Letting it all hang out

Allen Ginsberg's Journals offer unbuttoned, self-dramatising fragments of the modern ego. By Jeff Nuttall; Journals 1954-58 by Allen Ginsberg, ed. Gordon Ball Viking, pounds 25
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A typical British reaction to Allen Ginsberg publishing his journals might be "Why doesn't he publish his laundry bills? His address book? His shopping lists?" The implication is that Ginsberg's poems are already journals, that the poet is no more than a self-inflating individual who cannot see the difference between distinction through excellence and notoriety through self-exposure.

Certainly, Ginsberg scraps all the vestiges of human privacy with a thoroughness that strikes terror and embarrassment into the closeted heart of the academic middle-class. In the mode of creativity to which he belongs, self-exposure is the method of the process. The discipline is the relentless drive for release, not the rigour of restriction. You might as well ask Ginsberg to observe numerical niceties of syntax and metre, as well tell him to be discreet, as ask Jackson Pollock to paint to an outline or Charlie Parker to stick to correct orchestral pitch.

Ginsberg himself gives as his reason for publishing all available fragments his realisation that "we were going through a big social transition, a cultural revolution, and people were either making fun of it, not realising its importance, or interpreting it in a Marxian way, like the Los Angeles- Venice group, so that it was necessary to keep some kind of archive or history of it, especially in case of a rollback, in case of a swinging of the pendulum back towards reaction and the reimposition of censorship particularly."

The journals in this volume cover the years which are regarded as Ginsberg's most creative. In 1954, he left New York, where his original group of peers had been split up by the crucial effect of a murder (David Kammerer), a manslaughter (Joan Burroughs) and a suicide (William Canastra). At the invitation of Neal Cassady (the prototype for Dean Moriarty in Kerouac's On The Road) he moved to San Jose, California. Almost immediately he fell in love with his host so violently that he formed a savage jealousy of poor Mrs Cassady with her "railway wife reality" and her "dirty shrew's hellfish mouth." Caroline catches the boys at it and chucks him out. He moves to San Francisco, where he has a brief affair with a jazz singer called Sheila Williams before stealing the love of his life, Peter Orlovsky, from the painter Robert La Vigne. Thence to sea a few times, up and down the coast to Alaska, and then, after the publication of Howl, to Tangiers and Europe.

The journals divide into a good deal of soupy sexual anguish, literary and religious orientation, first-draft poems, and magical, descriptive, narrative notations of American city life that have the same stark authentic impact as Weegee's photographs or Dos Passos's collages. Such writing is something Ginsberg virtually invented and which he does supremely well.

In the San Francisco period, the journals concern a group of young people utterly alienated from any comfort or security of a support group. They belong to nothing and nobody, least of all one another, floundering about in a squalor of poverty, debt, alcohol, drugs and fractured narcissistic lust from the depth of which each one is howling like an orphan for love. The poetry is gaining strength from the sheer pain of this situation. Lines appear that are later to be trawled out and used in published work - "now Denver is lonesome for her heroes" - "best mind of my generation". The two towering peaks of Ginsberg's achievement, Howl and Kaddish are simmering to the surface of a turbulent crucible. Finally comes love with Orlovsky and some fine pieces of writing, never published till now. "Books fall out of his hands weary of his penetration. Clothes refuse to hide his beautiful body any longer. The pure couch of the afternoon slides under his back. The weary radio indifferently repeats her lullaby into his charmed ear. The Muses hush their shrieking. Notebooks close themselves bewildered by the angels of his thought. Poems retreat to the original book of mystery."

The deeper difficulty which the conditioned literary mind encounters is with the language of these pages. This is initially an indigestible mix of 18th-century poetic ("I ruminated with my secret soul in ancient rhetoric") with Western Union abbreviation ("he gets up, dragged, weekend over, 4 speeding tix, no S, she to NY tomorrow") and a bodily bluntness, in 1955 unprecendented, in which all genitalia are cocks and cunts, all coitus is fucking and all excrement is shit, words even now of such workplace grossness that they fit in the florid poetic like chunks of raw meat on a wedding cake.

But even this cannot be dismissed or condemned. Like the self-display, it is essential to the work. Occasionally in his tireless scribbling Ginsberg gives a glimpse of his aims, of his belief in the "Truth of individual suffering and conscience and creation - not as against the mass but against the false concepts of the mass which have led the mass to death - for the solitary and haunted individual is now the mass. And who will speak for his own wild naked thoughts will speak for the mass. We want to read the individual and not his public thoughts."

The job then, was to restore romanticism, the unabashedly poetic worn almost as a badge of the poet's role, to the funky urgencies of real sex. Ginsberg's hunger for this fusion is repeated obsessively because he believes that humanity is dying for lack of it. He makes his own volatile adoration a metaphor for humanity's anguished deprivation.

The mixings, brewings and ingredients of this relentless commitment are nowhere more clearly seen than in these working documents. They leave the reader breathless and humbled by the vastness of this exercise in which generosity and courage ever outstrip and obscure the craftsmanship of the maker who retains a craftman's doubt about the haste which the exercise demands: "I myself write nothing and am sick of fragment sketching. The poems I build out of them are fragmentary, slight."