COLUMN TWENTY-FIVE, SEPTEMBER 1, 1997
(Copyright © 1997 Al Aronowitz)
PART 5: THE BEAT PAPERS OF AL ARONOWITZ
(Photo courtesy Myles Aronowitz)
CHAPTER FIVE: THE PROPHET
[It was already August, 1997, nearly five months after the death of Allen Ginsberg, when I finally got to know Valery Oisteanu, a Lower East Side poet, performer, video filmmaker, photographer and collage artist. I got to know Valery at a party in the Teachers and Writers Collaborative on Manhattan's Union Square which was held to celebrate the publication of Tracking the Serpent, Janine Pommy Vega's account of her "Journeys to Four Continents." For years, I had seen Valery attending cultural events at which I also was present but I didn't remember ever before having had the opportunity to converse with him. At the party, when I told him that I'd been feuding with Allen when Allen died, Valery answered:
"So, who wasn't?"
As a matter of fact, most of the old-timers who'd known Allen from when I first met him so many centuries ago have, in one way or another, told me the same thing. When I've informed them that I was on Allen's shit list in his final days, they've told me they were fighting with him, too. Even Amiri Baraka, whom Allen had phoned in the last hours of Allen's life to offer Amiri some much needed cash, told me:.
"Allen and I used to argue like mad!"
Some have suggested that Allen started changing when he started wearing neckties again. To me, the difference between the Allen I knew at the beginning and the Allen I knew at the end is the difference between---on the one hand, a pauper poet, a comedic character who could provoke so many bellylaughs that Jack Kerouac, in On the Road, gave Allen the name of Carlo Marx in honor of Marx Brothers clown Harpo Marx---and on the other hand---an imperious millionaire who took himself seriously enough to play the role of, in my case, my own Lionel Trilling. Allen had achieved the greatness he had struggled so hard to attain. Once he understood that America would remember him with the same reverence that America remembered his idol, Walt Whitman, why shouldn't Allen start taking himself seriously? Did it matter that to take himself seriously, he would have to do so at the expense of his sense of humor, his lightheartedness, his compassion, his oath of allegiance to Whitman's line, "Not 'til the sun rejects you do I reject you?" Allen's rejection of the late Jan Kerouac, Jack's daughter, stands as a glaring example. During the nearly 40 years I knew Allen, I witnessed him becoming much of what he had rebelled against in the first place. For instance, when I asked Allen's young ex-lover, David Greenberg, why David ultimately had split from Allen, David answered: "Because Allen turned into a tyrant!" Allen was a giant who had a gigantic impact on world culture. But the Allen Ginsberg who died as an inspiration for generations to come was not the same Allen Ginsberg who had inspired me and the generations growing old with me. Still, I felt he was my brother. In the end, when he was being consumed by his illness, I, who had been one of his biggest fans, was loath to pick a fight with him. In The Prophet, written however cornily almost 40 years ago, I, as a former police reporter who originally had been pretty much of a middle class nerd, tell you how Allen began to convert me into one of his most fervent disciples.]
In Chicago once, a woman asked Allen Ginsberg "Mr. Ginsberg, why is it that you have so much homosexuality in your poetry?"
"Because," Ginsberg replied, "I'm queer."
But that was only half an answer.
"I sleep," he has since said "with men and with women. I am neither queer nor not queer nor am I bisexual. My name is Allen Ginsberg and I sleep with whoever I want."
Obviously Mr. Ginsberg also says what he wants. But then it is as the most outspoken of the Beat Generation poets that he has become the most spoken about. In the salons of literary respectability the name Ginsberg today is on more lips than care to pronounce it, even with a sneer. Nevertheless, Ginsberg, although he may believe, as do so many of his Beat colleagues, that life is an illusion, has no illusions about life, and especially about sex life. He lives it, as he presumes to do everything else, in the best of poetic traditions. Unfortunately, they aren't always considered the best of social ones.
"I don't know whether it's a great sociological problem or not," he says. "Most of the poets are not queer, actually. Some are. But it's not homosexuality---I don't like the term because here in America it immediately brings in a whole sociological frame of reference, a whole psychological frame of reference. And bisexual, that has sort of a corny connotation, too. Like I'm making it with women, lots of people do. I'm a lover. Another thing: I think that it's pretty shameful that in this culture people have to be so frightened of their own normal sex lives and are frightened of other people knowing about it to the point where they have to go slinking around making ridiculous tragedies of their lives. So it seems for one thing, at this point, that it's necessary for the poets to speak out directly about intimate matters, if they come into the poetry, which they do in mine, and not attempt to hide them or evade the issues. Life is full of strange experiences."
Certainly Ginsberg's has been.
He has handled luggage in the baggage room at Greyhound, carrying suitcases as heavy as his thoughts, but still not quite so traveled. He has written speeches for a candidate for Congress, who might have done better running for the Library of Congress. He has taken off his clothes at somewhat genteel parties, proclaiming that those who objected to his body were really ashamed of their own. He has run copy for the Associated Press, which dismissed him, finally, when he became copy himself. He has shipped out as a seaman on tramp steamers, sailing to places as remote as some people find his verse. He has been a Young Liberal, contributing to the Liberal Crusade by running a mimeograph machine in a labor union organizing office and now he considers labor unions cut from the same stencil as managements. He has washed dishes in greasy spoon restaurants, which by the way, are his usual eating places when he is not dining at home, where he washes the spoons with somewhat greater care. He has harbored thieves and helped them store their loot, justifying himself with the thought that Dostoevsky would have smiled upon him. He has hitchhiked from points west to other points more often than he could count on a handful of thumbs. He has undergone eight months of treatment in an insane asylum, suspecting all the while that it was everyone else who was insane. He has taken heroin, cocaine, and what has been called "The True Morphine," and he says he's never had a Habit. And, between New York and San Francisco, among young American poets who once didn't know that one another existed, he has organized what the literary upper crust seems to think is a literary underground.
