[Kaitlin M., Anna Kate, Kit]
Week 7 was the Week of Ginsberg—a presence so big he took up all of Thursday as well and booted Frank O’Hara to Week 8. For a poet billed on the syllabus as the “second coming of Whitman,” it seemed fitting.
We began Tuesday not with Ginsberg’s early work, but with a later poem called “I Love Old Whitman So.” First, we noted the poem’s consistency of tone. Peter felt that its “vision was more sustained throughout the poem” than in Ginsberg’s earlier, more manic work, and Charles commented on the “different Whitmans” that Ginsberg fittingly catalogs in the poem. We briefly compared Ginsberg’s portrayal of Whitman to that of Latin American poets like Neruda and Lorca, who also seem to regard Whitman as a kind of venerable old saint or bearded prophet. Recalling how Neruda’s early work could be read as quiet, if unintentional, love poems to Whitman himself, we noted how Ginsberg’s lyric is much more clearly unabashed love poem already in the title. Reading it in this way helps us remember to what extent Whitman wasn’t a mere poetic influence on others. He was the source of some more significant relationship: he was a lover—even if he was a lover often lost, often doubted, as poets find him find it increasingly difficult to sing his spirit in their own historical and political contexts. After all, thinking back to Neruda again, loving is so short and forgetting is so long.
Looking at the poem’s final lines—“inspired in middle age to chaunt Eternity in Manhattan / see the speckled snake and swelling orb earth vanish / after green seasons civil war and years of snow / white hair”—Marco noted a “post-apocalyptic” sense, while Charles noticed a sense of “shedding.” Professor VZ saw the final image final image as opening onto something else as well: the “snow / white hair” also indicates a kind of clearing, a blank page, a space of absence that is also a space of possibility. This sense again chimes in nicely with the theme Whitman’s influence: Whitman is absent, but it is up to future poets to address that absence and make that absence into some kind of new presence.
The ambivalence at the end of Ginsberg’s poem set the tone for the discussion that followed, which followed from the day’s quiz. In the previous ClassWrap’s “Looking Ahead” section, Professor VZ asked us to think about how each of Ginsberg’s poems fits into this core drama of crisis and recovery that has come up again and again in this class. After we chose one of Ginsberg’s poems (“A Supermarket,” “Sunflower Sutra,” or “America”), Professor VZ asked us to write about the nature and depth of the crisis in that poem, and to reflect upon how the poem’s response to this crisis achieves—or fail to achieve—recovery.
We began the post-quiz conversation by listening to Ginsberg read “Sunflower Sutra” on Penn Sound (Google it!). At first, we noted the relationship between Whitman’s lilacs and Ginsberg’s sunflower—both of which are symbols meant to enact a kind of recovery. Peter likened the sunflower to the human “potential of being,” and the locomotive in the poem to modern America’s pursuit of absolute power/control. Charles drew our attention to how Ginsberg “humanizes” the sunflower, describing it in pointedly (if bleak and damaged) human terms. Kit pointed out the use of ‘sutra’ as a reference to Eastern thought, fruitfully contrasting it with Eliot’s use of non-western sources that we studied earlier in the semester. Kaitlin felt that it was symbolically “naïve” and perhaps too “delicate,” though Dana countered that it was a “sturdy flower” signifying “resilience.” Ultimately, we thought it was a quintessential recovery poem in the vein of Whitman’s “This Compost” or “Ass I Ebb’d.” And yet there is something slightly absurd about the end of the poem as Ginsberg grips his Sunflower-Scepter and delivers his sermon to his soul. It’s a moving conclusion, but it seems to be trapped within the poem’s very specific illusion—something that made Trent suggestively describe the poem as somehow Quixotic in his blog post, “Tilting at Windmills.”
Having spent quite a while discussing Ginsberg’s “Sunflower Sutra,” and looking ahead to Thursday’s class, we quickly surveyed the delicate balance of crisis and recovery in “America” and “A Supermarket in California”—both of which seemed to offer much bleaker, crisis-heavy visions than the remarkable (if illusory) recovery in “Sunflower Sutra.”
