Prose from Poetry Magazine

Allen Ginsberg

Remembering a rose rabbi.

June 1993: the National Poetry Foundation at the University of Maine at Orono was holding a large conference on the poetry of the thirties. Most of those attending stayed in the dorms on campus or the motels close by, but about ten of us were put up in an upscale country inn some ten miles from the university. One of my inn-mates was Allen Ginsberg, who had been invited to pay homage to the ninety-year-old Carl Rakosi and of course to give some readings as well. Allen attended every session dutifully. But in the late evenings, he turned to his real preoccupation: the analysis of prosody. Around midnight, he would appear in the lounge and 
engage whoever was present in a series of language games, centering on the metrics of Ezra Pound. I soon became one of Allen’s partners in crime. He would recite a line from the Cantos and I would help him figure out how to scan it. Throughout these sessions, he was friendly but aloof: I was never quite sure he knew who I was though we had shared the stage at various events at the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church in New York and had corresponded for some time about his archive, which I helped bring to Stanford.

In this, the last decade of his life (he died in 1997), Allen looked for all the world like a post-wwii college professor: navy blue blazer, red tie, white shirt, neat laced Oxfords, slicked-back short black hair. I always marveled that this super-famous radical provocateur-poet had adopted such a deceptive appearance. But was it deceptive? Not really, when we remember that back in his Columbia days Allen was always trying to impress Lionel Trilling, sending the famous professor poems and waiting for his approbation. And by the eighties, when his Beat credentials were no longer in question, Allen actually did become a college professor, teaching at the Naropa Institute, later Naropa University. His lectures on poetry and poetics are now available 
online at the Naropa website. This past week, I have been listening to these lectures and marveling at Allen’s interest in the minutiae of prosody. In  July 1987, for instance, there’s Allen, explaining to his class what a molossus is: a foot of three long syllables in a row used in Greek quantitative meter. His example is the following line from Pound’s Hugh Selwyn Mauberly:

   /         /       /                    /          /
Quick eyes gone under earth’s lid

 where the first three words constitute a molossus and the last two a spondee. But, Allen explains, a molossus is a term referring to length, not stress, and he proceeds to define long versus short syllables and to distinguish quantitative metrics from the stress prosody of  English. In Pound’s poetry, he argues, quantity and stress are in tension. Then Allen refers to Pound’s citation from Basil Bunting, “dichten=condensare,” and explains why “my grandmother’s glasses” is a much better phrase than the prolix “the glasses of my grandmother.” Get rid, he insists, “of the draggy extra bullshit.”

Pound was always, for Ginsberg,

the first poet to open up fresh new forms in America after 
Walt Whitman — certainly the greatest poet since Walt Whitman    ...    the man who in his supreme savant investigations 
of  vowels went back to the great musicians of Renaissance times to hear how they heard vowels and set them to music 
syllable by syllable.

Again and again, Allen pays homage to Old Ez, even though Pound knew nothing of Ginsberg’s own poetry.

But back to Orono. In the lounge over coffee or tea (no alcohol, no drugs), Allen read Pound’s “I Vecchi” (“They will come no more / The old men with beautiful manners”) against some extracts from Greek poetry, trying out various ways of reading a given line. He never let up: the intensity could be a bit overwhelming for the rest of us. And when we asked him what he had thought of this or that speaker at the conference, he would nod impatiently and say “fine,” only to return, as quickly as possible, to his own experiments with rhythm and meter. He wanted to include us all in his project but had little interest in our own work. His was, so to speak, a one-way street but it was certainly not a vacant or dull one.

The next time (sadly, the last time) I saw Allen was under very different circumstances. One Friday morning in the spring of 1996, I was doing my weekly marketing at Gelson’s in Pacific Palisades. Gelson’s is the very incarnation of Allen’s “A Supermarket in California”: “What peaches and what penumbras!” What “brilliant stacks of cans following you!” It’s a kind of food museum with all its gorgeous fruits and vegetables, its gleaming meat and fish displays, its cornucopias of exotic cheeses. I wandered down to the deli and took a number to wait my turn when I noticed that there, standing on the sidelines, was a hunched up little figure who looked familiar. It was Allen, waiting for Stanley Grinstein (the well-known L.A. art patron who, with his wife Elyse, had founded the Gemini G.E.L. Gallery) to finish his shopping.

