The Fall of America Journals, 1965-1971, Allen Ginsberg, Edited by Michael Schumacher: A Review

The Fall of America Journals, 1965-1971, Allen Ginsberg, Edited by Michael Schumacher, University of Minnesota Press, Nov. 2020, ISBN 978-0-8166-9963-6, $34.95

The Fall of America Journals, 1965-1971 is the backdrop to Ginsberg’s poetry of this period, a period when he criss-crossed America in a Volkswagen camper recording improvised ‘auto poesy’ on a reel to reel tape recorder, courtesy of the Guggenheim fellowship and Bob Dylan and transcribing the poems and his dreams in his journals. Or at least that, as these journals make clear, is part of a complex story in turbulent times.

Early on, certainly, Ginsberg did work straight to tape, and then transcribe, but he also drafted poems straight into his journal, many of them unpublished. However, a number of the most important Fall of America poems, including ‘Iron Horse’ (written on a train/bus journey, not a van trip) and ‘Wales Visitation’ are not ‘auto poesy’. And, as the latter reminds us, not all these poems are actually situated in the States. Ginsberg spent a good deal of 1967 in Europe, and one of the most interesting segments of this journal, his meetings with Ezra Pound, are here, in much more extended detail than previously published versions.

The primary backdrop to these journals is the Vietnam War, and Ginsberg’s engagement in anti-war activities, and the tone can be summed up in a phrase from ‘Bixby Canyon’, ‘Cosmic Miasma Anxiety’. There’s anxiety about the war, about police surveillance and arrest, both at home and in Italy, about his poetry, a strong thread of sexual anxiety, and a concern with death. The arrests of Jerry Rubin, Leroi Jones (as he was then known), Dave Harris and others, the events around and after the 1968 Democratic Party Convention in Chicago, and the Kennedy, King and Malcom X assassinations fed into his fears, but it was the deaths of his old, semi-estranged friends Neil Cassidy and Jack Kerouac that were to have the deepest impact on his poetry of the time with elegies to both men emerging from these journals.

The linking of sex and death is played out explicitly in a long prose entry dated Dec 13, 1968, when Ginsberg was in hospital recovering from a serious car accident and then less bluntly a few days later when he starts drafting the poem ‘Car Crash’. Interestingly the only entry between prose and poem is a brief, misremembered reference to the (then) last lines of Pound’s Cantos: “‘Set the wind Speak’? I don’t remember.” What he’s half remembering through a fog of pain and medication is Pound’s recognition of the need for silence and stillness in the face of the poet’s failure:

I have tried to write Paradise

Do not move
     Let the wind speak
      that is paradise.

Let the Gods forgive what I
      have made
Let those I love try to forgive
      what I have made.

Equally, the link between sex and the war underpins the poem ‘Please Master’, a poem that Ginsberg seems to have been a bit anxious about, too, given a December 1969 entry asking ‘What effect will Please Master have on kid minds?’

The series of meetings with Pound will, for many readers, constitute the core of the book, partly because of the debate around the older poet’s renunciation of ‘the stupid, suburban prejudice anti-Semitism’ and his declared discovery that he ‘was not a lunatic but a moron’. But for those of us who want more insight into Ginsberg the poet and his working methods, his wish to have Pound recognise the similarity in method between the poems he was writing at the time and The Cantos is more interesting, and his comment that each canto contains ‘some condensed perception’ that act together as a spine for the work can equally be applied to the Fall of America poems. For instance, while the climax of ‘Wichita Vortex Sutra’ is the line ‘I here declare the end of the War!’, the core perception that holds the poem together is captured in the ‘Language language’ refrain, the understanding that language, the material of the poet, has been corrupted by the media, politicians, the military and all others who use words to obscure rather than illuminate the world. The poet can declare the war over, but these words are neutered by the assault on language the poem delineates. Indeed, the recurrent use of quotes from contemporary politicians in the poems of these States also reflects Poundian practice.

The journals allow us a window into Ginsberg’s method. while the tapes of the auto poesy poems are no longer playable, making it impossible to know how much editing happened between recording and transcription, we can see what happened with the move from draft to published text for all the poems included here. Typically, this involved quite extensive changes in line and stanza breaks and indentation, as well as much minor editing of the text, removing articles and other grammar words. At times the revision is extensive; for example, the litany of names that builds to the climax in ‘Wichita Vortex Sutra’ is much more extensive in the printed text than in the journal draft. So much so that I suspect an interim draft probably exists somewhere.

Ginsberg also put a great deal of thought into the arrangement of the poems. A dozen of the poems from these journals were first published in the Planet News volume, but when he first rearranged his work in chronological order of the Collected Poems 1947-1980, he moved ‘Portland Coliseum’ to a hypothetical King of May collection, added poems from other journals to the Planet News sequence, and restored the rest to The Fall of America. These, however, where not quite placed in chronological order. Both the Portland poem and ‘First Party at Ken Kesey’s with Hells Angels´ were drafted before ‘Beginning of a Poem of These States’ but Ginsberg retains the primacy of this poem in the Collected arrangement.

These may seem like fairly trivial details, but I think they add considerable nuance to the image of Ginsberg as a freewheeling bob improvisor churning out spontaneous verses; the revisions and reordering show a writer of considerable craft and care. This is even more evident in the volume of draft poems that never made it past the journals. Some of these were collected in the posthumous        Wait Till I’m Dead: Uncollected Poems volume, but most remain uncollected until now, wisely so, on the whole. They are interesting inasmuch as they show Ginsberg experimenting with modes; the poems drafted between visits with Pound, for instance, are variations on themes from the older poets Venetian Cantos. These are interesting as instances of how Ginsberg absorbed influence and experience, but his decision making around what to publish and what not show his conscious artistry almost as much as the published poems do.

The journals also offer a view on the conflict between poet and public figure, if conflict is the right word. For instance, between the draft of ‘G.S. Reading Poesy at Princeton’ dated Dec 4, 1969 and the Sept 1970 draft of ‘Ecologue’ there is nothing in the journals that appear in the published sequence (there are two intervening poems, ‘Friday the Thirteenth’ and ‘Anti-Vietnam War Peace Mobilization’ that do not appear here; I wonder if drafts of these and the other non-journal Fall poems exist elsewhere in Ginsberg’s papers.) What the journals do document here is Ginsberg’s documenting of the Chicago trials, life on his farm/retreat in Cherry Valley, a kind of anti-public site for interacting with fellow writers, and his dreams, in which these subjects often intermesh.

In October 1971, he drafted ‘September in Jessore Road’, which was to become the final Fall poem and had started work on other projects, accepting that the war was going to drag on beyond the limits of his book. One really interesting addition here is a postscript of the longish prose ‘Denver to Montana Beginning 27 May 72’, which Ginsberg had intended to close the book with. It is, amongst other things, a meditation on the geography of the States, a recognition that there are things that outlast war, outlast all human activity, and a fitting closing to Ginsberg’s journey of exploration that started with Planet News.

There are, of course, a lot more things going on here than can be covered in a short review. Anyone with an interest in Beat literature will find endless treasure here, and Dylan fans might find it interesting to reflect on Ginsberg’s role in the Rollin Thunder Review and the Renaldo and Clara film, for starters. The book is a monument of careful editing, handsomely produced and a credit to Michael Schumacher and the University of Minnesota Press.