The voice within has never spoken of material things. It has always spoken in the spiritual language of things spiritual, leading those who listen to it into alienation from this world, even into madness. The upside of this equation is a cliche of the modern era: that out of alienation and madness comes great art. In America this cliche is a comforting proposition for the culture, because it implies that rampant materialism and mass conformity to a capitalistic material dream leads to a harmless, alienated, artistic minority which creates art and hence ironically justifies the societal structure it condemns. The alienated artist, then, becomes living proof to which the society can point to prove its freedoms of expression, tolerance, and diversity; but at no time does the society lose control of its rebellious minority, at least in theory. As artistic trends appear, the society does its best to adopt the trend into the mainstream of the culture, in a watered-down form, stripped of its original meaning and context. The Beat poets, among whom was Allen Ginsberg, found themselves by the late 1950s faces with a grotesque caricature of themselves in the American media: the goateed hip-talking beatnik drinking espresso in dark coffeehouses, listening to jazz. The Beats were absorbed into the mainstream of the American consciousness through the media image of goofy, off-the-wall, but ultimately harmless objects of comic relief. The creative artist of this nation has more to worry about than the vast inertia of a materialistic-oriented society. He or she must also avoid being absorbed and perverted by the clever enemy. If the mainstream media, the image-making instrument of this society, cannot latch onto a generic type, it will take an individual artist and create a dazzling facade, a sparkling, palatable media idol: the celebrity.Before becoming a celebrity, before being scrambled on the skillet of the public media-mind, before being edited and re-manufactured into a media phenomenon (though never losing control of his personal or artistic integrity) Allen Ginsberg began what he saw as his mission. He later described the original intent of his poetry: The presumption was of prophecy, part Blakean inspiration, part ordinary mind from Whitman...that is to say, the poet who speaks from his frank heart in public speaks for all hearts. (Ginsberg, Foreword, X) And then wryly comments on his celebrity status: Diabolic egoism? Unthinkable to presume in advance that this path might lead to a Hell of media Selfhood replicated vulgar, obnoxious Ginsberghoods troublemaking throughout America with spiteful lecherous hypocrite trips, projecting cowardly, and aesthetic forms o'er the world, in Ossianic yawps. (Ginsberg, Foreword, IX) Ginsberg generally holds the established media, of which he was a victim, in low regard. In looking for articles and interviews on Ginsberg, in fact, the usual sources are useless, and one finds oneself seeking out obscure publications, many of which are now defunct. So although Baron Nijel declares that "An early impulse to treat scholars, newsmen, agents, reporters, interviewers as sentient beings being equal in Buddha-nature to fellow poets turned me on to answer questions as frankly as possible." (Ginsberg, Bib. IX) he still felt that "the fugitive speech imagery of Underground Press was closer to literary history beauty than the more truncated and style-censored 'above ground' newspaper interview prose." Despite their subsequent fate in the minds of the American public, the Beats were in the early 50s making an important literary and historical statement. The nucleus of the "Beat Generation" was in San Francisco, where Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso, Philip Whalen, Gary Snyder and others gained widespread attention for their public readings. The movement found allied movements in Boston, Berkeley, Black Mountain and New York City. All of these movements rejected academic verse as a viable model for the composition of poetry. Looking to Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams as groundbreaking forebears, they expanded upon their achievements and developed a totally new conception of poetry, making a complete break from the established literary world. They created their own press, their own public, and their own conception of poetry as a public performance art in the ancient oral tradition. As an American phenomenon, the Beats drew their rhythmic inspiration from a uniquely American source: jazz. The revolutionary bebop movement in jazz in the 1940s gave the Beats their notion of the poetic line being a breath, like the spontaneous saxophone line in the music of Charlie Parker, Lester Young, and other pioneers in free musical expression. For Allen Ginsberg, this meant resurrecting the bold, breathing line of Walt Whitman. Whitman, the self-mythologizing American of Mankind, whose heaven of brotherhood existed here, in the flesh and blood of living people, was an important influence on Ginsberg's thought and on his conception of himself as poet/prophet of America. What