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The release last week of Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s Allen Ginsberg film, Howl in New York and San Francisco (fat chance I'll see it soon, living hundreds of miles away from either) set us to thinking: Where is the revolutionary, politically and socially-conscious poetry of today? And where is its audience?

Sure, poetry slam is often outrageously dead-on when addressing social and political issues. And there's no doubt that it's created its own audience. But it seems the traditional, often academic schools of today's poetry have shied away from the kind of tough takes that Wendell Berry, Daniel Berrigan, W. S. Merwin and others took during the Vietnam War. You can go through several volumes of Poetry magazine before you'll find anything remotely political. And nothing current (please, please correct me here)approaches Carolyn Forche's excellent 1981 collection The Country Between Us that frankly discusses her personal experiences in El Salvador. Her poem "The Colonel" is a chilling account of the inhumanity of power and is a landmark of the genre. The Forche-edited, 1993 collection of 150 political poets, Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness shows the strength of such poetry; or, as Nelson Mandela said of the anthology, "it can bear witness to brutality—thereby cultivating a flower in a graveyard." More such flowers, please.

"Howl," first published in 1956, is a screaming lament against the loss of a generation, a "howl of defeat" as William Carlos Williams says in the book's introduction. It carries a huge measure of social and political condemnation and only a modicum of hope, most of it spiritual. The most politicized poem in the collection, and possibly the most damning, is "America," in which Ginsberg demands to be noticed by a country that then, as now, doesn't notice its invisible classes. It questions the reality of the world Ginsberg see portrayed on television, a world in which the Communists (now mistakenly known as "Socialists")want to "take our cars from our garages" and "make us all work sixteen hours a day." And it opens with a line that speaks to millions of Americans today, the unemployed, under-employed, under-paid and the otherwise impoverished working class:

America I have given you all and now I'm nothing

The movie, apparently, deals more with the obscenity trial against City Lights Books and its publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, than the entire Ginsberg saga. Reviews of the film -- here and here -- have been mixed, or decidedly negative. But our view is that any attention to such a landmark piece of revolutionary art, in every sense, is good.

Still the question remains. Where are the poets who address our current social and political issues? There's no shortage of subjects that cry out for the passionate, or even ironic, use of language in mounting protest. The general complaint that poetry has become too academic, too  personal and too self-obsessed is only strengthened by their absence.

This absence is not complete. There are a few brilliant poets out there linking social and political issues with personal experience, if only in a matter-of-fact way. One of our favorite poets, Tony Hoagland, has a wonderful way of finding the commercial and political corruption of our lives in the mundane. His latest collection, Unincorporated Person in the Late Honda Dynasty sings of twisted commercialization, persistent racism and the effects of the global marketplace within the framework of everyday life. And he points out the difficulty art has dealing with such issues:

which in turn explains why the art
that hangs in the lobbies of banks

and in the boardrooms of corporate office buildings
is often made of black-and-white slashes
against a background of melted orange crayon

or glowing lavender rectangles floating in gray haze,
works in which no human figures appear,
in which the Haves

do not appear to be chatting and laughing
as they eat their sushi
carved from the lives of the Have-Nots.
--The Allegory of the Temp Agency

Poetry of this sort is, today, the exception (and any referrals to provide other exceptions or to flat-out prove me wrong are strongly encouraged, please...this is one time I'd love to be wrong). History is full of examples, from Homer to Wilfred Owen in which poetry influenced a generation (or generations') politics and social beliefs. A turn towards this kind of relevant poem might increase the audience for the now often over-looked art form. Ginsberg's poem contributed to the social rebellion of the 1960s and to an increasing interest in poetry itself. Who will howl today?    

Originally posted to Cabbage Rabbit Review on Sun Sep 26, 2010 at 11:55 AM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  american poetry (4+ / 0-)

    is as you suggest almost completely divorced from meaningful political and social engagement. what's published is by and large dessicated and aestheticized.  it's the product of the academy, not of lived life.  check out how many of our young poets have passed through university creative writing programs (Iowa most commonly) on their way to publication.  this kind of institutional channeling can't help but yeild an insular and sterile output.

