From OM to AH: The Spiritual Evolution of Allen Ginsberg

Review of Allen Ginsberg’s Buddhist Poetics by Tony Trigilio.

Marc Olmsted
1 December 2007

Allen Ginsberg’s Buddhist Poetics,
By Tony Trigilio

Southern Illinois University Press, 2007
288 pages; $45 (hardcover)

The good news about Tony Trigilio’s book is that he definitely knows the work of Allen Ginsberg well. He is fully versed in Ginsberg’s writings, from “Howl” to the far less known “White Shroud” and “Black Shroud,” written in the poet’s final years. Trigilio has also studied the countless interviews with Ginsberg and all of the various critical examinations that have been written about him.

The bad news is that Allen Ginsberg’s Buddhist Poetics is written in academic-speak, which means it is primarily for other academics. It also means that if you don’t know a particular word, it won’t be in a dictionary you can lift with one hand. This being said, both the amateur and professional Beat scholar, as well as anyone interested in the details of the development of American Buddhism, may want to investigate it.

Poet Ginsberg is primarily remembered for writing “Howl,” although his “Kaddish” continues to rise in critical acclaim and may easily surpass “Howl’s” regard within the next hundred years. The man who wrote these poems in the fifties looked like a beefy Buddy Holly, but Ginsberg’s image is most often associated with the sixties, as the cover of this book shows him, playing finger cymbals and chanting (most of his mantras at that time were Hindu). Still, this is not really the Buddhist student he became in the seventies, when his teacher Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche cleaned him up and got him to trim his hair (and even shave off his beard at one point!) and wear a blazer and tie.

The shaggy Allen Ginsberg of the sixties did lead his audience to the buddhadharma. The Ginsberg of the Human Be-In in San Francisco’s 1967 Summer of Love showed up not only with the usual suspects of that period (like Tim Leary), but also with premier Zen master Suzuki Roshi. (Trigilio neglects to mention Suzuki Roshi’s presence at this event.)

By 1967 Ginsberg was hardly new to the dharma. Jack Kerouac had been trying to convince him since the mid-1950s of Buddhism’s value, and even earlier Ginsberg had read D.T. Suzuki’s Essays in Zen Buddhism after seeing an exhibit of Chinese Buddhist paintings at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. In his travels to India, he had already met the greatest Tibetan Buddhist teachers of that day, including Dudjom Rinpoche, the Sixteenth Karmapa, the Dalai Lama, and even Chögyam Trungpa (though Ginsberg forgot about this until he saw a photo of them together many years later).

Trigilo betrays at least a partial suspicion of Ginsberg’s root guru, evidently stemming from accounts of a 1976 Vajradhatu Seminary Halloween party, where things apparently got pretty wild. The matter was thoroughly investigated by Ed Sanders, who published his findings in a book called The Party, and Michael Schumacher’s biography of Ginsberg called Dharma Lion gives a good account of it as well. The leaked incident cost grant funding and delayed accreditation for Naropa for a few years. Since Chögyam Trungpa is central to Ginsberg’s development of a specifically Buddhist poetics, Triglio’s reservations about Ginsberg’s principal teacher must be taken into account when evaluating his presentation.

Another, somewhat strange angle is Trigilio’s framing of Ginsberg’s poetic/spiritual process in Freudian terms. A major element of his discussion concerns Ginsberg working out the Oedipal issues that involve his schizophrenic mother. Again, the good news is that Trigilio’s Freudian evaluation is completely logical within its own paradigm. Nevertheless, seeing Freud and Buddhist tantra expressed in the same sentence is an odd mix. A case in point: “Ginsberg’s particular Tibetan Buddhist practice with Trungpa can be seen in light of what Finn has described as the ‘flexible relationship to the Oedipus complex’…”

The conventional view of Ginsberg as a poet is that after “Howl” he never wrote anything of much significance. “Kaddish” and “Wichita Vortex Sutra” have gained in stature, but who has heard of the “Contest of the Bards”? In truth, Ginsberg’s poetry remained fascinating to the end of his life, refined to a pristine “snapshot poetics” as indebted to William Carlos Williams’ objectivism as it is to Trungpa’s contribution to the writing slogan that eventually became known as “First thought, best thought.” Still, this later development in Ginsberg’s work does not seem to be the Buddhist poetics that Trigilio refers to in his title.

Instead, an entire chapter is devoted to the poem “The Change,” which Ginsberg wrote on the train from Kyoto to Tokyo on his return to North America from India and Japan in 1966. Biographically, the poem is important because Ginsberg attempts to renounce trying to get out of this body into some metaphysical truth. However, the poem is very much entrenched in a psychedelic syntax that he would later strongly advise others against emulating. This is because the guiding mental connections between much of the imagery is missing, and the reader needs to work unnecessarily to discover what is trying to be communicated. No doubt Trigilio doesn’t feel this way, but I’ve read the poem many times over the years and find it to be one of Ginsberg’s most abstract.

Trigilio apparently sees Buddhist poetics as an integration of the spiritual and material worlds. This is backed up by Ginsberg’s pilgrimage from an early non-drug vision in which he believed he heard William Blake narrating a poem to him, through pursuits to duplicate this by acid and yogas he learned in India, and finally the formal earthbound study of Tibetan Buddhism with the Rinpoches Trungpa and Gehlek.

Unfortunately, Trigilio doesn’t seem to have a firm enough grasp of Buddhism to always be able to distinguish between Ginsberg’s dabblings in the Hindu philosophy and his actual practice and study of Buddhism. For example, he spends a great deal of time on Ginsberg chanting OM during the police riots that took place at the Chicago Democratic Convention in 1968. There is no mention that it was a Hindu-style chant, nor of Chögyam Trungpa’s later advice to change his public mantra to AH, so as not to give the audience “a buzz and nowhere to go with it.”

One can appreciate Tony Trigilio’s exceptional Beat scholarship and value his book as a pioneering study of Ginsberg’s Buddhist poetics. However, it has the limitations of all pioneering works, and the definitive examination is still waiting to be written. More than a few of us anticipate it eagerly, but in the meantime we have this provocative study to wrestle with.