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.

EDGAR LEE MASTERS AND EDNA MILLAY: THEY SUCK!

Edgar Lee Masters: Not sexy, but wrote prose poetry before WC Williams

Fads are born of flux, yet to their followers they’re as real as steel, or iron.  Tell a member of the hardcore poetry community that Edgar Lee Masters and Edna Vincent Millay are more significant than William Carlos Williams or Wallace Stevens and watch them gag.  Ron Silliman would gag.  Helen Vendler and Marjorie Perloff would gag. Harold Bloom would die.  There is a hiearchy. Flux may seem to  be the modernist mode; it’s not.  It’s iron.

The bookish Helen Vendler has made us love Wallace Stevens, the insurance agent, in his off-white suit; Stevens, like Alexander Pope, put his philosophy in verse (and somehow ended up being called modern for it), but the hardcore poetry community’s adoration of Bill Williams is based on nothing we can ascertain as very interesting.  While he lived, no one liked Williams much—WCW mourned the fact that Auden blew him away at a public reading, but celebrity has made its way through unseen byways in Bill’s favor; it perhaps had something to do with his friendship with the notorious Pound, which led to his being tagged as some kind of “American” (New Jersey?) alternative to Pound and Eliot, or that he “helped” Allen Ginsberg (Ginsberg’s poet father Louis ran in the same art circles as Williams), but whatever the reason, WCW has been a bookish fad ever since the New Critics put “Red Wheel Barrow” in their poetry textbook Understanding Poetry and informed their readers his little poem was “lucid” and “fresh.”

The hardcore academic poetry community still somehow believes that sincerity and plain prose go together; perhaps they do, perhaps they are right, and perhaps I should end my essay right here on that note.  Sincerity does go a long way in many people’s eyes, and the more I think on the word sincerity, the more I do feel worthy of punishment and feel I deserve to be accused of bad faith for questioning the worth of William Carlos Williams.  If one squashes an ant, half the world will be indifferent and the other half will feel sorry for the ant; so why would any critic ever want to treat “Red Wheel Barrow” harshly?  Better not go near it; but one keeps seeing it, and that’s the secret of Williams’ fame: one cannot squash the ant.  It keeps going and going…

It is a little quixotic for Williams to complain, as he did, of T.S. Eliot’s foreign allusions: we wonder if Mr. Williams is aware that American implies foreign in its very soul?  How can one poet ever claim that he, more than others, writes for Americans, in subject matter, style, or language?  Isn’t such a claim suspect?  We wonder why Mr. Williams and his supporters get a free pass in making it.

In William Carlos Williams’ first book (Poems, 1909),  his poems are like this:

The Uses of Poetry

I’ve fond anticipation of a day
O’erfilled with pure diversion presently,
For I must read a lady poesy
The while we glide by many a leafy bay,

Hid deep in rushes, where at random play
The glossy black winged May-flies, or whence flee
Hush-throated nestlings in alarm,
Whom we have idly frighted with our boat’s long sway.

For, lest o’ersaddened by such woes as spring
To rural peace from our meek onward trend,
What else more fit? We’ll draw the latch-string

And close the door of sense; then satiate wend,
On poesy’s transforming giant wing,
To worlds afar whose fruits all anguish mend.

“Fruits all anguish mend??”  This is dreck—yet it was published when Williams was 26.   It was not until he was in his late 30s and joined the Kreymborg, Arensburg, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, Man Ray, Louis Ginsberg, Marcel Duchamp “Dial” clique that the Williams of “The Red Wheel Barrow” emerged.

What most don’t realize, is that well before Williams found both himself and his coterie, Edgar Lee Masters, in his wildly popular “Spoon River Anthology,” already sounded more modern and impure than Williams:

Albert Schirding

Jonas Keene thought his lot a hard one
Because his children were all failures.
But I know of a fate more trying than that:
It is to be a failure while your children are successes.
For I raised a brood of eagles
Who flew away at last, leaving me
A crow on the abandoned bough.
Then, with the ambition to prefix Honorable to my name,
And thus to win my children’s admiration,
I ran for County Superintendent of Schools,
Spending my accumulations to win — and lost.
That fall my daughter received first prize in Paris
For her picture, entitled, “The Old Mill” —
(It was of the water mill before Henry Wilkin put in steam.)
The feeling that I was not worthy of her finished me.

—Edgar Lee Masters

Humble Spoon River, with its poetry in plain prose, was published in 1916, when William Carlos Williams was still trying and failing at rhyme.

