Allen Ginsberg,
Collected Poems: 1947-1980
(Harper & Row, 1984)

In June 1994, I was lucky enough to hear Allen Ginsberg read in the basement of a church in the Village (Greenwich, New York City). It was a lovely evening, with the standard "wine and cheese" refreshments of a poetry reading, and Ginsberg's voice filling the room, both during his reading and as he chatted with students, fellow teachers from Brooklyn College, and poetry aficionados. I was so impressed by the reading that I bought the book, and got it signed after the reading.

Ginsberg's poetry ranges from the lyrical to the brutal, painting pictures with words in an intense and fiery manner. His emotions come through in every line.

Despite the popular image of modern poetry having no form, Ginsberg uses form when it suits him. Sonnets abound, and even an ode appears in this work. In some cases, his poetry echoes Blake and Whitman, reminding me of The Songs of Innocence and Experience and Song of Myself. Yet, where he chooses, the be-bop free form images spout onto the page, easily, and with a huge dollop of humor.

These collected works are arranged chronologically, beginning with "Empty Mirror: Gates of Wrath" (1947-1952). Scenes of New York City and his life in the city are his prime subject matter, though love, that poetry standby, is not neglected. "The Green Automobile" (1953-54), includes what I feel is especially enjoyable -- musical notation in "Green Valentine Blues."

The move to San Francisco is chronicled loosely in the section "Howl, Before and After: San Francisco Bay Area" (1955-56). As "Howl" is arguably his most famous work, this is a chance for those who did not read this work in a modern poetry class to see what all the fuss is about. It is an exciting poem, an explosion of emotion and vitality, though not the only reason to read this collection.

The sections after "Howl" are a chronology in poetry, following Ginsberg in his travels and experiences. "Reality Sandwiches: Europe! Europe!" (1957-1957) and "Kaddish and Related Poems" (1959-1960) include some of his poems titled after his drug experiences. More of his travels and experiences in other countries are poetically described in the sections "Planet News: To Europe and Asia" (1961-1963) and "King of May: America to Europe" (1963-65). "The Fall of America" (1965-1971) returns him to the USA where the height of the '60s experience is happening. His "Elegies to Neal Cassady" are part of this section.

The last two sections are "Mind Breaths All Over The Place" (1972-1977) and "Plutonian Ode" (1977-1980), which leads us from the Psychedelic '60s to the Reagan '80s. After reading samples from each section, I decided that I need to read a biography of Ginsberg along with the poems, in order to know, not just infer from his writing and what was happening in his life at the time. I enjoyed reading these poems, best taken a section at a time as opposed to the entire book at once. This taste of an era I never knew gave me a desire for more.

[ by Beth Derochea ]

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