We live in an era in which the clamor for, and urgency of, progressive social change has become widely apparent, as evidenced by the rise of democratic protest movements across the globe, from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street—, and on the coin’s other side by the growing and Life-on-Earth-threatening danger of climate change, whose already-significant impact was once again just demonstrated in the widespread and destructive power of Hurricane Sandy. And yet, we also live in an age in which it is sometimes difficult to know whether people’s time-consuming efforts “to make a difference” can really make a difference. After all, the overthrow of Mubarak in Egypt has thus far been followed by the rise of an oppressive Muslim Brotherhood government, and the gradual decline, at least temporarily, of the U.S. Occupy movement has thus far been followed by … well, that answer is not yet clear.
Compared to the frightening alternative of a President Romney, I believe that the re-election of President Obama should bring a deep sigh of relief. But now we will need to see whether President Obama will continue to be the mostly centrist president of his first term—who disappointed many progressives on a wide range of issues from civil liberties to drone strikes to pro-corporate economic policies—or whether grassroots activists can push him to be the more progressive leader that many had hoped to see when he was first elected in 2008. For me, it was at least somewhat encouraging that President Obama mentioned global warming in his post-election acceptance speech, after he had sadly failed to bring up the issue of climate change even once during any of the three widely viewed presidential debates. While we are still waiting for relief efforts to arrive in many apparently forgotten parts of post-hurricane New Jersey and New York that remain without power or heat even going into the freezing-cold second week of November, it would bring some long-term relief to know that Hurricane Sandy may have helped to open the eyes of our elected officials. But it may be a long time before we see whether opened eyes can translate into much-needed, wide-scale environmental policy changes.
Amid such an array of real-life uncertainties, one of the potential roles that enlightened art can play is to shore up people’s spirits and imaginations, to give people hope that our individual and collective actions might one day lead to a more just and sustainable world. One of those artists who has helped inspire people’s political imaginations for over half a century now is the late Beat Generation poet, Allen Ginsberg. In his willingness to dig through, with unfiltered lenses and uncensored language, the political and cultural exploitation and hypocrisy of his time, and to offer Coming-Attractions glimpses of a more compassionate planet, Allen Ginsberg, in his best poems, captured so well on Holy Soul Jelly Roll, still seems as crucial for American and international consciousness-raising as ever.
It is odd looking back to realize how many of Ginsberg’s earliest critics, in the 1950s, found the poems in his first City Lights book, Howl and Other Poems, overly pessimistic or destructive. After all, here was a young poet who—during an era of Cold-War fears and conformity–could end “Footnote to Howl” with one of the most exhilarating lines of human optimism in 20th century American verse: “Holy the supernatural extra brilliant intelligent kindness of the soul!” What some of the early critics mistook in “Howl” for negativity was, I think, mainly Ginsberg’s unwillingness to offer blind faith to Establishment institutions that dehumanized or exploited, or that attempted to drape room-darkening sheets of denial over society’s many ills. For Ginsberg, a direct and unflinching look at society’s many problems was a necessary precondition for addressing and transcending them.
As a record of Allen Ginsberg’s trailblazing poetry career, from his youthful pre-“Howl” years up until four years before his death in 1997, Holy Soul Jelly Roll! — Poems and Songs (1949-1993) is a masterful four-volume CD or digital set, in whichever format one chooses to buy it, that deserves to be etched into the planet’s cultural memory. To come up with his final selection, which was originally released in 1994, producer extraordinaire Hal Willner, who is widely known for his eclectic tribute compilations and for serving many years as the music supervisor of Saturday Night Live, sifted through hundreds of hours of Ginsberg recordings, and re-mixed many of the individual tracks. Before Holy Soul Jelly Roll, 30 of the 52 tracks on this CD box set were previously unreleased, and many others had been unavailable for years.
Since Allen Ginsberg, ever since his first reading of “Howl” at San Francisco’s Six Gallery, was one of the main poets responsible for re-popularizing poetry as an oral art form—later inspiring both the “spoken word” poetry scene as well as the far more widely influential world of hiphop—it seems crucial to continue to be able to hear many of Ginsberg’s classic poems: including, to name a few on this 4-volume CD, “Howl,” “America,” “Sunflower Sutra,” “Kaddish,” “To Aunt Rose,” “Death to Van Gogh’s Ear,” “Kral Majales,” “Wichita Vortex Sutra (Part 3),” “Who Be Kind To,” “September On Jessore Road,” and “Father Death Blues.”
