The essay was published in Beatdom #23. It has been posted online to coincide with the journal’s publication due to the images featured below. As Beatdom is a black-and-white publication, it may be hard for some people to appreciate them, so we have included the colour versions here for reasons of accessibility.
The importance of the archive in literary studies has been emphasised by the field of genetic criticism, emerging in the 1970s, as a way to explore the genealogy of a text, and, as Pierre de Biasi put it, to study it as a product of “hard work, historicity and desire.”[i] The aim is to reveal and to display a visible part of the creative process; Arlette Farge summarised it with the expression “to touch reality.”[ii] But this active part played by the archive is also a challenge to the very idea of a “final text.” In that sense, de Biasi wrote that “one of the main interests of diving into the past of a text is to introduce the critic to a mobile universe where nothing is ever final.”[iii] Of course, this idea of a mobile universe is at the heart of Allen Ginsberg’s poetry, and it must be added that Allen Ginsberg had a specific relationship with his archives: he hired his own archivist and he also published several books of journals and letters in his lifetime, including a genealogical study of his famous poem, “Howl.” But in addition to the preservation of the historical value of his archives, his interest was also motivated by his very method of composition. This paper aims then to analyse a few examples of Allen Ginsberg’s poetry in the light of his archives, as a way to explore his acts of composition with a genealogical and psychological focus. Jacques Derrida, another “rebel” in the literary world, will play the role of a guide in this exploration: his theories and definitions will shed light on the mechanisms at work in Allen Ginsberg’s poetry.
Composing the Archive
Two processes highlighted by Jacques Derrida will be helpful to understand Allen Ginsberg’s methods of composition. The first one, coined by Derrida in his book La carte postale, is the process of “cartepostalisation”—which, as Professor Charles Ramond wrote, is the fate of every text.[iv] “Cartepostalisation,” from the French “carte postale” (“postcard” in English), means that a text has always more than one specific addressee: as soon as a text is written, its readership cannot be delimited and thus does not depend on the writer’s intention. The process of “cartepostalisation” also implies that a text always includes in itself a potential of fragmentation from its original context, which Derrida called “partition,”[v] as well as of transplantation in a different context (not very far from Gilles Deleuze’s notions of deterritorialisation and reterritorialisation). In other words, this means that a text can always be divided, extracted, and even rearranged.
As a complementary notion to “cartepostalisation,” Jacques Derrida also coined the expression “adestination,” from the word “destination” and the negative prefix “a,” meaning that a text has no fixed destination, in the same way that it has no fixed readership. This means that a postcard, just like any other text, “is always opened towards literature”[vi] as Derrida wrote. In fact, both “cartepostalisation” and “adestination” are inherent to every text, as Professor Charles Ramond analysed, adding that “the role of language is to “transport signification.”[vii]
It is particularly interesting to focus on these processes when it comes to Allen Ginsberg’s method of composing poetry. His two-part poem entitled “Siesta in Xbalba and Return to the States” is a revealing example. This poem was composed between 1954 and 1955, at a time when Allen Ginsberg, depressed, was travelling from New York to Mexico. During this trip, the poet recorded in a notebook every image, every dream, and every description he could, a habit he took up as early as 1937, when he was eleven years old. His journals of that time include much more than hints, traces, or drafts of the future poem:
As can be observed from a comparative reading between his journals and the published poem, Allen Ginsberg rearranged entire prose paragraphs into poetry. In this example, this process sometimes involves semantic changes. Pierre de Biasi, observing these semantic changes in Malarmé’s poetry, explained that “in poetry […] the demanding nature of the signifier usually takes the place of the signified.”[viii] Allen Ginsberg’s journals are then the visible part of the mechanism at work in the invisible space between his archives and his poems, and to use Willa Cather’s words, his journals are “the other side of the rug.” The genealogy of Ginsberg’s practice, rearranging his journals into poetry, from “the private to the public”[ix] as Derrida wrote, shows that it comes from a piece of advice William Carlos Williams gave him, suggesting the “poetic possibilities of his journals prose.”[x] As a matter of fact, Williams himself included a long letter written by Ginsberg in his famous work Paterson,[xi] in another literal example of “cartepostalisation.”