If Jack Kerouac is, as he has been called, the St. Jack of the Beat Generation, then Allen Ginsberg is the St. Peter.
"There is no church. . ." he says, conscious of his role but exasperated by such analogies. "There is no church except individuality. . ."
Ginsberg, of course, is not holding his breath waiting to be canonized, but he does accept the guise of prophet with somewhat better humor and, perhaps with more humor than prophecy. But he accepts it also with an irony that was at least partly in mind when he wrote his first published contribution to the growing library of Beat books, a poem which he calls Howl and which others with what may be less foresight call blasphemous.
"Howl is written," says Ginsberg, peering as he does through his glasses with a friendly intermingling of smile and solemnity, "in some of the rhythm of Hebraic liturgy---chants as they were set down by the Old Testament prophets. That's what it's supposed to represent---prophets howling in the Wilderness. That, in fact, is what the whole Beat Generation is, if it's anything---prophets howling in the Wilderness against a crazy civilization. It was Jack Kerouac, you know, who gave the poem its name. I mailed him a copy just after I wrote it---it was still untitled---and he wrote back, 'I got your howl. . .'"
The critics got Howl too, or at least they received it. "Nothing goes to show how square the squares are so much as the favorable reviews they've given it," groaned poetic colleague Kenneth Rexroth, who himself called Howl "much more than the most sensational book of poetry of 1957" and who, it turned out, was being prophetic as well. Because, almost overnight, Howl became the Manifesto of the Beat Generation just as Kerouac's On the Road had become the Bible. And if that wasn't enough to insure Ginsberg's rise, to fame or plummet to notoriety, depending upon whether one looks up toward him or down, then the United States Collector of Customs at San Francisco and the San Francisco Department of Police, their viewpoint clear, gave him the final shove. They tried to ban the book.
"Allen seems to think he is a latter-day Ezra Pound," says Norman Podhoretz, who has been the most critical of the critics, although he wasn't quite square enough to give Howl a favorable review. "In Ginsberg's letters I see the epistolary style of Pound, who, you know, was always writing letters to editors, letters full of profanity, encouraging them to publish his boys. Pound was the great literary talent scout of his day---he discovered T.S. Eliot and helped Yeats become a great poet. He was the leader of the modern movement in poetry from 1910 until 1925, 1930, and he acted not only as leading poet and leading brain but also pushed all the other poets. . .Now Allen Is doing the same thing. . ."
Ginsberg, of courses takes Pound with a grain of salt and Podhoretz with a pound. Although Ginsberg, self-consciously shunning the role of leader with the same self-consciousness that he plays it, considers the Beat movement to be heir poetic to the movement which Pound once led, Ginsberg r ejects Pound much the same as Pound eventually rejected his former colleagues. And as for Podhoretz, Ginsberg has commented: "He is totally and technically incompetent." For his part, Podhoretz is not so sweeping in his opinion of Ginsberg. A freshman at Columbia College when Ginsberg was an upperclassman there, Podhoretz, writing in a constant complaint that his is a generation without a literary voice, refuses to accept the Beat Generation even as a falsetto. Insisting that there isn't enough vitality in other American writing and that there is too much violence in the Beat, he has consequently become as much a villain to the Beats as he considers them to literature. There have, however, been attempts at reconciliation.
"I was working at home one Saturday night," Podhoretz recalls, "when I got a telephone call from some kid---it must have been Ginsberg's friend, Peter Orlovsky. He said, 'Oh,
turned out to be
more of a trap
Allen and Jack are here having a ball. Why don't you come down and have some kicks.' I told him, no, I was busy, and he said, 'Wait, Allen'll talk to you.' So Ginsberg came to the phone---I knew him at Columbia but I hadn't talked to him in years---and he started talking in bop language. So I told him to come off it and he said, 'Come on down, we're having a party. We'll teach you the Dharma.' Well, I guess I was crazy. I went. But it turned out not to be a party at all. There was just Ginsberg, Orlovsky and Kerouac at the apartment of one of Kerouac's girl friends. Kerouac asked me, 'Why is it that all the biggest young critics. . . Why are you against us? Why aren't you for the best talent in your generation?' I said I didn't think he was the best talent in my generation. Then Allen started talking about some nonsense with laughing gas, and I told him to cut it, and he asked me if I knew about spontaneity in art, if I knew about the ancient Chinese painters who never erased or painted over, and I said no, the only thing I knew about them was what he told me. Then Kerouac yelled from the bathroom that he realized the only way for a young critic to get ahead was to attack, to write biting attacks. I told him that he seemed to be getting ahead better than I was. Then Allen came over and looked deep in my eyes and said, 'I've always felt a great tenderness for you.' Well, we argued and we were getting nowhere and everybody decided to go over to the place of another friend of Kerouac. We took a cab, which I paid for, and in the cab, Kerouac said, 'You're chicken! You're afraid to make a confession? Why don't you make a confession. When's the last time you got laid?' I said I didn't want to talk about it, I didn't believe that sort of confession was necessary, so he said, 'Don't you believe in sin?' Then Allen said to me that I was the enemy of culture and he also said he had read more books than I had. Kerouac and I kept slapping each other on the back---actually I rather liked him. But in the end it degenerated into a counterattack. Allen made a great point of saying that instead of talking about Kerouac's prosody, I talked about his diction, but I don't see prosody as apart from diction or prose or even poetry for that matter. He made a great point of the sound of Kerouac's prosody. Then he said I had sneered at his homosexuality, which I denied. Kerouac was indignant and said that I said he wasn't intelligent. He didn't really argue, he kept making cracks and being charming and he is charming. But I think much more highly of Ginsberg's literary abilities than Kerouac's. I've always thought highly of Ginsberg as a poet, you know. This Beat stuff is a fairly recent kick of his. He may still become a great poet. He may write important poetry some day. Ginsberg has a superb ear---he can do most anything he wants to do with verse. As an undergraduate in college he was writing fantastic things . . ."
