In a small Harlem apartment in the summer of 1948, something phenomenal happened to Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg, one of the founding members of the Beat literary movement and renowned for his magnum opus “Howl,” had experienced a vision that had changed him as both as a person and poet. While alone in his apartment one day, he was reading William Blake’s “Ah! Sun-flower,” as well as masturbating to the words of the poem. As he climaxed, Ginsberg heard a deep voice, specifically that of William Blake’s, reciting the poem. After his orgasm, as he was gazing at the window onto the rooftops of Harlem and taking in what had just happened, Blake’s voice came to him again, but time reading the words of “The Sick Rose.” As he looked out onto the city, “the entire universe was revealed to him,” and Allen was more alive and self-realized than ever (Morgan 103). Bill Morgan, Ginsberg’s premier biographer, states that in this hour of cosmic awareness, the mysteries of the universe were unlocked to Allen, and that he could almost say that he saw God in that one important moment (103). Once his Blakeian cosmic experience faded, the enlightenment from the experience stayed with him forever, and changed how he saw himself and the world around him. Ginsberg would insist to those he confided in later that this experience was not an auditory hallucination; to him, it was something that had actually happened, and Blake speaking to him was as real as “how the saints heard the Virgin Mary speaking to them” (Morgan 103.) Without a doubt, this experience had shaken him to the core, and Ginsberg would never be the same again.
While this experience had enlightened Allen and opened his eyes to corners of the world he never imagined, it was the closest to madness that Ginsberg would ever reach (Morgan and Stanford 60). In one of Ginsberg’s letters to Jack Kerouac, his close friend and a fellow key figure in the Beat Generation, he denied his Blake visions completely. His previous letter to Kerouac, though, had boasted about them and how it had changed the world around him. Kerouac had written Ginsberg’s claims and denials off and attributed them to Ginsberg “flipping [out]”, and Ginsberg remained relatively quiet about the Blakeian experiences until decades later (Morgan and Stanford 60). In the 1966 issue of The Paris Review with Tom Clark, Ginsberg was very open about that moment of realization he had in Harlem, and described the incident in detail, and how it had changed him into becoming his own “self-prophet” [cite, need to get hold of Paris Review article to do so].
Consequently, that concept of the “self-prophet” that Ginsberg had embraced is extremely important when thinking about his poetry. After the summer of 1948, Ginsberg’s poetics had taken a completely different turn, and started to sound more and more, for lack of better words, prophetic. His poems went from being more “traditional” in nature, to transforming into surrealist and scriptural language. Therefore, Ginsberg having Blake speak to him really changed his writerly identity, in a way where Ginsberg began to think of himself as a self-proclaimed oracle, which made every word of his poetry a self-important prophecy to the public.
For my thesis, I want to explore that concentrated period of time during the summer of 1948 in Harlem, and map out the transformation of Ginsberg’s own writerly identity once he had his Blakeian vision. Before Blake spoke to him, Ginsberg was at a low point in his life, emotionally and poetically; after, though, Ginsberg then thought of himself as a prophet, and proceeded on a poetic and writerly binge regarding his visions and how he saw himself and world around him. As a writer myself, I find that change absolutely fascinating. I know that any artist, myself included, experiences constant imposter syndrome, as well as a lot of self-doubt when it comes to our own writing. In my thesis, I want to explore the humanity behind Ginsberg’s transformation, and humanize the change by mapping out a distinct week in Allen’s life.
While I can only narrow the dates of this Blakeian vision down from June-July of 1948, I want to fictionalize that key period of Allen’s life by turning it into one week. In that week, Neal will have rejected him, his own father will have also denounced his homosexuality, Kerouac and Burroughs will be away and writing to Allen, and, of course, Ginsberg will have his celebrated experience. Once the events are planned out for this week, I plan on creating poetry that details and follows up to his cosmic vision. The poetry and events will be sectioned into different days of the week. On the second to last day of the week, Ginsberg will have his Blakeian experience. The following day will explore his changed perspective and poetic style. The poetry throughout the week, though, will have different mediums sprinkled throughout. In the spirit of Michael Ondaatje’s hybrid form and use of multimedia in The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, I want to build a multimodal and fleshed-out poetic world, as to really capture what Ginsberg was going through during that week. Ultimately, I want the poetry to encapture the interest of the reader, and immerse them in a world that chronicles the real and cosmic journey Ginsberg follows on his search and realization when it comes to what it means to be a writer.
Review of Literature
Significant Literature, History, and Influences
Evans, Mike. The Beats: From Kerouac to Kesey, an Illustrated Journey through the Beat Generation. Running Press, 2007. This particular book embodies an overall look at the relationships and the growth of the Beat Generation, but also offers graphics, such as primary pictures and illustrations of the group. These historical pictures of the literary movement show the friendship and bond established between the members of the Beat Generation, along with intimate moments that capture the feeling of the time period. Overall, Evans compilation of pictures are wonderful, as they can be implemented into my own Beat poetry collection, much in the same vein as Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid; also, they can be the basis for the start of some of the poems, such as a certain event that has been photographed, which serves as a great prompt for creativity and authenticity.
Morgan, Bill. I Celebrate Myself: The Somewhat Private Life of Allen Ginsberg. Viking Penguin, 2006. Ultimately, this book serves as a very detailed biography of Allen Ginsberg. Bill Morgan accounts for important events and relationships Ginsberg had for almost every year of his adult life, along with noting of certain poems or collections of Ginsberg’s poetry were published during certain years. Due to the well-documented nature of Morgan’s biography of Allen Ginsberg, I can use the book as both inspiration for poetry, as well as a way to help authenticate Ginsberg’s voice and character I am trying to flesh out in my own poetry. Additionally, and more obviously, I will use the biography to help chronicle certain events and dates that are key in illustrating the week of Ginsburg’s life that I am focusing on.
