Studying Ginsberg

If you know me at all, you’ll know how much I love Allen Ginsberg’s poetry. As I wrote in an essay once, the day I read “Howl” I was head over heels in love with the language of a man who captures the simultaneous exuberance and insecurity and exultation and insanity of youthfulness. The man who foreshadowed the counterculture through his poems of the mid-’50s and who did so with such beautiful words.

I’m discovering Ginsberg again this year, because I’m picking up a little queer theory as I go along, and I’ve started rereading a lot of the poems and seeing stuff I never saw. Taking my Gender and Sexuality in Modern America class, and reading all of Chauncey’s Gay New York, has given me a much wider understanding, too, of the world Ginsberg was living in—it’s relatable, for sure, but you can’t just assume that his experience would have been like someone in today’s minority sexuality communities. It was a difficult time to be gay, and yet the communities were there, and they were supportive—and all this comes through in the poetry, as he both praises his many loves from Neal Cassady to the boy he sees walking by on a street in Paterson, and wrestles with his inner turmoil, feeling as if he should get married (to a woman) and have children.

And so I’m sitting here, it’s 2am, I’m rereading the poems he wrote in San Francisco in the mid-’50s, the ones around the time of “Howl”—the best period of his output, in my opinion. And I’m filling in the gaps, looking up Whitman allusions, just now tracking down a Catullus allusion, looking at the Latin, trying to see connections. And I’m wondering why, exactly, I’m doing this; why I made a pilgrimage to Paterson last month, why I keep chasing Allen Ginsberg. First of all, he’s just a dead writer. Just like any other dead writer. How many dead writers have I ever read, who weren’t the least bit special? And second of all, I’m going to study history, not literature. I agonized through an essay on Milton today, hating every sentence I spit out about the literary techniques Milton uses, and trying desperately to relate it all to British history where at least I’m on solid ground. I don’t want to close-read Ginsberg. I just want to understand him. I want to pick up on all the allusions (and the liberal arts education is helping; I totally bet Ginsberg wrote an essay on Milton too, when he was a Columbia English major) and more than that I want to understand what Ginsberg was feeling. I want to know why he was writing the things he was writing, and that does fall into the remit of history—understanding the culture he lived in is absolutely necessary, because writing reacts to the times and the circumstances of the writer’s life. Doesn’t it?

So can one study literature as history? Should one? Is that what I’m doing, as I wade through the poems? I’m not sure. Probably someone could tell me; probably someone has written a dissertation on this stuff, and the answers to all my questions are in some library’s off-campus warehouse. (I discharge dissertations every day to be sent off to Princeton’s warehouse at my library job.) But after writing two essays about Ginsberg this school year, after growing my collection of Ginsberg books, after reading Whitman and Blake and Kerouac and now, apparently, Catullus in order to understand Ginsberg, I’m starting to wonder. Someone once told me that in order to make it as an academic, I need to find a set of texts that I’m so passionate about I could spend the rest of my life with. Is this it? Is this my set of texts? Is it more than some adolescent flirtation, some phase that every teenager passes through when the counterculture seems swoon-worthy? And if it really is something that I could study and study and never tire of (and if it hasn’t been written on overmuch, which I’m sure it has), how do I do this? Is there a place for studying literature as history? Is there a place for me in the world of history, a place where I can do this without literary theory?

In truth, it’s certainly a little early to say—I’m a college freshman, FFS. I think I just kind of want to be reassured that I’m not wasting my time, that there is some redeeming value to reading so much Ginsberg, and to taking his writing so seriously. People tend to dismiss Ginsberg as tacky, as not a very good poet. I want to know that I’m not wasting my time and my cultural pretensions to be so passionate about a man who so perfectly reflected his time and his culture—and singlehandedly altered them as well.

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