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Beats and Beatings

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Separated by space and time, by race and religion; counter opposites regarding upbringing and society, legendary poet Allan Ginsberg and the controversial Kgafela oa Magogodi are in unity in one aspect: their art. The works produced by the respective poets face up differing realities, and yet echoes are expelled by each that serve to intersect and interfere in a manner that combines their meaning and their hermeneutics to the elucidation of a greater reality. The poems Howl, by Ginsberg, and beautiful ones are dying, by Magogodi, are both resplendent of “an embodiment of a philosophy of experience” (Wojahan and Myers) and serve to collapse the perimeter of restriction. As the reader engages with each text and falls further into the worlds described by the poets, there can be no argument that the frustrated heart of a suppressed people is lamenting its capture to an extent in both works. And the readers own heart can’t help but join in the cry.

By virtue of the fact that Ginsberg was a member of the Beats poetry movement of the fifties, his poem was greeted with trepidation and anticipation by many of the readers of the time. The movement were perceived as group of whom others should be wary. Fiercely liberal, communistic and outspoken, the content of Howl mirrors the attitude of the non-conformist genre. The fear invoked in the average individual in the society in which Ginsberg found himself does not differ all too greatly from the anxiety ensnared in Magogodi’s society. A black writer and performer in a freshly engendered non-racist social order, it is undeniable that the roughness and harsh reality of Magogodi’s poems excites the same fretful exhilaration that Ginsberg’s did. Both poems are pregnant with criticism, and heavy with commentary on the society of the given day. The poets’ regard for the delicate or sensitive reader is completely eclipsed by the intensity with which their truth is expressed, and the magnitude of observation that is exposed.

Howl, in its very title, makes clear to the reader that what follows is an extensive, mournful wail, a literal outburst of emotion and expression: a protest. However, it also seems as if Ginsberg’s title is also an instruction. The poet is almost commanding that the reader join him in his lament, insisting that they ‘howl’. The opening line makes reference to Ginsberg’s contemporaries, “the best minds of my generation”, being “destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked”. This opening alone is dichotomous in function. In the initial sense, Ginsberg is grieving this fact as a point of departure, but simultaneously it calls to the reader to allow themselves to be affronted and aggrieved by the statement. It is interesting that Ginsberg refers to these “best minds” as being “naked”. In an interview that was published in the biography Dharma Lion, Ginsberg asserted that “what [the Beats] were trying to prove” was “nakedness”, and that the poet was under the imperative to “stand naked before the people…[stand] naked before the world” (Schumcher). Although this insight is a select piece of information, realising the effect it has is of vital importance. It causes the reader to recognise how this simple understanding, combined with an extension of the meaning assigned to the word “naked”, imbues the lines with infinitely plentiful interpretations. The use of words to form this dynamic and kinetic understanding is part of how Ginsberg’s poem has come to “be all things to all people” (Burt). The sheer magnitude of content encapsulated in Howl is not apparent in every aspect of the writing, and what this does to the reader is of equal magnitude.

When confronted with the poem, the reader is assaulted by dense blocks of prose, one after the other, in a seemingly endless parade of figures and signifiers. There are no line breaks in the entirety of the work, and Ginsberg uses run on lines to mesh together the thoughts evoked in one sentence with those elicited by the successive one. These factors all contribute to make Howl a physically imposing work to its audience. The words seem to engulf the reader, and the readers find themselves in a field of information, in stretches of understanding and misunderstanding extending to the horizons, in a world of semantics and semiotics in which everything is in flux, and yet everything is concrete. Despite the confusion of this outset, the excitement that accompanies this timidity compels the reader to delve further. This aspect of the poem was characteristic of the Beats’ intention to replace the “given [codes] with an emphasis on individual experience” and to remove poetry from being a “set of aesthetic principles…[to being] a program of action” (Wojahan and Myers). To engage with Ginsberg’s work is a verb; an activity.

