My favorite line in Allen Ginsberg’s 1986 poem for Bernie Sanders

Shanah Tovah. This is not a religious piece, but I do want to acknowledge that the direct subject of this piece, the leftist poet who made it possible, had a rich experience with his Jewish heritage, which he turned into many great works of art. I do love the poetry of Allen Ginsberg, and I love the kind, brave man that he was.

For present purposes, I am focusing on the fact that in 1986 he wrote a swell poem for Bernie Sanders, which I will go into in a minute. But first, I want to talk a little bit about the transitory, which I will try to relate back to Ginsberg’s poem for Sanders.

A couple of years after Ginsberg wrote his poem for Sanders, around the same time I was becoming a democratic socialist in my heart, I was on a long road trip back from a quiet religious retreat in Kentucky with a close friend. As people comfortable with each other can do in the middle of night, we talked about everything that came to our minds, with free-flowing thoughts energized by the stars, the highway, and our appreciation for each other’s companionship at that moment in the journey of life.

After a while we became silent, and in the light of the dashboard, on a scrap of paper, I wrote a Howl-inspired poem. I have it somewhere. Its contents aren’t what matter for present purposes (although I remember it had quite a few “Molochs” and said something personally meaningful and bittersweet about this being “no monastery I live in” in my real life. Still a pro-choice Christian contemplative and democratic socialist decades later, I continue to wrestle with how to be contemplative, politically-active, and a real world wage-earner.) Then I told my friend that I’d written this poem, would he like to hear it? He said yes, and for the next few minutes I, for a unique time in my life, soulfully read cool stuff I’d just written that blew my buddy away.

It blew him away so much so that a couple of weeks later he asked me to do a repeat performance. We were hanging out drinking beer on a Friday night with this handsome and cool Buddhist guy who looked and acted like he was straight out of The Dharma Bums. My friend knew him because my friend had always wanted a Volvo and this guy restored old Volvos at a concrete storage unit on the edge of town. (I don’t think my friend [the capitalist pig!] ever got a Volvo, but I can’t really remember at this point and forgive him if he did–at least it would have been recycled I guess.)

Flattered that my friend had such appreciation for my poem to want me to read it for this real life Kerouac character, I whipped it out (the poem). My friend must have suggested in advance that I bring the poem along, as I don’t think I’d been carrying it around with me generally waiting for the chance to recreate the moment in a command performance. Well anyhow, I flopped. The Buddhist guy was polite but obviously unimpressed, and truth be told, my heart was not in it. It, the height of my creativity, was a poem that was meant to blow someone away only one time, in the middle of the night somewhere on a highway in the Deep South, not a timeless masterpiece like Howl.

Perhaps Ginsberg’s hastily-written poem for Sanders is somewhere on a vast continuum between my late night amateur Beat composition (or yours) and the masterpiece Howl. In any event, it does say something special about the transitory that I want to riff on.

***

Here’s Ginsberg’s poem Burlington Snow in his original handwriting.

Here it is in searchable type:

Socialist snow on the streets
Socialist talk in the Maverick bookstore
Socialist kids sucking socialist lollipops
Socialist poetry in socialist mouths
—aren’t the birds frozen socialists?
Aren’t the snowclouds blocking the airfield
Social Democratic Appearances?
Isn’t the socialist sky owned by
the socialist sun?
Earth itself socialist, forests, rivers, lakes
furry mountains, socialist salt
in oceans?
Isn’t this poem socialist? It doesn’t
belong to me anymore.

I like North Carolinian Josh Jones‘ description of the poem. I like it for what Jones honestly observes about perceptions of socialism, particularly in the U.S. Even more, I like it because he observes Ginsberg turning “reflective”–as one might on a late night drive like I would thereafter take with my friend. It was out of this reflection that an act of literal poetic generosity emerged on the face of the poem itself:

The Senator from Vermont has unabashedly referred to himself, throughout his long political career, as a democratic socialist or, on occasion, simply a “socialist”—a word that strikes fear into the heart of many an American, and resonates widely with another portion of the electorate. Debates over what this means rage on. George Will calls Sanders’ socialism a “charade.” Thor Benson in the New Republic accuses him of playing “loose with the terminology.” The history and current state of “socialism” is so long and complex that no one definition seems to suit. Its political baggage in American discourse, however, is undeniable.

This was just as true in 1986, when Allen Ginsberg wrote a poem in praise of Sanders, then mayor of Burlington, Vermont. Ginsberg playfully draws on the loose associations we have with the word, hammering it home with tongue-in-cheek repetition, then turning reflective.

It is that last line of Ginsberg’s poem, and specifically the last sentence, that I love the best. It captures what I love best about democratic socialism as I understand it: It doesn’t belong to me anymore, and I am good with that because I am part of a kind society, not a competition for bread, gold, or attention.

Whatever it is (poem, Volvo, or other material thing), I am making a huge mistake as a human being when I try to grasp “it” like Gollum. Hug people and other animals, as often as possible, not rings or other things, no matter how precious the ring may appear.

I am not arguing for utopianism, an end to all private property, or an end to copyright protection for artists, and neither was Ginsberg, least of all under the current capitalist oligarchy. While you and I, in our imperfect times and places, have to keep some things for each of ourselves in order to survive, we can also give wonderful things away, such as our time and talents even when we have no money. There can arise, when we are doing our best as human beings, the joy of giving and living in solidarity, which is, to me, the heart of socialism.

The humility and generosity of spirit in that last sentence of Burlington Snow reminds me of some lines in Pablo Neruda’s Ode to Solitude (in Odes to Opposites, Krabbenhoft, K., tr., Bulfinch Press):

And you, who are reading my ode:
you’ve used it against your own solitude.
We’ve never met, and yet it’s your hands
that wrote these lines, with mine.

Or to quote from our dear poet/president Jimmy Carter in Take a Chance (in Sources of Strength, Times Books, 1997):

Before we know it, the time for sowing will be gone.
So if we wait for perfection in our lives, for exactly the right moment, then we may never act!

I am glad Jimmy Carter, since leaving office, has used his time loving and serving others the best he can. I am glad that “[s]o committed is Sanders to his beliefs about economic injustice that it almost convinced him not to stand for president.”

We do not know the results in advance, but still may we each give our gifts the best we can in the coming year with compassionate action for true peace, liberty, and justice for all. And let us, regardless of whether we are religious or of a particular faith, on days such as this take time to reflect, which can be not only humanly enriching but also a source of gifts to others.

Our actions are by definition transitory, just like socialism will always be a work in progress. But they leave effects, for good or bad. If enough good actions are bound together, a decent society for all may yet arise. It really does not matter that, for most of us, even our best words later, or sooner, will be forgotten. We have poets like Allen, Pablo, and even the multi-tasking Jimmy to keep us pointed in the right, that is left, direction. I am glad that we can look at their word gifts from time to time.

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