A Poetic End

Allen Ginsberg's "Sphincter"

How to Cite

Scholfield, S. A. (1999). A Poetic End: Allen Ginsberg’s "Sphincter". M/C Journal, 2(8). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.1806
Vol. 2 No. 8 (1999): End
Published 1999-12-01

I hope my good old asshole holds out
60 years it's been mostly OK
Tho in Bolivia a fissure operation
     survived the altiplano hospital --
a little blood, no polyps, occasionally
a small hemorrhoid
active, eager, receptive to phallus
     coke bottle, candle, carrot
     banana & fingers --
Now AIDS makes it shy, but still
     eager to serve --
out with the dumps, in with the condom'd
     orgasmic friend --
still rubbery muscular,
unashamed wide open for joy
But another 20 years who knows,
     old folks got troubles everywhere --
necks, prostates, stomachs, joints --
Hope the old hole stays young
till death, relax
     -- March 15, 1986, 1:00 PM, Allen Ginsberg

Lucky to the end, Allen Ginsberg (1926-97) achieved his first and final wish. Despite the constipation mentioned occasionally in his later poems, the anus of the grand gay father of the Beats remained relatively healthy until his death while other vital organs failed. Ginsberg, who had also described the erectile misfunction of his penis in mid-to-late career poems, died from a heart attack brought on by liver cancer. While the poet fleshed out references to the male anus in at least fifty of his poems, his "Sphincter" comprises the chronological climax in the development of both his anal and erotic verse. The poem was written just months after the beginning of the global media demonisation of Hollywood star Rock Hudson who was found in late 1985 to be both gay and to have died from AIDS complications. Ginsberg's timely "Sphincter" reflects on the poet's survival as an anally-active gay man through both the pre-AIDS and AIDS eras.

While criticism of the (homo)eroticism in Ginsberg's verse ranges from utter denial to near hagiography, overall the significance of his musings on male ani has been avoided. The rather anal-retentive Thomas Merrill claims that, "even sophisticated readers of Ginsberg's poetry are apt to be put off, perhaps bored by, his obsession not only with four-letter words, but with the clinical, strikingly nonerotic descriptions of his homosexuality" (24). For the far less uptight John Tytell, on the other hand, "Ginsberg has always reveled in the divinity of his own sexuality, his homosexuality, adorning his own physical propensities and urging the life of the body on his readers" (245). However, "Sphincter" which is an intensely erotic (albeit anti-Romantic) poem, contains none of the expletives (apart from "asshole") nor divine associations used repeatedly by the poet elsewhere to represent the (homo)eroticised male body, and his anus in particular.

Six decades of anal health and recovery aside, Ginsberg packs a suggestive lot into his "Sphincter" with the list of objects wielded during the pre-AIDS period as the means to his erotic end. The term "phallus" -- while suggesting the penis and allo-erotic activity -- may also mean dildoes with certain tactile qualities and anus-fitting shapes and sizes ideal for auto-erotic delight. Indeed, the "coke bottle, candle, carrot/banana & fingers" -- with their smooth to slightly rough texture, stiff to pliable constituency, hard to semi-hard density, and rounded pointedness -- offer more reliable potential for sustained anal stimulation than the occasionally tumescent penis. These objects may answer the decades-old queries in "Iron Horse" (1966): "What can I shove up my ass?" and "Oh if only somebody'd come in &/shove som'in up that ass a mine" (432).

The bottle and candle are appropriated from a passage in Ginsberg's signature poem, "Howl" (1955), about the "best [male] minds" (126) of the poet's generation, "who copulated ecstatic and insatiate with a bottle of beer a sweetheart a/package of cigarettes a candle . . . and ended fainting on the wall with/a vision of ultimate cunt and come..." (128). In his "Sphincter", Ginsberg reminisces about the pleasurable insertion into his anus of such props to heterosexual romance. The coke (rather than beer) bottle signifies the contemporary product probably most commodified along with youthful images of (compulsory) heterosexuality in global mass media advertising. Through sodomy with that iconic item of American capitalist cultural imperialism, the poet's jingle valorises his rectum as one of the most fitting and wonderfully subversive "things" that "go better with coke!"