At the end of class, in an effort to counter the sense that Ginsberg everywhere takes Whitman to the next level (Whitman amplified), Professor VZ read parts of Whitman’s expurgated “Respondez!” (written a century before “Howl”) as an example of Whitman’s overwhelming, and brilliant, madness, lest you think Ginsberg invented crazy.
We kicked off class on Thursday by listening to Ginsberg’s somber reading of “A Supermarket in California,” wherein he calls Whitman a “lonely old grubber” and asks of him, “Which way does your beard point tonight?” We were reminded of Dana’s blog post, which commented on the loneliness of “Supermarket,” and Peter observed that within the poem, despite its light touches, nothing is humorous. We noted in particularly the weight of the section where Ginsberg touches Whitman’s book, thinks of his supermarket odyssey, and feels “absurd”—a pointed especially moment when read against Whitman’s famous and confident assertion in “So Long” that “he who touches [Leaves of Grass] touches man.” Thinking of ways to link this conversation with the one from Tuesday, Justine made a fine distinction that for Ginsberg, Whitman is “not a solution, but an alternative.” This brought us back to how Ginsberg describes the sunflower in specifically formal terms: “all its beauty in its form… mad black formal sunflower.” The language of form here seemed to be a crucial self-reflective moment where Ginsberg addresses his poem as a poem, commenting on how we might value that “poetic” or “formal” space as a space of resilience, no matter how begrimed. In a similar way, the supermarket is an imaginary new space, not unlike the space of a poem. It offers an alternative, a different way of thinking and reflection, however “absurd” it seems to Ginsberg mid-way through the poem, and however far removed he feels from the “America of love” which now seems “lost.”
Turning to “Howl,” Professor VZ distributed a few quotes from the critic James Breslin to get us started, one of which read: “Ginsberg’s poem reaches, nervously and ardently, after rest from urban frenzy, a resolution the poet can only find in a vertical transcendence. Ginsberg’s departure from the end-of-the-line modernism was a dramatic but hardly a new one; it took the form of a return to those very romantic models and attitudes that modernism tried to shun.”
Peter disagreed, arguing that Ginsberg’s language was too full of concrete details of modern strain to be termed “romantic,” and that the critic mistook his passion for a Romantic tone. Marco, also noting the presence of a different kind of language, drew our attention to how “industrial diction is often juxtaposed with natural diction” (e.g. “starry dynamo). Dana thought the “Footnote to Howl” suggested a stronger relationship with Modernism than Romanticism, noting that, much like T. S. Eliot’s “Wasteland,” “Howl” “breaks down” and ends with Eastern-infused mantras. In many way, though, we granted that Ginsberg is a Romantic poet of the Postmodern era—call it neo-romanticism. He unabashedly, and without irony, embraces nature and transcendence and human connection even if he as often mourns their very real loss. Jared, for his part didn’t viewed the Romantics qualities of the poem not as an easy way out (as Breslin’s quotes came close to suggesting) but as Ginsberg’s rebuke of Modernism.
Moving in for a closer look at Part II of Howl (the Moloch section), we defined Moloch as a thing to which extreme or terrible sacrifices are made, a ubiquitous force of evil and destruction. Marco and others showed how Moloch stands in for modern civilization, but others drew our attention to the way Ginsberg identifies, however unwillingly, with Moloch. For instance, Moloch at times becomes inseparable from the soul or self near the end. There’s a heavy sense here in which we are all implicated in Moloch and cannot easily extract ourselves from those degrading forces. We are within Moloch, Ginsberg writes. When the discussion turned (again, thinking back to Breslin) to the impossibility of horizontal transcendence (engagement with concrete reality) in the face of Moloch and the resulting necessity of vertical transcendence, Josh wondered how one could posit that kind of vertical transcendence in a poem whose first part, at least, ends with people jumping out of buildings. There’s a sense in which even if Ginsberg does try to enact some kind of transcendence, the severe weight of the poem itself and all the trauma it catalogs finally grounds the poem, tempering any move to easy or specious “vertical” transcendence.