Ginsberg owes to Whitman first and foremost, however, is his line. Ginsberg here describes his poems of the Howl era as experiments with the formal organization of the line: ...I realized at the time that Whitman's form had rarely been further explored (improved upon even) in the U.S. Whitman always a mountain too vast to be seen. Everybody assumes (with Pound?) (except Jeffers) that his line is a big freakish uncontrollable necessary prosaic goof. No attempt's been made to use it in the light of XX Century organization of new speech-rhythm prosody to build up large organic structures. (Ginsberg, New American Poetry, 416) Allen Ginsberg's aim, at the advice of Williams, was to utilize the everyday language which he heard around him as Whitman had done, speaking poetic inspiration in the language of America to whoever would listen. Like Blake, Whitman's stance was that of a poet/prophet. Whitman differentiates himself from Blake in the manner of their visions, saying Blake's was too uncontrolled and ethereal for his taste: Of William Blake & Walt Whitman. Both are mystics, extatics, but the difference between them is this -- and a vast difference it is: Blake's visions grow to be the rule, displace the normal condition, fill the void, spurn the visible, objective life, & seat the subjective spirit on an absolute throne, wilful & uncontrolled. But Whitman...always holds mastery over himself, & even in his most intoxicated lunges or pirouettes, never once loses control, or even equilibrium. (Whitman, Sparks of Fire 236) Allen Ginsberg's idea of visionary poetry seems to lie somewhere between those of his predecessors. His first serious efforts as a poet began when he was a student at Columbia College in the late 1940s. The beginning of his close association with prophecy and Blake can he narrowed down to one evening in the summer of 1948 in his Harlem apartment. Ginsberg sets up the scene as one of loneliness and calm; his friends Kerouac and Burroughs were traveling, and his ex-lover Neal Cassady had just sent him a letter which had essentially ended their love affair. On his lap, as he sat alone in his bed at dusk, was Blake's poem, Ah Sunflower. ...the poem I'd read a lot of times before, overfamiliar to the point where it didn't make any particular meaning except some sweet thing about flowers -- and suddenly I realized that the poem was talking about me...Now I began understanding it, the poem I was looking at, and suddenly, simultaneously with understanding it, heard a very deep earthen grave voice in the room, which I immediately assumed, I didn't even have to think twice, was Blake's voice..." (Ginsberg, A Blake Experience, 122) In 1974, Ginsberg, in an interview said that the voice he heard was essentially his own mature voice, his mature voice being the voice of Blake. (Allen Verbatim, 21) At the time he heard it, though, he heard only the voice of Blake, "completely tender and beautifully...ancient." (Ginsberg, A Blake Experience, 122) Upon hearing Blake's voice, Ginsberg also claims to have experienced a "newness" of vision of the world around him. Looking out the window, through the window at the sky, suddenly it seemed that I saw into the depths of the universe, by looking simply into the ancient sky. The sky suddenly seemed very ancient. And this was the very ancient place I was talking about, the sweet golden clime, I suddenly realized that this existence was it! And that I was born in order to experience up to this very moment that I was having this experience, to realize what this was all about -- in other words that this was the moment I was born for. (Ginsberg, A Blake Experience, 122) This was Ginsberg's first feeling of having a "calling" in life as a visionary poet. His reaction was to make a personal vow to live up to his calling, a vow which influenced his entire career as a poet. Anyway, my first thought was this was what I was born for, and the second thought, never forget -- never forget, never renege, never deny. Never deny the voice -- no, never forget it, don't get lost mentally wandering in other spirit worlds or American or job worlds or advertising worlds or was worlds or earth worlds. But the spirit of the Universe was what I was born to realize. (Ginsberg, A Blake Experience, 123) Although Ginsberg at the time had experimented with consciousness-altering drugs, his "Blake experience" occurred without the influence of any drug. He said he experienced this mystical state of "universal consciousness" again several times in the following weeks. and the responsibility of his vision, to communicate it to others, became his primary aim as a poet. He saw himself at the time as a poet with a mission: to set people free from their slavery to the material world and its insane demands, the worst of which was that they deny their common, universal humanity in their daily lives, that they deny the finality and holiness of existence. He developed out of his "Blake experience" a theory of poetry as a means to altering the audience's thought processes, so that the infinite and eternal would become