In his book, Innovators & Outsiders, American Poetry Since 1950, Eliot Weinberger, who writes in his introduction of the great divide in American poetry: “the ruling party” and the “innovator outsiders,” begins his anthology with WC Williams.  It’s typical Williams: mundane description plus a bit of avant-garde, modern art philosophy.  “The Desert Music” describes a trip with his wife and some friends to a poor Mexican border town while tossing in bon mots such as, “Only the poem. /Only the counted poem, to an exact measure:/to imitate, not to copy nature, not/to copy nature,” daring you to make a connection between this snatch of earnest literary criticism and a trip to a Mexican border town,  just as “The Red Wheel Barrow” dares you to connect “So much depends” with that barrow glazed with rain water.

It’s a rather bland compositional technique: the matter-of-fact imagery makes it ‘modern’ and the pasted-on lecture: only the poem—makes it seem different, mystical.  How innovative and original is this poetaster technique?  We don’t know.

As a reader you must decide between two points of view: ‘what the hell does he mean by only the poem?‘ or: ‘only the poem—of course! only the poem,‘ nodding sagely.  There’s really no in-between: you must choose for yourself: are you smart or are you dumb? It’s a sly trick the sly poets play: because you don’t want to seem dumb.  You do want to be in the crowd that knows the deep mystical zen significance of “so much depends,” don’t you?

Of course we know Williams was part of the modern art scene, and understood the direction things were going: painting was becoming flat: only paint upon the canvas! 

“Only the poem” is a slogan obviously in this spirit—and barking a slogan in a poem about what a poem should be is to “flatten” the poem. “Don’t copy nature.”  We don’t really associate Williams with the New York School, but there it is.  The modernist Paris-moving-to-New York- art clique was small—but still fit the modern poetry clique within it pretty comfortably.

The formula first emerges most forcefully with “The Red Wheel Barrow.”  Poetry, unlike painting, is difficult to flatten,  because how do you get away with “anybody can do that” in language?   The art world makes objects and once a museum owns an object, a certain legitimacy sets in, but with poetry, the stamp of radical approval is harder to get. 

Williams struck on a method, which is pretty simple: First: copy nature in the poem up to a point, presenting an imagery from real life. Second: Add to the imagery some piece of philosophical jargon which does not fit the imagery or enhance it or extend it in any way at all.   Voila!  You have  flattened the poem.   Williams is intentionally boring.  It’s a style, born of modern art.  Present a red wheel barrow.  Then flatten it with “so much depends.”  So much depends on this object which I am objectifying on the flat-surface-object of my poem.  This is the intention.

Here’s a lesser known poem by Williams, but typical; one can clearly see the flattening formula at work:

To Waken An Old Lady

Old age is
a flight of small
cheeping birds
skimming
bare trees
above a snow glaze.
Gaining and failing
they are buffeted
by a dark wind —
But what?
On harsh weedstalks
the flock has rested —
the snow
is covered with broken
seed husks
and the wind tempered
with a shrill
piping of plenty.

The imagery is precise and cute: “small,” “cheeping,” “skimming,” and nothing much, but it gets flattened by the wordy additions, “Old age is,” and “But what?”  It’s the same strategy of “Wheel Barrow.”  1) Paint a little scene, 2) attach a declaration of some sort.  Neither one enhances the other, and thus the whole thing is intentionally de-enhanced.  We yawn, and feel mystified at the same time, as when we look at one of those modern art blank canvases at MOMA.  The absurdity is brought mystically to the fore—and we can hear it in the phlegmatic “Old age is…”  Shall I compare “cheeping birds buffeted by a dark wind” to “old age?”   Of course I shall!  It’s perfect!

Now look at this poem by silly old Edna St. Vincent Millay, which no member of the hardcore academic poetry community wants to touch:

Recuerdo

 We were very tired, we were very merry—
    We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
    It was bare and bright, and smelled like a stable—
    But we looked into a fire, we leaned across a table,
    We lay on a hill-top underneath the moon;
    And the whistles kept blowing, and the dawn came soon.

    We were very tired, we were very merry—
    We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry;
    And you ate an apple, and I ate a pear,
    From a dozen of each we had bought somewhere;
    And the sky went wan, and the wind came cold,
    And the sun rose dripping, a bucketful of gold.

    We were very tired, we were very merry,
    We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
    We hailed “Good morrow, mother!” to a shawl-covered head,
    And bought a morning paper, which neither of us read;
    And she wept, “God bless you!” for the apples and pears,
    And we gave her all our money but our subway fares.

Edna Millay’s strategy is much different.  Hers is a far more natural evocation of old age than the Williams.  Old age has life in “Recuerdo;” it merely gets a metaphorical snapshot in “To Waken An Old Lady.” The realist mode fell out of favor in the hip artistic circles Williams travelled in during his middle age, but one can see how Millay’s poem succeeds on several levels—by contrast, the Williams, with its “Old age is…,” feels flat, formulaic, and artificial.

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