By the end of the class, we returned to this idea of the poem as an “alternative” space, noting that at the end of “Howl” and (arguably) “America,” we see a kind of escape or retreat—in “Howl” to his “cottage in the western night, in “America” to the open road. Professor VZ again suggested how this “escape” is not necessarily one of vertical transcendence, but one that mimics the space a poem provides—a “alternative” space at a remove where one might not be able to escape the world and its problems, but through which one can at least reflect on those problems.
Quote and Tell:
Poor dead flower? when did you forget you were a flower? when did you look at your skin and decide you were an impotent dirty old locomotive? the ghost of a locomotive? the specter and shade of a once powerful mad American locomotive?
You were never no locomotive, Sunflower, you were a sunflower!
And you Locomotive, you are a locomotive, forget me not!
So I grabbed up the skeleton thick sunflower and stuck it at my side like a scepter, and deliver my sermon to my soul, and Jack’s soul too, and anyone who’ll listen
The rhetorical questioning that Ginsberg uses in the beginning of this passage in “Sunflower Sutra” is designed to draw attention to both himself and the sunflower—and the separation o both from the industrial grime that it is rooted in. We as people have “forgotten” that we are essentially something natural and pure. Our attention has been so focused on our desires to expand and create newer and newer technologies it has disillusioned us into thinking that those inventions and desires are an important part of who we are. To further the distinction between the “Me” and the “Not-Me” (to borrow Emerson’s ideas about the internal soul and the external world from his book Nature) Ginsberg communicates directly with the locomotive—the big steaming force who has fueled America’s need for expansion. It is also interesting to notice the punning mention of forget-me-nots in that same line. Ginsberg seems even to grant the locomotive some shadow potential as a (former or future) flower. A piece of utopia there, perhaps.
Ginsberg’s tone in this section hints at the naivety of the “poor” sunflower. The sunflower is innocent—but not fragile. While innocent sunflower may be dying it is not drooping or slumped over—it is still straight and sturdy. Spiritually we may be corrupted by the industrial expansion of America, but our “true” selves are still resilient throughout it all. The Sunflower’s “innocence” survives into the realm of “experience” (to hint at the Sunflower’s source in Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience). In the last part of the passage, Ginsberg introduces increasingly religious language—“sermon,” “soul,” etc.— implying that this kind of self-realization enables spiritual transcendence.
Core Concepts: Tranquilized 50s & Poetic Schools
Before moving on to discuss Ginsberg other work, Professor VZ asked the class to list some of the political and social happenings/movements in the post-WWII era. We noted, among other things, the growing middle class and suburban development, the beginning of the Cold War, economic recovery in the U.S., the growing threat of atomic weapons, McCarthyism, censorship, a new knowledge of evil that stemmed from the Holocaust, and the general struggle between optimism and disenfranchisement in a pre-Civil Rights era. Rather than describe the era broadly as “postmodern”—a term that seems to confuse as much as it clarifies—Professor Vander Zee described the explosion of poetic schools that took sides during the so-called poetry wars: on the one side you have the counter-culture movements and schools such as the Beats, Black Mountain, San Francisco Renaissance, Black Arts, New York School, Deep Image, and so on; on the other, you have academic formalists, Southern Agrarians, and poets conforming to the New Critical aesthetic ideals of aesthetic autonomy and neatly contained, highly ironized lyrics. Whitman, needless to say, became a strong model for the era’s counter-cultural poetic practices.
Professor VZ explained the tension between different poetic schools by referring to Robert Lowell’s comparison between the “raw” and the “cooked” in his acceptance speech for the National Book Award in 1960. Lowell spoke of a “poetry that can be acclaimed” versus that which “can be studied,” and Professor VZ noted the era’s “anthology wars” where books were hurled back and forth instead of weapons. After the giants of modern poetry (Eliot, Pound, Moore, Stevens, Hughes, etc.) it seemed important to carve out distinct and new ground. That’s one explanation for the construction of all these different poetic communities.