The Poetry and Politics of Allen Ginsberg

A Review of Eliot Katz's book

The Poetry and Politics of Allen Ginsberg

By Jim Cohn

There was what was called a gathering of the tribes of all of the different affinity groups, political groups, spiritual groups, Yoga groups, music groups and poetry groups that all felt the same crisis of identity and crisis of the planet and political crisis in America. [...] My statement was that the planet Earth at the present moment was endangered by violence, over-population, pollution, ecological destruction brought about by our own greed; [...] that the younger people of America were aware of that and [...] we were going to invite them there [to Chicago, to take part in Democratic National Convention demonstrations] and that the central motive would be a presentation of a desire for the preservation of the planet.

––Allen Ginsberg, 9th witness, Chicago [Seven] Trial Testimony (1969)

I think it no accident that Eliot Katz’s The Poetry and Politics of Allen Ginsberg was released by Beatdom Books during the dangerous 2016 presidential election season. This book’s appearance is a mahamudra (“great symbol”) in a time of unforeseeable presidential candidate turns of fortune. It was all played out by the media. The stakes rose by the hour. It would be sheer lunacy to interpret this new and excellent work’s appearance as only history, and not also a sygne for these times.
Reading Eliot Katz’s The Poetry and Politics of Allen Ginsberg, I often felt spellbound. This isn’t the figure of Allen Ginsberg I’m growing sadly accustomed to seeing, since his death, through the distorted lens of popular history; especially, as he is portrayed in film. Katz’s portrait is the living Allen I knew. The book may well be the best place to start, the best entry into the life of the most well known poet of our time; specifically, in regards to Ginsberg’s own visionary political poetry in the context of dangerous times.
Not to say that Allen’s Collected Poems, his prose, his journals, are not also required reading, as well as all of Bill Morgan’s edited Ginsberg correspondence books––Allen’s Collected Letters, and the individual books of Ginsberg’s correspondence with Jack Kerouac, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gary Snyder––which really do give the reader a deeper understanding of the friendships Allen maintained, what he learned from these relationships, and what he expanded upon within himself from knowing these poets over decades. Then, there are the recordings of his music, TV appearances, live interviews, documentaries, the whole Allen Ginsberg YouTube Channel to experience, the Gold Mind Internet Archive of Allen at Naropa, teaching and in performance.
Whether Ginsberg’s Universe is one to which you desire entry or it is one with which you are already familiar, I would suggest reading The Poetry and Politics of Allen Ginsberg immediately. It is the right place to start right now. It will help you strategize mass theatric imaginations that end up the choreography of demonstrations to end this Notre Dame Cathedral-sized Situationalist event where we have The Joker taking over America as if it were Gotham City.


Let me get to the point. The Allen Ginsberg that Katz has written about is so accurate a portrait of the Beat Generation poet, as a man and as a political activist, that I could not put the book down. The real Allen Ginsberg inhabits these pages; not a fiction. Katz’s Poetry and Politics is an accurate portrait, and as such, should be considered a cornerstone of all future research and scholarship on the relationship between Ginsberg’s poetry and his political beliefs and actions, as well as their meaning for us now.
One of the most useful takeaways can be found in Chapter 1. Here, Katz reviews Ginsberg’s influence on many 1960s countercultural political leaders such as Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman, and Jerry Rubin; pop countercultural political figures such as Bob Dylan, John Lennon, and Patti Smith; and political poets including Amiri Baraka, Andy Clausen, Wanda Coleman, Jayne Cortez, Marge Piercy, Adrienne Rich, Ed Sanders, and Anne Waldman. Following this discussion, Katz also defines in Chapter 1 what I’ll refer to as “Allen Ginsberg's Eight Tools & Techniques To Heighten Social Observations & Ideas for Political Poetry.” This introductory section (20-34) offers Katz’s analysis of the various stylistic ways in which Ginsberg made his political explorations effectively poetic. These tools and techniques, as outlined by Katz, condensed by the reviewer, are as follows:

Allen Ginsberg's Eight Tools & Techniques
To Heighten Social Observations
& Ideas for Political Poetry

    1) Clear images/empirical perceptions/realist narrative as in William Carlos Williams’ notion of the “clear hard image” or William Blake’s idea of “minute particulars;

    2) Surrealism/Modernism as in Andre Breton’s theory that literary surrealism stream-of-consciousness style offers a way to “bring together the evolving studies of psychoanalysis and leftist politics,” or in the way that Ernst Bloch described as “anticipatory illuminations”––using imagery to imply the possible-but-not-yet-existing in the actual world;

    3) Mythification or the method by which a poet may “impart an aura of timelessness to current events or ideas” as in Ginsberg’s use of “Moloch” in part II of “Howl”;

    4) Demythification/Demystification/Historicizationor deconstructing “false myths promoted by the mainstream media or government institutions”; used in Ginsberg’s “Wichita Vortex Sutra” to oppose the Vietnam War;

    5) Personalization or the heightening of “emotional intensity of political matters by concretely demonstrating their impact on individual human begins,” as Allen did in “Kaddish” to “embed political intentions within self-exploration” and “to assert subjective desires against an objectifying or dehumanizing culture;

    6) Humor or “the realization that poetic humor [...] is not at all the opposite of seriousness of purpose” as when Ginsberg asks in “America” “When can I go into the supermarket and buy what I need with my good looks?”;

    7) Extending or subverting previous poetic traditions in interesting ways as when Ginsberg “utilizes long lines in the tradition of Blake and Whitman, but he makes his own lines even longer than these cherished predecessors” for his even more “radical project of freeing self and society from restrictive boundaries”;

    8) Surprise or what Ginsberg referred to in a pedagogic context as the “Test of Poetry” which suggests that all lines of a poem should have “some haiku or double joke or image or mad sound or Poetry in it, not be just flat prose.” 

