Unlike Uncle Walt (Walt Whitman), Allen Ginsberg’s poetry isn’t all pathos (although it does have a great deal of that). To be sure, there is a comic element in his poetry that many people often overlook. Poems like “Howl” or “Kaddish” are very serious poems, but they do have comic elements in this or that part. In fact, most of Ginsburg’s poems are peppered with comedy.
One poem which recently caught my eye was a poem entitled IGNU, which can be found in his Kaddish collection. It is, without a doubt, a comic poem. In this rare audio clip of Allen reciting the poem in 1973 – in a tribute to Kerouac at Salem State College – Ginsberg explains that the word IGNU was a word invented by Jack Kerouac around 1948 or 1949.
Ginsburg goes on to explain the meaning of the term by way of mysticism and comedy. An IGNU stands for a “Gnostic ignoramus….a great bullshit artist.” After stating this, he qualifies that by saying that an IGNU is not someone who suffers in the mystical “cloud of unknowing.” Rather, an IGNU is someone like “Harpo Marx” or the “Three Stooges.”
Immediately after he notes these comedic examples of the IGNU, he begins his poem (written in New York in 1958):
On top of that if you know me I pronounce you an ignu
Ignu knows nothing of the world
What I find so interesting about this is that comedy, in this instance, displaces mysticism. To be sure, the Ignu sounds like a schlemiel: he knows “nothing of the world.” But he is not a mystic so much as a comical figure. More importantly, the first words of Ginsberg’s poem indicate that if you know “me,” that is the voice of the poem (or Allen Ginsberg), you become a fool. He calls you an ignu and, so to speaks, shares Ignu-ness with the other. One becomes an Ignu by hanging out with Ignus which is exactly what we see with Harpo Marx or with The Three Stooges. Everything they touch, everything a schlemiel touches, becomes comical.
And, for Ginsburg, the comical is the angelic. As we see in the following lines:
Ignu has knowledge of the angel indeed ignu is angel in comical form
W.C. Fields Harpo Marx ignus Whitman an Ignu.
The punch line is that not just comedic figures but even Whitman, the poet of pathos and America, is pronounced an Ignu.
In his pronunciations of Ignu, Allen’s poem mixes mysticism, American culture, and comedy from beginning to the very end. I’ll cite a few different lines to illustrate:
The ignu may be queer though like not kind ignu blows arch-angels for the strange thrill
Ignu lives only once and eternally knows it
He sleeps in everybody’s bed everyone’s lonesome for ignu ignu
Knew solitiude early
He listens to jazz as if he were a negro afflicted with jewish melancholy
And white divinity
Ignu’s a natural you can see it when he pays for cabfare
Pulling off the money from an impossible saintly roll
The Ignu, like the schlemiel, is a saintly and comic character and he “sought you out.” He’s the “seeker of God and God breaks down the world for him every ten years.” He “sees lightning flash in empty daylight when the sky is blue.” The Ignu’s comedy, like the comedy of the schlemiel, is existential:
A comedy of personal being his grubby divinity.
And like many a schlemiel, such as many an Aleichem character, he is bound to experience juxtaposed the mystical. Like the schlemiel, the Ignu has a foot in this world and another world.
Knowledge born of stamps words coins pricks jails seasons sweet ambition laughing gas
History with a gold halo photographs of the sea painting a
Celestial din in the bright window
One eye in a black cloud
Ginsburg ends the poem with a meditation on two diamonds that are in the Ignu’s hands (one diamond is “Poetry” and the other diamond is “Charity”). Defying logic, he argues that these diamonds “prove” two things. Both, I would argue, disclose our relation to the schlemiel: 1) “we have dreamed” and 2) “the long sword of intelligence over which I constantly stumble like my pants at the age of six – embarrassed.”
The last line evinces the schlemiel who is a dreamer and spreads dreams and who always seems to be caught up in his youth, unable to advance. And, much like the man-child we see in Robert Walser’s poetry, he stumbles.
Allen’s Ignu evinces, for him, some kind of new man that emerges into a new era. He is a tainted holy fool of sorts; a “comedy of personal being” informs his “grubby divinity.” This dirty, comic, bum Ignu finds himself stumbling though America and he pronounces you, because you happen to know him, a fellow Ignu. But, with all his stumbling and embarrassment, I think its safe to say that he’s a melancholy comic. His revelations are all fragmented, he is between worlds, and, as the poem seems to show, he is caught up in an endless, comic repetition.
But he is not alone. He reads his poems to you. And rather than cry, Ginsberg prompts us to laugh and join him in his community of Ignus: an ironic community of the mystically inclined. Perhaps one can call this a community of the question since, ultimately, Ginsberg, like all those who listen to him, is in search of some kind of truth.
2 thoughts on “The Schlemiel and Allen Ginsberg’s IGNU”
IGNU-a whole new catgory of being emerging in a poet’s naming of it. Not new, of course, but newly named. Unless, of course, to be named is essential to existing. Then, perhaps, always named in a multitude of names now finding one of its instantiations. I am thankful for this naming and for Menachem’s drawing attention to it. Today as I go out into the world, it will be populated with a whole new class of angels, ones of grubby divinity. What would philosophy be, if an IGNU made a visitation to it?
Who arranges the visitations of categories and species and existences to philosophy anyway? We take the conditions for the appearence of the world, a world, any world in the philosopher’s text far too much for granted.
Thanks, Jim! I welcome more visitations of these kinds. I feel like I’m turning to poetry, literature, stand up comedy, and film and am welcoming them into the house of philosophy.