Blake & Ginsberg & Then & Now

by Ralph Dumain

31 March 1996, 2:30 am EST

Ostriker, Alice. "Blake, Ginsberg, Madness, and the Prophet as Shaman", in: William Blake and the Moderns, edited by Robert J.Bertholf and Annette S. Levitt (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987), pp. 111-134.

The key to Ginsberg's claim to be a disciple lies in the role of prophecy (p. 113). Another point of comparison is their treatment of "madness", which is seen by both poets to be superior to conventional stupidity, i.e. the imposition of "reason" leads to "insanity" (p. 114 ff). Blake is seen to be inspired by the techniques of Blake (e.g. "The French Revolution") and Burroughs (p. 124). The theme of insanity is traced in three of Ginsberg's poems: "Howl", "Kaddish", and "Wichita Vortex Sutra." The shamanic function of the poet is also addressed.

However interesting these comparisons are, their establishing of commonalities between Blake and Ginsberg is rather shallow, for these very points of comparison are very general and don't get to the specifics of their world-views or methodologies. I am a great admirer of Ginsberg, but he is not a brilliant thinker. His analysis of Blake is one-dimensional. His speech published as Blake and Your Reason is most instructive about Ginsberg's strengths and weaknesses. The strength is the very literalness with which Ginsberg analyzes Blake's imagery (the literal imagination)—interesting to see how one poet absorbs another. But the weakness lies in Ginsberg's inability to grasp Blake's thinking. Indeed, Ginsberg's own shallow pop culture Buddhism, his narcissism and characteristically American anti-intellectual superficiality and mechanistic conception of mysticism, his self-abasing discipleship to petty thugs like Pound, Casady, or his dishonest gurus—this entire complex of Ginsberg's mentality make it impossible for him to deal with Blake's intellectual vision on its own level. That Ostriker cannot recognize this is damning, but then, that shallowness too is typical of the American artsy-fartsy crowd.

Date: Wed, 3 Apr 1996 22:09:05 -0800 (PST)

I did learn something very valuable from Allen Ginsberg. I am a linguistic rather than a visual person, so I need to be reminded what it's like. In one of his Naropa Institute lectures, not the one I cited, I don't think, Ginsberg follows the imagery step by step, questioning what is the experience of this imagery? He analyzes two poems: one is "Auguries of Innocence." The fact that he would take the literal imagination so literally, so concretely, gave me something to think about, since I don't customarily think in that manner. For all I know, Ginsberg recreated the psychological process whereby Blake created his images. My quarrel with Ginsberg lies in his discursive interpretations, which are of a different order than what I have just described. I don't have time to get into what I think is naive about Ginsberg's approach to Blake or to the world in general.

Anyway, I injected this anecdote not only to give penance to Ginsberg, but to give a feel for the literal imagination, which should not be assumed to be the same as a literal set of propositions, though it should not also be seen as allegoric either. . . .

(Ralph Dumain, 4 April 1996, 1:00 am EST, in memory of Martin Luther King, Jr.)

Saturday 5 April 1997, 2:39 a.m. EST
Allen Ginsberg dies at age 70

From CNN News:

"He died at 2:39 a.m. surrounded by family and friends at his New York apartment, said Bill Morgan, his friend and archivist."

"On Thursday, it was learned Ginsberg had terminal liver cancer, and doctors had said the poet was expected to live between four and 12 months."

"The poet laureate of the Beat Generation, Ginsberg was born June 3, 1926, in Newark, New Jersey."

Sat, 5 Apr 1997 17:52:12 -0800 (PST)
In Mourning

I got an e-mail this morning stating that Ginsberg was diagnosed with liver cancer and had 4-12 months to live. But he and we were deprived even of that. I had an awful day today, and then when I turned on the news I saw the announcement of Ginsberg's death from a heart attack. My heart sank, not just for Ginsberg's sake, but for a whole era that is now symbolically ended. Now I'm left alone in Ulro with the rap generation. Too bad Ginsberg couldn't make it to Daylight Time.

