Let’s Not Wait Till We’re Dead

Over poetry, you didn’t gush. You read it. You read it with the tongue. You lived it. You felt how it moved you, changed you. How it contributed to giving your own life  a form, a color, a melody. You didn’t talk about it and you certainly didn’t make it into the cannon fodder of an academic career.

Pascal Mercier, Night Train to Lisbon

Wednesday 11 January 2017

Dear Carol,

Allen Ginsberg died in 1997 and still the books keep coming. 2016 saw a volume published of his uncollected poems, Wait Till I’m Dead. Ginsberg’s devoted archivist and biographer Bill Morgan provides extensive notes, Rachel Zucker adds an introduction (his poems encourage her “to keep writing, to write longer, to write messier, to write more authentically, with more ego and more humility, with everything I have and about everything I am”), and one of Ginsberg’s photographs grace each decade of poesy.

There are plenty of these poems that deserve only one read, never to return to again (unlike, for me, poems like his “Cosmopolitan Greetings,” “Yes and It’s Hopeless,” “Improvisation in Beijing,” “Peace in Bosnia-Herzegovina,” “War Profit Litany,” “Plutonian Ode,” “Howl,” and “September on Jessore Road”). Still, several may provide some consolation or a goad in these times when our war-making state and corporate predators show signs of ramping up their rapacity.

“War Is Black Magic” (1963) reminds of the Buddhist teaching, “Just like me, so-and-so wants to be happy, so-and-so doesn’t want to suffer”:
I accept America and Red China
To the human race.
Madame Nhu and Mao Tse-Tung
Are in the same boat of meat

“Busted” (1966) uses the anaphora of “How many” to point out police “calumny, injustice, brainwash, jail”:
How many people, their doors broken down,
dragged weeping in their nightgowns
to the station?

“No Money, No War” (1969) comes out of Ginsberg’s own practice with tax resistance:
Conscientious objection to war tax payment
subsidizing mass murder abroad and
consequent ecological disaster at home will
save lives & labor and is the gentlest way
way of political revolution in America
(Hard to imagine Bernie Sanders calling for contemporary war tax resistance to further his political revolution.)

“Far Away” (1982) addresses blacks whose exploited labor in mines brings gold and silver to the white South Africa establishment (see also Ernesto Cardenal’s “Cell Phone”).

“For the Soul of the Planet Is Wakening” (1970) prophesied
the time of dissolution
of material forms is here, our
generation’s trapped in Imperial
Satanic cities & nations…

In “A Brief Pause of Anne’s Affairs” (1978), Ginsberg salutes his literary partner Anne Waldman, author of the three-volume, thousand-page epic and take down of patriarchy, Iovis:
She sits & meditates & prostrates
She has affairs with books
she writes, publishes, copulates
gives birth to books

Reminding me of Diane di Prima’s “Clearing the Desk,” Ginsberg, ever fond of lists, collects “All the Things I’ve Got To Do” (1978), among which:
Mahler’s symphonies flying through the air
my dirty red bandana needs washing, windows too
six foot bookshelf of unread Buddhist classics
Lotus Sutra and haikus, telephone ringing
young scholar ear waiting my attention
desk with 365 unanswered letters

Why read Ginsberg at this late date? To ponder examples in saying no, saying yes, practicing mindfulness, cultivating the imagination, accepting our manifold quirks, and remembering the harm being inflicted in our name on a planetary scale. If we read many of these poems he didn’t see fit to publish in his lifetime and think, a little cockily to ourselves, “I could do so much better than this, ” then we should have at it.

Accordingly, consider this, from one of Allen’s comrades, Amiri Baraka: “I know what, I can write my own poetry. I can write it as it comes out of me, as messed up as that is, as broken down, as urbanely challenged, as ethnically squashed, that will be my poetry. And I will be so arrogant as to claim it and to say, this is my poetry, right here.”

May 2017 be full of poetic prolificacy and power for you!





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