Portrait of the poet as a young man

Posted on February 16, 2007

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By Susan Tomaselli

May [22], 1941. Began writing to (I suppose) satisfy my egotism. My writing has improved (slightly)…Don’t mind my succession of different thoughts. I have a lot to say. As I said, I am writing to satisfy my egotism. If some future historian or biographer wants to know what the genius thought and did in his tender years, here it is. I’ll be a genius of some kind or another, probably in literature. I really believe it. (Not naively, as whoever reads this is thinking.) I have a fair degree of confidence in myself. Either I’m a genius, I’m egocentric, or I’m slightly schizophrenic. Probably the first two.

Though few of its members remain, the Beat Generation continues to attract attention, scholarly or otherwise, unquestionably deserved. Their words have trickled down the decades, some ageing better than others, their style widely imitated.

November 2006 saw the fiftieth anniversary of ‘Howl’, Allen Ginsberg’s landmark poem, marked by the publishing of Howl: Original Draft Facsimile, Howl on Trial, I Celebrate Myself: The Somewhat Private Life of Allen Ginsberg and The Book of Martyrdom and Artifice, a text that, at first appearance, seems composed entirely of leftovers, the archives having been so thoroughly plundered down the years with all of the best primary material already used up.

Unexpurgated to a certain extent – Ginsberg and other contemporary readers have added comments to the margins – these journals are a mixture of juvenilia, reading lists and dream diaries. As dream diaries go, they’re not very interesting, but then, whose dream diaries are? My Education proved that even William Burroughs‘ weren’t.

What the earlier entries show is a young poet struggling to find his voice and a young man coming to terms with his homosexuality, and arguably nothing more.

“I haven’t told you much about myself. I am [the] smallest boy in class. Hobbies – stamps, coins, minerals, chemistry and most of all (at present) movies. They afford me great pleasure and they are about the only relief from boredom which seems to hang around me like a shadow.” [1938]

What is of interest are Ginsberg’s Columbia years. It is here he meets Lucien Carr, “a friend of mine who claims he’s an ‘intellectual’ (that has a musty flavor, hasn’t it?),” who in turn introduces him to Burroughs. All the Beats are here: Jack Kerouac (“the romantic deluded poet”), Carr, Burroughs (“a realist, interesting himself in sociology as an experiment”), Hal Chase, Herbert Huncke, Neal Cassady.

“The shadow has closed down on us and engulfed us all..The libertine circle is destroyed with the death of Kammerer.” Ginsberg’s writing on the Lucien Carr-David Kammerer murder, one of the first scandals shake the Beats, comes across as shameless hussying for source material: “[I] tried to write poetry. No – my soul was overflowing with lyric wailings – my pen was full of – ink! Black, borrowed ink, without a flash of gold flowing from the nib of the pen! Disgusted, sad, I got up and read Emily [Dickinson]! Old sweet Emily. All she knew!” An impression only reinforced when, on advice of a tutor who reckoned it would bring unwanted attention to Columbia, we are told Ginsberg abandoned a proposed book on the subject.

Allen Ginsberg wished to leave these journals unpublished until his death, and after reading entries detailing his obsessional relationship with Neal Cassady, it is easy to see why:

“He does no longer excite me, I’ve almost used him up in a way, learned as much as I will from him, loved him as much as I can, to no end, except final loss of real feeling and love, and want no more of him. But of course I do want more of him, it’s just that I haven’t got enough?”

A suicide note, “written in melancholy mood, consciously, to be used in a novel,” appears in August 1944:

“I have dreamed obscenities that would shock you as they once shocked me. I have thought thoughts of wildly imaginative insanity, of perversion, of humor, of loveliness and beauty… I want friends! I want to unburden my soul to a loved one! and yet, if people knew me, I should have to commit suicide!”

Re-worked on more than one occasion, with Ginsberg’s despair naked on the page, they are painful to read, whether his intention was a fictional device or not.

In these journals, Ginsberg is sometimes the smart aleck (“If there is a God he is too obviously a failure or a fool who cannot demand my thanks and reverence. This is a world that God forgot, and until I am satisfied with it, I must continue to demand my money back from God”), sometimes the intellectual (“If art is pure expression, we cannot define good and bad art, nor censure bad art. It fulfils the creative need”), sometimes playful (“All work and no play makes Jack”) and sometimes just downright hilarious: “Burroughs approves of my poetry. Immediately my estimation of him went down.”

The Book of Martyrdom and Artifice excels when Ginsberg writes on his craft: “This doldrums settling in is not good. I can take it because I know in the end I will resolve my aesthetic problems, if not strictly or satisfactorily, at least, productively – if worst comes to worst with the prose I will always be writing bigger and better poems.”

“As to my motives for putting down on paper what I felt and saw – I actually was trying to keeping mind the details of my existence, to put them down in all their reality, artistic or not, against the day when I would be able to use them for a large autobiographical work of fiction. That day would come, I figured, only when I felt enough at peace with myself and self-satisfied to actually be able to conceive of myself as a hero of a book. But that day never came.” [1949]

“I like people; and my liking and curiosity is not confined to criminals. I have gone out of my way to meet people of varying kinds,” he writes. Words “heard from so many various lips,” make their way into his diaries, and later into his poetry, including those from the lips of Herbert Huncke, a “self-damned soul,” a petty criminal and Times Square hustler.

“Gossip of the underworld, which I listened to with an ear for the bizarre, the fantastic, eventually the cosmic. A new social center had been established on Times Square – a huge room lit in brilliant fashion by neon glare and filled with slot machines, open day and night. There all the apocalyptic hipsters in New York eventually stopped, fascinated by the timeless room.

[..]

Down in the gutter of Times Square and Harlem.. I wanted to lose the sense of my own character and emerge with a voice of rock, a grave, severe sense of love of the world, an asperity and directness of passion. I wanted to make people shudder when they looked into my eye, suddenly wakened from a vast dream of the will.”

Jack Kerouac had his Doctor Sax, Allen Ginsberg his Shrouded Stranger. All the seeds are within these pages. As Bill Morgan‘s diligent footnotes testify, a lot of these “very personal, obscene, autobiographical..confessional fragments of prose,” (as Ginsberg describes them) are later reworked into the poems. Yet, it is not enough. Ginsberg writes himself, “Until I am a man I shall never write good poetry.” He knew his best work was yet to be written, something I suspect the editors are all too aware of. Tacking one of the late-Twentieth century’s finest poet’s earliest work on as an appendix just doesn’t cut it.

The Book of Martyrdom and Artifice: First Journals and Poems, 1937-1952 by Allen Ginsberg
Edited by Juanita Lieberman-Plimpton and Bill Morgan
Da Capo Press
416 Pages

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Posted in: Reading