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Tag: Poetry

Steve Finbow: Resolutely straight-shooting

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

Seminal Lines

Pain has an element of blank;
It cannot recollect
When it began, or if there were
A day when it was not.

It has no future but itself,
Its infinite realms contain
Its past, enlightened to perceive
New periods of pain.

The Mystery of Pain – Emily Dickinson

Seminal Lines

She turns and looks a moment in the glass,
Hardly aware of her departed lover;
Her brain allows one half-formed thought to pass:
“Well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over.”
When lovely woman stoops to folly and
Paces about her room again, alone,
She smoothes her hair with automatic hand,
And puts a record on the gramophone.

The Waste Land – T. S Eliot

Seminal Lines

Turn on your side and bear the day to me
Beloved, sceptre-struck, immured
In the glass wall of sleep. Slowly
Uncloud the borealis of your eye
And show your iceberg secrets, your midnight prizes
To the green-eyed world and to me. Sin
Coils upward into thin air when you awaken
And again morning announces amnesty over
The serpent-kingdomed bed. Your mother
Watched with as dove an eye the unforgivable night
Sigh backward into innocence when you
Set a bright monument in her amorous sea.
Look down, Undine, on the trident that struck
Sons from the rock of vanity. Turn in the world
Sceptre-struck, spellbound, beloved,
Turn in the world and bear the day to me.

Turn on Your Side and Bear the Day to Me – George Barker

Seminal Lines

The roses were so red
And the ivy was so black.

Dear, at a turn of your head
My despair flooded back.

The sky was too blue, and too tender,
The sea too green, air lacked force.

I always fear – it must be remembered,
Some atrocious act of yours.

I’m tired of holly with varnished leaves
And shivering boxwood too,

And the countryside’s infinity
All things, alas, but you!

Spleen – Paul Verlaine

Seminal Lines for Christopher Hitchens

The earth is an oyster with nothing inside it,
Not to be born is the best for man;
The end of toil is a bailiff’s order,
Throw down the mattock and dance while you can.

A friend is the old old tale of Narcissus,
Not to be born is the best for man;
An active partner in something disgraceful,
Change your partner, dance while you can.

The greater the love, the more false to its object,
Not to be born is the best for man;
After the kiss comes the impulse to throttle,
Break the embraces, dance while you can.

The desires of the heart are as crooked as corkscrews,
Not to be born is the best for man;
The second-best is a formal order,
The dance’s pattern; dance while you can.

Dance, dance for the figure is easy,
The tune is catching and will not stop;
Dance till the stars come down from the rafters;
Dance, dance, dance till you drop.

Death’s Echo – W.H Auden

Seminal Lines

It is the pain, it is the pain endures.
Your chemic beauty burned my muscles through.
Poise of my hands reminded me of yours.

What later purge from this deep toxin cures?
What kindness now could the old salve renew?
It is the pain, it is the pain endures.

The infection slept (custom or changes inures)
And when pain’s secondary phase was due
Poise of my hands reminded me of yours.

How safe I felt, whom memory assures,
Rich that your grace safely by heart I knew.
It is the pain, it is the pain endures.

My stare drank deep beauty that still allures.
My heart pumps yet the poison draught of you.
Poise of my hands reminded me of yours.

You are still kind whom the same shape immures.
Kind and beyond adieu. We miss our cue.
It is the pain, it is the pain endures.
Poise of my hands reminded me of yours.

Villanelle – William Empson

Seminal Lines

Days that cannot bring you near
or will not,
Distance trying to appear
something more obstinate,
argue argue argue with me
endlessly
neither proving you less wanted nor less dear.

Distance: Remember all that land
beneath the plane;
that coastline
of dim beaches deep in sand
stretching indistinguishably
all the way,
all the way to where my reasons end?

Days: And think
of all those cluttered instruments,
one to a fact,
canceling each other’s experience;
how they were
like some hideous calendar
“Compliments of Never & Forever, Inc.”

The intimidating sound
of these voices
we must separately find
can and shall be vanquished:
Days and Distance disarrayed again
and gone
both for good and from the gentle battleground.

Argument – Elizabeth Bishop

Seminal Lines

somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond
any experience, your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near

your slightest look easily will unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skilfully, mysteriously)her first rose

or if your wish be to close me, i and
my life will shut very beautifully ,suddenly,
as when the heart of this flower imagines
the snow carefully everywhere descending;

nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility: whose texture
compels me with the colour of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing

(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens; only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands

Somewhere I Have Never Travelled, Gladly Beyond – E. E. Cummings

Seminal Lines

Don’t talk to me of love. I’ve had an earful
And I get tearful when I’ve downed a drink or two.
I’m one of your talking wounded.
I’m a hostage. I’m maroonded.
But I’m in Paris with you.

Yes I’m angry at the way I’ve been bamboozled
And resentful at the mess I’ve been through.
I admit I’m on the rebound
And I don’t care where are we bound.
I’m in Paris with you.

Do you mind if we do not go to the Louvre
If we say sod off to sodding Notre Dame,
If we skip the Champs Elysées
And remain here in this sleazy

Old hotel room
Doing this and that
To what and whom
Learning who you are,
Learning what I am.

Don’t talk to me of love. Let’s talk of Paris,
The little bit of Paris in our view.
There’s that crack across the ceiling
And the hotel walls are peeling
And I’m in Paris with you.

Don’t talk to me of love. Let’s talk of Paris.
I’m in Paris with the slightest thing you do.
I’m in Paris with your eyes, your mouth,
I’m in Paris with . . . all points south.
Am I embarrassing you?
I’m in Paris with you.

In Paris With You – James Fenton

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