This means that Ginsberg consciously created his own archives to use them as a raw poetic material. In that sense, his journals are not completely early drafts but fully understood acts of composition in themselves, and as he wrote himself, he used to “milk his notebooks for poems.”[xii] His journals are therefore a complex laboratory where a new poetry is composed, implying also meta-reflections as he usually wrote about rearranging passages noted just above these reflections. Following Derrida’s theory, Ginsberg was in fact writing to himself, just like any other person writing a journal, but he was also writing to another person: the poet, a future self who will then have to rearrange, to fragment and to transplant these entries in a poem.
In Archive Fever, Jacques Derrida often reflected on the archive and “its relationship to the future.”[xiii] This temporality, along with the notions of “cartepostalisation” and “adestination,” help us to reconsider Ginsberg’s journals as a place of transition. Moreover, one could add that his method of composition challenged poetic meaning in the same way ready-mades did: the content is as important as the poetic gesture that rearranged it. This rearranging, this fragmenting and transplanting, this partially controlled “cartepostalisation” are then poetic gestures on their own, especially in the sense that Allen Ginsberg was writing without knowing what would constitute a poem in the future. His archive is therefore a conscious pool of images, of poetic potentiality, which somewhat tries to be what Derrida called a “total journal” that is the result of a “desire” to write impossible “complete chronicles.”[xiv] Derrida also wrote about this specific space located between the work and the before-work, between the act of composition and the idea of composition, explaining that a “raw material” does not have “the same status as first draft.”[xv] Ginsberg’s archive reaches then the status of first draft only retroactively, once the poet chose the elements he needed and once he rearranged them. And, of course, the “adestination” still occurs with the publication of his journals and letters, making them accessible to a new readership, in a new context.
Challenging the Archive
After “Howl,” the most famous of Ginsberg’s poems is “Kaddish,” a long poem published in 1961. This very intimate work is the result of an overwhelming personal history, as it is centred on the poet’s mother, Naomi, who died in 1956, after decades of mental illness and institutionalisation. The title of this poem comes from the Jewish tradition, the kaddish being a prayer for the dead—a prayer that was denied to Naomi Ginsberg. As a consequence, this biographical and melancholic poem can be read as a personal kaddish that aims to make up for the one Naomi did not receive a few years earlier. This poem crystalises all the fear and pain Ginsberg felt throughout his childhood and early adulthood and, of course, his journals are full of references that he reused in his poem. To that extent, Allen Ginsberg’s journals display the same pool of poetic potentiality as in “Siesta in Xbalba,” but they also display evolutions of ideas through real drafts this time, especially in what could be called the pre-kaddish poems:
This is an example of what Derrida wrote about the Hélène Cixous’ archives: “what really happens in the book happens in the before-work.”[xvi] The essence of the poem is already here, years before and waiting to spread. What is interesting is that, in the same way that Derrida thought of a word from a draft as a “little bit more than a word” (“a word that is a theoretical matrix”),[xvii] Ginsberg mentioned multiple times in his journals the word and the desire to write a kaddish for his mother, and as early as 1955 he started to write poems, keeping some passages in the final version like the “farewell” litany, which evolved as he kept writing through the years.
