Tag Archives: Allen Ginsberg

Inaugural Poet (1968) and Gluck’s “The Poet and the Reader”

Monday, January 25, 2021

It’s hard to tell how off-beat thoughts occur in one’s mind. Or minds. Maybe it’s the dialogue between the polymind, which I tried to type as one word and the system immediately broke it in half. I guess one must learn to be tolerant in a bemused parental fashion as AI slowly adapts to the jovial proclivities of the human mind.

Just before I started this post, I began wondering what would have happened if Robert Kennedy had made it through the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel and gotten to… I wonder where he was headed? Was he headed for a party in the Hollywood Hills? Somehow I just don’t picture him going straight to his hotel suite and kicking off his shoes.

Imagine him, eventually, as the candidate who triumphs over Nixon and George Wallace in 1968. His brother, in January, 1961, had asked Robert Frost to read a poem. In my fantasy world, Bobby Kennedy asks Allen Ginsberg to read at his inauguration in January, 1969. Like Frost, Ginsberg sets aside the poem he had composed for the occasion and instead leads the nation in three minutes of chanting “OM.”

I mention this alternative history as a way to counterbalance the depression I felt after reading Louise Gluck’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech. I’ve read drivel like this from undergraduate students who choose the creative writing option because writing essays about literary texts is a bit beyond their intellectual reach. It was bad enough that Gluck won the prize when there are so many worthy writers and poets in other countries who deserve the attention; but for her to produce something that hardly seems past the first draft stage is just pathetic.

There was one sentence, and one sentence only, that had even a glimmer of potential for development as an argument within the speech. It is the second sentence of the following paragraph:

“In art of the kind to which I was drawn, the voice of judgement of the collective is dangerous. The precariousness of intimate speech adds to its power and the power of the reader, through whose agency the voice is encouraged in its urgent plea or confidence.”

There’s a lot to be unpacked there; if only in the rest of the speech she had clarified the blurred relationships posited in these seemingly thoughtful assertions. Part of the problem is that Gluck never acknowledges in her speech the role that cultural capital plays in “the power of the reader,” and it is that benign self-indulgence of her own privileges that leads me to be very suspicious of her characterization of the reader’s agency.

I don’t hit it off with most poets, at least on a personal level. “You are one of the most alone people I know,” one of my few friends once wrote me. On the other hand, I do accommodate myself with pleasure to a fairly diverse set of poems and poetics. But I have my limits. “There is some bourgeois bullshit I will not eat” is my variant on what Olaf snarled in one of e.e. cummings’s best known poems. Gluck’s speech falls into that category.

“Wichita Vortex Sutra” and the Valentine’s Day High School Massacre

February 15, 2018

“Language language almost all our language has been taxed by war.”

Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems is one of the dozen best first book of poems ever published in the United States. It is rare for a first book to have several poems that end up being frequently anthologized in the half-century following the book’s initial printing, and Ginsberg’s reputation will continue to derive not only from these reprinting, but from the sheer physical presence of his first book. I believe that over a million copies are in circulation, an impressive figure for any book, let alone a volume of poems.

As is the case with musicians, where one’s toughest audience is one’s fellow practitioners, poets often prefer the work of fellow poets that is less known than their most popular work. In Ginsberg’s case, “Wichita Vortex Sutra” is often cited as a favorite poem. I remember including a portion of it in an anti-war theatrical presentation I put together at the Burbage Theater in 1974. “WVS” was recently on display in a drawing by Dominic McGill at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. McGill’s conversion of Ginsberg’s text into a labyrinth of lines included a vortex of words pouring from the dark screen of a television set like an insidious transfusion of diabolical plasma. Given the exacerbated use of social media by politicians, especially as regards the obnoxious diplomacy of the White House, Ginsberg’s poem seems more relevant than ever. President Trump seems intent on making the Korean peninsula an even more devastating scene of carnage than Vietnam, and Trump’s use of language continues to tax our patience and the limits of our patriotism.

