Rhymes and rea­sons for read­ing

In a sur­vey of re­cent vol­umes of verse, Michael Horovitz proves that po­etry is alive and de­ter­minedly kick­ing — of­ten with Jewish craft and ca­dence

The Jewish Chronicle - - Arts & Entertainment -

THESOCIO-PO­LIT­I­CAL changes of the past half-cen­tury have b e e n b o t h c a t a - lysed and re­flected by ever-in­creas­ing quan­ti­ties of poets and po­et­ries on mul­ti­far­i­ous stages and pages. And many of the most au­da­cious and in­flu­en­tial of th­ese di­verse po­etic voices have been Jewish ones, notably that of Allen Gins­berg (1926-1997). Two new selections of Gins­berg’s po­etry have just ap­peared: Allen Gins­berg: Po­ems, se­lected by Mark Ford (Faber & Faber, £5.99), and Allen Gins­berg: Howl, Kad­dish & Other Po­ems (Pen­guin Mod­ern Clas­sics, £7.99).

Ford’s in­tro­duc­tion to the Faber vol­ume be­gins: “For much of his writ­ing life, Allen Gins­berg was the most fa­mous poet on the planet. His read­ings in Amer­ica and around the world at­tracted rock-con­cert-sized audiences, and posters of him, strag­gle-bearded, and only half iron­i­cally sport­ing an Un­cle Sam hat atop his lux­u­ri­ant, un­ruly hair, adorned the walls of in­nu­mer­able cam­pus dorms and hip­pie com­munes.” Ford’s se­lec­tion en­com­passes all four decades of Gins­berg’s out­put, whereas the Pen­guin re­prints the whole of his first two books from Lawrence Fer­linghetti’s City Lights press, Howl & Other Po­ems (1956) and Kad­dish (1960). Both ti­tle po­ems have in­deed be­come clas­sics, and th­ese two early pocket-books prob­a­bly did more than any­thing else to open up the forms and con­tent of English-speak­ing po­etry in the 20th cen­tury.

Their mainly very long lines and verse para­graphs laid out and bro­ken as breath units, undis­tracted by con­ven­tional me­tres or rhyme schemes, re­stored the free-flow­ing soul of in­spired ut­ter­ance which Gins­berg’s chief po­etic men­tors, William Blake and Walt Whit­man, had de­rived from the bib­li­cal prophets.

In an in­ter­view with Gins­berg in the JC lit­er­ary sup­ple­ment of June 1984, fo­cus­ing on his Jewish­ness, Gins­berg told me: “I’m in a dilemma be­cause the rigid Je­ho­vaic tra­di­tion de­pends on a CIA in heaven which is the poi­son of civil­i­sa­tion. Whereas my real Jewish­ness wasn’t in that God, but in the very strong cul­tural tra­di­tion — an in­ter­na­tional, left-wing, po­etic, tol­er­ant an­ar­chism and ar­gu­men­tism I love. The granny wis­dom, the bo­hemian mys­ti­cism of Ger­shon Sc­holem or Martin Bu­ber or Singer. Ein­stein and Freud and Marx and Marc Cha­gall and the paci­fist Trot­sky­ist groups are much more in­ter­est­ing and use­ful to this planet.”

Part II of Howl is a Jeremiac ex­co­ri­a­tion of the cap­i­tal­istim­pe­ri­al­ist nil­len­nium, whose lethal ar­ro­gance and greed have un­hap­pily grown over the 53 years since it was writ­ten: Moloch, whose mind is pure ma­chin­ery! Moloch, whose blood is run­ning money! Moloch, whose fin­gers are ten armies! Moloch, whose breast is a can­ni­bal dy­namo! Moloch, whose ear is a smok­ing tomb! Moloch, whose eyes are a thou­sand blind win­dows! Moloch, whose soul is elec­tric­ity and banks! Moloch, whose fate is a cloud of sex­less hy­dro­gen!

On the sleeve of his first record­ing of Howl, Gins­berg wrote that “My po­etry is an­gel­i­cal rav­ings and has noth­ing to do with dull ma­te­ri­al­ist va­garies about who should shoot who.”

But af­ter a few years, which in­cluded re­view­ing the tragic life and death of his mother, Naomi — a life be­dev­illed by phys­i­cal and men­tal af­flic­tions — to com­plete the epic el­egy for her that is Kad­dish, Allen’s work and life be­came more and more po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated.

Most of his last three decades were given to the con­sci­en­tious ex­er­cise of pub­lic du­ties as an in­ter­na­tion­al­ist al­ter­na­tive se­na­tor, with a can­tor’s zeal that­sus­tainedand­con­sol­i­dated the re­sis­tance move­ments of thou­sands of stu­dents, pro­test­ers and ac­tivists. He al­soem­bracedaGand­hiesque Bud­dhism, sum­ming up his de­vel­op­ment in the ver­si­cle, Ma­tu­rity: Young I drank beer & vom­ited green bile/Older drank wine vom­ited blood red/Now I vomit air.

The first book of po­ems by the ac­claimed and con­tro­ver­sial play­wright and ac­tor Steven Berkoff, You Re­mind Me of Marilyn Mon­roe: Love/Jour­neys/Lone­li­ness (Herla, £9.99), has un­bri­dled eroti­cism, stream-of-con­scious­ness spon­tane­ity, can­did con­fronta­tions of fail­ure and de­spair,and­fear­less­self-ex­po­surein­com­mon­with­mu­chof Gins­berg’soeu­vre.

