Allen & Walt
To the editors:
I enjoyed David Carter’s “Poetics and Consciousness” in the Winter 2006/7 issue, but although I respect David as a scholar and friend, and I consider Allen Ginsberg to be the greatest American poet of the mid-twentieth century, if not the entire century, I have a few pedantic quibbles with both of them.
Carter says, “…poetry had become a mechanical slave to rhyme and meter before the Beats.” But Walt Whitman had broken that dependence with the 1855 publication of Leaves of Grass in unrhymed, unmetered free verse. Many poets before the Beats followed his example.
In a quotation from Ginsberg, the poet cites a 1923 textbook that uses the line “Thou too sail on, O Ship of State.” He complains: “…they had an unaccented mark for O and an accented mark for Ship. ..O is an exclamation, and, by definition, you can’t have an unaccented mark for that and an accented mark for Ship.” Ginsberg was wrong. This use of the word O is called an apostrophe, a direct address to an abstraction, and is not accented.
Carter writes, “When it came time to write ‘Howl,’ it was Kerouac’s example of going with the flow of language based on breath that set Allen free to write such long lines…” Ginsberg (or Kerouac) could as easily have learned that lesson from Whitman, whose long lines got there first: “The smoke of my own breath /… My respiration and inspiration, the beating of my heart, the passing of air through my lungs…”
Later in the piece, Carter again quotes Ginsberg’s comments on Whitman, and Ginsberg is again wrong. “Whitman…said he thought that for poets and orators of the future, the great quality would be candor, frankness, truthfulness — like first thought-best thought, the notion of non-manipulative communication rather than trying to dress it up and look good for the public.”
Whitman certainly believed in a tone of candor and frankness, although he personally didn’t always practice truthfulness (pretending to be one of the “roughs” to attract the working class men who attracted him). He also believed in clarity of style. In his notebooks, he wrote: “Rules for Composition — A perfectly transparent, plate-glassy style, artless with no ornaments, or attempts at ornaments, for their own sake…”
But anyone who sees the numerous, meticulous revisions of his early drafts knows that far from “first thought-best thought,” Whitman followed Wordsworth’s 1798 dictum: “Poetry is emotion recollected in tranquility.”
That being said, Allen Ginsberg is the true poetic descendent of Whitman, both of them great heroes of homoerotic poetry, and of all poetry. It is only because of their importance that we comb their work for details of content and style. David Carter’s work brings credit to Ginsberg’s memory. I hope to do the same for Whitman.
Thanks for your contribution to Gay thought,
New York, New York
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On the Bohemian Issue
Nice work men.
A lovely balanced issue with lots of our history that I needed to read.
Twillingate, NL, Canada
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