Monday, May 15, 2006


A device that is often associated with language poetry – and with surrealism – the conjoining of words from dissonant discursive schema is something that shows up as well in the work of Allen Ginsberg, right from the beginning. The phrase “hydrogen jukebox,” from the 15th line of the first section of Howl is a case in point. The line itself reads:

who sank all night in submarine light of Bickford's floated out and sat through the stale beer after noon in desolate Fugazzi's, listening to the crack of doom on the hydrogen jukebox,

The phrase has been used for everything from Peter Schjeldahl’s selected art writings to an opera by Philip Glass that incorporates many of Ginsberg’s writings as its libretto. The phrase has its own page on Wikipedia. It’s the name of a rock band in Philly, a poetry series in the U.K., and who knows what else. Given the phrases that use aspects of this same device even in that one line of Ginsberg’s – submarine light, desolate Fugazzi’s – this particular pairing of words has taken on a life of its own quite beyond the initial impulse of its creator.

In his Paris Review interview – conducted by Tom Clark fresh out of the University of Michigan & living for the time in the U.K.¹ – Ginsberg traces the roots of this device in his work not back to the surrealists, but to an interest in Cézanne. It’s a remarkable interview for many reasons, one of them being that Clark asks very simple, straightforward questions & Ginsberg goes on endlessly in response. At one point, Clark tries to ask a simple follow-up question only to be told that Ginsberg hasn’t finished answering the previous question which then goes on for two more pages..

What actually triggers the discussion is a question – Clark doesn’t even get the chance to pose it fully before Ginsberg is off & running – about the idea of petite sensations of experience in Cézanne’s work and a comment Ginsberg had made elsewhere about its relevance to his own poetry. He explains at great length (five pages in fact) not only his interest in the great impressionist’s experiments with recreating optical phenomenology on a two dimensional canvas, but the precise sequence of revelations – which passage in which book, where he saw certain watercolors, going to Aix to stand where Cézanne stood to paint Mont Sainte-Victoire. Of particular interest to Ginsberg is how Cézanne creates the impression of space without the use of lines to bind or divide objects.

The last part of “Howl” was really an homage to … Cézanne’s method, in a sense I adapted what I could to writing…. [J]ust as Cézanne doesn’t use perspective lines to create space, but it’s a juxtaposition of one color against another color (that’s one element of his space), so, I had the idea, perhaps overrefined, that by the … juxtaposition of one word against another, a gap between the two words – like the space gap in the canvas – there’d be a gap between the two words that the mind would fill in with the sensation of existence….

I was trying to do similar things with juxtapositions like “hydrogen jukebox.”

This makes great sense, at least from a certain angle, and should serve as a reminder of just how much someone like Clark Coolidge actually was able to get from Ginsberg, that the origin of Coolidge’s practice – which Robert Sward once infamously characterized as “psychedelic word salad” – was not derived entirely from Dada or surrealism. This question of a gap, of course, takes on new dimensions with language poetry – primarily through the extension of this use of disparate juxtapositions & between statements in the “new sentence.” It is precisely the cognitive dissonance between the schema hydrogen (science, bomb, technology, etc.) and jukebox (style, youth culture, music, sexuality) that Ginsberg is ultimately writing. Underneath is the implication – I’m not even sure that Ginsberg himself sees this – that these two phenomena are expressions not of two realms that have nothing to do with one another, but of a third common schema of which each is but an part, that the youth culture of the jukebox is predicated upon the power of the hydrogen atom. Ginsberg is writing in 1956 what will become explicit in the work of social theorists like Herbert Marcuse & others a decade later.


¹ Still going at that point, 1966, by his University of Michigan name of Thomas Clark, but not to be confused with the great British neo-Objectivist, Thomas A. Clark.

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