When I began to read Ginsberg again (it has been several months now), after a distance of almost a decade, I suddenly felt as though I had encountered someone whose words would change everything. It was not love, but rather something beyond love, a reexamining and reimagining of everything I thought I knew about myself, about what I believed about literature, about how a writer could use words in such a way that it would break me apart and put me back together again. Have you ever met someone, at a party perhaps, where you thought a boring evening lay ahead, but suddenly found yourself in a conversation that changed you completely? Gave you a new window onto the world around you, a view you never might have imagined? In literature I look for that moment, that sensation, in everything I read.
It was the title that caught me, hooked me, drew me in, The Book of Martyrdom and Artifice, and there was no way I could resist. A promise, perhaps, of what was to come. Enclosed between the covers are the early journals and poems of Allen Ginsberg, from his childhood in the late 1930's to his days at Columbia College throughout the 1940's and early 1950's. What is extraordinary about this collection of journals and early poems is that it follows the trajectory of the poet's mind from where he began, towards the burning light of his words that would change American poetry, challenge mind and language, forever.
I do not pretend to be any sort of writer, and I will never be any kind of poet whatsoever, but as I now go over some things I wrote nearly a decade ago (how long ago it all seems now), I can see a pattern, a sense of the way I use words, language, a certain rhythm that has stayed with me in all the time since, and will probably stay with me for the rest of my life. It is my voice, my thoughts, part of the way I see the world, and though new feelings and emotions and ideas have grown in my mind, that voice remains clear to me, remains indisputably mine. I will never let go of it, and it cannot be taken away from me.
When I read these earlier words of Ginsberg I have that same sense of recognition, that sense of his voice that would always be his. It is as though in these journal entries I find the lines that will burst forth in his later works that made him famous, that would lead other poets of other countries and languages to realize that here was something which, as Andrei Codrescu put it, would break [them] into pieces, and when [they] put themselves together, [they] were no longer the same. (When I read Howl again some eight years after the first time I realized that I would never be the same again). The river of words that is Howl had its genesis here; you might imagine that already there is a glimmer of the future brilliant fire. As I dive into The Book of Martyrdom and Artifice I feel as I though I am watching a tree sprout from a seed planted deep into the dark earth, blooming before my eyes.