Eliot Katz, The Poetry and Politics of Allen Ginsberg. Review by Anna Aublet

16046665._SX540_Eliot Katz, The Poetry and Politics of Allen Ginsberg (Beatdom Books, 2016) 320 pp.

Review by Anna Aublet

In The Poetry and Politics of Allen Ginsberg, Eliot Katz undertakes an important challenge: Allen Ginsberg has variously been depicted as a counter-cultural leader, an eccentric Buddhist, a symbol for the LGBT movement and it is sometimes difficult to understand how those various strands interlock and find themselves woven into his poetics. Katz thus attempts to make sense of the political poetry of Ginsberg in his poems (not only the most obvious “Wichita Vortex Sutra”), as well as his poetical politics when organizing marches and sit-ins. This second aspect is probably the most shrewdly observed by Katz who seems to have a deep and thorough understanding of Ginsberg’s political strategies and successfully emphasizes the common role of the body in the poet’s theatrics during political rallies and during poetic performances such as the famous reading of “Howl” at the Six Gallery in 1955. Katz also effectively contends that Ginsberg’s long line should not only be observed as a continuation of Whitmanian blank verse but also as a way to put into poetic practice his political credo and setting himself free from social boundaries. For Katz, the long line is a formal actualization on the page of Ginsberg’s continuous search for freedom: Ginsberg’s quest for poetic emancipation is intertwined with a clear political subjectivity that translates into his verse. The lyrical “I” is the manifestation of a political subject as well.[1]

When reading Katz’s book, it is important to keep in mind that the author is a poet and activist and an acquaintance of Ginsberg’s and I do believe he intended to write as such in spite of a tendency to be more academic. I would like to argue here that this is what initially impeded my reading. The book fails at being a scholarly academic essay but is a very successful testimony and a testament to Ginsberg’s on-going relevance.

The book opens on a somewhat odd comparison between Ginsberg’s “Howl” and T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (which the author consistently spells in a single word throughout the book) to emphasize the shock wave that the Beat poem represented for an entire generation. Where Pound’s Cantos or Williams’ Paterson seem more relevant than Eliot in the context of Ginsberg’s poetry and the Beats in general and where Leaves of Grass is often cited as a point of reference for Howl, the author does not make his comparison any clearer throughout the book and this recurring allusion to Eliot somehow obstructs the argument. Katz is nevertheless very convincing in his brief yet clear analysis of the Williams-Ginsberg (Pater-Son) relationship.

The other point of contention relates to Katz’s mention of the pastoral. Indeed, he very well shows how a poem like “Sunflower Sutra” dwells on the mode of the pastoral but I think this argument, which ideally threads together politics and poetics, deserved much more and might have helped problematize and conceptualize the larger case. There is no such thing as the concept of “machine-in-the-landscape” in Leo Marx’s article “Pastoralism in America” which is an addendum to his previous ground-breaking book The Machine in the Garden (1964), a concept that feeds on biblical imagery. The machine in the garden and the end of an ideal pastoral America is an old trope. A striking instance of this concept in American literature can be found in Hawthorne’s notes, as cited by Marx. The novelist depicts a peaceful evening sitting in the woods and taking notes on the sounds and natural objects surrounding him: “He is describing a state of being in which there is no tension either within the self or between the self and its environment.”[2] This peaceful state of consciousness is suddenly disrupted by the shrieks of the locomotive, a symbol for the madding crowd of the city. This process of intrusion by the machine in the prelapsarian garden is mimicked by Ginsberg in many instances, especially in a poem like “Garden State” which in itself becomes the ironic name of a devastated New Jersey.

Katz nonetheless deals with some very interesting and untapped aspects of Ginsberg’s poetry. Too often seen as a sometimes over-dramatic poet, Ginsberg was also a comic poet. This is what Katz calls “poetic humor,” a concept which tightens his emphasis on the body and the performance on stage and allows for a more distanced and critical perspective on Ginsberg’s poetry.

Overall, Katz achieves a good synthesis of Ginsberg’s political and philosophical views. He overrules the categories Ginsberg is often put in: he is not a communist or an anarchist or a democrat, he transcends those categories and synthesizes them. Ginsberg is each and every one of those because, as Katz argues, he is an actor of political poetics, and his poetry is what William Carlos Williams called “a field of action.” The Poetry and Politics of Allen Ginsberg successfully shows how the very hybridity of Ginsberg’s poetry somehow mirrors his own politics and progressive vision of society and the author does not try to smooth down the asperities of a complex poetic work.

[1] On the topic of poetics and politics, see Jacques Rancière, “Transports de la Liberté,” in La Politique des Poètes, ed. Jacques Rancière (Paris : Albin Michel, 1992), 87-129.

[2] Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden : technology and the pastoral ideal in America (New York : Oxford University Press, 2000), 13.