BY JAMES MOORE
From the Beat Generation through the sexual revolution, political upheaval, social unrest, metaphysical curiosity, Tibetan Buddhist practices, world travels, and distinguished literary awards, Allen Ginsberg, celebrity and Beat poet of the Whitman-Williams lineage of mad scribblers, has achieved a seminal place in the annals of American poetry.
Orange hawkeye stronger than thought winking above a thousand thin grassblades—
(“Independence Day,” 1969, from The Fall of America)
I love Allen Ginsberg. Not per se, but for slapping America in the face, harpooning the great white whale poetry had become and “real-ing” it in, making it howl with relevance again. Plumbing the depths of his own dysfunctional minefields, his pugnacity, tumbling verbosity, and evangelical conceit rapped the country across the knuckles, boldly promised a new literature of the street, and delivered a movement that made a beat generation sit up and take notice as well as the courage to look closely at itself, warts and all, whether it wanted to or not.
And lo and behold, this was a half a century ago. Read him and weep, rappers!
“Life doesn’t imitate art. Life is art,” said John Lennon in a Playboy interview shortly before his death in 1980. He, like Ginsberg—two guys who lived in the public eye—knew. Back in ’69 at the Amsterdam Hilton (not Paris Hilton), John and Yoko were pioneering their own brand of reality TV with a bed-in-for-peace honeymoon as a statement against war.
The seven-day media circus ended with an impromptu recording of “Give Peace a Chance,” Lennon rapping out Ginsberg’s name in the last verse. The first time the two met in London in ’65, Ginsberg asked Lennon if he’d ever read William Blake. “Never heard of him,” replied Lennon, whose then-wife Cynthia, jumped in and said, “Oh John, stop lying,” to a roomful of laughter.
Lennon, who heard Ginsberg first on radio and thought it was Bob Dylan, stated later in life, “Dear old Allen Ginsberg, who if he wasn’t on the floor ‘ohming’ was embarrassing the fuck out of everyone he could corner by chanting something he called poetry very loudly in their ears (and out the other).”
Ginsberg met Dylan in New York shortly after the release of his second album The Times They Are a-Changin’. The enigmatic folksinger, a longtime fan of Allen and all the Beats, talked poetry with Ginsberg, who was interested in meeting the author of “Masters of War” and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.’ Their connection would span decades.
In 1975, when Dylan was putting together his ambitious Rolling Thunder Revue, he told Ginsberg, “You’re the King, you’re the King, but you haven’t found your kingdom. But you’ve always been the King . . . . People get off on your energy. . . . Whatever you want to do, get it together. I’m presenting you. It’s about time. This country has been asleep. It’s time it woke up.”
Raised in New Jersey, Ginsberg’s father, Louis, was a poet and teacher; his mother, Naomi, a complex troubled woman. Both parents’ families migrated from Russia to New Jersey. Naomi’s parents didn’t approve of Louis because he was a socialist; they were communists after all. They married anyway. Bright, lively, and delicate, she would deteriorate quickly, resulting in frequent episodes and institutionalizations.
Allen found himself in the role of caretaker from early childhood on. She would often wander about the house naked in front of his friends, acting paranoid, hearing voices, thinking wires were attached to her head, or that people were conspiring to kill or poison her, including her husband. But she would inspire “Kaddish,” one of Ginsberg’s greatest poems, a harrowing tale of mental illness seen through a son’s unblinking eyes.
Ginsberg applied to Columbia University, vowing if accepted to devote his life to helping the working class. It was a vow he took seriously (or felt guilty about) his whole life. At Columbia he became enamored of Rimbaud and met the charismatic Jack Kerouac (a former football player, then a merchant seaman), fell madly in love with him, Kerouac eventually reluctantly acceding to some of his advances.
At Columbia he would also meet William Burroughs (whose grandfather invented the adding machine), 30 years old to Allen’s 17, with an English Lit degree from Harvard. Though the St. Louis native seemed old, they hit it off nicely, Burroughs’s personal library impressing Ginsberg mightily. (Burroughs would write Naked Lunch, Queer, Junky, Seven Deadly Sins, and many other books.)
