David Widgery

Writers Reviewed: Allan Ginsberg

Howling to the Beat

(November 1985)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 81, November 1985, p. 30.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

THE PUBLICATION of 750 pages of Allan Ginsberg’s Collected Works earlier this year, and his final, if still grudging acceptance by the North American literary establishment have served as a salutary reminder that one of our greatest living poets has both been writing for nearly forty years and has remained an uncompromising and a stringent critic of the capitalisms, both East and West.

He is also pretty disparaging about ‘Marxist critics – their cocks covered with the blood of Mayakowski and Yesenin’. While no one in the SWP has any part in the rape of the great Russian lyric poets of the Soviet era, Ginsberg deserves better from us than simple bracketing as a well-meaning angelist who could be a good socialist if only he had read the right books.

For in contrast to the impression of apolitical spontaneity, Ginsberg and the other original Beat writers were extraordinarily erudite and had close contact with the organised American Left. In reaction to what Ginsberg accurately calls ‘the capitalist vocational training’ offered in Columbia University with its virtual reduction of literature to the good manners of the 19th century novel, the Beat grouping committed themselves to an intense self-education in anthropology, comparative religion, philosophy and, under the tutelage of the repulsively brilliant novelist William Burroughs, European writers like Celine, Joyce and the French surrealists.

In Ginsberg’s case this dimension was combined with firsthand experience of the American Communist Party – as lovers of his homage-poem to his mother Naomi, Kaddish will remember – and with other strains of socialist and Jewish proletarian organisation.

As a young man he heard Angelica Balabanoff, the Italian born critic of Lenin, Scott Nearing, the socialist author, historian and organic farmer, Mother Bloor, the travelling strike organiser, and the orator and socialist candidate for Governor of New York, Israel Amter.

The contact should not be overemphasised as the revolutionary socialist tradition had virtually expired, with the majority of writers associated with the Trotskyist viewpoint moving quite rapidly to the right.

As Ginsberg himself put it ‘Between the Scylla of Stalinism and the Charybdis of anti-Stalinism, there was not much of a left really’. But part of the Beat mission was to excavate native American radicalism from beneath the appalling conformism of the post-war USA.

Its intensive social control was now aided with advertising’s boom and the new reign of the cathode tube. It was further aided by authoritarian pop psychology, backed by ECT and prison-like mental asylums, the paranoic anti-Communism pioneered by Joseph MacCarthy but now in the Yankee mainstream, the compulsive heterosexuality and the strange robotic haircuts.

I must confess that it was through reading Ginsberg’s exhilarating America at the age of 17 that I first heard of the Scotsboro Boys, Tom Mooney and Sacco and Vanzetti.

Romantic mission

But it is not surprising that these passionate rebels against crewcut America turned – not to the Communist Party, which was at that time, desperately trying to appear, patriotic, sexually straight and generally all-American – but to fellow artists.

For the Beat mission was, in an almost classical sense, romantic and it is probably best to see the creative outburst in North American painting, music and poetry in the Fifties as the third and possibly greatest wave of romanticism.

For only a few streets away the Abstract Impressionist painters were making the first major break in the use of pictorial space since Cubism. And down on 118th in an after hours dive run by Henry Minton and famous for its collard greens and Creole sauce, the young black virtuosos of bebop were, literally, turning jazz upside down.

From Minton’s Gallery Six and the Beat HQ on East 7th St was emerging the romanticism of the nuclear age, recoiling from modern capitalism, classicism and ‘cool’ with wildly emotional art which was in each case revolutionary in its formal innovation. And in his North American romantic agony Ginsberg quite literally put himself through the extremes of drug experimentation, sexual iconoclasm, incessant travel and insanity to find and formulate his own visions of human possibility. What remains inspiring is that his quest did not peter out after his first great, howling outbursts, organised on the page almost as Parker might phrase a solo or Pollock hurl himself at a canvas.

Ginsberg’s urban romanticism has matured, retaining its lyrical exuberance but sharpening and fleshing out his explosive rejections with some very concise and intelligent analyses of the anti-revolutionary bureaucracies and philosophies of Eastern Europe, the economics of American imperialism, the fiasco which is modern Israel and the modern state’s remorseless manipulation of everything from plutonium to opium to bolster its power over its subject human beings.

He was an early and brilliant critic of Ronald Raygun and his most recent poems, complicated and often as involuted and elliptical as Blake’s Prophesies also written in a period of political reaction, are as heartening an exposure of the crackbrained rationality of Star-Wars-era Amerika as his first poems where against the insane normality of Eisenhower and Hefner’s United States.

And his politics have always included the sexual dimension Green Automobile one of the most important and most beautiful accounts of loving passion between men since Whitman, was published in 1953 in the Machattine Review (the journal of the pioneering organisation of gay men in North America). And Ginsberg has continued his committment not just to the liberation of gay men but to an enlarged view of sexuality in which men and women cease to be bottled up in the conventional attributes of their gender. And he’s even discovered a sense of humour, which in the early days was somewhat crushed by the awful weight of prophesy which he had laid upon himself.

In his wonderfully scathing poem Birdbrain, he notes self-mockingly of his own pretensions ‘Birdbrain became a great international Poet and went round the world praising the glories of Birdbrain’.

In the launderette of style, the Beat era has spun back into fashion. In the smarter London cafes a copy of Howl, a Blue Note hard bop LP and the sort of mohair suit one used to buy in Burtons for ten pounds but now costs ten times that is de rigueur. Socialists have every right to insist to these amnesiacs of style that the artists they defer to were highly political and deeply committed individuals.

And it is also worth reminding ourselves that movements of popular revolt against long periods of reaction, such as we have been enduring for the last decade, often come in unpredictable, impetuous, and in infuriatingly subjective idioms.

Last updated on 16 October 2019