Brief Review: Collected Poems: 1949–1980


Collected Poems: 1949–1980, by Allen Ginsberg, New York: Harper & Row, 837 pp., $27.50.

Allen Ginsberg is the finest American poet since Walt Whitman. A central figure in the Beat literary explosion of the 1950s, he, Jack Kerouac, and lesser Beat lights revived the Whitmanesque dream of a rugged, raucous, and uniquely American literature. They were out to recover the "wild, self-believing individuality" that Kerouac believed had been extinguished in the land of the free.

The Beats' bohemian (and sometimes criminal) lifestyles and their emphasis on spontaneous prose and a mystical poetry of being—epitomized by Ginsberg's dictum, "First thought, best thought"—never endeared them to our custodians of cultural good taste. Yet the appearance of this massive volume heralds the final step in Allen Ginsberg's odyssey from enfant terrible to the paunchy éminence grise of American poetry.

This is great stuff! From the fevered famous first lines of Howl (1956)—"I have seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked/dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix"—to Kaddish (1959), an elegy for his sweet, paranoid communist mother, to Wichita Vortex Sutra (1966), a lament for his nation's fall from grace, Ginsberg's poetry brims with mad, lusting, apocalyptic energy. And if his vision of America is less exultant and rhapsodic than Walt Whitman's, well, a lot has changed in this country in the last hundred years.

About Ginsberg's politics: His antiwar and anti-nuclear-power activism has earned him the usual knee-jerk hostility from the right. The neoconservative aesthetes at Commentary recently attacked him for "sleaziness" and "vitriolic anti-Americanism." Judge for yourself. The best statement of Ginsberg's political principles is contained in the final poem of the collection, Capitol Air (written as a punk rock song in 1980):

I don't like the government where I live
I don't like dictatorship of the Rich
I don't like bureaucrats telling me what to eat
I don't like Police dogs sniffing round my feet

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

Somebody give this guy a copy of REASON, quick!