The content of Howl is similarly dense and thick with meaning. The poem refers primarily to the social order and era in which Ginsberg found himself. Many references are made to American locales, most notably the cities, in which the characters of the day are illustrated in their esoteric, harsh and drug-fuelled activities. Reference is, further, made to race, sexuality, politics, academia, music and various institutions, from mental hospitals to jails. The language of the academic is melded with the lingo of the street, and the jargon of the youth, to pack into the context the comprehension of the behaviour of the people represented. Cityscapes and scenes of debauchery are littered with religious connotation and spiritual references. The use of such juxtaposition in the line “the madman bum and the angel beat in Time” is arguably a reference that Ginsberg makes to himself, and the duality of his poetic nature. Divorcing the content from reason entirely in parts, Ginsberg tends to completely undermine the logical deductions a reader may make. This subversion of the process of analysis is further achieved by Ginsberg’s refusal to abide by traditional laws of grammar and sentence structure. Despite this, Ginsberg creates dialectic discourse between the crude and obscene, and the ephemerally beautiful and whimsical.

Ginsberg's undaunted use of love and sexuality, both homosexual and heterosexual, is an aspect of Howl that a large quantum of its early readers was disturbed by, and an area in which this atypical discourse is recognizable. Ginsberg treats the ideals roughly and often discourteously. The lines: “who copulated ecstatic and insatiate with a bottle of beer a sweetheart a packet of cigarettes [and] continued…with a vision of ultimate cunt and come eluding the last gyzym of consciousness” are a principal example of this. Similarly, Ginsberg seems to blend his affirmations in the counter-culture of the Beats with the inextricable and ever-present classical past, accordingly this includes his approval of the former and his derision for the latter. Through intertwining the two concepts, Ginsberg forms an irony that establishes the importance of the past in the intensity of the poet’s present.

The fascinating dichotomy of the beautiful and the hideous is recurring, and employed repeatedly in Howl. Ginsberg uses this relationship to protest heartily against the exclusion of the “greatest minds”, as he perceives them, from the American ideal. In so doing, he serves to underscore his disdain for the culture, and his disillusionment with the establishment as a whole. Ginsberg continually emphasises that which is misaligned, which is misplaced, which is disjointed in the psycho-social realm of his reality. By bringing to the fore the harshest and most aesthetically displeasing imagery, social taboos and historical occurrences, he howls his lament, logically asserting the louder and longer the wail, the more people will respond.

Ginsberg begins every new line with the word “who”, a pronoun which has been explained to be an actual reference to people Ginsberg had heard of or knew personally. The word, however, extends to cause the reader to ponder whether every line is intended as a question. The rhetorical nature of these lines further encourages readers to think and consider who each of the individuals described in the lines may be; a challenge to the reader’s mind, and a tool that ensnares imaginations in an even more personal dialogue between reader and writer. “Who” is also visually akin to “howl”, this trait alone forming an ocular continuity from title to conclusion. What seems more remarkable about this relationship, however, is the phoneticism apparent in the pronunciation of the vowel in the word “who” and the sound of a literal howl. This assonantal representation elongates the cry aurally to the reader in a very tangible manner. Ginsberg relies heavily, but seemingly inadvertently, on alliterations and assonance, often repeating not only entire words continually in a single sentence, but sounds and beats from one to the next.

Ginsberg, interestingly, personifies concepts such as “Eternity” and “Time” in an almost traditional and Victorian way. He grants such ideals a sense of reification as the only real acknowledged entity as having some sort of dominance over him. “Time” is the only construct to which he apparently submits. Ginsberg uses metaphors at various other junctures too, however, referring to “the lamb stew of imagination” and “orange crates of theology”. The images implied are astounding and often startling, at once very direct and very vague. The phrases appear direct as the images evoked are very specific, yet simultaneously the unusual and unexpected combinations and constructions are so surmising, that the image that is eventually perceived is not at all familiar. The poet’s use of metaphor in such instances is noteworthy for comparison with the works of Kgafela oa Magogodi, a poet who personifies the very country in which he bases his poems.

