Review: Allen Ginsberg’s “Collected Poems”

Ginsberg's poetry displays linguistic inventiveness.

The best of Ginsberg’s poetry — much of it collected in this edition — displays linguistic inventiveness.

By Robert Israel

It was enough to bring a smile to a dead poet’s lips.

Almost 10 years after his death in 1997, and twenty years after Cambridge-based photographer Elsa Dorfman took a nude Polaroid photo of Allan Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky, the (now defunct) Boston Phoenix published a review of his posthumously published Collected Poems 1947-1997 (HarperCollins, NY) that included the nude photo prominently displayed on the page. The two men stand with ebullient smiles, arms around one another. The Dorfman photo is reminiscent of another depiction of a famous couple, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, who also posed nude (front and back) for the album Two Virgins.

Nothing distasteful: Ginsberg and Orlovsky were two men with nothing, literally, to hide.

Yet the published image so offended the folks at Shaw’s, they would not allow the Phoenix to be distributed in their markets. When asked her reaction to the censorship by the Boston Globe, Elsa Dorfman deemed it ridiculous, adding that the poisons Shaw’s sells in its supermarkets are a lot more harmful than a photo of two long ago dead naked men.

At that point, the Phoenix and the Globe should have jointly issued one of Ginsberg’s best known poems, “A supermarket in California,” in a broadside for distribution for free at Shaw’s, and every other supermarket for that matter. A wonderful poem, it descries America’s capitalistic values, while, comically, offering up homage to Whitman with a healthy serving of humor: “I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys.”

Not everyone took to Allan Ginsberg during his lifetime. The publication of Collected Poems 1947-1997, which is almost as thick as a phone book, won’t change that estimation, although it should. Ginsberg is a major American poet, a poet of lyricism and depth, a disciple of the Walt Whitman school of rhapsody, and a linguistic pioneer.

Ginsberg was a Beat poet, but he was a poet who pursued a beat, and that was to embrace humanity in all its incarnations.

I first encountered Ginsberg in person when he came to the University of Rhode Island, where I was a graduate student in the late 1970s. Bearded, bespectacled, portly, he arrived with an entourage, sat on stage at Edwards auditorium, and, with a squeeze box in hand, began chanting his “Don’t smoke” mantra. That poem is included in this collection, too. In the refrain, he admonishes readers to find oral satisfaction sexually with one another, rather than to succumb to the evils of smoking. It was meant to be taken seriously, but it was also meant to be a goof, too.

I found it strange then, and re-reading the poem/song today I still find it perplexing, that Ginsberg would become such a purist and urge a ban on smoking when, in the 1960s, he was a champion for all the intoxicating pollutants one could ingest. In a City Lights Journal article about his trip to India in the early 1960s (not included in this collection), he was rhapsodic about smoking ganja with sadhus, or holy men, he encountered along the way in Calcutta.

If pressed on this contradictory stance, he might intone Walt Whitman, who once wrote, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain the multitudes.” One of Ginsberg’s failings, repeated throughout his life, was his craving for celebrity. He captured more than his share of headlines for protests, including sitting along the railroad tracks protesting the shipment of plutonium in Colorado.

Indeed, as a disciple of Whitman, Ginsberg did contain the multitudes. For those who tuned in the PBS television special, No Direction Home, about Bob Dylan, directed by Martin Scorsese, you will remember the director including numerous interviews with Ginsberg from the 1960s and 1970s when he traveled with Dylan’s entourage around the world. Looking less like the huggable bear I witnessed in the 1970s, Ginsberg in that film was wearing a suit and a tie, pens in his pocket, reflecting, almost wistfully, on his travels in the limelight. Indeed, there are several poems in this collection, written in the twilight of his years that are sad in tone, depressive, leaving the reader with the feeling that he viewed his life as misspent.


Included in this collection is Howl (which has been published in a separate volume, in facsimile), his best known poem, which indeed personified Whitman’s call to “unlock the doors,” by creating original and inspiring works of art. Ginsberg was at the zenith of his talent when he was writing this poem in the 1950s, and its publication, which met with censorship and later triumph, remains one of the most astonishing the American publishing history today.

Ginsberg, who was born in 1926, lived long enough to ride out many national and global trends, contributing his poetic voice to countless causes. That he wrote as many poems and songs and chants and poetic manifestos as he did is astonishing. Furthermore, he carried the banner for many groups, pioneering the concept of equal rights for all. This collection chronicles his triumphs and failures and cements his rightful place in the canon of American literature.

Robert Israel can be reached at An earlier version of this review appeared in Edge Media Network, Boston.


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