Mon, 7 Apr 1997 11:46:23 -0700 (PDT)
In Mourning

Was Ginsberg's role solely poetic, or did you have in mind some other role, maybe a non-poetic role á la Byron of carouser or revolutionary? Are you saying that Ginsberg was interested in poetry for its own sake while Blake was not? Sure, Ginsberg was a master at self-promotion, but . . . .

Here's my take. Because of the backward and repressive culture in which Blake lived, he dreamed about freedom but couldn't live it. He could only function as role of prophet and visionary. That is not a criticism, by the way, just an acknowledgment of the objective circumstances. (Anais Nin's baloney about D.H. Lawrence being more inclined to practice what he preached is clueless. Lawrence is not even in the game.) Ginsberg, however, is in a totally different historical situation, even in the drab 1940s. Circa 1950 CLR James wrote that Americans live what Europeans could only theorize about, that America, being the most capitalist of cultures, was the focal point of the crisis of the modern world, in which the individual was always at bay as to how to construct community, and that Americans were not interested in "culture" but in integrating all aspects of their existence. Ginsberg may have started out at Columbia doing "culture" but clearly he was interested in more than that. Ginsberg represents the desire to unify art and life, from the vantage point of Bohemia, at first, and then later to inject art into life as the counterculture began to make societally real what the beatniks could only do as social outcasts. Ginsberg as a world-historical individual, for all his many faults, represents a leap in the evolving historical project of democracy and self-realization. What he lived, his Eastern European Jewish forbears could never have imagined. Because Ginsberg came from the world of working class immigrants, he could create culture. Vital culture is always democratic and never aristocratic, regardless of the conditions of its popularity or accessibility. That Ginsberg could have been inspired by Blake to seek to integrate the visionary imagination into the everyday hell of urban existence is the essence of democratic modernism, and I thank my lucky stars that I could live in this age to see it happen. Can I get a witness? Now who will be a witness?

Tue, 8 Apr 1997 05:20:48 -0700 (PDT)
Ginsberg Testimony

I emphasized Ginsberg's relationship to the society around him. Never did I assert that Ginsberg was Blake's poetic equal. Perhaps you may recall a post of mine a couple of years ago in which I had some harsh words to say about Ginsberg (which some found offensive) in reaction to his little booklet Your Reason and Blake's System. Ginsberg too much lost track of the wiry and bounding line, an unfortunate trait of Caucasian Bohemianism. Ginsberg was too emotionally dependent on the riffraff he kept company with: Pound, Kerouac, Casady, Burroughs, the Hells Angels. A nice Jewish boy he should know better than to muck about with white trash. And this Naropa Buddhist crap. And the formlessness of his analysis of Blake as correlate to aforementioned meshugaas. And above all, his inability to look back forty-fifty years and recognize the limitations of his cohort and how naive he was about certain things and people.

In all these things, Ginsberg was so typically American, so un-European (i.e. mindful of structure and organization and always knowing your history and your place.) But Ginsberg had a grandeur lacking in his running buddies, a grandeur that came from from attempting to unify the prophetic imagination with everyday life and to break the iron grip of Fordism.

The most shallow question one could ask is whether Ginsberg is Blake's poetic equal. A more insightful line of enquiry is: how does poetry relate to non-poetry, or the social environment surrounding artistic production? If art represents potentials not present in life, what are the implications for blurring the distinction between art and life or attempting to combine and fully realize both at once? What the Beats should have realized is that no segment of society is self-identical. The truth of the Beats is not merely the Beats, but the totality of Beats and non-Beats, i.e., Bohemia and Fordism comprise a dialectical whole. Bohemia tries to find a spot to live like a human being in the interstices of industrial capitalism. Should we be shocked that they would be flawed, be unable to topple the system from the territory they held within it?

