Allen Ginsberg, Prince of the Beat Generation


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February 4, 1959, Vol. IV, No. 15

A Time to Separate the Men and the Boys

By Howard Smith

If you came to the poetry reading of Paul Goodman and Allen Ginsberg looking for fresh insights into the famous, fast-growing Beat Generation, then you went way with not much new.

It took place at the Living Theatre a week ago Monday, and it was as familiar as the Cedar Street Bar. The big overflow crowd was a noisy, alert, and too quickly appreciative audience—so many long-black-haired girls looking Italian dramatic and as many young men looking like Ph.D. students or like Allan Ginsberg, who looked like he had on an old plaid shirt with one patch on each elbow, dungarees, a pint of wine in and out of his back pocket.

Paul Goodman’s presentation consisted of “public poems” (ballads), short sonnets, and long Biblical prose. Goodman, an accomplished writer, gave an aside about being hurt by something. A friend of his yelled from a back row: “How could you be hurt when you’re so lovely?”—and that perfectly sums up the inclination of Goodman’s writing. He is an inner lonely man who did not go better because he really believes in good, and the result is happy.

Allen Ginsberg, Prince of the Beat Generation, read many poems covering many topics, some humorous, others grave. His humor is clever and sharp, but his work is, on the whole, more intelligently comic than poetic. Especially grating was the way he smiled before coming to a funny line, and the way he looked out grinning for approval upon delivering it.

His last offering was a few pages from a long poem entitled “Kaddish.” It was the on really bright light of the several dark hours. A kaddish is a Hebrew prayer for the dead: this one was for Ginsberg’s mother. It was lucid and as vibrant as “Howl,” and had a personal beauty with a strong feeling of exorcism. Not the ordinary sorrow of oh-now-it’s-too-late-to-say-what-I-mean, but the kind that is guilty for not being guilty. The rhythmic building up up up, down down down–boring in other poems–suddenly became very valid. It is the type of writing that should bring him lasting fame.

The Beat Generation has many interesting facets. With all its merits, affectations, and publicity, many good things are happening. People are talking about a poetry renaissance, and the literary world is getting a little shaken in its criteria. It is no longer rare for a young rebellious writer to be published or heard in public, and that is precisely the point: from here on, not only will the men be separated from the boys, but the poets will have to be separated from the entertainers. Ginsberg seems good at both, but let us hope from now on the emphasis is on the former.

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