Allen Ginsberg, 1926-1997
Reflecting on one of America's great poets
by Lloyd Schwartz
I feel inconsolably sad. A few days before he died last Saturday morning, at
the age of 70 (70! -- is it possible this perpetual free spirit could have had
an age?), I'd heard that Allen Ginsberg was gravely ill with only recently
diagnosed liver cancer. He knew he was dying: he was writing a poem about his
funeral. He never shied away from facing things, or being at the center of
them. I think he was the first major American poet of this century to speak not
only to his own generation but to mine as well. It was one of the things I
loved him for.
Ginsberg gave the very first poetry reading I ever went to, at Queens College
in 1958 or 1959. I was a freshman. I didn't know anything about poetry, but I
knew who Allen Ginsberg was. He attracted a tremendous and supportive crowd,
and the excitement of the occasion was intensified when -- I think it was in
the middle of "Kaddish," his great poem about his mother, Naomi -- a voice in
the crowd yelled out: "Why don't you read some REAL poetry?" The voice was
roundly shushed, and I don't recall Ginsberg acknowledging the disturbance.
Wasn't this "real" poetry? I was too young and ignorant to know the difference
(many professional critics weren't yet sure about his poetry either), but there
was surely something real about it -- and it was really something!
Ginsberg wasn't assigned in my modern poetry course, though I think some of
the older students wanted to be Beat poets. The person who most opened my eyes
to him was my graduate-school classmate Frank Bidart, who adored Ginsberg and
knew his poems well beyond the most obvious ones: "Howl" (which it's still
illegal to broadcast in its entirety!), "Kaddish," "A Supermarket in
California," "To Aunt Rose." It was Frank who led me to Ginsberg's more recent
work, and especially to one of his masterpieces, "City Midnight Junk Strains,"
his intimate elegy for Frank O'Hara (who was born the same year):
. . . I see New York thru your eyes
and hear of one funeral a year nowadays --
From Billie Holiday's time
appreciated more and more
a common ear
for our deep gossip.
He never stopped being himself. At a memorable dinner at Harvard's
Signet Society, he was one of three literary luminaries honored. Huge Kurt
Vonnegut was in impeccable evening dress; tiny Eric Segal wore a black velvet
outfit; and Ginsberg wore jeans and a red plaid flannel shirt. In the mid '70s,
Frank Bidart and Marcia Stubbs invited him to read at the Wellesley College
chapel. Earlier in the day, Peter Orlovsky, Ginsberg's lover, had been
strolling around the campus pulling cigarettes out of the hands and mouths of
Wellesley smokers. The reading began with Ginsberg sitting in the aisle with
his harmonium doing his extended "Om," then ascending to the platform on the
altar. A few minutes into the reading, he was interrupted by a voice far back
among the standees: "Fuck you, Allen Ginsberg!" (Had the F-word ever been
uttered in the Wellesley Chapel?)
"Hello, Gregory," Ginsberg replied, with deadpan calm. It was his old friend
Gregory Corso. Comically intrusive at first, Corso -- probably drunk --
wouldn't keep quiet. The crowd was getting impatient, but Allen kept cool,
finally inviting Corso up to the platform.
"Why don't you let me read something?", Corso complained.
"Because this is my reading, Gregory," Ginsberg responded. Eventually, in a
more peremptory tone, he ordered Corso to sit down and keep quiet, which he
then did, and the reading continued without further incident.
In 1986, I asked UMass/Boston, where I teach, to fund a Ginsberg reading (I
think his fee was $3000 in those days -- but Ginsberg was so famous there was
less trouble getting that much money than the couple of hundred dollars most
other poets get). His elaborate contract had stipulations about herbal tea,
fresh flowers, and a table at a certain height. When he arrived, he was
something of a prima donna about these arrangements -- not what I'd have
expected from such an experienced reader. But now I'm sure he must have been
extremely nervous. Once the reading started, he was moving and funny and
generous with his time, staying much longer than what had been contracted for.
Corso was there too, and Ginsberg invited him to read his masterpiece,
"Marriage." Once the reading was over, Ginsberg was an angel. He stayed around
to talk to students for more than an hour, even after the exhausting reading.
A few years ago, at a small gallery in the South End, Brent Sikkema curated an
exhibition of Ginsberg's own photographs, along with photographs of him by his
most penetrating and sympathetic photographer, Elsa Dorfman. On the way to the
opening, I saw Ginsberg walking down Harrison Avenue with two young men.
"Hi, Allen," I called out.
"I can't talk now -- I'm hypoglycemic and I need to get something to eat right
away!" And they rushed off.
We were never intimates (I doubt he remembered my name), but I loved our
occasional social run-ins. It was amazing to be around him -- he seemed to have
a direct pipeline to the world capitals. He knew what was going on in Beijing
and Beirut. He sounded like the director of the CIA but probably knew more. Of
course, he was a political figure, and a role model and father figure to other
-- especially younger -- gay writers. He would announce, genealogically, that
he had slept with a man who had slept with a man who had slept with Walt
Whitman (the "Oral Tradition," a famous critic remarked).
He was the ultimate outsider who became the ultimate insider. I heard that
last week Paul McCartney and Bob Dylan were planning to deliver a piano to
Allen's new loft. He had even started publishing poems in the New
But above all he was a profound and inspired poet -- a master of language,
timing and spacing, and the ringing phrase ("hydrogen jukebox"), and of
emotional nuance. Of the most significant poets of this century, because he
wrote so much, he might be among the most uneven, though he admitted that all
the talk about leaving his poems unrevised, or writing on drugs, was never
quite true, that he actually worked very hard on his revisions, and that he
kept only a few experimental or drug-induced first drafts intact. Of course, he
found, or created, an astonishing new language very early on -- an
idiosyncratic (though widely imitated -- and still imitated) mixture of syntax
both utterly free, even rambling, and concentrated, condensed, abbreviated,
telescoped. There's a general impression that after his first handful of books
the quality of his writing fell off. But many of his later poems, like "White
Shroud" and "Salutations to Fernando Pessoa" (which ends "Pessoa Schmessoa")
are among his very best. I can't wait to see the poem about his funeral.
I think Ginsberg's poetic greatness most lies in the way he combined two
apparently opposing directions -- the comic and the elegiac. There isn't a more
painful or sadder poem than "Kaddish," but it's got its wild spurts of hilarity
and grotesque black humor. He was a personal elegist -- for his family, his
friends -- and an elegist -- the elegist -- for our entire society and
As I write this, I'm listening to a record, not of Ginsberg reading his own
poems but of him singing his musical settings of Blake's Songs of Innocence
and Experience. No poet was ever both more innocent and more experienced.
His ragged voice is beautiful. I can't tell you how heartbroken I am that it's
so suddenly stilled.