Poetry is a lot worse off now that Ginsberg died, for while poetry as a form abounds—poetry slams everywhere, hiphop—the actual content is more insipid and unimaginative than at any time in history. This also says something about what is going on in non-poetry and the cooptation of discontent by the culture industry. Ginsberg is dead in more ways than one. His era is dead. By today's standards he is already a quaint figure. The twentieth century is dead. But there is nothing — nothing at all — like that historical moment in which people discover what it is like to will freedom and their consciousness explodes into new territory. Such moments created Allen Ginsberg and Charlie Parker, Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane. We are merely coasting on their achievements. We have no conception whatever of how to advance from here. Actuality has coopted potentiality, and the divine vision is darkened.

Jerusalem, weep at thy soul's disease.

Wed, 9 Apr 1997 08:51:35 -0700 (PDT)
culture and democracy

While others argue about poetry, I'm arguing about society. Let me commence with a quip from neoconservative novelist Saul Bellow: how many Zulus have written novels like Tolstoy, or something like that. The real questions would be: who would need to write such novels? Under what circumstances does the form of the novel come into existence or pass away? In a different sort of society, perhaps novels would become superfluous because life will be too much fun? These sort of considerations fit in with my cryptic phrases about potentiality and actuality, the unification of art and life, the moment of freedom, and perhaps even someone's concern about dissipation.

If I had written "the striving for democracy" or "culture emerging from below," would that have helped? The word "democracy" comes into our discussion from two angles: (1) the USA having left European hierarchy and aristocracy behind, (2) the USA itself being undemocratic because of slavery, Jim Crow, robber barons, plutocrats, etc. . . . .

So the question is not the actuality of democracy, which is as evanescent in the USA as everywhere else, but a culture untrammeled by hundreds or thousands of years of aristocracy and ascribed status. Though I would add that the USA would be lost without Jewish humor, I have to agree in so many ways that black Americans exerted a far more decisive influence over American cultural expression than all the voluntary immigrant groups. This is democratic viz. where the culture comes from: no monarch ever commissioned Scott Joplin or Charlie Parker.

As for freedom of ideas, the hospitality toward freedom of speech is not the same as freedom of action, and in bourgeois democracies the former is tolerated so long as it doesn't lead to the latter. Or would you deny that England in 1795 had fewer lifestyle options than San Francisco in 1965?

Culture is needed most where opportunities for expression in everyday life are most curbed. Perhaps in a future society Saul Bellows will be rendered useless and we won't have to worry about who is highest on the high culture totem pole. And re Ginsberg's dissipation, I am not even going to argue about Ginsberg as a poet compared to Tom, Dick, and Harry. Maybe Ginsberg's poetry suffered because he acted out too much in real life and lost the focus that the omnipresence of the secret police might have given him in other circumstances. I don't have a final answer to this, but Blake no more than Ginsberg was concerned purely about "culture".

As for the future, I don't see much happening here, as I don't think too highly of the rap generation, and I see no prospects for the revitalization of American democracy which is the prerequisite to the revitalization of American mass culture. But I don't think we'll ever see anything interesting come out of Japan or China or Germany or whichever financial plutocracy holds the key to the future. I doubt any of them can touch us when it comes to the dynamism of capitalist culture. As far as any kind of culture that would interest me, a culture that is not yet exhausted as ours is, I would look to a place like Brazil. There too you find dynamic, new world, multicultural, and African-based cultural roots. Also no democracy. But they do have the Workers Party. Politically Americans are just a sorry lot of wankers.

What finally about Blake? Blake certainly poured all his energy into his art because there was no space for him in the real life of the society. There wasn't even much freedom of speech either. If he wanted to sport about naked, he could only do it in his back yard. And Blake didn't really turn into an industry until the 1960s when a whole generation could finally appreciate him because society had finally evolved to that point. If you remember Woodstock, you weren't there.

