The Poetry and Life
of Allen Ginsberg:
a narrative poem
by Edward Sanders
Overlook, 2000, 2009
Ed Sanders was a follower of Allen Ginsberg, and later a close friend, and he’s in a nice position to sketch what amounts to a fast-reading highlight-reel of the poet’s “blizzard fame,” The Poetry and Life of Allen Ginsberg. Sanders has done a number of histories and biographies in verse, and this one follows their form: his crooked lines wind democratically down the center of the page (as with speed readers, who track their eyes down the center of the page alone). It makes for a fleet, often eerily contemporary story. The problems of Allen’s world are also ours:
Over his shoulder the bard heard the iron clacks
of Reagan’s stern-wheel’d chariot.
Reagan showed the kind of robotic persistence
that democrats often lack:
He tried in ’68, ping!
He tried in ’72, ping!
He tried in ’76, ping!
and then in 1980, he won the nomination!
Carter swung to the right on domestic issues
He refused to support Senator Edward Kennedy’s
Health Care for All Americans Act
This is harder to do than it looks; Sanders is strict with himself. And after reading so many poets who demand the reader suborn and second-guess himself, I found it a pleasure to spend a few hours with an ex-beatnik, still living the dream, who wants to communicate surely and unpretentiously. Sanders makes his verse with a mind to light his subject and not his style (but style is there — that “swung” keeps the lines dancing).
Ginsberg’s grandfather fled the pogroms for Newark in the 1880s, and there gave birth to the well-regarded poet Louis. Louis later married Naomi Livergant, a revolutionary and a lunatic who looms as large in her son Allen’s life as any figure, real or poetical. As Naomi moved into and out of sanatoriums, her son “The slender & nervous sixteen-year-old / took the ferry from Hoboken to Manhattan,” where he met, “young Republican Jack Kerouac,” and down “by th’ / west side docks, / they caressed one another.” Burroughs shambles onto the scene, but those mythic post-Columbia, pre-San Francisco years pass in a few pages and Ginsberg writes Howl and finds fame (“He was interested in experimenting in W.C. Williams’ / triadic line / or indented tercets / combined with Jack Kerouac’s long-breathed lines”), and by now we are only up to page 31. Though Ginsberg would continue to write interesting stuff — and though he didn’t lack for talent — the literary man becomes fast entangled with the political activist/celebrity/publicist (There he is with the Dalai Lama! Now he’s purring on John Lennon’s lap! Now he’s founding a Buddhist University! Bob Dylan’s his hero, they’re touring together!)
To Ginsburg’s credit, he used his platform almost entirely for good, and he always helped his friends — getting their books published, finding them grants, cooking them dinner — and if some of the causes he embraced late in life were not thought-out, at least he was honest about what mattered, even at the end.
He was lucky in Sanders’ friendship, and while this long poem is far from a definitive biography (or poetical analysis), it’s a thoughtful, fun, and admirably loving book.
John Cotter‘s novel Under the Small Lights was published by Miami University Press in 2010 and his short fiction is forthcoming from Redivider and New Genre. He’s a founding editor at Open Letters Monthly and lives in Denver, Colorado.