Saturday, May 30, 2015

Howl! Those old hippy buffers still think they were relevant. Oh, well, but never trust folk who believe their own bullshit. And then there’s Ginsberg’s Howl: a milestone in poetry or just a long late-adolsescent rant? You decide, I’m off to watch the Cup Final

I was born in 1949 so I might legitimately be regarded as part of the ‘Sixties generation’, although for one or two reasons I was not. First of all, I was only ten in 1960 and although I was 20 by the end of the decade, the whole ‘movement’ had more or less played itself out. It was already being taken over by the sharp minds who always know how to turn pretty much everything into hard cash and who almost always thereby destroy the essence of what has caught their interest and made it notable.

A second reason as to why I was never really part of the Sixties generation was that my family lived on Berlin until the middle of 1963, and that when we moved back to Britain, I was shunted off into a boarding school where there was precious little chance to join the Sixties counterculture. I was a boarder for the first term, then a day boy until 1965, then a boarder again for the final three years. But even as a day boy I had little time for rebellion as I had school SIX days a week and the school day ran from 9am until 7pm. The reason for those unusual hours was that the the timetable was organised to suit the boarders, not us day boys, of whom at the time there were only six. Another reason, though, was that I was something of a prig and was there was not much of a countercultural spirit flowing through me.

When, at 18, I got to college - Dundee University - my ambitions were simple: to grow my hair as long as I could, smoke some of that cannabis I had heard so much about and to lose my cherry (U.S. - get bloody laid). I had little interest or time for the ostensible philosophy of the Sixties generation which I regarded then, and still do now, as largely phoney. Certainly, I can quite understand the rebellious nature of that generation: as every other young generation since the dawn of time, it was kicking against its parents’ generation.

What distinguished it was an insistence that it was in some odd way far more important and significant than other rebellious generations, a quaint view held even to today by bald old buffers in

their 70s - rarely women, you might notice, but then all that Sixties ‘liberating women’ schtick was a load of old hooey and the comparatively easier freedoms women in the West now have didn’t come until many, many years later. But back to those old buffers: I wouldn’t be surprised to hear any one of them proclaim ‘we freed the world’ and believe their own bullshit. I was reminded of all this when, earlier this morning on the radio, there was mention that today such old buffers are gathering to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the International Poetry Incarnation which was held at London’s Albert Hall on June 11, 1965.

What actually sparked me and this entry off was a recording, part of a documentary being made about the event, of Allen Ginsberg reading some of his poetry. And by no means for the first time was I reminded how self-delusional, self-regarding and self-important a great deal of that vaunted ‘Sixties generation’ was and just how shallow were the philosophies and ‘insights’ it trumpeted. The piece Ginsbeg read out - actually, it concluded with him shouting it out - would now not even find space in the most desperate poetry magazine seeking material. But such was the fervor of the times, such was self-delusion, that it was seen as a step forward. In a piece I came across on the web while looking up dates for this entry, I found an account of a moment from the Albert Hall event:

Big, bald and bearded, [Ginsberg] like a Jewish bear stuffed in a suit, the beat poet stands tall in the Royal Albert Hall, London’s sacred haven of the high arts, and proclaims to 7,000 fellow thinkers: 'I want God to fuck me up the ass.' In the crowd was Heathcote Williams, the future poet, playwright and artist. Williams recounts what happened next: “A man with a bowler hat, beside himself with anger, shouted out: ‘We want poetry. This is not poetry’, and Ginsberg retorted, looking up towards the gods: ‘I want you to fuck me up the ass.’

Pertinent points here are that in 1965 Ginsberg was already 39 and cannot by any stretch of the imagination be regarded as part of 'the younger generation'. Quite possibly he wasn't and, like others from the Beat generation which, one could argue, the Sixties' counterculture drew on considerably, he was seen more as a father figurehead. And Ginsberg was gay and had grown up in an America where to be gay was not, I should imagine, easy.

Yet although I can both sympathise and empathise with his frustrations and anger as a gay outsider, they might act as a catalyst for poetry but they most certainly in themselves don't even come close to
 creating anything which we might regard as 'poetry' (admittedly almost impossible to define, anyway.) But that is what we are asked to accept.

