Eight Techniques for Creating Memorable Political Poems:
An Excerpt from Eliot Katz’s The Poetry and Politics of Allen Ginsberg (Beatdom Books, 2016)
In any library with a decent-sized poetry collection, one can find plenty of books that look at the intricacies of English-language poetry’s traditional forms and meters and the varied ways in which well-known poets through the centuries have used those traditional elements. Although he wrote most of his best work in free verse, Allen Ginsberg knew these traditional forms and meters as well as most American poets of his time. After all, Ginsberg had grown up as the son of a traditional lyric poet, Louis Ginsberg, who used to recite poems aloud in their home. One can easily hear Allen’s innate grasp of traditional English-language poetry meter and rhyme by reading his blues or ballads, like “Airplane Blues” or “September on Jessore Road,” or by listening to the moving way in which he put Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience to music.
On a personal note, I was always impressed with how many poems Allen Ginsberg seemed to be able to recite by heart. When he would ask me if I knew a poem by Shelley or Milton, he would often recite a dozen or so lines as a way of describing more specifically which poem he was talking about. During my studies with Ginsberg at Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado in 1980, where I took his class on William Blake and where I did a one-month poetry apprenticeship with him, Ginsberg was passing out to students a photocopied sheet which he had compiled and labeled, “A Synopsis of Metrical Systems.” This sheet listed the commonly studied English-language poetry meters, based on stress patterns over two or three syllables (iambus, trochee, anapest), as well as less commonly used metrical variations based on stress patterns over four and five syllables (proceleusmaticus, choriambus, anaclastic). Even when Ginsberg was setting aside many of the traditional notions of poetic meter in his own work, it was always clear that he was choosing to utilize some traditional formal tools, like assonance and alliteration in “Howl,” and that he had most of the remaining notions of poetic meter and form in his poetic toolbox for those moments when he wanted to pick them up.
In this volume, I will take an occasional look at the way Ginsberg used some of the more traditionally discussed poetic techniques, but I want to look mainly at poetic tools and strategies in a different way, one that I think will better help illuminate some of the various ways in which Ginsberg made his political explorations effectively poetic. It is possible to categorize such strategies in any number of ways, but below I would like to list eight general tools and techniques that, throughout Ginsberg’s best work and throughout, I think, much of the best political poetry of our times, we can find used to heighten the poetic quality and resonance of social observations and ideas:
1) Clear images / empirical perceptions / realist narrative.
Ginsberg had learned from William Carlos Williams, among others, that the clear and interesting presentation of empirical detail was a basic tool of poetry. In “Spring and All,” Williams had written “so much depends / upon / a red wheel / barrow / glazed with rain / water / beside the white / chickens.” Ginsberg used to tell his poetry students to write “close to the nose”—to describe clearly and accurately what was in front of them so that readers could see through the eyes of the poet. In this kind of poetry, it was through a poet’s objectively portrayed observations that readers would be able to tell what a poet was subjectively seeing and thinking. Often citing Blake’s phrase “minute particulars,” Ginsberg urged students to notice what was unique about their observation: I remember him saying that if one was looking at a tree, for instance, one did not need to describe the entire tree, just what was odd about this one’s leaves or branches—and the reader would then be able to picture the entire tree. One sees Ginsberg’s use of imagery like this in “Sunflower Sutra,” where he notes “the gray Sunflower poised against the sunset, crackly bleak and dusty with the smut and smog and smoke of olden locomotives in its eye.”
When I sent Ginsberg one of my earliest poems, one of the poets that he suggested I read was Charles Reznikoff, one of the most well-known of the group of poets known as the “Objectivists.” Ginsberg appreciated the way that Reznikoff was able to craft emotionally wrought poems by simply presenting realist pictures or narratives, like this one from Reznikoff’s long poem, “Holocaust”:
An S.S. commander saw him
and asked where he had taken the wood,
and the old man answered from a house that had been torn down.
But the commander drew his pistol,
put it against the old man’s throat
and shot him.
Whether in “Kaddish,” where Ginsberg uses moving, realist narrative to describe heartrending moments with his mentally ill mother, or in a later poem like “Junk Mail” where, by simply listing the contents of his daily mail Ginsberg provides readers with a sense of the day’s most urgent worldly events and social causes, Ginsberg had learned that “minute particulars” could effectively serve to ground even the most imaginative of works.
