Breath and Being: A Poetics of Allen Ginsberg’s “Poems of These States”

By m.j.smith

Today, I was reading Allen Ginsberg’s “Beginning of A Poem of These States, Memento for Gary Snyder” the opening poem of his Fall of America sequence. This era of Ginsberg’s poetry often comes under criticism for being formless, verbose, self-indulgent, and riddled with flower-child mentality.

I’ll leave the latter two points for another time, but the first two do not hold up to scrutiny when reading “Beginning.” Ginsberg composed the first draft of many of the poems in Fall of America on an Uher portable tape recorder (purchased for him by Bob Dylan) while riding in a Volkswagen minibus camper all over the United States (Morgan 418). The passing scenery, songs and news on the radio, conversations with his drivers (Ginsberg had no license to drive the bus), recent reading, and pit-stops merged together to make what he called “auto poesy.”

The machinery of the tape recorder created its own prosody. Ginsberg would use the pause button on the microphone to create line breaks, challenging the usual free verse considerations of end-stops and enjambment with measure by both breath and sense-thoughts, the mental responses that arise and play out based upon stimuli to the eye, ear, and even nose.

When transferring these recordings to the page, Ginsberg said that he was influenced by both Kerouac (as recorded in “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose”) and Charles Olson (“Projective Verse”): “the page arrangement tells you where you can breathe. Or gives you a paradigm—the way the poem’s laid out on the page is a paradigm for the breathing rhythm” (Ginsberg, Allen 161). The result is lines that float about the page, free from the left margin and traditional measure (in a way that has become so commonplace in Anglo-American poetry as to rarely merit notice) but nonetheless is rigorous in its attempt to remain true to the motions of mind and body in time. As Denise Levertov puts it, “Line-breaks together with intelligent use of indentation and other devices of scoring represent a peculiarly poetic, alogical, parallel (not competitive) punctuation.”

(But there was already a rich history of poetry being written that broke free from the tyranny of the left margin: probably first, Stéphane Mallarmé, most spectacularly in “A roll of the dice will never abolish chance”; Vladimir Mayakovsky in much of his later work; Marcel Duchamp who, like other Dadaists incorporated multimedia texts and typography into his poems; and many Americans like Walter Conrad Arensberg, e e cummings, Marsden Hartley, Mina Loy, and William Carlos Williams in his late collections The Desert Music and Journey to Love. The margin itself, it must be remembered, is a relatively late invention of printing, and thus only represents a small era of tradition in Western poetry.)

But “Beginning of A Poem of These States,” was written just before he purchased the tape recorder and is his last major poem before starting his auto poesy phase. Ginsberg explained at a poetry reading, “This is a record of an auto-trip in a Volksvagen that I took with Gary Snyder, in, let’s see, it would be Fall 1965, covering… the beginning of a long poem, so it’s called ‘beginning’ of a poem of ‘these states,’ beginning then with the Canadian border, starting, down towards San Francisco, on the other [eastern] side of the Cascades through the inland route back to San Francisco” (Ginsberg, “Allen in the ‘Sixties”). In fact, it was his difficulties with the poem, expressed to Dylan at a party in San Francisco at painter Robert Lavigne’s studio, that resulted in the gift of $600 to buy the Uher to make road composition more practical.

After leaving Vancouver, during “the ride home, Allen practiced writing strophes in the style of Whitman and Saint-John Perse in his journals.” From Whitman, “Beginning” gets its long breath and use of enumerations rather than standard syntax, already familiar features in Ginsberg’s poetry. From Perse, Ginsberg borrows the verset, “a hybrid form between verse and prose, deeply marked by the biblical origins that give [Perse’s poems] both the solemnly oratorical lyricism…and the oracular tone” (Gallagher 62-3).

This section from Perse’s Anabasis (transl. T.S. Eliot) gives an idea of the line structure and voice of the verset:

…..Ah when the star put up for the night in the servant girls’ quarters, did we know that already so many new spears
…..pursued in the desert the silicates of Summer? “Dawn, you were saying. . . .”
…..Ablutions on the banks of the Dead Seas!
…..Those who lay naked in the huge season arise all together and cry
…..that this world is mad! . . .The old man stirs his eyelids in the yellow light; the woman stretches herself from nail to nail;

Surprisingly, Ginsberg makes only sparing use of the oracular tone in “Beginning,” having moved away from that voice since “Kaddish” and committed more to observation of concrete details. But he does make full use of Perse’s paragraph-like strophe, a typographic reversal of the hanging indentation most recognizable in “Howl.” In “Beginning” each strophe corresponds to a breath-unit, albeit the long, deep-chested Ginsbergian breath. The periods and other forms of terminal punctuation are used to divide sense-thoughts. So, some sense-thoughts may run for two or three strophes/breaths before they are fully explored or the VW window view has passed on to something else at 65 m.p.h.

The result is that “Beginning,” far from being a random and disorganized series of unrelated observations, functions more like a renga, a linked series of small poems that can both stand on their own and work as a sequence. The poem even begins as rengas do with something like a hokku, forebear to the haiku:

…..Under the bluffs of Oroville, blue cloud September skies, entering U.S. border, red red apples bend their tree boughs propt with sticks —
…..At Omak a fat girl in dungarees leads her big brown horse by asphalt highway.