I have studied other lists by Allen over the years. Ginsberg’s “Mind Writing Slogans” is in a class by itself––a masterpiece of literature while simultaneous providing novices and veterans, fans and critics, with the best set of poetics tools ever assembled in the history of literature. There’s also a list Ginsberg wrote in “A Definition of the Beat Generation” in which he summarizes the “essential effects” of the Beat Generation. To this day, I find “Essential Effects” prophetically accurate, seismically influential.
But I’d not seen a list by Allen telegraphing his use of specific literary devices in the making of political poetry until Katz’s summary of those devices in Chapter 1. Of the eight tools for the writing of political poetry, Katz’s discussion of humor in Ginsberg’s political poems stands out. Katz reports that the poem “America” got big laughs early. It blurred the line between poetry and comedy. I remember my sister bringing The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan record home in 1963 after she saw him in concert for the first time in 1963 and her telling me, “Bob Dylan’s a comedian.” “America” unleashed that.


“Howl,” the subject of Chapter 2, unleashed a more complex visionary testimony. In writing “Howl,” Katz argues that Ginsberg “helped create new progressive energies in the poetry world by challenging the New Critics’ more impersonal and politically conservative aesthetics.” (42) And Katz holds up Ginsberg as important for our own period “where rising discontent is often coupled with a sense of political hopelessness.” (44) This is a common enough refrain, but the question, looking back on “Howl,” remains––What literary and thematic tropes does it mix that may be of use to political poets of this time?  “In terms of Ginsberg’s style,” Katz writes,

He imaginatively integrated, expanded, and revised Whitman’s long-lined oratory, William Carlos Williams’ concern for American diction and cadence, Emily Dickinson’s incisive and paradoxical condensations, African-American blues lyrics and bebop jazz rhythms, Biblical anaphoric phrasing and apocalyptic imagery, William Blake’s techniques for channeling and depicting the imagination, Eastern verse forms, classical comedy and tragedy, and international modernism, especially French surrealism and Soviet futurism. (45)

Additionally, Katz’s analysis suggests that Ginsberg’s

“Howl” astonished even those familiar with Ginsberg’s work up until that time, stunning readers and listeners with its linguistic and oratorical energy, its striking imagery, its mix of empirical perception and surreal imagination, its extension of previously undervalued literary precursors, its dynamic willingness to explode widely accepted cultural and political dogma, its assertions of honest selfhood and sexuality against a repressive culture, and its relentless search for a more fulfilling life-world. (51)

Citing Ginsberg’s 1961 essay, “When the ode of the Music Changes, the Walls of the City Shake,” in which Allen discusses how conventional form was too symmetrical and pre-fixed and how he saw the writing of “Howl,” particularly its line-lengthening, as a means to break out of the cultural and literary or formal imprisonment he felt by “swinging the gates of the city’s walls open even further than Whitman had swung them.” (52) Adding an author’s note to the original essay on “Howl” when it was published years later in Ginsberg’s Deliberate Prose (253), Katz observes that Allen wrote about his belief in:

a political liberty that could only be defended by undaunted, free, bold humorous imagination, open field mentality, open field poetics, open field democracy. The closed forms of the older poetry, it seemed to me, were ostrich-head-in-sand-like. It seemed to me that breakthroughs of new poetry were social breakthroughs, that is, political in the long run. (52)

In many ways, Ginsberg’s legacy, beginning with “Howl,” is that the poem itself is its own Political Poetry Studies formulation. This, I believe, is what Katz has carved out with Poetry and Politics. The key to Eliot’s narrative is that it unfolds these formulations with a joyous logic of debate not unlike the way Ginsberg himself would argue his own point of view. This blissful building of a case to deconstruct Allen’s major poems, and to reveal their relationship to his politics, is one of the critical successes of The Poetry and Politics of Allen Ginsberg.
Another critical success is how Katz makes Allen Ginsberg come alive. There’s a quality about his prose that I liken to vivid Talmudic-like commentary. This quality is further heightened with Katz’s use of a diverse yet narrow progressive-oriented selection of evidentiary materials featuring poets, historians, as well as cultural experts in order to provide further evidence of the complex interplay between Ginsberg’s poetry and his political activism. In that regard, this book is an Allen Ginsberg Studies groundbreaker.
Others have written essays on Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl.” Jason Shinder’s edited collection, The Poem That Changed America: “Howl” Fifty Years Later (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006), comes to mind. Very fine essays in which the poem is re-envisioned a half-century after making its initial impact and having successive waves of influence on the world. The powerful complex of forces “Howl” carries forward is its striking tensions over what kind of people we are.
To my knowledge, however, poet Eliot Katz––whose essay on “Howl” is included in The Poem That Changed America collection––is the first writer to make a book-length, intensive study of the relationship of Ginsberg’s poetry and politics throughout his life. That approach is actually a far more complicated deliberation involving causalities across the poet’s lifespan. Such an approach requires longitudinal knowledge of Ginsberg’s life and poetic productivity, as well as knowledge of the political and social climate in which Allen’s poetry was produced.
A tall order, for sure. One would essentially need to have an intimate knowledge of 20th century history, its social, political, cultural and artistic ideas and movements, in addition to a close-to-the-bone relationship to Ginsberg’s total output, and more to the point, knowledge of Ginsberg, the living being, while that output was going on, to achieve any degree of accuracy. Although Ginsberg did have fans, students, teaching assistants, and younger poets––many of whom he influenced directly, around the world, and certainly in the U.S., Eliot Katz is the right person to have written the first book dedicated exclusively to the subject of the lifelong interplay between Allen Ginsberg’s poetry and his political perspectives.
Katz’s The Poetry and Politics of Allen Ginsberg is perhaps the most crucial work published since Ginsberg’s death because it provides the longitudinal view needed to understand what it is about Ginsberg that mattered to others while he was alive and still matters or could be a model to learn from and applied to today’s world with its shrinking political and economic middle and growing extremist and often desperate political climate.
The book breathes with the author’s familiarity with his subject matter, and it breathes with Katz’s own critical and compassionate way of framing Allen’s major poems over his lifetime as a way to best express a sense of political poetry as a mandala made up of differing energies, or styles of being; that is, Katz, in choosing the 4 major poems he does for the text––“Howl,” “Kaddish,” “Wichita Vortex Sutra,” and “Plutonian Ode”––allows himself to see different energies or different families––not necessarily unlike the 5 Buddha Families––within the Ginsberg amalgamate known as his political poetry.
With “Howl” as the focus of Chapter 2, Katz speaks of the political in terms of what I would refer to as a World Reshaper; that is, as an energetic and transgenerational archetype. “Howl” is about reshaping the world from that which makes what is our essential humanity intolerably marginalized, filled with injustice and inequality. World Reshaper begins with the idea that a better way for all to live involves reimagining what’s possible. I hear my own internal thought-forms after first reading “Howl” echoed in Tom Hayden’s 1962 Port Huron Statement, which Katz cites:

