by David Cope
1964: we were sixteen; I'd been reading Emerson and Thoreau, and had built a cabin in the woods where my gang—there were about ten of us, intelligent boys from broken homes, boys who were mad to get away from parents, teachers, rules, restrictions—would go to get drunk and fight and talk our hearts out. One of my best friends, Jim Groening, Greenhole—who later hooked up with the Weather Underground, I never saw him after that—had read On The Road and began hopping freights and hitch-hiking all over the country. He'd come back with wild tales of gay bars in NYC, the Mardi Gras, getting busted on the Union Pacific in the southwest. We decided to investigate the beats together. I already knew that I was going to be a poet—2nd grade memorizations of psalms and William Blake's short poems had done their work—and it was Allen's Howl, of all the beat writings, that moved me most. If Kerouac taught us to fly, Allen sat us down and made us think—those long freight train lines wailing day and night, a thousand doors opened wide, that great deep breath we needed to sing it aloud under the oak trees of our youth, the political and global awareness, specific, but most of all, Blake's "everything that lives is holy" writ large in a way that shone through all that teenaged despair and sadness and anger. It came just in time; the first tales of horror and butchery were soon to come back from Vietnam, kids just a few years older than me.
Ann Arbor, Moratorium Day, 1969: Chris Clay, who in high school organized a little paper where we could sing out our rage at the authorities, had been shipped out to Nam and came back in a box. Others had gone over and came back unable to speak to their closest friends, trapped in nightmares. Futility! A friend's brother sent Vietnamese fingers home in the mail, I marched against the war, Greenhole was beaten by the Chicago police, my girlfriend Suzy—later my wife—had been given a concussion by the Ann Arbor police for singing "We Shall Overcome," and would eventually be gassed by Washington D.C. cops. But this was Moratorium Day, the whole campus was shut down in protest for peace, and Allen was coming to read at Hill Auditorium. How to describe it? —those poems of his had brought me to tears countless times, whenever I was down, broken, or hurt—and here the man who made them was coming to be with us on this most desperate day, when the whole nation stank of murder and corruption. There were 3000 in that audience, White and Black Panthers, rockers and street kids, Krishna devotees, people who vaguely understood things were wrong with the nation . . .
Allen came out with his new harmonium and sang Blake's Little Lamb song, plunged into several of the poems from Planet News, which I'd bought a few weeks before and had already devoured several times. I looked at those around me in the audience, people brought to tears, people holding their hands to their chests wringing their fists, and suddenly I realized my own tears were streaming down my cheeks—"Be kind to yourself, it is only one . . . " Then he stopped and said, "this is a special occasion, and I'm going to read something I rarely read anymore. I'm going to read Howl." Lines I knew as fast and hard suddenly floated up to me as quick little races, curlicues of rhythm, abrupt giggles and long flowing waves softly rolling into my skull. I walked out of there as I've walked out of many of his readings since, my feet barely touching the ground.
In 1970, I quit school 12 credits short of graduation, to get married & find out what I needed to know for my own writing. Too many years in the clouds, my only connections with the real world the deaths of friends & the ugly, brutal faces of police in riot helmets—Kent State! Jackson State! We moved back to G.R. & I took a job in the factory, to learn the quiet lives of plain people. I spent 3 years there, my depression growing daily as I watched those sweet, ordinary folks, their lives twisted & broken by the daily grind, everything innocent & free in them crushed in the roar & clank & shouts of foremen. My poems went nowhere—churning guts, bitterness, lashing out at all the villains I found everywhere.
The National Poetry Festival came to nearby GVSC in 1973—Allen, Duncan, Rexroth, the objectivists Oppen, Rakosi, & Charles Reznikoff, who later became one of the main sources in the development of my own style. I like to recall Reznikoff's story about Allen from this period. Reznikoff, Oppen, & Rakosi had been discussing the thought behind their works when the subject turned to Allen's kindnesses. Reznikoff said, "there was a time I met him when I was crossing Central Park with two suitcases. He insisted on carrying them, & walked with me all the way to my apartment, talking poetics all the way." Reznikoff was a very old man at the time, & I find a certain beauty in the old poet & the younger poet, the young one carrying the bags—as he should, creating a little heaven in the middle of that vast madhouse town.
The message of that conference—it was on every poet's lips—was "if you don't like where you are, get out, move on—or learn to like it." I got out of the factory, took a janitor job where I could work without pressure & be free to observe everyone around me. Within a year, I started my Nada Press, began contacting poets all over the country & opening my own doors. When my little chapbook Stars came out, I felt I'd finally discovered what I wanted to do with poetry, & so I sent it off to Allen, who wrote back, asking for a dozen copies, talking of "clear observation, humble or straightforward attitude toward ordinary reality. . . " Since that time, he's helped me—as he's helped young poets for years—get into print, learn to edit my own works, teach classes, & let my own love for the art shine out to others. I could not begin to tell all the stories of his kindness & encouragement; he has said it best himself in his "Ego Confession":
distributed monies to poor poets & nourished imaginative
genius of the land . . .
—All empty all for show, all for the sake of Poesy
to set surpassing example of sanity as measure for
late generations . . .
There's another story I'd like to recall about Allen. 1980, Sue and I were in the middle of the horror of losing a baby—miscarriage—and friends were over to comfort us, when Allen called to ask if I'd come to Naropa and teach Charles Reznikoff's poems to the students there. He had known Sue was pregnant, and began the conversation by offering his congratulations. I told him what had happened, and he said, "well, then congratulations on your liberation!" Whatever the particulars—whatever the situation—congratulations: right from the beginning, this has been the heart and soul of Allen's message as I've understood it.
Note: "Congratulations" first appeared in Allen Ginsberg's festshrift volume, Best Minds. New York: Lospecchio, 1986.