in the onrushing clouds

In the onrushing clouds
that wrap across the expanse
November meets the night, 
doubt and sweeping rains
break through sentiment
with the sharp edge
of old days, now gleaming.
Some genetic memory
carries me now, privately,
and it carries all of us
as we are forced out 
of the whirling earth
with such unceremonious
creation and decomposition.
So what to do? Wade
into this new night?
The answers aren’t here
and don’t have to be rational,
nothing is clear-cut,
no obvious rooms
vacant to house their
living expressions,
no wired instinct to halt
their passage to lands
yet undiscovered


white-waved ocean curl

white-waved ocean curl
shrouds dark rock-shore
& retreats under itself,

wind-battered foam
spread across leathery
kelp tails breaks apart,

coastal landslide pours
unthinking along seacliff
stretched thin in grey mist,

trucks crawl in a line,
adorned in yellow light, vanish in
distant tunnel, groaning away to

perfect monotone coast highway
above on concrete trestles,
carries transparent dreams

North/South, between two
Californias, stand of coast
redwoods, steaming, up a path,

falling asleep under fog canopy,
along riverbank kiln ruins,
“No Service”

amid bounteous rock

Amid bounteous rock
pale Bear clover,
phlox, sorrel, erupt
from earthen sockets,
Mariposa manzanita
in perennial gray-green
dances along twisted
blood-brown branches.
New mists, fresh green, raw,
after a summer so dry
the ground split open to
swallow wind and fire,
stands of ancient
pines still smoldering,
burned or hacked,
transformed, do they tire?
of our unworthy &
cruel luxuriance?

ocean’s eternal door

yes, we’ll march down
to the sea at dusk
hear the million birds,
crush of sand, wet feet,
wind crossing at every angle,
months collapse to a single
moment in evening air,
Palo Colorado, rather near
this cliffside, still & narrow
under sun’s falling crest,
autumn day draws short
on battered wooden slats,
twisting stairwell descends
to ocean’s eternal door,
among the dripping profusion
of tarweed & golden yarrow

Metropolitan Greetings:Allen Ginsberg Behind the Iron Curtain (from Havana to Moscow)

La Nouvelle Chute de l’Amérique portfolio (The New Fall of America)

Roy Lichtenstein (American, 1923-1997)

1992. Set of ten etching and aquatints in colors, on Velin d’Arches paper.

19 5/8 x 14 3/4 in (49.8 x 37.5 cm)

The Phillips Collection

Washington D.C.

In 1965 Allen Ginsberg travelled to East Europe, visiting Czechoslovakia, Poland, and the Soviet Union, alone. Ginsberg was a prolific world traveler. Over the course of his life he traveled to some 66 countries. Whether he was travelling as a member of the merchant marine, in support of his work, or simply travelling for travelling’s sake, he kept extensive journals, chronicled his experiences, capturing political and poetic landscapes that were both ancestrally familiar, and ideologically foreign. In the United States, Allen Ginsberg had risen to near-legendary status in the popular eye and would often lead crowds in mantra-chanting sessions at gatherings such as The Human Be-In, held in the polo field of Golden Gate Park in 1967. Ginsberg was seen as a combination guru and paterfamilias of the hippies, a kind of ultimate generational advisor. He would direct much of his writing and public presence toward anti-war efforts. Refining the observational poetics he practiced in his travel writing abroad, Ginsberg travelled across the United States from 1965-71 to chronicle “the flux of car bus airplane dream consciousness Person during Automated Electronic War years, newspaper headline radio brain auto poetry…headlights flashing on road through these States of consciousness” (Fall of America 189).

His journals, published posthumously, chronicle his travels, poetic impulses, and spiritual considerations while on the road, and present readers with a well-documented perspective on the poet’s mind at work. My talk focuses upon Ginsberg’s time in East Europe, charting his observations, poetry, political dissent, and personal encounters during the height of the Cold War. More specifically, I intend to share ideas on the ways in which Ginsberg, whose mother Naomi had come to the United States from Russia, viewed himself as a world citizen, immersed himself in the environments that he traveled to, and recorded his experiences in his notebooks. I also want to shed light on the way Ginsberg’s observations informed his poetic output. Much of what I discuss draws from the somewhat recently published “Iron Curtain Journals” edited by Ginsberg biographer, Michael Schumacher, as well as the Ginsberg collection at Stanford University Libraries department of Special Collections. I also looked at critical editions and primary sources related to this trip. 


Ginsberg’s time “behind the iron curtain” actually started in the west, in Cuba. He traveled to Cuba in January 1965 when he received an invitation from Cuba’s minister of culture to participate in a writer’s conference sponsored by the Casa de las Americas in Havana.

In Cuba, he filled hundreds of pages with observations, new poetry, dialogue, sketches, travel descriptions, dream notations and other musings that deserve a separate investigation. His time in Cuba is noteworthy because it is this trip that gave Ginsberg an inkling of the logistical difficulties and ideological tension that he would encounter in East Europe. Ginsberg’s travel arrangements were convoluted. The State Department, adhering to Cold-War era policies, did not allow Americans to fly directly to Cuba from the United States. Ginsberg would have to fly through Mexico City, and in order to return to the United States, he would have to travel to another Iron Curtain country, in this case, Czechoslovakia, before returning (Iron Curtain Journals 6). Ginsberg was initially excited, stating how “I was at last stepping on the giant bird to fly to the Island of Cuba and premonitions of Marxist Historical Revolutionary Futurity with Wagnerian Overtones lifted my heart, an abstract passion seized the airfield” (Iron Curtain Journals 7).

Initially enthusiastic about the prospect of witnessing a revolutionary government in practice, Ginsberg’s assumptions about Cuba would turn out to be incorrect. It is important to note here that criticism of censorship stood at the forefront of Ginsberg’s public life, Lawrence Ferlinghetti had faced and won an obscenity trial in 1957 for publishing Ginsberg’s book “Howl and Other Poems” and months before traveling to Cuba, Ginsberg, along with Norman Mailer and other writers, testified in an obscenity trial on William S Burroughs’ novel The Naked Lunch. Freedom of speech had always been a primary focus of Ginsberg’s work, and he felt the same level of openness must be applied to discussion of homosexuality and drug use, which were illegal in Cuba, where offenders were subject to capital punishment. 

Ginsberg was escorted around Havana by local writers and shown the nightlife of the El Vedado neighborhood. He gave poetry readings, wrote, and visited the beach. Ginsberg’s sexual encounters with the young writer Manuel Ballagas resulted in Ginsberg’s deportation and Ballagas’ imprisonment. This marks the first serious run-in with authorities over the course of the 1965 trip, and an externality of his insistence on free expression. In the journals, he writes of his expulsion from the country and shows a level of self-awareness about who might be reading his journals and the importance of keeping his contacts anonymous, something he would do while traveling in East Europe:

Three soldiers in olive green neat pressed uniforms…looking around the room. What did I have on me—the $10 for pot—that’s ok—I was moving around sort of blurrily looking for my underwear thinking— “My Notebook! Libreta de Technicos black notebook on the bed table—yesterday’s description of love scene with M. —Thank God I used his initials—but there’s still enough in there for them to get me on something political or amoral?— Will they search? (Iron Curtain Journals 150)

During his stay, Ginsberg had spoken too freely about politics and sexuality for the Cuban authorities to tolerate and was forced to leave amid the controversy. In a letter to his father, he admitted that “I committed about every infraction of totalitarian laws I could think of, verbally, and they finally flipped out & gave me the bum’s rush…it was half Kafkian & half funny” (Iron Curtain Journals 161). Elsewhere in the journal is the brief inscription “Cuban military, American military, Vietnam military- the world is a mountain of dogs,” indicating his distaste for any authority, regardless of ideological stance (Iron Curtain Journals 157). He summed up his experience to Peter Orlovsky in a letter: “Cuba is both great and horrible, half police state, half happy summer camp – mixed” (Morgan 264).

Czechoslovakia: Part I

Ginsberg arrived in Prague in February and resolved to maintain a lower profile. He stayed quietly for a few weeks before traveling to Russia and Poland, and would return back in Prague at the end of April. Ginsberg enjoyed his time in Prague, and held celebrity status among the city’s youth. He gave poetry readings at the Viola cafe, which allowed him to fund his side trip to the Soviet Union. He toured the city, museums, visited Kafka’s home and grave site, and found himself ruminating on the idea of the free spirit trapped within a totalitarian society. 

Soviet Union

March 18- My Slavic soul, we are coming home again—

once more on Red Square by Kremlin wall

            in the snow to sit and write Prophesy—

Prince-Comrades of Russia, I have

            come from America to lay my beard

            at your beautiful feet!


in the Railway Station, amazed at the

            great red train Moscova—Prague—

The train doors open to the corridor—

            A Sealed train—Lenin was a trained


I’ll trade you one diamond Sutra

            for 2 Communist Manifestos—

                        I am approaching the throne.

                                                                        (Iron Curtain Journals 169)

Ginsberg’s time in the Soviet Union begins with optimism, he sees himself as coming home, to lay his beard at the feet of the nation. He goes to the circus, the ballet, the theater, and writes highly of the experiences. The journals present a narration of his travels that distill the essential features of a given scene or sequence:

In youth cafe—monk beard on a saxophone, the slow stately bounce, & the lovely echo on the clank plane. Many a youth & many a maid dancing on the wooden floor, modern lights hung from the ceiling, plastic tables, hot dogs & peas, ham & cheese, caviar & salmon, young kids in babushkas, one couple doing an Afric twist, middleaged Slavic beauties drinking sweet punch & coffee, a wine bottle at musician’s table, the band jumping and most of the dancers swaying back and forth slowly a food apart, a smart photog from a youth magazine with a giant eyed camera, the saxophonist gaunt & calm, intellectual, from behind with his sensitive fingers and delicate skull he looks like Jonas Mekas (Iron Curtain Journals 212).

 His head on encounters with authority would soon change this optimism. Authority is not only exercised in terms of who Ginsberg sees, his tour guides arranged meetings with state-approved poets like Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Andrei Voznesensky, but also by who he does not see, like the poet Iosef Brodsky, who was serving a sentence of hard labor and whose poetry was denounced by authorities as “pornographic and anti-Soviet”, or who he has a hard time seeing like Alexander Yessenin Volpin, who he is able to find on his last day. Ginsberg finds out that he could have found Yessenin Volpin’s address in a common telephone book, something his tour guide was unwilling to help him with.

