Allen Ginsberg: The Challenge of Compassionate Awareness
by David Cope
Young, I never dreamed I'd one day eulogize my friend Allen Ginsberg, the poet whose Howl and Other Poems outraged censors, shattered a literary establishment grown self-righteous with neoclassical nepotism, and turned up in the back pockets of generations of young kids setting out to discover America and a new life. I was one of those kids, as I was one of those jammed into Hill Auditorium, Ann Arbor, waiting for him to move us in the bleak final days of 1969—both Martin King and Robert Kennedy already killed, part of my generation slaughtering and being slaughtered in Vietnam, another part confused, enraged and horrified, in tears over dead friends.
The healing of these two groups, still unfinished, is only part of this story. That day, Allen sang that America, the world, and each of us should "be kind to yourself, it is only one," bringing a huge audience to tears by reminding us of love and our common humanity. Allen could break your heart with a clarity not seen in America since those giants of our literature, William Carlos Williams and Walt Whitman before him, were among us. As they had sung, so he sang that "the weight of the world / is love" and that we must learn to
. . . give
for no reason
in all the excellence
of its excess.
This generosity was Allen's personal hallmark: it was in everything he did, nourishing the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of talented young poets and seekers with readings, gatherings where they could test their own perceptions and meet each other as peers. He promoted the work of gifted writers for five decades, raised money for those in need, encouraged spiritual exploration and sexual honesty, and stood up for political prisoners, social outcasts, and the downtrodden.
Indeed, he is revered as a liberator in nations where political repression has been a given; throughout the cold war, he was as feared by Eastern bloc nations as he was by the American government. From Romania to the U.S.S.R. and points beyond, where his poems have had to be smuggled in and read aloud in secret meetings, he stood and continues to stand for liberation in its most profound sense: freedom not only from governments that starve the poor and survive on the hostility of pitting citizens against each other, but also freedom from all forms of shame, which make the heart judgmental, the mind ill with self-righteousness or self-loathing.
In this mood he was the prophet, scourging governments, challenging bigots and insisting on justice—and his name became a by-word for public dissent. After the students of Prague crowned him the King of May, a middle-European honor accorded one poet each century, Allen was expelled from then-communist Czechoslovakia—and after the Velvet Revolution and the democratic election of Vaclav Havel, the poet returned in triumph, to sing of their freedom.
He played his part in American politics as well. His choruses and litanies naming defense industries as merchants of death were an integral part of peace protests across the nation, yet in 1968, he and Dick Gregory led protestors away from Grant Park to avoid confrontation at the disastrous Democratic National Convention. Allen participated in the exorcism of the Pentagon and later led demonstrations against the Rocky Flats Nuclear Trigger Factory, which was finally closed down as an ecological threat.
Yet he had his quiet moments too, insisting that in death "we return, where all Beauties rest" and that "Righteous honest / Heart's forgiveness / Drives woes away" even as he turned to those labors that are the poet's deepest responsibility:
Well, while I'm here I'll
do the work—
and what's the Work?
To ease the pain of living.
Everything else, drunken
So there's a lesson in Allen's life and death. The heart of any art is to see and celebrate the world one has inherited—its hopes, dreams, ecstasies, madnesses, horrors and humor—and to do it with an open generosity of spirit, as Walt Whitman was open, inquisitive, caring and yet insistent upon artistic and personal discipline. Allen had that—but he also challenged us to find the inward gaze whose calm is absolute.
His questions are many: will you find your hidden America? Will you see its people, wise and foolish, raging, self-righteous, sorrowful and serene, with equal good humor and compassion? Can you confront the foolishness of your own people with their need for kindness and openness, even when they are divided, as my generation was divided? Will you nourish your art and love your peers? Will you see beyond yourself and open your eyes to those in need?
His truest legacy may be found in Allen's last public gesture: he had numerous close friends over the years and, knowing he was dying, he spent his last days calling them to say good-bye. This man led a conscious life, a fearless life of clarity and decorum, meticulously calm, kind and thoughtful even to the end: the challenge is to learn through his example.
Note: "Allen Ginsberg: The Challenge of Compassionate Awareness" appeared in The Grand Rapids Press April 20, 1997. E1.