2) Surrealism / Modernism.
The Paterson doctor-poet, William Carlos Williams, appreciated for, among other things, furthering the use of American diction in U. S. poetry, was far more versed in international art movements than is sometimes acknowledged, including I think by Ginsberg, who seemed mostly interested in the doctor’s empirical verses. After all, when Williams offered his image of the red wheelbarrow cited above, it was in the middle of a long poem, “Spring and All,” which juxtaposed neatly condensed empirical perceptions with longer sections of playful, disjunctive imagery influenced by modernist art styles like cubism and surrealism.
Ginsberg, too, had studied these international modernist movements thoroughly, both in the realm of visual art and in the poetry worlds of French surrealism and Russian futurism. In “Free Union,” the French poet Andre Breton had written a poem for his wife that uses a surrealistic stream-of- consciousness style:
My wife with eyes full of tears
With her eyes of violet panoply magnetic needle
My wife with savannah eyes
My wife with eyes of water to drink in jail
Breton had theorized literary surrealism as a way to help bring together the evolving studies of psychoanalysis and leftist politics, and one can note here that Breton’s associative imagery includes an imagined cure for prison thirst. One can also note the similarities between this section of Breton’s “Free Union” and section IV of “Kaddish” where Ginsberg uses similar surrealistic free association imagery in relation to his mother’s eyes.
The Russian futurist Vladimir Mayakovsky also showed ways in which unreal imagery could be used to highlight idealistic desires. In “An Extraordinary Adventure which Befell Vladimir Mayakovky in a Summer Cottage,” the poet calls the sun out of the sky to have tea with him. After a slap on the back from the poet, the sun announces, “You and I, / my comrade, are quite a pair!” In the end, Mayakovsky knows the sun well enough to proclaim on the sun’s behalf: “Always to shine… / and to hell with everything else! / This is my motto— / and the sun’s!”
In the 1986 annotated edition of Howl, published with photocopies of original drafts of the poem, and notes and correspondences related to the poem and its reception, Ginsberg included selections of poets that had influenced his poetry at the time of “Howl.” Among the poets included were Mayakovsky and the French poets Apollinaire and Artaud. From French surrealism and Russian futurism, Ginsberg learned techniques for adding electric-like energy to his work, an excitement that could engage readers with its dynamic rhythms and that could also imply utopian desires, along the lines of Ernst Bloch’s “anticipatory illuminations,” described earlier in this volume, through its use of imagery that does not yet exist in the actual world.
Mythification is somewhat related to surrealism in that it can move a poem beyond empirically based narrative. By mythifying current events or interpretations of history, a poet can impart an aura of timelessness to current events or ideas. The most famous instance of this in Ginsberg’s poems is his use of “Moloch” in part II of “Howl.” Ginsberg’s use of this poetic tool drew on William Blake’s invention of the character “Urizen” in Blake’s long prophetic works. Ginsberg acknowledged that it was from Blake that he learned the poetic technique of taking “political details,” and “magnif[ying] roles into cosmo-demonic figures.”
The impulse to mythify current events can also be seen in another of the most famous English-language poems of the 20th century, William Butler Yeats’s “Easter 1916.” In that poem Yeats memorialized the leaders of Ireland’s Easter Rebellion through such poetic tactics as associating one (Patrick Pearse) with the mythical figure of Pegasus: “This man had kept a school / And rode our wingèd horse.” The end of Yeats’s poem serves to provide a sense of eternal poetic relevance and a timeless, living existence to the named activists who in real life had already been put to death:
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Whereever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
It is this same strategy of mythification that Yeats employs when, in “The Second Coming,” after noting that the “best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity,” he asks: “what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?”
In a mirror strategy, Ginsberg often deconstructs false myths promoted by the mainstream media or government institutions. Ginsberg’s motive in these instances is to give readers a more accurate sense of history—or of the human values at stake in a given situation—than that which is being provided by establishment authorities. We can see this tool used frequently, for instance, in Ginsberg’s most well-known poem opposing the Vietnam War, “Wichita Vortex Sutra,” which is filled with shrewd and powerful historical perceptions that undermine the military and corporate media’s propaganda justifying that unwarranted war. While generals tried to convey a sense that they were supporting a popular South Vietnamese army, Ginsberg’s poem notes that even the CIA knew Ho Chi Minh would have easily won a democratic election if one had been held. While the media trivialized war casualty counts, Ginsberg humanized the victims by asking readers whether they have looked into the eyes of the dead.
