Penguin Modern 1 and 2 – Voices from the Sixties #mlk


I have to confess that I was a little hesitant and nervous about opening the lovely box set of Penguin Modern books kindly gifted to me by the three Offspring for Mother’s Day; it’s so pretty and I wanted to keep it nice etc etc etc (silly, I know, because books are to be read). However, on 4th April, as well as being Youngest Child’s birthday, it was also the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jnr. I started the day watching a recording of the ceremony from last November at Newcastle University where a statue of Dr. King was unveiled; and realised that as book 1 of the Penguin Modern set was his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, I’d better get the set open and read the book that day. Which I did, and it seemed totally appropriate to do so. Also fascinating to note that Newcastle University had awarded Dr. King an honorary degree back in 1967 – how forward-thinking of them!

Moderns 1 and 2 are both by authors who would be considered to be connected with the 1960s (although of course Allen Ginsberg had been writing for much longer; but he will forever be connected with the sixties counterculture, particularly in this country because of the Royal Albert Hall poetry reading). And in many ways these are disparate authors, although reading them alongside each other was actually quite thought-provoking. So, a few of my thoughts on the first two books in the box.

Penguin Modern 1 – Letter from Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King, Jr.

That’s Birmingham, Alabama, of course, and not the one in our Midlands… King was arrested while protesting against the treatment of his people in Birmingham and wrote this letter in the margins of a newspaper whilst confined.

I’ve never read King before; but obviously I know him as a great and articulate orator, and this is carried over into his writing. He’s clear, concise, reasoned yet impassioned. The “Letter” takes to task fellow religious leaders who argued against taking direct action in the streets to end segregation; and King states quite clearly how the legal route has failed, how his people are sick of the racial prejudice and sick of being treated so badly. Frankly, it’s amazing that they had waited so long before taking direct action and I couldn’t help feeling anger at the so-called religious men who failed to take action.

… I am compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town.

King is an erudite commentator and it actually terrifies me to realise how recently this kind of racial segregation was in place, and also how easy it still is to stir up distrust amongst peoples of different race and creed. If we could all only take on board Dr. King’s messages, maybe the world would be a better place.

The book also comes with an extract from one of Dr. King’s sermons, “The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life”.

Penguin Modern 2 – Television Was a Baby Crawling Toward That Deathchamber by Allen Ginsberg

In what would seem like a complete contrast, Penguin Modern 2 is a book of poetry, taken from Allen Ginsberg’s collected works. Ginsberg was one of the original Beats – friend (and sometimes lover) of Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady – but he was the one who survived, continuing to write up until his death in 1997. I first discovered his work in the late 1970s when I began to explore the work of the Beats; in those days it was virtually impossible to buy copies of his books in provincial England, but my absolutely marvellous local library actually had a copy of his masterwork “Howl” so I was able to read him.

PM2 doesn’t contain “Howl” of course, but a selection of his well-know works features. The collection opens with “Pull My Daisy”, co-authored with Kerouac and Cassady, and from the film of that name (shhhh – have a little search online and you can find the film for a wonderful slice of Beat history.) Other well-known titles are “A Supermarket in California”, “America” and of course the title poem.

America why are your libraries full of tears?

On the surface, you might not connect King and Ginsberg. But both were fighting for freedoms – King on racial grounds, Ginsberg on sexual (and actually possibly any ground going, as he hated restrictions of any kind). Ginsberg was against prejudice of all sorts and in fact he and King actually met a couple of times.

Ginsberg’s verses are free-form, explorative, often profane, stimulating and it was a wonderful experience to re-encounter them after a looooong time. Nowadays, I find reading the Beats more problematic than I did in my youth; I’m less tolerant of the undercurrent of misogyny and feel more critical of their treatment of women. But when their prose and poetry soars I can forget that for a while and relish their words and their searches for freedom.


So Penguin Moderns 1 and 2 turn out to be an inspired pairing. These two voices from the past still have so much to say to us and I wouldn’t have necessarily chosen to pick up either of these authors at the moment without the prompting of the box – but I’m really glad I did. Looking through the names of the authors featured in the series, I think I’m going to have many joys to come – for which thanks! to the three Offspring! :))))


Penguin Modern Poets 5 – Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg


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.

Ferlinghetti with a copy of Ginsberg's "Howl"

Ferlinghetti with a copy of Ginsberg’s “Howl”

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
He smiled
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
He laughed
He laughed
And it made me so happy I said:
‘Absolve it all, kiss me !’
‘No no no no !’ he said
            and hurried away.

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