As items usually for oral insertion rather than anal penetration, the carrot and banana (and bottle) here play on a subtle metaphor of "receptive"-anus-as-"active"-mouth. Allusions to the (frequently 'cock-hungry') oral-anal configuration of the anus denatus are more explicit in other Ginsberg poems. In "Journal Night Thoughts" (1961) the poet awaits as "a cock throbs I lie still my/mouth in my ass" (271). Ginsberg asks his sexual partner in "Please Master" (1968) to "make me wriggle my rear to eat up the prick trunk", and describes his anus as his "hairmouth" (494). In "Sweet Boy, Gimme Yr Ass" (1974) he desires a young man's "soft mouth asshole" (613). While containing "phallus" and "fingers", there is no tongue nor other oral referent in the rather clean "Sphincter". By contrast, "Iron Horse" (1966) includes the growly request: "Sweet Prince --/open yr ass to my mouth" (433-4).

Ginsberg's Pre-AIDS poems frequently celebrate the joining of the uncondomed penis, anus and body fluids in sensational detail. In "This Form of Life Needs Sex" (1961) "joy" comes to mean the very act of joining male anus with penis: "You can joy man to man but the Sperm/comes back in a trickle at dawn/in a toilet on the 45th floor" (285). "Please Master" (1968) includes the demand, "fuck me more violent ... & throb thru five seconds to spurt out your semen heat over & over" (495). In "Love Comes" (1981) the period of the sex act and whether condoms are used is not stated: "I relaxed my inside/loosed the ring in my hide ... He continued to beat/his meat in my meat" (11). The memorial "'What You Up To?'" (1982) recaptures his most scatological unsafe copulation: "That white boy ... one night in 1946/he fucked me naked in the ass/till I smelled brown excrement/staining his cock" (29).

While "Sphincter" marks the chronological peak in the development of Ginsberg's erotic poetry, the unbroken line, "unashamed wide open for joy", comprises the structural and thematic climax within the poem itself. This current of anal-erotic joy traces back to "Howl" (1955) with its passage about those men, "who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists/and screamed with joy" (128). Ginsberg has said that he wrote "joy" here instead of the expected "pain" as a reaction to the "James Dickey film Deliverance where [receptive anal sex] is supposed to be the worst thing in the world" (Young 103). In the inter-male rape scene in the 1972 film version of Dickey's 1970 novel, actions indicate that one man uses his penis to penetrate the anus of another who is held at gunpoint and ordered to squeal like a pig throughout the assault. Prior to this the raped man is taunted with female names. The consensual 'safe' gay anal joy exhibited by Ginsberg's "Sphincter" counters such homo-, gyno- and porcine-phobic violence.

While the anal-erotic jouissance in poems that preceded "Sphincter" was overshadowed at times by non-reproductive aims and scatological themes, "Sphincter" delivers the explicit message that consensual protected anus-around-penis eroticism (particularly for actively "receptive" men) creates penultimate emotional and physical pleasure. The "phallus/coke bottle, candle, carrot/banana & fingers" leave any specified penis out of the pre-AIDS picture. By contrast, "Now" as Ginsberg states "[in the mid-Eighties age of] AIDS", at a time when auto-eroticism, digital/dildo stimulation and other penetrations without penis mean the safest anal sex, the poet himself celebrates contact with the safe sex penis -- "the condom'd/orgasmic friend" -- for which he is "unashamed wide open for joy". The preceding phrase, "out with the dumps", refers to the expulsing of two combined types of "dumps". Firstly, the mental depression about the end of skin-to-skin anus-penis sex and secondly, defecated matter which brings not only physical relief but an anus open to penetration.

Unlike "Sphincter", later poems do not specify whether sexual encounters are 'safe' or 'unsafe'. In "The Guest" (1992) the question of whether condoms are used is open but the consensual status of the encounter is stressed: "I ask permission, he says 'yes,'/I pull his hips up, hold his breast,/spurt my loves deep in his bum" (78). Other poems such as "Violent Collaborations" (written with Peter Hale, 1992) humorously relish sadomasochistic and coprophilic pleasure: "Fuck me & fist me/in your army enlist me/Poop on me when you're at ease" (92). Again there is no specification that condoms are used nor that there is 'unsafe' contact. With its "shy" but "eager" anus and "condom'd/orgasmic friend", "Sphincter" marks not so much an end to 'unsafe' sex as an end to the specification of 'safe' sex in Ginsberg's poetry.