An im­me­di­ately pal­pa­ble dif­fer- ence is that, where a lot of Gins­berg’s im­pulses were mil­i­tantly ho­mo­sex­ual (which fu­elled his mis­sion as a found­ing fa­ther of con­tem­po­rary gay lib­er­a­tion), many of Berkoff’s writ­ings are unequiv­o­cally and un­com­pli­cat­edly woman-fix­ated.

He is also in the au­di­bly Shake­spearean habit of util­is­ing rhyme while main­tain­ing nat­u­ral speech rhythms in the ser­vice of amorous-lyric come­ons: I’d/Love to let one pen­du­lous warm breast just flow/Into my mouth like run­ning silk and suck the/Un­milked teat in an­tic­i­pa­tion of some fu­ture/Baby’s treat.

But there is an equal mea­sure of much darker, in­ner ex­plo­rations and ob­ser­va­tions in this late-flow­er­ing emer­gence of hith­erto un­sus­pected ex­ten­sions of Berkoff’s lit­er­ary tal­ents: Once more in the old cof­fee house she/liked when she was sin­gle un­worn strife but then it/crowds up now her ta­ble’s packed with four friends/chat­ting loud. She’s squeezed away, their el­bows push/and shove. Her lit­tle space has no pro­tec­tion but must/ shrink. No man to hold a space for her to think. So up/she gets and schleps the pram again. It col­lapses in the/street. It rains, al­ways as if the pain of Eng­land sheds its/never-end­ing teardrops ev­ery day. Off she walks back to/her room, back to her un­re­lent­ing gloom.

Myra Sch­nei­der’s 11th vol­ume, Cir­cling the Core (Enithar­mon Press £9.95) con­tains many po­ems whose lux­u­ri­ant sen­su­ous­ness par­al­lel that of Berkoff and Gins­berg, but re­main at home with more tra­di­tional artis­tic, emo­tional and in­tel­lec­tual bounds.

Thus in Goulash: … You’re think­ing of love:/the merg­ing which bodies long for, the merg­ing/that’s more than body. While you’re stir­ring the stew/it dawns on you how much you need dark­ness./It lives in the un­der­skirts of thick­ets where sealed buds/cod­dle green, where but­ter­flies folded in hi­ber­na­tion,/could be crum­pled leaves. It lives in the sky that car­ries/a deep sense of blue and a thin boat of moon an­gled/as if it’s rock­ing . . . . At last you will sit down with friends/and la­dle the dark red goulash on to plates bear­ing/beds of snow-white rice. As you eat the talk will be bright/as the gar­nets round your neck, as those buried/with an An­glo-Saxon king in a ship at Sut­ton Hoo,/and the ring of words will carry far into the night.

Dan­nie Abse’s New Se­lected Po­ems: An­niver­sary Col­lec­tion 1949-2009 (Hutchin­son £12.99) pro­vides a de­fin­i­tive demon­stra­tion of his enor­mous po­etic achieve­ment through 60 glo­ri­ous years. It is his own se­lec­tion, dis­posed in four sec­tions,whose­head­ings­barely­be­ginto in­di­cate the rich di­ver­si­ties har­boured by each: Ear­lier Po­ems, Po­ems 1967-1989, Later Po­ems, and Longer Po­ems.

About a quar­ter of the texts trans­mit sub­tle vari­a­tions around the im­me­di­ately recog­nis­able ex­pe­ri­ences of a worldly wise, mil­i­tantly hu­man­ist Welsh-Jewish doc­tor-writer ( Guilty, he does not al­ways like his pa­tients. . . The pa­tient ex­pects/the un­judged lie: ‘Your symp­toms are fa­mil­iar/and be­nign’ — some­one to be cheer­fully sure,/to trans­form trem­blings, gi­gan­tic un­ease,/by nam­ing like a pet some small dis­ease).

The wryly and en­dear­ingly self-crit­i­cal ironies of Thankyou Note to his late lamented wife and soul­mate Joan are fairly typ­i­cal of the cor­nu­copia of Abse po­ems that bear out Elaine Fe­in­stein’s ob­ser­va­tion that “he re­mains one of our few great poets of mar­ried love”:

Thankyou . . . . /for the un­bid­den swish of morn­ing cur­tains/you opened wide — let­ting sleep-bait­ing shafts/of sun­light en­ter to lie down by my side;/for ada­gio af­ter­noons when you did the punt­ing/(my toil­ing eyes re­searched the shift­ing miles of sky);/for back-gar­den evenings when you chopped the wood/and I, in­com­pa­ra­bly, did the grunt­ing. . . ./for amorous amnesties af­ter ran­corous rows,/like the sweet-noth­ing whis­per­ings of a leafy park/ af­ter the bla­tant noise of a city street,/ (exit boom­ing can­nons, en­ter peace­ful ploughs);/for kind­nesses the blind side of my night-moods;/for lamps you brought in to de­vour the dark. Michael Horovitz’s lat­est book is ‘A New Waste Land: Time­ship Earth at Nil­len­nium’. His New De­par­tures pub­li­ca­tions and Po­etry Olympics fes­ti­val cel­e­brate their 50th an­niver­sary this year

Above: Allen Gins­berg, “the most fa­mous poet on the planet”. Left: Dan­nie Abse, poet and physi­cian

Steven Berkoff: from stage to page with fiery dra­matic as­ser­tion

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