Edgar Allan Poe as a Major Influence upon Allen Ginsberg

By Pollin, Burton R. | The Mississippi Quarterly, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Edgar Allan Poe as a Major Influence upon Allen Ginsberg


Pollin, Burton R., The Mississippi Quarterly


Part 1. Introduction

ALLEN GINSBERG (1926-1997) HAD GREAT AND WIDESPREAD influence in the nineteen fifties to seventies as a leader of "The Beats." He was their eloquent bard, especially through Howl & Other Poems (1956) and Kaddish and Other Poems (1961). In 1984, when the popularity of the unorthodox "movement" was waning, the publication of his Collected Poems 1947-1980, a densely printed, mammoth volume, containing notes and indices (with over a dozen ignored references to Poe) gave a renewed vigor to his reputation. Even among academic critics and their readership, he was regarded as an outstanding American poet, sought here and throughout the world for readings, recordings, interviews, press releases on controversial issues, television conferences, and verse contributions to journals.(1) Even formerly lukewarm or hostile commentators found creditable features in his unconventional, vividly uninhibited poems about social, political, and sexual conduct and action. Only a small group of conservative critics(2) have continued to denounce his work and life style as subversive of decency, normality, and sound values, especially in the effect upon youth. By contrast, a large Festschrift of 1986 provided a gathering of accolades from prominent writers, including Kenneth Koch, Kurt Vonnegut, Yevtushenko, Kay Boyle, John Hollander, and dozens more.(3) With his death on April 5, 1997, there came a new avalanche of tributes and encomia, still too fresh in our minds to need mention here.(4) In May 1998, 2,500 disciples and curious citizens thronged the Cathedral of St. John The Divine to hear a dozen singers, poets, and chanters in a program honoring Allen.

For balanced and analytic judgments of the chief merits in his work along with the accepted major sources, I give observations of two respected critics. Helen Vendler, in her book The Music of What Happens, writes: "an original voice in American poetry, helping to change public consciousness. ... His verbal wit has a keen edge of social truth ... satire and vision together in a way poetically new ... our common homeless predicament alternately farcical and touching.... Always a spontaneous and prolific writer ... thought-forms passing naturally through ordinary mind [as] always [my] motif and method ... a voice ... populist in tone but recondite in allusion ... always relishing the appearances of the world ... [combining] perception, passion, and humor.... American social and erotic reality." She notes the influences on him as Walt Whitman, W. C. Williams, Ezra Pound, William Blake.(5) Second, Joel Conarroe, in Eight American Poets, judges him "uneven, but clearly ... in the front rank of American artists" and deserving of praise for his teaching, his generosity, his opposition to all censorship, and support of individual freedom. As for his sources, Conarroe says: "Aside from Burroughs, Kerouac, Cassady," he "was moved by Blake's `mystical vision,' Whitman's `incantatory rhythms and brotherhood of man' and William Carlos Williams who favored `American idiomatic speech.'"(6) Other objective critics and analysts besides Vendler have most frequently mentioned as models and sources: William Blake, especially for "The Songs of Innocence and Experience"; Christopher Smart for Rejoice in the Lamb; and much of Walt Whitman; to a much smaller extent: Emily Dickinson, and Shelley for various poems.(7)

Almost entirely missing from suggestions as to sources from these and hundreds of commentaries is any attribution to Edgar Allan Poe; yet the evidence for Poe as an inspirer of themes and prosodic style, an example of personal courage and originality, an unconventional prober into new or "non-poetic" areas of society and of science is provided by Ginsberg himself: first, in direct allusions in his poems, especially those in Collected Poems 1947-1980, second, in the subjects of his own teaching seminars at Naropa Institute, in Boulder, Colorado (from 1976 on); third, in references in his journals and travel notes; in headnotes and prefaces to books, and in his own annotations to poems;(8) fourth, in his letters to numerous correspondents and in his numerous published or privately recorded interviews on tape or on videos; and finally in his liner notes to recordings.

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