Of course, Ginsberg was always concerned with both the spoken and written word. With artistic merit of its own, Holy Soul Jelly Roll comes complete with a 64-page liner notes booklet, filled with Ginsberg’s own social and literary commentaries, poetry-world anecdotes, photos, and memorabilia. The booklet also contains tributes from friends and cohorts, including Bob Dylan who writes that “Ginsberg is … probably the greatest single influence on American poetic voice since Walt Whitman.”
Ginsberg’s poems, throughout the 44-year trail covered by Holy Soul Jelly Roll, are characterized by a risk-taking personal candor, one of our era’s most provocative and wide-ranging poetic imaginations, an uncanny rhythmic ear, a unique mixture of humor and information, a principled and radical social engagement, and an inventive use of a deep well of poetic techniques and traditions. His themes consistently express energetic yearnings for healthier personal, political, and ecological possibilities.
In the political arena, which particularly interests me as a 55-year-old longtime democratic-left poet and activist deeply influenced by much of Ginsberg’s work, as well as a one-time student of Allen’s (at Naropa Institute in the summer of 1980) and a friend thereafter, Holy Soul Jelly Roll offers a unique opportunity to hear these four decades’ worth of poems, most of which were written during the Cold War, from a post-Cold War perspective. With political principles consistently upholding basic notions of social justice and democratic freedoms, Ginsberg unwaveringly opposed repressive policies (often, murderously repressive) of both Western capitalism and Eastern Europe’s Soviet-era “actually existing socialism.” In “Kral Majales (King of May),” written in 1965, Ginsberg turns a spotlight on the poverty and militarism all too prevalent in the West, as well as the authoritarian repression of civil liberties in the East: “and the Capitalists proffer Napalm and money in green suitcases to the Naked, / and the Communists create heavy industry but the heart is also heavy / and the beautiful engineers are all dead.”
When Holy Soul Jelly Roll was originally released in 1994, Ginsberg’s principled critique of the Eastern Bloc’s oppressive version of socialism seemed quite striking just a few years after many of us around the world had watched celebrating youths helped shake down the Berlin Wall, and after some of Ginsberg’s old literary friends and allies, like Vaclav Havel, began to assume prominent roles in difficult new political reconstructions. For Ginsberg, the Cold War seems to have functioned both as an historic cause of real-life suffering and also as a compelling symbol of the propagation of false dichotomies in all areas of life—restrictive choices that can cause violence on a mass scale and emotional neuroses at the level of the individual.
“Howl” was Ginsberg’s breakthrough poem that envisioned healthier alternatives to such reductive Cold War mentalities, and that also, of course, went on to change the international landscape of poetry. The recording of “Howl” on this CD is from a previously unreleased tape made at Berkeley’s Town Hall Theater in 1956. With the early critics in mind, Kenneth Rexroth introduces the reading with just the right understated touch: “Now with all the misery and unhappiness in the world, read something nice.” No matter how often we may have read or heard the poem’s famous opening line, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,” hearing it in one of its earliest public readings still brings a fresh visceral rush. The thunderous applause at the poem’s end on this recording enables us to comprehend the startling surprise felt by 1950s audiences upon hearing such original and groundbreaking verse.
In “Howl,” taking up the Blakean poet-prophet tradition, as well as incorporating 20th century models of psychoanalysis, Ginsberg dives head-first into the contemporary social madness in order, first to explore it, then to define it (the Moloch section), and finally to redeem or transform it. After identifying the day’s social ills as stemming from a set of interconnected and oppressive aspects of religious, sexual, familial, political, cultural, and economic institutions and naming this multi-layered beast Moloch—after the Canaanite fire god who was worshipped by the sacrifice of children—Ginsberg’s act of imaginative transformation is accomplished in the poem’s third section through an expression of spiritual solidarity with Carl Solomon, a Dadaist poet who was at the time living in a psychiatric hospital, which in the poem is called Rockland: “I’m with you in Rockland … imaginary walls collapse … O victory forget your underwear we’re free.”
Ginsberg’s belief in spiritual solidarity (“I’m with you in Rockland”) and his belief in the power of the poetic imagination to create change (“walls collapse”) help to highlight the radical character of Ginsberg’s work. In the Blakean poet-prophet tradition, what can be imagined can one day be made real—so that, for instance, if people imagine that the Berlin wall can be torn down, then one day the Berlin wall can be torn down. Indeed, in the recording’s liner notes, Ginsberg acknowledges his debt to William Blake on the matter of poetry’s public capabilities: “Blake was the catalytic poet who turned me on to the idea that poetry could awaken people’s consciousness.” Elsewhere in the Liner Notes, Ginsberg writes that he learned from Blake the poetic technique of taking “political details,” and “magnif[ying] roles into cosmo-demonic figures”—for example, “Moloch whose blood is running money!”
