16 January 2017
Allen Ginsberg / Wait Till I’m Dead: Uncollected Poems / Grove Press / 2016
Peter Schjeldahl / “Insurance Man: The Life and Art of Wallace Stevens” [reviewing Paul Mariani / The Whole Harmonium: The Life of Wallace Stevens / Simon & Schuster / 2016] / The New Yorker / May 2 2016
Why did the sight of a new book by Allen Ginsberg on a table at The Strand fill me with an eager happiness / something approaching joy? It is because his poems are not the product of life – they give life. His poems are not about life – they are life. His poems are nutrition / a lyrical meal that people will consume over and over for many years to come.
Let’s give some attention / ie let’s get some life from / these of Ginsberg’s poems that had otherwise fallen through the cracks. What does it mean that these of his poems had been for some time lost to view? Poetry is itself something of a cultural crack / at least in this cracked-out society in which we find ourselves living / in which poetry when it is not being actively de
valued is at a minimum not
Chronology is important to Ginsberg’s poetry / at least as a way of organizing it / because that is the order in which life is lived. The poems in this book are so ordered. Some might say that the earliest poems here date back to the 40s / but that is not correct – the earliest poems collected here come from
the 40s / forward / to us.
Ginsberg’s form of address is direct – in a sense that’s all that needs to be said about it. Even in the earliest poems / where he might bend a line’s order in order to fetch a rhyme / it is clear that he is speaking directly at us / the eventual readers. It is in this sense that the notes to the poems / although concise and undoubtedly accurate / are completely unnecessary. These poems do not speak as
themselves – these poems speak themselves.
His poems (most of them) are feisty / rather gregarious / often as if they themselves are grasping the world as themselves (that is not a philosophical statement – it is a statement of the mechanics of how a Ginsberg poem works). His poems are flung out at the world as challenges – Wake up! Be as alive to yourself as I am to you!
Of course these challenges are extended to the people to whom he addresses the poems / as in one To Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch
in which he writes to them in simple declarative sentences / saying / in effect / that statements of factual perception are the world as poem / not merely as poem to the world.
from To Frank O’Hara & John Ashbery & Kenneth Koch
How real is Bolivia
With its snowy Andes lifting over the modern city
Now that one is in La Paz
Which means the peace in Spanish
Tho the natives speak their native tongue
Especially the women in brown bowler hats
Sitting in the mud with their hands over their noses
Selling black potatoes and blue onions
In the marketplace which covers the hillside
Over which one can see electrical towers
And airplanes landing from Santiago and Lima Caracas
It is strange how real Bolivia is
Ginsberg’s poems are not products – they produce.
A poem addressed is almost always a love poem of a sort – an act of generosity / of compassion / or largesse. These poems are gifts.
These poems are made of substance.
These poems are made out of breath not brain / and proof that the two are not twain. They are not the byproduct of a life / lived – they are that life lived. They proceed a breath at a time / a muscle twitch at a time / a nerve leap at a time / a belly growl at a time / an erection at a time / a laugh at a time / a heart beat at a time / a thought (the world is a thought) at a time – a word pleasure at a time. One emotive breach of distance / at a time.
Each line added to a Ginsberg poem is an added surprise. He had a quick mind / visual and verbal – and he could perform magic with it. Each line seems pushed / quickly / into place after the one that preceded it. This is the same method of composition that the natural world uses. One word / one line / one phrase / instanter than another. The words come to us / stripped of all artifice / by artifice –
a new / momentary / momentous / monument / skillfully made.
The world is made out of words – the world (as we know it) is made out of words.
Ginsberg processed (himself through) the world as that kind of life-driven force consisting of vision and voice. His two main subjects were the world observable around him / and himself in that. His entire oeuvre constitutes an autobiography (everything written was dated) – but at the same time the entire work was out in the world / very much a part of it / an actor in it / for it / to it / at it. He like his beloved Whitman was entire of himself / but very much as a social being among social beings / and very much (in Ginsberg’s case at least) a political force among political forces. He was and is / as they say / a force to be reckoned with – and he demanded that of himself in his writings / and he broadcast that demand to his readers and listeners.
Nashville April 8
Crescent faces row-tiered hanging
balconied face the great red
Striped flag podium microphone reverberation
from one body outward
breathed painfully from rich suited abdomen
– mouth opening circle of white teeth – bells
Taillights along the Nashville city edge –
In the leather car, acrid perfume
sucked in the lung.
Majesty of Speech and Chant, on the lawn
Under the streetlight
dry grass crowded with sweating college shirted blond
& forehead-starred’ Semite singing –
In the far cities riot under the Spring
moonless midnite Black Power.
