Writing in Some Thoughts Concerning Education John Locke observed that the “little or almost insensible impressions on our tender infancies have important and lasting consequences”. This axiom not only defined but also shaped Allen Ginsberg’s life; a life Steve Finbow examines in his astute new biography. “Madness, poetry, politics and a longing for love – important elements of Allan’s childhood,” writes Finbow, “obsessed him throughout his life and became the subject matter of his greatest poems, Howl and Kadish.” The long line poems “challenging societal status quo” made the poet’s “private world public” which to Ginsberg meant the very pinnacle of creative achievement. But even for someone like him, someone who appeared so saliently a poet, it took several decades to find the courage to unveil his true voice. The biographer, in writing about these formative years, cites a number of Ginsberg’s early works to illustrate his restraint and reticence. Juxtaposed against his later poems they seem disparate, timorous and coy much like Ginsberg himself at the time. Finbow suggests that Ginsberg’s “ sexual passivity and masochism, his guilt about his mother’s lobotomy and his continuing incestuous fantasies and dreams about his father and his brother caused Allen to theorize that his homosexuality was a sign of insanity.” To counteract this anxiety Ginsberg sought therapy, attempted to become heterosexual and tried to abandon his fledgling literary ambitions, but his efforts to conform only made life more difficult.
As any good biographer, Finbow demystifies rather than promulgates romantic notions about his subject. In fact, he is resolutely straight-shooting about Ginsberg’s neuroses, his guilt over his mad mother, his suicidal tendencies, his petty jealousies and sexual perversities, mentions of which perforate the slender volume throughout, individually as well as in conjunction with Ginsberg’s literary contemporaries. Finbow describes the “jazz loving, poetry quoting” Beatniks as an insular clique riddled with professional backbiting, “soap opera” sexual dynamics and incestuous relationships. Albeit many of the Beats were heterosexual, most dabbled in homosexuality which goes some way to explain how Ginsberg frequently found himself in love with straight men. The worst of these disastrous affairs was with Neal Cassidy, a lubricious sadist and a liar who frequently drove Ginsberg to the brink of suicide. Although, Ginsberg’s suicidal tendencies were in full swing long before Cassidy came on the scene. “For Allen,” writes Finbow, “Nietzsche’s maxim ‘The thought of suicide is a powerful comfort,’ held true, and more so that ‘it helps one through many a dreadful night.” It was, in fact, a lifelong coping mechanism which aided Ginsberg thought chronic loneliness, reoccurring breakdowns, numerous bereavements and fruitless quests for love. All of these themes were later celebrated in Ginsberg’s poetry, combining autobiography, fantasy, psychosexuality and imagination – a complete bouleversement of poetic tradition.
Between spells of travelling, unrequited love, a nascent domestic life with Peter Orlovsky and his role as a makeshift agent for Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs, Ginsberg hardly found time to write. But he was also short of inspiration, waiting for some divine afflatus, some booming muse, which eventually came in the form of his breakthrough, Howl. Ginsberg performed it for the first time at the Six Gallery, on 7th October 1955, which “became a defining moment in Beat history” and “changed the public’s idea of poets and poetry, ignited discussion in universities, bars and newspapers”. Soon after, the work was published in Howl and Other Poems, then famously banned and has subsequently generated more analysis, speculation, outrage and conjecture than any other work of the twentieth century. In reaching this status, and the imprimatur of his peers, it partly achieved Ginsberg’s dream of being “known as the most brilliant man in America”. I say partly because despite finally finding his voice Ginsberg was largely unhappy. Finbow suggest that this perpetual darkness which hung over him may have been a result of manic depression. “Could Allen’s restlessness have been a sign of bipolar disorder?” the biographer asks, “the irritability and euphoria, the self-loathing and inflated self-esteem, the suicidal tendencies and the sexual energy all point to a positive diagnosis.” Whatever his condition, it was made worse by Ginsberg’s extensive experimentation with drugs, altered states of consciousness, compulsive travelling and recreant friends.
Finbow draws on secondary sources as well as first-hand knowledge of Ginsberg to evaluate the poet’s place in American letters. The biographer follows Ginsberg from childhood to college, from Mexico and India back to America, where he thrived and flourished as a poet and as an activist. In 1968, Ginsberg’s fame reached its pinnacle, that same year Cassidy died, Kerouac soon followed, marking the end of an era for the Beats. During this particular time Ginsberg embraced Buddhism, hoping to achieve some cosmic equilibrium but with “Cassidy and Kerouac dead, Orlovsky sliding into mania, Allen was alone, only the illusion of his fame for company”. Ginsberg’s celebrity meant groupies, experience of which, prompted him to write lines such as: “ – met you in the street you carried my package/Put your hands down to my legs/Touch if it’s there, the prick shaft delicate/Hot in your rounded palm, soft thumb on cockhead”. He no longer had to resort to subterfuge or euphemism, boldly speaking his mind in print, galling the thin-skinned establishment he was eventually to woo. Following in Walt Whitman’s tradition, Ginsberg fashioned himself into to a unique counterculture figure, a poet laureate of the disenfranchised. But this role was ultimately subsumed by the poet’s ego and his desire for fame. “His notoriety as a counterculture icon,” Finbow writes, “meant media exposure and his poetry reached a large audience. The American literary establishment recognised this influence and the mutual absorption began.”
Commenting on this phenomenon another critic, Charles Bronstein, said that Ginsberg’s success depended largely on “the authenticity of his way of life as much as his positions, a mode of authenticity that he takes, above all, from Whitman.” An authenticity that by the 1980s had become somewhat questionable, both in terms of his work and his personal life. After 25 turbulent years together with Orlovsky, writes Finbow, Allen maintained the pretence that they were a couple in reality the relationship was “fake, poisonous and detrimental to the mental health (and happiness) of both men.” Finbow notes that for all his faults, Ginsberg was aware of his fraud and yet vanity and fame overshadowed this awareness. His poetry deteriorated as his public appearances increased. The last two chapters of the book read like a travel itinerary with Ginsberg darting all over the globe, giving talks and lectures and making television appearances. The biographer candidly but considerately documents how Ginsberg’s popularity and success facilitated his “slow fade into the system,” which was capped with the poet penning a letter to Bill Clinton “informing the president of his terminal cancer and asking for a medal or an award for services to poetry”. A big ask from someone who set out to champion the disenfranchised. Finbow’s uncompromisingly lucid and thoughtful book evinces great insight into this important cultural figure, whose private life still remains more interesting than his work.
Publisher: Reaktion Books
Publication Date: August 2012
Paperback: 239 pages, 30 illustrations
ISBN: 978178023017 7