Although the meeting was not quite a meeting of minds, there is evidence that some of their opinions have since mellowed. In any event, the parallel Podhoretz has drawn between Ginsberg and Pound is almost letter-perfect. From his soap box-furnished tenement flat in the cheap-rent district of New York's Lower East Side, Ginsberg's outgoing mail is exceeded only by his incoming mail, which daily brings him new correspondents to answer. Among the regular correspondents, there is, for example, William Seward Burroughs, author of Naked Lunch, writing from a fleabag hotel in Paris or from Tangiers (at that time and maybe always one of the junk capitals of the world) telling about the shortcomings of French mysticism, reporting on incidents and sights that could be seen only by an eye as naked as his own, letters that will make another novel, "endless," as Ginsberg says of Naked Lunch, and "that will drive everybody mad." Or Gregory Corso, when he is traveling, sending letters from France or Italy or Crete or Greece, where "I shall surely sleep a night in the Parthenon," telling of a vision of skinless air, questioning death and denouncing fear of it, writing a poem about it and enclosing the manuscript and, sometimes, appealing to all his friends for money. Or, when Corso is home in New York, sharing the flat and the mail, too, getting letters from girl friends left behind in Europe, or getting, too, telegrams that Ginsberg, with poetic power of attorney, opens, no permission necessary, and reads, for instance: "THE PREGNANT ANGEL AND THE WHITE CENTIPEDE ARE HOT TO MAKE ORANGE DUCK REAL TONIGHT."
Or Robert Creeley, another modern jazz poet, editor of The Black Mountain Review, not Beat himself, perhaps, but with a beat, writing from Majorca or the Grand Canyon, enclosing poems, too, that fascinate and delight Ginsberg, who sends his own in answer. Or, poet Gary Snyder, his missives inked in a calligraphy that once marked other illuminated manuscripts, a penmanship borrowed from the monks of Middle Ages monasteries, writing now from San Francisco, now from Japan, with an ancient alphabet that speaks a whole new Hip language. Or Lawrence Ferlinghetti, owner of the San Francisco book store called City Lights, a beacon for the Beats and other poets, publisher of' Howl, a poet like the rest, exchanging manuscripts and compliments, sometimes urgently, by telegram: "ALLEN: I READ 'APOLLINAIRE'S TOMB' STRUCK DUMB & POOR. YOU ARE HUGEST DARK GENIUS VOICE STILL UNRECOGNIZED DESPITE ALL. . ." Yes, Lawrence Ferlinghetti. "Allen is always sending me copies of poems written by his friends, and he's always scrawling notes on the margins,," Ferlinghetti says. "He always writes, 'You must publish this---this is mad, this is wild!' Or, 'You must print this---this is crazy, this is insane!' Well, I don't think that something has to be mad or wild to be published and I don't think that I have to publish something just because it's crazy or insane."
In addition to his vast correspondence with the various agents of his Underground at their various outposts on "The Road," Ginsberg receives a daily deluge of unsolicited letters, some from publications asking for articles or looking for arguments, some from publishers seeking publication rights for an aroused and enthusiastic overseas audience, and many from colleges and universities asking Ginsberg to give poetry readings, a task Ginsberg has been happy to perform for nothing, even happier to perform for money, and just as happy not to perform at all---he doesn't do it any more.
". . .I quit reading in front of live audiences for a while," he has written. "I began in obscurity to communicate a live poetry, it's become more a trap and duty than the spontaneous ball it was first."
Perhaps more important, however, are the letters, equally unsolicited, which he receives from other young persons, some college students, some not, who have read Ginsberg's poetry or have heard Ginsberg read it himself and who offer their own for his appraisal. If Ginsberg likes their poetry, which is sometimes likely and more often not, then they, too, may become disciples.
"Kerouac," comments poet Ray Bremser, one such mail-order disciple, "is a genius. There's nobody who can write better than Kerouac---he's the greatest! But Allen. . . Allen's more important. . ."
Ginsberg, of course, had become a literary figure even before he wrote Howl. Certainly his name, or at least suitable aliases thereof, had already been imprinted in a large, although largely unpublished, body of literature. By 1956, when Howl came off the presses, he was a major, if not heroic, character in most of Kerouac's books and also had put in a sustained appearance as David Stofsky, the so-called mad poet, in John Clellon Holmes' Go. But all this, naturally, was of little satisfaction to Ginsberg, who had insisted on following his own angel and whose ambitions were written in his own manuscripts. Whatever future the fates had in store for him, Ginsberg had enough faith in his own persuasiveness to risk a word or two with destiny.
