Culture & Criticism Since 2003
“The Fall of America continues Planet News chronicle tape-recorded scribed by hand or sung condensed, the flux of car bus airplane dream consciousness…radio brain auto poesy silent desk musings, headlights flashing on road through these States of consciousness…”
(Allen Ginsberg, from the introduction to his collection of poems, The Fall of America, for which he won the National Book Award in 1974.)
If Jack Kerouac is remembered as the father of the Beat Generation, than Allen Ginsberg was certainly its first-born son – a poet of eloquence and grand vision whose work will stand unto eternity.
During a career that spanned half a century, Ginsberg’s mentors were vast – Whitman, Blake, Rimbuad, Baudlaire, Tolstoy and Machado form a chain of examples. Nonetheless, Ginsberg’s greatest influence was none other than Kerouac himself: For it was Kerouac who taught his friend to rage against the stale and stilted 1940s American landscape by celebrating the spontaneous mind (“First thought best thought”), imploring Ginsberg to write uncensored in quest of the naked self.
In turn, The Fall of America Journals, once again deftly edited by Michael Schumacher, presents us with the real-time results of Ginsberg’s studies as we stand witness to the shape of the poet’s bare mind in this epic travelogue that sired Ginsberg’s classic collection of poems, The Fall of America (City Lights).
As Schumacher says, Ginsberg had formulated a relationship with musician Bob Dylan in the mid-1960s (with Dylan’s own Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde owing a deep debt to the Beats). At one point, Dylan gave Ginsberg a reel-to-reel tape recorder. The poet coveted the machine because it allowed him to record his musings on the spot, capturing the scenes in words as the images spilled off the eaves of his eyes.
Ginsberg used the recorder continuously as he traveled across the United States in the 1960s, writing everything he saw on the tongue in quick stabbing passages that rise and throb – the words aching with passionate disdain, the lines clawing through the stink of death that framed both sides of the flyway. And the poet wrote in his acceptance speech for the National Book Award on April 17, 1974:
“There is no longer any hope for the salvation of America…All we have to work from now is the vast empty quiet space of our own consciousness…”
These journals show us that when he took up the “road” that Kerouac had recently exited, Ginsberg was connecting to a new movement – this one basted in music and led by the young Dylan who had just snatched the baton from his Beat predecessors. And Ginsberg writes in Journals (June 6, 1966):
“Dylan writes better poetry than I did at his age, but he’s a space age genius minstrel not just old library poet. Because he moves his thoughts out through music he takes no thought for superficial logic but reads into his mind like a Rorschach blot. If his metaphors excite & mystify the Blake-oriented teeny-bopper mystic it also mystifies him too. He learns from his own prophecy.”
There’s something new to learn about poetry and life on every page of the The Fall of America Journals (in this respect, it’s a mirror of everything else Ginsberg published in his career). However, there’s also a certain immediate relevance to this material: In 1965, when the seed for these books was planted, America teetered at a tipping point, the Vietnam War ravaging the nation. And some 60 years later, we’re back at that same tipping point – the war with the Coronavirus and the effects of a misfit President raging on endlessly.
Once again, this country is bleeding. But perhaps Ginsberg’s spontaneous musings on the first fall of America offer a pathway on how to mend her wounds before that once proud spirit is forever buried in the rubble.
Go here to read John Aiello’s May 1988 interview with Allen Ginsberg.