Allen Ginsberg and the '60s Movement

— Steve Bloom

The Poetry and Politics of Allen Ginsberg
By Eliot Katz
Beatdom Books, 2016, 329 pages, $28 paperback.

ELIOT KATZ IS a political poet, presently resident in New Jersey, who was a student and close associate of the iconic poet Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) during the last period of Ginsberg’s life. This newly-published book is a consideration of three interconnected questions: 1) the relationship of poetry and art to social realities, specifically to political struggles; 2) an appreciation (literary critique) of Ginsberg’s poetry, in particular its role in the development of 20th century English literature, and 3) an appreciation of Ginsberg himself — his life and his place as both a literary and political figure.

Katz’s central thesis is that Ginsberg’s poetry, most importantly some of his best-known work published in Howl and Other Poems, was among the factors that helped not only to generate a counter-culture during the 1960s — an anti-establishment subculture associated with hallucinogenic drugs, art inspired by psychedelic phenomena, anti-authoritarianism and sexual freedom, summed up in the “hippie” movement of the time — but also to shape the radical political movement that grew up alongside and connected to that counterculture.

Katz rejects both the reductionist art-as-direct-propaganda school, which dominates within certain left political traditions, but also the elitist alternative which, in its most extreme forms, can portray art as some kind of purely abstract realm that is inherently degraded as soon as it attempts to relate to or comment on social realities. This is most significant for me, as a question I have been grappling with since I decided to become a practicing-poet-with-a-social-conscience more than a decade ago.

Katz himself cites the “New Critics” who came to predominate in literary circles during the middle of the 20th century:

“Howl also helped create new progressive energies in the poetry world by challenging the New Critics’ more impersonal and politically conservative aesthetics...

“By the 1950s international modernism had lost much of its oppositional energy. As Raymond Williams puts it, ’Modernism quickly lost its anti-bourgeois stance, and achieved comfortable integration into the new international capitalism’...

“As Breslin writes, ’By the mid-fifties, Ransom’s Criticism, Inc. had arrived.’ The result was the privileging of: ’Literary works, registering but not resolving contradictions’ literary works that had ’become self-reflexive autonomous objects — not expressions of human emotion or criticisms of life’ ... [T. S.] Eliot’s prosaic declarations — which, as a major poet, he was smart enough to ignore in many of his own best poems — were funneled by Ransom’s Criticism, Inc. into a call for studying the methods by which poetry, according to Ransom, ‘secures “aesthetic distance” and removes itself from history.’” (42-43)

There is of course a long and respected tradition of political poetry, of all persuasions from Ezra Pound to Pablo Neruda, which even includes the work of T. S. Eliot. But today, at least in the United States of America, this kind of poetic expression is generally discouraged in MFA programs and establishment literary journals. At the very least we can say that it struggles to be heard. Katz quotes from contemporary poets such as Adrienne Rich and others who have been working to counter this anti-political trend.

Exploring Ginsberg’s Impact

Katz explores techniques Ginsberg used to create a meaningful and effective political poetry. His first chapter ”Introduction: Challenging the Boundaries of Poetry and Politics” is one of the most intelligent and nuanced pieces I have read on this constellation of questions. I am less convinced by Katz’s view that Ginsberg’s poetry actually had a substantial impact on the shape of politics during the 1960s (and subsequently).

Katz offers testimony from activists who cite reading Ginsberg as a decisive moment in the development of their social consciousness, and therefore of their political activism. Even in these cases, however, their own life experiences had already primed each of these individuals to transform their personal consciousness when they first came across Ginsberg’s words.

Thinking about Ginsberg’s relationship to the gay liberation movement is also instructive from this point of view. As a prominent, out-of-the-closet gay man from the 1950s who referred openly and sympathetically to homosexuality in his poetry, Ginsberg tried hard to affect public consciousness about the issue. He was a participant in the events sparked by the Stonewall uprising in 1969.

Yet Ginsberg’s voice in the 1950s, strong as it was, could not actually launch the gay liberation movement — it took Stonewall to achieve this.

Undoubtedly Ginsberg played a personal role in developing a particular ideological approach to antiwar organizing during the 1960s and also, through both his poetry and his activism, helping to stimulate the consciousness of his contemporaries. He was one significant influence among many.

Still, a reader who is unfamiliar with the development of protests during the Vietnam war could come away from Katz’s account with the impression that the Yippies were a decisive and defining organization. In fact their influence was relatively marginal.

The Yippies were the most colorful wing of the movement by far, and the one most closely aligned with the kind of political philosophy that Ginsberg urged and practiced. But while the Yippies are mentioned repeatedly by Katz, the antiwar coalitions that were mainly responsible for mobilizing millions in the streets are completely missing from his narrative.

But they were also far from the most influential in terms of shaping the really big demonstrations that were, I would say, one decisive element in ending the war.

Another group that features prominently in Katz’s account of the 1960s is Students for a Democratic Society. He cites passages from SDS’s foundational Port Huron Statement (1962), along with other comments by prominent individuals, attempting to demonstrate that the political consciousness which animated the 1960s movement was fundamentally an effort to recapture “American values” such as “freedom” and “democracy” that had been severely undermined during the cold war of the 1950s.