As Ginsberg learned from Blake, the poetic technique of turning a current event or situation into mythic language can potentially create a sense of literary timelessness that might enable the power of a poem to long outlast any particular historical moment—or, again in the words of “Howl,” it can make a poem “good to eat a thousand years.”
Adding to the thematic sense in “Howl” of creating social and personal alternatives are the poem’s formal elements, especially the use of surrealist imagery and modernist juxtaposition, which Ginsberg describes in the Liner Notes: “I wanted a surrealist shorthand adaptation from Williams’ naturalistic description & Whitman’s catalogs, syntactically condensed to get phrases like ‘hydrogen jukebox’ or ‘winter midnight streetlight smalltown rain.’ The gap between ‘hydrogen’ and ‘jukebox’ is filled in by the mind interpreting a sense to it.” In other words, readers of modernist poetry are, in a sense, invited to be democratic participants by playing an active role in helping to create the meaning of the poem by filling in the blanks. The European philosopher Ernst Bloch insightfully called these instances of modernist poetry, including juxtapositional phrasings, “anticipatory illuminations,” since the poet attempts to create images that do not yet exist in the actual world, and the reader is therefore urged to think about better future alternatives.
The first CD of Holy Soul Jelly Roll collects other remarkable readings of poems from the “Howl” years. Ginsberg’s poem, “America,” is punctuated by bursts of live audience laughter, again reflecting this poem’s utter originality for its time. That poem ends with the memorable assertion of gay identity against a mechanizing culture: “America I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.” Challenging the influence of the earlier New Critics, who generally preferred poems portraying ambiguity and paradox, “America” helped to make it okay once again in American poetry to say directly what one felt and thought; and also okay to use wit and humor to keep radical ideas alive, despite mainstream culture’s subtle and not-so-subtle attempts to close the history books on such progressive activists and groups as the Wobblies, Scott Nearing, Mother Bloor, and Paterson’s silk strikers.
In “Sunflower Sutra,” another one of Ginsberg’s best poems from Howl and Other Poems appearing on Holy Soul Jelly Roll, Ginsberg expands on the pastoral tradition in English-language poetry by rescuing both Nature and Self from industrial decay, or from what the literary critic, Leo Marx, has called the machine-in-the-landscape: “We’re not our skin of grime, we’re not our dread bleak dusty imageless locomotive, we’re all golden sunflowers inside.”
The second CD on Holy Soul Jelly Roll centers around “Kaddish,” the long poem for his mother, Naomi, which has by now entered the pantheon of literature’s greatest elegies. The 60-plus minute, full-length reading on this CD was recorded at Brandeis University in 1964. About the poem’s rhythm, Ginsberg writes in the Liner Notes: “So the cadence all through the poem’s based on davening rabbis do to move the spirit and body when chanting the mourner’s Kaddish, somehow connected with the near-Aramaic cantillation of Ray Charles.” His mother’s death had propelled Ginsberg to delve into childhood and family memories, revealing how a 12-year-old boy was forced by circumstance to make profound adult-like, caretaking decisions for his mother, who had been experiencing intense psychological trauma. Those years clearly left a long-lasting mark in the poet’s belief in candor as necessary for psychological healing. They also do much to reveal the origins of Ginsberg’s dedication to compassion and forgiveness. And politically, as the poem details his upbringing—by a Communist mother and an anti-Stalinist, Debsian-socialist, lyric-poet father—, “Kaddish” reveals how the deeply personal grew inevitably intertwined with the worldly social.
While the poem views the psychological breakdown of Naomi—who when healthier had read Communist fairy tales to mentally disabled children—in relation to the social oppression of Hitler’s Nazi Germany, Stalin’s ideals-destroying Russia, and the repressive domestic policies of the U.S. during the Cold War, Naomi’s redemption in the poem can be read in part as a refusal to let the dream of a better and more-progressive world die. For there is that celebrated key in the window, whose secret Naomi passes down to her son, and which is available to all of those with open, exploring minds:”to the living–that can take / that slice of light in hand—and turn the door—and look back see / Creation glistening.”
