ALLEN GINSBERG: A POETIC LIFE
Fifteen years ago, Allen Ginsberg, Beat poet, nonconformist, political activist, peacenik, Jewish homosexual, free speech advocate, practicing Buddhist, adamant non-materialist and America’s best-known man of letters, was laid to rest, after changing the world.
“Ginzy,” as he liked to be called, blew apart the strictures of the restrictive, conservative, McCarthy-era 1950s by writing his masterpiece “Howl,” which attacks mainstream American culture for its consumerism, greed and conformity. Instead, it encourages rebelliousness, recreational drug use, free love, creative expression and poetry. Oh, Ginzy, where are you now? A world awash in greed and desperation needs you more than ever. How would Allen Ginsberg have responded to today’s events? What poems would he have written? I have no doubt he would have found a way to challenge us all.
I had the good fortune to study with Allen Ginsberg at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics in Boulder, Co., years ago, and the experience changed my life. I was a baby poet, fresh out of college, and eager for adventure. I had studied the Beats — Allen, Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, Gregory Corso — and something in their work spoke to me. They were rebels, unwilling to accept the dominant culture without question. They valued art above money, peace above conflict, free love over monogamy/monotony, poetry above all.
I was especially drawn to Allen because he was Jewish, as I was, and he was gay, as I suspected I might be (I was right). Allen took my work seriously, assured me that my writing was important and gave me permission to be a poet, instead of the teacher, secretary or social worker my parents wanted me to be. But could I survive as a poet, without a steady job, a dependable income, a pension plan? Because Allen had had the same fears as a young aspiring poet, he put mine to rest.
Unhappy at Columbia University, Allen had dropped out and got a job writing ad copy. Still not happy, he went to a psychiatrist, who asked him, “What do you really want to do?” Allen said, “I want to write a lot of poetry and have a lot of sex.” The psychiatrist said that sounded good to him. When Allen expressed his fear of dying alone if he pursued such a life, the psychiatrist said, “You seem like a lovable guy. People will take care of you.” And they did.
Allen became my literary father. I imitated his long lines, reminiscent of those written by his own literary fathers, Walt Whitman and William Blake. After reading his manifesto, “Howl,” which begins, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical, naked,” I began my own poem “Rage,” “I saw the best women of my generation destroyed by incest.” Like Howl and Other Poems, which was put on trial for obscenity in the 1950s, my book Heather Has Two Mommies was taken to court in the 1990s. Both books were frowned upon because of their homosexual content. Like father, like daughter, I am proud to say.
I began my studies with Ginzy in the summer of 1979. On a hot June morning, I knocked on his door, excited to meet him and begin my work as his apprentice. Though I had seen many pictures of Allen (including some of him naked with love beads draped around his neck), I was surprised at the sight of the country’s most infamous poet. He looked more like a rumpled accountant, in gray baggy pants, white cotton dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up and striped maroon tie. (Later I learned that Allen had asked his guru, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, how to get people to take him seriously as a poet. Rinpoche had said, “Wear a suit.” So Allen did every day for the rest of his life.)
Allen’s glasses sat askew, and the top of his bald head was shiny. Peter Orlovsky, his lover of 20 years, was stirring something on the stove. A scratchy Billie Holiday record was playing, and Allen’s desk, an old wooden door propped up on sawhorses, was strewn with papers.
My job was to help Allen answer his mail. Each letter he received was deemed of equal worth, whether it was from a senator responding to a political rant Allen had sent him, or an editor asking Allen for some poems, or a lonely gay teenager living in Kansas who wanted Allen’s advice. Allen answered them all with the same consideration.
Then Allen would look at my poems. He shunned hierarchy, so he’d ask my opinion of his poems as well. He didn’t think he had a lot to teach me. “All you can do,” he said, “is hang out with poets and study their minds.” His mantra — for writing and for life — was “first thought, best thought.” He taught me to meditate and reminded me that the word inspiration is similar to the words respiration and perspiration. I learned from Allen that poems are made of two things: breath and sweat.
Allen was known for being outspoken about the right to love whom we choose, the right to wage peace, the right to be different and the right to write openly about it all. Sometimes his antics and activism overshadowed his poetry. Rumor has it he was kicked out of Cuba for calling Che Guevara “cute.” He became famous for convincing the Hell’s Angels to refrain from disrupting a huge anti-Viet Nam war protest in California.
In Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road Allen is immortalized as Carlo Marx. He sang (badly) with Bob Dylan on the Rolling Thunder Revue tour.
What endures, though, is that Allen Ginsberg was a serious and talented poet. He wrote verse from childhood until a few days before his death. He published over 20 volumes of poetry and received many accolades, including a National Book Award. Beyond those achievements, he was merely a human being who at the end of the day just wanted to crawl into bed with someone he loved.
“The weight of the world
Under the burden
under the burden
the weight we carry
—Song (written by Allen Ginsberg in 1954)
[Originally published March 19, 2012 in Obit, http://www.obit-mag.com/articles/allen-ginsberg-a-poetic-life. Used by permission of the author.]