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Allen Ginsberg, 1926-1997

Reflecting on one of America's great poets

by Lloyd Schwartz

[Corso and Ginsberg] 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 Yorker.

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 culture.

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.