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Allen Ginsberg's 1974 NBA Citation written by judge, poet Philip Levine.The Fall of America: Poems of these States, 1965-1971 

By Allen Ginsberg

Original and Current Publisher: City Lights Publishers

John Murillo writes:

I have to say, with the exception of Howl, I've always been more impressed with Allen Ginsberg's poetics than his poetry.  I loved this first book from the beginning and still come back to it often. But I was less enamored with Kaddish and even less so with his National Book Award-winning collection, The Fall of America. (Frankly, I think Adrienne Rich should have been the sole winner that year for Diving into the Wreck.) But there is something about his process, his “first thought, best thought” philosophy, that I want so desperately to believe in, that I keep coming back to his work in the hope that I may find something to love. But try as I may, I can find nothing, and very little to recommend this book to any but the already die-hard Ginsberg heads. And they don't need me to recommend them nada.

When I started reading Ginsberg, I never bought into this whole first flash business. Howl was just too damned good not to have been gone over at least a few times. Was it really possible to write like that?  Even Whitman compiled years' worth of notes before writing “Song of Myself.” All those images were carefully selected and placed and replaced until he got his litanies just right. I believed Ginsberg did the same with his first and best work. With The Fall of America, however, I think I'm starting to believe him, that this time he just wrote down the first randomness that popped into his head. For pages.  And pages.  And pages. 

And pages. I feel compelled, at this point, to admit a serious bias toward the taut, muscular line.  But I can also appreciate sprawl. When Ginsberg is at his best, he rocks it. Here, though, he doesn't sprawl as much as ramble

Setting out East on rain bright highways
                        Indianapolis, police cars speeding past
                        gas station—Stopped for matches
PLOWL of Silence,
            Street bulbs flash cosmic blue—darkness!
                        POW, lights flash on again!
                                                Mobil station pumps lit in rain
ZAP, darkness, highway power failure
                        rain hiss
                                    traffic lights dead black –
Ho!  Dimethyl Triptamine flashing circle vibrations
                        center Spiked –
                        Einsteinian Mandala,
            Spectrum translucent,
...Television eyeball dots in treehouse Ken Kesey's
Power failure inside the head,
            neural apparatus crackling –

The hell? And I'm not picking on Ginsberg; I didn't choose that poem in order to make a point.  Really, I flipped through the collection just now and landed on this poem, “Auto Poesy: On the Lam from Bloomington.” But I could have picked almost any poem in the collection and would have happened upon the same madness. Take, for example, a shorter poem like “Smoke Rolling Down the Street”:

Red Scabies on the Skin
Police Cars turn Garbage Corner –
Was that a Shot!  Backfire or Cherry Bomb?
Ah, it's all right, take the mouth off,
it's all over.

Man Came a long way,
Canoes thru Fire Engines,
Big Cities' power station Fumes
Executives with Country Houses –
Waters drip thru Ceilings in the Slum –
It's all right, take the mouth off
it's all over –

For pages. And pages. When Ginsberg is at his best in this collection, he's most coherent and, dare I say, most conscious of his craft. In the long last poem, “September on Jessore Road,” we see Ginsberg the technician at work. This poem consists of carefully considered rhymed quatrains that serve the subject well and—partly because it's so different from anything else in the collection, or anything we've seen from Ginsberg—seems strangely modern, even as it utilizes more traditional devices.  Ginsberg described this poem as a “mantric lamentation rhymed for vocal chant to western chords F minor B flat E flat B flat.”

At his worst, Ginsberg appears not only to imitate, but to caricature himself. “Please Master” returns to the anaphora, the litany, that swept us away in the first section of Howl, as well as the bold references to the speaker's sexuality, but to much lesser effect:

Please master can I touch your neckplease master can I kneel at your feet
please master can I loosen your blue pants
please master can I gaze at your golden haired belly
please master can I gently take down your shorts
please master can I have your thighs bare to my eyes...

please master can I touch my tongue to your rosy asshole
please master can I pass my face to your balls...

For pages. And pages and pages. And pages. But I hang in there, wanting to believe in his driving methodology.  Spontaneous.  The first and best thought.  Everything happening in the here and now.  In Ginsberg's own words, “tape-recorded scribed by hand or sung condensed, the flux of car bus airplane dream consciousness Person during Automated Electronic War years, newspaper headline radio brain auto poesy & silent desk musings, headlights flashing on road through these States of consciousness...”  I want to believe in it.  Just like I want to believe in Kerouac's “Spontaneous Prose,” Charles Olson's “Projective Verse,” and Jack Spicer's “Transmissions.”

As a former hip-hop emcee, I'm well-schooled in the art of freestyling. When rapping “off the top of the head” as we say, there's always the chance that one may say something magical, completely unexpected, and beautiful. Most of the time, we're just talking shit, but every now and then...magic.  One advantage that the writer has over the poet who only speaks his verse into the ether is that the former can record these moments. Another is that though 99% of what one may record is garbage, one can also erase, delete, edit, and revise. That first flash is not always brilliant and often needs to be worked up into brilliance. When left alone, though, what we get is often, well... what we got here.  In a freestyle rap cipher, we'd call it “wackness.” 

Pages and pages. And pages of wackness.

John Murillo is the author of the poetry collection, Up Jump the Boogie (Cypher Books, 2010). A graduate of New York University's MFA program in creative writing, he has received fellowships from the New York Times, Cave Canem, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, among others. He is a founding member of the collective, The Symphony, and is currently visiting assistant professor of creative writing at Cornell University. (Photo credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths)

Poetry Finalists that Year:

  • Hayden Carruth for From Snow and Rock, from Chaos
  • Evan S. Connell, Jr. for Points for a Compass Rose
  • Peter Everwine for Collecting the Animals
  • Richard Hugo for The Lady in Kicking Horse Reservoir
  • Donald Justice for Departures
  • Eleanor Lerman for Armed Love
  • Audre Lorde for From a Land Where Other People Live
  • Alice Walker for Revolutionary Petunias and Other Poems
  • Charles Wright for Hard Freight

Poetry Judges that Year: David Kalstone, Philip Levine,
Jean Valentine

Other Information:

  • Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) was born in Newark, NJ.
  • Ginsberg was a practicing Buddhist for most of his life. Due in part to his strong religious beliefs, he participated in non-violent protests of everything from the Vietnam War to the War on Drugs.

Suggested Links:

BBC2 Interview - Face to Face with Allen Ginsberg

The 1974 National Book Award Invitation (25th Anniversary)

















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Reader Comments (5)

I can't argue with you about "Diving into the Wreck." Everything Rich wrote up through the mid-90s was fantastic.

Also, Ginsberg possibly wrote just a handful of great poems ("Howl," certainly, also in my mind, "Kaddish") and a lot of unimpressive lines in the style of great poems by Ginsberg.

Might this have been a "make up" prize for having ignored "Howl?"

May 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterChristopher Honey

I clicked this page expecting some strained, unconvincing defense of Ginsberg's babbling, so I love the brutal honesty here. This just wasn't one of the NBA's better picks.

"Please Master" also stood out for me as especially lousy. Or maybe it stood out because it's one of the few poems in the collection where Ginsberg isn't literally driving down the street while uttering random lines into a tape recorder.

November 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterThe Fall of Ginsberg

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