2015; 451 pages. New Author? : Yes. Genre : Non-Fiction; Poetry; Memoirs; Reference. Overall Rating : 6*/10.
Allen Ginsberg, born 06/03/26, died 04/05/97, and arguably one of the three most recognizable names associated with the “Beat Generation” movement in the 1950’s. If Timothy Leary was the spokesman for the movement (“turn on, tune in, drop out!”), and Baba Ram Dass was its spiritual guru (“be here now!”), then Ginsberg was its poet laureate (“whoever controls the media, the images, controls the culture.”).
Since I’m a child of the 60’s, the Beat Generation is slightly before my time. And while I could probably tell you that Ginsberg’s most famous poem is titled “Howl”, I couldn’t quote a line from it. Indeed, while I could cite quotes by Leary and Ram Dass, I had to google Allen Ginsberg quotes to find one to fit in the previous paragraph.
Which is sad, since Ginsberg’s poetry was a guiding light back then for a young generation who no longer felt content to live the “Leave It To Beaver” lifestyle, where housewives wore dresses and pearl necklaces to cook supper, and Father Knows Best.
So for me personally, it was time to get acquainted with the writings of Allen Ginsberg.
What’s To Like...
The Essential Ginsberg, edited by Michael Schumacher, is much more than simply a collection of Ginsberg’s poems. It is divided into the following sections:
Part 00 : Introduction (4%)
A brief overview of Allen Ginsberg’s life by the editor.
Part 01 : Poems (5%)
The biggest section of the book, and my favorite. The timespan is 1947-1997.
Part 02 : Songs (39%)
The shortest section, but my second-most favorite.
Part 03 : Essays (43%)
Long-winded, yet insightful. Ginsberg describes feeling “sent” to enlighten us about poetry.
Part 04 : Journals (59%)
Less pretentious than ‘Essays’, and more revealing.
Part 05 : Interviews (66%)
Only two interviews, and both dragged for me.
Part 06 : Letters (78%)
Self-tales of Ginsberg’s travels and misadventures.
Part 07 : Photographs (97%)
Mostly of his Beat Generation pals. Tip : The photos are expandable in the Kindle!
Allen Ginsberg’s overall writing style is basically to convey exactly what thoughts are going through his mind at the present time. He engages in editing/revising only grudgingly, and it doesn’t matter if it’s a poem, a letter, an interview, or whatever. This is both a positive and a negative: you get a very honest take on what it was like to be a stand-out member of the Beat Generation, but if you were aiming to do some hero-worship, you’re going to be sorely disillusioned by his candor.
Unsurprisingly, for me, the best part of the book is the “Poems” section. Howl is there, and lots of others., all arranged chronologically. Most, but not all, of Ginsberg’s poems have no meter or rhyme scheme, but a few were, and it was nice to discover he really could write structured poems if he wanted to. Similarly, the songs, though sparse in number, are inherently metered and rhyming which, frankly is how I prefer my prose
For the second time in my last couple of e-books, the footnotes are slickly done, so this may be an improvement done by Kindle. OTOH, the font sizes varied greatly; that’s something Kindle needs to work on. I also liked the photographs, they put “faces” on a bunch of the Beat Generation luminaries that heretofore were just names to me.
I especially enjoyed Ginsberg’s poetic reflections on growing old; there’s a gentleness there that counterbalances the shock-jock effect of his earlier poems. And the poem “Wales Visitation” was apparently done under the influence of LSD, which made for an interesting read. Also, it was fun to learn the origin of the phrase “Beat Generation”, and I also marveled how extensively he managed to travel, given that most of the time, he was truly a “starving artist”.
Kewlest New Word ...
Prosody (n.) : the patterns of rhythm and sound used in poetry.
Others : Panegyric (n.).
Will that happen to me?
Of course, it’ll happen to thee.
Will my arms wither away?
Yes yr arm hair will turn gray.
Will my knees grow weak & collapse?
Your knees will need crutches perhaps.
Will my chest get thin?
Your breasts will be hanging skin.
Where will go – my teeth?
You’ll keep the ones beneath.
What’ll happen to my bones?
They’ll get mixed up with stones. (loc. 2588, from the poem ‘Don’t Grow Old’)
At this point, Ken Kesey – a man whom you may have heard of as a major contemporary novelist – who lives near San Francisco and sympathized with both marchers and Angels, intervened. We all had a party at the Hell’s Angels house. Most everybody took some LSD, and we settled down to discussing the situation and listening to Joan Baez on the phonograph, and chanting Buddhist prayers. (loc. 3866)
The Essential Ginsberg sells for $10.99. There are a number of other (non-poetry) books available that are authored or co-authored by Ginsberg – mostly letters, memoirs, or books about other members of the Beat Generation, and ranging in price from $9.00 to $15.99. If you’re looking for books containing his poetry you can go “sparse” with a 47-page version of Howl and Other Poems ($2.99) or “comprehensive” with the 1000+page Collected Poems 1947-1997 ($9.99).
“It should be easier for a poet to understand a revolution than for a revolution to understand poetry.” (loc. 3664)
There were some quibbles. As good as the Poems and Songs sections were , the Essays and Journals sections seemed at times pretentious and slow to me. And while Ginsberg’s honesty is laudable, what I saw was a sometime jaundiced poet/writer who often just wanted to get high, get naked, go to orgies, and shove the adoring flower children out of his life. In the end, his writings reinforced my opinion that all self-proclaimed spiritual leaders, regardless of denomination or particular religion, are a bunch of narcissistic charlatans.
Allen Ginsberg was both a complex and troubled soul; a Jewish, homosexual, New Yorker who was into gurus, meditation, and all sorts of drugs. He was anti-war, anti-nuclear energy, and loved to write explicitly about gay and hetero sex. His poems will challenge you, shock you, and maybe even enlighten you. It’s too bad the other sections didn’t do likewise for me.
6 Stars. I think I would’ve enjoyed The Essential Ginsberg more if it were laid out in strict chronological order, regardless of what kind of writing a piece was. After the Poems & Songs were done (at 39% Kindle), the rest of the book was a slog until the photographs at the very end. Still, I am happy I took the time to explore Allen Ginsberg’s writings; it was a worthwhile and enriching experience.