GINSBERG V. GINSBERG

Was Allen Ginsberg’s father, published poet, Louis Ginsberg, as good as his famous son?

Scarriet presents father and son: Louis Ginsberg (1885-1976) and Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997).

From Louis Ginsberg’s Collected Poems Northern Lights, 1992:

Defense Against the Dark

Only two small sons and one I love
One night were growing merry there;
I know not what we prattled of,
But suddenly I was aware.

It was as if a magic spell;
It was as if a lurking might,
That hovered there invisible,
Stooped and plucked me to a height.

Below, as ‘mid an ambush spread,
One moment with our lighted room,
The four of us were islanded
In an unfathonmable gloom.

Till now at last, I could behold
What on our solitude we press:
It is our dear ones smile we fold
About our spirits’ loneliness,—

That desolate the soul must mourn;
And seeing this, I wondered why
So lonely is each being born;
And lonely does each being die.

Now light that leaped from every glance
Was gathered, as by lens are rays:
Until I saw, as in a trance,
The room had burst into a blaze.

I saw it all! I saw the room!
I saw the sudden blaze now made
Against the Dark (with lust for Doom)
A flimsy, match-box barricade.

O lips and eyes that kindle glory!
O lovely respite that I’ve won!
O protest that is transitory!
Brief refuge from oblivion!

O little room with little might!
O tiny evanescent spark!
I see you, see you, as my bright,
Final defense against the Dark!

Louis Ginsberg’s vision is both sincere and impassioned; it is equal parts brightness and horror, as the poet and his loved family strangely blaze up against the dark.  The poem’s iambic tetrameter is forceful enough to present the lyric as a dense, burning moment in time.  There is intimacy and genuine feeling, and when the poet says, “I saw it all! I saw the room!” we see it, too, if we read the poem (and hear the lyric) with sympathy.

By contrast—and this is the famous son’s best known short poem—“A Supermarket in California” rejects the vision of the small and intimate family space for a much wider vision that revels in celebrity:

A Supermarket in California

What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for I walked down the
streets under the trees with a headache self-conscious looking at the full moon.

In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went into the neon fruit
supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations!
What peaches and what penumbras! Whole families shopping at night! Aisles
full of husbands! Wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes! — and you,
Garcia Lorca, what were you doing down by the watermelons?
I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, poking among the
meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys.
I heard you asking questions of each: Who killed the pork chops? What price
bananas? Are you my Angel?
I wandered in and out of the brilliant stacks of cans following you, and
followed in my imagination by the store detective.
We strode down the open corridors together in our solitary fancy tasting
artichokes, possessing every frozen delicacy, and never passing the cashier.
Where are we going, Walt Whitman? The doors close in an hour. Which way does
your beard point tonight?
(I touch your book and dream of our odyssey in the supermarket and feel
absurd.)
Will we walk all night through solitary streets? The trees add shade to
shade, lights out in the houses, we’ll both be lonely.
Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of love past blue automobiles in
driveways, home to our silent cottage?
Ah, dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher, what America did you
have when Charon quit poling his ferry and you got out on a smoking bank and
stood watching the boat disappear on the black waters of Lethe?

Allen Ginsberg’s vision is quite close to his father’s: we have dark and light, family, loneliness and despair.

Louis Ginsberg is alone with his vision, even though he is in the presence of his real family.

Allen Ginsberg has no family, but he is not lonely, for his “father” and companion is the dead, celebrated poet, Walt Whitman.  Ginsberg, the son, has no family and stands apart from the world of “whole families” shopping in the bounty of the California supermarket–and the son’s poem stretches out in the nonchalant pacing of homeless wandering with a much more subtle music; lacking rhyme, it relies on the similarity of multi-syllabic words: “enumerations,” “penumbras,” “families,” “bananas,” “corridors.”  But the supermarket must close, and Whitman’s death is depicted mythologically as the bookish poet (“I touch your book”) finds comfort in bookish phrases: “we will stroll dreaming of the lost America of love…”  Iconography is key to Ginsberg’s poem: Whitman, Lorca, America, Charon.  The “childless, lonely old grubber” has nothing but imagined icons and vague history attached to those icons (“lost America of love”) to comfort him.

Both poems are bursts of pathos and morose feeling, with stark contrasts of light and dark; the father’s poem is a pure lyric, a song from the heart, a vision stark and simple, while the son’s prose meditation, surpassing the father’s in subtle humor and painting, bathes in self-conscious celebrity and bookishness as a stay against the dark.

Let’s look at two more poems.  First, by Allen, the son:

An Asphodel

O dear sweet rosy
unattainable desire
…how sad, no way
to change the mad
cultivated asphodel, the
visible reality…

and skin’s appalling
petals–how inspired
to be so lying in the living
room drunk naked
and dreaming, in the absence
of electricity…
over and over eating the low root
of the asphodel,
gray fate…

rolling in generation
on the flowery couch
as on a bank in Arden–
my only rose tonite’s the treat
of my own nudity.

The poet’s “desire” is contrasted with “the cultivated,” and though “unattained,” the “desire” still finds some consolation in the poet’s “own nudity,” as he lies in the dark, plant-rooted, yet petal-soft.

Louis Ginsberg’s poem is also about flowers, and the protagonist of the poem is also lying down:

The Artist Wins Success

Thus he, whose body Beauty broke,
Possesses now a surer stroke.
His body underneath the dew
Holds brighter palettes than he knew;
For he, who lies beneath this hill,
Faultlessly tints a daffodil;
With bluest sky he painted yet,
He brushes in a violet.
And now, a perfect artist, he
Can flood with green a little tree;
And surely now at last he knows
The perfect shading of a rose.

The conceit is not entirely original, and it might have been executed with more subtlety, perhaps, but this poem has plenty of charm and grace, as the artist “wins success” in death, joining nature in shading the flowers above him.

Father and son often err in ‘telling too much’ in their poems; both poets are morosely brilliant, almost to a hurtful degree, highly passionate and sensual, and they each show the ability to find optimism in suffering.

If we are not too besotted with “the modern” and Allen Ginsberg’s fame, we really ought to appreciate these two poets together—the father, though a little awkward, has stengths that wonderfully compliment the son’s.

1 Comment

  1. Desdi said,

    March 24, 2018 at 9:45 pm

    Youth’s dissident victory incomplete
    they glimpsed on flowery fields of battle
    kaleidoscopic visions of defeat:
    the psychedelic baby’s death-rattle.
    Allen Ginsberg’s perverted freak.
    Now reached its Himalayan peak.

    (stanza from a soon-to-be-posted poem for National Poetry Writing Month at https://connecthook.wordpress.com/ )


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