The poet or the poem?

September 10, 2010

I’m looking forward to the report on The Beats next week, because I’m having difficulty finding a way to approach Ginsberg.  I’ve read him before, and he always sends me to war with myself over a key issue:  How much should our opinion of the poet affect the way we receive his poetry? 

On the one hand, I’m enthralled by Ginsberg’s language and imagery; reading “Howl” is like being whirled around a hellish ballroom in the arms of a mad man.  On the other hand, I can’t shake off the knowledge that much of this imagery was drug-induced; in fact, he brought much of his hell upon himself.  Of course, “Howl” describes not only his experiences, but other people’s experiences as well, and encompasses more of life than getting high and then crashing.  (For instance, the businessmen in stanzas five through seven of page 16—“alarm clocks fell on their heads every day for the next decade,” “burned alive in their innocent flannel suits on Madison Avenue…”)  However, for me the poet’s drug use dilutes the integrity of the entire poem even while it fuels its language.    

I’m aware that many poets and other artists, from Coleridge to the Beatles, used drugs in various ways, to self-medicate, to “release their inhibitions,” or to “reach a higher spiritual plane.” 

The overblown introduction to “Howl” by William Carlos Williams does not resolve the dilemma, but instead highlights it.  Williams writes that Ginsberg experienced a Golgotha, and a “charnel house” comparable to the Holocaust.  This comparison is appallingly inappropriate.  It’s unconscionable to compare the slaughter of innocent people to one man’s self-induced misery.  Williams does “Howl” a tremendous disservice here.

So I’m left with this problem:  Would I appreciate “Howl” (or any other poem, book, movie or song) more, or less, if I took the artist’s personal choices out of the equation?  Over the years that I’ve asked myself this, I’ve usually argued for the independent life of the artwork itself.  Once the poem has been written and released (like a fire balloon!), it must rise or fall on its own merits.  But in Ginsberg’s case I am unable to escape a schizophrenic reading, and am left in the arms of a mad man whose babbling I alternately ignore and strain to understand.

Designed by Tim Sainburg from Brambling Design

Designed by Tim Sainburg from Brambling Design

Designed by Tim Sainburg from Brambling Design

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Multimedia Report on The Beats

September 1, 2010

The Beats Wiki

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