Book Review: "Death and Fame: Last Poems" - Alan Ginsberg

"Who cares what it's all about?
I do!  Edgar Allan Poe cares! Shelley cares! Beethoven & Dylan care.
Do you care? What are you about
or are you a human being with 10 fingers & two eyes?"

From "Is About"
New York City, October 1995
Death and Fame: Last Poems

I, like so many others, was introduced to the incomparable Alan Ginsberg through his infamous work "Howl." I remember sitting in an English lecture, lamenting the fact that I was indoors on a Friday afternoon, counting the ways in which I could better spend the time, when I heard a recording of Ginsberg reading from his monumental piece of literature.  I was instantly enthralled, entertained, and intrigued by way in which he belted out lyric upon loaded lyric with such passion and enthusiasm. I've come to learn he had that effect on many people fortunate enough to find themselves invited into his world.

"Death and Fame: Last Poems" is a collection of Ginsberg's work that he penned in the final four years leading up to his death in 1997.  The poems portray a Ginsberg dealing with the ailments of old age, lyrically laughing in the face of such challenges, making games of the mundane or slightly squeamish topics other poets might leave absent from the page.  Such works are interspersed with the political and social commentary Ginsberg is so famous for; works entitled "New Democracy Wish List: for President Clinton White House" and "Newt Gingrich Declares War on McGovernik Counterculture" amongst others, are rife with sarcasm and satire (the former was actually sent to The White House and received "politely" apparently).  One can't help but smile at the fact that the two things that appear to be in the forefront of Ginsberg's mind as he was writing the collection were bodily functions and government policy.  For him they appear to have more similarities than differences...

I enjoyed the collection; it's short enough to be enjoyed in one sitting, yet diverse enough to get a good feel for Ginsberg's work as a whole.  The only downside for me was the explicit sexual content - this only bothered me in a couple of the poems, though I realise it's Ginsberg's challenge to the conservative and prudish pieces of my personality!  My favourites were 'Peace in Bosnia - Herzegovina' with the poignant last stanza: "Who'll council who lives where in the rubble / who'll sleep in what brokenwalled hut / in the full moonlight when spring clouds / pass over the face / of the man in the moon at the end of May?" and the haunting "New Stanzas for Amazing Grace": "So rich or poor no gold to talk / A smile on your face / The homeless ones where you may walk / Receive amazing grace...".  "The Ballad of the Skeletons" is exceptional also; you can watch a performance of this piece with Ginsberg accompanied by Paul McCartney on guitar here.

A recommended read.  

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