The Fall of America Journals is the third of a three-book series edited by Michael Schumacher and published by the University of Minnesota that collects Allen Ginsberg’s poetry and journals from the sixties and early seventies. Focusing on the period 1965-72, this instalment is far longer than South America Journals (1960) and Iron Curtain Journals (1965) and covers a hugely important part of the poet’s life, as well as one of the most turbulent periods in American history.
The book begins, “had anxiety what to do here, I’m a fuck up” and this is apt, for these are major themes in Ginsberg’s journals and poems. He explains that he has anxiety about the on-going war in Vietnam but that war itself is a product of anxiety. The entire book is littered with his fears about the war, as well as tensions between the US and China, which Ginsberg worries may result in the destruction of the planet, and violence at back in the US.
Much of this book is comprised of transcriptions of “auto poesy,” which is what Ginsberg called his newfound method of recording directly onto tape. In 1965, Bob Dylan gave Allen a tape recorder (or possibly donated the money for him to buy one) and he would speak directly into the machine, composing spontaneous poems from his thoughts and from the chaos of the world around him.
Beginning in 1965, Ginsberg has returned from the travels that made up the previous volume (Iron Curtain Journals) and, after years of international travel, he takes to the road in a Volkswagen van, exploring America as he had done Asia, Europe, and South America. In these spontaneous compositions, he juxtaposes his observations of the world around him with reactions to the atrocities in Vietnam. The life he finds in America is at odds with what appears to be the reality of the wider world, and he notes, “I am a stranger alone in my country again.”
His juxtaposition of seemingly incongruous images and ideas is something he employs often through these poems, mixing research and news reports that tell of the death of the planet and the horrors of war alongside advertisements and kitsch Americana. In one section, he depicts a nuclear explosion and then complains that his cow, Bessie, has eaten his sunflowers. These poems are in turn broken up by fragments of dreams, recollections of real events, quotations, notes from his various research projects, and obscure references to poetic or personal mythology. The effect is dizzying and amounts to a collage depicting his own life and the frenetic world of late-sixties and early-seventies America.
During the timeframe of this book, Ginsberg travels often, develops his poetic and political methods, learns of the death of his two closest friends, and experiences surges of ego alongside fits of depression and self-doubt. The backdrop is America at war, both culturally at home and literally in the jungles of Vietnam. He contributes as best he can to ending the war, but it is hopeless. Peaceful protests are met with violence and, once again, the best minds of a generation are incarcerated, persecuted, and intimidated. In 1968, Ginsberg hears of the murders of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy and is witness to the brutality of American police officers in Chicago.
This book, then, is oddly relevant. Not since 1968 has America been so divided. Once again, a culture war is playing out, exposing racism at all levels of society, and resulting in horrendous acts of police violence, sanctioned by conservative politicians in front of an angry, confused, and often desperate populous.
Early in the book, Ginsberg sometimes appears optimistic in spite of his anxiety about America and war, and suggests:
Problem is to cool everybody, beginning with calming &
tranquilizing yrself, oneself—& spead it to the
police & army – I now sing a tranquil Mantra
However, his optimism dissipates. In a long postscript, he writes:
We’re at the end of the poem America, these States a failure, spoilage of Earth—the war’s still on, 7 years later no mantra did end it, no politics, no pity, no reason, no Peace march, no immolation—Vietnam afire with bombs all Karma exhausted—
The book ends with his acceptance speech for the 1974 National Book Award, in which he laments:
There is no longer any hope for the salvation of America proclaimed by Jack Kerouac and others of our Beat Generation, aware and howling, weeping and singing Kaddish for the nation decades ago
It is a disheartening end, but those were difficult years for Ginsberg and America. In 1968, along with all the horrific national and international news, Neal Cassady passed away and, the following year, so did Jack Kerouac. Both deaths devastated Ginsberg, who had loved both men for more than two decades. Yet he was no more surprised by these than the continuation of war, the persecution of minorities and activists, or the destruction of the environment. He was certainly saddened by all of this, but not surprised in the least: “There’s nothing left for this country but death.”
