Saturday, November 22, 2008

Fat, Gay, Jewish -- and Way Cool

Dear Everyone:

Today a not at all bad poem by a guy who was fat, gay, Jewish, and one of the coolest people on the face of the earth. Neat trick, eh?

Allen Ginsberg got his start in the 1950s, hanging around with Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady and William S. Burroughs, became world famous with the publication of “Howl,” was ubiquitous in the Sixties and Seventies (a couple of times a year I’d see him in my college’s public cafeteria, hanging out with anybody who wanted to sit at his table; a couple of hours after the solar eclipse of – I’m guessing – 1973, a couple of my friends went into a diner and there he was; “Did you see the eclipse?” he asked. “Oh, it was mad – mad!”) Then, long before it was cool to do so, he traded in the hippie drag for a suit and tie, trimmed his beard, and went back to looking like an ordinarily respectable Jewish guy, someone who might be in rugs or small appliances. Apparently he’d lost patience with the guru role, and all the luggage that went with it. But he kept on traveling, writing poetry, keeping things churned. He died a few years ago, leaving behind such an enormous body of work that nobody’s yet sorted through it to determine what’s great, what’s not quite, and what’s hardly worth the trouble.

The problem with Allen Ginsberg is that his best poems are enormously long, immersive experiences. But wonderful. Consider “Howl”:

It begins, I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,

And continues, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,

and goes on, angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night

Oh, man. That’s on beyond cool. Try reading those lines out loud. You guys should go to the library and check out a copy. It’s an astonishing poem. It maintains that level of energy all the way to the end.

Today, however, we have something simpler, with a self-explanatory title:

New Stanzas for Amazing Grace
by Allen Ginsberg

I dreamed I dwelled in a homeless place
Where I was lost alone
Folk looked right through me into space
And passed with eyes of stone

[Rest of poem removed because it’s probably still in copyright]

Yes, it’s meant to be sung. What I want you guys to admire in it is its simplicity. It takes a lot of hard work and experience to write something that simple without looking silly.

Not that simplicity is everything. Consider “Howl.” Not at all simple. Immeasurably better.

All best,


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