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Allen Ginsberg’s poetry reflects both the era in which he began to write it and the psychedelia that allowed him to accept his own work as an expression of a higher truth. Usage of the word “psychedelia” refers not only to psychedelic drugs, such as peyote and marijuana, but to any purposeful outside attempt made to alter the workings of the mind. Ginsberg’s delving into Zen Buddhism, use of chanting to focus the intellect, and purposeful disregard for the standard rhythmical and metrical devices found in most poetry up until that time all contributed equally as much as his use of chemical substances to the uniqueness of his work.
The beginning of Ginsberg’s poetic career comes at the beginning of his career at Columbia University, where despite his own preference for a career of a literary nature, he followed his father’s advice and began a curriculum of studies in a major as a labor lawyer. In December of 1943, however, Ginsberg met Lucien Carr, who introduced him to William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, unwittingly creating the trio which would later give birth to the Beat movement in literature and social philosophy. After switching his major from law to literature, Ginsberg began meeting with Kerouac and Burroughs on a regular basis, and the three of them together realized a social idea which Kerouac termed the “New Vision.” It was during the year 1948 that the “Beat generation writers,” as they termed themselves, truly came together.
To understand Ginsberg’s poetry, it is necessary to understand the circumstances of the era in which he produced most of it. Jack Kerouac coined the term “Beat” for his group of friends and their social and literary ideas in the fall of 1948 during a conversation with novelist John Holmes, who later used the term in the heading for an article for the New York Times, “This is the Beat Generation.” The origins for the term “Beat” reflect a downtrodden, tired, world-weary individual, incapable of fitting in with “normal” American society, and without any particular wish to use huge effort to do so. Holmes himself said it best in his article: The origins of the word ‘beat’ are obscure, but the meaning is only too clear to most Americans. More than mere weariness, it implies the feeling of having been used, of being raw. It involves a sort of nakedness of mind, and, ultimately, of soul; a feeling of being reduced to the bedrock of consciousness. In short, it means being undramatically pushed up against the wall of oneself. A man is beat whenever he goes for broke and wagers the sum of his resources on a single number; and the young generation has done that continually from early youth.
The Beat generation had grown up and begun maturing during first the Great Depression, and then the Second World War. Finding themselves lost when the war ended and without anchor in a world that was undergoing drastic changes, the college-age people that made up this generation turned to different things in order to fill that new, empty space. Ginsberg, Kerouac, and their friends, while perhaps more extreme than many others, did nothing more than take the eclecticisms of their age to their natural conclusions.
The second half of the origin of the term “Beat,” just as important as the first, was Kerouac’s reference to the term “Beatific,” meaning holy and beautiful; this meaning is clearly applied in much of Ginsberg’s work — the third section of “Howl” proclaims that everything human is equally holy, equally worthy of praise. Of course, the idea that a homeless junkie on a New York street corner and a morose Catholic priest were equally holy struck many of those that were less devoted to the principles of the generation as preposterous, but it was this view of equality and holiness that provided the ideological basis for such works as “Howl,” “America,” and “Sunflower Sutra.”
Ginsberg’s stint at Columbia included not only a switch of major, but a suspension from the school, during which he lived with Kerouac, Burroughs, and another friend, Herbert Huncke. The three of them promptly resumed Ginsberg’s education, exposing him to such authors as Kafka, Spengler, Blake, Yeats, Celine, Korzybski, and Rimbaud. He was readmitted to Columbia a year later, at which point the household of literary friends also began to break up, dispersing across the country. He remained at Columbia for only one semester, before setting out to travel and stay with his friends. It was at this point that Ginsberg began truly devoting himself to poetry, more so than he had done with his previous experimentations in the subject — most of which had been set in the style of early twentieth century poets of great fame, and none were at all reflective of his own personal style.
