November 2006

Josh Cook


The Book of Martyrdom and Artifice: First Journals and Poems, 1937-1952 by Allen Ginsberg

"Why had I gone to the trouble of recording the events of mine and others' lives, events which were for the most part superficial details of private matters? Why was I so madly bent on this 'method' or truth?" Ginsberg asks this question in an entry about his arrest for connections with a small time burglary ring, the sentence for which would send him to the sanitarium where he met Carl Solomon.

I ask, "Why should we read these journals?" Some will read them for insight into his writing process, some for the autobiography, some for the Beat mythology, and some for access to another person's psychological state. Readers with all of these goals will be satisfied by this collection.

In the earliest years, we see an adolescent approaching the journal like a school assignment, recording trivial events, copying headlines, and restraining himself when he "had nothing to write about." In the first years at Columbia, we see a young man struggling with identity, poetry, homosexuality, and consciousness, in the abstract and convoluted manner of an adolescent learning how to approach these problems. In the final years at Columbia, we see a man dealing with drugs and petty crimes, while progressing towards a coherent aesthetics and growing in skill as a poet.

The editors craft a story out of the journals. Ginsberg travels from point arrogant twenty-something to point emerging Beat legend.

The journals are more like an artist's sketchbook than a diary. Ginsberg records dreams, writes profiles, and philosophizes. Footnotes point out what passages later became what poems, giving readers and scholars resources to study Ginsberg's process. You see the material Ginsberg drew from, including passages and ideas that would be written into "Howl," some four years later.

The journals are also fascinating in what he did not record. There are no entries describing the events that would be written into "Kaddish," despite their traumatic nature. There are very few entries from his time in the New York State Psychiatric Institute of Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. A visionary moment, vital for his growth as a poet, is described in an editor's note. Finally, one of the most important moments in American literature of the twentieth century, the first meeting of Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, is added as a footnote. These absences support the conclusion that we are not reading an autobiographical document, but a document working towards other artistic goals.

The included poems demonstrate progress rather than skill. Though there are a few poems that are worth reading on their own ("An Amusement, Not an Attitude, Peaches," "Gang Bang," and "Patterson") most show stages in his development, from an adherence to the most boring rhyming couplets, to the beginnings of his long-line hallucinogenic style.

The book is filled with other gems too; Ginsberg's reading lists, letters to and from friends and family, and newspaper clippings from major events in Ginsberg's life. One clipping is an article about a murder in Ginsberg's circle of friends that named both Kerouac and Burroughs; perhaps the first time those names were shown to the public.

Scattered throughout the book are the minor characters of the Beat movement; the Not-Cassadys that filled in Ginsberg's life, like Bob Steen of footnote 213, who was described as a "Brilliant physicist, subterranean, and conman," a character begging for his own Beat novel, complete with quark spins and jazz jams.

A kind of friendship is created by reading someone's journal. It's a friendship that takes a lifetime of waiting through someone's mediocrity to witness their moments of brilliance. Morgan and Plimpton are able to show us that brilliance, while hinting enough at the mediocrity for Ginsberg to be a believable person.

There is enough material and cross-referencing for Ginsberg scholars to connect dots and develop theories about his poetics. The fan of Beat literature will enjoy this additional entry into Beat mythology, that includes passionate musings about Neal Cassady and Ginsberg's early reactions to Kerouac's success. The reader who merely understands Ginesberg's importance in American literature will also enjoy reading this book. Simply, Ginsberg is an interesting person with interesting thoughts, even when he's mired in adolescent musings and The Book of Martyrdom and Artifice is a fascinating tour through one of the most important brains in contemporary American literature.

The Book of Martrydom and Artifice: First Journals and Poems, 1937-1952 by Allen Ginsberg
Da Capo Press
ISBN: 0306814625
523 pages