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Whitman's wild child

October 29, 2006|Lewis MacAdams | Lewis MacAdams' new CD, "Dear Oxygen," will be released in December. He is at work on a biography of Jann Wenner, founder of Rolling Stone magazine.

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Collected Poems

1947-1997

Allen Ginsberg

HarperCollins: 1,190 pp., $39.95

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I Celebrate Myself

The Somewhat Private Life of Allen Ginsberg

Bill Morgan

Viking: 702 pp., $29.95

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The Book of Martyrdom and Artifice

First Journals and Poems: 1937-1952

Allen Ginsberg

Edited by Juanita Lieberman-Plimpton and Bill Morgan

Da Capo Press: 524 pp., $27.50

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Howl on Trial

The Battle for Free Expression

Edited by Bill Morgan and Nancy J. Peters

City Lights: 224 pp., $14.95 paper

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Illuminated Poems

Allen Ginsberg

Art by Eric Drooker

Thunder's Mouth Press: 142 pp., $19.95 paper

THE death of Allen Ginsberg in April 1997 was front-page news. I remember feeling dazed, lost. For my friend, poet Larry Fagin, it was as if suddenly "the doorknobs had come off all the doors," so long had Ginsberg dominated our world. "Of all nations," Walt Whitman wrote in his preface to the first edition of "Leaves of Grass," "the United States with veins full of poetical stuff most needs poets and will doubtless have the greatest and use them the greatest." If any poet ever answered Whitman's challenge, it was Ginsberg.

Nov. 1 marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Ginsberg's epochal poem "Howl," and the American publishing industry is celebrating with at least five books. The impetus for this blitz is longtime Ginsberg colleague Bill Morgan, who has co-edited two of these new works -- "The Book of Martyrdom and Artifice," a collection of Ginsberg's earliest journals; and "Howl on Trial," a report on the 1957 "Howl" obscenity trial that struck a major blow for free speech -- and authored another, "I Celebrate Myself," the third Ginsberg biography yet published and the first since the poet's death.

Morgan met Ginsberg through Lawrence Ferlinghetti, whose writings he catalogued in San Francisco in the late 1960s. When Morgan moved to New York in 1978, Ginsberg gave him a job. Over the next 20 years he became Ginsberg's archivist, bibliographer and a close enough friend to be among the dozen or so people with him when he died.

Ginsberg's story is well-known: He grew up in Paterson, N.J., the son of Louis Ginsberg, a minor poet and high school teacher, and Naomi, also a teacher, both children of left-wing Russian Jewish immigrants. He had an older brother named Eugene. His childhood was irrevocably scarred by the descent of his mother into madness and complicated by the dawning realization that he was homosexual. Ambitious intellectually and socially, starved for sex and fame, Ginsberg vowed on the ferry taking him to Manhattan for his Columbia University entrance exam that if he were admitted, he would become a saintly revolutionary labor leader.

His planned exaltation, however, was soon derailed by friends such as Jack Kerouac, who'd arrived at Columbia from the mill town of Lowell, Mass., to play football; William S. Burroughs, who, 10 years Kerouac and Ginsberg's senior, became their mentor; and Neal Cassady, a yea-saying con man and car thief from Denver who came to New York to visit a hometown friend, Ginsberg's fellow Columbia student Hal Chase.

Though World War II was raging, Ginsberg and his friends were way too alienated to find a place in that effort. Instead, they crowded into the West 115th Street apartment of Joan Vollmer -- later, she'd become Mrs. William Burroughs -- seeking a new vision. Add poet Gregory Corso, who, fresh from prison, met Ginsberg a few years later in Greenwich Village, and you have the molten core of what a decade later would be called the Beat Generation.

When Ginsberg was 11, he got a small diary into which he poured his innermost thoughts. It was the start of a lifelong habit; he would ultimately fill more than 300 journals. "The Book of Martydom and Artifice" follows him to age 26. (The title derives from Ginsberg's name for the notebook from which the work is taken, "The Book of Martifice." When Morgan asked the poet what he'd meant, Ginsberg explained that it was a combination of "martyrdom" and "artifice.") Much of the material here deals with the six fitful years Ginsberg spent at Columbia. His mother's mental and physical state was deteriorating. He too spent eight months in the bughouse, where he met Carl Solomon, to whom he would dedicate "Howl." "If some future historian or biographer wants to know what the genius thought and did in his tender years," Ginsberg wrote just before his 15th birthday, "here it is."

Most of the best stories in these diaries have been plundered already, not just by biographers but by Ginsberg and Kerouac, who used their lives to fuel their work. I was struck, though, by Ginsberg's intellectual ambition. A March 1947 reading list includes Ezra Pound, Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, Daniel Defoe and Christopher Marlowe. A similar list for the following month features Shakespeare's sonnets, Lawrence Durrell, Henry Fielding, Wallace Stevens and W.H. Auden.

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