Ginsberg is initially taken with Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, perhaps the most popular in the Soviet Union at the time of his visit. Ginsberg provides descriptions of the poet’s physical appearance, his height and blonde hair. Ginsberg respected Yevtushenko’s oratory power in a description of a poetry reading, his command of the room, and his bulging venous neck muscles. In a drunken discussion (in broken Spanish), Ginsberg begins to talk about the two subjects that resulted in his Cuban expulsion, drugs and sexuality. The more that Ginsberg talks about drugs around Yevtushenko, the more Yevtushenko seems distant, and uninterested. In the journals, Ginsberg recounts Yevtushenko’s response, “Please Allen, I like you, I like you as a poet, but these are your personal problems, please don’t speak to me about them. They are not interesting to me, I respect you as a great man, a great poet, but these two subjects homosexuality and narcotics are not known to me and I feel they are juvenile pre-occupations, they have no importance here in Russia to us, it only disturbs my impression of you- please don’t talk to me about these 2 matters” (Iron Curtain Journals 190). Yevtushenko’s wholesale dismissal of Ginsberg’s conversation illustrates the difference in the two poet’s approaches to dissent. The two, nonetheless became familiar in a friendship that would last their whole lives, with Ginsberg returning in 1985, 20 years later for another visit.

Yevtushenko’s reticence to embrace Ginsberg’s then-controversial stances makes sense, especially considering his illustrious position within the Soviet literary sphere. At all points in the journals, Ginsberg portrays Yevtushenko as stiff and overly-serious, yet willing to include the radical American in his social circle. Yevtushenko was concerned with Soviet-specific affairs and his poems grapple with the atrocities of war. Yevtushenko navigated within a literary world under massive ideological control and would always have to be careful about his political critiques to survive. His poem “Babiyy Yar” protests the Soviet Union’s refusal to identify the Babi Yar massacre as a Holocaust site. The poem’s first line is “Над Бабьим Яром памятников нет” or  “There are no monuments over Babi Yar”. The poem denounced both Soviet historical revisionism and still-common anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union of 1961, focusing not only on the Nazi atrocities, but also on the Soviet government’s own persecution of the Jewish people (YIVO). “Babiyy Yar” first circulated as samizdat, published unofficially without state sanction.

In a sense, Ginsberg encountered some similar political risks in his early career. His most famous poem, “Howl” is a reaction to war and contains allusions to drugs, madness, and homosexuality and its publication led to an obscenity trial. Though it should be noted that the poetic atmosphere was significantly more tolerant in the United States and the horrors of the eastern front would have been much more immediate in Soviet poetics.

Yet both poems are burning missives, social critiques that invite emotional participation by the reader. Both “Babiyy Yar” and “Howl” are born from a sense of war-as-Hell. Both poets were tasked with creating art within the context of massive human and psychological devastation. The raw, instinctual, attention-getting, sorrowful language in both poems is born of the incomprehensible carnage of the Holocaust, the leveled cities in Europe, millions of civilians dead, and a new specter of atomic devastation. Indeed the “Beat experience” and Yevtushenko’s political awareness begins and ends with war.

In Moscow Ginsberg was able to meet with long lost relatives, Joe and Anne Levy, organized in part by his father and brother Eugene.  Ginsberg’s interest in Russia dated back to his boyhood, when his mother, Naomi Ginsberg, an avowed communist, told young Allen and Eugene harrowing tales of the persecution of Jews in rural Russia, stories of the pogroms and Cossacks charging on horses during village raids. He recounts the meeting with the Levys:

March 21- “The Kremlin bells are tolling on the radio midnite Moscow—and the new Soviet anthem— Da dum da da dum—I light a long cardboard filtered Bebop Kasha cigarette— and now Tchaikovsky violins—I began to see the dream life of the past flit by—They were all cousins—and Memele, my maternal grandfather, who didn’t want to fite the Czar, went off to America (he bribed his way out) in company with J’s father — and Memele got to Ellis Island, and was admitted, while J’s father was rejected in 1904, he had a bald spot on his head suspected to be woeful or diseased…And some came across in 1907 because they had been in jail for revolutionary activities…so came to America—and I alone will someday know the ghost of this tale—” (Iron Curtain Journals 181)

As they share photographs and discuss the family’s immigration, Ginsberg writes of “the expression the sad tragic aloneness never changes in half a century, surviving them the unknown descendents—[Anne] and I were sad and tears rolled down our cheeks as we came to the end, the last pictures of the unknown newly grown children in America” (Iron Curtain Journals 182). The family reunion presents layers of abstraction between Ginsberg’s lived experience and the comfort of the narrative of ancestry. One is not able to simply plug back in to one’s own family after generations. The episode brings into question the experience of children of emigres reuniting with the rest of the family and the mixed emotions that accompany such a reunification. 

Ginsberg spends much of his time in the Soviet Union lonely, many journal entries describe loneliness, and a growing feeling of alienation. His visits to state sanctioned tour stops, museums, and cathedrals leave him feeling conflicted.  He visits Nevsky Prospect, Leningrad, where he looks at statues from Gogol and Pushkin stories. He meets up with local puppeteer and unsuccessfully propositions sex, the boy preferred to trade with Ginsberg for his blue jeans and jacket. He returns to Moscow where he changes hotel rooms to gain an unobstructed view of Red Square at night and is able to extend his stay with Yevtushenko’s assistance.


Red Square the Clang of Shusky Tower

            eleven times echoed from brick gothic towers

GUM blinding spotlights on Kremlin battlement

            a range of neon zooming across arched

                        display windows, 

Electricity gleaming on cobbles, electricity

            like power station cabaret of red marble

            atop Lenin’s tomb—

a lonely cop walking the asphalt street

            by the tribune—long coat & black 

            fur hat— I sit on the white bench—

orange lights in the arches of Gum say


A crowd gathered in the dark shade by

            Lenin’s portal to witness

the hourly goosestepping charge of the grey guard—

and rolled away like a tree when the 

            bell finished echo—

                                                            (Iron Curtain Journals 212).

His perspective begins to sour over the remainder his journey. He begins to feel profoundly alone, and comments on the restrictions of Soviet society, similar to the ideological control that he encountered in Cuba. In a public poetry reading, he amended his poem “Death of van Gogh’s ear” which had criticized the US, to include the Soviet Union as part of the global problem. He equates capitalism and communism as two faces of the same bad deal, a Sentiment that he would also describe in his poem “Kral Majales” and the collections Planet News and The Fall of America. In the journal, Ginsberg writes “The Russians are trapped in Russia” (Iron Curtain Journals 244).

His view of regular people, however, is more forgiving, he said he saw people as Soviets, but then he saw them as God. Perhaps he saw people as individually holy, part of the World Soul or atman. The human soul is a concept he explores in much of his work, like in “Howl” where he writes “Holy forgiveness! mercy! charity! faith! Holy! Ours! bodies! suffering! magnanimity! Holy the supernatural extra brilliant intelligent kindness of the soul!” He also says that in an orthodox church is the first time he sees Christ on the cross as a religious figure worthy of serious consideration.

Long avenues, old palaces, old dungeons, 

Great gardens covered with mud, an iron

fence on the Neva waters dirty ice lakes, 

where Pushkin walked in springtime drowned

his heroine pique dame, the vast open space

surrounded by old low apartments where Dostoyevsky

trembled at the eternal hole in the barrel of Czarist rifles

and left reborn, now a children’s theater with Mickey

the Red Mouse, the giant dome and malachite

columns of St. Isaac’s, Kirov’s caricature

Christ and Holy Fools with magic signs & foetus

dinosaurs illustrating scientific method on 

Mosaic floors that eye trick solid space

                                    (Iron Curtain Journals 202).

Ginsberg’s deployment of religious topics and imagery such as “Holy Fools with magic signs,” “Kirov’s caricature Christ,” and “malachite columns of St. Isaac’s” stand in stark contrast to intimations of scientific modernity, “the eternal hole in the barrel of Czarist rifles” and “foetus dinosaurs illustrating scientific method on mosaic floors that eye trick solid space.” In this journal passage, Ginsberg considers the reflections of an Orthodox-Christian moral axis buried beneath Marxist-Leninist doctrine and distills the friction between the two into a pithy entry. Yet Ginsberg was no Christian, his divine intellectual-romantic ideal of salvation is the love of the world-soul. Ginsberg’s belief in this eternal and inherent nature of reality, expressed sometimes as the dharma, was central to beat literature, and to Ginsberg’s later writing and spiritual practice. The idea that such a world-soul which permeates matter so that matter is not just physically but morally sentient relates directly to the “rebirth” of Pushkin and Dostoevsky as a children’s theater featuring a purported “Mickey the Red Mouse.” The suggestion of Disney’s Mickey Mouse satirizes the Soviet literary culture, equating it to the oversimplification and commercialization of American popular culture. Atman Dharma

Ginsberg’s belief in transcendence through repetitive chant is expressed a number of times throughout the journals, like when he chants Hare Krishna in a Cuban taxicab, “I pulled out my cybals and began singing very low OOOM OOM OOM SARAWA BUDA DAKINI VEH WANI YEH BENZA BERO TSA NI YEH HUM HUM HUM PHAT PHAT PHAT Hare Kirshna Hari Hari Krishna Krishna Hari Hari Hari Rama Hari Rama Rama Rama Hari Hari, singing easily and low for some time…it cleared my senses a bit, very useful and felt good steadying influence as we drove out thru city” (Iron Curtain Journals 153-4).[1] An awareness of such a world-soul was likely augmented by the use of psychedelic drugs and access to the counterculture of the 1950’s and 60’s, but the concept has deep roots in poetics. This concept of the world-soul was explored by his precursor Percy Bysse Shelley in poems like Queen Mab, in which he develops the image of fairies, of “viewless beings” from which comes a portrait of the universal soul:

 “Unrecognized, or unforeseen by thee

Soul of the Universe! Eternal spring

Of life and death, of happiness and woe

Of all that chequers the phantasmal scene

That floats before our eyes in wavering light

Which gleams but on the darkness of our prison

Whose chains and massy walls

We feel, but cannot see” (Shelley et al. 50)

In the case of Orthodoxy, this “Soul of the Universe” would have been omnipresent in the grace of the divine Christian God. In the case of Queen Mab, one might speculate on whether something in Shelley (and by extension Ginsberg) was tugging him towards a Platonic-Kantian sense of some quasi-divine noumenal unifier of experience which is itself inaccessible to experience, or at least human sensory perception.

Poland and Czechoslovakia Part II

Ginsberg stayed in Warsaw for three weeks at the Europejski Hotel, first a guest of the ministry of culture, then as a tourist.  He summarizes his stay as pleasant, stating how, “I stayed alone mostly or drank with a young Rimbaud-ish Marlon Brando writer at Writer’s Union and long afternoons with editor of Jazz magazine who’d printed my poems, a Jewish good man who’d been in Warsaw Ghetto, escaped, and covered rest of war as journalist with Russian army and stood across river from Warsaw and saw the city destroyed by Germans and nationalist underground killed off” (Morgan 132). Ginsberg wrote several poems on this trip, including “Cafe in Warsaw” and “The Moments Return.” While in Poland, Ginsberg develops a list of all of the places he has traveled to since 1946 and reflects upon his time spent abroad, referring to the travels as “Marco Polonian” (Iron Curtain Journals 275). Ginsberg also visited the Warsaw Ghetto and Auschwitz on this leg of the journey, and his writing on the matter is somewhat terse and distracted.