And if these anxieties produce a developed indifference to human affairs, do they not as well produce a yearning to believe there is an alternative to the present, that something can be done to change circumstances in the school, the workplaces, the bureaucracies, the government? (73) [Italics mine]

The World Reshaper of “Howl” fills his poem with an energy that cuts through the indifferent, exclusionistic, warlike samsara of suffering with the “yearning to believe there is an alternative to the present.”
“Kaddish,” the focus of Chapter 3, has the political energy of Witness Testimony. Think of those who survived the Holocaust and stood at the Nurenberg Trials facing their torturers for all the brutality and aggression, all the inhumanity they perpetrated on defenseless human beings. Think of the Circle of Mothers who have experienced the loss of a child due to gun violence. Katz’s understanding is that “Kaddish” uses witness testimony as an energetically transformative political tool insofar as the life of Naomi Ginsberg––Allen’s mother and the poem’s protagonist––“was steeped in politics” so that the poem is a “dramatic exposition [...] of this mother-son relationship, and of the grieving process following her death [which] could not help but become charged with political content.” (101)
Katz also cites Scott Herring’s essay on “Kaddish,” noting, “Ginsberg was a member of the first generation of young Jewish intellectuals forced to come to grips with the murder of six million Jews.” (118) He goes on to say, “Certainly, the poem includes many references to ways in which Hitler functioned as a major source of Naomi’s illness,” and concludes that one of the poems projects was “to undertake an in-depth and uncensored effort to redeem Naomi’s political idealism and her hope for a better future.” (118)
The title of Chapter 4, “’Wichita Vortex Sutra’ and the Anti-Vietnam War Years,” makes clear that the political energy Ginsberg is exploring here is War’s End. Katz revisits Ginsberg’s ability to “capture the spirit of the antiwar movement” in his poetry, (140) and his involvement in demonstration planning such as his suggestions to the Berkeley organizing committee in 1965 to fuse putting on a large protest event with “a nonviolent theatrical spectacle, one which would simultaneously convey the group’s opposition to the [Vietnam] war and also lower the level of anxiety and tension within both the demonstration and the wider community.” (140)
Katz also reminds his readers that Ginsberg’s “Wichita Vortex Sutra,” written in February 1966, was his “most influential poem of the Vietnam war era;” particularly, the poem’s climatic line, “I here declare the end of the war!” (141) “In this poem,” Katz suggests, “Ginsberg not only addressed the military conflict in Southeast Asia, but also incisively explored the way the war was being portrayed, and even promoted, by America’s mainstream media.” (141-142) Having shown that he understood the role of mass media in shaping political consciousness a decade earlier in “Howl,” and aware that the mainstream press was helping to shape support for the Vietnam War within America’s heartland, Ginsberg decided “he would address the war in part by addressing that press coverage.” (142) “Wichita Vortex Sutra,” notes Katz, was Allen’s most popular poem of the 1960s. In writing it, Ginsberg demonstrated that the Vietnam War could be:

effectively opposed, not simply by highlighting the immorality of the war and the tragedy of massive numbers of dead persons, but also by addressing questions of language and media in an effort to help reshape public thinking and thereby decrease public support for the war. (144)

The way Ginsberg formulated this strategy in “Wichita Vortex Sutra,” Katz observes, is that he:

notices and records newspaper headlines and radio commentaries, he also presents memories, analyses, and information which his empirical perceptions trigger. This technique of spontaneous recording exhibits a willingness to allow his poem to take its shape from its material, rather than to fit his observations into a predetermined formal package. (146)

