Amiri Baraka and Allen Ginsberg: A Comparative Analysis
Baraka and Ginsberg
Friends For Life
When one thinks of the “beat” generation or the “beat” arts movement, one envisions jazz or art, poetry and prose set to music, art with a movingly lyrical tone. But what most people do not realize is that the term “beat” was given its name by Jack Kerouac, a famous poet of the (beat generation). He meant the term to be a sign of self-awareness through crushing societal defeat. Along with (Kerouac), Ginsberg helped to spin the term into a beautiful, artistic symbology. Says Ginsberg, “The point of beat is that you get beaten down to a certain nakedness where you are actually able to see the world in a visionary way which is the old classical understanding of what happens in the dark night of the soul.” (Watson History of Beat 1) This essay compares and contrasts two of the Beat generations’ finest poets, Amiri Baraka and Allen (Ginsberg), whose lives and writing styles poignantly reflect the times and their lives in a raw, lyrical form of expression.
Oh, Those Jersey Boys!
I chose to focus on these two poets for two reasons: first, because they are both favorites of mine and second, they are both sons of my home state, New Jersey. In jest, I call them “the Jersey boys.” They are both from Newark, the largest metropolitan city in New Jersey. They were both good friends in life and they were both beat poets in the New York school of poets. I share so much with these two people. In my younger years, I too, hung out in New York City’s Greenwich Village or “The Village” and found out so much about myself personally, politically, artistically and spiritually. I guess you can say the place has a certain “magic” about it. To begin, Allen Ginsberg was born in Newark on June 3, 1926 and Amiri Baraka on October 7, 1934. They were both born inside of working class families and came from good backgrounds. Both children were described as either “precocious” or “nerdy”. Ginsberg’s parents were bohemian leftists and this is what afforded Allen the rich gift of liberalism he carried throughout his life. Ginsberg’s family moved to Paterson when he was a child and he grew up there into adulthood. Baraka grew up in Newark and attended and graduated from Barringer High School. My grandmother is also an alumnus of this school.
Both writers attended college but didn’t graduate. Ironically, they both initially entered college on academic scholarships. Instead, they were both introduced to a form of “higher learning” that would catapult them into literary greatness through the “Beat” movement. When Baraka first attended Rutgers University right from High School, he experienced what he termed as “cultural dislocation” or culture shock. He transferred to Howard University and majored in philosophy and religion, but again, never graduated. Ginsberg’s bios never mention him graduating from Columbia University; however he did meet fellow “beats” Jack Kerouac, Lucien Carr and William Burroughs there. Baraka also studied at Columbia University and The New School for Social Research in Manhattan, but again, never graduated. Ginsberg and Baraka both went into the military. Ginsberg, as a merchant marine to pay for college and Baraka served in the air force. Baraka didn’t fare well because of his Communist position and the discovery of his writings by his superior officer. He was unceremoniously and dishonorably discharged.
One thing both of these writers have in common is that they are seen as “fringe dwellers”-- people who exist and thrive within society, hidden in plain view. They were both hard workers and all the while they were looking for a way to find and express what was deep within clawing towards the light—Ginsberg in his homosexual feelings, Baraka with his hidden rage, resentment and self-loathing. Perhaps this is what Kerouac meant by the term “beat generation.” Perhaps this is what James Dean portrayed on the big screen in the 50’s in Rebel without a Cause. To some degree, this was how Ginsberg was living his life after he “dropped out” of Columbia University. At Columbia, Ginsberg also met Kerouac and Lucien Carr and would enter the world of mind altering drugs and alcohol. Later, he would run into an old friend and fellow “beat” poet, Herbert Huncke, who would introduce him to a short life of petty crime. In order to beat a jail sentence, Ginsberg had to agree to undergo psychiatric treatment and serve time in a mental hospital. All of this was occurring while Ginsberg was searching to come to grips with his attractions to men, which was a constant issue for him all through his childhood.
For Baraka, being on the fringes was an issue of being Black and male in American society. Baraka sought for a way to express his real self, fully, without causing people to view him as “bad.” At some point, Baraka came to the understanding that this was not only impossible, but detrimental to himself as a human being. He understood that in the quest for acceptance from a larger, more dominant and oppressive society, one would lose touch with their true character and give way to self-compromise and ultimately open the door to profound self-loathing. Later in his artistic career, he would become the founder of the Black Arts Movement and catapult this level of thinking into mainstream African-American culture. Ultimately, for both artists, the “beat” culture spoke to them and their art on many levels. The Beatnik literature and lifestyle was as freeing to them as the liberal bohemianism of “The Village” itself.