Ginsberg’s time in East Europe culminates upon his return to Prague where he is elected King of May, or Kral Majales, by the student population of the technical university. The celebration was the first May day celebration in 20 years, and the parading around of a prominent countercultural icon like Ginsberg with his beard and cardboard crown was likely to stir the suspicions of the authorities. Ginsberg was quickly dethroned and his disruption of what the police thought would be an otherwise orderly affair resulted in his subsequent expulsion from the country. The official rationale for his removal was the discovery of inappropriate journal entries that the secret police obtained in a stolen journal. Luckily Ginsberg anticipated as much and kept many of the names of his contacts anonymous, assigning letters as names. Unfortunately, Ginsberg’s journal from this leg of the trip was never recovered. Along with the poems, now lost to time. The poem “Kral Majales”  was written in reflection of this period of travel, written on the plane to London: 

And the Communists have nothing to offer but fat

            cheeks and eyeglasses and lying policemen

and the Capitalists proffer Napalm and money in 

green suitcases to the Naked, 

and the Communists create heavy industry but the

            heart is also heavy

and the beautiful engineers are all dead, the secret

            technicians conspire for their own glamour

in the Future, in the Future, but now drink vodka

            and lament the Security Forces, 

and the Capitalists drink gin and whiskey on air

            planes but let Indian brown millions starve…

…For I was arrested thrice in Prague,

once for singing drunk on Narodni street,
once knocked down on the midnight pavement

by a mustached agent who screamed out BOUZERANT,
once for losing my notebooks of unusual sex politics dream opinions,
and I was sent from Havana by planes

by detectives in green uniform,
and I was sent from Prague by plane

by detectives in Czechoslovakian business suits…

… And tho’ I am the King of May,

the Marxists have beat me upon the street,

kept me up all night in Police Station,

followed me thru Springtime Prague,

detained me in secret and deported me

from our kingdom by airplane.

This I have written this poem on a jet seat in mid Heaven.

The Travel Writing Origins of Ginsberg’s “Automatic Poetics”

In the journals, Ginsberg is often focused on his immediate surroundings, which are scribbled down as he apprehends the environments through which he passes. The resultant journal entry renders the process by which the perception takes place. Ginsberg reconstructs the context out of which some ordinary detail springs out of the rush of travel and catches the eye of the poet. This element of viewing informs his journals and his poetic work. His journals often contain lines and first drafts of poems, and his descriptions of quotidian scenes seem poetic, note the “strands of tall, disciplined trees” in this journal entry:

March 18, 1965 – 3:58 p.m on train Prague-Moscow-late afternoon in compartment with Czech military attaches, travelling rocking thru sunlight by the river Elbe- Hares in the fields, a warm day, the snow of black Prague streets melted in green winter fields, many strands of tall disciplined trees; a brown landscape thru which Elbe flows to empty into N Sea? At Hamburg- 

Ginsberg’s observational techniques were synthesized from William Carlos Williams’s observation of the phenomenal to identify the “true value” of objects and Ezra Pound’s impressionistic “mimesis of perception,” and informed his poetics of modernist looking. Modernist looking describes the fundamental poetic act of employing visual perception to shift or metamorphose apprehension of the phenomenal world from the quotidian to the numinous (Jackson 299). Ginsberg combined this modernist looking with an automatic form of recording, specifically tape recording. Bob Dylan had given him six hundred dollars to buy what was in 1965 an exotic technological device: a state-of-the-art portable Uher tape recorder. Absorbing and benefiting from this combination of nontraditional poetic methods of observation and composition, Ginsberg arrived at his own poetics, and put them all to use in his work The Fall of America. In writing the work, Ginsberg, driven by Peter Orlovsky through a range of shifting American environments in his white Volkswagen camper, could capture his own voice with a tape recorder and make almost instantaneous notations and representations of reality, without having to scrawl in a notebook or type on a typewriter. For Ginsberg, “auto-poesy” meant a total disregard for a logical or rational ordering of experience, in order to re-create the unimpeded flow of his mind.

Through Ginsberg’s travel journaling, the novelty of the environments he passes through, the elements out of which the world is made, are broken down into component parts, and the ordinary gestalt of perception is freshened, interrupted. The apprehended world is thus infused with poetic significance. In the limited space of the poem-world or the journal-world, these apprehended phenomenal elements ordinarily held in complex mutual dependency, elements like words, natural scenes, or points of view are suddenly reconsidered. He deconstructs the familiar along the way, and records the essential, reconstituting it into a poetic form. 


It is no surprise that Ginsberg encounters so much friction during his travels. The journals from this period reinforce Ginsberg’s pre-existing stature as a poet-provocateur. He is a perennial disruptor, and does not compromise his insistence on freedom of expression for any audience, regardless of ideological affiliation. He is essentially an anarchist, as he hates both the United States and East European Governments, he hates authority in any form. His childlike wonder and optimism about what communist nations might be like quickly gives way to an understanding that power expresses itself in similar ways. Whether he is in the U.S. or the U.S.S.R., Ginsberg imagines the soul triumphant against what he sees as the infernal machinery of capitalism and communism, promising freedom for those who would join him and the rest of a new visionary generation.

This stance is especially apparent in the poetry that emerges from this period of travel, and in the subsequent collections of poetry Planet News and The Fall of America, in which he personifies the national shift from one of idealistic optimism to one of beleaguered resignation. By 1968, the Tet Offensive meant the Vietnam War had taken a decisive turn for the worse. The assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy both frightened and sickened Ginsberg, who believed that his spiritual mentor Walt Whitman’s prophecy of America’s fall was materializing before his eyes. Indeed, Whitman warned of a time when social strife would undermine “Intense and loving comradeship…the counterbalance and offset of our materialistic and vulgar American democracy…without which it will be incomplete, in vain, and incapable of perpetuating itself” (Whitman 19). This national-spiritual nadir amplified his mournful, elegiac mode which had its start even in earlier poems like “Howl.” While he remained positive and optimistic in his outward persona, poems like “Ecologue” present his growing awareness of the flaws of the counterculture’s vision. Ginsberg wrote of a fractured utopia, and ways in which America will never be able to escape itself. Many of these concepts expressed in The Fall of America would not have been possible without the perspective gained through world travel. It would be impossible for an American to begin to understand America without first seeing the rest of the world, especially Soviet-aligned nations, in a time of such ideological cleavage. The poetic style that emerged from this period of travel represents the genesis of his “auto-poesy.”

Ginsberg’s journals were intended to be a private record. When he was on the road alone he would fill notebook after notebook with whatever he felt like writing, whether that be detailed descriptions of his surroundings, conversations, summaries of daily life, drafts of new poerms, random observations, dreams, and personal encounters. In addition to any ideological reflections, the journals from this period provide a window into Ginsberg’s quiet, contemplative moments and considerations of his own mortality. In an entry, Ginsberg writes, “On this planet, I haven’t got much time—combing my hair in the mirror saw the spreading fields of white in my beard; never noticed so close before. That’s one thing beards are good for” (Iron Curtain Journals) No matter where on the globe he is, or who he is with, Ginsberg attempts to relate to himself and others on a human level, as a part of the world-soul, rather than as an American. It is this insistence on humanity that cements Ginsberg’s status as a true world citizen.


“Babi Yar.” YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe, 2010,

 “BBC Face To Face Interview, 1994 (ASV#21).” The Allen Ginsberg Project, 27 Oct. 2019,

“Expansive Poetics – (Shelley’s Ode To The West Wind).” The Allen Ginsberg Project, 5 Feb. 2020,
Buckley, William. “The Avant Garde.” Firing Line, season 3, episode 18, WOR-TV, 1968.

Gelpi, Albert. American Poetry after Modernism: the Power of the Word. Cambridge University Press, 2015.

Ginsberg, Allen. Howl and Other Poems. City Lights Books, 2001.
Ginsberg, Allen, and Gordon Ball. Journals: Early Fifties, Early Sixties. Grove Press, 1992.
Ginsberg, Allen, and Michael Schumacher. Iron Curtain Journals: January-May 1965. University of Minnesota Press, 2018.
Ginsberg, Allen, et al. The Selected Letters of Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder. Counterpoint, 2010.
Ginsberg, Allen. 6 May 1993. Series IIIc- Manuscripts and Books, Box 38, Folder 2. M0773 Allen Ginsberg Collection. Special Collections Division, Stanford University Libraries, Stanford, CA. 29 July 2020.
Ginsberg, Allen. Airplane Dreams: Compositions from Journals. House of Anansi, 1969.
Ginsberg, Allen. Indian Journals. City Lights Books, 1970.
Ginsberg, Allen, and Michael Schumacher. South American Journals: January-July 1960. University of Minnesota Press, 2019.

Ginsberg, Allen. The Fall of America: Poems of These States, 1965-1971. City Lights, 2001.

Ginsberg, Allen, and Michael Schumacher. South American Journals: January-July 1960. University of Minnesota Press, 2019.

Ginsberg, Allen, and Michael Schumacher. The Fall of America Journals: 1965-1971. University of Minnesota Press, 2020.

Hyde, Lewis, et al On the Poetry of Allen Ginsberg. University of Michigan Press, 1984.

Morgan, Bill. Beats Abroad – a Global Guide to the Beat Generation. City Lights Books, 2016.

Pinkus, Benjamin. Jews of the Soviet Union: the History of a National Minority. Cambridge U.P., 1990.

Ramazani, Jahan, et al. The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry. W.W. Norton, 2003.

Schumacher, Michael. Dharma Lion: A Biography of Allen Ginsberg. University of Minnesota Press, 2016.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe, et al. Percy Bysshe Shelley: the Major Works. Oxford University Press, 2009.
Trigilio, Tony. Allen Ginsberg’s Buddhist Poetics. Southern Illinois University Press, 2012.

Whitman, Walt, et al. Walt Whitman. Viking Press, 1974.

[1] Ginsberg would go on to perform the Hare Krishna mantra on a 1968 episode of William F. Buckley Jr.’s television program Firing Line in an attempt to end the war in Vietnam, to which Buckley replied “That is the most un-harried krishna I’ve ever heard.” Ginsberg discusses the world-soul on the program. Link in bibliography.

The Howling Inferno: Crying Out in Anguish From Hell to America

Two Sonnets

by Allen Ginsburg


I dwelled in Hell on earth to write this rhyme,

I live in stillness now, in living flame;

I witness Heaven in unholy time,

I room in the renowned city, am

Unknown. The fame I dwell in is not mine,

I would not have it. Angels in the air

Serenade my senses in delight.