“By historicizing––or demythologizing the historical and political myths being propagated by the U.S. government and U.S. press” in “Wichita Vortex Sutra,” Katz argues, “one of Ginsberg’s aims was to create a ‘force field of language which is so solid [...] that it will contradict––counteract and ultimately overwhelm the force field of language pronounced out of the State Department and out of [President Lyndon} Johnson’s mouth.” (151) Of the official doublespeak and “television language” which the government uses to objectify and trivialize individual human beings, Katz concludes that the poem “fulfills one of the political functions of critical art” in providing “a defamiliarization from the dominant mode of experiencing reality.” (155) In writing “Wichita Vortex Sutra,” Ginsberg offered an alternative prophecy. For Eliot Katz, “It is a prophecy that encourages dissent from a war that is seen not only as impractical, but as immoral and even genocidal. (162)
Chapter 5 of Poetry and Politics focuses on the Ginsberg anti-nuke poem “Plutonian Ode” and on Allen’s commitment to “continuing lifelong radicalism.” The political poetry energy to which this masterpiece belongs is the Ending WMD family. Ending weapons of mass destruction is categorically distinct from the energy of ending war––it’s a far more ominous, sinister, apocalyptic. It leaves the fate of way the planet in the hands of potentially unstable commanders in chief or extremist terrorist groups.
Poetry and Politics is both a history and, to some degree, a memoir. We see more of the memoir aspect in the “Plutonian Ode” section as Katz meets Ginsberg for the first time in 1976. Allen would write the poem only two years later, four years before Eliot would be working with him as a teaching assistant during the summer of 1980 while a student at Naropa. Katz would remain friends with Ginsberg the rest of Allen’s life. The Poetry and Politics of Allen Ginsberg is in fact nothing short of a attestation to that relationship.
I would hope that researchers and scholars of Beat Studies notice this progressive political connection between Ginsberg and Katz and realize that the effects of Allen Ginsberg’s life and work did not fall into a vacuum at his death, but that his connection with younger political poets he influenced; poets like Antler, Paul Beatty, Andy Clausen, the ASL poet Peter Cook, David Cope, Bob Holman, Nancy Mercado, Eileen Myles, Lesleá Newman, Marc Olmsted, Wang Ping, Jeff Poniewaz, Joe Richey, Sapphire. They are the very reason we have a sense of radical continuity in poetry today and a growing tradition of lifelong radicalism in the now elder Postbeat poets that Ginsberg befriended.
>For the sake of transparency in writing this review, I will also say that I was studying with Allen during the summer of 1978 at the Kerouac School and would later become a teaching assistant of Ginsberg’s, along with Katz, in 1980. I want to also disclose that while recently watching footage of the 1979 Kerouac School documentary, Friend Shoes Cooked Diamonds, by Costanzo Allione, shot at the Rocky Flats demonstration in which Allen read “Plutonian Ode” after writing it the night before, I noticed for the first time that I am momentarily in the film, right next to Allen, as he asked me to join him that day.
Katz is absolutely correct in his assessment that “Ginsberg remained committed to his radical ideals.” (175) Those ideals, assessed by Katz, include:

challenging American policy in such wide-ranging areas as nuclear proliferation, environmental destruction, skyrocketing homelessness, the increasing disparity of wealth during the Reagan and George H. W. Bush eras, continuing racial discrimination, CIA covert actions, the “drug war,” domestic censorship of art and speech, and military adventures in such places as Panama and Iraq. Ginsberg did readings to benefit and publicize countless progressive organizations and projects and served on the advisory boards of numerous organizations, including the progressive media watch group, Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), and a national student activist group that I worked with during the late 1980s and early 1990s, Student Action Union. In the years that I knew Ginsberg, he was constantly writing or calling government offices to advocate for improved social policies and urging younger writers like myself to do the same––whether on the larger political issues like war and peace, or on more targeted cultural issues like the jailing or censorship of writers (an issue around which Ginsberg worked with the PEN Freedom to Write Committee). (175-176)

“Plutonian Ode” was written and first published in 1978. As Ginsberg wrote in the endnotes to his Collected Poems, “Ten pounds of Plutonium scattered throughout the earth is calculated sufficient to kill 4 billion people.” (177) Rocky Flats, the top-secret nuclear trigger facility just outside of Boulder, Colorado, was deemed by several media outlets to be the single most dangerous building in America. The plant was in operation from 1952 to 1992. It was under the control of the United States Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) until 1977 when the AEC was replaced by the Department of Energy.
The Rocky Flats Truth Force, a grassroots non-violent anti-nuclear group, formed during the late 1970s, conducted demonstrations and track blockages at the Rocky Flats Plant in 1978 that resulted in arrests of protestors, including poets Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman, the co-founders of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa in 1974. As Katz points out, the front cover photograph of The Poetry and Politics of Allen Ginsberg is of a demonstration at the site’s rail spur leading to the plant just before Allen and Anne were arrested.
I can think of no other photographs more iconic of Ginsberg’s activism than those of him meditating on the rail leading into Rocky Flats; thereby blocking with his body any attempt by plant officials to remove any radioactive material from the facility. Since there is still no safe repository for nuclear waste in the United States, or anywhere else in the world, these political acts by Ginsberg, as well as the visionary writing of “Plutonian Ode,” make it one of the most important poems written in the twentieth century.
As Katz points out, in the U.S. and internationally, anti-nuclear activist groups were growing during the mid-1970s. One of the most important groups, the Clamshell Alliance, was formed in 1976. In 1977, the Clamshell Alliance organized a civil disobedience action protesting the Seabrook, New Hampshire nuclear power plant. Over 1,400 people were arrested protesting at the Seabrook plant during this action.
“Plutonian Ode,” he suggests, “draws on and attempts to amplify these growing anti-nuclear sentiments taking hold among activists.” (177) Similar to the “Moloch” section of “Howl”––in which Ginsberg gave body to “an imagined amalgam of existing, repressive institutions,” in “Plutonian Ode” Ginsberg formulates a mythic body out of a key ingredient of nuclear weapons and a dangerous waste product of nuclear power plants––plutonium. As Katz writes,

Ginsberg gives a body to plutonium by citing the element’s origins (“First penned unmindful by Doctor Seaborg with poisonous hand, named for Death’s planet through the sea beyond Uranus”), by naming its radioactive danger (“Radioactive Nemesis”), by detailing its manufacturing locations in the U.S. (“silent mills at Hanford, Savannah River, Rocky Flats, Pantex”), and by identifying its corporate maker and manufacturing process (“where nuclear reactors create a new Thing under the Sun, where Rockwell warplants fabricate this death stuff trigger in nitrogen baths.” (179)