The third CD on Holy Soul Jelly Roll comes from the Vietnam War protest years, in producer Hal Willner’s words, “reflecting the highly visible period in Allen’s history when posters of a bearded, long-haired Ginsberg dressed in flowing robes and beads adorned the walls of college dormitories, and many of his poems and activities reached the homes of middle America.” My favorite piece on this third CD is the amazing version of Ginsberg’s anti-war poem, “Wichita Vortex Sutra” (Part 3), with a piece of piano accompaniment written by Philip Glass and performed by Alan Johnson. “Wichita Vortex Sutra” again uses the poetic technique of modernist collage—stringing together various observations, thoughts, dreams, and newspaper headlines that flashed through Ginsberg’s mind while he was traveling across the country beginning in late 1965. It juxtaposes international Buddhist concepts with traditional American ones, stylistically bringing the two sides of the war together to negotiate. As noted above, with modernist montage, readers are left responsible to fill in the blanks, and to complete the meaning of the collage, which again makes it possible for both the poet and the reader to imagine a new possibility. In this case, that new possibility is the war’s end, which Ginsberg famously declares in one of those high moments of Holy Soul Jelly Roll that listeners will not easily forget: “I lift my voice aloud, / make Mantra of American language now, / I here declare the end of the War!” (After Ginsberg’s death, a tree was planted in the courtyard of New York City’s St. Marks Poetry Project, where a commemorative plaque was engraved with these three ever-relevant, anti-war lines.)
Since, in the Blakean poet-prophet tradition, it is assumed that what the poet can imagine can one day be made real, in these lines Ginsberg is testing the potential of poetry to help bring a speedier end to the Vietnam War. And “Wichita Vortex Sutra” did help to inspire the then-growing anti-war movement. Influenced by this poem, protest rallies were subsequently held in places like New York City’s Grand Central Station where demonstrators ran around announcing the end of the war, and well-known songwriters like John Lennon and Phil Ochs took up Ginsberg’s mantle and wrote widely played songs with lines like “war is over if you want it” and “I declare the war is over.”
For those interested in poetic forms and traditions, it may be interesting to look at how “Wichita Vortex Sutra” inverts some previously practiced ideas of writing poetry about wars. Whereas prior war-related poetry, Wilfred Owen’s for example, had often described the direct perceptions of soldier-poets on the battlefield’s bloody front lines, Ginsberg describes the direct observations of a political activist experiencing the war through mainstream media accounts in his home country and through his personal involvement in the anti-war movement. While Ginsberg had mythologized current social reality in the “Moloch” section of “Howl,” here in “Wichita Vortex Sutra” he adopts the opposite poetic strategy of demythologizing dominant culture’s false renditions of, or myths about, the war.
Younger readers and listeners should be able to easily relate by thinking of the ways in which America’s mainstream media mostly cooperated with President George W. Bush’s false claims about Saddam Hussein’s possession of weapons of mass destruction during the prelude to the 2003 war against Iraq. These false myths about Iraq had helped to create a climate for at least some degree of public acceptance for that unwarranted invasion. In “Wichita Vortex Sutra,” Ginsberg asserts, in a line that continues to seem especially pertinent again, ever since 9/11, that “almost all our language has been taxed by war,” and the poem uses humor and alternative information about history and current events in order to restore meaning and historical context to our language, as a way to try to bring the country’s foundation of public discourse back to a more sane, honest, and peaceful place.
The third CD in the packet also includes several recordings of William Blake songs that Ginsberg had put to music. One piece that will be treasured by those who are fans of both Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan is a recording of Blake’s “A Dream,” with Bob Dylan on guitar and vocals. That performance of “A Dream” also includes the musicians David Amram, Happy Traum, and Perry Robinson, as well as poet, Anne Waldman, and Ginsberg’s longtime partner, Peter Orlovsky. There is also a spirited rendition of William Blake’s “Nurse’s Song” including a chorus sung by Ginsberg with fellow poets, Gregory Corso and Orlovsky, and with his longtime musical collaborator, the guitarist, Steven Taylor.
The fourth and final CD of Holy Soul Jelly Roll! contains some of Ginsberg’s later-years musical collaborations, along with some of his most important personal poems from throughout his career. Among my favorite pieces here is “Father Death Blues” (1976), a song about the death of Allen’s father, Louis, which ends with the poignant tercet that has since been etched onto the gravestone where a portion of Ginsberg’s ashes are buried in Elizabeth, New Jersey, near his father’s burial plot: “Father Breath once more farewell / Birth you gave was no thing ill / My heart is still, as time will tell.”
“Gospel Noble Truths” (1975) and “Do the Meditation Rock” (1981) put Buddhist philosophy and meditative practice into witty and compressed verse form. “After Lalon” is a 1992 poem that comically and earnestly revealed many of Ginsberg’s fears about aging, death, and unfulfilled ambitions. The British political punk band, The Clash, appears here in a recording of Ginsberg’s “Capital Air” (1980). “CIA Dope Calypso” (1972-76) shows Ginsberg as an investigative poet exposing CIA involvement in drug trafficking in Southeast Asia, putting difficult-to-find, but accurate, information into a super-condensed rhymed-verse form for the consumption of a wider literary readership.