All this is not to say that The Fall of America Journals is a bleak and depressing read, for it is not. It is a fascinating insight into Ginsberg’s life and offers a valuable perspective of that era. As the journals themselves are not hugely substantial or informative, the book is almost another poetry collection. It is littered with first drafts of his best poems from 1965-72, as well as a great many unpublished works. He is, as ever, playful with form and of course the content tends to revolve around politics, sex, his friends, self-doubt, and travel.
This book stands, too, as a testament to Ginsberg’s obsession with Bob Dylan and, to a lesser extent, the Beatles. There are memories of meeting these great musicians, as well as poetic tributes and countless dreams of chance encounters. The Beatles cease to be such an interest by mid-way through the book but Dylan is ever-present. “Dylan writes better poetry than I did at his age,” he notes, “but he’s a space age genius minstrel not just old library poet.”
Ginsberg’s friends also make appearances in memories, dreams, and poems. Kerouac and his family occur often, as do most Beat and Beat-related figures, ranging from William Burroughs to Amiri Baraka. Even people who died long before 1965 crop up in his dreams, including Joan Vollmer and Natalie Jackson.
One highlight of the book is his camping trips on the West Coast with Gary Snyder (there are also some good photos included). After exploring the Northwest, Ginsberg takes off for Big Sur, where he puts on his best Kerouac impression:
Pjam! Shahakerash a siphhoopoo—
Ka da kam
This was an attempt to replicate Kerouac’s poem from the end of Big Sur – a masterful piece of onomatopoeic poetry. Ginsberg often muses on Kerouac’s influence in these journals, but Burroughs is also a looming presence as Allen questions the meaning of language and its actual importance in this reality. What connects war and words? he wonders. Can his words end war? Does the war – or America – even exist? He concludes: “the Universe is Illusion.”
The most interesting part of the book is surely his trip to Italy to visit Ezra Pound. In Venice, Ginsberg sought out one of his poetic heroes and met him regularly, hoping to learn something from one of the world’s greatest living poets. In the beginning, Pound will only say one sentence per day, but over time Ginsberg manages to encourage him to speak more. These journals – the most substantial of the book – are tender and amusing. It is notably the only part of the book where Ginsberg stops fixating on war and death.
While Ginsberg wants to enlighten the old poet to Dylan and the Beatles, Pound is more interested in downplaying his own work and opinions. He calls his poetry “stupidity and ignorance” because it is filled with “too little presentation and too much reference” that results in “all doubletalk.” He also laments his anti-Semitism. Ginsberg is eager to absolve him of all this, but Pound denies it was superficial and admits to having had bad intentions rather than just callous or careless phrasing. “Ah, that’s lovely to hear you say that,” Ginsberg replies. “As it says in the I Ching, ‘No Harm.’” This, of course, was fairly typical of Allen Ginsberg, who was quick to defend any of his friends of heroes. In particular, it reminds one of his downplaying Burroughs’ shooting of Joan Vollmer.
From Italy, Ginsberg returns to America and retreats to East Hill Farm, where he again fixates on war and death. His life becomes increasingly busy as he is involved in activism, research, writing, lecturing, studying Buddhism, and recording songs. The final sections of the book are largely consumed by these efforts at song-writing, which Schumacher tactfully notes were performed by a man whose musical ambitions far exceeded his talent. This brings the story to India, where he had lived a decade before, and an early draft of “September on Jessore Road,” which was included in Fall of America, published in 1973 by City Lights.
This massive collection is another extremely valuable insight into the life and work of Allen Ginsberg and will soon become required reading for Ginsberg scholars. Michael Schumacher has done excellent work transcribing Ginsberg’s tapes and chicken-scratch handwriting into an entertaining volume. His notes, occasionally inserted to fill a gap in Ginsberg’s own journaling, are intelligent and informative.
The Fall of America Journals will be released 10th November by University of Minnesota Press.