Intelligence of poets, saints, and fair

Characters converse with me all night.

But all the streets are burning everywhere.

The city is burning these multitudes that climb

Her buildings. Their inferno is the same

I scaled as a stupendous blazing stair.

They vanish as I look into the light.


Woe unto thee, Manhattan, woe to thee,

Woe unto all the cities of the world.

Repent, Chicagos, O repent; ah, me!

Los Angeles, now thou art gone so wild,

I think thou art still mighty, yet shall be,

As the earth shook, and San Francisco fell,

An angel in an agony of flame.

City of horrors, New York so much like Hell,

How soon thou shalt be a city-without-name,

A tomb of souls, and a poor broken knell.

Fire and fire on London, Moscow shall die,

And Paris her livid atomies be rolled

Together into the Woe of the blazing bell-

All cities then shall toll for their great fame.

                                    New York, Spring 1948

On October 7, 1955  Allen Ginsberg performed “Howl” in public for the first time at a poetry reading at Six Gallery in San Francisco, advertised by a postcard proclaiming: “Remarkable collection of angels all gathered at once in the same spot” (Latson 1). Two years later, the City Lights Books-published  “Howl” and Other Poems was at the center of an obscenity trial due to its depiction of illicit drugs and sexual practices. As the book’s opponents attacked its moral value, the defense assembled a team of eloquent witnesses, writers and poets who would speak to its literary worth. Describing “Howl” as “a vision of a modern hell,” poet and novelist Vincent McHugh testified that Ginsberg’s poems “derive certainly from Dante…and Dante, in turn, derives from the Odyssey, and so on into all the mythologies of the world” (Hyde 51). With support from the American Civil Liberties Union, City Lights publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti won the case, as the California State Superior court ruled that the poem was of significant social importance.

This is not the only prominent writer to link the two poets. In his introduction to “Howl” and Other Poems, Ginsberg’s mentor, William Carlos Williams, suggests that we read the poem as a Beat Inferno. For Williams, the poem is evidence that Ginsberg has “literally…been through hell” (Ginsberg  7). The experiences Ginsberg describes are “horrifying,” and for Williams, the poet himself, though he sees “with the eyes of the angels”, speaks as one of the damned, and the reader is even warned that “we are going through hell” (Ginsberg 8).

This essay seeks to re-examine Dante and Ginsberg through their seminal works, La Divina Commedia: Inferno and “Howl,” placing particular attention on the use of dramatic monologue in which speakers are speaking on behalf of themselves and their experience. The poems share a great deal, both in terms of their style and meaning. Both poems employ a tripartite structure of katabasis and ascent, and confessional monologues which invoke some moral-spiritual consideration by the reader. While their metric elements are dissimilar, the speakers in both poems explore hell and transcendence as a means to bemoan the social issues of their day, critique those responsible, and offer a way forward through the avenue of spiritual-holy love and self-discovery. Moreover, the single-word titles of both works evoke the structure, style, and meaning within.

While McHugh and Williams identified Ginsberg as a stylistic descendent of Dante, this lineage has since been buried beneath a host of scholarship which focuses on the more obvious succession: Dante to William Blake, and subsequently Blake to Ginsberg. Indeed, in the summer of 1948, Ginsberg underwent an extraordinary experience, hearing an auditory hallucination of William Blake’s voice reciting “Ah Sun-Flower” and “The Sick Rose,” accompanied by a feeling of participation in universal harmony, which he described as “the very ancient place that [Blake] was talking about, the sweet golden clime…this existence was it!” (Ramazani et al. 335). To share in this universal poetic inheritance would then connect Ginsberg to Blake’s source of inspiration, Dante. Both Dante and Ginsberg were searching for the paradisal self in an infernal world, with the Commedia and “Howl” representing the externalities of this search.

            Ginsberg wrote in a romantic tradition that honored Blake and Walt Whitman, and by extension, Dante. All of these eclectic writers share a sense of the prophetic in their combination of the poetic and religious-philosophical. The long rhapsodic lines and short chants of “Howl” are both driven by an ideal of  “a living speech, an organic metric that expresses the poet’s physiological state at the time of composition” (Ramazani et al. 336). This is certainly quite different than the controlled, consistent meter present in the Commedia.

Ginsberg’s style in “Howl” was much more frenzied and diffuse than Dante’s precise, unfolding terza rima, but his organic style is able to express concepts in a more direct, commonplace, and even internal manner, which asserts that causal language is important. In a 1994 BBC interview Ginsberg explained the need for candor in writing, the making of the private world public “very consciously following the direction of my ultimate American mentor Walt Whitman, who in 1855, in an early edition of Leaves of Grass, said that he hoped that American poets would develop in the direction of candor, kind of in an inadvertent, manipulative frankness, like spontaneous frankness…” (The Allen Ginsberg Project)

This is not to say that Ginsberg considered traditional forms like terza rima to be useless. In a 1981 class on Expansive Poetics Ginsberg taught at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics of Naropa University, he discusses the rhythmic effectiveness and dynamic expansiveness of Dante’s terza rima during a discussion of Shelley’s “Hymn to intellectual beauty”:

AG: The “Ode to Intellectual Beauty” (“Hymn to Intellectual Beauty”) has the most complicated stanza pattern of anything,

Student: But it doesn’t have the sense of a fixed pattern, like say…

AG: Oh, it has a fixed pattern

Student: Oh?

AG: It has a fixed rhyme, a totally fixed pattern. Yes, completely. Yes. The point of (a) fixed pattern is because you get a certain frame of reference, or a certain rhetorical, or rhythmic, or rhyme, structure. You just build up on it higher and higher, and higher, higher (like, in the end of Dante(‘s) Divinia Commedia), the cadences that he’s used in the last cantos of  (the) Paradiso, the cadences that he used in the rest of the terza rima, gets to be this repetitive ultimate orgasmic – in te misericordia, in te pietate,/in te magnificenza, in te s’aduna/quantunque in creature e di bontate“.. I don’t know  (“In thee is munificence, in thee compassion, in thee is whatever abounds through the universe” [or, in (a) more recent, Allen Mandelbaum, translation – “In you compassion is, in you is pity/ in you is generosity, in you/is very goodness found in any creature”]). It’s like the repetitive thing that he used in the terza rima works for him to get up into an ecstatic breath and an ecstatic statement. It can be done, yes, through formal form, regular old forms. (The Allen Ginsberg Project)

The inclusion of La Commedia as the prime example of emotionally-affecting poetry speaks to Ginsberg’s fondness for Dante, and his assertion that an ecstatic-transcendent statement can be made through formal meter speaks to the power of terza rima to make some of the same forceful points that Ginsberg’s speaker in “Howl” makes. Ginsberg’s repetition of lines beginning with “who,” “Moloch!,” and “I’m with you in Rockland,”  attempts to access the same sense of  the “repetitive thing…repetitive ultimate orgasmic,” in order to drive home a point, albeit with different cadences.

This spontaneous frankness described above approaches the form of Dantean dramatic monologue, as Ginsberg’s howling positions the speaker as a character in Dante’s Hell, similar to one of the tortured souls of Minos. The more technical consideration of dramatic monologue as poetry told in the point of view of a character still holds. Indeed, as Dante descends, his encounters are composed of tales recounted to him in a confessional style, and the pilgrim’s narration is confessional as well. Both poems begin from the standpoint of the self: “I saw the best minds” and “… I came to myself in a dark wood, for the straight way was lost.” (Alighieri et al. 27). As such, both poems invite the reader to experience the world from the speaker’s point of view.

Yet Ginsberg is not Dante the pilgrim in this comparison, but rather Virgil, the one who guides the reader through the world he inhabits. As Dante and Virgil begin their journey in Inferno, Virgil states to the pilgrim that, “Thus for your good I think and judge that you shall follow me, and I shall be your guide” (Alighieri et al. 33). While Dante is merely passing through hell, Ginsberg is as Williams tells the reader, one of the damned. He has partaken of the horrors described and like Virgil, Ginsberg inhabits Hell, but according to Williams he goes further than Virgil insofar as he claims it as his own. This concept of speaking on behalf of one’s experience relates directly to the dramatic monologue, present in both works.

Not only is the dramatic monologue in Inferno similar to the nature of the howling speaker in Ginsberg’s poem, but the confessional-elegiac mode is also present in both works. In this sense, crying out is a shared poetic mode. Dante would have been aware of this sorrowful, elegiac mode, as he writes in his essay “De vulgari eloquentia” in which he describes three basic forms or literary styles: the tragic, the comic, and the elegiac. He describes the tragic as the “high” style, the comic as the “low” style, and the elegiac as the “style of the unhappy”: “Deinde in hiis que dicenda occurrunt debemus discretione potiri, utrum tragice, sive cornice, sive elegiace sint canenda. Per tragedian! superiorem stilum inducimus; per comediam inferiorem; per elegiam stilum intelligimus miserorum.” (Iannucci 21) As such, some combination of the comic-low and elegiac-unhappy can be applied to the dramatic monologues by speakers in Hell. This stylistic framework also relates to “Howl,” in which the speaker cries out in a similar sense of mourning, not in anger, as had become its association, but in anguish, a sense that Ginsberg describes in the 1994 BBC interview:

Jeremy Isaacs: Was “Howl” an angry poem about America?

AG: I wouldn’t say “angry”. There are certain aspects “wrathful”, in judgment, but I would say, more “exuberant”, because, you know, the ultimate part of the peroration, at the end — “I’m with you in Rockland, where you’re madder than I am” — but “I’m with you” — it’s a gesture of sympathy to a friend who’s in trouble, basically, with a certain amount of anguish in it. The ultimate accusation, really, is, “Moloch, whose name is the Mind” It isn’t, you know, out there, the all-devouring God, the destroyer God, it’s not out there, it’s our own Imagination, as [William] Blake pointed out. So “Moloch, whose name is the Mind” is hardly angry. That’s a piece of wisdom-teaching actually, something that I understood from Blake long ago. (The Allen Ginsberg Project)

However, Dante seems to place particular emphasis on the narrative progression of La Commedia, much more so than Ginsberg does in “Howl,” and closely corresponds to the outline of classical comedy (Iannucci 21). The ultimate justification, then, for entitling the poem Commedia appears to be the content, or more precisely, the movement of the narrative from a vision of moral chaos and conflict to one of peace and spiritual fulfilment, more than its “low” or “high” style.

Regardless of style, each text is dominated by the voices of Speakers, who are speaking on behalf of themselves and their experience. The tales of speakers like Francesca da Rimini, Bertran de Born, and Piero della Vigna mirror the tales that Ginsberg recounts. Yet in the sense that it only has a singular speaker, “Howl” attempts to have a larger concept of selfhood, which indicates Ginsberg’s attempt to cry out on behalf of an entire generation in a Whitmanian sense, the speaker speaks on behalf of himself, a nation, and a new world. In “Howl,” Ginsberg is certainly thoroughly distraught, given his depiction of the city, of America, and of a generation’s prospects in the post-war environment.

