Gordon Ball‘s iconic photograph of cadets at Virginia Military Institute reading copies of Howl has, of course, a back-story. Occasioned by Iain Sinclair‘s review-article, “Retro-Selfies” in a recent London Review of Books and Alan Baragona‘s letters-to-the-editor reply, John May in The Generalist tracks the tale. Quoting Baragona (‘the guy who.. arranged for Ginsberg to visit the Academy”), he writes:
“Iain Sinclair is within his rights to scorn the co-opting of Beat Generation rebelliousness as a way to defang it but he is mistaken in using Allen Ginsberg’s visit to the Virginia Military Institute in 1991 and my friend Gordon Ball’s well-known photograph of cadets reading Howl to make his point…It’s true that some cadets, administrators, alumni, and faculty were unhappy about it, though not because of Ginsberg’s homosexuality or drug use so much as for his pacifism during the first Gulf War. But there were also many people in all those categories who were excited by the visit, and the administration supported us, even requiring the entire corps to attend (his) poetry reading. Ginsberg was aware of this and at the intermission told the cadets that as far as he was concerned they had fulfilled their obligation and were free to leave. Roughly two-thirds of the corps stayed for the second half. Afterwards, cadets crowded around Ginsberg to speak with him and later lined up at the bookstore to get their copies of Howl autographed…. What you see in Gordon’s photo is not frowning, but concentration, weariness, and some confusion as Ginsberg walked students through this challenging poem. This is a class of freshmen, few, if any, are English majors. How do you expect them to look?”
Baragoma notes that Allen stayed for a whole week, recited “Howl” publicly for the first time in ten years, and, aside from the public reading, conducted a workshop, for any students who might be interested, in transcendental meditation.
Far from staged, or a study in contempt, Ball’s photo registers a very touching and very thoughtful and sincere moment in “meeting of the minds”
HH: How would you sum up the significance of the Beats as writers rather than personalities?
JH: Kerouac has had a huge influence on readers worldwide. I’m sure more people have read On The Road than ever read “Howl”. But Ginsberg may be more significant a writer than Kerouac in terms of literary impact because of what I believe is the long-lasting influence of “Howl” on poets and poetry itself. I don’t think On The Road has had an equivalent influence on novelists, notwithstanding its popularity”
For more of the interview – see here
From the new collection, Wait Till I’m Dead – UnCollected Poems, the LA Times features the poem, “Spring night, at four a.m.”, a poem from May 1976 (“Spring night four a.m./Garbage lurks by the glass windows/Two guys light a match…”)
– and Craig Morgan Teicher, reviewing the book – “One doesn’t read this book because these poems in particular are important, but because it’s Ginsberg, whose importance is unquestionable. Among his many roles in 20th century culture – ’60’s protest jokester [sic], Zen ambassador, literary lion – he was also, for many, the gateway poet.” “These”, Teicher goes on, “are not unlike other Ginsberg poems – fierce, funny, libidinous, subversive – but here they afford a fresh chronological tour of Ginsberg’s life, which is also one version of the story of the second half of the 20th century.”
And – ” Ginsberg made his own meaning of the present tense: His poems are set insistently in the now; their power isn’t in particular lines so much as the whole aesthetic, the continuous decision to return, again and again, to his own mind and perceptions, like a meditator to his breathing. He treats everything with an utterly absorbing present-tense vividness, which this book lets us view through grown-up eyes”.
For a less “grown-up” review, a curmudgeon counterpoint, there’s the predictably sour response from one Micah Mattix, “assistant professor of literature at Houston Baptist University”, in the right-wing Washington Free Beacon – Under the provocative headline, “Allen Ginsberg-Bore“, he writes:
“…one thing Ginsberg isn’t is original, or to put it more accurately. he is original but almost always in the same way…his work as a whole is surprisingly predictable…(and) it’s not just Ginsberg’s syntax that is repetitive….Sometimes the metaphors make sense. Other times they are an end in themselves, and, freed of any obligation to be meaningful, they are the easiest things to create…The accumulated effect of all this…is not shock but a numbing boredom…Every writer has a limited bag of tricks….the problem with Ginsberg’s tricks is that they don’t work,, or not anymore, or, if they still do, only partially…There is a Ginsberg that is worth reading, but what he needs is a volume of poems about half the size of the current 480-page Selected Poems. In other words, a very selective selected poems and not more uncollected poetry…”
Billy Woodberry’s Bob Kaufman movie, When I Die, I Won’t Stay Dead, premiered in New York last week. Stephen Meisel in The Cornell Daily Sun addresses the marginalization of Kaufman. Here’s the cover of Kaufman’s Pocket Poets City Lights volume (from 1967):
and Kaufman in French translation:
Huerga & Fierro next month in Spain, will publish the first ever (bilingual – English-Spanish) edition of Kaufman’s poetry.
More book news (and great book news):
Just out (just reprinted by New York Review of Books), Bob Rosenthal (Allen’s long-time secretary)’s “70’s Cult Classic’, Cleaning Up New York. Richard Hell writes “I first read Cleaning Up New York when it was published in the 1970’s and I’ve been recommending it to people ever since. It’s one of those great, rare works the style of which – immaculate, with unexpected descriptor glints, and funny,low-key frankness – perfectly embodies its subject, namely the revelation of soft shine in humble corners of New York. It’s a miracle and you don’t have to be clean to appreciate it. And Luc Sante writes, “Bob Rosenthal’s Cleaning Up New York is a perfect little gem of a book. There is not one wasted or misplaced word in this chronicle, which manages to contain an awful lot of the world in its few pages. It’s not only about the city and its range of denizens, but also about the art of living, the satisfaction of humble work, the way poetry arises from daily experience, and if that weren’t enough, it also includes really useful advice about cleaning!”