I’ve sometimes wondered what Allen Ginsberg would say about the events of the last five years. He would have spoken out about the dual horrors of September 11, 2001 and the American war in Iraq, of course. He might have said some outrageous things and made headlines, or maybe he would have worked quietly to create dialogue with Muslim populations. Allen Ginsberg was good at creating dialogue (he was the one who somehow managed to persuade the aged poet Ezra Pound to regret his lifelong racism towards Jews, for example) and maybe he could have done some good.
Nine years after the Beat poet’s death, his estate has arranged the publication of three substantial new books representing his life and work, all from different publishers.
I Celebrate Myself is a solid new biography by Bill Morgan, Ginsberg’s long-time archivist. There are already a few reputable biographies of the poet, but this is the first to cover his unusual final days on earth, in which an array of old friends and carefully selected younger admirers like Patti Smith were led to his bedside to celebrate his coming migration towards the first Bardo. Many poets would covet a death scene like Ginsberg’s; few will achieve it.
I’ve met Bill Morgan, an impressively serious literary researcher, and I’m glad he has been busy not only writing the above biography but also co-editing The Book of Martyrdom and Artifice, the first publication of Allen Ginsberg’s private journals and early writings from 1937 to 1952. It’s wonderful to meet the poet as an excitable eleven year old, listing the movies he’s seen (he saw a lot of movies, and dutifully listed all the titles for posterity), angrily observing Hitler’s progress towards war in Europe, and noticeably failing to commit to paper any actual details about his beloved mother’s descent into insanity (this was the signature horror of his childhood, and later burst into the great long poem Kaddish, but as a teenager Allen preferred to dote on movies and lighter events).
My only complaint with this book is the awful title. In fact, Ginsberg was a master of great titles (witness: “Howl”, “Planet News”, “A Supermarket in California”, “Wichita Vortex Sutra”, “Mind Breaths”, “Reality Sandwiches”, “Ballad of the Skeletons”). I can’t imagine that he would ever have released a book with such a gag-worthy moniker as “The Book of Martyrdom and Artifice”. I’m not sure if the origin of this title is explained in the later sections of this book and I don’t know why Bill Morgan and co-editor Juanita Lieberman-Plimpton chose it, but I suppose it’s a forgiveable offense. I can clearly see that this book has much to offer, and I haven’t even gotten to the part where he meets Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs yet.
A new volume of Collected Poems offers the first single-volume publication of the poet’s complete works. The book is notable for this reason, though I’m not crazy about the plain and understated packaging. For me, the bold minimalist design of the City Lights Pocket Poets editions represent the visual corollary to Allen Ginsberg’s life’s work, and I wish this volume had more of a distinct visual style.
The words, however, are enough to please any discerning reader. The Allen Ginsberg estate has always been a class act, and I’d like to congratulate them on a job well done with these three important new books.