Summer Reading 2016: Poetry — When the Personal is Political
Allen Ginsberg didn’t just remake American poetry, his used his deeply political and human concerns to try to help remake the world
The great poet W.H. Auden famously — or infamously — observed, “poetry makes nothing happen.” Allen Ginsberg’s poetry, and his life, turn that tired truism neatly on its head. And if the poems didn’t quite make everything happen, they reflected the breadth of Ginsberg’s political sympathies. As Eliot Katz neatly summarizes in the preface to his “The Poetry and Politics of Allen Ginsberg,” from “outspokenness against Eisenhower-era political and sexual repression to his protests against the Vietnam War, from his willingness to sit on the railroad tracks in Rocky Flats, Colorado, to stop the shipment of plutonium to his opposition to the 1991 Gulf War, Allen Ginsberg consistently put his body and his poetry on the line.”
What Katz contends is that in many, if not all, instances, Ginsberg’s poetry and politics are inseparable, that they inform one another, and that to ignore the former to concentrate on the latter is to diminish the poet. Katz also argues that Ginsberg — arguably the best-known English-language poet of the 20th and early 21st centuries — devoted his “considerable literary skills and energies to help envision and create a more just, peaceful, and egalitarian world.”
In both his poetry and his life, Allen Ginsberg was one of the most politically engaged writers of his era. Influenced by such key literary predecessors as William Blake and Walt Whitman, and raised by a communist mother Naomi, and a Debsian democratic-socialist-poet father Louis, Allen Ginsberg learned how to turn his political ideas and observations into some of the most memorable and widely read poetry of the 20th century. In his personal life, he actively supported and participated in a wide range of organized political movements, beginning with the movement to end the Vietnam War and, in ensuing years, movements for such progressive causes as gay rights, civil rights, environmental protection, nuclear disarmament, and avoidance of the 1991 Gulf War. He was an active member of the PEN Freedom to Write Committee, opposing censorship East and West, and served on the advisory board of numerous progressive organizations, including the media watch group, Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), and a national student activist group that I worked with during the late 1980s and early 1990s, Student Action Union. From 1980 until his death in 1997, during the years that I knew Allen Ginsberg as a one-time student (at Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado) and a longtime friend, he was constantly writing or calling government offices to advocate for improved social policies and urging younger poets like myself to do the same. In addition, many of the next-generation poets whose work Ginsberg praised, mostly writers whose work was not well-known in larger or more mainstream literary circles, were progressive poets deeply concerned with social and political issues.
This book attempts to begin to fill what seems an important gap in Ginsberg scholarship. Although many of Allen Ginsberg’s best poems explore political themes in deeply interesting ways, there has not yet been a serious, book-length attempt to take a deep look at Ginsberg’s politics or at his poetry as political poetry. In his otherwise excellent introduction to an early scholarly collection of essays on Ginsberg, editor Lewis Hyde pointed to a scarcity of critical attention to Ginsberg as a political poet, and offered this unfulfilling explanation: “We have as yet, no full account of Ginsberg as a political poet, these essays notwithstanding, and if our response to this portion of his work has been spotty it is probably because his politics takes its shape from his spiritual concerns, and it is in this last that we shall find its meaning.”1Hyde’s remarks echo those of Paul Carroll, who earlier had written: “Allen Ginsberg’s real accomplishments as a poet do not come from his public image or his political and social poems. The great Ginsberg poems are private. (‘Howl’—that labyrinth of personal sorrow—is a very private poem.)”(94)
Since the creation of the Beat Studies Association in late 2004, there has been some additional critical attention paid to the public aspirations of Ginsberg’s work, as well as to more general questions about the political reverberations of Beat Generation literature. A wide range of scholars associated with the Beat Studies Association—including Ronna C. Johnson, Nancy M. Grace, Jennie Skerl, A. Robert Lee, Tony Trigilio, Maria Damon, Kurt Hemmer, and Clinton Starr—have shed much-needed light on such crucial and previously neglected issues as women writers of the Beat Generation, African-American Beat Generation poets who had in the past been excluded from too many studies of countercultural art, and some of the various ways in which the informal community groups that coalesced in Beat literary spaces in the mid- to late-1950s helped pave the way for the larger social movements of the 1960s.2 And several short essays have focused on certain political aspects of a few of Ginsberg’s poems.3But it is still the case that, until now, no in-depth attempt has been made to look at the ways in which Allen Ginsberg’s writing works as political poetry and at the ways in which his poetry and activism have influenced American politics and political culture in the ensuing decades.
To say that someone is a political poet does not, of course, mean that politics is the only thing the person writes about. In addition to social concerns, Ginsberg’s work also contains powerfully expressed psychological, spiritual, autobiographical, familial, sexual, and literary themes, as well as poems of daily life and observations. Often, what is most striking about his poems is their lively exploration of the ways in which these varied concerns interrelate. But, at least from my own personal view, I think it is fair to say that what has resonated most in the minds and imaginations of readers across the planet for over half a century has been the keen sense that here is a poet devoting considerable literary skills and energies to help envision and create a more just, peaceful, and egalitarian world.
Prevailing mythology says that 1960s radicals became more conservative as they got older. Along with thousands of known and unknown organizers from that era who continued to display long-term progressive commitment, whether by public activism or private lives spent in professions like social work, public interest law, or education, Allen Ginsberg’s life and work help put the lie to that myth. As he got older, Ginsberg got sharper, more committed to building a compassionate world, and better able in interviews to explain his ideas in clear, concise language that was usually difficult for open-minded, reasonable people to refute. Throughout his life, his progressive social commitment never wavered. From his outspokenness against Eisenhower-era political and sexual repression to his protests against the Vietnam War, from his willingness to sit on the railroad tracks in Rocky Flats, Colorado, to stop the shipment of plutonium to his opposition to the 1991 Gulf War, Allen Ginsberg consistently put his body and his poetry on the line.
Furthermore, Ginsberg refused to be conned into accepting dominant Cold War dualities. He was consistent in his criticisms of U.S. and other Western capitalist exploitation while also vocally opposing authoritarian Soviet-style alternatives. Throughout his life, Ginsberg kept neatly organized file cabinets filled with little-known political and literary information, and a comprehensive Rolodex of writers, political organizers, and journalists working for both the mainstream and the alternative press. This Rolodex was incredibly helpful in the pre-Internet days to those of us who needed difficult-to-find phone numbers or addresses in order to help organize or publicize upcoming meetings, events, and rallies. Along Shelleyan lines, I think it would be fair to say that Allen Ginsberg was a democratic conscience of Cold War America—often unacknowledged by the political pundit class, but probably better known during his lifetime than any other poet who had come before him.
Allen Ginsberg had a rare ability, through both his poetry and activism, to radicalize young people—to open up their radical eyes—and to help prop open a wide range of difficult-to-find doors to worlds of progressive politics and culture, enabling his work to achieve an enormous influence on six decades of American dissent. Ever since 9/11, we have moved back toward a time somewhat like the era Ginsberg described in “Wichita Vortex Sutra” when “almost all our language has been taxed by war.” In an era filled with too much military conflict, regressive economic policies, and the backsliding of civil liberties, the legacy of Allen Ginsberg remains as important as ever.