He then notes a parallel between this consciousness and the political sentiment underlying Ginsberg’s most important and best known poem Howl:

“Pointing out the chasms that remain between American reality and American ideals one hundred years after Walt Whitman’s ‘Song of Myself,’ the poet of ‘Howl’ declares that the country that presumes to nurture individuality and informed political citizenship actually obliterates these.” (74)

The 1960s Movements

Throughout the book Katz writes as if this was the prevailing ideology of the 1960s left. But that is true only up to a point. It does, in fact, describe the consciousness of a significant layer of the ’60s radicalization — especially in its early years and among the relatively privileged white youth who dominated in SDS.

But there was also another wing of the same radicalization engaged in a more critical assessment of U.S. empire, and which resonated with many who were drawn into radical activity, including Native peoples, Blacks, Chicanos, Puerto Ricans and others.

Thus a wing of the ’60s movement began to develop genuinely revolutionary conclusions, focused on an understanding that identifying “American values” with “freedom” and “democracy” was essentially a fraud. The Vietnam war was not some aberration, the result of some temporary madness or deviation from what was properly “American.”

Also missing from Katz’s picture of the period is the GI antiwar movement, in particular the resistance to waging the war among soldiers who were actually serving in Vietnam. This mutiny among the troops, which the Pentagon was helpless to combat, was another decisive factor in forcing an end to the war.

Ideologically the GI movement was dominated by the rise in Black consciousness, influenced heavily by individuals like Malcolm X and groups like the Black Panther Party.

How many of those active in the GI movement were even aware of Ginsberg’s poetry? Of course many Black and other activists would have been familiar with the poetry of Amiri Baraka, who was in turn influenced by Ginsberg. So there is a link of poetry to politics, but not quite the direct link that Katz is suggesting.

The history of the 1960s is not just an incidental backdrop for Katz’s book. It is one of his main subjects, to which he therefore devotes a considerable number of pages. On a certain level it seems reasonable for Katz to prioritize a discussion of that portion of the movement on which Ginsberg did in fact have some significant influence.

Still it does seem important, if we are going to offer an honest picture of what was happening in the USA during this time — and if we are going to assess Ginsberg’s influence on what was happening — to consider that influence in a broader social and political context.

Katz points out that Ginsberg’s personal philosophy was more critical of the U.S. empire than many. He notes in particular how two poems (Howl and America) “simultaneously [decry] the U.S. for betraying its own liberal democratic ideals ... and also [criticize] those ideals from a more radical stance committed to recovering leftist history from prevailing cultural erasure.” (95-96)

Ginsberg’s respect for American radical traditions, from the IWW to the Trotskyist movement, is clearly revealed in these two poems as well as others. Despite this, it remains true that Ginsberg’s personal critique never came close to the depth that the genuinely revolutionary wing of the ’60s movement achieved. As Katz also points out, this is partly because of Ginsberg’s attraction to alternative forms of individual consciousness, including both drugs and Buddhism.

Ginsberg’s personal conception of political struggle was focused, throughout his life, on what might be most effective in changing the consciousness of those in power (political theater in particular), rather than overthrowing that political power. Among those in the movement who remained intent on “recapturing” what they considered to be “true American values,” there was a layer of activists who were drawn to the kind of political theater that Ginsberg advocated.

Today I would even argue that those of us who were part of the revolutionary wing of the movement in the 1960s could have been more open to Ginsberg’s political theater. But Ginsberg himself consistently counterpoised his own advocacy of political theater and individual transformation to the mass actions that were actually instrumental in forcing a U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam. His never was a dominant philosophy or organizing strategy, even within that wing of the movement which was of a less-than-revolutionary mindset.

Appreciating Ginsberg’s Art

At the same time Katz suggests, quite correctly, that whatever our personal political outlook might be, or our assessment of Ginsberg’s philosophy, his poetry is open to an appreciation by those with a wide variety of left perspectives:

“In my view, the theoretical need to utilize different criteria for judging aesthetics and politics allows for the possibility that the core progressive energies of an artist might move beyond even that artist’s own political or ideological understanding.” (124)

Ginsberg’s poetry can be appreciated by those with a broad range of views, not just those who agree with his personal politics, precisely because he does what any good poet (or other artist) ought to do in order to delve into social questions at all. He tells us an artistic truth about that social reality, or at least makes the best attempt he can to do so. He works hard to paint an honest and deeply human picture.

Even though it’s improbable given the realities of the publishing world, I think it would be very helpful to readers if someone published a companion volume which contained all of the many poems referenced by Katz. This reader had enough familiarity, in particular with poems like Howl and Kaddish, to judge Katz’s specific assessments — and I took the time to look up some of the poems he discusses that I was not yet familiar with.

Much of Ginsberg’s poetry is posted on one website or another, and his collected poems are available in a single volume. But somehow a slimmer book, corresponding directly to the poetry that Katz considers, would have been a nice reference in reading Eliot Katz’s assessment of Ginsberg’s life and work.

September-October 2016, ATC 184