The dash functions like a kireji, a “cutting word” that divides and announces a juxtaposition, or turning, of two images or ideas (rensô). A few lines down, another strophe achieves the rensô of haiku in one breath-unit:

…..At Dry Falls 40 Niagaras stand silent & invisible, tiny horses graze on the rusty canyon’s mesquite floor.

Ginsberg creates several juxtapositions with this line. The “Dry Falls” is an oxymoron, amplified by being described as “40 Niagaras,” a hyperbole which would be large and noisy but are further modified with the sibilant “silent & invisible.” Here the comma acts as kireji, introducing another oxymoron generated by forced perspective, “tiny horses,” which renders the Falls larger still and introduces the element of time since the canyon is “rusty” (due no doubt to the iron oxide in the sandstone) an effect of the water which once ran through the canyon but does no longer.

Two themes run through the travelogue and tie the imagery together. The first grows out of Ginsberg’s spiritual search that had originated in part with his Blakean hallucinations in 1948 New York. He had been on a path since then to replicate his out-of-body experiences, often with drugs, and “set about attempting to seek into myself for the springs of that energy, or life force, or reality, or supernaturality, that had been momentarily released” (Morgan 104). But after years on the path, which had taken him to inner states and on geographic journeys to India and other countries, he made a breakthrough in 1963 and realized that obsessions with visions and death were distractions from this world and the real self. This was explained in his poem “The Change: Kyoto-Tokyo Express” which expressed his new commitment to the concrete world and the body in both its content and by basing the line length on his breath which he had developed through “the traditional mantric-pranayamic-belly-breathing cycle” (Morgan 376).

Ginsberg’s continuing practice of close observation of reality is reflected in his rich use of imagery in “Beginning.” “Heaven is renounced” he states, and he hews closely, but not exclusively, to Williams’ dictum, “no ideas but in things.” There are still moments of discursive explanation of his philosophy although he does return quickly to the solid ground of images. For example, after first folding in a historical reference to Lewis and Clark among his real-time observations, Ginsberg explains his intentions as a traveler:

…..Searching neither for Northwest Passage, nor Gold, nor the Prophet who will save the polluted Nation, nor for Guru walking the silver waters behind McNary Dam.

This reminds us that while the love of gold is a delusion, the silver waters are a reality to be perceived as fully as possible.

The reference to the “polluted Nation” heralds the second theme of the poem: Armageddon looms and threatens the world that Ginsberg has re-committed himself to. Early in the poem, abstract ideas make their first appearance in songs heard on the bus’s radio:

…..Speeding thru space, Radio the soul of the nation. The Eve of Destruction and The Universal Soldier.

Then the concept repeats:

…..Heavy rain at twilight, trumpets massing & ascending repeat The Eve of Destruction, Georgia Pacific sawmill burners lift smoke thru the dusky valley.

Here the eschatology from P. F. Sloan’s “Eve of Destruction” (most likely in the Barry McGuire recording) is once again used to create a rensô by juxtaposition with the smoke of the sawmill burners, an apocalyptic visual in the dusky valley. The threat to the world comes from disasters and the proliferation of conventional warfare violence being reported over the radio:

…..…Chinese armies massed at the borders of India

…..All memory at once present time returning, vast dry forests afire in California, U.S. paratroopers attacking guerrillas in Vietnam mountains, over porcelain-white road hump the tranquil azure of a vast lake.

The juxtaposition here between the Vietnam war and the tranquil lake is a mid-course volta, or turning, that attempts to sooth worry and distraction with natural beauty. But the images of destruction accumulate and grow as “the prophecy of Armageddon / hangs the Hell Bomb over planet roads and cities.” Although Ginsberg seems at first to worry that “my man world will blow up,” he again makes a turn away from obsession back to his present self and breathing practice: “home riding home to old city on ocean / with new mantra to manifest Removal of Disaster from my self.” And the lights of the Oakland Army Terminal and the Treasure Island Naval Base join peacefully with the Broadway lights and the “Ferry building’s sweet green clock lamps.”

And the journey ends simply as another stop on the road, with “new wanderings to come.”

Works Cited

Gallagher, Mary. “Saint-John Perse, ‘Écrit sur la porte.’” Twentieth-Century French Poetry: A Critical Anthology, edited by Hugues Azérad and Peter Collier, Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Ginsberg, Allen. “Allen in the ‘Sixties – Portland State College Readings.” The Allen Ginsberg Project, 27 June 2014, Accessed 3 August 2017.

—. The Fall of America. City Lights, 1972.

—. “Poetic Breath, and Pound’s Usura.” Allen Verbatim, edited by Gordon Ball, McGraw-Hill, 1974, pp. 161-77.

Gurga, Lee. Haiku: A Poet’s Guide. Modern Haiku Press, Lincoln IL 2003.

Levertov, Denise. “On the Function of the Line.” The Poetry Free-for-all, 3 December 2004. Accessed 3 August 2017.

Morgan, Bill. I Celebrate Myself. Viking, 2006.

Perse, Saint-John. Anabasis. Translated by T. S. Eliot, Faber & Faber, 1930.

2 thoughts on “Breath and Being: A Poetics of Allen Ginsberg’s “Poems of These States”

  1. Well, you’ve achieved the thing I aspire to, which is to take a form and make it flow as if it’s just being spoken. Very impressive. I read it as love being a selfish thing, even though we feel we are sacrificing ourselves for it.

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