Still Crazy But One of the Greatest Poets of All-Time

Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997)–the top Beat poet (Howl) and a close personal friend of both Jack Kerouac and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

I first got to know his work through a book TV Baby Poems and a rare LP (Ginsbergs at ICA). He was hard to miss in 1967 as the cultural scene opened up big-time. He had been around and established by that point, but was basically unknown to my generation which was limitedly schooled with the likes of the more structured Frost, Keats, and Wordsworth.

Ginsberg paid his dues. He was openly homosexual, a druggie, an academic, a Beat poet, and at times a mental patient. He was raised on Whitman, Williams, and Blake, and favored the long-lined stanzas of Whitman which suited his babbling, free-flowing style. Nothing about his work was conventional; it is best described as ecstatic and penetratingly honest. No one wrote as wildly, freely, and wonderfully as the uninhibited Ginsberg.

It was hard for me not be impressed to the extent of bringing the LP into my 1971 American Lit class at U of A where most were unimpressed by his raving cosmicness and enthusiastic outrageousness. I eventually caught up with Blake in depth in 1969 and Whitman in 1976, which helped me to understand and appreciate Ginsberg even more.

My closest Edmonton poet-friend was Dean McKenzie who himself had been long influenced by Ginsberg’s writings; he wrote a number of long story poems which had the same fire as Ginsberg’s poems. I eventually read one of these, “Bus Lust”, at Dean’s Celebration of Life with an impromptu jazz combo led by Andrew Glover. What an honour!

I’ve written a few Ginsberg-styled pieces myself (they fit the subject matter) and performed them several times in my time with Spiritus (Glen Kirkland & Dean) from 1990 to 2002.

Looking back, I would have to say that Ginsberg gave me the courage to tackle unconventional and freer subject matter. He has been that influential on my work.
Above is pictured Ginsberg’s Collected Poems, a good place as any to enter the liberated world and greatness of Ginsberg. And The Lion for Real (mine a 1989 cassette production by the ever-edgy Hal Willmer). I listened in amazement to it last night; it is still hugely powerful, wild, and profoundly poetic with Willmer’s production and the weird arrangements featuring the oddest-ever collection of musicians. It is still delightfully mind-blowing and the listener’s consciousness is massively extended and stretched. This may be the best work that Ginsberg ever did putting word to music, and that’s saying a lot because he worked with the great Philip Glass.

So how great is Ginsberg? I think he’s right up there with Blake, Whitman (for sure) and can stand comfortably in the company of other great classic poets like Eliot, Frost, Dickinson, Dylan, and Keats.


One of my Ginsberg-styled poems:

The poem speaks itself in one variation



unread & unknown i refuse to be still. see i am the spirit of all times, a pulse that insists, a balanced thunder, my voice defying dark. i happen, muse. they want me like this: nice straight lines of experience & rhymes like ice. at best i can offer a plunge, a candor, ellipsis & perhaps a great thaw. (permanence?) first rate & yet naught i persist despite our many gulfs & fuses. my lightning dances on your taut skin, alters neurons in a sifting process–makes new laws `~**#~\: there is hope for us yet. ‘oh god, i’m alive’ thinks the poem in an unguarded moment to no one reader over & over again, confessing to verities not wholly uncommon. mute & inert i speak of great symptoms: my shape, a condition, my form, a necessity. remaindered value to the contrary, my range jangles your vision with its absences & undertones: a tingling wholeness of words exorcized slowly, a rehearsal for other poems listening. this terrible ordeal of verse conversant with possibility, convergent with failure. i sound, notwithstanding the subterfuges of critic, & school, an ever-pregnant imagination. in use, a heresy of truth. ‘And so amazed i find myself alive’ thinks the poem, no longer safely stowed but conscious of its self. the details of its life fully felt & formed in a wash of blood & image–organic now, advancing toward an appointed equilibrium of flesh & spirit. juggernaut of mind & hand moving confident now in faith, this page, like a meaning finally read.



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