Vigorous. Vibrant. Quick. Angular. Zestful. Open. Questing. Questioning. Succinct. Tuneful. Toneful. Dynamic. Challenging. Compact. Impactful. Awe-ful. Inspiring. Communal. Political. Companionable. Inviting. Substantial (substance-ful). Measured. Scrutable. Inscrutable. Elegaic. Worldly. Personal. Lustful. Vivacious. Life-ful. Insightful. Committed. Compelling. Compassionate. Documentary. Fragile. Powerful. Tragic. Hopeful. Taut. Grand. Self-aware. Evocative.
And all this can be said about a poem / not minor / but not one of Ginsberg’s longer and magisterial creations. All this can be said about how he wrote.
And the whole thing organized out of breath / made
out of breath / that most human of human actions – it is we who are made out of breath. Inspiration we speak of. And it is breath unites us / something we share with all humans / all other animals / and plants / and whatever kind of beings – shared down through history / up until now / now / and (as far as we know) ongoing and going on from there. The cadence that sets us moving gives voice to Ginsberg’s poems. What else?
Ginsberg unites more than any other poet of recent times the two senses of vision – to see / to see far. To see / to envision. Many of his poems are tight evocations of things seen / and apprehended via the other senses / forming nature poems (urban and otherwise) in the Chinese tradition / or more brief haiku of found sense. Others see ably over the vastness / uniting visions through time and over space / through times and over spaces / to bring us compelling and useful news about ourselves in the present / in the future / our families / our friendships / our neighbors / those of our polis / the nation / the continent / the earth / and (through time) even beyond.
Compression is of the essence of his poems. It would be more broadly accurate to say that compression is of material necessity to the existence of these poems / as it is what is material / as it is what forms the existent substance of these poem. For these poems have more to do with what exists and is actual than with what anyone might think essential. The poems are made of words – thoughts infuse them and give them shape – but the mind comes back to the words / the words and their natural spoken music / to apprehend them. Ginsberg might have heard someone say – Don’t waste words. Compression is respect for language. Compressed language is compressed thought / bearing more gift per gram. Ginsberg’s poems participate in the human and / for that matter / in the worldwide natural ecology – they do so respectfully / without waste. They are artifacts of the world. Compressed language is respect for thought / respect for the world of which thought is its coloring.
Everything Ginsberg wrote he wrote from a sense of wonder. When he read aloud it was always with wonderment / and sometimes a tinge of self-satisfaction / in his voice. That wonder he carried from the world to us – wonder via wonder to wonder. That sense of wonder is the aesthetic experience / can explain it. It’s what we wonder at that lifts us up. That ever curious – Wha?!
It’s what we don’t-know that we wonder at / and that sensuous surprise is wonderful all by itself – it’s the absence of weighty thought that keeps it aloft. Once that openness to wonderment has been experienced / has been felt / no amount of explaining can bring it back down.
Ginsberg wrote always out of the actual. He wrote about physical objects / those there in front of him / those ensconced in memory. He wrote about human actions and the experience of them – those done to and by others and himself – they were people he was knowing as he wrote. The present / in the space-time sense.
It was as if these things / these people / these events / accumulated in him (sometimes very quickly / sometimes more slowly) – and then where there was a surfeit / slight or strong / a poem would be produced. But the poem was itself one such thing of course / its production one such event / its writer and readers such as those other people. In these ways / there is no end to his poetry.
Ginsberg’s poems were often addressed to specific friends / a form of greeting / poem as missive / to friends otherwise absent. They are almost always written in the context of a circle of friends / and acquaintances / who are themselves addressed / although perhaps in a less obvious way / in and by the poems.
In the present volume – one of the poems recounts a conversation between the poet and Carl Solomon – one quoted above was written to three NYC poet colleagues – there are also poems addressed to Ron Padgett & Marianne Moore & D [Bob Dylan] & George Whitman & Michael Brownstein & Philip Lamantia & Gregory Corso – and there are collaborations with Gregory Corso & Jack Kerouac & Gary Snyder & Kenneth Koch & Ted Berrigan & Ron Padgett.
He was a poet among people / and a poet among the
people. He had a lot of friends / for whom he clearly cared dearly – and he cared equally about the people at large / the populace / the inhabitants of planet Earth. His poems are / beginning to end / redolent with that care.
He cared for himself. He cared for himself so that he could care for others. Those mutual / and mutual-making / bonds / were held together by the stuff of his poems. Those poems / so clearly – a breath out / to others / and a breath in / to oneself – another of those circles that seem to so inhabit the worlds in which we live / in which we live together / in which we write / in which we read.