Thu, 17 Apr 1997 09:17:57 -0700 (PDT)

Following up on the already-forgotten discussion on Allen Ginsberg compared to Blake, I first of all cite an essay germane to the issues I raised:

Remak, Henry H.H. "European Romanticism and Contemporary American Counterculture", in: Romanticism and Culture: A Tribute to Morse Peckham and a Bibliography of His Work, edited by H.W. Matalene (Columbia, SC: Camden House, 1984), pp. 71-95.

Remak catalogs the similarities and differences he finds between these two social phenomena. I shall stick to the comments that concern us here. Remak finds the intellectual and the aesthetic contributions resulting from the American counterculture (including Allen Ginsberg's poetry) decidedly inferior to those of European Romanticism. Remak does concede, however, that concerns over high culture might be beside the point when one considers the impact, which he considers permanent and ineradicable, of the counterculture on the lifestyles and outlook of the culture as a whole (p. 83). He also begins this essay with the premise that "European romanticism found its main expression in literature and the arts, whereas the counterculture was geared more toward general lifestyle" (p. 72).

I would never make the assertion that one can have either an advanced high culture or a liberated lifestyle but not both. But clearly, the motivations behind creating high culture have much to do with what is going on in the social environment, and the creation of cultural artifacts has always been stimulated by social frustration in other areas, though Blake says enjoyment and not abstinence is what makes art flourish. I would add to the general stew the peculiarly American cult of immediacy.

Nobody followed up on Joz's comments of 9 April:

1. Blake saw visions of another truer reality (lets ride with that a moment).

2. These visions were explicated not in a direct way but through a medium of art and poetry.

3. The necessity of the medium makes Blake a poet. Not his intent. The role of poet is a Urizenic (does he ever use that word himself?) construct. Taken at his word, this is his relation to poetry.

4. Ginsberg is a poet whose writing is engaged directly with the world in a palpable living way that Blake would have nothing to do with. Blake, if he is anything, is a prophet of sorts, where as Ginsberg is far closer to Whitman, a human resonator, an amplifier of language in the context of experience.

I can't say I understand much of this, but it seems to me the essential difference lies in the question of immediacy. I don't know why Blake would have nothing to do with the world directly and palpably. However, Blake does not merely engage in reportage of his reactions to what is going on around him, though he does indeed react. Rather, Blake filters his experience through a symbolic system that mediates his experiences and makes them comprehensible on a deeper level. Ginsberg is much more direct and less symbolic and philosophical.

I myself believe Blake's approach is superior, but since we are not living in the 18th or 19th century, and are thank goodness far removed from the stench of Europe and its dead culture, how do we re-create the same sophistication for our time, given the breaking through of all the taboos that keep us from naming our most intimate experiences, in a culture in which immediacy reigns, and which has developed a preference and capability for naturalistic language over symbolic language? In Ginsberg's time, breaking through the fog of cover-ups, lies, and taboos at least was still a project, hence involved some thought not totally absorbed in immediacy, hence the partially prophetic role of Ginsberg's poetry. Now we are living in a cynical age in which all the subversive countercultural energies have been absorbed and commodified by corporate America, and hence the creative tension between actuality and potentiality has been suppressed. Hence no vision and inspiration, but one-dimensional reporting about what's going on in the 'hood.

I once heard Wynton Marsalis say, contrasting "the contemporary black persona of ignorance and vulgarity" with the music of Duke Ellington: "Who cares about what's happening in the 'hood? How does that relate to the rest of the world? Ellington wrote more compositions about more places in the world than any composer in history." The point being: dare to broaden your mind and give yourself some standards to strive toward. Too bad Marsalis himself only represents the past and spends too much time shilling for the capitalist American dream. But then, shame on the left for wallowing in shit, leaving the right to uphold cultural standards. Of course, the issue is ultimately not "culture", but the quality of life all around, which is why art matters.