Trump’s reaction to the Valentine’s Day mass murder at a high school in Florida is an all too typical example of his inability to go beyond an obvious comment.

“”My prayers and condolences to the families of the victims of the terrible Florida shooting. No child, teacher or anyone else should ever feel unsafe in an American school. We are working closely with law enforcement on the terrible Florida school shooting.”

In this three sentence tweet, Trump ends two of them with the phrase “the terrible Florida school shooting.” Does he really believe that we are incapable of assessing the magnitude of this event unless he repeats the word “terrible”?

But of course what is truly terrible is that Trump’s “we” is not working with anyone to change the gun laws. Notice that Trump says nothing in the third sentence about how to make American schools safer. What was needed in his tweet was not a trite reference to the current employees of law enforcement, but a promise to advocate the enforcement of new laws regarding gun control.

Instead, Trump’s budget proposal reduces funds for background checks of those who wish to purchase weapons. He does not care about the safety of children and their teachers as anything other than a public pose.


I started my late afternoon class yesterday by telling students that I’ll never be able to watch Some Like It Hot again in quite the same way. Billy Wilder’s great film opens with a scene that invokes the infamous Valentine’s Day massacre of the Depression-Era gang wars in Chicago. No matter how much love, in the years ahead, comes into the lives of the families that endured Florida’s Valentine’s Day massacre first-hand, the anniversaries of this sentimental celebration will be horrifically imbrued with this memory and its cauterizing loss.


“Russia” by Brian Kim Stefans

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The e-mail notification from Facebook said that Brian Kim Stefans’s post began, “Russia I gave you all and now I’m nothing.” A pertinent parody was obviously awaiting me, so I logged on immediately, and his poem proved to be a scrumptious repast. It’s just what I needed, given the international machinations of the past three months. I immediately asked for permission to reprint, which was granted forthwith. So without further ado, it gives me great pleasure to turn the stage over to my guest artist for the day, Brian Kim Stefans and his poem, “Russia.”


Russia I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing.
Russia a Netflix subscription, a respectable credit rating and my way around BitTorrent, January 10th, 2017.
I can’t stand my own water.
Russia when will we end the human war?
Go fuck yourself with your American Presidents and legions of NY Times trolls.
I don’t feel good don’t hack me.
(Ok, hack me.)
I won’t write my poem till I’m in Ann Coulter’s right mind.
Russia when will you be autotelic?
When will you take off my Reeboks?
When will you look at yourself through the prism of Game of Thrones?
When will you be worthy of your million Michelle Obama fans?
Russia why are your libraries full of copyright infringements?
Russia when will you send your kale to Big Sur?
Your cell phones to Nigeria?
I’m sick of your jock-like demands.
When can I go into the supermarket and buy what I need with the bare fact of my American citizenship?
Russia after all it is you and I who are perfect not the Mexicans.
Your democracy is too much for me.
You made me want to be a saint (or a Korean).
There must be some other way to settle this Facebook thread.
Assange is in Ecuador I don’t think he’ll come back (it’s fine).
Are you in Ecuador or is this some form of practical joke?
I’m trying to write a sonnet.
Russia I feel sentimental about Credence Clearwater Revival and Viktor Tsoi.
Russia I used to be a Jedi when I was a kid and I’m not sorry.
I eat kale every chance I get.
When I go to Chinatown I get drunk but you get laid.
My mind is made up there’s going to be Marx.
My psychoanalyst thinks I’m the Lord’s Prayer.
I have mystical visions and cosmic vibrations and I still haven’t told you what you did to Spongebob Squarepants after he got his hair sporked on Jimmy Fallon.
Russia I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel!