Ondaatje, Michael. The Collected Works of Billy the Kid. In this collection of poetry, Ondaatje reinvents the history and fleshes out the character of Billy the Kid, as well as the world around the cowboy legend. Ondaatje writes poems in the perspectives of Billy and other key characters, as well as implements different mediums to illustrate the history, such as segments of letters, photographs, vignettes, and even comic strips; ultimately, through Ondaatje’s artistic endeavors, he makes the reader relate to and empathize with Billy and this reinvented history of the legend. Similarly, I would like to emulate Ondaatje’s artistic vision in order to expand my own project regarding the week of events in Allen’s life that changed who he was as a person and, most significantly, a writer.
Spinks, Lee. “Sense and Singularity: Reading Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid.” Canadian Literature, 2008: 62-78. EBSCOHOST. In this article, Spinks examines what makes Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid have such a strong sense of self and history within the poetry. Spinks thus analyzes and praises the poetry in several different ways, such as commenting on how the reinvented history, textual self-awareness, and even the form, are what make Billy’s character and Ondaatje’s poetry so effective and engaging for the reader (62-64). Through Spinks’s own observations and my own regarding the captivating success of Ondaatje’s poetry style and how he builds up the myth of Billy the Kid, I can emulate some of the methods that are particularly impactful, such as including different mediums to tell a story, or writing poems based on specifics events that would lend a historical and personal sense to the character and the Beat Generation itself.
Stanford, David, and Bill Morgan. Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg: The Letters. Viking Penguin, 2010. In this book, Stanford and Morgan compile the hundreds of letters Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg sent each other throughout the course of their relationship, and all the way until Kerouac’s death. The letters contain bits of poems and stories that were never published, as well as personal conversations between the two Beat friends. Thus, the intimate nature of the letters and rawness of their shared poems and stories can further help in understanding the psyche of Kerouac and Ginsberg, as well as to help emulate the authenticity of their relationship in my poetry; additionally, I can use the primary excerpts of letters and lines of poems to incorporate as different mediums in my collection, as well as to serve as inspiration to creating some of the poetry itself.
Wart, Alice van. “The Evolution of Form in Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid and Coming Through Slaughter.” Canadian Poetry Press 17 (1985): n.p. Western University Canada. Wart’s article closely analyses the form Michael Ondaatje uses is both his poetry and prose in The Collected Works of Billy the Kid and Coming Through Slaughter, respectively. In both works, Ondaatje experiments with mixed mediums to carry his literary narratives, which consequently helps make the world he is building very realistic; as a result, Wart discusses how Ondaatje’s form lends to the voice he is creating for these characters, and how that voice consequently becomes very authentic and compelling for the reader. Through Wart’s article, it provides a closer reading of how Ondaatje composed The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, as well as explains how the evolving form of the poetry lends to the way Ondaatje fleshes out both his characters and world that he creates.
Watson, Steve. The Birth of the Beat Generation: Visionaries, Rebels, and Hipsters, 1944-1960 (Circles of the Twentieth Century). Pantheon Books, 1998. Another detailed and credible source that chronicles the start of the Beat Generation, as well as the relationships of the key figures, such as Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, William Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Gary Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Herbert Huncke, and more. More than the other books, Watson focuses on the birth of the group itself, such as when and how the connections were established between the Beat Generation. Consequently, the insight of the relationships between more than just Jack and Allen will help in adding personal details and create poems during his isolated week.
Digital Humanities Literature, Techniques, and Tools
Alexander, Bryan. “Storytelling.” Digital Pedagogy in the Humanities: Concepts, Models, and Experiments, 2016. MLA Commons. In Alexander’s article “Storytelling,” he discusses how narratives can be told in a digital space, and what tools can be used to further enhance the timeless experience of storytelling. Today, especially in pieces of electronic literature, the author creates a multimodal experience for their reader; for example, they utilize audio, graphic, and video components, along with other computational affordances to create different dimensions in their work. Alexander’s exploration of different tools in storytelling and several examples of how multimodality is achieved in certain digital stories can help me think about how I will utilize a variety of mediums in order to convey a compelling narrative, such as how Ondaatje’s form does that for his poetry, despite just being on published in print.
Heckman, Davin and James O’Sullivan. “Electronic Literature: Context and Poetics.” Literary Studies in the Digital Age: An Evolving Anthology, 2016. MLA Commons. In their article, Heckman and O’Sullivan cover the historical, contemporary, and future context of electronic literature, as well as define the term and explain what constitutes a piece as “e-lit.” In the overview, they explore a few examples, along with the computational elements that made the pieces simultaneously engaging and effective as works of e-lit. Consequently, “Electronic Literature: Context and Poetics” gives me a great plethora of successful and compelling pieces of e-lit for me to view, along with the poetics that Heckman and O’Sullivan have identified for the literary subset of the digital humanities; with that, I can look back to their poetics in order to see how my own work does or does not match up with their definition and expectations, and how my piece fits alongside and in with the evolving future of electronic literature.
Ryback, Chuck. “Poetry.” Digital Pedagogy in the Humanities: Concepts, Models, and Experiments, 2016. MLA Commons. Overall, this article is a compilation of different digital poetry, from generative twitterbots to the publication of e-poetry. However, the compilation gives insight on to the many forms digital poetry can be, as well as different ways on how to analyze it. Consequently, Ryback’s article is useful in giving ideas about how to approach and publish the digital poetry component of my thesis, along with thinking about how to present my poetry and how the audience will computationally perceive it.