The question / Who is the best poet? is one of those questions which will always remain unanswerable. No one can answer such a question because no one has the facility to learn multiple languages and to read the works of centuries. It is also not answerable because we are replete with not only judgments / but also with temperaments and with likes and dislikes. Even if we limit the question to one language / or to one culture / or to one stretch of time – the question will always remain beyond those parameters / and any answer of necessity beyond us.
The question / Who is your favorite
Schjeldahl calls Stevens the quintessential poet of the twentieth century
. He writes that Stevens had a mind like a solar system, with abstract ideas orbiting a radiant lyricism
. Leaving aside for a moment the question of what such a metaphor might actually mean / and the larger question of what it would mean about Stevens’s mind / it is without doubt meant as quintessential praise.
In accord with Mariani he persuasively numbers Stevens among the twentieth-century poets who are both most powerful and most refined in their eloquence, along with Rilke, Yeats, and Neruda
Schjeldahl refers to Stevens’s seraphic art
/ elsewhere the masterpiece “Sunday Morning”
/ and says he had a voice like none other, in its knitted playfulness and in its majesty
Schjeldahl writes that after Stevens’s first two books / His subsequent work, which abounded until his death, in 1955, is less familiar, because most of it is gruellingly difficult; the great mind finally spiraled in on itself, like a ruminative Narcissus
. That says rather a lot – it says that all but his first two book are gruellingly difficult
/ and it acknowledges that almost all of Stevens’s writing is ruminatively narcissistic. We would want to ask ourselves why most of his writing is gruellingly difficult
/ why such work was written in the first place / whether such work is worth reading / and whether or not the mind of a pondering narcissist is where we want to spend our time / and what effect it might have in a world not inhabited entirely
by ruminative Narcissuses. Do we want to spend our time reading works by someone whose reputation has stood as a windswept monument, tended by professors
? Work inviting endless elucidation is a sinecure for the profs / but what is it doing for those readers who need to get something out of
what they read? who read because their minds / their lives / depend on it? who have a desire or a need to read what is legible?
Note that Stevens started writing late / his first book was published when he was past forty – when thinking about his subsequent work
/ we are referring to the last twenty-five or so years of writing.
We are not in the habit of judging an author’s work by his life / but the two are inextricably entwined / to varying extents depending upon the author and the work. If we imagine the writer writing the work / this indissociability becomes apparent – after all / there is a who
doing a what
. Let’s bring Stevens back to life for a moment / in the words of a reviewer (Schjeldahl) writing about a writer’s (Mariani’s) biography.
Stevens – relied, for stability, on the routine demands of his office job
/ commonly drank to excess
/ had a precarious sense of identity
/ became obsessed with tracing his family genealogies
/ was “a Hoover Republican”
/ an admirer of Mussolini for rather longer than is comfortably excused as a myopia of the time
/ was no better than most white men of his class in point of casual racism and anti-Semitism
/ took to sitting for spells of restorative peace in St. Patrick’s Cathedral
–unbelieving, but savoring the aura of sanctity
/ admitted to his companions that he dreaded what awaited him at home
[ie his wife] / when they moved to a new house, in 1932, Stevens occupied the master bedroom and Elsie a former servant’s quarters
/ had shyly used a pseudonym, Peter Parasol
/ drunkenly insulted Robert Frost, disparaging his poetry
/ called his daughter’s fiancé a “Polack” and a Communist
A couple of anecdotes from the review –
When his father vehemently opposed the match
[with his fiancé], Stevens stormed out of the house and never spoke to him again. (He generally avoided all his relatives except, by way of genealogical research, the dead.)
At another party in Key West, in 1936, a swaggering Stevens loudly impugned the manhood of Ernest Hemingway. When Hemingway showed up, Stevens took a swing at him, and Hemingway knocked him down. Stevens got up and landed a solid
punch to Hemingway’s jaw, which broke his hand in two places. Hemingway then battered him, but later cheerfully accepted his meek apology. They agreed to a cover story: Stevens had been injured
falling down stairs.
We are dealing with a writer who simply could not get along with the world / who seems to have despised the fact that to be fully alive we have to be in it.
It is not difficult to understand at least some of Stevens’ earlier poems. We all know who The Emperor of Ice-Cream
is / or at least what he stands for – he is described in the first line as the roller of big cigars
– although even here / what the rest of the poem is about / and how it relates to the title and that first line / is ambiguous as best. Empson has suggested that ambiguity is the very stuff of poetry / and perhaps by his lengthy account it somehow is. But it is certainly not the only way poetry can be made. Chinese and Japanese poems do otherwise / as do eg William Carlos Williams and George Oppen / and as has (for that matter) most of English poetry.
We know that Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird
makes indirect reference to Hokusai / possibly also to cubism – that it says something about how we see things / the possibilities that things offer to our sight / about phenomena and phenomenology / and about their relation to language and the writing of it. Perhaps it was his effort to write in the way of the Imagist poets / his proximate peers. It works.
