Posts Tagged ‘Allen Ginsberg’

“Not ordinary speech, but extraordinary speech”: Robert Pinsky on John Milton and the American imagination

Saturday, May 4th, 2019

Milton’s man in America

“Great art is great not because it enters an academic curriculum, and neither is greatness affirmed by the awarding of prizes or titles. But great is not necessarily a vague term. It can indicate work that penetrates the shapes, feelings, ideas, and sounds of a culture, as in the cadences of speech. Sometimes that kind of penetration is so deep, so transforming, that it is nearly invisible, or barely acknowledged.” So writes Stanford poet (and friend) Robert Pinsky, in “The American John Milton,”  a 2008 article I just discovered in Slate.  Milton’s ideal “is not a poetry based on ordinary speech—which has been one Modernist slogan—but extraordinary speech.”

Two excerpts from the former U.S. poet laureate’s article:

Here is an interesting, continuing conflict in American writing and culture: the natural versus the expressionistic, or simplicity versus eccentricity, or plainness versus difficulty. American artists as different as Robert Frost and William Carlos Williams belong more or less in the “ordinary speech” category. On the other, “Miltonic” side of that division about word order in the mother tongue, consider the expressive eccentric Emily Dickinson, who in her magnificent poem 1068 (“Further in Summer Than the Birds”) writes this quatrain about the sounds of invisible insects in the summer fields:

Antiquest felt at Noon
When August burning low
Arise this spectral Canticle
Repose to typify

In these lines, the natural and the mysterious become one, an effect arising not just from the words (“Canticle”) but also from their order.


In the days when the Fourth of July was celebrated on town greens, the occasion was marked by fireworks, band music, and speeches—speeches that almost invariably quoted John Milton, the anti-Royalist and Protestant poet. Anna Beer, in the preface to her useful new biography Milton: Poet, Pamphleteer and Patriot, points out Milton’s considerable influence on the Founding Fathers. English writer Peter Ackroyd published, in the ‘90s, a novel called Milton in America, imagining the poet’s actual immigration—an outgrowth, in a way, of the more remarkable, actual story of Milton’s work in the American imagination.

I once heard the great American poet and iconoclast Allen Ginsberg recite Milton’s poem “Lycidas” by heart. Nearly every page of John Hollander’s indispensable anthology Nineteenth Century American Poetry bears traces of that same poem. In Ginsberg’s published journals from the mid-’50s, he assigns himself the metrical task of writing blank verse (and succeeds with subject matter including his lover Peter Orlovsky’s ass: “Let cockcrow crown the buttocks of my Pete,” another perfect pentameter).

By the way, Derek Walcott made his students memorize “Lycidas” – so Ginsberg wasn’t alone. Read Robert Pinsky’s article in its entirety here.  

Ginsberg: “America when will you be angelic?”

Thursday, April 14th, 2011

They kept their clothes on.

One thing I learned from last night’s performance of I Am America was that 80 minutes of Allen Ginsberg is an awful lot of Allen Ginsberg.

Workcenter, founded on the principles of Jerzy Grotowski, performed I Am America, based on Ginsberg’s writing.  (I wrote about the Workcenter at Stanford here.)  Much of the script is taken from Ginsberg’s poem “America,” which begins “America I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing…”

America when will you be angelic?
When will you take off your clothes?
When will you look at yourself through the grave?
When will you be worthy of your million Trotskyites?
America why are your libraries full of tears?
America when will you send your eggs to India?
I’m sick of your insane demands.


I’m addressing you.
Are you going to let our emotional life be run by Time Magazine?
I’m obsessed by Time Magazine.
I read it every week.
Its cover stares at me every time I slink past the corner candystore.
I read it in the basement of the Berkeley Public Library.
It’s always telling me about responsibility. Businessmen are serious. Movie
producers are serious. Everybody’s serious but me.
It occurs to me that I am America.
I am talking to myself again.

See what I mean?  The show was high energy, the performers are vibrant and accomplished, the singing of the African diasporic songs are simply astonishing, but again … a little of Ginsberg goes a long way.

A little dab'll do ya...

Mario Biagini told me:

When I see something living, something starts to live in me. When I do this job, it helps me to live,” he said.Part of the search for something alive led to Ginsberg, and Ginsberg’s fiery, apocalyptic visions. Timely, said Biagini, in a world of environmental catastrophe, terrorism and nuclear meltdowns.

“These times are interesting, peculiar. Every day something shows us that the future is completely unknown. It needed a practical reply,” he said – a reply to “the arrogance of reality, the arrogance of life.”

Mario spoke to the audience after the small show, and told me something I didn’t know … or perhaps knew only peripherally, the way you know things in the back of your mind and then forget.  Ginsberg’s papers are at Stanford.  The library bought them, he said, for “a fabulous sum of money.” Where did it go?

“A lot of it went to taxes,” he said.  “A lot of it went to a very, very beautiful apartment in New York City.”  It’s now home of the Allen Ginsberg Trust.

Another reason why poetry today has a bad name

Wednesday, March 2nd, 2011

Lawrence Ferlinghetti‘s latest is for the birds. It’s in the San Francisco Chronicle here.

On the printed page, the lines are indented inward, on each successive line, for no apparent reason except to give the visual appearance of poetic form. (The Chronicle routinely screws up online lineation.)

It opens:  A cock cried out in my sleep

Even forgiving the double entendre, which I will mercifully assume is unintentional, I wonder when is the last time Ferlinghetti saw an actual, non-figurative cock in downtown San Francisco.  (Example for city-dwellers, see right.)

Basically, this United Colors of Benetton poem is in support of smiling niceness.  The politics are safe and clichéd, the term “Third World” in itself has become something of a cliché. It’s hard to believe we’ve come so far from Allen Ginsberg and “Howl.”

Where are the editors?  This is an appalling lapse of judgment.

Ferlinghetti, San Francisco’s first poet laureate, is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts & Letters.

Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”: More on “Breaking up is hard to do…”

Sunday, October 10th, 2010

He did not live long enough to see bad lineation

It started with Billy Collins. Now Allen Ginsberg has entered the act, via Publisher’s Weekly.

In July, we discussed the searing, red-hot topic of the day: the e-book and its effect on a poem’s lineation:

Poet Billy Collins has come out decisively against the e-book. The AP story is here.

His reason:  It’s difficult to manage a poem’s line breaks on the electronic screen, which has a disturbing tendency to break lines at awkward places and slide the remaining text onto the next line flush left, as if it were a new line.  Why it’s taken Collins so long to notice this is unclear — he could have seen it in any of his online reviews.

Robert Pinsky is confident the technical problems can be fixed, but that adds that besides the problems with portable e-readers, “most word processors treat verse as though each line were a paragraph. So, for example, typing a Wallace Stevens poem with capital letters at the beginning of the lines can be mildly annoying,” Pinsky says.

Now Craig Morgan Teicher at Publisher’s Weekly is ranting about the eBook version of Ginsberg’s Collected Poems and the screwed-up lineation.  “This is not ‘Howl,'” he howls:

“Ginsberg broke his poem into what he called “strophes,” those long lines that hark back to Whitman.  The indentations you see above are meant to indicate that the line keeps going beyond the end of the page, until the next left-justified line.  Ginsberg was careful in his liniation, and part of the poem’s impact is in seeing that “who” sticking out again and again on the left side of the page.  The digital version pays no mind to this whatsoever.  What we get is not the poem itself, but a kind of poor transcription of it.”

Just like we said.  Now, if we can just get Teicher to spell “lineation,” we’re in business.  He’s setting a bad example.  Galleycat repeated the misspelling.