‘Starry Rhymes: 85 Years of Allen Ginsberg’ (edited by Claire Askew and Stephen Welsh)

-Reviewed by Chris Emslie

Best to begin honestly: I came very late to the Allen Ginsberg party. On my first look-through of Starry Rhymes, a collection of responses and reactions to his intimidating body of work, my exposure to Ginsberg was limited to the compulsory rushed reading ofHowl in the first year of my undergrad. Arming myself with a Selected Poems, I set myself to write a review I felt horrendously underqualified for.

Editor Claire Askew is careful to point out in her introduction that “not one of the pieces here needs to be read in tandem with the poem that inspired it […] to make sense”. This I will not dispute: the thirty-three poems in the Starry Rhymes chapbook rest secure as coherent pieces, indebted to but not dependent on their spur-poems. However, it is certainly easier to grapple with this collection if we keep the man himself fresh in the mind. What Ginsberg conjures is a fevered rush of enthusiasm – most strongly evinced by the breakneck holler of his most famous piece, the aforementioned Howl. There is a dirty-fingered energy to Ginsberg’s work that any replying poem must acknowledge, if not attempt itself.

It is interesting, then, to see how the Starry Rhymes poets answer back to Ginsberg’s famed exclamation. In the opening poem, Marion McCready takes a magnifying glass to Ginsberg’s early ‘The Bricklayer’s Lunch Hour’, distilling his narrative to a few closely-observed moments. The psychic space of the poem is beautifully handled as McCready addresses the “cellar nature” of a brick wall “tempting [a] kitten” and the unexpected softness of the titular bricklayer: “He strokes the kitten / the way he strokes his chin”. This poem is in essence a slowing-down of Ginsberg, the effect of which is a more surprising opening than the most raucous yelp of “starving hysterical naked[ness]”. The clarity which gives McCready’s poem its distinction stumbles a little over the final image (“an unlikely new-found womb”), but the strength of others (the bricklayer “voiding the cradle of bones” in his lap) keeps the piece afloat.

While this chapbook is intended as an homage to Ginsberg – a celebration of “the 85th anniversary of the great man’s birth” – its strongest poems are those which recall their starting points from a distance. Clever relocation aside, Kevin MacNeil’s ‘Allen Ginsberg! I’m with you in Scotland’ falls a little flat, not because of its borrowed refrain but because it tries too hard for synthesis. MacNeil’s attempt to reappropriate the “Rockland” of ‘Howl Part III’ seems to grow from a desire to critique “Scotland / where the madness is banal and institutionalised”. Mirroring Ginsberg’s structure allows MacNeil to adapt the poet’s relationship with America into a reiteration of the old Scotland-England dialectic:

“I’m with you in Scotland

where we hug and tongue and caress England

under the bedsheets the England that

snores all night and won’t let us sleep”

Here MacNeil uses Howl as a template for what Frances Leviston has called the “spiky insularity” of Scots writing, and the poem ultimately comes off as more agenda than tribute.

This is offset, however, by the playfulness we find elsewhere in Starry Rhymes. Ryan Van Winkle is wonderfully self-deprecating in his response to ‘America’, asking himself “Ryan, // Why are your poems not bombs? // In your poems men get nowhere in cars, speak like graduates.” Francis Wasser’s ‘Planet Earth, I’ve Taken This Very Literally’ adheres to Ginsberg’s structure but applies a wicked sense of humour that relieves any influence anxiety. Wasser addresses the planet like it’s a personal oracle, or a teacher who’s grown used to a pupil’s impertinence:

“Planet Earth please make popular culture unpopular.

Planet Earth which god made men?

He’ll never do it again.

Planet Earth what is meta for?

Planet Earth what is metaphor?

Planet Earth we could learn a lot from that.”

This poem stands out because it has no apparent ultimatum. It responds to its inspiration without taking itself (or indeed Allen Ginsberg) too seriously. Similarly, Suzannah Evans replies to Ginsberg’s ‘Personals Ad’ with a light-hearted charm which her poem affords to pets and inanimate objects: “Me: The Yorkshire terrier at number 15. / Take me away from this place. / Throw me a frisbee.” Karen Head, meanwhile, addresses Ginsberg himself with obvious affection, arguably the entire point of the project:

“and, ultimately, I’ll read some line

you wrote years before my birth

and I will feel the reproach

meant for those you knew

would be inclined to listen.

Nevertheless, you are always welcome here.

Try not to step on the cats.”

Starry Rhymes is a loving testament to the work of an undeniably important poet. This shows in the care with which the chapbook has been conceived and collated. Its most powerful moments do not, however, rest in the flattery of imitation. I have met several young writers and readers for whom the Beats – and  consequently, Ginsberg – are the beginning and end of great American literature. Fortunately this does not seem to be the overwhelming ethos of this collection. Co-editor Stephen Welsh contributes a cut-up facsimile that is a compelling retrospective on Ginsberg and his contemporaries, if a little inelegant in this context. For the context is one of mixed and palpable talent. Undaunted by the not-small task of responding to a giant of modern American poetry, this assembly of thirty-three voices reflects (or possibly refracts) Ginsberg at his most feverish, human and heartbreaking. It is Michael Conley who best summarises how the poet himself might reply to a birthday gift like this: “I am grateful / you have kept me alive. / I am. Listen to me.