            Both poems are burning missives, social critiques that invite emotional participation by the reader. In order to evaluate each poem’s capacity for social critique by way of dramatic monologue, it helps to consider the context in which each text arose. “Howl” is coming out of a sense of war-as-Hell. Ginsberg was tasked with creating art within the context of massive human and psychological devastation. The raw, instinctual, attention-getting, sorrowful language of “Howl” is born of the incomprehensible carnage of the Holocaust, the leveled cities in Europe, millions of civilians dead, and a new specter of atomic devastation. Indeed the “Beat experience” and Alighieri’s political awareness begins and ends with war.

World War II, the Korean War, and eventually the Vietnam War provide a background for Ginsberg, and a broader literary movement that served as a sustained commentary on the political landscape in crisis, a world on fire. In the post-war context, Ginsberg questions the self-celebrating democratic patriotism of the 1950’s. The U.S was directly responsible for millions of deaths, and the boom in U.S. post-war prosperity mostly affected white people. Similarly, La Commedia is born from Dante’s exile, and the all-encompassing political crisis and civil war. For the Florentines, the city-state was self-contained, and may have well represented the world for most Guelphs and Ghibellines.

In the eighth bolgia of the eighth circle of Hell, Dante denounces the city of Florence in a similar manner to the way that Ginsberg denounces the American military-industrial complex in Part II of “Howl.” He grieves for his city as he writes, “Rejoice, Florence, since you are so great that on sea and land you beat your wings, and your name spreads through Hell! Among the thieves I found five such citizens yours that I feel shame, and you do not rise to honor by them…Then I grieved, and now I grieve again, when I consider what I saw, and I rein in my wit more than is my custom” (Alighieri et al. 399).  These lines explicitly connect grief in the moment of writing with the grief experienced in the penitential journey, an indication of Alighieri’s real-life frustration with Florentine political strife, and of division more generally. Denunciation of Italian cities is frequent in the Malebolge, with Bologna, Pistoia, and Siena all coming under criticism for their injustices. Perhaps Ginsberg’s model in characterizing New York-as-Hell is Dante, who, exiled from Florence, creates a divine comedy out of historical contingency, and in the process, turns the strife of his local city, into a generational voice. Similarly, Ginsberg paints a portrait of New York: “Moloch whose factories dream and croak in the fog! Moloch whose smoke-stacks and antennae crown the cities!/Moloch whose love is endless oil and stone! Moloch whose soul is electricity and banks! Moloch whose poverty is the specter of genius!” (Ginsberg 17). Here Ginsberg is certainly grieving, as made evident in his depiction of the city. Ginsberg’s elegiac tone is in reference to the death of an American ideal, a loss of hope, rooted in the devastation of the post-war environment and in the smoggy, belching industrial landscape.

One particularly strong congruence between the poems is a consideration of the relationship between mind and body, explored through auditory imagery and the presentation of human-inhuman hybrids in the monologue of Pierra della Vigna and part III of “Howl.” In the second round of the seventh circle of Inferno is the Wood of the Suicides, in which the souls of those violent against themselves are transformed into gnarled, thorny trees and fed upon by “the ugly Harpies…who drove the Trojans from the Strophades with dire prophecy of their future woe…faces human…they utter laments on the strange trees” (Alighieri et al. 199). Here, Pierra della Vigna’s confession is itself a specific form of punishment suited to his sin, a bleeding lamentation.

The words and blood that spill from the broken branch, “as when a green log is burnt at one end, from the other it drips and sputters as air escapes: so from the broken stump came forth words and blood together,” indicate a loss of control of his mind-body faculties, chief among them speech (Alighieri et al. 201). This idea of a hybrid being crying out continues in Dante’s auditory imagery of the the mournful voices of the branches, “cries of woe,” and the concept of a human spirit imprisoned in a tree which is formed “when the fierce soul departs from the body from which it has uprooted itself” (Alighieri et al. 199-203).The uncanny atmosphere of the barren wood and the bizarre confession of the “spirito incarcerato” further establish the haunting dreamlike quality that evokes the mystery of suicide and the tragedy of della Vigna’s life. (Alighieri et al. 202).

The confession della Vigna delivers here strikes a similar tone to part III of “Howl,” especially the passage:

I’m with you in Rockland

   where you pun on the bodies of your nurses the harpies of the Bronx

I’m with you in Rockland

   where you scream in a straightjacket that you’re losing the game of the actual pingpong of the abyss

I’m with you in Rockland

   where you bang on the catatonic piano the soul is innocent and immortal it should never die ungodly in an armed madhouse

I’m with you in Rockland

   where fifty more shocks will never return your soul to its body again from its pilgrimage to a cross in the void (Ginsberg 19)

Dante’s considerations of the relationship -or division- between mind and body, and more broadly, the mobility of the physical human form within a perverse environment connect to Ginsberg’s portrayal of the immobile Carl Solomon, his fellow inmate at the Columbia Psychiatric Institute in 1949, screaming, bound by straight jacket, losing the “game of the actual pingpong of the abyss” (Ginsberg 19). Both passages even refer to the partly-human harpies as a specific tormentor. Moreover, the line on electroshock therapy, which will “never return your soul to its body again from its pilgrimage to a cross in the void” evoke the Dantean consideration of undoing of the unified soul and body (Ginsberg 20).  This is the same electroshock treatment that Ginsberg’s mother would have received while held at an Asylum, which Ginsberg references in the footnote to “Howl”: “Holy my mother in the insane asylum” (Ginsberg 21).  Carl Solomon’s “Pilgrimage…in the void” leads the reader right to Dante’s pilgrimage through the underworld. This scene in the seventh circle is emblematic of all confessions in Inferno, an ironic reversal of canonical penance insofar as it brings no relief but rather mocks the sinner and intensifies his punishment. For Ginsberg, the suffering are revered and sympathized with, more so than in Dante’s poem.

This is not to say that Dante is wholly unsympathetic. In the article “Dante’s Sympathy for the Other, or the Non-Stereotyping Imagination: Sexual and Racialized Others in the Commedia,” Teodolinda Barolini considers Dante’s sympathy for the other against the backdrop of dogmatic belief-as-rejection of the other. Barolini proposes that the Commedia contains “many startlingly non-normative postures in the social and historical sphere” (Barolini 177).  The various forms of sympathy toward the other include those presented by Dante’s speakers in the form of confessional dramatic monologue. Barolini writes how in his treatment of women “stereotypes of degraded sexuality had little purchase over Dante’ imagination…In Dante’s circle of lust the name of historical specificity is Francesca da Rimini, an adulteress. She is the Commedia’s second most famous female, after Beatrice, and -like Beatrice Portinari- we would never have heard of her if not for Dante” (Barolini 181). 

In the story of Francesca, Dante writes a gendered story that places unusual value on the personhood of the speaker. Dante’s inclusion of Francesca’s dramatic monologue is significant, especially when historicizing the character, who, according to Barolini was “Dynastically unimportant, Francesca was forgotten by contemporary chroniclers…the first and most authoritative chronicler of Rimini was Marco Battagli whose 1352 work On the Origins of the Malatesta alludes to the event in which Francesca died without naming her, indeed without acknowledging her existence” (Barolini 181). In effect, Dante’s inclusion of the monologue is sympathetic, as it has preserved Francesca’s voice and has raised hers to be perhaps one of the most significant in Inferno. Beyond this, Dante’s Francesca tells a story of how she and Paolo fell in love while reading, as she recounts, “we were reading one day, for pleasure, of Lancelot, how Love beset him; we were alone and without any suspicion” (Alighieri et al. 93). Here, Francesca is not only the protagonist, but a reader rather than a fornicator, and a speaking agent, rather than a forgotten voice. Indeed, it is Paolo who stands aside her, weeping silently. For Barolini, this portrayal allowed Francesca to achieve “dignity and prominence- a celebrity- that in real life she did not possess” (Barolini 182). 

Like in Inferno, “Howl” offers sympathy to its subjects as the poet recalls the many tormented and underrepresented host of beings who inhabit the modern Hell. Most noteworthy among them is the institutionalized Carl Solomon, for whom the poem isdedicated. Like Dante and Virgil, Solomon is Ginsberg’s companion in the underworld, and sympathizes with his roommate at Rockland as he cries “ah, Carl, while you are not safe I am not safe, and now you’re really in the total animal soup of time” (Ginsberg 16). In this sense, the speaker is speaking on behalf of those who are voiceless, a sympathetic portrayal of a tragic fate of real people. One could produce entire books on Ginsberg’s role in the unveiling of homosexuality to the reading public. Both poems then include considerations of these real people, friends and foes, who are immortalized as they are tormented, lonely and without comfort, from Hell to America.

One primary difference here is that Dante places individuals that he pitied or detested in Hell, as the pilgrim states in Canto 5, “After I had heard my teacher name the ancient ladies and knights, pity came upon me, and I was almost lost” (Alighieri et al. 91). Whereas Ginsberg’s Hell is more all-encompassing, with all people subject to the “fascist national Golgotha” (Ginsberg 20). Ginsberg places friends and foes alike within this context, and all but those culpable are to be pitied.

Indeed, Dante is far more critical of the damned when he considers their acts to be especially morally bankrupt, increasingly so as he descends through the levels of Hell. This gradation of punishment correlates to the cosmology of Dante’s Hell. As the pilgrim encounters the speakers in the ninth bolgia, he encounters the Ghibelline Mosca, “one who had both hands cut off, lifting the stumps into the murky air so that the blood soiled his face” (Alighieri et al. 439). Mosca, the last of the five florentines mentioned by the pilgrim to Ciacco, murdered Buondelmonte de’ Buondelmonti on Easter Sunday, 1215, a killing which represents the origin of the division of Florence into Guelf and Ghibelline factions and the beginning of the city’s destruction (Durling 447). The pilgrim jeers at Mosca, “And I added: ‘and the death of your clan’; so that he, piling grief on grief, walked off like a person mad with sorrow” (Alighieri et al. 439) To verbally attack one of the damned does indicate some lack of sympathy on Alighieri’s part, at least to those who do not align with his particular moral compass.

 This combination of madness and sorrow continues again in Dante, with the monologue of Bertran de Born, who cries out his confession:

“‘Oh me!’…‘Now see my wretched punishment, you who go still breathing to view the dead: see if any is as great as this. And that you may take back news of me, know that I am Bertran de Born, he who gave the young king bad encouragements. I made father and son revolt against each other: Achitophel did no worse to Absalom and David with his evil proddings. Because I divided persons so joined, I carry my brain divided, alas, from its origin which is in this trunk. Thus you observe me in the counter-suffering’.” (Alighieri et al. 439)

This example of the sowing of strife provides a particularly striking conclusion to the Canto, and the only instance of the word contrapasso or “counter-suffering,” which de Born enunciates while holding his severed head in his hand (Alighieri et al. 439).  The disseminators of civil discord are mutilated in ways that match their mutilation of the body politic. Given Alighieri’s distaste for division, the reader is invited to sympathize with de Born only insofar as a sort of pity, which Dante might have viewed as justice for his eternal damnation.

