Poetry's enduring beat

Sun Journal

April 10, 1997

Only a few people are showered with attention almost every day: athletes, actors, politicians, victims of crimes.

Poets are rarely in that circle of bright light.

Two events within the past week -- one a tragedy, the other a celebration of talent -- are reminders that poetry endures even in shadow, that poems can alter how people think.

Allen Ginsberg, the best-known poet of his generation and a figure who helped define it, died Saturday at the age of 70. He was hipster, profane buddha, secular rabbi -- the keeper of the beat of the Beats. His poem "Howl," written in 1956, showed the influence of jazz, Walt Whitman (whom Ginsberg worshiped) and the Beats, and (inevitably) Ginsberg's own tumultuous life -- and helped establish Ginsberg and the Beats as part of the American landscape. The opening lines are reprinted here.

Lisel Mueller, who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry on Monday, is a quieter voice. Her subjects are the death of a parent, the lives of willful daughters, the vanity of young men.

She sees lightning as a question mark made by a trembling hand.


Allen Ginsberg

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,

starving hysterical naked,

dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for

an angry fix,

angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection

to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,

who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking

in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating

across the tops of cities contemplating jazz,

who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw

Mohammedan angels staggering on tenement roofs


who passed through universities with radiant cool

eyes hallucinating

Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy

among the scholars of war,

who were expelled from the academies for crazy &

publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull ...

From "Selected Poems 1947-1995" by Allen Ginsberg. Copyright 1996 by Allen Ginsberg. Reprinted by arrangement with HarperCollins Publishers Inc.

"Paper-White Narcissus"

Lisel Mueller

Strange, how they got their name--

a boy, barely a man,

looked into sunlit water

and saw himself so beautiful

he spent his life pursuing

that treacherous reflection.

There is no greater loneliness.

Here they are, risen

from the darkness of the pebbled pool

we have made for them in a dish--

risen and broken through

the long, green capsules

to show us their faces:

they are so delicate they invite

protection or violation,

and they are blind.

"When I Am Asked"

Lisel Mueller

When I am asked

how I began writing poems,

I talk about the indifference of nature.

It was soon after my mother died,

a brilliant June day,

everything blooming.

I sat on a gray stone bench

in a lovingly planted garden,

but the day lilies were as deaf

as the ears of drunken sleepers

and the roses curved inward.

Nothing was black or broken

and not a leaf fell

and the sun blared endless commercials

for summer holidays.

I sat on a gray stone bench

ringed with the ingenue faces

of pink and white impatiens

and placed my grief

in the mouth of language,

the only thing that would grieve with me.

Reprinted from "Alive Together: New and Selected Poems," by Lisel Mueller, copyright 1986, 1991, 1992, 1994, 1995, 1996 with permission of Louisiana State University Press.

Pub Date: 4/10/97

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