Diversifying your bookshelf: The poetry of Allen Ginsberg

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Allen Ginsberg, a gay writer, poet and activist, formed part of the heart of the Beat Generation, a counter-culture literary movement of the post-war era who used self-expression as a form of rebellion against the covetous middle classes, capitalist exploitation and war. Ginsberg was also a practicing Buddhist, and his experimental poetry and songs often explore drugs, religion, popular culture, and society, as well as homosexuality.

Many of his poems focus on breaking the shackles of heteronormative masculine standards by expressing love, often physical and feminised, in platonic and sexual masculine relations

Ginsberg’s poetry was one of the first modes through which homosexuality was discussed with openness, honesty, and sincerity. From the mid 1940s onwards. Ginsberg refused to be quiet about his sexuality. He detailed it so much that he helped to normalise it, and that, in such a precarious socio-political climate, is legendary. For example, during his appearances on the Cavett Show and the William Buckley Show, Ginsberg fleetingly mentions his boyfriend Peter Orlosky, and his instrumental role in caring for his father. This was revolutionary in its ordinariness. Pertinently, many of his poems focus on breaking the shackles of heteronormative masculine standards by expressing love, often physical and feminised, in platonic and sexual masculine relations, such as in ‘An Elegy for Neal Cassady’, a friend and part-time lover:

you showed me your muscle/warmth/over twenty years ago

when I lay trembling at your breast

put your arm around my neck,

– we stood together in a bare room on 103d St.

Listening to a wooden Radio,

with our eyes closed

Moreover, his infamous poem ‘Howl’, written in 1955 and intended only for close friend Jack Kerouac, underwent an obscenity trial due to its references to homosexuality and sodomy. It was eventually protected under the First Amendment, saved by its own “redeeming social importance”. Of course, following this it became a phenomenon, frequently found tucked in the back pockets of the American youth. Ginsberg’s unflinching vulgarity tends to owe itself to his notoriety (and makes it difficult to offer a suitable excerpt!), and his reliance on a heavily American identity and reference to popular culture helps with liberating sexual taboos and revealing the heroic of the homoerotic. By capturing gross details that can often lead to embarrassment for the reader, Ginsberg is honest and proud about all the ways he describes his sexuality.   

Thus, love becomes a necessary evil, a burden, whether it be self-love, sexual love, or romantic love, but a weight one we cannot live without, one we shouldn’t want to live without.

Ginsberg also tends to shock the reader with discomfort in other incessantly physical poems such as ‘Please Master’ and ‘Many Loves’, exaggerated through his love of repetition to create the poetic framework. However, my personal favourite poem, simply named ‘Song’, leaves the fascination of bodily functions at the door, opting for a metaphysical and philosophical exploration into the nature of love itself:

The weight of the world

Is love. 

[…]

Who can deny?

In dreams

it touches

the body,

in thought

constructs

a miracle

in imagination

anguishes

till born

in human – 

looks out of the heart

burning with purity –

for the burden of life

is love.

The poem seems to speak for Ginsberg’s youth – after struggling with his homosexuality until the age of 18, Ginsberg worked through feelings of ‘being ugly [and timid] and unwanted and unwantable’. Fighting for gay rights, against an entire culture, must have been a heavy weight. Thus, love becomes a necessary evil, a burden, whether it be self-love, sexual love, or romantic love, but a weight one we cannot live without, one we shouldn’t want to live without. Critic Catharine Stimpson notes that in his poetry, ‘sexuality is an energy that binds body, spirit, secular world, and cosmos’. I’ll leave you with that sentiment, and hope you join me in celebrating Allen’s poetry beyond this Pride Month. 

Image: Laura Chouette via Unsplash

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