"I can be pretty persuasive," Ginsberg has said on many an occasion, and the fact of the matter is that he can. A deft and positive logician, even though he believes in intuition over rationality, Ginsberg is at his best in conversation, whether heightened or in lowered voices, and he has changed many minds by the sheer power of his own. So much so that critics who started out doubting Ginsberg's idea of his destiny are now beginning to doubt their own ideas of it. Sometimes saddened by the jeers of a daily press which knows little more than Beatnik! and a periodic press which should know better, Ginsberg says quietly and with sureness: "Well, I guess it doesn't matter In the long run. . . I write for God's ear." The confidence that God hears him and that a posterity will, too, is a confidence that characterizes almost all the Beats. "One day," says Gregory Corso, "they'll look back and the big names of American poetry won't be Longfellow or an Emerson or an American name like that. It'll be a Jewish name and an Italian name. But this is America! This is what America's like!"
What Ginsberg's America is like has been described in an extensive body of literature written from the viewpoint of one who has traveled through it many times and with many eyes, finding what he considered to be saints in men's rooms and asses in academic chairs. "America," he has written in a poem thus entitled, "I've given you all and. now I'm nothing./. . .America, when will you be angelic?/ When will you take off all your clothes?/. . .When can I go into the supermarket and buy what I need with my good looks?/ . . . It occurs to me that I am America./ I am talking to myself again./ Asia is rising against me./ I haven't got a chinaman's chance./. . . I'd better get right down to the job./ It's true I don't want to join the Army or turn lathes in precision parts factories, I'm near-sighted and psychopathic anyway./ America I'm putting my queer shoulder to the wheel."
Culturally, he has charmed Chicago, captured San Francisco and corrupted Los Angeles.
"In California," he recalls with a gentle glee, "in L.A., we went down for a poetry reading among what was a bunch of basically social philistines. We came down, offered ourselves free to read poetry for them---we were going to Mexico to meet Jack. They were a rather unruly audience, but they were all right, there were some interesting people there. But there was one creepy red-haired guy who kept on saying, 'What are you guys trying to prove? What are you guys trying to prove, anyway? What are you trying to put down? How dare you come down here and read us poetry? What are you trying to prove?' And I said, 'Nakedness'---he was interrupting the poetry. So he said, 'Nakedness? What do you mean by nakedness?' So I suddenly understood that I had to show him what I meant in some way that would really get across and a way that would move him. So I pulled my clothes off, which shut him up."
Ginsberg concedes that his poetry readings in Chicago were a bit more dignified. Certainly they were accepted with more dignity. Moderating one was critic A. C. Spectorsky, who, perhaps hearing Beat literature for the first time or perhaps really listening to it for the first time, subsequently began publishing segments of it in Playboy magazine, which he edits. Sponsoring another reading was the Chicago Shaw Society to whom Ginsberg announced, ". . .this poetry is droppings of the mind. . ." and whose members, according to the Shaw Society bulletin, responded by dropping the preconceptions from their minds. In fact, the only real heckler at the Chicago readings apparently was Time magazine:
". . .In the richly appointed Lake Shore Drive apartment of Chicago Financier Albert Newman," Time reported in its issue of February 9, 1959, "the guests chatted animatedly, gazed at the original Picasso on the wall, and the Monet, the Jackson Pollock . . . At length Poet Ginsberg arrived, wearing blue jeans and a checked black-and-red lumberjacking shirt with many patches at the elbows. With him were two other shabbily dressed Beatniks. One was Ginsberg's intimate friend, a mental hospital attendant named Peter Orlovsky, twenty-five, who writes poetry (I talk to the fire hydrant, asking: 'Do You have bigger tears than I do?'); the other was Gregory Corso, twenty-eight, a shabby, dark little man who boasts that he has never combed his hair---and never gets an argument. . . The trio was an instant hit with the literary upper crust. There was in fact only one unbeliever in the crowd, one William Haskins, instructor in English at Northwestern University. Demanded Corso: 'Man, why are you knocking the way I talk? I don't knock the way you talk. You don't know about the hollyhocks.' Replied Haskins: 'If you're going to be irrelevant, you might as well be irrelevant about hollyhocks.' Countered Corso: 'Man, this is a drag. You're nothing but a creep---a creep!. . .'"
"That's not the way it happened," says Corso. "That's not the way it happened at all. This guy and I were having a nice conversation and then he started putting me on, so that's when I came on with all that jazz, I really put him on, with fried shoes and everything. But we became friends at the party. Time didn't say anything about that."
According to Ginsberg, there is much that Time hasn't said, either about the Chicago readings or about all the other occasions when Time has turned its journalamp on the Beats. "Knowing what I do about the way they've exaggerated and distorted actual events which concern me," he says, "I shudder to think of what they've done to international events, news that's really important. Think of how many people read Time every week and get their picture of the world from it."
The result has been something of a feud, with the Luce publications taking advantage of every opportunity to deride Ginsberg and the Beats to an audience of forty-two million, and with Ginsberg and the Beats taking similar advantage to deride the Luce publications to perhaps an even greater audience of posterity.
"Are you going to let your emotional life be run by Time Magazine?" Ginsberg asks America in his aforementioned poem. "I'm obsessed by Time Magazine./ I read it every week./ Its cover stares at me every time I slink past the corner candy store./ I read it in the basement of the Berkeley Public Library./ it's always telling me about responsibility. Businessmen are serious. Movie producers are serious. Everybody's serious but me." The feud has taken turns other than those of a phrase. Once a Life magazine reporter assaulted Ginsberg's flat seeking an interview, and Ginsberg threw him out, although not bodily.
