Thursday, May 15, 2008

"the blue hand: the beats in india" book review

allen ginsberg is not only a major american poet, but he was a founding member of the core trio, along with jack kerouac and william burroughs, that essentially created the beat generation. ginsberg traveled from the united states in march, 1961, and eventually reached india in february, 1962. he spent the next 15 months living and travelling throught india, until may, 1963. then ginsberg made his way to japan, where he spent 5 weeks with another major american poet, gary synder, and his then-wife and fellow poet, joanne kyger, before he returned to north america, via vancouver. when ginsberg finally arrive home in july, 1963, he had been abroad continuously for well over two years.

this is the brief ginsberg backstory that i'd like to present before taking a look at deborah baker's book, "a blue hand: the beats in india." indulge me for another minute, i'd also like to mention that in the summer of 1949 ginsberg had what he often referred to as his william blake "vision." the gist of which is allen heard the voice of william blake reciting the poem "ah sunflower." for the next 15 years ginsberg was fixated, almost obessed, with having a similar experience - by whatever means at his disposal. a good part of ginsberg's time in india was spent seeking out spiritual guidance and or a teacher that could assist him in that search.


my initial observation focuses on the author's startling blase' treatment of allen ginsberg! the backbone of this book is, ostensibly, about ginsberg and his time in india. reading this book one could easily come away with the impression that he did nothing productive whatsoever during his entire stay. a second, and more remarkable observation is the author's apparent obsession with gregroy corso and his ex-girlfriend, hope savage.

while a mention of corso could be an interesting footnote because he was a significant part of ginsberg's circle of friends, he hardly deserved the atttention lavished on him (and i daresay, hope savage) found in this book. to put this in context, corso was NEVER in india yet has more coverage in this book than does gary snyder, who was not only in india, but spent actually spent a significant amount of time there travelling with ginsberg! not only was the relationship between ginsberg and synder worth more attention, after he left india allen stayed with snyder in kyoto for 5 weeks before he traveled home!

if the the author's fascination with corso was obessive, then her treatment of hope savage was postivity sycophantic! again, to put this in context, and i will admit to never having heard of hope savage before reading this book, more time and effort is spent covering her (and savage's purposeful - yet unexplained - desire to escape her past) than the author spent on joanne kyger! when she did discuss kyger, a significant poet and photographer in her own right, she was painted as petty, jealous, lonely and perpetually unhappy! hardly a flattering or complete portrait of the woman!

one last point, the conclusion of the book was hardly what one would expect vis' a vis' the impact india had on ginsberg. again, one would almost come away from this book that ginsberg's time in india was unproductive and for naught! the author quotes 4 lines from ginsberg's poem, "the change: kyoto-tokoyo express," and only bothers to point out the title in a FOOTNOTE! this poem was the most important work ginsberg produced since he wrote kaddish, and basically was the breakthrough that ended his 15 year quest to find the meaning of life (pardon the oversimplication).

while it's clear the author did not want this to be a book about allen ginsberg, to shortchange the central character in such a desultory manner is breathtaking. it's not that the author didn't get it - i'm convinced she recognized the significance of "the change." i'm amazed that she didn't spend more time explaining it's significance to the reader! this poem was written on the 7 hour train ride from kyoto to tokyo and reflected ginsberg's realization that he didn't need to look outside himself for acceptance - it was the here and now that mattered.

yet another dimension of how india changed ginsberg's life is chanting and meditation. chanting, which he observed first hand as he watched gary synder, was almost immediately incorporated into his lifestyle. the apex of his chanting was on national display in chicago, during the 1968 democratic convention, where ginsberg chanted for 7 straight hours in an effort to calm the demonstrators. medition took longer to become part of his daily lifestyle. but by the 1970's he was a dedicated practitioner of it.

while the book suffers from the weakness i discussed above, i nevertheless enjoyed it. not as a treatment of ginsberg in india (which would be better served by reading ginsberg's indian journals, or the short chapter of dharma lion that covers ginsberg's travel to india), but rather a panarama of the indian scene in the early 1960's. while i don't know what to make of hope savage, and the author never did find out what became of her, i found the character interesting and appreciated that sidestory.


