Always, Allen Ginsberg Sought Truth

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Poet and critic Hollander is Sterling Professor of English at Yale University

Given all that will now be evoked in remembrance of Allen Ginsberg--of his cultural influence, his most celebrated verse and his performance of it, and his public vatic role--memory moves me to say something about his earlier poetry, and about the poetic territory through which he moved toward what became his distinctive mode.

For someone like myself, who first got to know him 50 years ago (we were students at Columbia University--I a sophomore, he a senior), it is hard to forget the voice of the dark, spectacled, bookish young poet--just back from Dakar after a year as an ordinary seaman on a merchant ship--as he read each newly completed work quietly and earnestly aloud to me.

The first lines of his I remember reading were from a moving blank-verse tribute to Hart Crane that began, “He cringed, beholding their great dignity/The sane prophetic ghosts of future seasons.”


I recall, too, his further response to Sir Walter Ralegh’s answer (“Come live with me and be my love/And we will some new pleasures prove”) to Marlowe’s famous lines. In his opening quatrains, Ginsberg acknowledged the obligations a serious poet takes on when he or she engages a convention or moment from tradition:


Come live with me and be my love,

And we will some old pleasures prove:

Now we have shared these sunny nights

We must assume more dark delights.

All men and I have paid in verse

This costly compliment, or curse

Yet richer poetry is free

To those who need to simile . . .


It will be heard from this that, even at the age of 20 or 21, Allen’s ear was as attentive to the measures of 17th century verse as it would thereafter become to those taught to members of his generation by William Carlos Williams (to be seen best perhaps in poems like “The Green Automobile” and the fine “Siesta in Xbalba”), and eventually, to his own incantatory lines in “Howl” and “America,” which became so widely popular.

Four hundred years ago Edmund Spenser addressed his precursor Chaucer by avowing, “I follow here the footing of thy feete,” and it is often by such following that poets come to learn what their own personal direction really is.

Andrew Marvell, whose cadences can be heard in Emerson and some of the finest of Robert Penn Warren’s early poetry, spoke strongly to Ginsberg then, too. I remember Ginsberg read Marvell’s lovely “The Bermudas” aloud to teach me its cadences in Denver in 1947; Allen had recently won a prize at Columbia for his elegant pastiche of “The Garden” that began:


How vainly lovers labor, all

To win a body, mind and soul

Who, winning one white night of grace

Will weep and rage a year of days . . .


and included couplets such as “The argument of our minds create/We do, abed, substantiate”--as correctly playful with scholastic philosophy as it was erotically hopeful.

It was finally to Whitman’s long lines, each one marking a closed unit of syntax--rather than Williams’ short, heavily enjambed notational ones--that he turned, thinking of Whitman too as being transparently literal rather than telling the truth.

It was this frequently seriocomic vatic mode, the Whitman of the marvelous “Respondez!” on which many of his later chanted editorials seem to be modeled, as it was “The Sleepers” and the poems of “Calamus” which suggested the formal and rhetorical patterns of some of his other genres.

Allusive play marked many of his poems then, too. In a never reprinted sequence called “The Denver Doldrums,” his quotation and domestication of Keats (“I have been half in love with easeful death/But I went through puberty all out of breath”) would have been recognized by his readers.

But not so, perhaps, a moment in “America” ending a brief litany of memories of communist party meetings his mother took him to, where there is a resonant echo: “ . . . Mother Bloor made me cry I once saw Israel Amter plain.”

Israel Amter was a Communist Party official too sick and enfeebled to appear at a celebrated trial in New York; but the echo of Robert Browning’s opening rhetorical inquiry in a poem called “Memorabilia” (“Ah, did you once see Shelley plain/And did he stop and speak to you?”) is here charmingly turned by the poet upon his younger self. It exemplifies a gentleness and wit which, even amid the most hyperbolic and counter-conspiratorial moments in his later work, is rarely absent.


The late poet talks about “The Ballad of the Skeletons.” F1