The following is a short excerpt from Part 2 of David S. Wills’ recent publication, World Citizen: Allen Ginsberg as Traveller. It follows on from Ginsberg’s first major voyage – a trip down the east coast of the US, through Cuba, and around Mexico. As we will see in this passage, it had a huge impact upon his poetry.
You can find World Citizen on Amazon as both paperback and Kindle, or ask your local bookstore to order a copy.
The Voyager Returns a Poet
When Ginsberg returned to the United States in July, 1954, he had been away for more than six months. He was a changed man. Those six months had been filled with new experiences that had challenged him and educated him. No longer was he scared and intimidated by the road and all its experiences, as he had been back in 1952 when faced with the prospect of a solo voyage. He claimed to speak Spanish now and some Mayan, and said “I think I could go anywhere practically.” The timid intellectual from the big city had survived the darkest jungles and led an expedition into a volcano. He was, in his own mind, a hero. From this point on, he would venture into all the nooks and crannies of the world without the same sense of fear that previously beset his mind.
Perhaps more importantly, though, the experience had opened his eyes and his mind to the world, and begun a process that would continue with his next major journeys – of viewing the United States from an outsider’s perspective. Several scholars, including Jonah Raskin, have remarked upon the significance of travelling outside the United States to the development of Beat literature, with Mexico being of particular importance. He explained that “Mexico played a pivotal part in [Allen’s] liberation from himself and from America.” This allowed the Beats to view themselves and their own culture from a distance, gaining a perspective that was uncommon among their peers. Decades later, Ginsberg called it “the breakthrough of the Beat Generation,” noting the importance of realizing “the American standard was not the only standard.”
Mexico was important for many members of the Beat Generation, and Ginsberg told early Beat scholar John Tytell “that [he] would never fully understand the members of [Ginsberg’s] generation until [he] first experienced Mexico.” The country had a profound influence over the lives and art of Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs, as well as Ginsberg. Years later, when explaining the meaning of Kerouac’s On the Road, Ginsberg said that critics didn’t get the book from a cultural standpoint, as they were too entrenched in their own provincial American outlook:
Most critics have assumed that there is no point to the book or that there is nothing at the end of the road but blankness. But the get to the end of the road and discover that there’s a world outside of America, and a whole vast fellaheen, non-Time magazine, nonmechanical, non-petrochemical existence, that escapes the purview of the New York Times and the Washington Post and the universities and the calculations of academics and mathematicians and politicians and artists.
Soon after his arrival in California, he sat down to write his best-known and arguably his greatest poem, “Howl.” Tytell credited the literary breakthrough that allowed Ginsberg to write “Howl” to his experiences in Mexico, calling it a “breakthrough in consciousness” and saying elsewhere:
Living on a plantation in Chiapas, Mexico, became a transformative experience, opening a doorway to the discovery of an authentic new voice. “Howl” was to be its first expression.
Indeed, while “Howl” mostly drew upon his experiences in New York and San Francisco for its content (with some exceptions), his great breakthrough was in the poetic techniques he developed for the poem, which he had cultivated in Mexico. In later years, he picked out “Havana 1953” and “Siesta in Xbalba” as milestones in his development as a poet, moving from imitations of his greatest poetic influences into his own unique voice. In particular, “Xbalba” was a poem that set him very much on course to write “Howl.” In a 1959 letter to a former Columbia classmate, in which Ginsberg defends his work against what he perceives as ignorant criticism, he implies that “Xbalba” was the poem that freed him from previous constraints and led “inevitably and naturally” to the innovation in line creation and “COMPOUND imagism” necessary for “Howl.” Jonah Raskin, in American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and the Making of the Beat Generation, noted that even some of the “key words” from “Howl” began to appear in Allen’s vocabulary during his time in Mexico and were used in “Xbalba.” Even the word “howl” starts to pop up with increasing frequency through his journals, letters, and poems from Cuba and Mexico.
It was not just “Howl” that emerged from his Mexican voyage. Back in the U.S., Ginsberg’s mind was now freed, and he began to experiment with his poetry more than ever before. He now felt that the “[t]rouble with conventional form (fixed line count and stanza form) is, it’s too symmetrical, geometrical, numbered and pre-fixed—unlike to my own mind which has no beginning and end, nor fixed measure of thought.” Instead, he was free to mine his mind for ideas and put them on paper in a way that reflected how he felt. The constraints of the past were now gone, and he was free to play with the numerous literary influences he had accumulated. He also now had a wealth of real world experience to weave into his poems. As Michael Schumacher noted, “Ginsberg’s travels rewarded him with a profound, mature worldview that added depth to all of his writing.”
The first two years he was back in America were ones of
massive literary output and unparalleled inventiveness. One of his most
beautiful poems, “Song,” was written in San Jose, 1954. Beginning with the
oft-quoted line, “The weight of the world/ is love,” it marks a sharp departure
from his previous work in terms of form and content. It is freer and more
playful than previous works, and yet “profound” and “mature” as Schumacher
noted. On the surface, it too is rather different from “Howl,” yet it acts as a
sort of transition. As Raskin noted, certain words entered Ginsberg’s lexicon
during his time in Mexico, becoming common enough in his mind to permeate his journals,
letters, and poems. The word “solitude” appears frequently in his Mexican
writings, and is repeated twice in the relatively short “Song,” and four times
throughout “Howl.” Of the opening three lines of “Howl,” the words “mad” (from
madness), “angel” (from angelheaded), “burning,” and “machine” (from machinery)
all appear in “Song” as well as his journals. Between 1954 and 1956, Ginsberg
wrote many of his greatest works, and all of them were borne of the sense of
maturity and freedom gained from his Mexican voyage, as well as his newfound
ability to “notice what you notice.”
Read More About Allen Ginsberg and Travel
The following links contain more information about Ginsberg’s journeys around the world.
- A List of Countries Visited by Allen Ginsberg
- On Ginsberg’s Travel and Politics
- The Beats in Greece
- Allen Ginsberg in Asia
- Ginsberg’s first trip to Africa
 Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg: The Letters, p.215
 Raskin, Jonah, American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and the Making of the Beat Generation, p.119
 Best Minds of My Generation, Kindle – no page number
 Tytell, John, Beat Transnationalism, p.30
 Beat Transnationalism, p.120
 The Letters of Allen Ginsberg, p.214
 American Scream, p. 118
 Schumacher, Michael (ed), Essential Ginsberg, p.148
 Essential Ginsberg, p.xiv