The VA (the value added tax of class servitude)

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The VA (the value added tax of class servitude)

The Veterans Administration, popularly known as the VA, at some point set up its health system in Southern California so that its hospitals were located next to major colleges or universities. In San Diego, there is a huge VA center next to UC San Diego; in Los Angeles, the VA is on the flip side of the 405 freeway from UCLA; in Long Beach, the hospital is adjacent to CSU Long Beach. I went over to that VA the other day to work on getting some veterans benefits for my mother, who was a WAVE in World War II. She receives medical care through both Medicare and a program called TriCare, which is available to the surviving spouses of career military personnel. She will need to be in an assisted care home at some point in the near future, though, and I wanted to get information about her benefits.

Walking around the grounds of the VA complex, I felt on one level as if I could relax in my performance as a college teacher. How much chance was there that I would meet up with a colleague in a building at the VA? In fact, when was the last time any of the tenured professors I have taught with or studied under or conversed with at conferences would have found themselves visiting the VA? It is a social ghetto, in certain ways, and the fact that it is right next door to the campus only mounts the spotlights on the three hundred and fifty-nine degrees of separation between military and civilian life. Power extends from the organization of space itself, and the milieus one is assigned are meant to delimit your activities in a manner befitting one’s station in life. That I find myself at the VA, in hopes of finding a remedy for my mother’s plight, is only what might be expected, given the initial terms of my childhood enlistment. I remember a spokesperson from Brotman Hall who greeted the cohort of new faculty at CSULB in 2006: “When one has a Ph.D.,” she said with utter sincerity, “class is no longer an issue.” Even if one has severed all contact with one’s family, I doubt that’s true. To the credit of my colleagues, a skeptical murmur of disagreement ricocheted around the room.

I did, in fact, have one teacher who was a veteran, and he was perhaps the crucial teacher in my development. In the fall of 1967, I ended up enrolling in classes at San Diego State, mainly because my application to UCLA’s theater department had been turned down. I would be successful the following spring in gaining admission, but in the meantime I decided to study at SDSU and found myself in a poetry class with a young poet named Glover Davis, who had studied under Philip Levine. I had never heard of any of the poets Davis taught me about in the 1967-1968. I was 19 years old when I started studying in his classes and by the time I was 20 I had learned more from him than most MFA students learn in their two or three years in current programs.

Glover Davis’s class would serve as a prime example of how Don Allen’s The New American Poetry ended up as the most influential anthology of the past half-century. After his discharge from the U.S. Navy, Davis had enrolled at Fresno State University and had moved on to the Iowa Poetry Workshop, where I believe one of his classmates was James Tate. I took poetry writing courses with him as well as a survey of poetry course in which I first read Hart Crane’s The Bridge as well as substantial amounts of WC Williams. We read Williams first, so encountering Crane was initially a bewildering experience. I was utterly intrigued by Crane’s dense lyricism and imagery, but how could his poetics be reconciled with Williams’s? Which side was Davis on? He seemed to be presenting an equal case for each poet, and I found myself unable to decide between the two. In the end, I liked Crane’s sense of the line better than Williams, whose sense of enjambment never really matured.

One of the best parts of the year was a chance to attend readings by Allen Ginsberg, Philip Levine and Robert Mezey. Ginsberg didn’t read “Howl” or “Kaddish,” but instead gave a powerful reading of “Wales Visitation,” which even the conservative member of the English faculty, John Theobald, appreciated. Ginsberg by far attracted the largest crowd, but it was his talk in the afternoon that made an equal impression. In retrospect, I have to concede that the overwhelming emphasis on male poets in Davis’s canon would have been daunting for the female students; perhaps this is part of the reason for Rae Armantrout’s unflattering characterization of Davis in her memoir. She neglects to mention, however, that he would have been the first teacher she had to have praised at length the writing of Denise Levertov, with whom Rae went on to study at UC Berkeley.  Memory can be capricious, and maybe Rae wasn’t in the class in which I remember Davis giving “The Sharks” a close, deeply appreciative reading. Davis was perhaps the most fortunate encounter I could have hoped for at that point, given my limited options. For the first time, I encountered a man who embodied a masculine variant of physical prowess that was also vulnerable to the subjunctive.