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.

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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! :))))

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