Allen Ginsberg Was Only Momentarily Accomplished

So, on Saturday I was writing about Sen Harris and how Newsweek is shocked, SHOCKED to find racism on its editorial pages.

In doing so, I may have mentioned the poet who wrote this:

Come on come on kiss my full lipped, wet tongue, eyes open-
animal in the zoo looking out of a skull cage-you
smile, I’m here so are you, hand tracing your abdomen
from nipple down rib cage smooth skinn’d past belly veins,

along muscle to your silk-shiny groin
across your long prick down your right thigh
up the smooth road muscle wall to titty again-

Come on go down on me your throat
swallowing my shaft to the base tongue
cock solid suck-
I’ll do the same to your stiff prick’s soft skin, lick your ass-
Come on Come on, open up, legs apart here this pillow
under your buttock
Come on take it here’s vaseline the hard on here’s
your old ass lying easy up in the air- here’s
a hot prick at yr soft mouthed asshole- just relax and let it in-
Yeah just relax hey Carlos lemme in, I love you

It’s true. Allen Ginsberg, best known for Howl, was a flaming homofag gaylord. Some of us, despite being other genders or sexual orientations, found something of importance in Ginsberg’s writing. For instance, here, in the poem America:

America stop pushing I know what I’m doing.
America the plum blossoms are falling.
I haven’t read the newspapers for months, everyday somebody goes on trial for murder.
America I feel sentimental about the Wobblies.
America I used to be a communist when I was a kid I’m not sorry.
I smoke marijuana every chance I get.
I sit in my house for days on end and stare at the roses in the closet.
When I go to Chinatown I get drunk and never get laid.
My mind is made up there’s going to be trouble.

But fortunately, we have very straight, very courageous, very anonymous literature professors who are here to tell us we were wrong about Ginsberg:

To me this poetry is just incredibly egotistical…why do i want to hear about his sex life exactly? There is no style to it nor any real innovation in’s just some bad prose broken up arbitrarily as if his brain has parkinson’s disease..maybe people in his day were fascinated by a confession of gay sex but at this point, i believe we have moved past such gaping voyeurism. (Emphasis mine.)

Ah, yes. The insightful criticisms of the 8-year old lit critic on the writing of Sesame Street:

Once, oh, once! there may have been some value to this so-called artistic expression. Yet now I have progressed beyond this simplistic travesty of screenwriting. The limited vocabulary! The tropes, repeated day after day! The heavy-handed didacticism of Sesame Street’s Word of the Day. Haven’t we all grown past the need to pretend such things have value in our modern, third grade classroom?

Yes, Allen Ginsberg’s poetry was more topical, more momentary, and certainly less egotistical than the great sonnet:

My mistress’ eyes are fucking ugly rocks
Her bloodstained panties merge with her splotched skin
Balloons be firm, and so her tits are socks
Thick curls has aphrodite, hers are thin
But damn I love this woman toe to top.
Her beauty, painted here, shines without stop.

I think that’s how it went. Sonnets are 6 lines, right? I’m definitely not borrowing the conclusion of a completely different poem? Anyway, in addition to the way that Shakespeare eschewed egotism in declaring that he was the key to the existence of beauty in others, and that his words and his words alone would guarantee immortality to others, let’s just remark on that poem’s timelessness. Everyone in every age sees the people they love differently from how others see the same people.

But timeless is not Ginsberg. Ginsberg wrote poetry the way the Children’s Television Workshop writes screenplays: he created what was necessary then for people to have better lives in the future without giving a flying fuck whether the folk of the future would still find his words useful. His words were passionately now. This time. This place. This America.

In states united in killing their young with war and drugs and lies and selfish, amoral moralities, Ginsberg spoke truths of policy and practice. Ginsberg spoke truths of locations local and foreign: of Harlem, Ohio, and Arkansas, of Korea, Bangladesh and Vietnam. Ginsberg spoke truths of both the powerless and the sovereign. Ginsberg spoke with specificity and purpose, but our BigBoy Lit Prof calls it out for what it is: immature, obsolete, anachronistic.