In fact, “Kaddish” is filled with and fuelled by memories of direct speeches, which were not all kept on record, except in the poet’s memory. Thus, a question arises regarding the notion of archive and Ginsberg’s poetry: are those remembered speeches real archives and can they be trusted? It seems that the question leads this study towards a psychological interpretation of the archive, as a work of intimate and secret traces. In this case, this poem acts like a catharsis and a gesture of acceptation, but the impulse and its authenticity will remain secret forever. To that extent, what Jacques Derrida wrote in his analysis of the notion of archive is thoughtful and revealing: “here we are kept at a respectful distance, within the magnetic field, but forever at arm’s length from one must call the secret of literature.”[xviii]
This uncertainty is also conveyed by Ginsberg himself, like in a passage mentioning a letter written by his mother, received two days after her death. Indeed, Ginsberg quoted in his poem passages of this specific letter, but this letter does not mention any “key in the window.” It does, however, contain mentions of marriage and drugs:
In other words, Naomi’s letter does not display the same sentences as recalled by Ginsberg in this poem or in former drafts. Ginsberg himself admitted being “confused” about these differences, adding that “there may be another letter,”[xix] which invokes what Derrida wrote in Archive Fever: “the archive takes place at the place of originary and structural breakdown of the said memory.”[xx]
Derrida analysed this tension between the archive and one’s relationship to it, writing that “the structure of the archive is spectral. […] neither present nor absent”[xxi] and Ginsberg’s use of memories and intimate materials reveals a strong desire to go back into the past. In other words, this other example of “cartepostalisation” implies a specific reading experience, as to let the archive speak for itself, whether it be a physical or a psychological archive. Derrida wrote about “a nostalgia for the return to the most archaic place of absolute commencement,”[xxii] which is one of the aims of “Kaddish.” Moreover, as evoked earlier, a part of the genealogy of this poem exists in the secret of the poet’s memories of experiences, and as Derrida put it, “of the secret itself, there can be no archive” because “the secret is the very ash of the archive.”[xxiii] A part of the archive of “Kaddish” is then non-visible, in the sense that it is not entirely invisible as there are still traces: the reader can only see the negative of this photograph, and the more one reads the poem, the more the archive reveals its evanescence. Memories then form a discreet aura as defined by Walter Benjamin as “the unique apparition of a distance, however near it may be”[xxiv]; to that extent, the archive of “Kaddish” is everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
As mentioned before, Derrida saw the archive as “a movement of the promise and of the future,”[xxv] and indeed, in Ginsberg’s poetry, there is a multiplicity of backward and forward movements, between the re-creation of a lost past, retrievable only through physical and psychological archives, and the creation, settled in the future and still unknown in the archive though already present. Derrida called the fact that a text had to wander without any specific destination “destinerrance,” a concept close to “adestination”—a combination of “destination” and “errance” (the French for “wandering”). To some extent, one could speak of “auto-destinerrance” in Ginsberg’s poetry, as he was one of his archive addressees without knowing it yet in the case of “Kaddish.” For Derrida, the addressee is also the one who gives meaning to a text; Ginsberg is then both the person voicing the message and the addressee. The most striking example of these ideas in his archive is a poem written in his journals between 1945 and 1946, when he was twenty years old. This poem, entitled “To my Mother: an Homage,” was composed ten years before the death of his mother and some lines would be transplanted into the final “Kaddish.” Here again, these first words are the archives of moments which bore in themselves an unknown future and unknown poetry:
Derrida also developed the notion of iterability to intellectualise the capacity of a sign to be repeatable in another context. According to Professor Steinmetz, iterability, as a consequence, “deploys the reign of an interpretative process,” challenging its original “readability,”[xxvi] and this complementary process also seems to be at work in Ginsberg’s archive.
A Derridian exploration into Allen Ginsberg’s archives is then an endless exploration, but Derrida understood the necessary tension inherent in the archive. This exploration is dual: though some parts must stay invisible, it is genealogic; it is also psychological as behind the words, the archive sometimes takes the appearance of an unattainable wound, and for Derrida to “run after” it would be to search “for the archive right where it slips away.”[xxvii] As can be seen in these examples, the archives echo through Ginsberg’s published poetry and one of the causes is that they know no solid separation. On the contrary, the dynamism of the poetic gesture acts beyond the visible structure, that is the “structural secret” of poetry, as Charles Ramond wrote. Two last comments must be made as a conclusion to this short study. First, Derrida’s theories can explain how a context is never definitive in Allen Ginsberg’s use of the archive, shedding light on a process that is an act of creation and (re)appropriation. Secondly, the tension between the archive and the poem, in a final gesture of deconstruction, is somewhat neutralised by Derrida. And this is not done in the resolution of an antagonistic hierarchy, but in a systemic enrichment which has more to do with reciprocity than temporality.
Biasi, Pierre-Marc de. Génétique Des Textes. CNRS, 2011.
Derrida, Jacques. La carte postale: De Socrate à Freud et au-delà. Paris: Aubier-Flammarion, 1980.
Derrida, Jacques. Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, Diacritics, Vol 25, No 2 (Summer 1995), pp. 9-63.
Derrida, Jacques, and Brahic, Beverley Bie, translator. Geneses, Genealogies, Genres, and Genius: The Secrets of the Archive. Columbia University Press, 2007.
Derrida, Jacques, and Ferrer, Daniel. « Entre le corps écrivant et l’écriture… », entretien avec Daniel Ferrer. Genesis, 2001, pp. 59-72.
