One day, I picked up a copy of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame (or, as it should be called, Our Lady of Paris) in Barnes & Noble. It was a Modern Library paperback with an introduction by Elizabeth McCracken. That introduction started with one of the best pieces of literary advice I have ever read: “For a moment, let us forget Quasimodo.” McCracken does not mean any offense to that famous character. Her point is that we often let certain encrustations of popular culture color our attitude to books. She urges us to at least try to put these things out of our heads and approach books as if we had never heard of them. I’ve tried to follow that advice ever since. Eventually, I’ll follow it when I read Hugo’s novel.
My point? I urge everyone who loves poetry to pick up this book. When you do so, forget the Beat movement. Forget what you like or don’t like about drug culture. Forget the Vietnam War. Forget the ’60s. Forget leftist politics and eastern religions. Forget the public readings and Bob Dylan videos. I say forget these things not because there is anything necessarily wrong with them. Bring them in later, by all means, if you want to. I say forget them because, for good or bad, they will color your expectations of Ginsberg’s poetry in this book. In fact, if you pick up this book, skip to the poem titled “Song.” Read that and ask yourself what you would think if you knew nothing of this author. Then read the rest. My bet is you will be astonished by the musicality, the inventiveness and the poet’s, at times intimidating, power over words. Maybe you won’t agree. Maybe you won’t like it. Maybe you’ll like it even more. Still, at least you will have read the book itself instead of something you think you already know.