visible. Since a physiologic ecstatic experience had been catalyzed in my body by the physical arrangement of words in so small a poem as "Ah, Sunflower", I determined long ago to think of poetry as a kind of machine that had a specific effect when planted inside the human body, an arrangement of picture and mental associations that vibrated on the mind bank network: and an arrangement of related sounds & physical mouth movements that altered the habit functions of the neural network. (Ginsberg, To Young and Old..., 18) To Ginsberg, Blake's poems are so constructed that the very arrangement of the words themselves triggered his moment of intense awareness. In his own poetry, he strived to utilize the rhythms" of his own visionary consciousness, the idea being that such constructions would induce similar states of consciousness in his readers or audience. To Ginsberg "Mind is shapely; Art is shapely." (Ginsberg, The New American Poetry, 415), and so the form of his poetry corresponds to the form of his consciousness in a visionary state. ...the ambition is to write during a prophetic, illuminative seizure. That's the idea: to be in such a state of blissful consciousness that any language emanating from that state will strike a responsive chord of blissful consciousness from any other body into which the words enter and vibrate. (Ginsberg, Craft Interview, 72) Poetry, then, is no longer words on a page, but rather symbolic energy of transformation on a page, a Bard's song which when sung, transforms all hearers into visionaries as well. Ginsberg's "Blake experience" was a turning point in his life. At age 22, he was a directionless, sensitive, rebellious young man, troubled by his homosexual feelings and doubtful about his ability as a poet. This moment of mystical consciousness, whether it was simply a hallucination of a confused mind, or a true voice from both past and future, gave Ginsberg a definite identity and purpose in life. This vision carried with a negative side as well. Soon after his initial visions, he experienced another vision, only this time it was a horrifying realization of his own mortality, and of the duality of the universe when seen as the creation of a godhead. The sky was not a blue hand anymore but like a hand of death coming down on me - some really scary presence, it was almost as if I saw God again except God was the devil. (Ginsberg, A Blake Experience, 130) Shortly thereafter Ginsberg spent eight months at the New York State Psychiatric Institute. The next three years he spent searching for a method for his poetry, experimenting with Elizabethan forms. He gave up on these experiments after sending William Carlos Williams some of his poems and receiving an accurate but painful answer: that Elizabethan form requires a disciplined perfection, which Ginsberg's poems lacked. This, coupled with his failed spiritual search for a cohesive conception of Eternity and God, led to his use, beginning around 1951, of colloquial American speech and events from his own life as the raw materials of his poetry, rather than religious abstractions. This change led directly to the development of his unique style as seen in the Howl era. His early poems are interesting, however, in that they show the poet groping for eternal truths and for a poetic vision. In "Psalm I," written in February 1949, Ginsberg adopts the form of the Old Testament psalm, describing himself as a visionary prophet/poet who, though mortal, partakes of eternal knowledge. He does not address God like many of the psalms of the Bible, but rather speaks to an unknown audience, one he feels will be a future audience. The poem lacks the supplication and hope of the Old Testament psalms. The poet seems detached and resigned to being an ignored prophet. Psalm I These psalms are the workings of the vision haunted mind and not that reason which never changes. I am flesh and blood, but my mind is the focus of much lightening. I change with the weather, with the state of my finances, with the work I do, with my company. But truly none of this is accountable for the majestic flaws of mind which have left my brain open to hallucination. All work has been an imitation of the literary cackle in my head. The gossip is an eccentric document to be lost in a library and rediscovered when the Dove descends. The fact that Ginsberg uses the psalm as a model for his poem raises the issue of what Uncle Ian's attitude toward the Bible was at this time. The Jewish wisdom tradition, of which the psalms and proverbs are a part, is closely intertwined historically and culturally with the prophetic tradition. He states the relationship between poetry and the Old Testament prophetic tradition succinctly: The only poetic tradition is the voice out of the burning bush. The rest is trash, and will be consumed... (Ginsberg, Second Coming Magazine, 40) It has been argued that as an American Jew in the mid-20th century, Ginsberg resembled the Irish of the 1890s, both emerging into the mainstream of English language literature, yet both being on the outskirts of the artistic