As Katz notes, Ginsberg was arrested for participating in acts of civil disobedience many times during his life. The instance of his arrest for protesting at Rocky Flats, he argues, literally involved “uniting language and the body and of literally putting one’s body on the line.” (257) In the case of his arrest at Rocky Flats, it was less than 12 hours after writing “Plutonian Ode.”
To the press gathered at the tracks where Allen had taken off his shoes to sit cross-legged on a train rail, where he sat with Peter Orlovsky and four young women, Allen said, “I want to sit on the tracks and meditate on this problem [...] and bring mindfulness to the situation here at Rocky Flats, where 150,000 tons of plutonium have been fabricated.” (257) At his arraignment in court, Ginsberg delivered a plea of not guilty. As part of his explanation for his plea, he read “Plutonium Ode” to the court.
As Katz points out, less than a year after Ginsberg’s “Plutonian Ode” was written and published, the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant accident occurred in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania. It was the worst nuclear power plant accident up to that time. In 1986 the even larger nuclear power plant disaster occurred at Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the city of Pripyat, then located in the USSR. The most recent nuclear power plant incident took place in Fukushima, Japan in 2011. The dangers from that event have yet to be contained. “It is therefore clear,“ writes Katz, “that Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Plutonian Ode’ was indeed filled with long-term relevance.” (183)
Whereas the essays on the four masterpiece political poems: “Howl” (1955), “Kaddish” (begun in Beat Hotel, Paris, December 1957; completed in New York 1959), “Wichita Vortex Sutra” (1966) and “Plutonian Ode” (1978) are each representative of a different energy or family within Allen Ginsberg’s Political Poetry mandala, Katz’s does include and discuss associated, but less powerful poems from the same period and books as the major poems which are the primary examples of this book. These associated poems I leave to the reader to discover and reflect upon on their own.


In the final chapter of The Poetry and Politics of Allen Ginsberg, Katz summarizes his positions taken regarding Ginsberg’s nearly five-decade career offering “principled and radical critiques of existing political systems West and East.” (224) “A Progressive Political Poetics” (Chapter 6), attempts to reckon the poet’s legacy. Again, what makes Katz’s case regarding Ginsberg’s legacy so essential to us today is that Katz has such a firm grasp of the political sphere in which Allen aligned, and its traditions, its problems, and its roots in earlier progressive movements of the past.
Katz’s discussion of Ginsberg’s major poems from the fifties, sixties and seventies locates Allen’s philosophical positions within general traditions of the left. The poems also show that Allen rarely “limited his explorations to any particular ideology within that broad arena.” (225) To Katz’s credit––and for those readers doubting his veracity on Ginsberg’s views, it should be recalled that Eliot, along with Andy Clausen, were entrusted by the Allen Ginsberg Estate to co-edit an anthology of political poetry Allen had assembled, entitled Poems for the Nation: A Collection of Contemporary Political Poems (Open Media Pamphlet Series, 2000), but did not complete before his death on 5 April 1997––he poses the question: Did Ginsberg have a “philosophical indeterminacy,” “confusion,” or is it possible to draw out some coherent theories from the poet’s ideological expedition? Katz concludes:

First, I think we can fairly say that his political philosophy seems to steer between a libertarian anarchism and forms of radical democracy or democratic socialism, usually linked with Buddhist notions of awareness; an environmentalism which embraces indigenous traditions; and, of course, a deeply held belief in gay liberation. In his varied political explorations, he remains always within the larger arena of left or progressive traditions, never shifting rightward nor even centrist. (227)

Katz goes on to say,

Indeed, from personal discussions with him during the eighties and early nineties, I feel comfortable saying that Ginsberg was certainly more devoted to helping to create and inspire political change from a practical perspective rather than from any particular ideological one. [...] It would be naive on any writer’s part to assume that Ginsberg did not have enough theoretical background, through readings and conversations with writers from around the globe, to have settled on a favored single political ideology. (227-228)

Instead, Katz argues, “I would suggest conceptualizing Ginsberg’s refusal to choose a single progressive ideology from among the various left philosophies in a way that acknowledges the poetic and political advantages of this strategy––a conceptualization that I would call an “ideological flexibility.” With this notion of ideological flexibility, Katz suggests that Ginsberg was thereby able to fulfill the functions of radical literary criticism by “drawing out the potential of a poet’s emancipatory energies.” (228) Katz defines this version of ideological flexibility in Ginsberg’s writing and activism as inclusionary politics. (229) In Katz’s view, Ginsberg’s most important political legacies of his political poetry are fourfold.  First, and foremost, Ginsberg’s poems offer

sharp and visionary critiques of existing political, religious, economic, and cultural institutions, and comprehend that these various institutions often function in interconnected ways. The poems criticize American policy makers for failing to live up to America’s founding liberal ideals, and they further suggest moving beyond those original notions. While Ginsberg’s criticisms originate from a variety of progressive viewpoints, there are certain basic principles that consistently appear––a commitment to internationalism, nonviolence, anti-racism, gay liberation, environmentalism, free expression, non-repressed sexuality, intersubjectivity, interpersonal solidarity, and opposition to the poverty and other economic injustices too often caused by unchecked capitalism. (231)

Second, Katz suggests that Ginsberg’s political poetry legacy is one where “the poems raise social consciousness by urging alternative ways of thinking, by offering alternative information, and by insisting that spiritual qualities like compassion, forgiveness, and creativity remain everpresent in progressive politics.” (231) Katz argues that, “The consciousness-raising aspects of his poems are evident in both thematic and formal elements––the latter, for instance, in the way in which Ginsberg’s use of the technique of modernist montage allows readers to participate in the creation of poetic meaning and to glimpse ‘anticipatory illuminations’ (in the phrase of Ernst Bloch) of a world that does not yet exist.” (231)

Third, Katz makes the case that Ginsberg’s political poetry legacy is based upon the realization that “his poems support the notion of poet as a participant in organized activist struggles. [...] Today, when many Americans express to pollsters a deep skepticism regarding existing political institutions, yet also remain hesitant to get involved in activist groups, it seems important to note how Ginsberg’s work endorses the idea of doing both art and activism.” (231-232) Think of groups such as the Guerrilla Girls or the group Black Lives Matter; consider citizenries rising up together such as the Arab Spring Uprising of 2010 or the Occupy Wall Street Movement of 2011.
Last, Katz urges consideration that “Ginsberg’s poems present current world reality as mutable, potentially open to change. This certainly has practical implications for the contemporary cultural scene, where many critical artists in the U.S., and many skeptical young Americans in general, seem to hold a deep-seated cynicism about the possibility of progressive social transformation.” (232) He concludes by noting previous historical-seeming impossibilities like the fall of the Berlin Wall and the once-unthinkable election of Nelson Mandela to suggest “stirring retorts to entrenched political fatalism.” (233) “As a tonic to confront today’s overriding political cynicism,” Katz says that “Ginsberg’s visionary poems do not reveal social change to be easy, but they do energetically imagine the possibility.” (233)


