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  • Allen Ginsberg's Master Class
  • Michael Schumacher (bio)
The Best Minds of My Generation: A Literary History of the Beats
Allen Ginsberg
Bill Morgan, ed.
Grove Atlantic
496 Pages; Print, $27.00

Had he chosen the career, Allen Ginsberg would have made an amazing literary agent. He was a careful reader, with an instinct for marketing and enough P. T. Barnum in him to promote just about anything that caught his fancy—and all with an enthusiasm that compelled one to listen, if not purchase. The man was truly gifted. He began promoting the works of his friends long before he published a book of his own. He acted as an unofficial agent from the late-1940s, when he'd talk up the unpublished Jack Kerouac to anyone who would listen, until his death in 1997. Of course, it helped that he was promoting the works of Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, and a host of others, even if it took time for these writers to break through into the literary consciousness and influence, to this point, two or three generations of writers drawn to the Beat Generation.

Ginsberg was also an exceptional, although accidental (in the beginning, at least) teacher, an endeavor that he began in the summer of 1974, when he was forty-eight, and he and poet Anne Waldman founded a poetics school at Naropa Institute (now Naropa University) in Boulder, Colorado. Naropa had been founded by Chogyum Trungpa, Ginsberg's Buddhist teacher, and it undoubtedly helped the enrollment to have Ginsberg and some of his famous friends teaching at the school. But, as Anne Waldman suggests in her Foreword to this book, teaching had a positive effect on Ginsberg: "Allen was one of the most famous poets and celebrities in the world, yet settling at Naropa grounded him enough to interpret and 'transmit' his history and spiritual poetics and that of his closest literary friends."

When I was working on Dharma Lion (1992), my biography of Ginsberg, I visited his East Village office in New York on more occasions than I can recall. He had file cabinets full of carefully preserved, dated, and chronologically arranged folders of his prose, essays, transcripts of journals, photocopies of his published interviews, blurbs, and statements that reminded you, if nothing else, of his unflinchingly active literary life outside his poetry. Included in this menagerie were large binders packed with notes, lectures, reading lists, and study ideas for Ginsberg's classes. One didn't have to read through these notes for long to realize that Ginsberg took his teaching chores very seriously.

The Best Minds of My Generation combines the best of Ginsberg the teacher and Ginsberg the agent, as evident in his course of the Beat Generation. Editor Bill Morgan, a Ginsberg editor, biographer, and bibliographer, and one of the foremost Beat Generation scholars, has listened to countless hours of taped lectures and stitched together nothing less than a master class on the Beat Generation, as taught by one of its founding members and most eloquent spokesmen. The volume is packed with enough biographical detail, readings from the seminal texts, literary anecdotes and gossip, and analysis to nudge unfamiliar readers toward a trip to their local bookstore.

The book takes a deliberate route, beginning with a surprisingly thorough look at the period that influenced the Beat writers—the times, the Times Square environment, and, perhaps best of all, the music that heavily affected Kerouac and, to a lesser degree, Ginsberg. Kerouac had been introduced to jazz by his friend, Seymour Wyse, and he used the long improvisations played by such jazz musicians as Lester Young, Charlie Parker, and Dizzy Gillespie as models for his own long-lined, surging prose. Ginsberg, too, was interested in this, but he was pursuing another sound, the sound and idiom of American speech, as pursued in the work of his mentor, William Carlos Williams. These obsessions arrived early in both of their lives at an early age, and they influenced their work throughout their careers. As Ginsberg lectures:

All that experience of the exhalation of breath spirit in bop...


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