    •  Like Flannery O'Connor said... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      "Everywhere I go I'm asked if I think the university stifles writers. My opinion is that they don't stifle enough of them. There's many a best-seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher."

      There was a young woman in one of my English classes who said, "I'm not really a 'poetry' person." And the way she pronounced the word poetry made the quotes around it seem manifest.

      I thought it was a ridiculous remark and in the passage of time it has only intensified in my mind as an exemplar of the worst kind of thinking. Yet, all that said, I grant her some measure of forgiveness.

      There are so many bad poets, people whose turgid, masturbatory meanderings make you want to hate poetry and everything associated with it, and these Criminals of Language are wholly responsible for it. Allen Ginsberg takes center stage of these cheapjack nimrods.

      Yet many of his contemporaries truly shine as saints of the art form: Kerouac, Ferlinghetti, and of course William Carlos Williams. Wifred Owen is an excellent citation in this diary, demonstrating that poetry can intersect politics in a way that, arguably, prose and fiction cannot.

      Every day's another chance to stick it to The Man. - dls.

      by The Raven on Sun Sep 26, 2010 at 01:41:15 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  it's like modern philosophy (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      flying shams, imperturb

      which has become dedicated to arcane mathematical formulae instead of helping to clarify how to live a good life

  •  Howl for Academia (3+ / 0-)

    I should put the fact that I once smoked a joint with Allen Ginsburg on my resume.  

    For a while I hung out in the City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, and this was a period when I feel that I really began to deconstruct my university education and become really aware.

    The beats of course, are more myth than reality.  However, I was inspired by both the myth and the reality.  I found Ginsburg in the end, the one who delivered "Plutonium Ode" on stage at an Austin beer garden that I was privileged to be able to video, inspired by an instinct to be real, to be politically sharp, and to be truly courageous.  

    I think academics generally are afraid to step in those shoes and are more comfortable romanticizing the beats, or avoiding the subect altogether.  In my English classes, there was nary a mention.  I think the faculty at that time were with Truman Capote who famously dismissed Kerouac's writing as "typing."

    The problem with publishing in general is that there is a huge mass of mediocrity out there which makes trying to participate like swimming up current against a flood.  Sensibilities are so jaded that it makes no difference what you are trying to do.  I think Ginsberg would be lost in this flood tide as well, were he to be the young poet who wrote Howl.  It was revolutionary in the context of an America that was somnolent in its cozy self satisfaction and his was a unique departure at that time.

    Now, our problem is that we have so copied this, that we can't think beyond the protest moment.  We look for ways to protest what is negative and the attempt to move toward the light is blocked by our general inability to see any.

    hope that the idiots who have no constructive and creative solutions but only look to tear down will not win the day.

    by Stuart Heady on Sun Sep 26, 2010 at 12:41:46 PM PDT

    •  Resume (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      Thanks for sharing your experience and insight. You must have a hell of a resume. I'm guessing you're right about academics' fears,and sadly agree with you about the "mass of mediocrity out there." You're also correct, I'm afraid, that Ginsberg's work would probably be overlooked were it to come out today.

  •  I always enjoy this video. (0+ / 0-)

    (And, yeah, I read the movie was more a courtroom drama than anything....too bad)

    The last time we broke a president, we ended up with Reagan.

    by Bush Bites on Sun Sep 26, 2010 at 01:29:28 PM PDT

  •  Great film (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    flying shams, Bush Bites, Temmoku

    Check out the Howl the Movie website for the performances between now and the end of October.

    The film makers were in the theater last night in SF taking questions from the audience. Everyone is mystified by the less than favorable reviews. Franco is wonderful as Ginsburg, and catches his voice and cadence in the recitation that is woven in and out of the film. Great editing~

    The directors stated that they wanted the poem to be a character in the movie. They worked with S. Drooker, an artist who collaborated with Ginsburg on the animation. It reminded me of Rudolph Steiner and Anthroposophical art, which was also an inspiration for Kandinsky's early work.