"He tried to tell me why I should talk to him even though the article was going to be unfriendly," Ginsberg says. "Why should I talk to him?"
"What Allen has to say," seconds Ray Bremser, "is too important to be fucked up by newspapers and Time magazine."
The flat in which Ginsberg is not at home to Life reporters is of the type that might be
two stories above a Puerto Rican storefront church
expected to house a poet who has taken a vow of poverty the better to be untrammeled by modern society, a vow which modern society---the economics of poetry publishing being what they are---has helped him keep. Two stories above a Puerto Rican storefront church, it lies behind a large, enchanted door that most of the time is locked and unresponding but from within which a voice sometimes answers with a "Who is it""
A few steps past the bathroom, with its eternal light because someone has to climb on the rim of the tub to turn if off, there is the kitchen, once painted light green or light blue behind the veneer of soot on which someone has finger painted, with convincing expertness, a mystical Chinese or Japanese legend that needs no explanation and has none. Over the refrigerator, sketched on brown wrapping paper, is Jack Kerouac's drawing of Dr. Sax just as it appears on the title page of his book, Dr. Sax, the name Kerouac gave to his boyhood bogeyman and protector, his shade and his muse, sketched in words from real life as the mysterious doctor appeared and disappeared in Lowell, Massachusetts, where Kerouac grew up.
Some feet below, on the refrigerator door, as if a constant reminder of dyspepsia as well as poetry, is the dour visage of Baudelaire, his mouth turned down at both ends, his fate sealed by a piece of scotch tape. There was a time when LeRoi Jones came up, looked at Baudelaire's picture and said: "Boy! Can you imagine sending that out on a Christmas card?" On a ledge over the brown metal table, usually cluttered with slightly used dishes, glasses, cups, sugar, salt and a more extensively used typewriter, a tiny souvenir bust of Napoleon faces the wall with his back toward everyone in an exile enforced by Gregory Corso, who had brought the bust back from France. In a moment of disenchantment, Corso had turned his back on Napoleon by turning Napoleon's back on himself. A few inches away on the same ledge, another souvenir, a post card with a picture of the house in which Shelley once lived, stands intact. Obviously, Shelley is a more enduring hero for Corso. And on the wall in the corner is enshrined another hero, William Carlos Williams, two photographs of him in a frame, allegedly the gift of a spy on the Time-Life staff, a portrait of Williams full-face and one of him silhouetted atop Garrett Mountain overlooking his city, once Ginsberg's, Paterson.
The hospitality is immediate, warm and universal, except, of course, for Life reporters. But even they may stay for as long as they want to hear the case against their employer. Because conversation is the host's offering in addition to whatever else is on the table and the conversation is about everything, just as Ginsberg's poetry is about everything and just as what he reads is about everything. The evidence of Ginsberg's widespread reading is everywhere, a library of paperback books that fills part of the kitchen larder, another shelf of hard cover, but equally esoteric volumes, in the bedroom beyond. Letters peek out of the broken desk drawer in still another room, The New York Times and a New York Post, perhaps turned to Earl Wilson's column or to Leonard Lyons' column or perhaps to the comic pages, lies with the Village Voice and the garbage bag on the kitchen floor, while mystical comic books look up from the seats of chairs. Ginsberg and Orlovsky share the apartment with Corso when Corso is in New York. There is a continuum of visitors, many uninvited, unexpected or unannounced, because there is no telephone there to warn of their coming. At the kitchen table there may be novelist Paul Bowles for dinner, a friend from Tangiers. Or Jack Kerouac, arrived for the weekend. Or Philip Whalen and Michael McClure, San Francisco poets there as house guests. Or Fernando Arrabal, the French novelist, who has come to pay a social call. Or there may be other friends and literati who have come for an animated and intense discussion of literature and almost any other topic.
"Meter and rhyme are dead in poetry!" Ginsberg insists to a doubting poet. . .Or Corso holds forth: But you don't understand Kangaroonian weep! Forsake thy trade! Flee to the Enchenedian Islands!". . .Or Orlovsky, innocent voiced and with angelic perception, tells an author how to write his book, "You should just write a different book, your own, what you know---WHAT do you know?". . .
On the big double bed in the largest of the three bedrooms, which has a fire escape that doubles as an outdoor terrace, lies a copy of Howl or Das Geul, its German translation, or perhaps a play by Samuel Beckett or perhaps one in French by Jean Genet or maybe poetry in English translation by Mayakovsky or else poetry in French again by Apollinaire or Rimbaud, with the book spread apart face down and open to its live page. Or perhaps Corso displays a magazine just arrived from London, with an article in it under his byline and a poem by Ginsberg and, on its cover, a list of contributors: LORD ALTRINCHAM . . . THE ARCHBISHOP OF YORK . . . GREGORY CORSO.
"See," says Corso, "do you think I ever dreamed I would have my name up with names like that----LORD ALTRINCHAM and the ARCHBISHOP OF YORK?"
And Ginsberg asks, "Where's the part I wrote . . .Gregory and I wrote some of this together"---Ginsberg, proof reader, editor, contributor to Corso, correcting punctuation and poetics, and Corso with his native ear a question mark after the question. His friends say he's the greatest lyric poet of his day. "The professor-poets are bullshit," Corso says. "How can you teach in an academy and be a poet? If you're a poet, you can't be anything else, you've got to devote all your time to poetry. . ."
