Allen Ginsberg's Early Poems Are Even Worse than His Later Ones
The Book of Martyrdom and Artifice: First Journals and Poems, 1937—1952
by Allen Ginsberg
(Da Capo Press) $27.50
I love bad poetry. What it lacks in aesthetic appeal it more than makes up for in amusement value. Until this month, the best places to find bad poetry were the New Yorker and poetry.com's real-time poetry contest entry feed. Now we have Allen Ginsberg's The Book of Martyrdom and Artifice: First Journals and Poems, 1937–1952.
It's fitting that Ginsberg's juvenilia should serve as a beacon in the night of bad poetry—after all, his influence is responsible for roughly 60 percent of bad American poetry written today. The poems collected here anticipate the million adolescent wails that followed Howl—they consist of fruitless imitations of other poets, strident cliché, and forehead-slapping sentimentality. Ginsberg remained a bad poet until the end, and his later work isn't nearly as fun to read. It falls in the New Yorker category of bad poetry (albeit with more drugs and pederasty, fewer barns and grandfathers): well-wrought garbage for people with different taste than mine.
Nobody will accuse Ginsberg's early poems of being well wrought, and to say that they're "wrought" at all would be a stretch. The word I'm looking for is "wrung." Ginsberg advocated the use of improvisation in poetry, but he improvised with the benefit of a comprehensive poetic education. (The journals included in the present volume contain enviable reading lists.) His most vital work comes from before he trained his subconscious to spew passable writing. The early work is labored and ill-conceived, but it's also an example of self-expression at its most hilarious.
The Book of Martyrdom and Artifice finds the unvarnished Ginsberg rhyming "doom" and "tomb" multiple times within a single work. There's some love poetry, some topical sallying, a bit of nerdy doggerel ("Jack on her left tit, I on her right, discussing/Spengler whom I haven't read"), and a great deal of Rimbaud-addled inner-spiritual-voyage stuff ("'I will stay no longer pent!'/Cried my spirit, petulant"). And there is hyperbole: "You, patient,/Weary of the hospital of life,/Have known eternal illness." It's more than a bad metaphor—it's part of a poem entitled "To Kerouac in the Hospital."
My favorite compendium of blunders is "Times Square, April 28, 1945," which heralds the impending end of World War II. It offers an intoxicatingly silly evocation of T. S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock": "And kisses to the promise of tomorrow;/And thus has mourned the passing of habitual sorrow./Meanwhile I walk around looking for group experience./'Quit shoving!'" As if that weren't enough, the next section contains some sort of tortured analogy about soldiers returning to America, culminating with the lines, "We shall resurrect the ancient uterus,/And shall rebake the womb, the apple pie."
Ginsberg had all sorts of grand poetic ambition, but he had no idea how to turn his thoughts into literature. His journals betray a lively intelligence, and even a jovial self-awareness ("...in high school terms, she was popular and I was Allen Ginsberg") of which few hints exist in his poetry. Not surprisingly, the footnotes to his long and awful "Death in Violence" make a more insightful poem than the poem itself. Ginsberg provided annotations for the benefit of Neal Cassady, to whom he served as an ardent lover and ineffectual writing teacher. It's great fun to flip through and read the bottom of each page:
270 Bourgeois, etc.
276 Meaningless reference
287 Oedipus, etc.
288 Eyes: Balls, Castration obvious
297 I will have to take some of this schmaltz out
If you like good poetry (or even Ginsberg's mature poetry), then this may not be the book for you. If you like Allen Ginsberg qua Allen Ginsberg and want to know more about him, then this book is a wonderful resource. If you like bad poetry, welcome to heaven.