Comparing these two poems’ monologues leads inevitably to some consideration of their rough structural correspondence. In what appears to be the lone piece of scholarship linking Ginsberg and Dante, independent scholar Jeffrey Meyers lists overlapping thematic and structural elements of “Howl” and The Divine Comedy, indicating that section I, a long series of laments about chastisements and tortures, and section II, a condemnation of the materialistic and repressive society symbolized by the Canaanite fire god Moloch, are Ginsberg’s Inferno (Meyers 89). By this logic, Moloch is clearly Ginsberg’s equivalent of Lucifer, relegated to the lowest circle of Hell. Meyers considers section III, Ginsberg’s homage to catatonia and Carl Solomon, to be a portrayal of institutionalization as passing through Purgatorio. Finally, the “Footnote to ‘Howl,’” also written in 1955, represents “a modern riff on the sacred theme of holy living” (Meyers 89).

As such, Ginsberg begins his Paradiso with fifteen repetitions of “Holy!,”  a mantric chant which echoes the biblical “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of Hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory” in Isaiah 6:3 (Meyers 89). Both works then have a hopeful resolution in the promise of salvation, either intellectually or spiritually. For Dante, this is the ideal presented by Beatrice, for Ginsberg, an idiosyncratic list of all he considers sacred: parts of the body, his friends, his mother, music, the city, places from Arkansas to Tangiers, time, the sea, the desert, hallucinations, faith, mercy and charity.

These resolutions of infernal katabasis indicate shared intimations of a Judeo-Christian moral axis, either at the center of the work, in the case of the Commedia, or for Ginsberg, deployment of religious topics and imagery like Golgotha, “Holy,” “Moloch,” and even “saintly motorcyclists.” Perhaps for Ginsberg, the motorcyclists (Hell’s Angels?) represent some sort of libertine sexual salvation that might pre-empt gay liberation movements to come.

Yet Ginsberg was no Christian, so some other divinity must be considered. More central to a comparison of the two poems is Ginsberg’s Beatrice, his divine intellectual-romantic ideal, the love of the world-soul. Ginsberg’s belief in transcendence through repetitive chant is expressed in its nascent stages through his repetition of “Holy” in the footnote. Ginsberg’s belief in this eternal and inherent nature of reality, expressed sometimes as the dharma, was central to beat literature, and to Ginsberg’s later writing and spiritual practice.[1] An awareness of such a force was likely informed by the use of psychedelic drugs and the counterculture of the 1950’s and 60’s but the concept has deep roots in poetics. This concept of the world-soul was explored by his precursor Percy Bysse Shelley in poems like Queen Mab, in which he develops the image of fairies, of “viewless beings” from which comes a portrait of the universal soul:

 “Unrecognized, or unforeseen by thee

Soul of the Universe! Eternal spring

Of life and death, of happiness and woe

Of all that chequers the phantasmal scene

That floats before our eyes in wavering light

Which gleams but on the darkness of our prison

Whose chains and massy walls

We feel, but cannot see” (Shelley et al. 50)

In the case of Dante, this would have been the grace of the divine Christian God. In the case of Queen Mab, one might speculate on whether something in Shelley (and by extension Ginsberg) was tugging him towards a Platonic-Kantian sense of some quasi-divine noumenal unifier of experience which is itself inaccessible to experience, or at least human sensory perception. The idea that such a world-soul which permeates matter so that matter is not just physically but morally sentient relates directly to the previously discussed entrapment of the human soul in a tree’s body or the soul of Carl Solomon, which Ginsberg describes as interred in Rockland in the lines “I’m with you in Rockland/where you bang on the catatonic piano the soul is innocent/ and immortal it should never die ungodly in an armed/ madhouse” (Ginsberg 19).

Regardless of which holy form resides in the noumenal realm, both writers find salvation for their subjects, with the pilgrim ascending in Paradiso, and with Ginsberg’s depiction of the soul, destroying Rockland:

I’m with you in Rockland

where we wake up electrified out of the coma by our own souls’ airplanes roaring over the roof

they’ve come to drop angelic bombs the hospital illuminates itself        imaginary walls collapse

O skinny legions run outside          O starry-spangled shock of mercy the eternal war is here

O victory forget your underwear

we’re free

            In this final section of his dramatic monologue, Ginsberg imagines the soul triumphant against all the infernal machinery of Rockland and America, promising freedom for those who would join him and the rest of a new visionary generation. Both poets incorporate dramatic monologue into their works to portray the plight of the damned, who cry out in anguish from Hell to America. Yet both poets provide an attainable avenue of hope and light: love. Presented in the Dantean ideal of paradisiacal Beatrice and the Ginsbergian “Holy forgiveness! mercy! charity! faith! Holy! Ours! bodies! suffering! magnanimity! Holy the supernatural extra brilliant intelligent kindness of the soul!” In both the path to an intellectual, hard-won salvation through love comes through critical examination of the self, understanding of humanity, and subsequent ascension through various states (Ginsberg 22). Yet in order for one to be saved, one must first pass through Hell.


Alighieri, Dante, et al. Inferno. Oxford University Press, 1996.

Barolini, Teodolinda. “Dante’s Sympathy for the Other, or the Non Stereotyping Imagination: Sexual and Racialized Others in the Commedia.” Critica Del Testo, XIV, no. 1, 2011.

“BBC Face To Face Interview, 1994 (ASV#21).” The Allen Ginsberg Project, 27 Oct. 2019,

Buckley, William. “The Avant Garde.” Firing Line, season 3, episode 18, WOR-TV, 1968.

“Expansive Poetics – (Shelley’s Ode To The West Wind).” The Allen Ginsberg Project, 5 Feb. 2020,

Ginsberg, Allen. Howl and Other Poems. City Lights Books, 2001.

Hyde, Lewis. On the Poetry of Allen Ginsberg. Univ. of Michigan Press, 1999.

Iannucci, Amilcare A. “Dante’s Theory of Genres and the ‘Divina Commedia.’” Dante Studies, with the Annual Report of the Dante Society, vol. 91, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973, p. 21.

Latson, Jennifer. “Allen Ginsberg Howl Reading in San Francisco: Oct. 7, 1955.” Time, Time, 7 Oct. 2014,

Meyers, Jeffrey. “Ginsberg’s Inferno: Dante and ‘Howl.’” Style, vol. 46, no. 1, 2012, pp. 89–94.

Ramazani, Jahan, et al. The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry. W.W. Norton, 2003.

Senior, Matthew. In the Grip of Minos: Confessional Discourse in Dante, Corneille and Racine. Ohio State University Press, 1994.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe, et al. Percy Bysshe Shelley: the Major Works. Oxford University Press, 2009.

[1]Ginsberg would go on to perform the Hare Krishna mantra on a 1968 episode of William F. Buckley Jr.’s television program Firing Line in an attempt to end the war in Vietnam, to which Buckley replied “That is the most un-harried krishna I’ve ever heard.” Ginsberg discusses the world-soul on the program. Link in bibliography.

The Careers of Jianware: Song-Dynasty Ceramics via a Tea Bowl With “Hare’s Fur” Glaze

The Fujian stoneware bowl is not immediately recognizable as a tea bowl, and to identify it as such required a quick glance at the placard, which also indicated a few other necessary pieces of information. The bowl was made in the 12th-13th century, in Fujian province, and was made with a special glazing technique known as “hare’s fur” (兔毫盞).  Not knowing exactly what this meant, I decided to look a little closer.

As I walked around the bowl, I was first drawn to its simplicity, it looked almost like a modern cereal bowl that I had seen on sale at Target recently, but a few more moments of observation revealed a greater sense of history and a greater inherent beauty. The stoneware bowl in question illuminates the broader category of Song Dynasty ceramics, or ceramics produced from the 10th century to the 13th century which feature a very straightforward shape and are characterized by multichromatic, subtly-hued glazes.

Unconsidered, the tea bowl is almost forgettable. I nearly walked past it as I perused the Cantor Museum’s ceremonial objects gallery. In comparison to the other objects in the display case, the mottled tea bowl looks relatively commonplace, unassuming. It takes a few moments to be drawn in by the “hare’s fur” pattern, which does, in fact, resemble the fine down of a rabbit or other woodland creature. The bowl contains two primary hues, a brown ochre that is featured on the lip of the bowl, and a deep blue-black at the center pit of the bowl. Between the two primary hues is the pattern, which creates a pleasing gradient between the lip and the pit. The pattern contains streaks of brown ochre which seem to melt into successive layers of the deep blue tone, almost as if the entire bowl is melting into itself. The “hare’s fur” pattern suggests a sort of dynamic liquidity, almost as if the glaze is still fresh and waiting to be fired.

From the Cantor museum placard, one can gather that the bowl falls into a larger category of “Jianware,” (建窯) or high-fired brown and black glazed ceramics that were first made during the Han dynasty (202 BC- AD 220) and reached their “golden age” during the Song, Jin, and Yuan dynasties from the 10th through the 14th centuries (Cantor). The museum placard also indicates an essential feature of the bowl’s aesthetic, and relationship to the earth, that the burnished brown color is derived from iron oxides that are common in the earth and were used not only to color the glaze, but also for the painted decorations underneath a clear glaze. This information imbues the artifact with an entirely new significance, and brings up a new set of questions regarding its geological origins. The bowl is very much of the earth, the natural oxides representing an essential step in the preparation of the “hare’s fur” glazing technique.

To guard against potentially overlooking the rich history of the tea bowl, it helps to expand the set of questions we can ask about an object and simultaneously expand our expectations for the object. How can one begin to understand ceramics through one object? Ceramics are some of the most complicated works of art, with myriad glazes, decorative types, kilns, and firing temperatures. This complicated corner of art history is only made more complex when paired with Chinese history. A remarkable feature of Chinese civilization is its continuity. Spanning thousands of years, the historical and archaeological record of Chinese culture is staggering. To account for the vast range of Chinese ceramics in a single research paper is nigh-impossible. How can one begin to understand Chinese history through one artifact? This paper, and the broader study of material culture represents an attempt to unravel a small portion of this immense history through the focused investigation of a single object, a Jianware bowl. 