On the bed, too, the various visitors, defying even advertising agency statistics on what a mattress should hold, each lie or sit in supine comfort, with sometimes a haze of weedy smoke charming the atmosphere while Ginsberg oversees the conversation when he isn't the conversation, talking in long, expository phrases like a professor lecturing. Sometimes he's content merely to lead or listen to the talking. Often, he's quiet, kind and gentle. Often, he's viciously satiric, sometimes even devilish, with raised eyebrows and naughty grin, not always voicing his intent but implying it, leaving it to acute minds to decipher his meaning from his words, his tone and his look.
"When Allen came out in the newspapers saying he was queer, he burned the last bridge," a friend says. "I mean, there was always the thought that whatever else happened, he could go into teaching, teach English at some college, but now that door is closed forever. The colleges can forgive a lot of things, but they never forgive homosexuality."
In the bedroom, too, there is television, a second-hand set worth its weight in mahogany, offering treasures such as Popeye, The Three Stooges, and occasional Marx Brothers films, comedies which distill a life that otherwise can be frightening. Or a phonograph, played by Corso and fed by a large collection of records, mostly Bach and Mozart and Berlioz, Corso's favorite. Kerouac says, "Allen and Peter and Gregory are tone-deaf to music, to American jazz, at least."
This is Ginsberg's flat on quiet evenings at home with sometimes all the occupants on separate typewriters in separate rooms listening to separate voices, working late into the night, sleeping late into the day, with Ginsberg, his digestive tract as sensitive as his brain, awakening sometimes ill, the after-effect of hostile audiences perhaps, or of cough-syrup euphoria or perhaps of simple poetic brooding. Once a bum from the recently denuded and nearby Bowery knocked on the door, came in and told of hearing that Ginsberg was really a secret philanthropist, a benefactor of mankind. Ginsberg gave the bum Ginsberg's total assets, a dollar and change.
"People used to ask me if Allen wrote poetry, too," recalls Ginsberg's father, Louis Ginsberg, an English teacher in Paterson and a poet as well. "And I would tell them, 'No---he's the only one in the family who's normal.' Then I found out he had all these poems hidden in his room at Columbia."
At sixty-four, the elder Ginsberg has become known as the poet-laureate of Paterson. For thirty-eight years a teacher of poetry at Rutgers University's night classes, he has published two books, Attic of the Past and The Everlasting Minute, and his verse has appeared in anthologies, text books, quarterlies, magazines, the New York Times, the New York Herald Tribune and the Saturday Review of Literature, all of which have yet to publish his son.
. . .Man who scorns
His lowly bars,
the elder Ginsberg writes in Now A Satellite, one of his later poems,
Whose mind harpoons
The secret of stars,
Of atoms that mate,
And orbs that revolve.
He cannot solve.
"As a father, I'm happy that Allen has made his success in poetry, and I certainly like some of his poems very much," the elder Ginsberg says. "My poetry is a little different but I guess each one has his inner nature that he had to satisfy. My nature inclines me to the regular meter, the flexible, regular, traditional meter with the modern touch. Allen doesn't believe in rhyme---that's his viewpoint. He has daring images, felicitous phrases, but I personally don't like his lack of sentence structure, his lack of punctuation and his indiscriminate stream of uncoordinated images.
"But he's a good son in the sense that he's---well, what can you call a good son? We've been pretty close when it comes to poetry but we differ in many aspects. I don't agree with some of the things of the Beat Generation, for instance. I feel they are so extreme in many of their viewpoints that they're throwing out the baby with the dirty bath water. Another thing. They have no inhibitions, they reveal so much. They lay bare everything, whereas I, of an older generation, would be more reticent. Of course, he doesn't tell ME everything----he's a son, you know. But there is no question that he has vitality and force. I'm proud of him, although I would prefer to have some of the ideas he espouses revised. For the Beat Generation to say that everything is wrong in the world---well, there is a certain life force that produces joy, so we have to balance the evil and the good. A minor point: I wish they would dress better."
Allen Ginsberg was born June third, 1926, to the articulateness that might be expected from a family with a father who was a poet and a mother who was a communist. As a boy growing up in Paterson, Ginsberg suffered between the two extremes, but that wasn't the extent of his suffering. His mother was insane.
"She thought she had wires in her head," he explains, sitting on his bed in a stillness edged by the afternoon street noises and the audible breaths of Corso and Orlovsky, also there at the time.
"Well, my mother was sick for so long, you know. She was in mental hospitals from when I was a kid on, in and out. She used to get out of the hospital every year of two, after a period in there, and be around the house, sort of taking care of things for a while until she'd sort of degenerate again, fall apart. So I had a long childhood sort of struggle relation with her. . . It marks me to some extent because I wound up having to take care of her, in a way. So I got used to taking care of madmen. I got used to living with, in a sense, the insane production product of the society and seeing its destruction. And seeing it swallowed by oblivion finally when she died. . .
