) hopping a freight car in the manner of Jack London’s “The Road” (not to be confused with Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” nor Kerouac’s own “On the Road”)

The book then spends time with a series of characters who map to real life members of the Beat Generation. The most important of these individuals (besides Smith / Kerouac) as far as the book is concerned is Japhy Ryder who represents the Zen poet Gary Snyder. Ryder is a mentor to Ray Smith. First, Ryder’s knowledge and practice of Buddhism is much more advanced than Smith’s—though they occasionally disagree because Ryder is a Zen Buddhist and Smith has an affinity for a more mainstream sect, Smith learns much about Buddhism and Eastern philosophy from Ryder. Second, Ryder is a mentor in sharing various life lessons with Smith, including introducing him to mountaineering. A short expedition up a mountain is among the most memorable parts of the book.

I’ll mention one other of the characters, Alvah Goldbook, who stands for Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg may be the most famous of these individuals (other than Kerouac, himself) today, owing largely to his poem “Howl.” Ginsberg is more agnostic where Buddhism is concerned. He enjoys ideas from it but doesn’t jump in feet-first in the manner of Smith—let alone Ryder. There are a number of well-known beatniks who feature more or less prominently (e.g. Neal Cassady and Philip Whalen.)

The book’s end features Smith working alone as a fire lookout on another mountain—Kerouac readers later learned that this was the aptly named Desolation Peak. Japhy’s hand can be seen in this as well, as he recommended the job to Smith.

This is a book for the thinking-person. There is really only one dramatic event that stands out in my mind as the source of tension one normally seeks in a novel. The joy of the book comes from joining the characters in bouts of philosophizing, in the creative use of language, and in reflecting upon an approach to life that exists outside the conventional.

I’d recommend this book. Personally, I enjoyed it more, and found it more thought-provoking, than “On the Road,” which I suspect is the work for which Kerouac is more known and which is also a good read.

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