Some anthropological scholarship is useful in developing a more nuanced understanding of the object in question, and for creating a vivid story to surround the tea bowl.  In his article, “The Cultural Biography of Things,” anthropologist Igor Kopytoff states how, “In doing the biography of a thing, one would ask questions similar to those one asks about people: What, sociologically, are the biographical possibilities inherent in its ‘status’ and in the period and culture, and how are those possibilities realized?” (Kopytoff 66). Like all artifacts, the tea bowl contains many biographies, and has lived multiple lives since it was first fired back in the 12th or 13th century. The possibilities that Kopytoff describes are, perhaps, unknowable, but we can attempt to develop a rough chronology and biography based on its contemporary culture. To address Kopytoff’s questions, we must first gain a clearer understanding of the context surrounding the bowl’s production and aesthetic. To gain such an understanding, I employ some of Kopytoff’s interrogations as a theoretical framework and incorporate more general information about Song ceramics to get closer to the object at hand. 

Kopytoff asks, “Where does the thing come from and who made it?” (Kopytoff 66). While the bowl is not stamped with a monicker, we can glean from its aesthetic, certain standard practices which allow us to get a little closer. To better understand the production of the object, it helps to first understand the nature of the labor that went into crafting ceramics in the Song era. These ceramics are not isolated artifacts. They may look simple but there exists a very complicated technique behind the finished products. The entire process of crafting ceramics employs the whole body of the craftsman and indeed, the whole community. Each piece embodies a practical biography of the people involved in its production, and every step of its production is filled with the maker’s blood, sweat, and tears all mixed together. The production of a ceramic object requires cooperation on many levels, and the combined strength of labor and intelligence shapes the product. In the case of Song Dynasty-era ceramics, each piece represents the efforts of a group of specialized workers, who most likely trained together for a long time, so that they might work as one (Benn 147). As the manifestation of a community effort, every pottery work represents the result of unified will, teamwork, and organization under the regional organization of the dynasty.

Kopytoff’s question of  production by one individual might then be broadened to consider the efforts of an entire community. However, one craftsman’s touch is still evident in the bowl, as one can clearly observe the distribution of the glaze around the base of the object. The bowl was fired resting on its foot ring, which is left unglazed. The potter would have held the foot ring and dipped it into the glaze mixture, swirled it around, and the position of the fingers left indentations. This fingerprint is not so much a signature, but rather a piece of evidence of human contact with the unfinished product, and the labor involved with its production.

A similar Song Dynasty tea bowl with “Hare’s Fur” styling in the Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibits the typical “pooling,” or thickening, of the glaze near the bottom. The “hare’s fur” patterning in the glaze of this bowl resulted from the random effect of phase separation during early cooling in the kiln and is unique to this bowl. In fact, no two bowls have identical patterning. This phase separation in the iron-rich glazes of “blackwares” was also used to produce the well-known “oil-spot” and “partridge-feather”(雪鷓鴣盞) glaze effects (Valenstein 33). The bowl also has a dark brown “iron-foot” ring which is typical of this style. It would have been fired, probably with several thousand other pieces, each in its own stackable saggar, in a single-firing in a large dragon kiln. One such kiln, built on the side of a steep hill, was almost 150 metres in length, although most Jian dragon kilns were shorter than 100 metres (Yang 83). The fact that Jianware glazes were made with iron oxides indicates some feature about Chinese mining and mineral processing techniques, that the Chinese must have developed sophisticated techniques for working with iron by this time.

The essential ingredient of all pottery is clay, baked to a degree of hardness, which varies based on the temperature and length of the firing process and on the clay itself. There different levels of sophistication associated with different types of ceramics, thus soft earthenware is fired at a lower temperature (about 800 C) than are stoneware and porcelain, which require a temperature of about 1300C (Cantor). Why did this advanced state of technology occur in China and not in some other area of the world? According to a wall placard in the Cantor gallery, two factors are paramount: the availability and exploitation of certain types of clay, and the Chinese skill in building kilns capable of reaching the temperatures required for making vitreous ceramics (Cantor). The latter was an offshoot of the technology that allowed for the production of elaborate ancient ritual bronzes. China is perhaps the most important location in the history of ceramic art, and its impact on the ceramics of other places can hardly be overemphasized, and the aesthetics of different kinds of Chinese porcelain have inspired ceramic imitators the world over. The simplicity, straightforwardness, and subtlety of Song-ware give them a very contemporary feel and still serve as an inspiration to potters today.

According to Cherise Tong, a specialist in Chinese ceramics and works of art at Christie’s auction house, Jianware pieces generally feature dark glazes, the decoration is usually abstract, and the finest examples have “partridge feather” glaze, which are simply brown flecks in the glaze, radiating evenly and harmoniously from the center of the bowl, outward (Tong). Indeed, such patterns are caused randomly as excess iron in the glaze is forced out during firing. Otherwise, the principal motifs would be floral, often a lotus, peony, or hibiscus. Such effects were frequently praised in poems and other works of the Song and later periods by famous scholar-bureaucrats such as Su Dongpo. Even the Song emperor Huizong 宋徽宗 (1082-1135) declared that black was valued for tea bowls and those with hare’s fur markings were the most superior (Baoping).

 In terms of specific geographical origins, it would be hard to locate the object with any more specificity than the region- Fujian province. There were, however, primary kilns where Jianware was produced, so it is possible that this specific bowl came from one of them. In his book Chinese Ceramics, historian and former secretary to the Oriental Ceramics Society W.B.R. Neave-Hill provides an expansive account of different eras of Chinese Ceramics, including Jianware. Neave-Hill states that Jianware bowls can be traced to three primary kiln sites, identified by historian of Chinese ceramics James Marshal Plumer, located “some thirty miles north of Chien-ming [Jian-ming] in Fukien [Fujian] province in south-east China” (Neave-Hill 83). Regardless of whether a westerner can really “discover” something that has been used by locals for millenia, the most influential producer of blackware tea bowls were the Jian kilns in Jianyang, Fujian, where ceramics are still being produced in traditional hillside kilns.

Jianware potteries birthed in these kilns were highly regarded, and some Jianware bowls were inscribed before firing with the words “imperial tribute” (供御), indicating these specific bowls were made for the use of the court (Baoping). Apart from the Jian kilns, Jizhou (吉州) in Jiangxi was another most famous producer of blackware tea bowls during the Song-Yuan period. The Jian potters made only bowls, as the entire province of Fujian “was a tea drinking country, where tea was grown in the surrounding hills” (Neave-Hill 83). According to Robert fortune, who visited China to source tea to ship for the East India Company, the tea of Wu-i Shan was the finest black tea in China. He took seeds and shrubs of this tea to the Himalayas. Jianwares have many graduations and variations of glaze due to the kiln conditions- which the potters learned to control with skill, using different parts of the hill-side kilns for a variety of effects. Plumer identifies seven distinctive shapes of [Jianware] bowls (Neave-Hill 164).

Kopytoff considers this transformation of an object’s identity when he asks “What are the recognized ‘ages’ or periods in the thing’s ‘life,’ and what are the cultural markers for them?” (Kopytoff 66). The individual object must be considered as a component part of the larger production of pottery in Fujian province, as it is emblematic of a regional style of products that come from a specific community supply chain. From beginning to end, the production of ceramics is a local process, almost like a family process, united in one goal. A city cooperating to make this process happen, with hundreds of steps, complicated tools, at the same time is harmonious and smooth. From the very beginning of the process, from the crushing of earth and stones into clay powder, to the point where it is made on wheels or molds, to the perfection of the shape, to the point when the bowl would then be glazed or brought to artists who give their own regional aesthetic interpretations, each time the bowl passes from one state of completion to the next, it transforms and attains new significance.

Ceramics are poetic and elemental, an art of clay and fire. Pottery begins with clay -earth and water- coaxed by the potter’s hands. The way the potter uses the leverage of gravity, the wheel’s inertia and centrifugal force, the adjustment of strength to shape an entirely new form out of force and skill are all based in chance and years of mastery. Then, days of labor came to life in the fire, which was extremely difficult to control, and was dependent upon the will of the fire- or of the heavens, as buddhist monks might suggest. In its transformative potential, the process of high-temperature firing is, in a sense, like nirvana.

In considering the “career” of the object, Kopytoff asks, “What has been its career so far, and what do people consider to be an ideal career for such things?” (Kopytoff 66). Because it is so well-preserved and ended up in a private collection and then at the Cantor Museum, it is likely that the tea bowl was part of a ceramic connoisseur’s collection. The collection and appreciation of Chinese ceramics is well-documented, and the exhibit placard states that “By the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) [Jianware’s] popularity had waned, but they continued to be admired in Japan where they are known as temmoku wares and are associated with the tea ceremony” (Cantor). Such a description of the international appeal of the tea bowl speaks to the artifact’s multiple biographies. Not only was it most likely used for daily tea rituals in China, it was most likely also then collected and admired later on in Japan, or elsewhere, as the bowls became more and more coveted.

            This question the bowl’s career also makes us consider the different periods of connoisseurship and academic investigation, from Lu Yu’s Classic of Tea, to Wen Zhenheng’s treatise on “superfluous things” and the language surrounding burgeoning conceptions of connoisseurship, to the temmoku connoisseurship in Japan. Tea has seen many different changes in the history of China. The origins of tea drinking in East Asia are not well documented, but scholars assume that the spread of its consumption is due to its medicinal effects as a stimulant of the mind and body (Pitelka 20). The daily habit of sharing and drinking tea also reinforces sociability, which may have led early drinkers to pick the native broad-leaved evergreen bushes (Camellia sinensis) to create a medicinal brew that promoted alertness and represented a soothing, agreeable way to entertain guests (Pitelka 20).  The first major scholarly work was the monumental book The Classic of Tea by Lu Yu of the Tang Dynasty (ca. 733-803), Chinese tea master and writer, a sage of tea, and primary contributor to Chinese tea culture. Lu Yu’s writing represented an absolute dedication and attention to every aspect of the production and preparation of tea to get the most effective and pleasurable effects (Pitelka 20). Friend and poet Huangfu Zheng wrote of Lu Yu’s arcadian ethos in his poem, “The Day I Saw Lu Yu off to Pick Tea”:

The Day I Saw Lu Yu off to Pick Tea

A Thousand mountains will greet my departing friend,

When the spring teas blossom again.

With such breadth and wisdom,

Serenely picking tea—

Through morning mists

Or crimson evening clouds—

His solitary journey is my envy.

We rendezvous at a remote mountain temple,

Where we enjoy tea by a clear pebble fountain.

In that silent night,

Lit only by candlelight,

I struck a marble bell—

Its chime carrying me

A hidden man

Deep into thoughts of ages past.

One particularly striking aspect of the bowl’s biography is its place within the broader landscape of tea ritual and ceremony in the Song Dynasty. Such a consideration brings up the social and aesthetic significance of the tea ceremony. The Song Dynasty was one of the most culturally-rich periods in the history of China, where literati and scholar-bureaucrats cultivated aesthetic practices and trends of powerful societal significance. Among these aesthetic trends were tea brewing, flower arranging, painting appreciation, and incense burning- all regarded as fashionable pastimes that gave rise to the phrase “The Four Arts of Life” (Shiner 100). Indeed, the bronze braziers used to burn incense were forged using some of the same kilns and techniques as ceramics.