"She died In Pilgrim State Hospital in 1955 just about the time I finished Howl. In fact, I sent it to her. She saw it and she even wrote me a letter". . .and he goes to his desk drawer and pulls it open, taking, from hundreds, an envelope, opening it and reading: "I hope this reaches you. I sent one before which maybe they didn't send out. Congratulations on your birthday. Received your poetry. I'd like to send it to Louis for criticism. Now what does he think of it? It seemed to me your wording is a little bit too hard. Do tell me what father thinks of it. You know you have to get a job to get married. I wish you did have a good job. What did you specialize in when you went to college? This going to the North Pole, who supplies the wearing material? They say when you visit the Eskimo you need a double coat of fur. Are you fit for that flying job? Don't take chances with your life. I wish you'd get married. Do you like farming? It's as good a job as any. I hope you behave well. Don't go in for too much drink and other things that are not good for you. Eugene and his wife. . .'
"---Eugene," Ginsberg explains, "he's my older brother. He's a lawyer" and then he continues reading the letter:
"'Eugene and his wife visited me. They expected a child then. I suppose they have it by this time. I do hope you get a good job so you can get a girl to get married. Eugene's wife is beautiful. As for myself I still have the wire in my head. The doctors know about it. They are still cutting the flesh and bone. They are giving me teeth ache. I do wish you were back East so I could see you. I met Max's daughter. She is charming and married. I am glad you are having your poetry published. I wish I were out of here and home at the time you were young. Then I would be young. I am in the prime of life now. Did you read about the two men who died at one hundred thirty-nine and one hundred forty-nine years of age? I wonder how they lived. I am looking for a good time. I hope you are not taking any drugs as suggested by your poetry. That would hurt me. Don't go in for ridiculous things. With love and good news, Mother, Naomi.'
"She died the day she wrote this letter," Ginsberg added. "Stroke. Oh, this is a relatively calm letter after all that, after the internal violence she went through---this letter sounds almost as if she'd come to a little haven for a moment. And the letter a week before said,"---and he had memorized it---"'I have found the key. The key is in the light in the window by the bars. The key is in the sunlight.'"
He lies back on the double bed with Orlovsky and Corso listening, hearing the letter for the first time, too, and he repeats, "'I have found the key. The key is in the light in the window by the bars. The key is in the sunlight.'"
"That's beautiful," Corso says.
Ginsberg has written several poems for his mother, including his Kaddish, a narrative burst of emotion, set down longhand in long periods of inner anguish, a story, really, an autobiography, spontaneously recalled and spontaneously created, bounding with giant leaps between poetry and prose-poetry, a mourner's lament taken from the rhythm of the Hebrew prayer for the dead. "I get so excited thinking about it," he said one day while retyping it from his written manuscript, agitated, unconstrained, elated. "It's almost as if I'd created a new form. A new literary form!"
Another poem for his mother was, curiously enough, Howl---curiously, because its full title is Howl for Carl Solomon. It begins, "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness starving hysterical naked. . ."
"I realized after I wrote it that it was addressed to her," he says, sitting on the bed with two cats playing at his feet and a parakeet in a cage interrupting with an occasional raucous reminder of its existence. "I realized that Howl is actually to her rather than to Carl in a sense. Because the emotion that comes from it is built on my mother, not on anything as superficial as a later acquaintance, such as Carl, I mean it comes from something more deeply grounded than that. Neal? Neal Cassady? That's just a line from the
HOWL, said Ginsberg, is more about his relationship with his institutionalized mother
poem, that had nothing to do with him. . . Well, also, Neal, 'N.C., secret hero of these poems,' in a sense, he seemed to represent the beauty of the American consciousness which, though fucked up, had retained its integrity and its energy, its Whitmanic verve and drive and individualism. Its Whitmanic sexiness, too. But I realized after I finished it, I became very conscious of it, that the whole litany, 'I'm with you in Rockland. . .' is about my relationship with my mother. And my sympathy was finally an outburst, a gushing forth of realization of the final living sympathy with another living being, my own mother, in all her torment. Because up to that point like, say, through Columbia College and through the sort of culture I absorbed there and, say, through working in advertising and through working in this culture, sort of trying to integrate it, working with adjustment psychology, the tendency has been to disassociate myself and my soul entirely from any aspect of 'Unsuccess' in existence. And that is why I feel that most people, in calling Howl a poem about destruction or a poem about protest have missed the point and that Williams, William Carlos Williams, has got the point in his introduction. What the function of the poetry was was an outburst of acceptation of my mother's suffering, an outburst of sympathy toward her, so that this is a transcendence of all the suffering by means of one's own natural heart feelings. I came to the self-realization that despite all the soul damage why it was necessary not to give up love and not to give up sympathy, which was why I began digging in Whitman---the line, 'Not 'til the sun rejects you do I reject you,' because basically I didn't reject her. Like I might be forced to, by circumstances, might be forced to put her away, might be forced to keep away, might be forced to do any extreme to put her down, in a sense, to put down her hold over me, my mother! The alternative is like to not be afraid of being involved with another human being in torment. To not be afraid of being involved or sympathetic with another human being in trouble and torment. This is the one thing where America is inhumane. This is the whole question of what Whitman said, 'Not 'til the sun rejects you do I reject you,' talking to. . . To A Common Prostitute is the title of that poem. The whole moral tendency of America is to kick people when they are down, when they are suffering. I mean the whole 'success deal' in America, obviously, is anti-humane and it can't survive. It can't survive because it's against the word of God."
On the back cover of Howl, Ginsberg describes Carl Solomon as an "intuitive Bronx Dadaist and prose-poet." Inside Howl Ginsberg writes:
Carl Solomon! I'm with you In Rockland
where you're madder than I am
I'm with you in Rockland
where you must feel very strange
I'm with you in Rockland
where you imitate the shade of my mother
I'm with you in Rockland
where you've murdered your twelve secretaries
I'm with you in Rockland
where you laugh at this invisible humor
I'm with you in Rockland
where we are great writers on the same dreadful typewriter. . .
