[Jerry W. Ward Jr.]
The single word in the beginning of Ginsberg’s semi-autobiographical, derivative tribute to Walt Whitman that captures attention is “minds,” although the current visibility of mental illness and homelessness in the USA might derail that focus. Madness, which isn’t identical with insanity, and the companion images of hysteria and lack of food and clothing invite aesthetic adventures which are tangential ( and perhaps beside the point). Over the past thirty years, criticism and theory have encouraged more concern with the material body than with the abstract operations of the mind. Enthralled by such emphasis, many a fine poet has plunged into innovation, outing, and shock-value. The dullness of post-WWII America may have justified Ginsberg’s wanting to approach the surrealism of Bob Kaufman to protest how poetic expression was imprisoned. The jury is still out on that possibility. Reading Thomas against the sweep and gestures of “Howl,” I am intrigued that as one of the best minds of my generation Thomas chose to dismiss the limits of protest and to map new territories for African American creative work. Thomas invested heavily in language, history, and the mind.