Some will no doubt argue throughout this discussion of The Poetry and Politics of Allen Ginsberg that Eliot Katz may be nothing more than an apologist for Ginsberg or, at best, an overly invested political poetry disciple of some kind; that he misses the mark in his portrayal of Ginsberg’s politics and poetry, and that this work misses the target insofar as it shows little understanding of the real political problems within the white male dominated Beat Generation and their views regarding gender and race. I would argue that Katz does address these issues in his final chapter and although much more could be said and is needed to be said about Ginsberg’s political poetry as it relates to gender and racial progressive ideals, he is not writing this work as a kind of good-feeling fantasy that glosses over these important questions that arise around cultural bias. Nor should he.
I know I could not gloss over certain problems I have had with poets I was told to admire. For example, the question of Ezra Pound’s anti-Semitism was a gnawing issue for me after studying The Cantos at Naropa and later becoming acquainted with Pound’s history of being captured by American forces in Italy at the end of World War II, brought back to the U.S. to stand trial for treason, and his being removed to St. Elizabeths Hospital, the federal mental institution outside Washington D.C., for 12 years on grounds of insanity. I needed to visit the hospital myself and to research Pound’s years confined at St. Elizabeths at the National Archives, which required two extended visits to work through all the material. I had to read everything I could about Pound’s anti-Semitic views so I could decide for myself if it was even worth it to me, morally, to study his poetry and poetics.
I should say that it was Allen Ginsberg who convinced me that Pound’s anti-Semitism was, in the end, something Pound regretted, something that seemed more tied to the idea of the fog of war megalomania than any deeply held hatred or bias he held onto. I do think Pound learned that he had been self-limited by his own grandiosity, and that after 12 years of study and writing at St. Elizabeths, he had grown to outlive his anti-Semitism. But it was Allen who went to Rapallo, Italy after Pound’s release from St. Elizabeths to interview him and to ask him directly about his views on the Jewish people.
Although some critics argue that Allen let Pound off the hook for Pound’s numerous and narcissistic railings and rantings against America, FDR, the U.S. Treasury, and the Jews during his radio broadcasts from Italy, sanctioned by Mussolini during WWII, I think Pound’s response to Ginsberg’s question––that his was a “suburban anti-Semitism,” a passing and stupid belief, was critical to my understanding, as was Ginsberg’s explicit forgiveness of Pound in response, both from himself and on behalf of the Jewish people. I should also add that as Katz himself pointed out, Ginsberg was no apologist for Israeli politics toward the Palestinians. In fact, he viewed Zionism as racism.
I also have experienced what it is to have an influence upon another culture than one’s own. This happened during my poetry and political work in behalf of the American Sign Language poetry of the Deaf while I was living in Rochester, NY in the 1980s. And again, there is none other than Allen Ginsberg to thank for opening those doors. As it happened, I was able to invite Allen to a “Deaf-Beat Summit,” arranged at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf in 1984, and it was at this event that a new understanding was revealed to the Deaf poets present as to the potential political power of ASL poetry. I would go on, as a hearing person, to coordinate the first National Deaf Poetry Conference (1987), which ignited the ASL poetry career of the most cross-over and mainstream Deaf poet in modern history, Peter Cook. I have also experienced becoming a pariah to the same culture I had worked for. At the next conference, in 1990, I was invited to give a presentation, but was booed off stage.
I mention my own sensitivities and experiences in the area of Katz’s argument that Ginsberg was operating under an evolving sense of inclusionary politics in order to make clear that it is not my desire to whitewash any deficiencies in Katz’s The Poetry and Politics of Allen Ginsberg regarding gender and racial problems My intention in mentioning my own experiences with Ezra Pound’s anti-Semitism or with issues of hegemony with the Deaf Community, is that in the areas of gender and racial profiling, finding my own truth as a person and as a poet, when faced with bigotry by another, is paramount.
Katz makes quite clear that when it comes to Allen Ginsberg’s legacy, and the legacy of the male Beat Generation writers, one key problem often cited is the absence of Beat support of the struggle for women’s equality. (242) Katz cites the literary critic, Catherine Stimpson, who argues that there is “a cultural boundary they could rarely cross: a traditional construction of the female, and of the feminine.” (242) Stimpson, whose work precedes that of the Beat Studies Association, promoted the previously marginalized Women Writers of the Beat Generation, including Janine Pommy Vega and Hettie Jones.
Catherine Stimpson also points out the now more obvious and paradoxical fact that “while Beat writers are ‘scornful of most secular authority,’ their portrayal of women nonetheless usually adheres to dominant or stereotypical prescriptions for female passivity. According to Stimpson, women ‘are screwed, taken, burrowed into.’” (242) She also observes Ginsberg’s “tendency to feminize passive homosexual roles” in his poetry. (242) Katz also cites Charles Shively, who expresses a similar criticism about Allen’s work: “No provision is really made for women as active lovers––choosing their own love ‘objects’.” (242) Katz concludes that it is “fair to acknowledge that Ginsberg does not explore or challenge dominant conceptions of gender with anything near the energy or insight with which he explores nearly every other key social and political issue of his time.” (243)
The point I’d like to make regarding Allen Ginsberg, his poetry, and his politics, is that the subject of the Women Writers of the Beat Generation is an area of research that has been retrieved from what had been a marginalized history, and as such, an invisible history. I’m thinking of works such as Brenda Knights’ Women of the Beat Generation: The Writers, Artists and Muses at the Heart of a Revolution (1998) in particular, whose editorial excavation takes up the progressive and feminist notion to unearth the hidden, significant history of the Women Writers of the Beat Generation within the context of the Women’s Poetry Movement as well as within the context of the rise of the Civil Rights Movement.
With a foreword by Anne Waldman, Ginsberg's co-founder of the Kerouac School at Naropa, Knight began the process of restoring some balance, as well as reality, to what had been an exclusive scholarship of male Beat Generation Literature phenomena. Knight's retrieval of the biographies and works by female Beat Generation writers Carolyn Cassady, Joyce Johnson, Diane di Prima, Hettie Jones, Edie Parker, Joan Vollmer, Joanne Kyger, Ruth Weiss, Elise Cowan, Jan Kerouac, Mary Fabilli, Helen Adam, Harriet Sohmers Zwerling, Lotti Golden, Joanna McClure, Lenore Kandel, Janine Pommy Vega, Anne Waldman and others is restorative by nature, and provides glimpses of the more complete narrative of the Beat Generation and its influences. This is the right direction, politically, and comes to the heart of questions regarding Ginsberg's views on feminism--views that Katz addresses with relative brevity.
I would also argue that the issue of Ginsberg's evolving views on feminism have much to do with his teaching at Naropa from 1974 until the latter half of the 1980s and the social and cultural changes that occurred at the Kerouac School during that period. This was the period when students and faculty were apparently tiring of Ginsberg's teachings on the Beat Generation and in his project of locating and promoting the poetry of younger poets--whom I have identified elsewhere as mostly white males "Postbeats"--that he believed were carrying on poetic traditions with which he himself is most closely identified--the political, the visionary, the minute particular, and the imaginatory subjective.
I believe an oral history of Naropa faculty and students from the 1980s would go far in revealing the tensions that are said to have existed and that led to Ginsberg's decision to move back to New York and finish his teaching career at Brooklyn College. But I do not think Katz is the person to tell that story in The Poetry and Politics of Allen Ginsberg, nor do I think anyone has yet to step forward write it. Still, I do think that his all but too brief remarks on Allen and feminism are correct, and they do suggest that more research and scholarship needs to be done to better understand the evolving progressive feminist stance taken at Naropa during latter half of the 1980s.
The critical point in such a discussion is this: was Ginsberg correct in his view that one of his stated "essential effects" of the Beat Generation (1982), was "Spiritual liberation, sexual 'revolution' or 'liberation,' i.e., gay liberation, somewhat catalyzing women's liberation, black liberation, Gray Panther activism" [italics mine]. Katz comes to the conclusion that:

