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  • Modernist Looking:Surreal Impressions in the Poetry of Allen Ginsberg
  • Brian Jackson

Of all the major poets writing outside of academia in the 1950s, Allen Ginsberg's claims to be a legitimate inheritor of Modernist experimentation seem to have been taken the least seriously. In contrast, linking the Black Mountain School with Modernism is common; in Charles Olson's case, his inclusion of historical material in his Maximus poems follows Pound's famous definition of an epic as a "poem including history" ("Date Line" 86). Understandably, seen within the historical Beat context, Ginsberg's quasi-religious relationship to William Blake and Walt Whitman has caused critics to characterize him as a neo-romantic—even confessional— poet; recent work by Tony Trigilio and Amy Hungerford documents the impact of his conversion to Buddhism on his poetics. Nevertheless, Ginsberg viewed himself as one of the true inheritors of Modernism, not only citing his personal contact with William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound as evidence but also regarding his work as a continuation of the French avant-garde, especially the Surrealism of Antonin Artaud. Although previous critics have outlined Ginsberg's links to Williams and Pound, few have delineated the development of those influences over the course of Ginsberg's career, and fewer still have explored how Pound's and Williams's exploitation of techniques borrowed from the plastic arts provided Ginsberg with a new approach to his own poetry. Specifically, Ginsberg adopted Williams's approach of observing the phenomenal world in order to identify the "true value" of each object (a technique Williams derived from Paul Cézanne) and combined it with Pound's impressionistic mimesis of perception (evident in many poems in Lustra and in certain passages of The Cantos) to form what might be called a poetics of Modernist looking. Such Modernist looking describes the fundamental poetic act of employing visual perception to shift (or metamorphose) apprehension of the phenomenal world from the quotidian to the numinous, dramatizing what Mircea Eliade would term a metamorphosis from [End Page 298] "profane" to "sacred" or "mythic" time (388-89), or into what Pound would term an "eternal state" ("Religio" 96-98).

The division of time in premodern cultures is divided into two types: profane and sacred (or mythic), according to Eliade in Patterns in Comparative Religion (389). Profane time means that acts of sustenance and procreation have been divested of any religious or mythological meaning and that the experiences of objects and events in the natural world have been drained of their numinous qualities (Eliade 31-32). However, once contact with objects containing hierophanies is made, the opportunity for metamorphic transition to sacred time is possible, which Eliade defines as consisting of a recognition or experience of the "absolute, the supernatural, the superhuman, the superhistoric" (389). Premodern humanity desired to escape its experience of profane time (the recognition of death, for example) through participation in sacred time "by means of a ritual, or by the mere repetition of some action with a mythical archetype" (Eliade 388). For Pound, participation in sacred time means entering into an "eternal state of mind" as a form of metamorphosis that yields contact with the divine and the numinous ("Religio" 96-98). Consequently, communicating (and even evoking) such mythological states required an artistic technique that went beyond description to one that would appear concrete or real to its audience. As Wendy Steiner notes, it was the "modernist movement toward concreteness"—their desire to create an art that was "palpable, thing-like"—that resulted in the "interartistic" cross-pollination between the plastic and verbal arts (17).

In addition to the poetics of looking, Ginsberg applied the concept of surreal juxtapositions, which he believed occurred naturally as the result of acute perception, and which he based on principles expressed in Artaud's "Theater of Cruelty" and late works such as "To Have Done with the Judgement of God." Ginsberg's concern with the mantic effects of poetry—long ascribed to his interest in Blake and Whitman (and now attributed to his interest in Buddhist and Hindu mantra by Trigilio and Hungerford)—received considerable strengthening from his exposure to Artaud's theory that poetry must impact its audience viscerally, an...


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