Magogodi opens his poem not altogether differently than Ginsberg, also referring to the demise of his contemporaries, calling them “beautiful ones”. The imperative embodied in this revelation is the instinctual desire of the reader to rush to the aid of those in peril, or to somehow prevent this death. The word “dying” suggests a continual action, bringing the verb into present consideration and in so doing evokes a sense of immediacy in the reader. This urgency immediately catapults the reader to the place and time in which the poem is set, as it invokes the same sense of harried hustle and bustle as suggested by the soulless, dead streets which are “just machinery faking heartbeat”. Words such as “mad”, “electricity” and “crazy” furthermore contribute to the reader’s understanding of Magogodi’s setting and a particular state of consciousness is immediately summoned.

The arrangement of the poem is not as dense as that of Ginsberg’s work. The prose is, however, similarly dense, and again no line breaks are present. Instead, Magogodi’s poem snakes irregularly across and down the page, representative of the people hurrying along streets and indicative of increasing and decreasing decibel levels; creating visual noise. The lines also echo the city skyline as it riddles the horizon, interrupting the plane of the page as skyscrapers and towers do the sky.

Magogodi uses the content of his poem as a medium through which he specifically employs the city to offer “social and political commentary” (Mistry 53). Magogodi submerges himself in the excess of the city, walking metaphorically, but alarmingly convincingly, through the images he describes placing himself in the role of the first person actor. The visual and semantic content of the images described often present a hermeneutical challenge to the reader. The city’s avenues are so overloaded with imagined happenings that the reader is often stunned by the degree of fullness that one has to mentally wade through. In his article entitled “The 'Thing' and its Double”, Achille Mbembe makes reference to this city existence, and the metaphorical presence it has in language. Mbembe writes that the first grouping into which comprehension can be ordered is “overloading”; namely, “overloading of language, overloading of public transport, overloading of living accommodation…Here, everything leads to excess” (153). This occurrence leads to noise. The cacophony of imagery and interpretations that assail the reader’s senses in the reading of Magogodi’s poem are all indicative of what Mbembe calls a noise that “constitutes an aspect…of the culture itself” (153). The poet uses vivid adjectives, such as “diamond hugs” and “screaming soil”, and extreme forms of verbs such as in the line describing how “beautiful ones” that are referred to “marinate their souls”. This contributes to the sense of overloading, as the intensity of every hypernym exaggerates imagery and accumulates in the reader’s perception as the reader experiences the poem.

Like Ginsberg, Magogodi makes multiple references to sex and sexuality. Magogodi himself asserts the belief that “sexuality is an important aspect of identity” (Mistry 56). Perhaps it is this added ability of making the reader able to identify, that influences him to include the vast quantity of sexual imagery and metaphor that he does. Magogodi refers to the country as refusing to “take off /its clothes/ and show its unpublishable [p]arts”. The reference to the eroticism of nakedness is a nod to the prevalence of the solicitation of prostitution in the city, but more pertinently echoes Ginsberg’s own comments on the role of the poet; the role of appearing naked and revealing to the world what lies beneath.

As in Ginsberg’s work, Magogodi’s writing also represents a past disapproved of in parallel with an intense present. Jyoti Mistry calls this the capturing of the “multi-faceted nature of the city’s geographies, while alluding to its historical anchor” (54). His language is also multifaceted, as Ginsberg’s was, also combining modern imagery and colloquial phrases, with terminology and jargon that is industry-specific and expressions which are unique to Black culture in South Africa. The use of such interweaving of language captures the reader on a personal level and increases the sense of direct communication between the reader and Magogodi; an occurrence that was similarly experienced in the reading of Howl.