"In the case of Allen Ginsberg, I believe that his overwhelmingly progressive ideas and energies do resist the sometimes-clear instances of sexism in his poetry. The fact that his poems are so overwhelmingly progressive is what, for example, enables Catherine Stimpson, despite her strong criticisms, to otherwise praise Ginsberg for openly exploring previously repressed realms of sexuality. It is also what makes it possible for some of our most influential contemporary feminist poets, like Adrienne Rich and Marge Piercy, to credit him as an important influence on their work. [...] Critic Nan Nowik notes that both Rich and Piercy praised Ginsberg's poetry for helping to show all contemporary American writers that poetry could liberate the personal imagination from repressive institutions and be used to say what one thinks and feels. [...] Thus, while feminist poets, like women's liberation activists of the 1970s, were writing, in part, in protest against the sexism and exclusion found in prior male-dominated poetry circles and traditions, it is simultaneously true that Ginsberg's liberatory impulses provided inspiration even in this one area which his own verse admittedly did not energetically explore. (245-247)

Similarly to Katz's rather brief, yet thoughtful, remarks regarding Ginsberg's poetry and its, as well as Allen's own, relationship with feminism, The Politics and Poetry of Allen Ginsberg also provides commentary on Ginsberg's relationship with poets of color, yet in a way that also begs for more exploration from researchers and scholars. And similarly to his discussion of feminism, which is accurate though brief, the same thing can be said for his insight into Allen's views on race and his activism in the area of Civil Rights. I will summarize those findings now.<
As Katz points out, "Both the Black Arts and women's poetry movements of the 1960s and 1970s were deeply linked with activist causes, and both added new aesthetic elements to American literary traditions. He cites poet, translator and critic Eliot Weinberger's inventory of some of the Black Arts Movement's poetic contributions:

Besides its political agenda, [it] effectively admitted black speech into poetry (something the Harlem Renaissance poets, with the notable exception of [Langston] Hughes, had refused to do), created a large and genuinely populist audience for poetry, had a close and exciting working relationship with jazz and some rock musicians, [...] offered scathing commentaries on white "verse," and brought in a great deal of African and Afro-American history, mythology and religion which had previously been absent in American poetry. (262-263)

Enlivened by its relationship to the Civil Rights Movement, one of the Black Arts Movement founders, and its most influential poet, Amiri Baraka--a longtime New Jersey friend of Ginsberg, and later Katz himself--said in a 1980 interview that he credited racial-justice organizing for poetic inspiration: "a lot of what had moved me to make political statements were things in the real world, including poetry that I had read, but obviously the civil rights movement upsurge, the whole struggle in the South, Doctor King, SNCC, the Cuban revolution--all those things had a great deal of influence on me in the late fifties and early sixties." (263) In another piece, Baraka identifies some of the Black Arts Movement's key participants and situates its inspirational energies within the political efforts of the day:

The Black Arts Movement of the sixties basically wanted to reflect the rise of the militancy of the black masses as reflected by Malcolm X. It's political line at its most positive was that literature must be a weapon of revolutionary struggle, that it must serve the black revolution. And its writers, Askia Muhammad Toure, Larry Neal, Clarence Reed, Don Lee, Sonia Sanchez, Carolyn Rodgers, Welton Smith, Marvin X &c, its publications, its community black arts theaters, its manifestos and activism were meant as real manifestations of black culture/black art as weapons of liberation. (263-264)

