Beat Back - The Poetry of Allen Ginsberg
Allen Ginsberg is one of a group of poets that lived, wrote, and came to prominence in the middle of the 20th century who called themselves “The Beat Generation.” They were bohemian hedonists who believed that sex, drugs, jazz, and Buddhism could liberate souls from boredom.
If William Carlos Williams is to be believed, Ginsberg was a tortured soul. (If you listen to Ginsberg’s professorial lectures, tortured soul is the last thing you would come up with. But this is a review of his poetry, so just for fun, I am going to assume that Ginsberg was not a poser, breaking taboos to get his hands on the money of middle aged white women tired of being trophy wives). The “Beats” were supposed to be tired of it all, hence the name ‘beat,’ and so they were rejecting America, and capitalism, and Jesus, and everything else that bored their crunchily apathetic souls.
And you can believe it with some of them. The early Beats were murderous thieves and junkies. They had blood on their hands and self-righteous indignation on their lips. But then there was this group of unconcerned, condescending middle class college kids hanging around the murderous thieves and junkies. They were searching for a new literary vision to shock and impress their college professors. They were looking to be accepted (or at least invited) into one of the hip poetic salons. They hung around and watched their new playmates go to jail or fry their brains. And they took notes, and wrote poems about breaking taboos, and rejecting America, and rejecting capitalism, and Jesus. And here amongst these students from Columbia U was Allen Ginsberg.
Motives aside, there is a reason that people read the actual poetry of Allen Ginsberg. He writes free verse poetry that swears down the world. He complains out of a word-horde dripping with thick juices. As is usual with complainers, he was bored, but even though Ginsberg was bored with the world, he is never bored with language.
Ginsberg found, in the liveliness of language, what he couldn't find in the actual living of his dead-beat bohemian life. The world was stone cold to his granite hard heart, but Ginsberg ferreted out of the fire of words, what he failed to find in all of his worldliness. Ginsberg writes poems that stick, and whip-crack. He writes like a man that loves the language. But he loves it as an idol. He takes language up like a Samurai warrior deftly drawing his sword. But then he uses it for hari-kari. He is an ace pilot with his dictionary, but he flies it on a Kamikaze mission.
Reading Ginsberg is like reading a map that is was printed in relief, which is being held up to you backward by a drunk neighbor, who is trying to bounce in time to the techno drivel of a passing car, while giving you directions in a city he's never been to. But he's using really active verbs and cool adjectives. Oh yeah, and he's naked and flipping you off for trying to avert your eyes. If this sounds like fun, it can be, for about two stanzas. But then it gets tiring. And when you walk away, the invectives keep flowing at the backs of your elbows. And then of course, there’s the dirty that just never seems to wash off.
The ‘Beats’ discipled a generation of the American underground counterculture. They became the Hippies, the Black Panthers, The Punk Rockers, and the Gangster Rappers. And the church lost multiple generations of children, and especially young men, to such obviously tacky, pretentious, and boringly crude criminals. How? It’s the poetry man. The church gave up the center of her poetic soul, and let it go to seed. Because we ignored the rich depth of the churches poetic heritage, we have lost the buxom and meaty parts of our humanity. Our souls are as shriveled as a pile peanut shells in the Nevada desert. We have given up the fire of language, and the generation that picked it up burned down the world.
If we want to win back a world, we must return the linguistic fire to the hearth of God’s house. We need to learn to feed small hearts and minds on the poetry of the past. If our young charges have only drunk from the squirt gun of Contemporary Christian Music, even a stagnant pond provides a temptation. A child who has ridden the rollicking rapids of Chickering's Beowulf, or who has drunk deep of the fresh springs of Anne Bradstreet, Gerard Manly Hopkins, G.K. Chesterton, Isaac Watts, or the Psalms of the King James Version (just a few of the springs that fill the deeps wells of our city) will not be thirsty enough to drink from the poisoned wells of the top 40 radio and the hipster beat-house and the Jesus Junk Store Chicken-Soup-for-the-poet’s-soul.
But thirsty souls will drink what they find. And right now, they wander through the linguistic desert of the church, presented with mirage after mirage until they turn away,. But the church has a real poetic inheritance in the attic and in the basement. We just need to pull it out and dust it off.