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An Analysis of Allen Ginsberg

Allen Ginsberg stands in the rare company of being an author whose name invokes a deluge of sentiments, eras, movements, and anecdotes. For Shakespeare, readers think of the king of playwrights; for Defoe, readers think of “the first novelist”; for Voltaire, Wilde, and Moliere: “satirist”; for Kerouac, Ginsberg, and the Beat poets: “revolution”. But even in that regard, Ginsberg defies depiction. The extent of his influence was so much greater than that of a long-haired hippie stirring the pot through arcane, rhythmic lyricism. Allen Ginsberg was a vessel that brought poetry out of modernism and into a realm of its own. When the Beat movement passed, Ginsberg’s work staggeringly remained as an influence like an old friend who aged physically but retained the same soul and passion. In three landmark works—“Supermarket in California”, “Howl”, and “America”—Ginsberg saw America as it had been before him, as it was, and where it was headed with a prophetic and unflinchingly honest eye. The surest sign of his accuracy was that, in an era of a million protesters, his lone voice was able to cause a stir on a national level.

“Supermarket in California” could have been influential within any movement, but it was especially pertinent in a movement that questioned the social standards of sexuality and freedom. On one front in the 1960s, Martin Luther King, Jr. was fighting for the rights of African Americans who had always been oppressed. But within their oppression was a virulent community who had had enough. If “A Supermarket in California” had been about racism, the theme may have been unity and solidarity. But Ginsberg’s inner tumult is far more complicated. He is completely alone in his struggle for homosexuality had never once been considered to be socially acceptable. So, in his loneliness, he must dream up his escape: poetry. Being outspoken was Ginsberg’s way to connect with a community who didn’t think like everyone else; a community that wouldn’t give him “a headache self-conscious”. It is heart-wrenching to think that a man must go to the extreme of interacting with deceased poets as a means of camaraderie, and even in the imaginary world, he is careful to be discreet and unseen. Ginsberg had many messages in this passage for the Beat movement, but perhaps the most distinct came in the third stanza when he wrote, “and you, Garcia Lorca, what were you doing down by the watermelons?” This message is a clear and clever condemnation of appeasing the public by denying yourself.  Federico Garcia Lorca was a homosexual poet, but because of his era, he was forced to live a life of pretending that he enjoyed the feel of a woman’s breasts, lest the “wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes” be offended by his deviancy. The adventure continues in the produce section with Whitman as he inquires about the bananas, an obvious phallic symbol. The most painful line in the poem comes two stanzas later when Ginsberg notes that they “strode down the open corridor (followed in my imagination by the store detective)… never passing the cashier.” Ginsberg aptly notices that the generation of misfits he was speaking to was willing to experiment their newfound love with each other in the open, so long as they were in their community. They weren’t fools; they knew they couldn’t take this aberrant behavior home to mom and dad or outside of the love-ins and pre-established communes. The cashier most certainly represented the modern culture that starkly opposed the counter-culture. The homosexuals could stroll about freely in the supermarket while keeping public displays of affection to a minimum. But the real world, the world that lay beyond the cashier, was not ready to accept them. By having the authority figure as a cashier, Ginsberg is relating to the Beats that there is a price to pay for leaving the love-filled sanctum. Ginsberg must return to his world of propriety, of “blue automobiles in driveways”, and Whitman must return to his world on a ferry; the worlds will remain separate until acceptance of the homosexual community is established, for Whitman cannot go home with Ginsberg nor can Ginsberg return home with Whitman. This beginning and return to loneliness is a crucial theme for the Beat movement, for that’s what they were. It was what Bob Dylan meant when he asked “how does it feel/ to be without a home/ a complete unknown/ like a rolling stone?” Ginsberg is extremely important today because the conception of the 1960s has become otherwise awash with total disillusion. There was music and dancing, there were mind-bending drugs, but when the trip wore off and the festival ended, this poem is what the Beats were left with; they were left with themselves in a strange land, no purpose other than to live, and no one to embrace their hedonistic lifestyle. They experienced the true cost of living which was the “hungry fatigue” that Ginsberg describes in the second stanza on a daily basis. What makes this poem remarkable is that it is true to life. Ginsberg doesn’t envision a reality where homosexuals can stroll about as members of regular society. In fact, even in this brief glimpse at what “solitary fancy” would look like, Ginsberg feels “absurd”. John Lennon became famous for idealistic notions like “Imagine”, and it can be said that Ginsberg became famous for brutal reality.

Although Ginsberg painted a reality for his listeners, it was not always a lament. Just as Dr. King’s oratory style differed vastly between “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and “I Have a Dream”, Ginsberg made a radical departure from “Howl” to “Supermarket in California”. The parallel between King and Ginsberg is one of vehemence to dejection. It was as though each speaker knew he needed to draw in a large audience with an outraged emotion before the more simply stated message could be heard. And it worked: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s letter was published in the New York Post Sunday Magazine; Allen Ginsberg got an obscenity trial. These were obviously different outcomes, but if publicity is victory, then both were the victors. But Ginsberg’s publicity was not just a benefit for the Beat movement; it was an admonition as well. Dr. King often warned his followers about going too far and becoming too radical to the point of violence. The opening lines of Howl are in step with Ginsberg’s defining characteristic of portraying stark reality. Those who experimented heavily, as he warned, “ate fire in paint hotels or drank turpentine in Paradise Alley, death, / or purgatoried their torsos night after night/ with dreams, with drugs, with waking nightmares, alcohol.” But this was just the beginning. Others “sat in boxes breathing in darkness under the bridge… plunged themselves under meat trucks… who cut their wrists three times successively unsuccessfully” or were successful in suicide, which was their rescue from despair. Ginsberg is absolutely unrelenting in his imagery of the sick, the dying, the miserable, and the desperate. Four years before “Howl” was written, Langston Hughes asked “What happens to a dream deferred?” This nightmarish, lengthy prose is Ginsberg’s answer to that question. When the drug-filled, penniless society that the Beats had expected to be their utopia crashed and disassembled, this was the aftermath. The fact that “Howl” brought on controversy in 1957 with an obscenity trial and again in 1969 when it was broadcast in Finland is a testament to the state of affairs within the Beat community. The community in despair was in desperate need of a savior, which Ginsberg could not be, but he did cement himself within the era as a source of comfort and solace. Here was a major literary figure getting massive attention who spoke on behalf of them, making them feel that even if everything wasn’t going to be all right, he would identify with them. At the risk of subjectivity, it should be noted that Ginsberg said as much in the following stanzas of Howl. He saw their despair and declared, “I’m with you in Rockland/ where there are twentyfive thousand mad comrades all together/singing the final stanzas of the Internationale”. Here was a figure proudly promising nineteen times to be there for those who were in the struggle for acceptance with him. Given the anti-materialistic mantra of the counterculture generation, who was dying from disease and starvation, a powerful pact of brotherhood and love was the best Ginsberg could give to them. All of Ginsberg’s riches and fame couldn’t provide sustenance for the sheer magnitude of the Beat following across the nation anyway.

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About the Author

Chris O'Toole (Colorado State '12) is pursuing a Screenwriting MFA at Chapman University. He has worked for Livestrong, CBS, Examiner and other publications. Love, hate, and job offers can be sent to: chris@o2lsports.com