JONAH RASKIN | BOOKS | ‘Material Wealth
: Mining the Personal Archive of Allen Ginsberg’

By Jonah Raskin | The Rag Blog | December 27, 2023

[Compiled and annotated by Pat Thomas; PowerHouse Books; 256 pages.]

Pat Thomas has written and published colorful books about the Black Panthers — the defiant organization that rocked the U.S. from coast-to-coast in the 1960s — and Jerry Rubin, the author of DO IT!  and Growing (Up) at 37. His latest book is about Allen Ginsberg, the unofficial U.S. Poet Laureate whose work has been read and enjoyed from Chile and Czechoslovakia to China and everywhere that the spoken word is treasured. Material Wealth
 might be called a scrapbook in the spirit of the Yippies that combines words and images and creates something greater than its parts. Indeed, it’s composed of bits and pieces — photos, sketches, letters, posters and ephemera — that cohere and coalesce.                                                  

It also might be described as Ginsberg “light,” though it also includes plenty of darkness, a territory that the poet covered in his three major poems: Howl — an epic about a generation “destroyed by madness”; Kaddish — an elegy for his mother, Naom — and Wichita Vortex Sutra, an anti-war hymn in which he writes, “I here declare the end of the war!” It’s as timely a proclamation in the age of Ukraine and Gaza as it was during the Vietnam War.                                                

Material Wealth
 moves chronologically from the 1950s to the 1990s with emphasis on the Sixties — especially Chicago in ‘68 — and on the music and musicians in Ginsberg’s life, such as Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, The Clash, Leonard Cohen, and Patti Smith. At the back of the book, Thomas includes a section on Ginsberg’s music recordings. He also provides an introduction and thanks the Allen Ginsberg Estate, Peter Hale and the Ginsberg archivists at Stanford. Poet Anne Waldman offers a foreword. It’s a well-rounded, compact package that honors a scabrous author who documented his own variegated life.

The book is a tribute to Ginsberg’s playfulness as well as his seriousness.                                                                                                      

The book is a tribute to Ginsberg’s playfulness as well as his seriousness. In a letter to The New York Times Book Review, he denounces “the foul word ‘beatnik,’” calls the U. S. “a police state,” and condemns the “industries of mass communication.” In a document from 1971 he calls for a mega meeting and invites the participation of Cold Warrior Henry Kissinger, civil rights activist Ralph Abernathy, Richard Helms of the CIA, pacifist Dave Dellinger of the Chicago 8, and of course himself. To Kissinger he says, “I gather you don’t know how to get out of the war.” Or maybe he wanted the war to go on. Ginsberg also suggests that it would be “useful if we could do it naked on television.” That’s not surprising since he asks the nation itself in “America,” “When will you take off your clothes?”         

Material Wealth includes Ginsberg’s 1952 rental agreement for an apartment at 206 East 7th Street ($33.80 a month), as well as his resume from the 1950s in which he describes an “unpublished book of poems with introduction by William Carlos Williams.” Williams served as a mentor and role model. Henry Miller asks Ginsberg not to visit him in Big Sur because he’s “plagued by visitors.”                

Abbie Hoffman is pure Yippie when he cries out  “Like Paul Revere, I’ve come to shout — “‘The Pigs are coming! The Pigs are coming!’” William Burroughs sets the record straight when he writes “The people in the Beat Movement — myself, Gregory Corso, Allen, Jack Kerouac — we were quite different artistically. But we were together in the simple concept of openness and expanding awareness.”        

Lou Reed honors Ginsberg’s lifelong achievement.                                                      

Lou Reed honors Ginsberg’s lifelong achievement: “His poetry was so American and so straightforward, so astute, and he had such a recognizable voice. Modern rock lyrics would be inconceivable without the work of Allen Ginsberg.” Hail hail Allen Ginsberg. Bob Dylan provides what might be called the icing on the cake: “Seeing Ginsberg was like going to see the Oracle of Delphi. He didn’t care about material wealth or political power. He was his own kind of king.” In light of that quotation, which accurately reflects Ginsberg’s feelings about wealth and possessions, Thomas might have chosen a different title for his book, though Ginsberg’s archive proved to be worth a fortune. He sold much of it to Stanford University for a reported $1 million.                                                                                     

Material Wealth offers a treasure house of riches that is sure to delight Ginsberg fans, Ginsberg scholars, and historians of the Beat Generation. The sketches, by Carolyn Cassady and others, including the self-portraits, and the photos of Ginsberg himself show that he was sexy and handsome and always reincarnating himself as Beat, as Buddhist, and as a brother to the citizens of the world who have longed for peace and love and respect.

Ginsberg’s schedule of performances for April and May 1967  shows his dedication to his audience and his tirelessness. He did 20 readings in those two months that took him on the road from Massachusetts to Iowa and New Mexico. Posters testify to the musicians and fellow poets who joined him on stage. There’s one for an event at the Fillmore in San Francisco with Ferlinghetti, the Russian poet, Andrei Voznesensky and the Jefferson Airplane. Those were the days that conjure a sense of nostalgia that Material Wealth aids and abets so well.

[Jonah Raskin, author, poet, and regular contributor to The Rag Blog, is the author of The Thief of Yellow Roses, 36 New Poems, available from Barnes and Noble, Amazon, and elsewhere.]

Listen to Thorne Dreyer’s Rag Radio interviews with Jonah Raskin here.

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