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
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