CONTRARY TO conventional yearnings, the past often comes back to haunt us. Usually it comes in the form of worn-out stereotypes or an old friend, but in the case of the sex-drugs-jazz influenced Beatniks of the 1950s and 60s, it has reincarnated itself as a 33-year project by the most howling of all the beats, Allen Ginsberg. Although he might not have envisioned a full text of all his work when he wrote the poems that pack his new book, Ginsberg proclaims his Collected Poems 1947-1980 an autobiography.
Most of the poetry was previously published by City Lights Books and the rest made it to print through other publishers. Classics like "Howl" and "Kaddish" adorn the pages of this volume, adorned by Buddhist-inspired drawings, pictures of Ginsberg's Beatnik buddies and supplementary essays by literati honchos like William Carlos Williams. The most novel aspect of the book is its comprehensiveness--avid Ginberg fans can view the poet's life and work in a single volume.
Ginbergian madness, his gropings for an angry fix and everything else that was taboo about the Beat generation weave themselves throughout this voluminous collection. The hemophobic and conservative will scurry from much of this poetry because Ginsberg describes in graphic detail his homosexual experiences and names a number of his poems after the illegal drugs he uses while writing them: "Mescaline," Lysergic Acid."
His anti-patriotic writings, including a formal denouncement of modern America's "inorganic industrial capitalism" and the glossy covers of Time magazine in his poem "America" have earned Ginsberg the name of political radical. A relic of the decade in which protest was on the rampage, he might easily be catalogued into a leftist file. But his work does not pretend to define a particular ideology. Rather than embracing a school of thought, he removes himself almost completely from the political realm. In the last poem of the book, "Capitol Air," he jabs both sides of the international ideologue struggle:
I don't like Communist censorship of my books
I don't like Marxists complaining about my looks
I don't like Castro insulting members of my sex
Leftists insisting we got the mystic fix
I don't like Capitalists selling me gasoline Coke
Multinationals burning Amazon trees to smoke
Big Corporation takeover media mind
I don't like the Top bananas that're robbing Guatemala banks blind
Obviously not happy with the left or the right, Ginsberg shuns talk of political protest; instead his themes run the gamut of psycho-sociological critique. In something of a Durkheimian manner, his poems mourn the depersonalization and breakdown of non-business community ties that spring from the industrialization, specialization and corporate demeanor of modern society.
Ginsberg catalogues as much of the world as he can within the confines of his literature. In "A Supermarket in California," he describes his method of "shopping for images" which shows up in much of his poetry. "Hiway Poesy," a journal-like poem documenting his trek across the United States, represents the shopping cart he fills with singular images and experiences.
THE GREATEST FLAW of this collection is its attempt to conglomerate individual pieces of experience or thought without wrapping them together coherently. It seems that his smorgasbord is perhaps the foundation for a larger work, such as a novel similar to On the Road, by Ginsberg's literary comrade. Jack Kerouac this lack of rigorous definition in his work has been a common criticism by academics.
But Ginsburg is conscious of the disparity between the individual parts. He approaches his catalogueing technique with a tinge of self-parody that ultimately ends in an honest statement about the fragmentation of today's World. Because he is aware of the incongruity in some of his poetry, his shopping cart of separate images becomes a frank reflection of the isolated individual's position in an incomprehensible world.