This is the sort of historicization undertaken by Muriel Rukeyser when she went down to West Virgina and wrote her masterpiece long poem, “Book of the Dead,” which takes an in-depth and poetic look at an industrial accident in which 2,000 men died because Union Carbide had them dig through a silica tunnel without the proper protective masks. In that poem, Rukeyser presented verbatim quotes from Congressional hearings in which the government decided to let Union Carbide go legally unpunished. As a humanizing counterweight to those callous government hearings, Rukeyser also presented historical testimony from surviving spouses, as well as stunning lines of poetry intended to break through common corporate rationalizations for making decisions based more on profit-maximizing motives than on considerations of human health and well-being. Rukeyser’s poetic strategy of demythification is explicitly explained in her poem, “The Poem as Mask,” where she declares: “No more masks! No more mythologies!” Of course, a single poem can contain elements of both mythification and demythologization. In “The Poem as Mask,” once Rukeyser has announced “There is no mountain, there is no god,” she can then and seemingly only then assert that “the god lifts his hand, the fragments join in me with their own music” —that is, once Rukeyser announces that there is no external omniscient god, she can realize a new mystical idea of a divinity within. In a later chapter, I will look at the way Ginsberg’s “Wichita Vortex Sutra” uses similar strategies of both demystification and re-mythification to oppose the Vietnam war.
By intertwining highly personal themes with social issues and historical moments, Ginsberg heightens the emotional intensity of political matters by concretely demonstrating their impact on individual human beings. One sees this most readily and effectively in “Kaddish,” Ginsberg’s long elegy for his mother, Naomi, where his mother’s mental illness and his family’s interactions are so tied up with world affairs that moving descriptions of Naomi’s decline and Allen’s responses necessarily carry social implications.
Indeed, in many love poems—and also elegies—written for politically engaged persons, we see the emotional power of a poem carried partly by virtue of the connections made between the personal and political. In his beautiful poem, “In the Middle of This Century,” Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai describes a war-ravaged environment in which “The earth drinks people and their loves / like wine, in order to forget.” In such a turmoil-filled society, love seems stronger because of its seeming ability to exist in opposition to the pitilessness of the world: “Desert dust covered the table / we hadn’t eaten from. / But with my finger I wrote in it the letters of your name.” At the end of Amiri Baraka’s love poem, “Ballad Air & Fire,” he succinctly describes a connection between personal love and social activism: “what it was about, really. Life. / Loving someone, and struggling.”
Personalization can also embed political intentions within self-exploration, in that some personal struggles can be seen as attempts to assert subjective desires against an objectifying or dehumanizing culture, as when Ginsberg declares at the end of “America”: “America, I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.” In Judy Grahn’s 1973 epic poem, “A Woman Is Talking to Death,” the poet ends with a declaration that implies human subjectivity’s triumph over an oppressive culture:
wherever our meat hangs on our bones
for our own use
your pot is so empty
death, ho death
you shall be poor.
This is the assertion of human worth against a repressive society that Adrienne Rich implies when she ends her poem “North American Time” with the line “and I start to speak again,” and that Langston Hughes memorably declares when he says, “I, too, sing America.”
As far back as Ovid and Catullus, poets well understood that humor helps make the political medicine go down, and it helps engage readers or listeners in ideas they might not otherwise stop to consider. In poems like “America” and “Death to Van Gogh’s Ear,” Ginsberg helped re-introduce to poetry readers the realization that poetic humor could appear as an element in high-quality poetry and also that humor was not at all the opposite of seriousness of purpose. If one listens to the early live recording of Ginsberg reading “America” on Holy Soul Jelly Roll!, the audience laughter after many of the poem’s lines is stunning—and it is clear that mid-1950s audiences were not expecting such humor in poems. Yet, when Ginsberg asks America “When can I go into the supermarket and buy what I need with my good looks?”, it is clear that he is asking a comically phrased, but serious question about when the nation’s economic system will become more just. The humor helps turn the line into quality, memorable verse.
