"White Shroud: Poems 1980-1985" and the new annotated edition of "Howl" are the second and third books of Ginsberg's poetry published by Harper & Row, following Ginsberg's "The Collected Poems, 1947-1980." The sequence of these three handsomely produced volumes issued in bright red, white and blue dust jackets suggests the range and solidity of Ginsberg's work, and his unmistakable national coloration as perhaps America's best-known living poet at home and abroad.
In its way, "White Shroud" marks the end of an era in American poetry. It is the first Ginsberg volume of new poems to be published as a slick hardcover by Harper & Row in New York, instead of as a generic black-and-white paperback by City Lights Books in San Francisco. Since 1956, when the original "Howl" came out as a stapled pamphlet in the City Lights Pocket Poets series created by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg has mostly published his work in small press format, books spottily distributed and rarely reviewed.
After nearly 30 years with small presses, Ginsberg moved to Harper & Row to publish the large volume (837 pages) of his "Collected Poems" in 1984. Does this mean he is no longer committed to the alternative culture? Hardly. Ever since journalists first jumped on the Beat Generation bandwagon during the "Howl" obscenity trial, Ginsberg has been protesting that that rebellion isn't his main concern as a writer. Writing poetry is.
These new volumes should make clear that he is a poet first and a social activist second. His fervent advocacy of the use of imagination and intuition to temper reason and make us more human is in a time-honored poetic tradition shared by his mentors Blake, Shelley, Whitman and Williams. As the critic Helen Vendler said, Ginsberg was responsible for "loosening the breath of American poetry at mid-century. . . . (He) demonstrated that there is nothing in American social and erotic reality which cannot find a place." These Harper & Row volumes are evidence that Ginsberg hasn't changed. But American poetry has, to accommodate him into its main stream.
"White Shroud" is a mellow sampler of Ginsberg in his prime, autobiographical poems chronicling his travels, public appearances, emotions, dreams and reading over the last five years. During this time, he visited China, and 10 of the poems describe his experiences there, like his reflections in a hotel room recovering from a cold:
So I lifted my head from my pillow and Woke
to find I was a sick guest in a vast poor kingdom
A famous visitor honored with a heated room,
medicines, special foods and learned visitors
inquiring when I'd be well enough to lecture my hosts
on the musics and poetics of the wealthy
Nation I had come from half way round the world.
Even in dreams, Ginsberg is lucid and communicative, as in the title poem "White Shroud," its style reminiscent of the inspired, emotionally complex pile-up of images in "Kaddish," Ginsberg's elegy for his mother written a quarter century ago. Here the mood is less terrible, if no less loving, as he describes a recent dream about his mother living as a bag lady in the Bronx, "saner than I/Laughs and cries/She's still alive." The tender humor characterizing Ginsberg's best work permeates these poems, yet they are no soft sellout to the upbeat Muzak of Madison Avenue.
Ginsberg's other new title, dedicated to Ferlinghetti, is the definitive edition of "Howl," complete with original draft facsimile and several variant versions. Indispensable for students of American poetry, this volume is comparable to the 1971 facsimile edition of T. S. Eliot's "The Waste Land," another landmark poem of its time (1921). The painstaking revisions of "Howl" are a revelation in light of Ginsberg's advocacy of Kerouac's unconventional aesthetic of spontaneity based on "first thought best thought." In the annotated "Howl," Ginsberg says that when he writes poetry, the process includes such conventional acts as "basic sorting and judgment, revision, (and) transposition of artful choices."