Ginsberg and Whitman

September 16, 2010

I was re-reading Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” and, after our reading for “Howl” last class, I started to see a lot of parallels. Weirdly, (though I think incidentally) section 3 of each involves the direct address, “I’m with you” or “I am with you” to invoke a sense of solidarity in poetry with the reader.

This got me thinking about the differences between Whitman and Ginsberg and for what use they might be using this kind of poetry. What do you all think?

I think that Whitman, though he does get very personal, ends up speaking about something much more objective than Ginsberg. He doesn’t seem to be as steeped in himself in that he generates a kind of identity with all others in America. I’m not sure to what extent Ginsberg is doing that or not, but it seems to me he’s definitely not at the same intensity as Whitman. What do you all think?

“Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”


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September 14, 2010

I don’t remember if we mentioned this in class or not, but apparently Howl is now a movie and it’s coming out later this month. James Franco plays Ginsberg and the film is set right around his obscenity trial. Here’s a short clip of Franco reading I’m with you in Rockland :

I don’t think the end of part 3 of Howl necessarily suggests a feeling of victory. I feel like Ginsberg and Carl Solomon are reacting against the conventions of mainstream society in the fifties, and perhaps this society is represented in the idea of Rockland in the third part of the poem. It’s true that Rockland was a mental hospital and it’s true that Carl Solomon was clinically depressed (as was probably Ginsberg), but I think Rockland also represents the controlling power of authority in general. Ginsberg and Solomon were defiant of the mainstream ideas of the modern American capitalist society and the power of repression that our government possessed; maybe this idea of fighting against authority is a central idea in Ginsberg’s Rockland.

On the title page of the book Howl, I noticed that Ginsberg has included a brief excerpt from Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself. It reads:

“Unscrew the locks from the doors!

“Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!

I have always interpreted this line as Whitman wanting America to see the equality  of all people (including women and homosexuals and slaves). For his time Whitman was a very radical thinker: he openly wrote that he helped an escaped fugitive slave; he wrote passages of pretty clear homo-eroticism, and he argued that the beauty of the human body and form was equal in both sexes. Whitman wanted to give a voice to those who were repressed in American society, and I think that Ginsberg wants to follow in the same vein by voicing the plight and struggle of people in his generation who rebel against the conventions of 1950’s mainstream American society. “Howl,” the title itself suggests an animalistic  cry for freedom from this restrictive society.

But I don’t think there is ever a real victory attained or anything won; there is only the solace in fighting and the realization of human companionship and connection during this struggle against authority.  For Ginsberg, perhaps this feeling of solace comes in the freedom of the soul: “we wake up electrified out of the coma/by our own soul’s airplanes roaring over the/ roof they’ve come to drop angelic bombs the/ hospital illuminates itself  imaginary walls collapse (26).” While this passage certainly is suggestive of a victory, i think that it more-so represents Ginsberg having a vision. Otherwise, wouldn’t he have chosen to end his poem here, with the suggestion of real freedom? Instead the very next line is: “I’m with you in Rockland.” The very last line is suggestive of a connection Ginsberg feels to Solomon and perhaps to all his fellow non-conformists in their struggle against conventional authority.

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CoPo of the Mo’ 3

September 10, 2010

Bruce Smith does not have the name of someone who aspires to be famous. The last sentence (out of three) of his Wikipedia biography reads, “That’s all, that’s it.” He writes poems; he has been published; he has taught at two universities. But this man understands something about sound and lyricism. His is the kind of poetry that begs, on both knees, to be read aloud. Smith likes to think of poetry as akin to songwriting:

“When the language works to seduce and . . . move us, when it works its blues on us, bounces us and trembles us, makes us swerve from our upright and rational propositions . . . we are thinking and listening at the same time or really listening and not thinking, like a good song does.”

The Poetry Foundation was much more forthcoming about Smith’s biography than Wikipedia. Most importantly, the foundation lists his influences: Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. I would be really interested to see what some of the Whitmaniacs, or people familiar with Whitman and Dickinson’s work, think about Smith’s poetry! See, I italicized it so you can’t ignore it!

The poem below, “Obbligato,” is my favorite of the ones listed on the website; I also enjoyed “February Sky,” and, if you don’t mind Googling to find it, you should look up “Goodbye Tuscaloosa.”


Late August was a pressure drop,
rain, a sob in the body,

a handful of air
with a dream in it,

summer was desperate
to paradise itself with blackberry

drupelets and swarms, everything
polychromed, glazed, sprinkler caps

gushing, the stars like sweat
on a boxer’s skin. A voice

from the day says
Tax cuts

for the rich or scratch
what itches or it’s a sax

from Bitches Brew,
and I’m a fool

for these horns
and hues, this maudlin

light. It’s a currency of feeling
in unremembered March.

