Ginsberg, I would argue, wrote two great poems (Howl and Kaddish), one good poem (America) and then a bunch of other stuff.
Is that unfair? He was the outstanding public figure of a movement that was hugely influential and played and outsized role in the creation of a certain idea of the artist. The idea of the artist as shaman, perhaps. Yet his own work was, I can’t help but feel, a chronicle of diminishing marginal returns.
I can’t remember if this scene was in the book, but in the movie Trainspotting, Sick Boy uses the career of Sean Connery to illustrate a point about the tragic, downhill slope of life. Connery was James Bond and then everything else he did, if you’re honest about, Sick Boy argued, was ‘shite.’
America, despite moments of brilliance, is Ginsberg’s Untouchables. Sure, Connery won a best supporting actor Oscar for it, but really, does it hold a candle to having been the indelible presence he was as Bond? Bond, in this case, being a stand-in for Howl and Kaddish.
As a result, I had a huge problem getting into this little book. I’d re-read Howl and Kaddish and was struck by their power – a power that I’d forgotten. Now, I wish I had stopped there. Unlike the others, this one appears more deeply unstructured – a sham Whitmanesque, propulsive journey (and definitely with Whitman’s signature form – the long lines interspersed with deep indentations), but without Whitman’s careful (if exuberant) craftsmanship.