Every word, once written, is true, somebody has said. For me the sentiment is particularly pertinent when it comes to poetry, where I find myself awash with feelings and ideas that hadn’t existed before the very moment they were written—or to be more precise, before I read them. And some poets more than others make the experience of discovering words a bigger joy than ever. For instance, whether I’m reading Allen Ginsberg’s poetry on a couch, on the beach, on the road, in bed, in the sweltering summer heat or the cold mists of winter, most of the time, the impact of his verses are just as miraculous as that first kiss of the morning sun.
Ginsberg might have seemed to many a crass, unbearable junkie, but to a great many more he represented a cathartic release from the then-conservative America. Influenced heavily by Romanticism, especially the works of William Blake, he was one of the pioneers who introduced the liberal values of the Beat culture to the repressed American people, and remains, to this day, one of the most controversial poets the world has ever seen.
Controversy, we know, was no stranger to the Beats. They rejected the restraints of conventional living, becoming in time a full-fledged movement spearheaded by figures like Jack Kerouac, William S Burroughs and of course Ginsberg himself, all eager to create a stir in mainstream politics and culture. It helped that he was an extraordinarily gifted wordsmith; one day, some time before he passed, he was said to have penned a dozen poems.
A staunch advocate of the spoken word, Ginsberg’s poetry readings were heavily-attended events, where people came in droves just to hear him deliver his work in his trademark fervid, passionate style. There was a distinct love for the grassroots in him; not only did he turn down offers from big publishing houses, choosing instead to stick with the small company that had first brought his work into print, but he was also insistent on supporting lesser-known poets and writers whom he believed deserved to be recognised.
Of course, despite his generally benign nature, Ginsberg had a dark side too, a tough side. He let his poetry speak for him, and where he felt his lifestyle and work had been subject to unfair prosecution, he fought back, uncompromising in his refusal to be suppressed both in life and in poetry.
It wasn’t until he’d settled in San Francisco at a much later date that he finally wrote Howl, the poem that more or less cemented his iconic status. Part of the reason it gained so much attention, according to critics, was because of the buzz created by the accusation of obscenity that the poem came under in 1957, which was followed by a ban. In the course of a long and widely publicised trial, Ginsberg’s lines were read by millions who would otherwise probably have not picked up a book of poetry. And the ban on the poem, condemned heavily by many artists and writers of the time, was eventually lifted.
What was so glorious about Howl, as compared to its precursors, was its soul-baring, unapologetic straightforwardness. I saw the best minds of my generation being destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, / dragging themselves through the Negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix. The verses didn’t conform to conventional poetic meters, and probed out in uncontrolled, expressive ways, a reflection of Ginsberg’s own eccentric personality.
Ginsberg travelled extensively, taking his poems to the far corners of America, mostly to young audiences. His drug-addled,
perplexing speeches at these readings and other events were well received by crowds that were probably just as addled as he was, and he was hailed everywhere he went as a countercultural star.
As with most creative forces, of course, Ginsberg’s best asset could also be his biggest handicap. The unpredictability and eccentricity that made Ginsberg such an intriguing personality both on paper and in person, would at times bring him into the headlines, and not always in a good way. His outspoken advocacy for homosexuality, for instance, actually got him expelled from Cuba and Czechoslovakia. He was also banned from various other places for his rash, often irrational behaviour.
Although the man is long-gone today, the remnants of Ginsberg’s irrepressible, irreplaceable spirit and his reverence for liberal thinking and unrestrained speech will continue to haunt us. And his words—those poignant, deep-rooted verses that emerged from a place of anguish—will surely sustain the generations to come.