The Idea of Order at Key West / from his second book / is based on an only slightly extended conceit – a woman is singing by the sea / various aspects of this event and this relationship are hazarded / in lovely lyrical verse – clearly this is a mediation of a sort on the processes of artistic creation. The woman stands for the artist / and the sea for reality / real experiences / or possibly for the language from with the singer draws her words. Most of the rest of the language of the poem is elusive – it would be impossible to say for certain that it means this or that it means that / although the fact that throughout it intimates some things having to do with the relationship described above / that remains clear.
But the jar placed on the hill in Tennessee is a little more challenging. We know that the jar is an image / that it represents something. Ie / as far as the poem is concerned there’s no real jar / there may not even be a real Tennessee – these things stand for ideas / and ideas don’t have real things in them. As he wrote elsewhere – To get at the thing / Without gestures is to get at it as / Idea.
The whole Anecdote of the Jar
/ whatever it is grasping at / fairly reeks of metaphysics – so it must be saying something profound. I think it certain that more than a handful of critics have taken a crack at it / hazarding a guess (probably expressed with great certainty) about what it is about – I think it is at least as certain that they would not agree with each other.
My own guess is fairly simple and straight-forward – I think the jar on a hill in Tennessee is probably full of whiskey / and that Stevens is having a go at it / possibly sharing with a fishing buddy. After all / Tennessee is where sour mash is turned into whiskey / and Stevens liked to fish with a buddy / and Schjeldahl himself acknowledges that Stevens was something of a drunk. But then this interpretation is just me looking for something actual
in one of the poems / manufacturing this story to service that lead / while knowing full-well that the actual has no place in the sphere of Stevens’s poetry / where the mind is too busy consuming itself.
Stevens’s poetry has a loveliness / and that loveliness is all it takes to ignite some interest in his work. Difficult poems get taught / because they seem to some to be asking for explication – and that gives professors an excuse for being professors (the excuse being that they know
). So difficulty is a thing much prized in the halls of hallowed academe / and that’s how the poems get passed down / explicated no doubt in a countless number of ways / and remembered / too / but mostly in the academy.
Schjeldahl writes that In verse, Stevens transcended anything mean or petty in himself, but for art’s sake
– somewhat of an understatement I think, concerning a man who seemed to have transcended / or perhaps merely eschewed / everything having to do with the body and with substance / and who seems to have tried transcending / or at least running away from / everything else he could get his mind’s hands on. He lived almost entirely in his own mind – that isolation / though self-imposed / would help account for his orneriness / his pugnacious anger / his dismissal from his life of women / and his great anger. His boss remarked, “Unless they told me he had a heart attack, I would never have known he had a heart.”
He said to Robert Frost “The trouble with you Robert is that you write about subjects.”
With regard to his ineptness with / and apparent disdain for women / the following is telling – Schjeldahl wrote that except for a chaste crush on a young teacher whom he met in the summer after his first year in law school – memories of which haunted him with visions of a flawless woman, forever lost
. The women in Stevens’s poems are always ideas / angels in the air. What we idealize isn’t
real / least of all for us – we tend to idealize what we can’t comprehend / doing so in an attempt to transmute that which is often thought to be beneath us into something constructed high above us / permanently / and perfectly / out of reach.
Schjeldahl writes that Stevens’s idealist’s temperament groped, through thickets of qualification, toward a never quite attained ideal
. Ideals are never attained / they can’t be / if they were they wouldn’t any longer be ideals – for someone who doesn’t want to live in this world / or (and this may well be the case with Stevens) who can’t stand it / the unrealizable ideal is all that’s left / the producer of the ideal keeping it always / and inevitably / out of reach.
Referring to reviewers of Harmonium – One condemned Stevens for having created a “fictitious reality,” which might seem a positive achievement.
The ruminative narcissist has Schjeldahl’s admiration wherever his mind goes / especially / it would seem / if where it goes is not here
. He writes of one of Stevens’s poems that the sounds referred to in the poem resonate like organ chords in a cathedral of the imagination
– note that he refers not to the sounds of the poem itself / the music of the words (of which there is a lot of comeliness in Stevens) / but rather to sounds living in the imagination of the poem itself / the imagination that the poem is. Reality (sic) is notoriously hard to grasp – but to the extent that we can
be in it / of it / to the extent that we can
speak of it / Stevens doesn’t. We seldom get the sense / reading him / that he is speaking to the world / of the world / for the world – yes / he is at times trying to foment metaphysical problems which exist in the imagination and pretend to relate to the world we experience / but while doing so he is largely singing to himself.