And yes, I could slap the critic for failing to appreciate that if we no longer need Sweet Boy, Gimme Yr Ass in a post Lawrence v. Texas world, it’s because Ginsberg wrote Sweet Boy in a pre-Bowers v. Hardwick world. The third grader can disdain the lessons of kindergarten as unnecessary and simplistic only because the lessons of kindergarten have been taught and learned. For the same reason, the white of 2020 believes that they surely would have been able to do something as simple as sit with Parks on a Birmingham bus had they been raised in the 1920s or 30s or 40s. “Oh, sure, Parks was important, maybe, in her time,” the white says. “But what did she do that was significant? What did she do that can inform us today?” Our BigBoy Lit Prof would ask us the same of Ginsberg, and we could slap him for the same reason.

But there is something else to be learned here. Our BigBoy Lit Prof knows that Ginsberg’s poetry is obsolete and childish because it failed to transcend. He points out that Ginsberg spoke of war to an America who engages in mere police actions and nation-building and counter-terrorism: if only Ginsberg had spoken of drone strikes, perhaps we might find him useful today. Ginsberg spoke of heroin to an industrialized America, splurging the wealth produced in factories and mined from coal: if only he had spoken of an impoverished America scrapping its dilapidated metal products for methamphetamines and prescription opioids. Ginsberg spoke of Vietnam when today our soldiers are lost in Afghanistan and Iraq.

After all, what can we learn from September On Jessore Road?

Millions of daughters walk in the mud
Millions of children wash in the flood
A Million girls vomit & groan
Millions of families hopeless alone

Millions of souls nineteenseventyone
homeless on Jessore road under grey sun
A million are dead, the million who can
Walk toward Calcutta from East Pakistan

We have no such refugees today! Today is not the disaster of 1971. Today Bangladeshis no longer march on India, while the USA is invaded by Central Americans and Mexicans walking through desert, not flood. Today is different, we are reminded. Today is not the day of Ginsberg. Today is a different day, the day of Portland and Taylor and Abrams and other names whose significance will be unintelligible to readers just a few years distant.

Ginsberg’s poems, set so clearly in their various historical moments, do not speak to the Naughties or the Teens or the newly-dawned Twenties. Ginsberg compels us to take action, but the choices he demands of us have long since been made, the sacrifices given, the goals achieved or rendered irrelevant.

Ginsberg’s writing is not timeless, and BigBoy Lit Prof would have us understand this to mean that it is no longer relevant. We have watched the best minds of our youngest generation take their poison from the Flint River, and we have nothing to learn from Ginsberg.

Ginsberg’s writing is not timeless, and so it speaks now only to those who understand he was begging us back then to take action now, but as remote as his call may be, it is still now. For those who live not in the Twenties but in the now, the fact of Ginsberg’s momentariness is no flaw for it is still the same moment.

BigBoy Lit Prof reads mustard gas and benzedrine, dada and kabbalah, typewriters and radios, jazz and Alcatraz, and BigBoy Lit Prof hears only an empty Howl.

But the secret initiate, the one who stands between mirrors, who casts her shadow on herself, she knows that Ginsberg’s words do not echo today only because there has been no time in which they might echo.

Time has always been present, and BigBoy Lit Prof lives in the same moment, the same America Ginsberg used as his exhibitionist, activist brothel, his homosexually fecund now.


  1. brucegee1962 says

    This was entirely predictable, really. This sounds to me like a generational thing — while the artists and poets of a generation create their own spaces and do their own thing, the critics from the generation go after the main lights of the previous generation with big knives to clear the decks. It’s just like the way the critics of the 1920s went after the Victorians.

  2. cartomancer says

    To be fair the gay sex stuff hasn’t aged well either. These days you’d need a few lines asking about Carlos’s HIV status and whether he’s on PrEP, and the whole thing would be on Grindr in any case.

    Or so the other gays who actually get to have sex tell me.

  3. petesh says

    Thanks for this. I don’t know any saints but Ginsberg’s lifelong struggle to define himself and the so-called civilization in which he worked was always admirable and his best poems are inspirational. See also Catullus, who has somehow survived a couple of millennia without losing his sexuality or his rage. Just for fun, and in my own translation, Poem 58:

    I see the girl I used to love
    sucking soldiers on her knees,
    wearing pearls and long, black gloves,
    teaching tarts the way to please.
    You know, she is a silly bitch :
    She ought to do it to the rich

    There is more, much more, and he also wrote (Poem 85):

    Love and hate are never far apart
    I hate my love with half my broken heart

    More than 2000 years, and still rather human.

  4. marylinmagdalene says

    Thanks for this. I am crying a little bit. Good poetry is always relevant. I was talking of him just the other day.

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