Finding Kerouac distracted and Burroughs involved in the harvest and sale of his first crop of Texan marijuana, Ginsberg devoted himself instead to making money so as to be ready for the fall semester at Columbia and continued writing a series of poems which detailed his inner suffering, called “Doldrums,” by adding “Dakar Doldrums” at the self-appointed rate of one stanza a day. He shipped out from Galveston to Dakar, where he attempted to procure “restorative, Gide-like love in the form of a dashing and sympathetic African,” but he found himself unable to bridge the language gap and ended up instead in the home of a witch doctor, who attempted a magic cure for an “aching soul.” Ginsberg took the next tanker back to New York, and arrived back in the States in late summer. He found that the friends he had planned to meet up with had dispersed again, and wrote another “Doldrums.”
Ginsberg’s last two years at Columbia were mostly uneventful. After his graduation, the school refused his application for a graduate fellowship and teaching job, and, unable to find the kind of work which a Columbia graduate was expected to secure, he spent his time “washing dishes at Bickford’s and having visions.” In the summer of 1948, just prior to his graduation, Ginsberg experienced a single vision which convinced him that he was meant to be a poet. While reading a copy of Blake’s “Ah, Sunflower,” he experienced a vision of Blake reading the poem, hearing out loud a deep, masculine voice which he later compared to hearing the voice of God descend upon him. The vision convinced him that he was destined to write poetry, and he spent the rest of his life following that destiny.
Shortly after the vision of Blake, Ginsberg began a serious attempt to “go straight,” subjecting himself to psychoanalysis and ending his minimal experimentation with mind altering substances, which had at that time been restricted to marijuana and Benzedrine, a form of methamphetamine. The “straight” period eventually ended, and Ginsberg moved to San Francisco in 1953 to join the poetry movement that was centered there, especially around Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s bookstore, City Lights. Once there, Ginsberg busied himself by getting acquainted with the local poets, and resumed his experimentation with psychedelia.
The concept of Zen Buddhism, as expounded by its followers in Japan, is somewhat different than the Zen which Ginsberg and his fellow Beatniks experimented with. Their version of Zen involved what John Ciardi dubbed “the holiness of the impromptu”; Merrill expands, explaining that “the Truth resides within, and reason can only corrupt the purity of Truth’s first gush.” The seeming discontinuity in Ginsberg’s poetry, the lack of punctuation or formal meter is based completely upon both this idea of Zen and his belief that to impose reason on what his senses perceived was merely an attempt to mask the truth.
Other Zen concepts are as easily found in his work. The second part of the poem “Howl,” ejaculating that everything is holy, gives contemporary life to the idea that every form of life is equally sacred. The Zen influence upon Ginsberg was not only a product of San Francisco — Ginsberg later spent four years traveling between India, Nepal, and Tibet. Much of his later lecturing and teaching included analyses based on Zen ideas of the nature of divinity. The search for divinity within that could be translated to divinity without became, as so many other things had, a focus for his poetry. Lines in “Sunflower Sutra” make the poetic aspect of this search for the divine painfully clear: corolla of bleary spikes pushed down and broken like a battered crown, seeds fallen out of its face, soon-to-be-toothless mouth of sunny air, sunrays obliterated on its hairy head like a dried wire spiderweb, leaves stuck out like arms out of the stem, gestures from the sawdust root, broke pieces of plaster fallen out of the black twigs, a dead fly in its ear, Unholy battered old thing you were, my sunflower O my soul, I loved you then!
The relationship displayed between a dying sunflower, battered and losing petals and seeds to the wind, and Ginsberg’s soul does not imply that Ginsberg found his own soul to be a dying, rotten thing. Rather, the connection made is that the dying sunflower is equally as divine as the human soul, and is therefore equally as worth of love. This Buddhist idea clashed mightily with contemporary American values, which not only emphasized the superiority of the human soul, but defined the necessities of its pureness in complete opposition with Ginsberg’s bisexual, experimental lifestyle.
