Tuesday, September 27, 2016

"Wait Till I'm Dead:" five decades of uncollected Ginsberg poetry

"Yesterday I was writing in Heaven or of Heaven ..."
Allen Ginsberg, Lima Peru, May 26, 1960
The poet has been in Heaven for 19 years now, sitting daily practice with Blake in his garden and asking if Rimbaud would like to join them for a while. Here on earth the inexhaustible supply of Ginsberg manuscripts and stray inscriptions has a new collection, with an apt title from Allen's own wit: you want more poems? Wait till I'm dead.
And so here it is. Wait Till I'm Dead, edited by longtime Ginsberg associate Bill Morgan, is a generous scoop of "uncollected poems" that appeared in small press magazines, book dedications, the Columbia University Jester, even "For School Kids in New Jersey" [" ... Don't grow up like me, you never get enough sleep!"]. The scope is broad - 50 years' worth of scribbled ideas, finished thoughts, 3 a.m. revelations, and political pokes is enough to empty out a couple of file cabinet drawers - but there's enough of interest to carry through, to keep the reader amused and turning the page.
Because Ginsberg's observational line is so sharp, much of the poetry is fact-heavy, dropping timely references known, and sometimes as obscure, as a newspaper headline from four decades ago. The book is helped along by Morgan's specific notes to many of the poems explaining context or historical reference. As the decades recede it is good to have a brief refresher on names, events, and influences mentioned fleetingly in the texts.
The real treasure is revealed in the continuing lives of the beats he includes in these poems: all the major players from five decades make appearances, flashing in and out of Ginsberg's orbit but never far away. There is a short meditation with Snyder, a New York collaboration with Ron Padgett, and a line-by-line composition with Kenneth Koch, "Popeye and William Blake Fight to the Death:"
Popeye sat upon his chair
Reading William Blake
Blake got up and screamed out there
"This seaman is a fake"....
Perhaps the most necessary reading in this collection is at the very end. "Last Conversation With Carl or In Memoriam" is a 1993 dialog poem, the last meeting between Allen and Carl Solomon. Solomon, a central figure in Howl, was dying of lung cancer in the VA hospital in the Bronx, and Ginsberg was gently interested in some big questions, asked in the poet's best reportorial style.
Allen: What do you think death is?
Carl: Death is a fading away --
which I'd like to go easily
like my mother ... imitate
my mother ... this last
year of grace has been
excessive -- I just want
to get it over with --
... Do you feel I did the wrong thing
putting the spotlight on you
by using your name in "Howl"?
Carl: You gave me my first
outlet in Neurotica -- for
some recognition ... I guess
it went to my head ...
Too bad if I was foolish,
it won't matter much much
longer. ...

After Solomon's death, Ginsberg recounts meeting him in a dream and asks two final questions:

"What's it like in the afterworld?"

"It's just like in the mental hospital.
You get along if you follow the rules."

"What are the rules?"

"The first rule is: remember you're dead.
The second rule is: Act like you're dead."

For those who know most of Ginsberg's personal and literary history, Wait Till I'm Dead is another file of interesting facts to sift through, some not inconsequential poetry ("New York to San Fran" is a nice plane ride with Ginsberg as seatmate) and even more evidence that Allen never, ever, threw anything out. And then he put the date on every scrap for his biographers. Such a nice boy.

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