Beautiful ones are dying is written with an irregular internal rhyme scheme, rendering the poem reflective of a poetry slam. The beat that is invoked by this rhyming compels the reader's attention, but further resonates with the “[fake] heartbeat” of the city that Magogodi describes at the outset of the work. The use of repetition, for example of the phrase “my country” and the word “bum”, not only assists this meter and beat, but emphasises the poet’s attitude toward the socio-political climate in which the poem is set. Magogodi also uses repetition in an assonantal manner, most pertinently in the line that refers to “shack’s shackles”, which combined with the apparent alliteration invokes in the reader’s mind images of chains and restrictions on the individual. All of these auditory constructs create a work that is ripe with the music and thumping of a rant, of the rhythm of a uniquely African-style protest.

Both works of both poets are famed for their public performance as well as their literary contribution. Listening to the poem as spoken by its creator is an experience that speaks to the very heart of the audience. Far from the tangibility of text, which allows for reader manipulation and review, the performance provides an immediate, real-time and highly emotional interaction with the words. The focus thus shifts from the reader’s interpretation to the performer’s proclivity. Ginsberg’s rendition of  Howl is monotonous and repetitive at the outset, gaining pace as the spell of the poem grips the listener. This leads to the almost trance-like transcendence that overwhelms the audience, indicative of the drugged haze that seemed to be a perpetual element of the Beats’ existence. The auctioneer-like speed and rhythm which Ginsberg eventually reaches, suggests the lack of personal control Ginsberg has of his situation and his social context; it is ‘for sale’ and subject to being lost in transaction, and ultimately the individual with the most money owns the people. Magogodi’s performative rendition of beautiful ones are dying is worlds apart in its presentation. As part of the spoken word film "i mike what i like" (dir. Jyoti Mistry, 2006), the visuals present the viewer with images of the stage and traditional stage performance, and yet is uniquely film in its incorporation of editing and multiple forms of media to convey the poem’s meaning. The film opens with Magogodi himself typing the words of the poem on a traditional-style typewriter, but quickly proceeds to him reading the poem aloud to a painter, and finally sharing the words with a bassist. As he endeavours to reach ultimate expression through a combination of media, the words that were displayed while Magogodi was typing begin to diminish and eventually disappear. This is indicative of the truth that no medium is able to convey absolute meaning, and that which is lost in translation can never be regained. The filmed renditions of Magogodi’s poetry are also indicative of the overloading principle, as the audience is often subjected to numerous images in quick succession and the screen is filled with colours and figures and icons. The performances are similarly noisy in the audio sense, as Magogodi regularly combines his speech with the music of a jazz instrument.

Through the individual and group appeal apparent in these two poems, the outcry of generations is embodied, shared, echoed. Despite their entirely alternate realities, Kgafela oa Magogodi and Allen Ginsberg share a particular type of consciousness and poeticism. Their social commentary and jarring exposure of contemporary constructs leaves a lasting and moving impression on all and any who are victims of, and receivers of, their respective works.

 

Bibliography

Burt, Stephen. "The Paradox of Howl." 19 April 2006. 6 October 2010 <http://www.slate.com/id/2140162>.

Ginsberg, Allen. Extract from “Howl”. Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology. Ed. Paul Hoover. New York: WW Norton and Co. Inc. 1994: 131 – 135.

Mbembe, Achille. "The 'Thing' & its Double in Cameroonian Cartoons." Readings in African Popular Culture (1997).

Mistry, Jyoti. "Johannesburg: Vocabularies of the Visceral and Expressions of Multiple Practises." African Cities Reader (2008).

Oa Magogodi, Kgafela. “beautiful ones are dying”. I mike what I like. South Africa: Laugh-it-Off Media, 2004: 112 – 115.

Schumcher, Michael. "Dharma Lion - A Biography of Allen Ginsberg." American Poets. 6 October 2010 <www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/g_l/ginsberg/howl.htm>.

Wojahan, David and Jack Myers. A Profile of Twentieth-Century American Poetry. USA: Southern Illinois University Publishers, 1991.

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