Ginsberg’s sense of poetic humor has clearly been one of his most lasting influences in the literary world. It influenced his immediate Beat Generation circle, as we can readily see in the inventive poems of Gregory Corso, whose poem “Marriage”—which begins, “Should I get married? Should I be good? / Astound the girl next door with my velvet suit and faustus hood?”—became an instant hit in literary circles and with anthology editors, and who continued to write brilliant, funny poems like “I Gave Away” and “The Whole Mess…Almost” throughout his career. Or look at some lines from Pedro Pietri’s poem, “Telephone Booth Number 905-1/2,” which has also become a classic example in some circles of a highly serious theme conveyed in comic style. After calling his employer to say that he will not be coming to work that day, his employer asks the poet if he is sick, to which the poet responds:
“No Sir” I replied:
I am feeling too good
to report to work today,
if I feel sick tomorrow
I will come in early
7) Extending or subverting previous poetic traditions in interesting ways.
In discussing the significance of William Blake lengthening John Milton’s poetic line and using free verse instead of Milton’s blank verse, Susan Wolfson notes that Milton had utilized blank verse in order to free poetry “from the troublesome and modern bondage of rhyming,” and that the more radical Blake subsequently “raised the stakes, launching a revolutionary poetics in Milton (1804) that outdid Milton, by expressing heroic contempt for any ‘tame high finisher of … paltry Rhymes; or paltry Harmonies’.” Ginsberg too realized that extending or altering poetic traditions could carry a social or political resonance. In “Howl,” for instance, Ginsberg utilizes long lines in the tradition of Blake and Whitman, but he makes his own lines even longer than these cherished predecessors’. As I will discuss further in the next chapter, these long lines carry the implication of an even more radical project of freeing self and society from restrictive boundaries.
In addition to long free-verse lines, Ginsberg also utilizes and, in some ways, extends a variety of other formal traditions—including American blues and jazz, Old Testament concepts and rhythms, pastoral poetry, war verse, modernist montage—in ways that resound politically and that will be discussed further throughout this book.
When Emily Dickinson was asked what constituted a great poem, she famously declared that she knew a poem was great when it made the top of her head feel like it was coming off. What Dickinson was getting at was the element of surprise, the element that—more than any other, I would argue—can make a poem feel aesthetically vital. That surprise can come in any number of ways—through thought-provoking insights, surprise phrasing, startling imagery, an unexpected way of looking at an event or object, an odd line break, novel wit or humor, an inventive sense of rhythm or form, or a provocative way of addressing previous poets and poetry traditions. When Adrienne Rich asks, as noted above, why much political poetry seems weak, I would answer because much of it seems rather flat and predictable, in both substance and language, just as does much psychological poetry. Importantly, the question of whether a poem offers surprise to the reader is relevant whether the poem is written in the style of Language Poetry or narrative poetry. As Ginsberg’s poetry evidenced, and as poets like Pope and Dryden well knew, even politically didactic poetry, so often disparaged by mainstream reviewers, can be effective when it is accompanied by surprising phrasing, imagery, or insight, so that as literary vehicles the poems are not merely reducible to their pedagogical effects, i.e. so that they are not merely “versified ideas” (Levertov).
The issue of surprise is, of course, a subjective one. What is new and surprising to one reader may not be to another. When we talk about poetry of extraordinary literary value, we are talking about poetry that will inspire surprise and wonder in a relatively large number of readers—or we think it would inspire that sense of wonder if a large number of readers were to see the work. Usually, though perhaps not always, the appearance of surprise will require that readers are already engaged with, and paying attention to, the text for other reasons in order to feel the surprise arrive. For that to happen, poets have to have a competent sense of the other items in a poet’s toolbox, including a sense of poetic rhythm that can maintain a reader’s attention or curiosity. When my friend Danny Shot first gave Allen Ginsberg a poem in 1976 after we saw him read at Rutgers University for the first time, Ginsberg sent Danny a postcard soon thereafter (in May 1976), which noted in part: “Another thing you gotta remember is each line should have some haiku or double joke or image or mad sound or Poetry in it, not be just flat prose.” In a poem like Ginsberg’s “Howl,” it is the inventive and endlessly surprising linguistic mix—nothing like “flat prose”—that has enabled the poem to continue sounding lively and relevant to so many successive generations. The surprise quality in Ginsberg’s poems is what Helen Vendler observes when she writes: “his mind roams widely, in unpredictable ways….One can’t widen consciousness in poetry by having it follow a programmed path.” (Part of Nature, 100-101).