Hence I would urge all concerned with the broader issues behind comparisons of Blake and Ginsberg to go beyond ranking various stars in the pantheon to considering the conditions that make greatness possible. In my view, nothing whatever can come out of aristocratic values, which is why Nietzsche must be flushed, and culture can only be created by a resurgence of real democracy and a mass movement that has something to strive for and not merely bitch about.

4 November 1997
Blake & Ginsberg / Blakes for our time

At various times I have either praised or criticized Ginsberg; I think a few times I even compared and contrasted him to Blake. Profanity, however, does not distinguish Ginsberg from Blake, whose best thinking was done when he rose up from shite before he sat down to write. Ginsberg, too indiscriminate about the company he kept, and too ready to embrace the whole world, in the typically American and salutary but sometimes self-indulgent effort to transcend mere "culture" and to unify art and life, was too apt to lose track of that wiry, bounding line that keeps track of where one is and doesn't get lost in a peace-and-love, save-the-whales sort of bohemian sentimental fog. Ginsberg's own interpretation of Blake is rather superficial. Blake's depth, like other people's, was fed by not only growing up in and chafing against a repressive environment and seeking a release, but by becoming very advanced in a very backward culture and having no hope of expressing his perspective in everyday life, hence having to perfect it in the ideal realm of art. The USA in the 1940s was also repressive, but the circumstances were very different, as were the responses.

The fact remains that Blake was a decisive influence on Ginsberg, helping him to keep the spirit of prophecy alive in a time of darkness. Ginsberg became a major influence in popular and alternative culture, taking Blake with him and thus helping Blake to persist as a living cultural force for our time. Blake + Harlem -> Ginsberg. That also makes Blake an important ingredient of American culture, and I'm proud that is so.

20 April 2001
Dear Word Society

Ginsberg's example is a very good one to illustrate the difficulties of establishing just what ideas influenced whom and how. Ginsberg was inspired by Blake his whole life. He credited Blakean epiphanies for major developments in his life and work. And Ginsberg united political aspects of the 60s movements with the countercultural. And Ginsberg was also into gurus, and institutionalized them and himself via the Naropa Institute, for example. Ginsberg certainly had a significant social impact, but how does one measure which influences were actually absorbed by the vast majority of his public? Especially regarding Blake? And what did the Blake industry that finally exploded in the 60s owe to Ginsberg? How many Blake scholars credit Ginsberg with having any impact on them, or more precisely on their thinking about Blake? How many members of the general public followed Ginsberg's interest in Blake, or were influenced by any views expressed by Ginsberg about Blake?

I've read some commentaries Ginsberg wrote on Blake, some published interviews and the booklet Your Reason and Blake's System. Ginsberg has some interesting observations, but at the end of the day he has little of substance to say about Blake. Philosophically, Ginsberg was a child as Blake was not. The big problem with the Beats and the hippies is that they were not very intellectually sophisticated. It is necessary to remind oneself of this in the hypertheoretical environment from which we cast an eye backwards in time. That doesn't mean there is no ideology to analyze, but that the whole history of the time must be taken into account, not just an anemic "history of ideas", and not just a perpetuation of the commodification of the 60s, which in actuality was not really the "60s" as packaged either then or now.

My introduction to Blake coincided with the impact of the counterculture, including a passing acquaintance with Ginsberg, but I can tell you in my case that the two were entirely separate and distinct influences. I would never have filtered Blake through the lens of the counterculture in a million years, because the counterculture was devoid of intellectual discipline, and Blake was all about stringent discipline. "Nature has no outline but imagination has." The counterculture had no outline; that was its temporary strength and fatal weakness. Its immersion in immediacy, in withdrawal and/or direct unmediated combat with the organized despotism of capitalist production, imperialism, and the state, and all its social institutions including the patriarchal nuclear family, was the source of its power and of its ultimate cooptation and defeat.

10 January 2004

Happy birthday, Dan.

Compiled & edited by Ralph Dumain 10 January 2004
©2004 Ralph Dumain. All rights reserved.

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