Time flies, as the saying goes, and I find that the older I get, the quicker it does! I can’t believe how long it is since I posted about one of the Penguin Modern Poets titles – but when I did realise, whilst talking with my friend J. in May, I decided I needed to get started on these books again! And the next volume, number 5, is one I’ve owned for decades as it features three poets that I’ve read before – Corso, Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg.
These three (yet again!) male poets were part of the Beat Generation, as it’s known; and when I first read them that movement wasn’t part of history but still within recent memory, with tentacles stretching through the 1960s counterculture and into the 1970s when I discovered them. The three were also well known to each other, and Ferlinghetti of course is the man behind the famous City Lights bookstore in San Francisco, host to many a Beat reading. So we’re dealing here with a group of poets who should be expected to fit together, coming from a common movement if you like.
First up is Gregory Corso (March 26, 1930 – January 17, 2001) one of the youngest of the original Beat ‘inner circle’ and of Italian heritage. Reading his work I was immediately struck with a difficultly I would face with this book: I know a number of the poems, and some quite well, so it’s not going to be a ‘clean’ reading of them! The first thing that hits you with Beat poetry is the lack of traditional structure; the poems can take any form the poet wants, from a rhyming scheme to completely blank verse, almost prose. I actually found this quite refreshing, because it lets you appreciate the simple beauty of the words without being too distracted by the structure. Having said that, I think Corso is an uneven poet; some of his poems are quite vivid and moving, others I didn’t relate to at all.
Next up, Lawrence Ferlinghetti (born March 24, 1919), and again I recognised several of the poems from previous readings. Ferlinghetti is perhaps slightly more structured than Corso, but shares similar concerns; the mess the world (and America!) is in; love and relationships; the stupidities of human behaviour. My favourite Ferlinghetti poem, “Sometime during Eternity”, which takes a skewed look at the life of Jesus, is featured in the book.
And finally, Allen Ginsberg (June 3, 1926 – April 5, 1997); best known, still I expect, for his epic poem “Howl” (published in 1956), that work is of course too long to be featured here. However, there are several fine shorter works like “A Supermarket in California” and “Sunflower Sutra” which showcase his talents. Again, rhyming is not particularly that important here, but there is structure and Ginsberg’s verses often read more like songs than poems – there’s a musical quality that runs through his verse, so it isn’t surprising that he also made recordings of songs and the like, which have just been released on a CD set, and also appeared on a Clash LP! I love Ginsberg’s writing – I first read “Howl” in my teens – so this was like revisiting an old friend.
The collection was published in 1963, by which time the Beats were becoming fairly established and well-known. Ginsberg, in particular, would become a visual presence in the counterculture of the 1960s, notably with the 1966 Royal Albert Hall poetry reading at which all three poets featured here appeared (along with another of my favourites, Adrian Mitchell, who pretty much stole the show).
So are the Beats still relevant? I think so, because when you strip away the hip language and the maybe slightly dated attitudes to some things (women, for example!), their concerns were good ones – for the planet, the human race and the search to find a better way to live than just the numbing nine-to-five. As for a favourite, well I’d like to pick a Ginsberg, but these are not necessarily the best of his work – so I’ll share a favourite Corso instead. I really enjoyed re-encountering the Beat poets – maybe it’s time to dig out some more of their work! 🙂
Second Night In New York City After Three Years
I was happy I was bubbly drunk
The street was dark
I waved to a young policeman
I went up to him and like a flood of gold
Told him all about my prison youth
About how noble and great some convicts were
And about how I had just returned from Europe
Which wasn’t half as enlightening as prison
And he listened attentively I told no lie
Everything was truth and humor
And it made me so happy I said:
‘Absolve it all, kiss me !’
‘No no no no !’ he said
and hurried away.