America: A History In Verse, Volume I 1900-1939 by Edward Sanders (Black Sparrow Press, 385 pages, $16 )
The Poetry And Life of Allen Ginsberg by Edward Sanders (Overlook, 252 pages, $27.95)
During a recent change of apartments I found myself engaged in the universal moving-day pastime of self-castigation over the amount of stuff I'd managed to accumulate. But then I stopped?because, I reasoned, it could be far worse. I could have the task of moving Ed Sanders' filing cabinets. The Fug-poet-inventor-novelist-journalist-publisher could well be one of the most data-retentive writers in a data-retentive era. "Do not hesitate/to open up a case file/on anything or anybody!" he also wrote in his manifesto Investigative Poetry, urging his readers toward "relentless pursuit of data." Indeed, in Sanders' case such tactics might be seen as a matter of fighting fire with more accurate fire?a 1968 entry in his FBI file identified him as a Yippie leader and a member of a rock group called "The Fags."
A quarter century later, Sanders is putting his mouth where his manila folders are, with the releases of both a book-length narrative poem on the late Allen Ginsberg and the first installment (of a projected three) of what promises to be a career-capping work, the monumental America: A History in Verse. These new books will come as no surprise to anyone who's been following his work over the past decade. After writing long historical poems like Yiddish-Speaking Socialists of the Lower East Side and Melville's Father, and taking his cues from such poetry-as-history predecessors as Jerome Rothenberg's Poland/1931 and Charles Olson's Maximus poems, the last few years have seen the publication of a 225-page biographical poem on the life and times of Anton Chekhov and the more contemporary 1968: A History in Verse, which draws on Sanders' experiences as an involved (if peripheral) player in that tumultuous year.
America uses the same general format as 1968?this time in year-by-year rather than almost day-by-day sections. Volume I spans 1900-1939 in 385 pages, but Sanders picks up the historico-beat a bit earlier, positing that the Spanish-American War was the true starting point of what came to be known as the American century, and that the warmongering spirit of Teddy Roosevelt (who "had the high metabolism of a hamster/and part of him always/tried to shove the nation to battle") would cast a shadow over American foreign and domestic policy for decades to come. America promises to be the worst factchecker's nightmare in the history of modern poetry, but as far as I can tell, the facts in Volume I check out (a notable exception being Andy Warhol, who makes Sanders' birth lists for both 1927 and 1931?though perhaps the second entry was a silkscreen).
Sanders makes no pretense of being an evenhanded historian; he wears his politics and desires, as ever, on his sleeve. Much of America is the history of the labor movement and of socialism ("We hold that it's sacred/to read about strikes," he writes, "Rise, O Unions, Rise"), and the horror that movement inspired in the country's owner-operators. Montage or mishmash, depending on your perspective, America, at its most engaging, is a tonic to those timelines-of-history and other canonical tomes where certain events and personalities have been propped up and powdered with importance, while others lie moldering in the dustbins. (For example, my copy of the Dictionary of Cultural Literacy describes Helen Keller only as a person who overcame severe handicaps and was the inspiration for The Miracle Worker; I had to read Sanders to find out she was a leading Socialist who wrote in The Call, a New York Socialist paper, to decry the strife between the Wobblies and the Socialist Party.) And it's at its most frustrating when it skirts what Sanders himself described as the "catalogue of ships problem" in Investigative Poetry: "That is, the boredom a reader often encounters when wading through book two of the Iliad, which cloy-gluts even the most eager minds with an endless dactylic dah-da-da dah-da-da parade of description, of the names of the captains & chieftains & gore-goons, and the number of ships in their commands, of the Achaean military array that sailed upon Troy."
Like Lester Bangs said, the first mistake of Art is to assume that it's serious. Sanders has long been an avatar of this principle, and lards America with plenty of goofing to leaven the gravity (and some self-deprecating goofing at that: Sanders uses the word "great" a lot?I mean a lot?to describe his heroes and their works. But just when it's getting to be a bit much, he lets you know he knows it, as on Aug. 13, 1935, when "the great & great great Social Security Act/ was signed by a great President"). I couldn't help but laugh out loud at this short-and-to-the-point entry (for 1921) tracking the rise of fascism in Europe: "Hitler became president of the National Socialist Party/Time Machine! Time Machine!" Likewise for Jan. 3, 1925, when "Mussolini announced assumption o' dictatorial powers, the twerp."
America is more, of course, than a mere agglomeration of left-leaning factoids. It's a poem; at least the first part of one. In its strongest moments, Sanders takes lyrical flight, as when he hymns the heroes of the early Socialist movement with stirring tributes to Emma Goldman, Mother Jones, Victor Berger (the first Socialist congressman), Big Bill Haywood and Eugene Debs. It's here that he comes closest to achieving his avowed purpose: "to chant & sing, whisper, shout, keen, dance with joy/& try to race with grace/what the Fates and Human Mammals have wrought/in the Time-Track of America."
If the sprawling America is a work to be sampled and savored, The Poetry and Life of Allen Ginsberg is a breezy and festive day at the beach?a tone set even by the jacket photo, which reproduces the famous image of Ginsberg dervish-dancing to the Grateful Dead during a 1967 Be-In. Ginsberg was originally published episodically in the Woodstock Journal, the biweekly community newspaper Sanders edits, and the book retains the when-we-last-saw-our-hero section openings of its earlier incarnation, lending it a charming intimacy.
Ginsberg, while taking its structure from earlier efforts like Chekhov, is much more akin in content to something like Ted, Ron Padgett's warts-and-all memoir of Ted Berrigan. Like Padgett, Sanders was close?but not too close?to his subject. Sanders manages throughout to extol Ginsberg's achievements, but he doesn't let the big Beat get away with much, either.
Sanders dutifully records the more well-known aspects of the poet's life: the rascally days at Columbia, the meteoric rise after Howl, the troubled relationships with his mother and with Peter Orlovsky, his Asian wanderings. But more than half the book is devoted to Ginsberg's later life?after the heyday of the 50s and 60s, when the furor had died down. There is an extended section on Harry Smith, to whom Ginsberg gave a home at his Cherry Valley farm, as well as details of his ongoing feud with the U.S. government. (Ginsberg, Sanders tells us, "was a secret policeperson's dream come true/They all drooled to surveill him.") And it slows down, expands, zooms in on the waning weeks and days?it is in large part an elegy, after all?that culminated in the poet's death, at home with his many friends, in April 1997.
There's loads of gossip in Ginsberg, too, from the infamous Trungpa-Merwin "incident" to Ginsberg's flings with women to a couple of backhanded swipes at Gregory Corso's larcenous proclivities. (I was looking forward to getting the Fug's take on Charles Olson's funeral, where Ginsberg is reported to have accidentally bumped the coffin release, giving the bard of Gloucester an earlier-than-planned send-off. Maybe Sanders is just saving it up for a verse bio of Olson.)
Sanders, in addition to detailing Ginsberg's ceaseless work on behalf of other poets and humanitarian causes, never loses sight of the poet as poet. Indeed, this may be the book's most valuable contribution. Sanders quotes extensively from his own correspondence with Ginsberg, even reproducing handwritten samples on the page and providing analysis of the poet's often-overlooked use of various metrical forms. At once both less and more than biography, Ginsberg is a touching and impassioned extended ode to the author's mentor and friend, one that should stand as a fitting tribute to its subject's spirit.