Anonymous said...

Good review. How can the author relegate Ginsberg to the periphery when he was the engine pulling the dharma beat train through India? Did Hope Savage exist, or was she merely that mythic Venus figure that we all search for?

Thanks for forcing me to revisit "Ah, Sunflower!"


rundangerously said...

thanks jimbo!

i wish i could have posted a link to on-line text of "the change," but couldn't find one!

amazing how little info there is on "hope savage!" what we know of her comes from letters the author dug up during research for the book. but even she wasn't able to find out what ever happened to her!

Isabel said...

I just finished reading this book and came to this blog looking for information on the mysterious Hope Savage, indeed an intriguing character in the book. Though I enjoyed it, I found the book to be a mish-mash of different characters, places, letters, poems - which made it sometimes difficult to follow. In the end, I don't really know what it's getting at. More a collection of the impressions and experiences of the beats in India.

DocG said...

This is a beautfully written and absorbiing book by a remarkably gifted author. Since it does not pretend to be a scholarly research project and its author is clearly not an academic, I have no problem with its incompleteness with regard to details of Ginsberg's life in India, which has been thoroughly chronicalled elsewhere I'm sure.

The reason the book "obsesses" on Hope Savage is that the book is ABOUT Hope Savage (duh!). Ginsberg is NOT the main character, she is.
I'm not related to the author and in fact knew nothing about her before I picked up her book. Now I can't put it down.

David Madden said...

Yes, the book is most interesting when the author surrenders to her obsession with Hope Savage. Hope was my close friend when I was in the army in Columbia South Carolina and it was I who encouraged her to leave home and go to Greenwich Village where she met Gingsberg and Corso and others. I am the Jerry Madden who is quoted often in the book and I provided the photographs. As a writer I am known as David Madden, and I regret that the author did not so identify me in the text, and as a novelist. Hell, I've written ten novels, one that includes a scene about Hope and Jean, and a new novel just out, I was writing CASSANDRA SINGING when I met Hope and she became one of the inspirations for the strange girl, Cassie. And she knew Raven Harwood, an early inspiration for that character. I last saw Hope Savage in 1959, but she continued to write, from Iran, Paris, India; and I have been obsessed and have caused many people to become obsessed with her ever since. In fact, on this very day, I decided to write a book about at long last, but only if I can make contact with her [she is alive and well somewhere in Asia, but only one person knows how to get in touch] to get her permission for me to publish her incredible letters to me. As the only genuine bohemian I have ever met, she is far more interesting than Corso and Company.

Anonymous said...

Hope Savage never existed. She was a construct, made up out of the ether by Corso and others.

Anonymous said...

I knew Hope in Iran, Pakistan,Nepal in 1975-76. She was very secretive.NEVER gave her last name to anyone.I got a brief glance at her US passport. She had a southern accent and two toddler daughters. Wouldn't discuss her American or any other past before Beirut in '70.

Anonymous said...

Hope Savage existed in the 1940 census listed as Elizabeth Hope(n) Savage. She was three years old at the time. She would have been about 19 in 1955 so her time frame matches that of the Beats in NYC. She would be 76 years old if she is still alive. Her father's law firm (started in 1926) still exists in Camden, SC. He was the mayor of Camden from 1948 until about 1956. A brother, Sam Savage, is a novelist who has written 5 or 6 well received books. If she was a Corso/Ginsberg construct they certainlybased her a real person.

Anonymous said...

I thank the blog for giving us more information on Hope Savage. I agree with Isabel in finding the book difficult to follow, as in using "He" in a paragraph several times each referring to a different person. Enjoyed the behind scenes lives of this colorful part of our literary history.