Because most readers are not expecting so forceful a question, it is a sense of surprise that I believe hits so many readers when Langston Hughes asks at the end of “Harlem (A Dream Deferred)”: “Or does it explode?” It is also what so intrigues readers when first coming across the modernist anti-narrative style of Gertrude Stein: “Red flags the reason for pretty flags / And ribbons. / Ribbons of flags.” It is the jolt felt by readers at the first line of Mayakovsky’s “A Few Words about Myself”: “I love to watch children dying.” It is the way Pablo Neruda makes readers look at war and political repression in new ways through a cubist-style variation in line breaks at the end of “I’m Explaining a Few Things,” written in response to fascist violence during the Spanish Civil War:
Come and see the blood in the streets.
Come and see
the blood in the streets.
Come and see the blood
in the streets!
Surprise can also be created through the invention of words, as when Adrienne Rich titles a poem “Dreamwood,” conjoining the material world with the realm of fantasy via language, or when Yehuda Amichai entitles a poem “Wildpeace,” implying that he is calling for a peace arrived at through energetic activity by all parties, not the clichéd peace of “the wolf and the lamb.”(88)
Surprise can come in the form of a stunning line or two, like this one from Adrienne Rich, “beauty that won’t deny, is itself an eye” , or these two from Alicia Ostriker at the end of “The Volcano Sequence”: “sometimes the stories take you and fling you against a wall / sometimes you go right through the wall.” In Jayne Cortez’s “Tell Me,” the surprising imagery comes from one line to the next in the form of biting surrealism addressed to an overly militarized society: “Tell me that the plutonium sludge / in your corroded torso is all a dream / Tell me that your penis bone is not errupting / with the stench of dead ants.” At the end of Andy Clausen’s poem, “We Could,” Clausen writes a striking line that is simultaneously a protest against religious fundamentalism and the ultimate act of embracing a deeply human spirituality: “We lick the Jewel in the Lotus / till it is human / then / We eat God alive!” After 9/11, the Palestinian-American poet Suheir Hammad circulated a poem, “first writing since,” on the internet that surprised readers with its incisive, close-to-home mix of mourning and emotionally charged complaint: “one more person asks me if i knew the hijackers. / one more motherfucker ask me what navy my brother is in. / one more person assume no arabs or muslims were killed.” And, in the early days of the Bush administration’s unending, so-called “war on terror,” rapper Michael Franti noted in a popular song called “Bomb the World,” in a surprisingly compact couplet: “You can bomb the world to pieces / But you can’t bomb it into peace.”
In his poem, “Many Have Fallen,” Gregory Corso reminds readers that he once wrote a “frolicy poem called BOMB” in which he predicted that an atomic bomb would fall during his lifetime. He then notes later revelations that the U.S. tested nuclear explosions in the deserts of Utah, Nevada, and New Mexico in the 1950’s, and marched soldiers toward the blasts to observe the after-effects. In the poem’s last three lines, Corso strikingly asserts: “all survived / … until two decades later / when the dead finally died.” The last line is accurate in a realist sense in that soldiers died cancer-ridden deaths years after this nuclear testing, from radiation they had received at the time of the blasts, but it is the profound phrasing that makes my head, as a reader, metaphorically pop off, along the lines of Emily Dickenson’s notion of powerful poetry. When all of the elements are in place, including the element of surprise, there is a sense that a poem has magic. Denise Levertov urges political poets to remember “poetry’s roots in song, magic, and the high craft that makes itself felt as exhilarating beauty even when the content voices rage or utters a grim warning.”
Allen Ginsberg developed one of our time’s most important poetic voices through an inventive mix of poetic and thematic explorations, and a rather large supply of literary magic. The eight tools and techniques enumerated above are meant to be flexible, and are intended mainly to provide some new ways to talk about how Allen Ginsberg’s (and other writers’) political poems gain their literary vitality. In the following chapters, I will look closely at Ginsberg’s poems themselves to explore their internal dynamics and also to examine their external dynamics—how they engage perceptively and imaginatively in dialogue with the world around him. I will also take a look at the way Ginsberg moved in his own life to put his political ideas into activist practice.