The Ginsberg Variations

posted by SWC on June 1st, 2012 · 1 Comment | | Printer Friendly Version

Speaking of Lionel Trilling, as I was some months ago, I have often thought of my omission of his most famous student, Allen Ginsberg, who was at Columbia in the mid-forties and who was also a Paterson schoolmate of mine. Over the years we spoke about five or six times, not counting the semester that I was assigned to a study period in the back of Miss Durbin’s senior English class, in which Allen was a devoted student. In one of our conversations, decades later, he asked me what he was like in high school; he couldn’t remember. I told him that he struck me as pretty nervous and intense. He nodded, absorbed with what I had said like a biographer compiling materials for a Life.

In 1984 an editor at Harper & Row asked me to prepare a proper name index for Ginsberg’s Collected Poems 1947-1980.  An index for the poems, not the appendices, the commentaries, or the voluminous notes? The idea of a proper name index for this huge lava-flow collection of poetry fascinated me. Names make news , but in what sense do they make poetry?   It was Ginsberg’s private Who’s Who. Facebook before its time. In his “Author’s Preface, Reader’s Manual” he wrote that the purpose of the index was to make the large volume “user friendly.” The reader as “user”– consumer of poetic goods?  We–my staff and I–did the index.  The index that I eventually saw,  after the book was published,  had been mutated by Ginsberg and his staff. Do poets work with staffs? For this book, yes.  The book with all  its appurtenances and linkages was both a collection of poetry and an encyclopedic rendering of the world according to Allen and his social network.

What happened to the index? The changes were at first glance a little vexing. The rules of indexing are really few, and they are frequently  forsaken.  For instance cross references, were added with whimsical superfluity. “Cousteau, J.” directs the reader to the neighboring “Cousteau, Jacques.”   “Lou, see Ginsberg, Louis” is followed by “Louis, see Ginsberg, Louis.” What kind of  user, I wondered,   requires such friendship? That would be the same reader who looks up “W. C. Williams” in that straight-across order and needs to be sent down the page to “Williams, William Carlos.” There is an entry for “Blow, Joe” which cross-references to Ginsberg, Allen, who is apparently indexed  wherever his name appears.  Many entries are cross-referenced to the 50 pages of notes where the explanations are helpful,  although some seem unnecessary to readers of the daily press.  I am reminded of  T. S. Eliot’s Notes to The Waste Land and wonder if some student has not already compared them with Ginsberg’s Notes for a graduate dissertation.

The more I look at the index today the more I find it entertaining, not lacking in idiosyncratic charm ,  and in fact falling within the vast poetic embrace of the entire book. Ginsberg has stamped it too with his utmost sense of self.  The volume itself is, after all, some serious publishing history.

[Note: Lionel Trilling was not in the index, but the Ginsberg-Trilling connection and their Dionysian-Apollonian relationship has been well covered, particularly by Adam Kirsch in his “Lionel Trilling and Allen Ginsberg: Liberal Father, Radical Son” in the Virginia Quarterly Review online and in his excellent Why Trilling Matters.]

One comment

  1. A.G.’s additions to the index do indeed reveal a lot about him,especially that he must put his imprint on it.

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