Los Angeles is a cruel town when it comes to accolades for the famous. No one in Gelson’s so much as glanced over at Allen. I went up to give him a hug, and we strolled up and down the aisles, chatting. He was spending a few days with the Grinsteins while hoping 
to make a video with Dennis Hopper. He looked tired, unwell, and somewhat distracted, and I thought of his description of “Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys.” But even eyeing grocery boys now seemed too much of an effort. In front of the bakery counter, Stanley Grinstein found us, and Allen said goodbye and toodled off into the sunlight. No one in Gelson’s had recognized him. I never saw him again.

Since that time, whenever I reread “Howl” or “Sunflower Sutra” or “America,” I see, beneath the bravado of all that ‘”yacketayakking screaming vomiting whispering facts and memories,” the scholarly, learned, almost pedantic “rose rabbi,” who parsed Pound’s lines to anyone who would listen, and who, in the California supermarket, which he had, so many years earlier, turned into an icon, stood isolate in the crowd, dreaming, no doubt, of that “lost America of  love” that had always escaped him.

Originally Published: July 1st, 2013

One of the foremost critics of contemporary, modern, and avant-garde poetry and poetics now writing in English, Marjorie Perloff has published numerous books, articles, and essays on issues ranging from digital poetics to philosophy, and her work has been translated into many languages, including Portuguese, Spanish, Slovenian, German, and French....

Appeared in Poetry Magazine This Appears In
  1. July 12, 2013

    Lovely, poignant reminiscence well sung. Thx.

  2. July 13, 2013
     Baltimore Poet

    Agree. Supermarket in Calif. has struck me since high school. How well
    MP remembers it and how on point it remains.

  3. July 21, 2013
     Tim McGrath

    Like Pound and Whitman, Ginsberg excelled at gaseous
    effusions. For all his obsession with prosody, Ginsberg
    wrote loose, baggy poems--poems that clearly aspire to
    the flat condition of prose. In the Boulder Tapes, he
    tried to undermine the past by arguing that
    conversational rhythms always intrude on an iamb's
    steady beat. But a steady beat is as integral to poetry
    as it is to music. Which is why his verse is the
    inverse of verse, and why he never wrote anything like
    "Le Monocle de Mon Oncle."

  4. July 26, 2013
     George Balanchine

    Very nice article, but for what it's worth, I never really liked his poetry, nor Kerouac's writing for that matter, nor the Beats in general. Kerouac's best book was Dharma Bums, but even that barely hangs together.
    I wonder what Ginzberg made of Stevens, if he thought of him at all.

    George Balanchine

  5. July 27, 2013
     Paul Nelson

    What a sweet memory of AG. Yeah, he had some baggy poems, but Howl
    changed the poetry and cultural landscape in this country and the world.
    The Beats resonate with so many people, so many young people as well,
    you can't diminish their contribution to literature here, and increasingly,
    around the world. Changing a culture through art is a difficult thing. Few
    USAmerican literary movements can say that, but the Beats can and Allen
    was the main man. Thank you Marjorie. This piece says a lot about your
    own consciousness. Viva Ginsberg!

  6. August 1, 2013
     Ken Goring

    I agree, Paul, Ginberg is a giant. And I can understand not liking him (or Whitman or Pound) but he did have rhythm. I recently saw a film about Ken Kesey, and in it he says he'd thought of Ginsberg as a kind of folk singer. He'd bought the record of Howl and played it all the time, much more than he'd ever read it. The beat is kept by the emphatic repetition of "who".

  7. August 4, 2013
     Tim McGrath

    "Le Monocle" is a miracle, and almost pure iambic:

    The mules the angles ride come slowly down
    The blazing passes from beyond the sun.

    Ginsberg was an anarchist, intent on destroying the old
    order, which meant replacing poetry with prose. Yes, he
    forced a cultural moment, but so did the guy who
    assassinated Archduke Ferdinand.

  8. August 24, 2013
     Tim McGrath

    "Le Monocle" seems to have been written by no human
    agency. The author is anonymous and, except for a few
    glimpses, almost completely invisible. Like Milton, he
    invokes the muse and then gets out of her way.

    Ginsberg, by comparison, is all too present in his
    poems. At least half a charlatan, he spewed his
    personality all over the page. And technically, as the
    Boulder Tapes show, he didn't understand the difference
    between tempo, beat, and rhythm.