World Citizen: Allen Ginsberg as Traveller, David S. Wills’s biography of Allen Ginsberg, explores the poet’s life as a traveler. By excerpting Ginsberg’s poems and quoting his letters and travel journals, the author connects breakthroughs in Ginsberg’s poetics to where he was traveling at that time; Wills claims, it was through Ginsberg’s travels that he found his poetic voice.
Each of the book’s sections corresponds to one or more of the major trips that Ginsberg took throughout his life. Wills studies all of Ginsberg’s major poems, tracing them back to the nations where their themes and techniques were likely quarried. Each of the 66 countries to which Ginsberg traveled are identified, classified, and examined, both in Ginsberg’s words and Wills’s glossing. The countries are also listed in an appendix
Ginsberg did not initially seem destined to become a world traveler. Not until after being “suspended from Columbia University for writing obscenities on his dorm room window and having [Jack] Kerouac—an unwanted person on campus—stay the night” did he even entertain the idea of a long voyage. Before that, Wills suggests, Ginsberg seemed to regard anything more than trips between New Jersey and New York with thin romanticism and fear. Within a few months, however, without college to distract him and surrounded by the more worldly beat poets, “the inevitable had occurred and Ginsberg was looking beyond New York and out at the wider world.”
According to Wills, once Ginsberg started exploring the world, he began moving “closer to his own voice” — still influenced by whatever he read at the time, surely, but becoming more and more his own writer. “Death in Violence” is the first poem to represent in this trend. A prose poem, written in what Ginsberg called his “jive talk,” it is one of the first instances of travel preceding breakthroughs in poetics. Wills argues that Ginsberg was only able to write “Howl” — arguably his most famous poem — because he traveled through Mexico. He was inspired to write “The Change” on a train ride between Kyoto and Tokyo; and while he had planned to write “Kaddish” — an elegy for his mother — since her death, Wills states, “it was France that inspired him to action.”
This pattern of travel, revelation, and work drives World Citizen forward until Ginsberg’s final poem, “Things I’ll Not Do.” Wills characterizes this poem as a list of places the terminally ill Ginsberg still wanted to see “or important places he wanted to return to.” Ginsberg’s last poem, written about a week before his passing, becomes even more poignant in the context of this book; Wills presents it as inspired by the revelation that the poet will never travel again: it begins with the line, “Never go to Bulgaria, had a booklet and invitation,” and ends with “except in an urn of ashes.”
What works well in World Citizen: Allen Ginsberg as Traveller is that Ginsberg, while already inspirational, is illuminated with a different light. Life events other biographers pay most attention to are mentioned, but never given more than a few paragraphs. Travel is so central to Ginsberg’s life that the estimate of 66 countries may be low, as Wills mentions in his introduction.
Wills shows us that Ginsberg didn’t just travel to each of these places “playing the role of tourist, guidebook and camera in hand,” but he spoke with and learned from the local people, and that his easy and charismatic manner turned strangers from other parts of the world into friends who would give him food and shelter. In this way World Citizen: Allen Ginsberg as Traveller is a guidebook in itself. Not only is filled with worthwhile sights and impressions of places, but it can also teach readers how to be world citizens — by holding up an extraordinary and footloose poet of the Beat Generation as an outstanding example.
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