  •  Having been a kid in that era, (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    flying shams, isabelle hayes

    I recently read Howl. About 2 years ago. I was doing research on a planned presentation on Banned Books for a Teacher's Conference.
    I was amazed at how great it was. I loved it. I remember hearing about Ginsberg and how obscene his poetry was and how unAmerican he was...seemed to be the standard criticism in those days. Teachers wouldn't talk about it and NOBODY had read it but they all condemned it.
    It is well worth the read. It was a slice of America that is still true today.

    Don't take my it and make your own decision. Some Banned books are not worth the read....but Howl is definitely worth it. I just wish I had not waited until I retired to read it. For most of my life, it was unavailable in schools, libraries, and bookstores. The internet has changed all that... please read it. You will not be sorry.

    Courage is what you are in the dark. Emilio Lazzardo in Buckaroo Bonzai

    by Temmoku on Sun Sep 26, 2010 at 05:07:48 PM PDT

    •  I'm another kid who grew to love Ginsburg ... (0+ / 0-)

      ... in the 1950's and I heartily agree with you Temmoku.

      There was a word used before ... 'beatnik' .. became the perjorative term .. ' non-conformist '.

      When my old eyes survey the youth of today's cutting edge I see dull knives.

  •  Where's todays Ginsberg? (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    flying shams

    With all that's screwed up in today's America, we could certainly use a Ginsberg.

  •  I think we have a lot of Ginsberg's today. (0+ / 0-)

    Read Mary Oliver's "Strawberry Moon" or read David Whyte, Marge Piercy, or listen to John Rives.

    I don't think you will find them in a magazine especially not one like "Poetry".

    I used to not like poetry myself until I realized that it was a spoken art. You have to hear it not read it.

    Tracy B Ann - technically that is my signature.

    by ZenTrainer on Sun Sep 26, 2010 at 08:31:31 PM PDT

    •  Lot of Ginsbergs (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      I will certainly check out"Strawberry Moon"...I have read a lot of Oliver and it doesn't stick in my mind. Generally, I would disagree with you about Oliver. Her tone (of course) is much less frantic and insistent than Ginsberg's, and the work of hers I know makes points by relating our personal lives with the natural world as it exists today. I do not find serious political poetry (as well) in the larger circulation magazines that publish it -- The New Yorker, Harpers -- or in The Paris Review, Southwest Review, Poetry Northwest, Antioch Review, The Kenyon Review or any of the other journals I get to see (full disclosure: I do most of my reading in libraries and off book stands, which often don't include the more innovative mags). Like you, I enjoy poetry when it's recited and find that certain poems are most exciting that way. But poetry is a spoken art and a written art. This fact most occurs to me when I purchase a book of poetry that includes a CD of the poems being read by the author (as more than a few do these days). Hearing them elicits the sense of music. Reading them allows us to focus on and review the meaning. Thanks for the great example you supplied below. It makes the perfect argument that slam is the most relevant and often the most enjoyable form of poetry existent today.  

      •  Do you know of David Whyte? (0+ / 0-)

        He's not a political poet, he's a corporate poet (or at least I call him that) but he has a way of making me look deeper at poetry.

        Yeah, Daniel Beaty is great. John Rives poetry is  not so much political as about life. (He is often at TED) But it is very relevant.

        I do a radio show called "The Politics of Dogs" and I say every week that everything is political and everything political affects my dogs.

        And really, was Ginsberg ever in any mainstream magazines? Could it be that poetry is the same but the print media has changed?

        Tracy B Ann - technically that is my signature.

        by ZenTrainer on Mon Sep 27, 2010 at 09:25:14 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  A modern day Ginsberg... (0+ / 0-)

    Daniel Beaty

    Tracy B Ann - technically that is my signature.

    by ZenTrainer on Sun Sep 26, 2010 at 08:39:27 PM PDT

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