Allen Ginsberg

"America when can I go into a supermarket and buy what I need with my good looks?"

- Allen Ginsberg, 'America', Berkley, January 17th 1956.

This man is my favourite poet of all time; anyone who is not familiar with his work has my sincere recommendation to dig up a copy of Kaddish, Howl or a collected volume. I know it is highly irregular for me to include critical content on my page but it seems to me that the poems I write need some definition. My work will now be given in context with my understanding of what makes a good poem and how this has been achieved by writers before me. I shall therefore include short pieces like this which describe what I look for and learn from when I read the poetry of others.

The first thing which should be understood about Ginsberg is that he is never lost in meandering metaphor: every line, phrase and syllable is immediate and concerned at all times with the theme of the work. You will never catch this poet embarking on a hallucinatory critique on the state of romance in contemporary New York through similes concerning broken teacups and Grandma’s roses. When discussing his experiences with and love for the tragic youth forgotten by society, in the first part of Howl (San Francisco, 1955-6), Ginsberg writes:

I saw the best minds of my generation...

who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz, ...

The grammar here is sparse but not irrelevant, prepositions are forgotten and the pace is sickeningly rapid. Ginsberg’s style is about exposing what is happening right now, even if he is referencing the past. The impression throughout the first section of Howl is that he has seen this and it is still going on. Poems like Howl display Ginsberg’s ability to weave deep understanding and incredible gravity of statement in a novel way, a refreshing break from the funeral dirge of some of T.S. Elliot’s work or the sporadic awkwardness of E.E. Cummings.

When this poet does engage in immaculate descriptions or extended metaphor, he does precisely that: he engages. The result is not grandiose and pompous like public confessions of impotent intellectuals. Allen Ginsberg wrote acute poetry which, although laced with subtle messages and intimate ideas, stands tall and gives a clear and thought-provoking message. Sunflower Sutra (Berkley, 1955) is the prime example of this approach. A scene is set where Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac sit atop a hill to watch a sunset and there follows a beautiful contemplation of a sunflower among the wreckage of an old locomotive.

...the gray sunflower poised against the sunset...

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, sun-rays 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...

Important ideas must be conveyed clearly and effectively or they face abandonment, being shunned for lack of relevance. Sunflower Sutra ends with Ginsberg giving his sermon on the mount to Kerouac and the Sunflower and anyone down in the echoing valley who’ll listen – his point is clear and dexterously put because it is too important to be squandered by ill-defined poetic whimsy.

Although I have only covered two examples, barely touching on the complex natures of each, the complexities of Allen Ginsberg’s style are already emerging. I will continue to write in a free and intermittent manner on his work and the other poets I enjoy. It is not my aim to produce exhaustive passages on the various facets of the work of these poets; I would like simply to highlight the passages and phrases which have caught my eye and sent my thoughts racing in all directions. The work of many critics sets about the task of dismantling and debasing the art they are attempting to explain. There is no pleasure in this for me because the best work invariably must be approached repeatedly and will even then strike you differently and unexpectedly.

Speak Easy,

Sharp Noir.


  1. I work at a library, so I am going to find a book of his poetry and read...thank you for sharing. :-)

  2. Succinctly put. I completely agree with you, especially that,

    "the best work invariably must be approached repeatedly and will even then strike you differently and unexpectedly."

    Ginsberg's Howl is a masterpiece.