In order to focus mind and intellect — two very separate things according to Beat philosophy — Ginsberg used chanting. As understood by many Eastern cultures, the idea of chanting is simple. A mantra, usually a phrase with no specific meaning but which can be made to mean many things on a spiritual level, is repeated over and over with varying tone and emphasis, clearing the mind of all thoughts and allowing the release of tensions that might restrict artistic impulses. The work that Ginsberg produced after such sessions is most easily related to what is called “free association” writing — writing that is allowed to flow from mind to paper without the interference of thought analyzing what is being written. While later revisions on his part prevent much of his poetry from being analyzed on “free association” standards, the breath-by-breath flow of the lines of poetry create their own natural meter outside what is normally expected – there are not many poems reflecting an iambic pentameter, but there is a sense of rhythm that brings the words into poetic focus. While “Ecologue,” the most dramatic of this type of poetry, was written in 1970, the seeds for the style had been planted as early as 1955, when Ginsberg completed the first portion of “Howl.”
During the 1960’s two important events occurred that produced great changes in Ginsberg’s poetry: his collection Kaddish and Other Poems, a reflection on his own mother’s insanity through his own experiences with ayahuasca in South America, was published; and Ginsberg was asked by Timothy Leary to participate in a series of studies involving psilocybin mushrooms and LSD. Ginsberg’s stay in South America and experiences with ayahuasca, which translates to “vine of the dead,” resulted in vivid imagery in his poetry based on the awareness-expanding properties of the drug. Ginsberg said of his third ayahuasca experience that: I felt faced by Death, my skull in my beard on pallet on porch rolling back and forth and settling finally as if in reproduction of the last physical move I make before settling into real death — got nauseous, rushed out and began vomiting, all covered with snakes, like the Snake Seraph, colored serpents in aureole all around my body. I felt like a snake vomiting out the universe — or a Jivaro in head-dress with fangs vomiting up in realization of the Murder of the Universe — my death to come — everyone’s death to come — all unready — I unready…
While the loss of reality apparent in such hallucinations is profound in any situation, when applied to a working poet, it takes on an entirely new dimension. Ginsberg revised entire portions of “Kaddish” and several of the other poems to be published in the collection, which including such poems as “Laughing Gas,” written while Ginsberg was experiencing the effects of Nitrous Oxide, and “Lysergic Acid,” a record of Ginsberg’s first experience with LSD while participating in a study at Stanford’s mental research unit.
Prior to these experiences, between 1954 and 1956, Ginsberg wrote the entire first section of “Howl” during and following experiencing hallucinations due to the effects of peyote, the button-like protuberance of certain Mexican and south-western American cacti. The first line of the poem (“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked”) is not merely a case of poetic license; indeed, Ginsberg saw, via peyote-induced visions, his poet friends staggering blindly through the streets beneath the window of his apartment, naked and emaciated. The profound effect of psychedelic drugs (particularly hallucinogens) upon the consciousness of Ginsberg is apparent here. In 1960, while attending the annual convention for the Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry as one of the subjects to be studied, Ginsberg was told, in psychological terms, that his experimentation with psychedelic substances had allowed him to: the ego structure, a descent into the id, and then a re-creation and integration of the ego structure, slightly changed.
Ginsberg added his multiple experiences with psychedelic drugs onto his Buddhist philosophies, and continued on his search for a higher consciousness. His attempt to “turn people on” to “Acid” with Timothy Leary was partially successful, but later attempts to introduce positive legislation for LSD failed miserably, creating enormous hurdles which even legitimate scientific researchers found difficult to overcome.
Ginsberg’s unique approach to writing poetry was shared in full by none of his fellow beatniks; this perhaps is a testament to the individualism that is so much a part of the Beat generation philosophies. The use of various psychedelia in order to expand consciousness and realize the divinity of the individual human soul as well as the divinity of the universe as a whole left a profound and inerasable mark on the poetic evolution of the United States. What some have termed narcissistic holiness, Ginsberg called “a search for higher truth,” and it is evident in both his poetry and his life that he took his own words to heart.
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