Katz again makes the point that despite areas of legitimate criticism against the Beat Generation by women poets and by poets of color, there are influential women poets and poets of color from both movements who cite Allen Ginsberg as a key literary influence. He cites Amiri Baraka's autobiography in which Baraka writes, "I thought the book Howl was something special. It was a breakthrough for me." (266) Katz also cites this excerpt from a 1979 interview published in Conversations with Amiri Baraka in which Amiri makes clear Ginsberg's impact as a teacher and a stylistic precursor:

[Ginsberg] was, actually a good teacher. [...] He was of great help to me in terms of learning about poetry in general. And, he was a great publicizer of poets, young poets and the whole Beat thing. [...] One of its strongest moments was redefining what poetry was, redefining what art in general was. Questioning those things that had been put out like traditional values and academic values, trying to put forward a more mass-oriented kind of art, a more people-oriented kind of art. For instance, during the whole Beat Period readings became important. [...] When the Black Poetry Movement picked up after that, readings were its principle form. [...] It moved towards American speech. It continued with William Carlos Williams' teachings and it went back to people like Whitman. [...] Later on, of course, the Black Poetry Movement emerged, taking it a step further and talked about the Afro-American people's experience. (266)

I know that for myself, the question of Ginsberg's inclusiveness regarding Women's poetry and the poetry of communities of color is a difficult, yet important issue to continue researching, because it is the type of question that has at its root issues in morality and personal ethics. The basic question is this: how far is any individual willing and able to go to acquire cultural fluency in a community not one's own. And to what measures must a person go to in order to show or prove that they have, in fact, compassionate solidarity with others?
I have asked myself these very questions about Allen because I was a student of his and his life, work, and memory have sustained me as a person and as a poet. He introduced me to some of the finest poets of my generation and he was, as Amiri Baraka notes, one of the finest teachers of poetry that I ever met. He was simply the finest example of a human being that I have ever known and was, in my eyes, a kind spiritual teacher. That said, these questions of inclusivity drove me to Standford University in 2012 in order to research the Ginsberg papers. I was interested in his archival papers from Brooklyn College, and my primary question was this: Were Allen's progressive politics inclusive or not of women and poets of color?
I came away from that research project fully convinced that in the last decade of his life, the 1990s, and in his teaching at Brooklyn College, he was able to take up serious study of Black American Poetry and that he was involved in coordinating successive Rainbow or inclusive reading series featuring poets from across the multicultural spectrum that is America today. I came to the conclusion at Stanford that he needed to be at Brooklyn College's urban and diverse environment, and that this change provided him with a more naturally inclusive setting in which to study, discuss, and promote a more multicultural poetics.


Finally, I would like to add a note regarding Eliot Katz and the critically important value of his The Poetry and Politics of Allen Ginsberg. Some readers may find this work too narrow in its scholarship. Some may find that this work is too slim on expert cross-examining commentary. To those readers, I will say I had at times, while reading and then studying the text for this review, a similar response. After all, Katz makes clear that the bulk of this work was already formulated years ago. From that fact, one would not be out of bounds for wondering why important questions such as Ginsberg's impact on Women's Poetry and Poetries of Color are not discussed in more depth. Or why any of the peripheral poems or topics within the text are not more fleshed out.
In the specific case of Eliot Katz, I can say with near certainty that I believe this work of fleshing out the peripheralities of his book was something he would have liked to have accomplished. I think it's even necessary to say that looking at parts of Poetry and Poltics, one could get the sense that he had more to say. But Lyme's Disease disabled Eliot right around the time I believe he was internally gearing up to reinvest his time and energy in this project, and although he has fought extremely hard to get the right care for this disease, it has yet to be in the cards that anything approaching a cure has been found. As a result, although he did work patiently and lucidly on leaving us with a clear remembrance of Allen Ginsberg's political poetry, it was through great physical suffering that he was able to get us the book that he did. I want to thank him personally for doing so and for the expenditure of energy he gave to this complex and vast case.
Katz's exceptionality, including the devastation that Lyme's Disease has done to his body, only reinforces the fact that this book was written by a younger New Jersey political poet directly influenced, in large part, by Ginsberg himself. The future is fortunate to have had Eliot Katz at the controls of this study. It's essential that certain aspects of what Allen Ginsberg stood for politically be transmitted clearly and accurately to generations yet unborn. The Poetry and Politics of Allen Ginsberg should be considered the cornerstone of all future discussion of this "most politically engaged writers of his era."
Katz developed this book from a late 1990s dissertation he wrote while a student attending Rutgars University. Its most immediate motivation may have been Ginsberg's death at his East Village home in April 1997. The writing came after nearly two decades of friendship beginning in his auspicious meeting of Ginsberg at Naropa University in 1980. As one of Allen's teaching assistants while a student at Naropa, Eliot enjoyed the influence of Ginsberg's praise for his poetry as well as entry into Ginsberg's own form of progressive, multi-front engagement.
As such, the book has a fascinating narrative architecture. A hybrid of personal memoir and scholarly argument, it locates Ginsberg's most enduring poetry within the political climate from which it arose. I again thank Katz for this work, and in so doing, sparing the future from a more abstract historical conjecture, outright detached scholarly projection, and worst case scenario, utter rejection of who Ginsberg was and what he stood for as one of the greatest peace and justice advocate the planet has ever known.
I'll conclude with this quote from the end of the final chapter. "Of course," writes Katz, "if one is to have a positive impact as a political poet, it helps to have written powerful verse that would inspire large numbers of readers." Truer words were never spoken. Allen Ginsberg was the one who did just that. Katz makes his final summary of the case in this way:

And in Allen Ginsberg's best works, we find strengths seldom equaled in American poetry: a dazzling and comprehensive poetic imagination, a unique mixture of humor and information, a principled and radical historical engagement, an inventive prophetic voice and singular ear, a sophisticated extension of wide-ranging poetic traditions, and energetic yearnings for healthier human possibilities. (281)

2 June 2016