Their Writing Styles
The two writers became friends in the late 50’s in The Village in Lower Manhattan through the “Beat” writers circle. At the time, Baraka (then Leroi Jones) was the founder and publisher of Yugen Magazine, a fringe publication for the writers of “beat” literature. His co-publisher was his wife, and fellow “beat” writer, Hettie Cohen. Baraka published one of Ginsberg’s poems in the Yugen publication that was entitled “Kaddish.” At this time, the different writers and personalities within the “beat” literary scene were diverse and eclectic. Each writer came with a different perspective, but all had one thing in common, the need to express the inexpressible. Their styles were as different as their backgrounds and personalities. For Baraka, it was his “jazz” style influenced by the improvisational style of jazz and the influence of poet Charles Olsen who inspired him to nonconformity in the definition of “real” poetry. For Ginsberg, it was his “colloquial” style influenced by (William Carlos Williams), who, by the way, is also a “Jersey boy.”
Ginsberg’s colloquial style came about from attending a poetry reading by one of his literary influences, William Carlos Williams. ‘He proceeded to converse with Williams through correspondences that included poetry Ginsberg had written. Williams encouraged Ginsberg to write in a vernacular that would be familiar to the language of the times. Likewise, Kerouac encouraged Ginsberg to write in freer style and not to look so much toward convention in his writing. Frustrated, Ginsberg went back to earlier poems he had written and picked out the most intense passages and rearranged them into poems. He sent the poetry to Williams and Williams loved them. ‘(Watson Allen Ginsberg 1) Ginsberg’s style emerges as what I would term a “breathing” poetry. Each line break is a pause in which the writer can take a breath. So Ginsberg writes the way he speaks. For example, in his poem “Howl,” Ginsberg puts a punctual break at the end of a sentence usually in the form of a comma. The comma can indicate a pause or a breath and is usually combined with indentation.
“I saw the best mind so of my generation destroyed by madness, starving
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,…” (Razmani, Ellman, O’Clair 337)
The exact way that the thoughts in his head are expressed in his speech, come out, instead, on paper. When Ginsberg recites a poem, it is as though he is speaking his direct thoughts. In his poem, Kaddish, Ginsberg paints a saintly portrayal of his mother, Naomi. In it, he writes as if he is speaking to his mother. The poem was written after he received a letter from his brother 2 days after his mother died. Ginsberg’s mother suffered from mental illness the majority of his life and she was in and out of mental institutions, as well. Reading the poem, it is evident that there is no concrete conventional style to his writing. There are stanzas that appear to be separated by ending punctuation, such as a period or exclamation mark. It is, indeed, free verse, as well as colloquial in its Yiddish references and familiar and personal as to his direct life experiences—the very way that Williams encouraged Ginsberg to write. One can trace evidence of some Emily Dickinson influence in the use of the dash, which in Ginsberg’s case, would symbolize the pause or the “breath.” For example, “-or Ruth who wept in America—Rebecca aged in Newark—David remembering his Harp, now a lawyer at Yale/or Srul Avrum—Israel Abraham—myself—to sing in the wilderness toward God—O Elohim!...” (Razmani, Ellman, O’Clair 351, 352) In this excerpt, as well as the rest of the poem, Ginsberg speaks personally and passionately about his mother and uses Biblical references at some points. He also refers to his own name as a connection to God, mother and heritage—his mother named him after his grandfather, who in turn is named after the father of the nation of Israel, Abraham. He makes reference to ‘singing in the wilderness’ as the Israelites were lost in the wilderness for 40 years and also living within his own “wilderness,” of course. Elohim is a Talmudic reference to God. Throughout his poem, Ginsberg appears to link every aspect of his life in a very personal and touching way. There is nothing cold or distant about his work whether describing the life of a lost generation in his poem “Howl”, giving homage to his mother in “Kaddish” or talking about surviving a situation in which he was mugged in the street in “Mugging.” I think this is what makes Ginsberg a unique and prolific writer. He is able to take his life and turn it into symphonic verse.
