Monday, November 13, 2006

Two New Books on Allen Ginsburg

I recently posted an entry over at The Woodshed on Allen Ginsburg's "Howl" as the last great, iconic poem in America. There may one day be others, but at this point, looking back, they are not visible. And in reality, I doubt that poetry will ever again have the impact on American consciousness that "Howl" had.

Now there are two new books out that look at Ginsburg's life, a biography and a collection of early journals. The Village Voice has the review:
In November 1956, the first copies of Howl and Other Poems went on sale at City Lights bookstore in San Francisco, and Allen Ginsberg marveled that his publisher, fellow poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, had decided to print a thousand copies. How would they ever sell that many? Howl, of course, proved to be an explosion in consciousness heard round the world, and nearly a million copies are now in print. It's hard to imagine a poem—or poet—having such impact ever again.

The Beats were the first bohemian movement born under the eye of mass media, thus also the first to gain huge fame that flattened them into images, or caricatures. In Ginsberg, detractors saw merely the most infamous of the bearded bathless Beats, while admirers saw a visionary, Dharma seeker, fearless activist, and master of the long buoyant line. Who was the human underneath it all? Two new books about Ginsberg's life address the question. I Celebrate Myself (a biography) and The Book of Martyrdom and Artifice (selections from his earliest journals) have just been published to coincide with Howl's 50th anniversary.

Endlessly social, curious, and peripatetic, Ginsberg spent less time holed up with his work than most writers. He probably also led one of the best-documented lives in American letters, cranking out loads of correspondence and journals. He saved everything. "If some future historian or biographer wants to know what the genius thought and did in his tender years, here it is,'' Ginsberg wrote in his diary in 1941, when he was 14. "I'll be a genius of some kind or other, probably in literature. . . . Either I'm a genius, I'm egocentric, or I'm slightly schizophrenic. Probably the first two.''

Read the rest of the review.

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