There’s a war on and snow in the
where we’ve made our desire stop

and start. In the dying school of Bruce
I’m the student who still believes

in the bad taste of the beautiful
and the sadness of songs
made in the ratio
of bruise for bruise.

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CoPo of the Mo’ Two

September 7, 2010

Perhaps not as contemporary as Piercy, but still within the confines of what this class considers “contemporary,” I became acquainted with and fell in love with Galway Kinnell‘s poetry last semester when I stumbled across it at a friend’s house. Flipping through the table of contents of A New Selected Poems, I saw that he had a number of poems that involved other poets of the time entitled “For [insert poet here].” I read his “For William Carlos Williams” first and thought it was all right, but when I turned to a much long poem, “For Robert Frost”, I was deeply moved and impressed at his skill as a poet. I went on to read through the rest of the book finding more favorites than not. I highly recommend him. Here is the poem that so moved me, in its entirety:

“For Robert Frost”


Why do you talk so much
Robert Frost? One day
I drove up to Ripton to ask,

I stayed the whole day
And never got the chance
To put the question.

I drove off at dusk
Worn out and aching
In both ears. Robert Frost,

Were you shy as a boy?
Do you go on making up
For some long period of solitude?

Is it that talk
Doesn’t have to be metered and rhymed?
Or is talk distracting from something worse?


I saw you once on the TV,
Unsteady at the lectern,
The flimsy white leaf
Of hair standing straight up
In the wind, among top hats,
Old farmer and son
Of worse winters than this,
Stopped in that first dazzle

Of the District of Columbia,
Suddenly having to pay
For the cheap onionskin,
The worn-out ribbon, the eyes
Wrecked from writing poems
For us — stopped,
Lonely before millions,
The paper jumping in your grip,

And as the Presidents
Also on the platform
Began flashing nervously
Their Presidential smiles
For the harmless old guy,
And poets watching on the TV
Stated thinking, Well that’s
The end of that tradition,

And the managers of the event
Said, Boys this is it,
This sonofabitch poet
Is gonna croak,
Putting the paper aside
You drew forth
From your great faithful heart
The poem.


Once, walking in winter in Vermont,
In the snow, I followed a set of footprints
That aimed for the woods. At the verge
I could make out, “far in the pillared dark,”
An old creature in a huge, clumsy overcoat,
Lifting his great boots through the drifts,
Going as if to die among “those dark trees”
Of his own country. I watched him go,

Past a house, quiet, warm and light,
A farm, a countryside, a woodpile in its slow
Smokeless burning, alder swamps ghastly white,
Tumultuous snows, blanker whiteness,
Into the pathless wood, one eye weeping,
The dark trees, for which no saying is dark enough,
Which mask the gloom and lead on into it,
The bare, the withered, the deserted.

There were no more cottages.
Soft bombs of dust falling from the boughs,
The sun shining no warmer than the moon,
He had outwalked the farthest city light,
And there, clinging to the perfect trees,
A last leaf. What was it?
What was that whiteness? — white, uncertain —
The night too dark to know.


He turned. Love,
Love of things, duty, he said,
And made his way back to the shelter
No longer sheltering him, the house
Where everything turned into words,

Where he would think on the white wave,
Folded back, that rides in place on the obscure
Pouring of this life to the sea —
And seal the broken lips
Of darkness with the mot juste.


Poet of the country of white houses,
Of clearings going out to the dark wall of woods
Frayed along the skyline, you who nearly foreknew
The next lines of poems you suddenly left off writing,
Who dwelt in access to that which other men
Have burned all their lives to get near, who heard
The high wind, in gusts, seething
From far off, coming through the trees exactly
To this place where it must happen, who spent
Your life on the point of giving yourself away
To the dark trees, the dissolving woods,
Into which you go at last, heart in hand, deep in:

When we think of a man who was cursed
Neither with the all-lovingness of Walt Whitman
Nor with Melville’s anguish to know and to suffer,
And yet cursed . . . A man, what shall I say,
Vain, not fully convinced he was dying, whose calling
Was to set up in the wilderness of his country,
At whatever cost, a man who would be his own man,
We think of you. And from the same doorway
At which you lived, between the house and the woods,
We see your old footprints going away across
The great Republic, Frost, up memorized slopes,
Down hills floating by heart on the bulldozed land.

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Banned and Dangerous Art

September 7, 2010

Hey all, didn’t know if any of you had been following another blog run by Dr. Mikhalevsky in the philosophy department, but there’s an interesting post of hers that discusses Whitman and Brooks as “Dangerous Poets”. Thought you all might like to check it out.

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