“Indescribable Magnetism”: Allen Ginsberg, Edgar Allan Poe, and Walt Whitman

A lot has been said about Walt Whitman’s influence on Allen Ginsberg, but who would have thought that Whitman could perfectly capture the future characteristics of Ginsberg so eloquently in his depiction of Edgar Allan Poe? In “Edgar Poe’s Significance,” Walt Whitman rather severely—albeit somewhat compassionately—criticizes the life and work of Edgar Allan Poe, while simultaneously acknowledging Poe’s genius. Whitman lauds Poe’s verses for illustrating “an intense faculty for technical and abstract beauty,” but believes that Poe’s works “belong among the electric lights of imaginative literature, brilliant and dazzling, but with no heat.” Ouch. However, Whitman admits that he “wanted, and still want[s] for poetry, the clear sun shining, and fresh air blowing—the strength and power of health, not of delirium, even amid the stormiest passions,” something that it seems Poe is unable to provide. Recounting a dream he had, Whitman says he saw Poe on a schooner, “flying uncontroll’d with torn sails…apparently enjoying all the terror, the murk, and the dislocation of which he was the centre and the victim.”

A source of imaginative and stylistic inspiration, it is clear that the work of Edgar Allan Poe had a profound impact on Allen Ginsberg. Allusions to Poe show up again and again throughout Ginsberg’s body of work. Though not Gothic in a classical “villain-hero, ruined-castle sense,” Howl certainly explores some quintessentially Gothic themes like “death” and “decay”—in many senses of those words—often wavering on the brink of madness. Sounds a bit like Poe to me. In Howl, Ginsberg deems Poe as a source of inspiration for the “best minds of my generation.” But I noticed more of Poe’s stylistic influence in Ginsberg’s work, namely the invention of what Burton R. Pollin calls “neologisms.” Pollin cites some of Poe’s best neologisms including “tintinnabulation, scoriac, mystific, marginalia, maziness, elocutionize, graphicality,” and, as compounds, “all-engrossing, art-product, clique-ridden, death-purged, ivy-clad, one-idead, passion-free, rock-girt, time-eaten.” Quite a few of Ginsberg’s own neologisms can be found in his work, such as these gems in Howl: “angelheaded, Blake-light, purgatoried, teahead, mouth-wracked, Supercommunist, solitude-bench,” well, you get the idea. Manipulating and creating words and ideas like this is impressive, showcasing what Whitman saw in Poe as “an intense faculty for technical and abstract beauty.” Howl is certainly a poem in which Ginsberg does seem to channel Whitman’s idea of Poe “enjoying all the terror, the murk, and dislocation of which he was the centre and the victim.” In his essay, Whitman says that there is an “indescribable magnetism” in Poe’s poems, and I think the same can undoubtedly be said for Ginsberg’s Poeian echoes.

Works Cited
Pollin, Burton R. “Edgar Allan Poe as a major influence upon Allen Ginsberg.” Mississippi Quarterly 52.4 (1999): 535. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 6 Oct. 2010.

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1 Response to “Indescribable Magnetism”: Allen Ginsberg, Edgar Allan Poe, and Walt Whitman

  1. AVZ says:

    Great post, Katie — I never thought of that connection via neologisms. Very interesting, and I think you’re exactly right about Ginsberg channeling that image of Poe on his storm-tossed, insane ship of death.

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