In the past, I haven’t been huge fan of Allen Ginsberg — partly because I think, as a poem and a product of the craft of poetry, “Howl” is a little bit overrated.  (Of course, I’m not disparaging it’s place in literary history). I just don’t care as much as some people do. I don’t say that lightly, partly because the first section is particularly powerful, moving, and charged.  It’s just the repetition gets a little too grating, especially in the second section, when Ginsberg repeatedly invokes the name “Moloch.”  It gets even more annoying outside of the poem, in a  redundant piece entitled “Footnote to Howl” and like half of the poem is “holy! holy! holy! holy!” and on and on and on…..  On the page, it’s a little grating on the eyeballs, and for a poem to survive, it has to work on the page first.  Saying “its meant to be read aloud as performance” is a cop out.   That’s another post for another time.

So, recently, I’ve had a slight change of heart about Allen Ginsberg, in total, as a poet.  Oddly enough, it came when I bought the City Lights version of “Howl and other poems” (because carrying around a volume of “collected” is not possible, when it comes to trouser back pockets).    My opinion on the title poem really hasn’t changed — some brilliant parts, and some not so brilliant parts.    But, I ran across a poem of his I hadn’t, to date, read.  Much like “Howl,” chunks of it sounds a little like a more modern Walt Whitman.  The poem?  In The Baggage Room at the Greyhound.   Here are some opening lines.

In the depths of the Greyhound Terminal
sitting dumbly on a baggage truck looking at the sky
waiting for the Los Angeles Express to depart
worrying about eternity over the Post Office roof in
the night-time red downtown heaven
staring through my eyeglasses I realized shuddering
these thoughts were not eternity, nor the poverty
of our lives, irritable baggage clerks,
nor the millions of weeping relatives surrounding the
buses waving goodbye,
nor other millions of the poor rushing around from
city to city to see their loved ones,
nor an indian dead with fright talking to a huge cop
by the Coke machine,

A couple of things strike me about these lines.   There’s a way to use repetition successfully, and a way to not use it successfully.  To that end, the above quoted lines strike me as “the right way.”   Instead of quoting the annoying lines from “Howl,” perhaps it’s best that I point to something far more absurd.  More than ten years ago, the fiction writer Robin Hemley placed a short little essay in the journal Another Chicago Magazine.  In it, he openly deplored “Poetry Slams” as ridiculus performance spectacles.  His corning but of evidence came from personal esperience, where I go would make the rounds of open mike nights with a ream of paper consisting of, ad infinitum, the following (and this is not a quote, but a crude recreation from memory):

by the beard of Rebecca, it’s a drag!

by the beard of Thomas, it’s a drag!

by the beard of Eunice, it’s a drag!

by the beard of Jose, it’s a drag!

by the beard of  Vince, it’s a drag….

and on and on and on the guy would go, according to Hemley.    And, actually, Ginsberg is indeed guilty of that, now that I think about.  Here’s a bit from Howl’s second section:

Moloch! Moloch! Nightmare of Moloch! Moloch the loveless! Mental Moloch! Moloch the heavy judger of men!
Moloch the incomprehensible prison! Moloch the crossbone soulless jailhouse and Congress of sorrows! Moloch whose buildings are judgment! Moloch the vast stone of war! Moloch the stunned governments!
Section three gets even more monotonous:
Carl Solomon! I’m with you in Rockland
where you’re madder than I am
I’m with you in Rockland
where you must feel very strange
I’m with you in Rockland
where you imitate the shade of my mother
I’m with you in Rockland
where you’ve murdered your twelve secretaries
I’m with you in Rockland
where you laugh at this invisible humor
I’m with you in Rockland
where we are great writers on the same dreadful typewriter
I’m with you in Rockland….

By the beard of Allen, that’s a drag…  Ginsberg does have a good voice, it’s just sometimes it’s just buried under a lot of what he likely intended as an incantory effect.  Sometime, wading through those longwinded repititions can get tedious.  So, what’ interesting, from the standpoint of the nuts and bolts of writing, is how to vary it.  Repitition works when it suggests a rhythm, but does so without bludgeoning the reader with lines that echo into oblivion.    In his Greyhound poem, Ginsburg does it right.  The repetition comes in whole clauses and phrases, almost to the point where that seems to be the dominant origanizational principle — not by “the line” as one sees in free verse, “the foot” as one sees in metrics, or “the sentence” as one sees in prose.   The beginning has a set that works off -ing words leading off, and the rest of what I quoted works off the repitition of the word “nor.”  But, it’s also apt to notice that there’s still some variation, but in length and in presentation.  So, that ancient middle eastern (aka Bibilical or Koranic) prosody, which Whitman mined to good effect, largely works.
Advertisements