In general, we applaud the sentiment behind the old admonition de mortuis nil nisi bonum: “concerning the dead, say nothing except good things.” But the outpouring of mendacious piety let loose by the death of the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg last month leads us to endorse a competing principle: namely, that some basic attention ought to be paid to the truth.
It has been a long time since the truth was told about Allen Ginsberg. Catapulted to celebrity in 1956 when his poem “Howl” became the object of an obscenity suit, Ginsberg proved himself a master of calculated outrage for the next forty years. Long before his death at the age of seventy, he had managed to con a gullible cultural establishment into celebrating him as a major poetic talent and icon of sexual and political liberation. When his Selected Poems 1947–1995 was published, the well-known critic Helen Vendler produced a long appreciation for The New Yorker, praising Ginsberg’s “remarkable poetic powers” and “dark sense of social evil.” In the early 1990s, Stanford University paid a million dollars to acquire Ginsberg’s papers. When he died, The New York Times published a front-page obituary describing him as “the poet laureate of the Beat Generation” whose work “provided a bridge between the Underground and the Transcendental.” A letter from the poet Edward Field that appeared in the Times shortly after Ginsberg died summed up the received view of Ginsberg’s legacy:
The achievement of such a protean figure as Allen Ginsberg … could not be adequately covered even in your April 6 front-page obituary.
The United States has a special debt of gratitude to him for his role in the country’s release from the cultural and intellectual repression of the McCarthy era in the 50’s. After the barbarity of the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings, the execution of the Rosenbergs, the psychologist William Reich’s imprisonment and an age of other injustices, the appearance of Mr. Ginsberg’s “Howl!” signaled the beginning of a renewal of American values.
“Renewal”? Destruction is more like it. The truth is that Allen Ginsberg was an apostle of drug abuse, promiscuous homosexuality, and shameless exhibitionism. He specialized in blending mindless anti-Americanism with spurious forms of oriental “spirituality.” Like so many renegades from the counterculture, Ginsberg attacked bourgeois culture for its shallowness, hypocrisy, and materialism even as he capitalized on that culture. His status as a guru of the drug-sodden, blissed-out Left made him a powerful and baneful influence on an entire generation of adolescents. It is impossible to calculate how many lives Ginsberg’s smiling hedonism blighted with its bogus promises of instant ecstasy.
And what of his vaunted poetic achievement? Contributing to a garland of elegies for Ginsberg in The Village Voice, Robert Pinsky, the new poet laureate of the United States, called him “a great innovative poet” whose work would “remain part of American culture.” Ginsberg’s works are routinely taught in colleges and universities across the country. His Collected Poems 1947–1980 runs to over eight hundred pages and is published by the venerable house of HarperCollins. In fact, though, Ginsberg is the perfect literary equivalent of the emperor’s new clothes. From beginning to end, his “poetry” is nothing but flatulent adolescent posturing, without art, verbal delicacy, or poetic subtlety. Ginsberg’s themes are drugs, casual sex, the evils of America, and what amounts to mystical fatuousness. His method is a combination of bloated Whitmanesque rant and free association. Although he posed as a rebel, Ginsberg’s deepest appeal is that of the sentimentalist: predictable emotions purveyed in pretentious verbiage. He is the Rod McKuen, the Kahlil Gibran of the counterculture, dispensing clichéd sentiments wrapped in clichéd verbal formulae.
Much of Ginsberg’s “poetry” is little more than a species of self-absorbed pornography; it thrills him to use dirty words and to communicate the details of his many sexual encounters. In the 1950s, this was considered shocking; now it seems preposterous or merely banal. Banality, indeed, is one of Ginsberg’s chief commodities: sexual banality, religious banality, political banality. Opening his Collected Poems at random, we find “Pentagon Exorcism,” which begins:
Who represents my body in Pentagon?
my spirit’s billions of war manufacture? Who
levies the majority to exult unwilling in
Roar? “Brainwash!” Mind-fear! Governor’s
No, it’s not “Lycidas”; poetically, it’s about on the level of a Hallmark greeting card, though of course the sentiments are not nearly so original.
During the course of his long career, Ginsberg wrote thousands of “poems.” But his most famous effort by far remained “Howl,” the aptly named verbal cacophony that begins “I have seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,/ dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix.” The botched lives Ginsberg reported on were not the “best minds” of his generation, not by a long shot. But his example did indeed help to destroy many more minds and bodies. This is something that the numerous encomia to Ginsberg glossed over entirely. Having absorbed so much of the toxic narcissism of the counterculture, the liberal media and the academy embraced Allen Ginsberg as a visionary hero. In fact, he was a charlatan and a buffoon whose public antics would have been merely pathetic had they not contributed so mightily to the moral degradation of our times.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 15 Number 9, on page 1
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