“The Little Fish Devours The Big Fish” (1982) includes the magnificent drum accompaniment of jazz musician, Elvin Jones, while “Birdbrain” (1980) is rendered as a catchy punk-pop song performed with the Colorado-based Mike Chapelle and The Gluons, who I had the pleasure to see play at a Denver rock and roll club during my first trip to Naropa Institute. (On the way back to Boulder from that Denver concert, the car that I was riding in was smashed by another car into a telephone pole, which was far less enjoyable than the concert.) “Airplane Blues” (1981), recorded with Bob Dylan on bass, contains the poignant and melancholic admission of a poet moving through his middle years: “Hearts full of hatred / will outlast my old age.”
Finally, “September on Jessore Road” (1971), recorded here with Bob Dylan, David Amram, and others, is, I believe, one of the most heart-wrenching poems that Ginsberg ever wrote, a poem describing in rhymed quatrains his direct observations of poverty on the main road between Calcutta and Bangladesh. In the Liner Notes for “Jessore Road,” Ginsberg says that he wanted to write “something to astonish Dylan,” a long poem like Dylan’s song, ” ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of The Lowlands,’ but W.C. Williams-like natural reportage, and spiritual.” The Liner Notes report Dylan saying that he wept upon reading it. For this version of “Jessore Road,” Hal Willner has seamlessly pieced together two performances actually recorded 12 years apart. It’s the kind of production magic that typifies Holy Soul Jelly Roll and that helps to make this four-volume CD such an important and timeless cultural document.
Aside from a few conservative critics couching their ideological disagreement with Ginsberg in literary terms, today almost all readers of American verse readily acknowledge the historic importance and influence of Allen Ginsberg’s poetry. Politically, the legacy of his poems seems to me at least fourfold: they offer sharp and visionary criticisms of existing political, religious, economic, and cultural institutions; they raise social consciousness by offering alternative ways of thinking and alternative information, and by insisting that spiritual qualities like compassion, forgiveness and creativity be ever-present in progressive politics; they support the notion of poet as a participant in organized activist movements; and, significantly, they present current world reality as mutable, dependant on human actions and subject to change, while offering highly imaginative glimpses about elements that ought to appear in a better world.
These last two items seem particularly important legacies for our contemporary culture, where, as I noted at the beginning of this piece, it is sometimes difficult to be sure whether our individual or collective actions will really bring improvements. Even though we have seen a host of depressing political trends—such as the growing threat of climate change, the persistence of widespread hunger and poverty, a continuing over-reliance on a hawkish foreign policy by presidents of both major U.S. political parties, the recurring repression of free expression in post-Soviet Russia, and a Middle East that far too often seems on the brink of escalating warfare in one country or another—, we have also seen so many positive, large-scale historical changes in recent decades that we know humans working together can indeed create improved social conditions. From a 2012 perspective, it seems both clear and simple: the future is uncertain and will depend largely on human actions from here on. As a tonic to any overriding pessimism that might creep at times into our hearts and minds, Allen Ginsberg’s poems do not reveal social change to be easy, but they do energetically envision the possibility.
On the poetic level, Ginsberg has created a body of work, both written and oral, that has surely earned a warm place in international literature’s long-term memory. Inventively expanding, and sometimes inverting, a wide range of literary traditions, Allen Ginsberg developed one of the most unique written and spoken voices of the 20th century. And as we have recently seen by the presence and popularity of Ginsberg’s books in the Occupy Wall Street free library at Zuccotti Park, Allen Ginsberg’s work continues to inspire young people and to help move the nation’s consciousness forward. Holy Soul Jell Roll provides an important and comprehensive oral documentation of his valuable contributions, as well as a fun marathon listening experience.
(Eliot Katz is the author of six books of poetry, including Unlocking the Exits, and Love, War, Fire, Wind: Looking Out from North America’s Skull. He is a coeditor, with Allen Ginsberg and Andy Clausen, of Poems for the Nation, a collection of political poems that Ginsberg was compiling in the mid-1990s. Katz’s poems are included in many anthologies, including: Poetry after 9/11: An Anthology of New York Poets; Blood to Remember: American Poets on the Holocaust, 2nd ed.; and Blue Stones and Salt Hay: An Anthology of Contemporary New Jersey Poets. His essay on “Howl,” “Radical Eyes,” is included in the prose collection, The Poem That Changed America, edited by Jason Shinder. Katz has also worked for many years as a political activist for a wide range of peace and social-justice causes.)