A representative sampling from an iconic American poet.
A prolific poet and political gadfly, Ginsberg (1926-1997) never wrote an autobiography, but he did keep journals, write letters to fellow poets, and reflect on his life and work in interviews and essays. Schumacher (November's Fury: The Deadly Great Lakes Hurricane of 1913, 2013, etc.), Ginsberg’s biographer, offers a well-chosen selection of his writings in this copious collection: 34 poems, including the famous “Howl” and “Kaddish”; 10 essays, including his testimony regarding LSD before a special Senate Judiciary Committee; assorted journal entries from 1949 to 1969, several unpublished; two lengthy interviews; and a dozen letters to prominent Beat writers such as Jack Kerouac, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, William Burroughs and Robert Creeley. Forthright about fueling his creativity with a cornucopia of drugs, Ginsberg expounds on his interest in “all states of consciousness”: dreams, spiritual ecstasy, and “preconscious, quasi-sleep” states. Besides Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman and Blake, he cites as influences William James, especially Varieties of Religious Experience, and the poetry of James’ student Gertrude Stein. In an “Independence Day Manifesto” in 1959, he proclaimed that America “is having a nervous breakdown,” intent on oppressing poets for their allegedly anti-social behavior. But in a country “gone mad with materialism, a police-state America, a sexless and soulless America,” poetry offered solace and wisdom. “Poetry,” he contended, “is the record of individual insights into the secret soul of the individual and…into the soul of the world.” A few years later, he again chided Americans for living in a “mental dictatorship” of materialism and conformity. If his solution—everyone should try LSD once—seems capricious, his critique is likely to resonate with contemporary readers.
Except for brief introductions to the journal entries, Schumacher allows the selections to stand alone as testimony to an often outrageous, groundbreaking poet and tireless social activist.