Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Ginsberg, Allen (1926–1997)
Author:
Gutman, Huck
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Walt Whitman's enduring influence on American poetry can be seen in the work of Allen Ginsberg. The leading poet of the Beat generation of the 1950s, Ginsberg himself has testified to the importance of Whitman's prosody—his long, bardic free-verse line—in the discovery of his own poetic voice in "Howl" (1955). Whitman's explorations of open forms, in contrast to the orderly stanzas, received metrical patterns, and recurrent rhyme of much of the poetry of his day, provided Ginsberg with a model for his own poetic experiments.

Ginsberg's poetic practice in "Howl" draws upon Whitman's celebration of the American city in all its rich complexity. Ginsberg also follows Whitman's commitment to celebrating simultaneously what Whitman called the "simple separate person" and the "en-masse." Yet although Ginsberg sees Whitman as defining the role of the American poet as seer, revolutionary, and aesthetic rebel, the mid-twentieth-century poet's own poetic practice has been more critical of the shortcomings of American society than Whitman's was a century earlier.

Of particular importance to Ginsberg was his discovery, in Whitman, of a precursor poet with whose sexual openness and sexual orientation he could identify. His "A Supermarket in California" (1955) questions a materialistic world seemingly emptied of the soul which Whitman had insisted was concomitant with the body. The poem, imitating "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" by using direct address, calls on Whitman as the poet's "dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher." "Love Poem on a Theme by Whitman" (1978) emphasizes Whitman's openness to sexual love and imitates his voyeurist qualities as a way to "rise up from the bed replenished."

Bibliography

Cherkovski, Neeli. Whitman's Wild Children. Venice: Lapis, 1988.

Merrill, Thomas F. Allen Ginsberg. New York: Twayne, 1969.

Schumacher, Michael. Dharma Lion: A Critical Biography of Allen Ginsburg. New York: St. Martin's, 1992.


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