He and Kerouac saw Allen as a wispy ambitious inquisitorial kid with thick glasses and big ears. After many nights spent drinking and discussing art at the West End Bar, a genesis of the philosophy for the Beat Generation was born, something Ginsberg called the “New Vision.”
Since art is merely and ultimately self-expressive, we conclude that the fullest art, the most individual, uninfluenced, unrepressed, uninhibited expression of art, is true expression and the true art.
—from a Ginsberg college journal
Unrepressed and uninhibited indeed. This would be the rallying cry of the Beats, who took Blake’s road-to-wisdom-through-excess credo to the moon and back. These guys were deep into drugs, sex, and rock ’n’ roll before rock ‘n’ roll was even a blip on the radar screen. All manner of substances were imbibed—anything to derange the senses and break open the doors of perception in the belief it would allow for deeper insight into life and reality.
Their vivid descriptions of the dark freewheeling side of life, multi-various couplings and orgies, embryonic embracings of Buddhism and eastern philosophy, up close and personal rebellious profligate amblings and revelations, shocked and awed a nation that had become numb in the face of cold war and status quo—obsessed beneath the shadow of atomic and nuclear bombs—and sold very well.
Six poets at the Gallery Six. Kenneth Rexroth, MC. Remarkable collection of angels all gathered at once in the same spot. Wine, music, dancing girls, serious poetry, free satori. Small collection for wine and postcards. Charming event.
—On postcards sent out by Ginsberg to promote his first reading of “Howl”
“The sorrowful poetic con-man with the dark mind . . . and two piercing eyes,” as Kerouac once depicted Ginsberg, premiered his poem “Howl” at City Lights bookstore in San Francisco on October 13, 1955. The night was electric, Kerouac plying the audience with three jugs of California burgundy.
I saw the best minds of my generation
madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro
streets at dawn
looking for an angry fix.
Ginsberg intoxicated, captivating, started slowly and built, laying down a kind of street rap not heard before, words tumbling out of his mouth in an endless sentence, the crowd and Kerouac egging him on with shouts of “Go!” Ginsberg, lit, poured himself out, collapsing in tears at the end. Everyone there knew they had just experienced history. (Not bad for a guy who’d been kicked out of a prestigious university, arrested for his involvement in a burglary ring, and placed in a psychiatric institution all before the age of 23.)
It was Ginsberg’s first public performance, and it made him instantly famous at age 29. The unknown bohemian intellectual transformed overnight to epic bard poet of a new generation. His dream of a “New Vision” was firmly on the road.
Ginsberg: Lover of Kerouac, lover of Burroughs, lover of Cassady, lover of Orlovsky; world traveler to South America, Tangiers, India, Europe, Cuba, and back; cross-generational fixture among the hip, hippies, yippies, poets, punks, junkies, queers, and vagabonds; performing with Dylan, Lennon, and the Clash, in addition to his own devotional music; a whole culture following in the wake of his spirited dancing footsteps, the intoxicants and mind-expansion, the social and political and spiritual and sexual activism, antiwar, anti-censorship, anti-violence, exploration of the east; his poetic visions translated far and wide, always writing, teaching, pushing to better the plight of man, never afraid to state the obvious.
The people now see thru the Administration’s continuous brainwashing.
Chi Trib Mar. 16, ’68 A.P. Dispatch.
—from “Chicago To Salt Lake By Air”
I close with a poem my good friend Richard Beymer showed me by chance a couple days ago, not aware that I was working on this piece. By pure serendipity, his friend Jeremy Iacone, Hollywood screenwriter and poet, just sent it to him and he allowed me to use it. I couldn’t have scripted a better ending. Allen Ginsberg passed away in 1997. Joey Ramone passed away in 2001.
Ginsberg Lived Here, Too
(for Richard Hell)
by Jeremy Iacone
Ran into Ginsberg
at the mailboxes
in the cold wet
east village hallway
He asked me
I was about
when the three-
cat slinked in
from the icey
rain on Avenue B
and Ginsberg fled
muttering about Buddha
and death disguised
in feline incarnations
Time passes quietly
these days like
saints in sneakers
Ginsberg is mist
on the windowpane
a Place off
in clean boxes
Much of the information for this article was taken from Ginsberg, by Barry Miles (Simon & Schuster, 1989).