Dancing to the Music of Time On Allen Ginsberg’s Birthday
By Stuart Mitchner
Each day’s paper more violent . . . Indochina to Minneapolis … History’s faster than thought …
—Allen Ginsberg, from The Fall of America
The news isn’t just breaking, it’s running wild, raging, incendiary, out of control, so how do you keep up when you’re aiming toward the middle of a week that may exceed your darkest expectations? What do you do when the ever-shifting, on-the-scene, at-the-moment image of a floodlit Washington Monument looming in the foreground of an apparent river of fire headed for the White House evokes dystopian TV like The Man In the High Castle, or David Simon’s The Plot Against America, where Philip Roth’s boyhood Newark neighborhood seethes with a Kristallnacht menace as chilling as the West Baltimore phantasmagoria of The Wire.
What can you do but try to keep pace, making a bid for vicarious relevance by tying your weekly hovercraft to art and adversity in the belief that inspired acting, poetry, music is always timely, always worthy of interest. That’s been the motive force driving these pieces week after week, year after year. Along comes Hurricane Irene, a flooded basement, the power out, so you listen to Chopin, read The Winter’s Tale by candlelight, and write about it. When terrorists shoot up the Bataclan in Paris, you connect by way of Henry Miller, Rimbaud, and the Velvet Underground. When youth is under fire at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, you write about the night in 1963 the Beatles played there before swooning audiences of young girls who could have been the mothers or grandmothers of the victims. When terrorists savage Brussels, it opens the way for a column on MI-5. A terrorist attack on Westminster Bridge inspires a flashback to Wordsworth and his spirited sister Dorothy.
Sunday night it’s breaking news gone wild in D.C.’s City of Dreadful Night where the White House of Usher has gone dark and the only refuge is down the rabbit hole into the third season finale of Ozark, high on the super reality of art and outrage, your heart full watching a brother-sister tragedy and the transformative performance of Laura Linney.
Time Zone of the Bards
For the past two weeks I’ve been living in the time zone of the Bards — Bob Dylan, born May 24, Walt Whitman May 31, Allen Ginsberg today, June 3. What better company to keep during the chaos of coronavirus and the president’s rabble-rousing? Ever since he weaponized the word “liberate” and weeks before the flames began spreading from Minneapolis to other cities of the night, I’ve been reading The Fall of America (City Lights 1972), Ginsberg’s “long poem of these States,” which could be a rough draft of the 2020’s ongoing national narrative. Writing on the move during a series of cross-country road trips listening to the radio, reading the papers, he’s sending pre-social-media Instagrams he calls “newspaper headline radio brain auto poesy, … headlights flashing on the road” through urban ruin, political unrest, and military industrial carnage, and even, would you believe, “Princeton in Eternity.”
Whitman and Dylan are both upfront in The Fall of America, which is dedicated to Whitman, above a page-long prose epigraph from Democratic Vistas (1871) celebrating “the personal and passionate attachment of man to man,” which “seems to promise … the most substantial hope and safety of the future of these States.” And Dylan’s on the opening page, his “voice on airways, mass machine-made folk song of one soul.” Meanwhile Dylan’s link to Whitman, hinted at in the second verse of “Dignity” (“Wise man lookin’ in a blade of grass”), comes clearly into view in the title of the new song, “I Contain Multitudes,” and the new album Rough and Rowdy Ways.
Liberated in Minneapolis
Dylan connects Ginsberg with the spring of his songwriting life in Chronicles: Volume One, when “at last I was in Minneapolis, where I felt liberated and gone,” in search of “what I read about in On the Road — looking for the great city, looking for the speed, the sound of it, looking for what Allen Ginsberg had called the ‘hydrogen jukebox world.’ “
Writing about Martin Scorsese’s Rolling Thunder Review: A Bob Dylan Story last June, I mentioned how Ginsberg “haunts” the film, making you realize how much he’s missed and how much you wish he was around to help see us through this bizarre chapter in America’s story. And here he is, haunting the beyond bizarre carnage of the national moment in “Ecologue,” one of the longest poems in The Fall of America, with its bucolic upstate New York setting of chicken houses, horses, pigs, “crickets zinging networks dewy meadows,” where “Each day’s paper more violent — War outright shameless bombs / Indochina to Minneapolis,” a “knot in my belly to read between the lines, / lies, beatings in jail — Short breath on the couch — desolation at dawn in bed,” brooding “over Cities’ suffering millions” 200 miles “away down the oilslicked, germ-Chemicaled / Hudson River.”
Eerie to read these charged lines before and after the coronovirus days of cataclysmic riot set off by a Minneapolis African American man’s dying words, “I can’t breathe….”
In the same poem from Fall 1970, “Police control Cities, not Mayors or philosophers.”
“Faster Than Thought”
Here he is again, hailing cabs out of time:
I will haunt these States
with beard bald head
eyes staring out plane window,
hair hanging in Greyhound bus midnight
leaning over taxicab seat to admonish
an angry cursing driver
hand lifted to calm his outraged vehicle
that I pass with the Green Light of common law.”
Imagine a ghostly Ginsberg hand raised to admonish an angry crowd in Lafayette Park Monday night. In “D.C. Mobilization,” the poem preceding “Ecologue,” he sends this timeless Instagram: “Washington’s Monument pyramided high granite clouds over a soul mass, children screaming in their brains on quiet grass …. Assembled before White House filled with mustached Germans …. Presidential cranium case spying through binoculars / from the Paranoia Smog Factory’s East Wing.”
That was 50 years ago, May 9, 1970. But there’s room for it on June 3, 2020, between the lines, in the margins. From March of the same year, in “Friday the Thirteenth”: “How long this Addict government support our oil-burner matter-habit / shooting gasoline electric speed before the blue light blast & eternal Police-roar Mankind’s utter bust?”
In Rolling Thunder, Bob Dylan says “Ginsberg’s a good dancer.” He’d have to be when “History’s faster than thought, poetry obsolete in tiny decades tho maybe slow tunes dance eternal ….”
Say it again: “slow tunes dance eternal.” Close your eyes and you can almost hear Ginsberg squeezing his concertina, chanting those four words, in and out of time.
Ginsberg turns in his job application at the end of “Memory Gardens,” his poem on Jack Kerouac’s death, dated October 22-29 in The Fall of America:
Well, while I’m here I’ll
do the work — And what’s the work?
To ease the pain of living.
Everything else, drunken dumbshow.”
Reading in Princeton
In December 1969 Ginsberg was in Princeton for a reading by Gary Snyder, most likely under “the round electric lamps” of Alexander Hall. While you could say he’s “covering” the Snyder event, like a poet in the guise of a journalist “doing the work,” he’s sensing all sides, still tuned to Kerouac’s death and the fate he had in common with another writer, a Princeton legend. So he pictures the audience as one “Fitzgerald himself’d weep to see / student faces celestial, longhaired angelic Beings planet-doomed to look thru too many human eyes.” Then the vision: “Princeton in eternity … Old poets half a century ago … alcohol trembling in immortal eyes, Fitzgerald & Kerouac weeping, on earth once —”
With his Twin City roots, Fitzgerald joins another of the old poets of Princeton “alcohol trembling in immortal eyes,” John Berryman, the poet-scholar who lived and taught and wrote in Princeton from 1943 into the fifties and jumped to his death from the Washington Avenue bridge in Minneapolis, January 7, 1972, the year The Fall of America was published.