I’m With You in Rockland
From the library I picked up a couple of books: Arthur Rimbaud’s Illuminations, translated by Bertrand Mathieu, and a big, ancient book of Allen Ginsberg poems, mostly to read “Howl,” which I’d never read before, and which had been calling to me from different quarters of the universe for a while now. Both Rimbaud and Ginsberg seemed necessary for something—a “writing project”? I don’t really want to use the word “novel”—I began about a month ago. And I’d been listening to a lot of old Bob Dylan songs lately, stuff like “Gates of Eden,” “Masters of War,” “Visions of Johanna,” the whole Highway 61 Revisited album, and had even read his memoir, in which he mentions both of these guys as influences on his lyrics. So it seemed necessary that I, for the first time in my life, read poetry outside of a classroom setting.
I went at Ginsberg first. I turned to page 126 and started reading—aloud—its famous first line: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by / madness, starving hysterical naked . . .” and made it through maybe a page before I had to set the book down. Then I picked it up again Then I set it down again. And like that, flustered and amazed, I finished the poem. It was, to my heavy eyes, beautifully dense, crystalline, a poem structured like the molecules in a lightning strike, unlike anything I’d read in poetry anthologies or literary magazines. Ginsberg turns the English language into hot plastic. He molds it and breaks it down and builds it up again, and behind it, you sense this gold rush of energy: Allen Ginsberg, sitting on a volcano as he writes, probably jacking off, too. What to make of something like this, I don’t know: “angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly / connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of the night . . .” Or this: “who sank all night in submarine light of Bickford’s / floated out and sat through the stale beer after / noon in desolate Fugazzi’s, listening to the crack / of doom on the hydrogen jukebox . . .” Or this: “Moloch! Moloch! Robot apartments! invisible suburbs! / skeleton treasuries!” There are more than a hundred lines like this: absurd, muscly, inscrutable lines; lines that collect into a frenzy of emotion, an embrace of sheer life, a rejection of mortality (“. . . where you bang on the catatonic piano the soul / is innocent and immortal it should never die / ungodly in an armed madhouse . . .”), a dedication to Carl Solomon, a writer and Ginsberg’s friend, when the two of them were in a mental asylum, Solomon voluntarily institutionalized and Ginsberg there as an alternative to jail after participation in some petty thefts.
To explicate a poem like “Howl” would be to take something away from it, its soul or its essence, if you believe in that sort of thing. And anyway brighter minds than mine have tried, if those dusty, unused critical books I found on the shelf next to the anthology are any indication. In the first section, he bears witness (“I saw . . .”) and in the second section he accuses (“Moloch!”), and in the third section he participates (“Carl Solomon! I’m with you in Rockland!”). The narrator, passive at first, becomes increasingly aggressive as he stirs his own spirit. There’s something of the life cycle in this. The poem’s logic is concealed in its madness.
Ginsberg is, behind Jack Kerouac, the most recognizable member of the Beat generation. He’s now officially the only other writer of the group that I’ve read besides Kerouac, who I read in college—first The Dharma Bums, and then On the Road, the original scroll version. Kerouac’s books meant a lot to me at the time because I was depressed—his embrace of life’s chaos, his certainty that meaning would be found in experience, was the loophole I needed to escape for a while mortality’s nagging presence, that big hypnotic paralyzing dancer: Moloch, if you want to stretch the analogy into Ginsberg territory. Moloch not as death but as the idea of death, that which turns us into productive, efficient little machines, forever thinking of heritage, of legacy. Maybe I’m carrying myself away here. But that seems to me to be Ginsberg’s intention in this poem, which moves more surreally than anything Kerouac wrote. It’s more like a dream. The MO of the Beat generation, if there was one, was to capture the exuberance/enthusiasm of existence. Kerouac does this but Ginsberg goes beyond it, outside it: his verses contain a, what? Sadness? Disenchantment? It’s difficult to describe. There’s something infinite and pitiful happening here, which you sense in lines like: “I’m with you in Rockland / where fifty more shocks will never return your / soul to its body again from its pilgrimage to a / cross in the void . . .” It’s easy enough to explain: both Solomon and Ginsberg received shock treatment, among other things, in their stays at the institution. But while Kerouac is busy embracing life, Ginsberg is doing, what? Living it, perhaps. Living with it, more like. And preaching the vision it handed to him: that it, that life, is—can be? should be?—maddeningly luminous.
Here’s Ginsberg reading “Howl,” in two clips:
For a funny Allen Ginsberg story from the ‘60s, scroll to the end of our interview with Murray Sperber from Fall 2011.