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Hold back the edges of your gowns, Ladies, we are going through hell. William Carlos Williams Introduction to "Howl"
RIDING HIGH on the reckless waves of sheer spontaneity, the Beat Generation couldn't arrest its own self-destruction. But before their movement became the subject matter for ambitious "new journalists," the Beat Poets had already shaken the literary establishment by rejecting an academic formalism rooted in the poetry of Eliot and Pound. They replaced this sterile stuff with a free-wheeling experiential American poetic idiom inspired by the more cautious William Carlos Williams. Allen Ginsberg's "Howl," with its Whitmanesque catalogues of the poet's own undeniably hellish experience, became a banner around which the new American poets rallied.
Seventeen years later, Ginsberg finds himself alone, many of his closest friends dead, most of his contemporaries retreating into a more reserved, intellectualized version of a poetry he helped to create. The Fall Of America continues Ginsberg's undaunted quest for his own separate but absolute reality. ("Iron Horse," along with the earlier "Wichita Vortex Sutra," is to be read as part of The Fall...) While he is less personal now, he never forgets, as William Burroughs puts it, "what is in front of his senses at the moment of writing." So, even in their many weaker moments, the poems hold together well, guided by the considerable order of Ginsberg's unconscious experience. The "poems of these states" are an account, Ginsberg says, of "the flux of car bus airplane dream consciousness Person during Automatic Electronic War years." But they often read like a mixed-media Michelin guide to the United States, lapsing into boring details of geography and the latest news report on the radio:
Heading East to San Berdoo
as West did, Nathaniel,
California Radio Lady's voice
Talking about Vietcong--Oh
what a beautiful morning
Sung for us by Nelson Eddy...
"...several battalions of U.S. troops in search and destroy operation in the Coastal plain near Bong Son...."
Ginsberg pushes the question of reality a little too far with his media saturation-bombing. Almost to the point where one wonders if he isn't chronicling the fall of an American poet. If he is delicately trying to stress the depravity of America's mindless participation in an "Automatic Electronic War," his point is made too well. It's very easy to imagine his readers putting down these poems to go watch television.
LIKE Walt Whitman, Ginsberg at his worst is unbelievably bad. His indiscriminate wanderings lead only to dead-end, dead-Beat poetry. But his failures throw his strong accomplishments in experimental poetry into greater relief. The form behind his seemingly formless poetry lies in his own personal senses of sound and breathing rhythm. He juxtaposes his words as much by their sounds as by their sense:
And in his breathing there is what he calls a "mental inspiration of thought contained in the elastic of a breath":
silver hair ear to ear.
Ginsberg flirts with his craft, though. He refuses to submit to any control, relying on Jack Kerouac's famous spontaneous prose theories. As a result, almost all of his poems are spotted with badly wrought images and incongruous inanities. These add unintended disappointments to the intentional depression of his sad confessionals and his strong social criticisms.
Ginsberg's complete openness about his own life as a homosexual has probably helped his poetry in the sense that he's remained very close to the truth. But it's also given him a sensationalist reputation. It's hard sometimes to suppress the feeling that he's trying to do more with his poetry that "surprise by a fine excess."
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