Black Arts Movement
Baraka’s writing is similar to Ginsberg in that it is personal, idiomatic and passionate in its tone. Beginning as a “beat” writer, the early stages of Baraka’s work was an expression of longing, looking for understanding in a world where Blacks were largely oppressed, invisible and misunderstood by larger society. Baraka wasn’t necessarily looking to be understood, but to be free to express what was real within him. For Baraka, this was crucial to his survival and to his people’s survival. The “Beat “movement was a vehicle for Baraka’s unique need for self-expression. He didn’t stay with the Beatnik culture for long, though. After the assassination of Malcolm X, Baraka’s anger led him to leave his wife and children in The Village and the largely white “Beat” culture and travel uptown to Harlem to refocus his artistic energies. He founded what would become known as the Black Arts Movement. One particular piece that was written by Baraka during this period, “Black Art”, deals with his expression of the rage and hate that he embodied towards Whites and the dominant culture of the time. “We want “poems that kill.”/ Assassin poems, Poems that shoot/guns. Poems that wrestle cops into alleys/and take their weapons leaving them dead/with tongues pulled out and sent to Ireland.” (Baraka 142) Like Ginsberg, Baraka’s writing is unconventional and personal. His style is jazz-like in its improvisational verse. He, too, speaks colloquially and is able to take aspects of his reality and turn it into a unique artistic creation of his own making. Also, like Ginsberg, there is the unconventional use of punctuation. Both writers use punctuation as an expression of verbal speech. In Baraka’s poem “As Agony. As Now,” the sporadic use of punctuation is used to separate pauses in thought and the beginning of new thought. For example,
“God would be. Or pain. And the other. The
yes. (Inside his books, his fingers. They
are withered yellow flowers and were never
beautiful.) The yes. You will, lost soul, say
‘beauty.’ Beauty, practiced, as the tree.” (Baraka 61)
With Baraka’s writing, there appears to be no reference to any conventional style during his militant Black Arts Movement period. However, during his “Beat” period, he did appear to use the stanza in some of his works. One that stands out in particular is his poem written for his eldest daughter, “Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note.” The poem consists of 3 stanzas and 3 breaks. The poems stanza count is 5-4-5 with one sentence in between each that serves as the break in the flow of the poem. In adherence to unconventional writing, the poem does not rhyme. However, like most “beat” poets of the time, his speaking is “matter-of-factly” and conversational in tone.
Both Ginsberg and Baraka speak in language that is reflective of their times. Baraka’s work, however, changes in tone as he moves from one life event to another. After the murder of Malcolm X, Baraka’s work began to take on an edgier tone. He became more violent in his artistic expression and told of an internal reality most people in the larger society weren’t aware of. With his “beat” roots as a guide, he openly expressed his rage and pain in the free verse and colloquial tone he learned as a “beat” poet. He began to express feelings of anti-Semitism, sexism and homophobia all in a rage against the dominant, White society and its ills. (It seems curious to me that a person that espoused such a high level of anti-Semitism and homophobia would openly have friendship with someone like Allen Ginsberg. Hmmm.) As time progressed, Baraka was seen as a major social activist within the Newark African-American community and later became poet laureate of the state of NJ. Ginsberg also grew out of his “beat” roots to pioneer causes such as anti-war demonstrations against the war in Vietnam and the “hippie” culture. He coined the phrase “flower power” and was an early fighter in the rights for Gay liberation. He fought for the legalization of marijuana and was an open follower of Timothy Leary in the advocation of the use of LSD. Both writers were the founders or “fathers,” if you will, of a major movement of artistic expression—Baraka, of the Black Arts Movement and Ginsberg, co-founder and poet laureate of the “Beat” generation literary movement. Both of these great writers paved the way for so many others like them who, too, needed to let the world—or someone know what life is really like underneath it all. In the 50’s, everything was so ordinary and white-washed, and thus, was oppressive to the “other.” The netherworld always existed just a hair’s breadth underneath the “polished and acceptable” one. These “so-called” beat ones dared to let the larger world know just what it was harboring underneath—greatness!
- Baraka, Amiri. Transbluesency: Selected Poems (1961-1995). Copyright 1995, by Paul Vangelisti, New York, NY.
- “Allen Ginsberg.” 2013. The Biography Channel website. December 5, 2013. Retrieved from www.biography.com/people/allen-ginsberg-9311994.
- Ramazani, Janan, Richard Ellman, Robert O’Clair. The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry: Volume 2. Copyright 2003 W.W. Norton and Company, Inc.
© 2014 Dana Ayres