Song Dynasty-era tea drinking was markedly different from earlier styles of tea drinking, and from modern tea brewing. While the primary tea-brewing technique during the Tang Dynasty was to grind tea cakes into powder and then boil the resultant powder in a pot before ladling it into a tea bowl for drinking, the tea contending of the Song feature a whipped-tea method. This consisted of the grinding of the tea cake, which was expensive and luxurious in its own right, into fine powder, placing the powder in a bowl, pouring boiling water into the bowl from a ewer (usually also made from ceramic), and whipping the mixture with a whisk. The tea contest partly consisted of comparison of the color and duration of the resulting tea froth. The whiter the froth of the whipped-tea the better (Neave-Hill 83). As such, Jianware bowls were obviously well suited for tea contests. Since the desired froth was white, black-glazed tea bowls were a natural aesthetic compliment. Commoners also drank tea more frequently during this time, as vendors gathered in Buddhist temple complexes and in urban marketplaces (Pitelka 19). From the royal court to commoners the popularity of tea contests led to the large-scale manufacturing and appreciation of Jianware bowls across the empire.

            A similar aesthetic appreciation for tea ceramics came about during the Ming Dynasty, when a specific language and protocol for connoisseurship and material life emerged in Wen Zhenheng’s Treatise on Superfluous Things. In his book Superfluous Things: Material Culture and Social Status in Early Modern China, which dissects Zhenheng’s treatise and the broader material culture of early modern China, Craig Clunas describes how, “There was clearly a Ming readership for lists of things” (Clunas 49). Zhenheng’s treatise indicates an emergent formality surrounding the tea ceremony and the Four Arts of Life, which was later carried over to Japanese society in Temmoku connoisseurship.

Temmoku connoisseurship represents what is perhaps the most significant career of  Jianware bowls, and perhaps this specific bowl. Temmoku is the Japanese word for Song Dynasty Jianware, and refers more specifically to a mountain between China’s Zhejiang and Anhui Provinces (Pitelka 18).  In his book Temmoku: A Study of the Ware of Chien Plumer recounts the origins of the phrase:

“Temmoku…carries us back to T’ien-mu Shan,  a holy mountain which gave its name to the black tea bowls of [Fujian]. [Jian]…the Chinese name, conjures up a mountainous region, little changed in a thousand years, where the anonymous potters of Song made the great yet humble [Jianware]. Dahen, a Japanese monk (Shayo Daishi), visited the monastery on T’ien-mu Shan, the mountain of the Eye of Heaven, early in the thirteenth century and took part in the formal and solemn Sung Zen Buddhist tea ritual in which a bowl of powdered tea was prepared and the bowl passed from mouth to mouth in contemplative ceremony. Returning to Japan in 1228 he took a Jian tea bowl with him and the bowls since then have been called after the mountain ‘tea-moku’. (Plumer 16).

Jianware bowls found their way to Japan through a variety of means. As tea contests were also introduced to Japan, so came the Jianware. For example, among ceramics from the Yuan dynasty Shin’an shipwreck, Jianware bowls were found (Mingliang). Diplomacy was another channel through which Jianware entered Japan. In 1406, the early Ming emperor Yongle bestowed ten Jianware bowls to Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, the third shogun of the Ashikaga shogunate who ruled from 1368 to 1394 during the Muromachi period (Mingliang). The spread of Jianware also followed the spread of  Buddhism from China into Japan, and the many Japanese monks who travelled to practice at monasteries in China also brought chinaware back to Japan (Benn 19). The dissemination of Jianware from China to Japan may have acted as an archaeological preservative, bestowing new significance to the wares as the centuries passed.

From period to period, the bowl remained the same object but with different and perhaps greater psychological or sentimental significance. As it changed hands and crossed borders, the history of the bowl became exponentially more complex and worthy of consideration. This global appreciation also brings up questions of this individual artifact’s story. Was the bowl from the Cantor traded? Gifted? Handed down from one generation to another? It is hard to know with certainty.

Such a consideration also relates to the practical use of the object over time. Kopytoff addresses the concept and development of use-value in his article, when he asks, “How does the thing’s use change with its age, and what happens to it when it reaches the end of its usefulness?” (Kopytoff 66). In terms of the bowl’s initial practicality, it would have likely been used to drink tea, perhaps in a competition. In more technical terms, Jianware bowls’ lustrous black glazes and thick bodies help retain heat without burning the fingers of the beholder. The simplistic forms and minimalistic decorations of Song Dynasty wares reflect the aesthetics of subtlety and restraint celebrated in the period, and could be appropriated for contemporary living. The tea bowl looks like it could most likely still be used today, or at least it appears to be in nigh-pristine condition. As the bowl was first made, it was probably intended for regular use, but as it became more highly desirous as a collectible, both as a Temmoku ware and as a museum piece, it became abstracted from its original usefulness, if not entirely useless, at least as a drinking vessel. It is likely that it spent a majority of its career upon a shelf and only maintains historical, aesthetic, and emotional significance. Now it resides next to so many other ceramic vessels in the Cantor, but gives modern tea drinkers and scholars plenty to consider.

Modern scholarship on Jianware bowls is surprisingly robust. During a symposium on Jianware from Jizhou and other kilns and two accompanying exhibitions held by the Shenzhen Museum in February 2012, much discussion was devoted to the interaction between ceramics, tea cultures and Chan/Zen Buddhism (Baoping) The Shenzhen exhibitions and symposium were a breakthrough in research of Chinese pottery that built upon a resurgence of interest on the topic during the 1990’s, typified in an exhibition in 1996 of Jianware and other blackware ceramics organized by the Sackler Museum at Harvard University titled “Hare’s Fur, Tortoiseshell, and Partridge Feather: Chinese Brown- and Black-glazed Ceramics, 400-1400.”  Newer books like Morgan Pitelka’s Spectacular Accumulation and James A. Benn’s Tea in China: a Religious and Cultural History –both of which were published by the University of Hawai’i Press in 2015- indicate that the appreciation of Jianware is alive and well.

As a self-described “tea-head” who frequents Hidden Peak tea house in Santa Cruz and keeps a stash of at least five different varieties of pu-erh tea at his desk, this investigation of an object history is particularly meaningful. I typically drink my tea from small “pinming” (品茗杯) cups and a Yixing style brownware teapot in the “gong-fu” (功夫茶) style. Examining and considering this tea bowl has led me to try drinking  powdered and whipped tea from a ceramic bowl that I threw and glazed, and attempt different methods of historical and ritualistic tea preparation. While my ceramic work does not embody the arcane knowledge of the Jianware masters and my tea preparation would not win any contests in an imperial court, I know that I can always find a moment of peaceful ascension from drinking a cup of tea, just like those who picked the buds off of evergreen bushes (Camellia sinensis) thousands of years ago.

Appendix A: Note from Cantor Site:

Tea Bowl

12th century-13th century

12th-13th C.

Asia, China

4 1/2 x 4 1/2 in. (11.43 x 11.43 cm)

By (primary)- Artist unknown

Medium: Stoneware with “hare’s-fur” glaze (Jian ware)

Credit Line: Mortimer C. Leventritt Fund

Accession Number: 1949.23

Provenance- Fujian

Keywords- ceremonial objects

Use broadly for articles associated with or used in any context that may be considered a ceremony. [January 1995 related term deleted, was “leading staffs”. November 1994 related terms added; related term deleted, was “ceremonial sword


Baoping, Li. “Tea Drinking and Ceramic Tea Bowls: An Overview Through Dynastic History.” China Heritage Project – Australian National University, vol. 29, Mar. 2012.

Benn, James A. Tea in China: a Religious and Cultural History. University of Hawaiʻi Press, 2015.

Kopytoff, Igor. “The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as Process.” The Social Life of Things, 1986, pp. 64–92., doi:10.1017/cbo9780511819582.004

Mingliang, Xie. “The ceramic connoisseurship of the Song people and issues related to the distribution of Jian ware tea bowls” Taida Journal of Art History, Vol. 29, 2010.

Mowry, Robert. Hare’s Fur, Tortoiseshell, and Partridge Feather: Chinese Brown- and Black-glazed Ceramics, 400-1400, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996.

Neave-Hill, W. B. R. Chinese Ceramics. St. Martin’s Press, 1976.

Pitelka, Morgan. Spectacular Accumulation. University of Hawai’i Press, 2015.

Plumer, James Marshall. Temmoku; a Study of the Ware of Chien. Idemitsu Art Gallery, 1972.

Shiner, Larry. “Art Scents: Perfume, Design and Olfactory Art.” The British Journal of Aesthetics, 2015, doi:10.1093/aesthj/ayv017.

Smith, Pamela H. Entangled Itineraries: Materials, Practices, and Knowledges across Eurasia. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2019.

Thiel, Albert Willem Rudolf. Chinese Pottery and Stoneware. Thomas Nelson, 1953.

“Tea Bowl.” Cantor Arts Center, Stanford University, 2020, .

Tong, Cherise. “The Beauty of Song Ceramics.” Christie’s Chinese Ceramics & Works of Art, Christie’s, Mar. 2015,

Valenstein, Suzanne G. A Handbook of Chinese Ceramics. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1988.

Yang, Meili. Art, Archaeology & Science: an Interdisciplinary Approach to Chinese Archaeological and Artistic Materials. Sussex Academic Press, 2016.

Remembering What Happened in Photo Lab in a Dark Room

The faint light of distant memory
fluttered in the dry distance,
rode over a cool wind into this room
to crack the enamel of a dream,
blundering before it began
quietly getting used to itself

This is all meant to be in praise
of the silent interval, when you are still
turning on the light in the photo lab
because the exposures are only soap bubbles
Kodak Photo-Flo 200 leaking onto
hydroquinone-stained sweater

Give it all away- one sole salvaged photo
bumps about the tilting tray of fixer,
stagnant roadside water in Virginia
thick with gold pollen, gathered in a murk
by blue bolts of summer rain,
colors meaningless in Ilford 400

I suppose a memory is not symbolic
it can just be a chemical voicemail
from feelings that arrive unannounced
not elected by any respectable committee,
allowed to perspire away its anxiety
into sweatshot shirts in the furious night

When you awake it will quietly disappear
and you will assume your voice,
saying something to yourself like,
“I can’t remember what was in my dream”
and you get up and walk to the bathroom
with a mind like a two-finger typewriter

One morning, after considering dead time,
it will drag its lame foot behind you
as you wish to propel yourself
out of some open first-floor window
to write someone else’s unedited biography
and bluff a memory or two.