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Monday, January 31, 2011

Number 54: Allen Ginsburg " A Strange New Cottage in Berkley"

A Strange New Cottage in Berkeley

All afternoon cutting bramble blackberries off a tottering
brown fence
under a low branch with its rotten old apricots miscellaneous
under the leaves,
fixing the drip in the intricate gut machinery of a new toilet;
found a good coffeepot in the vines by the porch, rolled a
big tire out of the scarlet bushes, hid my marijuana;
wet the flowers, playing the sunlit water each to each,
returning for godly extra drops for the stringbeans and daisies;
three times walked round the grass and sighed absently:
my reward, when the garden fed me its plums from the
form of a small tree in the corner,
an angel thoughtful of my stomach, and my dry and love-
lorn tongue.

-- Allen Ginsburg

Hap Notes: This poem is from Ginsburg's (1928-1997) book Reality Sandwiches and it was written sometime in the late 50s. Ginsburg moved from the East coast to the San Francisco area in 1954 and the poem delights in the natural beauty he probably did not see in New York much. Even the flotsam and jetsam of the industrial society he held in contempt, a coffee pot and an old tire, seem more tolerable and gift-like. The Bay Area in the 50s is a very different place now than it was then and it certainly must have seemed more wholesome and "strange" compared to the stacks of apartment buildings and slabs of parking lots in the east. He seems almost contented and contemplative in this poem.

Ginsburg is known, of course, for his quick-witted, sexually frank, enthusiastic, and often angry verses which have spawned countless poetry throw-downs and rants. One is always glad that people have outlets to unburden their souls and give an outlet to their anger, so it's not particularly necessary to criticize poetry like this, since, if they really wanted to write poetry they would study the form more and write it less.

Ginsburg was influenced by William Carlos Williams, whom he corresponded with, and William Blake, whom he had some sort of transcendent religious experience about, and Walt Whitman, whom he read and somewhat copied. Let's not forget that Ginsburg went to Columbia University where he wrote conventional verse that won him school prizes. It was Williams who wrote a letter to poet Kenneth Rexroth, introducing Ginsburg to the San Francisco poetry scene.

Ginsburg is one of the few poets that need little introduction since his antics, readings, beliefs and poetry have been lionized and copied for the last 40 years. He started writing in an explosive time for literature and the arts, a time when industrialization seemed to be forming people into mindless automatons. (Sometimes, on darker days, it seems as though the transformation is complete, doesn't it?)

He was an avid pacifist, a practicing Buddhist and a devout admirer of much of Hindu philosophy. Much has been made of him also being an avid drug user (mostly LSD and weed.) He felt they brought people to a deeper understanding of themselves and God. Early proponents of drug use, like Ginsburg and Timothy Leary, were under the impression that drugs would make people more conscious and spiritual. One doesn't know how to comment on this except to say that our contemporary drug problem is more a symptom of a greater societal problem than anything else. This is not what the "Beats" had in mind with their espousal of drugs. They didn't want to cause more misery, they were looking for enlightenment. Unfortunately, drugs turned out to be another band-aid to patch over the yearning soul. Until we repair the way we treat and educate people, we can look forward to drugs and alcohol to always be the duct-tape that will do a portion of the patching up on some people. (Oops- I wandered away from Ginsburg- sorry.)

Ginsburg and his confreres (Jack Keroac, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, William S. Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Gary Snyder, Phillip Whalen, Lew Welch) were committed to free expression and freedom of speech in their work. Ginsburg helped found Beatitudes magazine, a poetry publication that gave the "Beats" their name. They were full of joyful sexuality (hetero, bi, and gay), sensual awareness and social consciousness.

Ginsburg suffers from the same trouble that Charles Bukowski suffered from i.e. when you get an adoring public forum you are allowed to do most anything you want and they will call it genius. They both sorely needed loving editors to sort out the bullshit, or at least craft it a bit. I'll point out, once again, that they wanted to be published. They thought enough of their work to want it to see permanent print. They wrote it out- it may have come spontaneously but there's a process of getting it from your head to your hand that automatically implies some thoughtfulness. Ranting and raving is what you do at your mom when you are 15. Just sayin'.

This poem isn't a rant at all, anyway. It's Ginsburg doing yard work. Enjoying a few plums. Feeling the bounty of a new place. Thinking of angels.

Here's a Ginsburg quote: "I really would like to stop working forever–never work again, never do anything like the kind of work I’m doing now–and do nothing but write poetry and have leisure to spend the day outdoors and go to museums and see friends. And I’d like to keep living with someone — maybe even a man — and explore relationships that way. And cultivate my perceptions, cultivate the visionary thing in me. Just a literary and quiet city-hermit existence."

You can find more Ginsburg here:

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