ahimsa in poetry

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Allen Ginsberg’s Inner China


I’m not a huge fan of Allen Ginsberg or the beat poets in general, but a poem of his I came across yesterday spoke to me, proving once again that it’s bad politics to bless or condemn poets until you’ve read the body of their work (and, in Ginsberg’s case, I have far to go).

Ginsberg, it seemed to past me, was too effusive, wordy, full of his avante garde stream-of-consciousness. Like Thomas Wolfe’s novels, his poems begged for an editor in large, sandwich-board-ad letters. An editor with scissors, thank you. Sharp and well-oiled ones.

In all honesty, it’s only eight lines of the poem that I love. But that’s OK. I’m of the school that deems poetry a “success” and a wonder if only part of it wows me. Sustaining a beautiful poem, start to finish, is no small feat, after all.

Here it is in full. Can you guess the lines that sing to me? I wonder if they’ll sing to you, too?


“Returning to the Country for a Brief Visit” by Allen Ginsberg

Annotations to Amitendranath Tagore’s Sung Poetry

“In later days, remembering this I shall certainly go mad.”

Reading Sung poems, I think of my poems to Neal
dead a few years now, Jack underground
invisible – their faces rise in my mind.
Did I write truthfully of them? In later times
I saw them little, not much difference they’re dead.
They live in books and memory, strong as on earth.

“I do not know who is hoarding all this rare work.”

Old One the dog stretches stiff legged,
soon he’ll be underground. Spring’s first fat bee
buzzes yellow over the new grass and dead leaves.

What’s this little brown insect walking zigzag
across the sunny white page of Su Tung-p’o’s poem?
Fly away, tiny mite, even your life is tender –
I lift the book and blow you into the dazzling void.

“You live apart on rivers and seas…”

You live in apartments by rivers and seas
Spring comes, waters flow murky, the salt wave’s covered with oily dung.
Sun rises, smokestacks cover the roofs with black mist,
winds blow, city skies are clear blue all afternoon
but at night the full moon hesitates behind brick.
How will all these millions of people worship the Great Mother?
When all these millions of people die, will they recognize the Great Father?


If you guessed stanzas 2 and 3 (from “Old One the dog stretches stiff legged…” to “I lift the book and blow you into the dazzling void”), you are correct.

For me, those lines stand out, a poem within a poem, a lovely nod to ahimsa, the Buddhist/Hindu/Jain belief in not harming even the tiniest of life forms. Those lines capture and bottle the gentle lightning of Chinese poetry quite nicely, no? The fact that thinking of his dead friends Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac incites Ginsberg’s muse is fine, if not essential, at least to me.

I thank Allen for the marrow of the poem alone. Its sweet, soft essence. Its gentle truths about life and how much of it is brief, tender, and vulnerable.