No Ginsberg poem specifically addresses his penis (and/or testicles) in the way that "Sphincter" is devoted to his anus. In his poetry he does not epitomise himself as any libidinous body part other than his anal hole. In "Please Master" (1968) the poet conflates his anus with his selfhood when exclaiming: "touch your cock head to my wrinkled self-hole/... please please master fuck me again" (494-5), and "Please call me ... a wet asshole" (495). In Ginsberg's "Sphincter" moreover, his anus synecdochically represents not only his whole person but a type of gay Everyman. His sphincter is "active" and "receptive", "old" and "young", "shy" and "unashamed", and "rubbery" and "muscular". These antithetical qualities also characterise the male body idealised in gay culture (in reaction to media images of decaying 'plague victims') during the AIDS-era. This body is sexually 'versatile' (as both 'bottom' and 'top'), boyish-looking but sexually mature, introspective but assertively 'out', and physically toned but flexible.

The "rubbery muscular" qualities of Ginsberg's anus are focal, because -- apart from the "blood" and "hemorrhoid" which evoke colours and shapes -- "Sphincter" contains no other physical representations of his anal orifice nor any of the myriad hyperbolic metaphorisations found in his earlier visceral verses. Anal-roseate associations appear in "A Methedrine Vision in Hollywood" (1965) and "Hiway Poesy" (1966). In the first there is wind of the floral: "one-eyed sparkle, giant glint, any tiny fart/or rose-whiff before roses were/Thought Impossible" (381). In the second, the anus-as-flower manifests through ambiguous layers. The word "rose" may be read as noun, adjective or verb: "Oh that I were young again and the skin in my anus folds/rose" (386). "Kaddish" (1959) draws on topographical metaphors: "a mortal avalanche, whole mountains of homosexuality, Matter-/horns of Cock, Grand Canyons of Asshole" (214).

Manifestations of the anus as a cosmic portal or eye appear in several poems, but not in "Sphincter". Ginsberg draws on Yogic beliefs to cast the anus as the source of the enlightening kundalini in "Iron Horse" (1966): "Muladhara sphincter up thru/mind aura/Sahasrarapadma promise/another universe" (435). In the only reference to the anus in the copious footnotes to his Collected Poems, the editors explain 'Muladhara Sphincter' simplisticly as "anal chakra (one of seven bodily centers of spirit energy in Orient [sic] yoga practice)", while 'Sahasrarapadma' is described in detail as "Seventh chakra, 'thousand-petal lotus' at skulltop" (781). Ginsberg, however, seems to have placed his stress on these first and last chakras more equally or in reverse. In "Scatalogical Observations" (1997) he declares, "The Ass knows more than the mind knows" (85-6). In "Journal Night Thoughts" (1961) the poet's anus comprises a universal 'third eye' through which he comes to 'know' and 'see'. This anus/eye in the formulation of "the eye in the center of the moving/mandala -- the/eye in the hand/the eye in the asshole" (267) is later eroticised as "I prostrate my sphincter with my eyes in/the pillow" (271).

As we have seen, Ginsberg's erotic poetry frequently features imagery of the sexual orifice that is beyond any man's individual scope and culturally most proscribed from public view. While many passages in his verse evoke the male anus as a subject worthy of versification and visualisation, Ginsberg's "Sphincter" comprises an ode which literally and literarily presents the poet's anus to the audience as a poetic vision in itself. The succinctly anti-analphobic and anti-homophobic "Sphincter" finely balances critical aspects of the ars poetica. Devoid of signature tropes such as the anus/mouth, anus/I and anus/eye, "Sphincter" with its relative lack of euphemism and clever mix of metonymy and metaphor nonetheless merges antithetical themes to relay a profound spiritual message. The poet's ode to his ageing anus matter-of-factly and humorously revels in memories of auto- and allo-erotic 'phallo-morphous' perversity and celebrates the anal-erotic joy in being 'fucked safely' as a personal and political act. As this millennium closes, we could do worse in our 'anal-retentive' culture than following one of the century's wisest poetic ends: "till death, relax".

Author Biography

Simon Astley Scholfield