Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Edward Sanders' The Poetry and Life of Allen Ginsberg (Book review) by John Yohe

The Poetry and Life of Allen Ginsberg: A Narrative Poem by Edward Sanders
Reviewed by John Yohe

This book is exactly what the title claims: one long biographical poem about Allen Ginsberg. Instead of paragraphs, Edward Sanders uses stanzas, lines, fragments, random indentations, excerpts from Ginsberg’s letters and poems, and even official government documents, like one issued by the Department of Justice in 1965 calling Ginsberg “potentially dangerous”! The result is surprisingly readable, in part from Sanders’ choice of indenting some lines to create space on the page (versus, for example, making the text look like Paradise Lost, with one thick column of text running on for pages and pages). Sander’s style, the touches of humor and playfulness, also help. It’s obvious Sanders had some fun in writing this.

Sanders is a poet, journalist, and sometimes teacher. He was a friend of Ginsberg’s, and published some of Ginsberg’s earlier poems in an underground New York journal during the 60s, famous still, if only for its name: Fuck You / A Magazine of the Arts. Sanders was also part of the (what some would call satirical and others not) band The Fugs, with whom Ginsberg performed on occasion.

The poem/biography is organized around ‘Parts,’ each centering on an significant creative block of time in Ginsberg’s life, with the Parts subdivided, mostly, into important months or years. At the beginning of some Parts, Sanders adopts a pseudo-Elizabethan style, briefly reminding readers what has happened to “The Bard” in the previous Part. Not really necessary, especially since the Parts are short enough, and his style of writing is so smooth, that many parts can be read in one sitting, but they are humorous:

We left our history of the great bard Allen Ginsberg
in the summer of 1978 when
he was arrested at Rocky Flats
then returned to be arrested again
the same day

blocking the railcars of plutonium
coming in to build the triggers of doom

Sanders doesn’t claim to be writing an unbiased biography, and his language is very informal. At times he refers to Ginsberg with the more melodramatic “The Bard,” but other times Sanders uses his personal nicknames for him: “Ginszap,” or simply, “the ‘Zap.” Nor does he claim to be writing an authoritative text, referring readers to other texts, including the two official Ginsberg biographies, for further details, if curious. And, he dispenses explaining the more well-known people in Ginsberg’s tribe, taking as a given that readers already know who Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and the Beats in general are, though he does devote time talking about Ginsberg’s more-than-friends relationship with Neal Cassady, for example. But Sanders shows how much The Beats, and generations of poets after them, owe to Ginsberg’s generosity and support, making the case that without him encouraging editors and college administrators (Ginsberg helped found Naropa) to publish and provide teaching jobs for his friends, many would not have been so successful. Ginsberg was the social hub of most poetry going on in the United States during the sixties and seventies, and he is largely responsible for it’s popularity at this time, in part because, Sanders argues, Ginsberg’s idea of poetry was entwined with his social/political activism.

Some of the most interesting sections of the book/poem are when Sanders takes readers into Ginsberg’s writing process, showing how certain poems, like “Kaddish” and “Wichita Vortex Sutra,” formed, giving background on what was going on in Ginsberg’s life at the time, what he was thinking about, and when/where he began writing them. He confirms, contrary to Ginsberg legend of ‘first thought best thought,’ that Ginsberg did indeed revise, though unfortunately doesn’t elaborate.

One (minor) weak point of the book is the repetition. Some lines repeat information, sometimes almost word for word, as if Sanders had assembled smaller parts together over time and didn’t quite smooth them together. Not a big deal, but noticeable, and one wonders if other interesting snippets of information about Ginsberg’s life could have been included instead. Also less interesting is Sanders’ discussion of Ginsberg’s attempts at singing/songwriting. Sanders is a fan of that part of Ginsberg’s work and definitely seems to be arguing for it to be (re)considered, but readers may want to check out videos of Sanders’ own experiments in music on YouTube before rushing off to find old recordings from either poet.

Regardless, what comes through in the text is Sanders love and respect for Ginsberg, as a friend, mentor and poet. It’s an amazing tribute, Ginsberg would have been proud. As an experiment in genre-crossing, what Sanders calls “Investigative Poetry,” the book is even more amazing. Fun, thoughtful, and informative. The original version of this book was published in 2000, and Sanders has written others. It’s a wonder that this combination creative/critical form hasn’t been explored more, and it’s a tribute to Sanders that he makes it seem easy.

Author bio:

John Yohe holds a MFA in Poetry Writing from The New School for Social Research, and a MA in The Teaching of Writing from Eastern Michigan University. He has taught composition and creative writing for five years at the community college and university level. His poetry, short fiction, and non-fiction has appeared in journals such as RATTLE, FENCE and THE HAT. A complete list of his publications, and writing samples, can be found at his website: John Yohe.

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