I have long realised that poetry and I are on different trains. I don't read a lot of it, but I have read some and appreciated some, and even had an inkling of what real poetry might be. But real poetry is rare, very, very rare. And 99 per cent of what I hear on the radio or come across in magazines is total shite (though I must obviously repeat how it is almost impossible to define what poetry is or even might be). As a lad at college I do remember getting hold of some Beat poetry and reading it (I thought I ought to, having my pretensions to wanting to be ‘a writer’ and attempting the occasional poem), and I was pretty underwhelmed, though at the time, being rather less confident in my intellectual and aesthetic abilities than I am now (there is always the danger, of course, of going to far in the opposite direction and suffering from overwheening overconfidence, not to say conceit) I thought I was at fault for somehow ‘not getting it'.

Yes, there is virtue, there is always virtue, in breaking free, challenging the orthodoxies, trying to establish an identity independent of your parents and their generation, finding new ways, keeping an open mind and not sinking, as sadly we all do and must into a smug pit of self-regard and self-congratulation. But none of that necessarily makes 'good poetry'. And another irony is that for all their previous avant garde zeal far, far too many of the former Sixties generation buffers have long ago sunk into that pit of self-regard and self-congratulation.

To paraphrase Göring (and, it would seem, several others who also claim to have said it first): ‘When I hear the word counterculture, I reach for the TV remote’.So let them gather today and slap each other on the back and reminisce and continue to persuade themselves that they 'changed the world'. Me? I'll be watching the FA Cup Final on the telly and hoping Aston Villa will win (so that Aresenal lose).

PS Anyone who wants to read Ginsberg’s poem Howl can read it here. . . .

After looking up Ginsberg’s Howl and adding a link here for those who feel they can’t live without it (thought they can, if only they knew), I had a few more thoughts about ‘poetry’ and ‘what is poetry’, which might also apply to ‘art’ and ‘what is art’. Rather less flippantly than might at first seem, I might well choose to observe that, as the saying is, ‘one man’s meat is another man’s’.

(NB One of my first ever journalistic puns was composed when I was a reporter on the Lincolnshire Chronicle in about 1975. It was a piece about horse-riding and horse clubs and, after a little consultation, of course, because often these matters are joint efforts, I came up with the observation that ‘one man’s meet is another man’s pussiance’. Oh, well, seemed good at the time.)

That - the reference to taste, obviously, not to horses and riding them - means, of course, that one might argue that in the real world any workable and universally acceptable definition of what ‘poetry’ and ‘art’ are just isn’t possible. Not that many folk don’t try, especially those, such as academics who are paid vast sums to come up with a definition and aren’t about to cut their own throat by turn admitting ‘well, to be honest, there isn’t one.

Other folk all too ready to lay down the law on ‘what art is’ are gallery owners and curators who in one way or another make a very good living indeed by being the ‘expert’ to whom those with less confidence in their own judgment turn. I mean, if you are about the shell out several million dollars on what to your untutored eye looks very much like a heap of old shit with pain on it, you would mo
st certainly first want to be assured that, despite appearances, it most certainly is ‘art’ and you are very lucky indeed soon to be its owner. Believe it or not, folk have parted with good cash for ‘works of art’ by a couple called Gilbert & George which consisted partly of their own shit spread on canvas. Takes all sort, I suppose.

I think a possible workaround is that we accept that everything and anything - any poem, any play, any picture, any sculpture and, of course, any poem - put forward as ‘art’ (or, in the case of poems) ‘poetry’ is what it claims to be. Then we can make distinction between ‘good art’ and ‘bad art’ and ‘good poetry’ and ‘bad poetry’. Makes sense to me. A longwinded and usually thoroughly tedious and boring ‘debate’ is avoided and we can all settle in to watch the FA Cup Final on telly. Oh, and if my solution is accepted, Ginsberg’s Howl is most certainly poetry, though in my view fucking awful poetry.

One last thing: presented with a ‘poem’ - of which all too many simply seem like several hundred words of prose randomly broken into lines - our first question might be: what does this poem bring to us over and above what a piece of prose would. The answer, all too often, is ‘fuck all, dear heart’. And Howl, by Mr Ginsberg, strikes me as nothing more than a silly rant, though one with which young folk kicking over the traces (of which Mr Ginsberg was not, however, one) can ‘identify’, given that they are invariably against everything their parents stand for and support everything their parents loathe. And why not? But that still doesn’t make Howl a ‘good poem’.

(Incidentally, there really was once a time when to include the word ‘fuck’ in a piece of prose, poetry or journalism really was groundbreaking stuff, a blow for freedom. Yes, my young ones, it was. But as that was when life was still in black and white and we Brits could only get two TV channel, you are quite right to dismiss it. And a mark of just how fucking usual it now is, not to saying how fucking using the word ‘fuck’ is pretty much boring bollocks is that in this ’ere blog I use it quite a lot. Pip, pip.

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