Farge, Arlette. Le Goût de l’Archive. Points, 1989.
Ginsberg, Allen, and Gordon Ball. Journals Mid-Fifties: 1954-1958. HarperPerennial, 1996.
Ginsberg, Allen. Collected Poems. HarperCollinsPublishers, 2006.
Ginsberg, Allen, and Le Pellec, Yves. A Collage of Voices: An Interview with Allen Ginsberg. Revue Française d’Etudes Américaines, 1989, N° 39, pp. 91-111.
Miles, Barry. Allen Ginsberg: A Bioraphy.Virgin, 2001.
Peeters, Benoît. Derrida. Paris, Flammarion, 2010
Ramond, Charles. Derrida, une philosophie de l’écriture. Paris: Ellipses, 2018.
Steinmetz, Rudy. Les Styles de Derrida. Bruxelles: De Coeck-Wesmael, 1994.
Walter, Benjamin. The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility: Second Version. Translated by Edmund Jephcott and Harry Zohn. In The Work of art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media. Edited by Michael W. Jennings, Brigid Doherty, and Thomas Y. Levin. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2008, pp. 19-55.
Williams, William Carlos. Paterson. New Directions, 1963.
[i] Biasi, Pierre-Marc de. Génétique Des Textes. CNRS, 2011, p. 62. My Translation.
[ii] Farge, Arlette. Le Goût de l’Archive. Points, 1989, p. 18. My translation.
[iii] Biasi, Pierre-Marc de… op. cit., p. 186. My translation.
[iv] Ramond, Charles. Derrida, une philosophie de l’écriture. Paris: Ellipses, 2018, p. 189.
[v] Derrida, Jacques. La carte postale : De Socrate à Freud et au-delà. Paris: Aubier-Flammarion, 1980, p. 79.
[vi] Ibid., p. 79. My translation.
[vii] Ramond, Charles. Derrida, une philosophie… op. cit., p. 146. My translation.
[viii] Biasi, Pierre-Marc de… op. cit., p. 206. My translation.
[ix] Derrida, Jacques. Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, Diacritics, Vol 25, No 2 (Summer 1995), pp. 9-63, p. 10.
[x] Miles, Barry. Allen Ginsberg: A Bioraphy.Virgin, 2001, p.87.
[xi] Williams, William Carlos. Paterson. New Directions, 1963, p. 173-175.
[xii] Ginsberg, Allen, and Gordon Ball. Journal Mid-Fifties: 1954-1958. HarperPerennial, 1996, p. xiii.
[xiii] Derrida, Jacques. Archive Fever… op. cit., p. 17.
[xiv] Peeters, Benoît. Derrida. Paris, Flammarion, 2010, p. 359.
[xv] Derrida, Jacques, and Brahic, Beverley Bie, translator. Geneses, Genealogies, Genres, and Genius: The Secrets of the Archive. Columbia University Press, 2007, p. 27.
[xvi] Ibid., p. 11.
[xvii] Derrida, Jacques, and Ferrer, Daniel. « Entre le corps écrivant et l’écriture… », entretien avec Daniel Ferrer. Genesis, 2001, pp. 59-72, p. 70. My translation.
[xviii] Derrida, Jacques, and Brahic, Beverley Bie, translator. Geneses… op. cit., p. 19.
[xix] Ginsberg, Allen, and Le Pellec, Yves. A Collage of Voices: An Interview with Allen Ginsberg. Revue Française d’Etudes Américaines, 1989, N° 39, pp. 91-111, p. 205-106.
[xx] Derrida, Jacques. Archive Fever… op. cit., p. 14.
[xxi] Ibid., p. 54.
[xxii] Ibid., p. 57.
[xxiii] Ibid., p. 62.
[xxiv] Walter, Benjamin. The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility: Second Version. Translated by Edmund Jephcott and Harry Zohn. In The Work of art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media. Edited by Michael W. Jennings, Brigid Doherty, and Thomas Y. Levin. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2008, pp. 19-55, p. 23.
[xxv] Derrida, Jacques. Archive Fever… op. cit., p. 24.
[xxvi] Steinmetz, Rudy. Les Styles de Derrida. Bruxelles : De Coeck-Wesmael, 1994, p. 233.
[xxvii] Derrida, Jacques. Archive Fever… op. cit., p. 57.