Actually, Ginsberg was with Solomon at the New York State Psychiatric Institute. Born in 1928, Solomon, according to other bits of biography, was proclaimed a child prodigy at the age of seven, when several New York newspapers commemorated, with headlined awe, his ability to memorize the batting averages of all the players In the National and American leagues. Educated in New York and at the Sorbonne, and later an editor with a New York publishing house, he, like Ginsberg, spent time In the Merchant Marine as well as in the asylum.
"Carl?" says Ginsberg. stroking one of the cats purring on his lap as the clock ticks loudly on the makeshift night table, "I met him in the bug house. The New York State Psychiatric Institute. Our first meeting was funny. I mean, my mother had been in the hospital, and here I was in the hospital now. I walked down to the ward with my bags and sat down at the table at the end of the corridor in the afternoon sunlight and Carl was just coming up in a big bathrobe, just out of shock. And he walked up to me, you know, new meat in the ward and said, 'Who are you?' So I said 'I'm Alyosha,'---you know, the saintly character In Dostoevksy's Brothers Karamazov. So Carl said, 'Well, I'm Kirilov---Wait'll you meet the other saints here.'"---and Ginsberg laughs. "Which was funny, so we immediately had a rapport. Carl had a great project. He was going to publish my work, Kerouac's work, William S. Burroughs' work, John Holmes' work, Jean Genet's work, if he could, Louis Ferdinand Celine's work, if he could---All the new literature that's coming out now. He would have made a million dollars, I guess. But they thought he was crazy. Now he's back in Pilgrim State. But he's not crazy at all."
Ginsberg's stay at the mental hospital resulted from a series of events which included his arrest in April, 1949, on charges of receiving stolen goods. It seems that while he was riding in Bayside, Queens, with two friends, a man and a woman, the car went the wrong way in a one-way street, narrowly missed hitting a police officer and then overturned. Ginsberg and the woman escaped both injury and the police, but the car, which turned out to have been stolen, contained its driver plus a number of Ginsberg's manuscripts, complete with Ginsberg's name and address. When police arrived at the address, they found it occupied by Ginsberg, the woman, a man named Herbert Huncke and an estimated ten thousand dollars worth of stolen goods. Huncke and the woman were charged with having stolen it.
"The newspaper stories at the time about me letting them use my place in return for dope weren't true," Ginsberg says. "In fact that's typical journalism. One of the stories even had me a prisoner of a dope fiend, being held captive by dope and then having to direct their operations. Then another story contradicting that, in the Mirror or something, had me the journalistic cliche of the college boy-wonder-criminal-genius running a gangster . . . you know, a gangster operation, both of which were ridiculous. And cruel, also. And the Associated Press---I was working at the Associated Press as a copy boy. I was planning to become a newspaperman. And the Associated Press was pretty cheesey, too. They fired me without knowing the story.
"Well, the actual situation was that I had an apartment. Huncke had gotten out of the can, I had offered him a place to stay. I had written him in jail, saying when he came out I would try and get him a job, though by hindsight I realized how vain that was because he was not in condition to work at all. And hadn't worked for a long time. And when he came to the house, finally, he had been wandering around Times Square where the cops had been kicking him around. It was snowing and he had been wandering around the East River Drive and had nowhere to go. So he came knocking at my door, sick. I don't know sick of what, early pneumonia or bronchitis or something like that. He came in and his feet were a bloody mess from walking for days with nowhere to go. So I took him in and put him up on the couch in the living room. He was in bed for about three weeks in an extreme depressed state, and I was worried, you know, that he was going to commit suicide or something. And had long talks with him. He did some writing there and I showed him some writing I had done. Finally he showed some signs of life. . . He got up and began stealing parts from cars. Some thieving, I suppose. The implication of what I'm saying is that he's a natural born thief, but Huncke's a great visionary, actually, a great storyteller. I have a little manuscript of his in which he is at the precipice of eternity, looking at his own death, thinking, 'I am going to die here in New York and I am looking around the universe.'
"Well, he finally stirred and showed some signs of life, which was to go out and make some loot somehow or other, either by seeing to get some junk to peddle it or burglarizing. Well, he started to burglarize and he started bringing some things home. It was a question of his death and I didn't want to be his judge, like he was suffering more than I could be a judge of. So I didn't think it was my duty to interfere at all. Basically I think who gives a shit if he steals a radio from a car. I mean basically in God's mind or in one's own human mind, basically, humanistically, that's not as important as life or sanity. That's not as important as his beauty, really. Well, it was a situation that if you read it in a novel, you would feel sympathetic to Huncke, and if you were involved with him in life, you would still be sympathetic. But if you were not involved in it but only in a position of being paid to judge it as a job, why then you would not feel sympathetic. As usual with life situations, when you know about it, when you know all the details, even with the worst murder, you're sympathetic, as a rule. Unless in some extraordinary, hideous case. But even then. . . There's the old Whitman law, 'Not 'til the sun rejects you do I reject you.' People may be scared or fooled into going around rejecting people, turning them in, being stool pigeons, but their basic nature is not to. And there's no point in killing our basic nature, which is the only salvation.
"Well, anyway, so he started bringing his stolen goods home and the place was getting hot, and I realized he was building for another bust sooner or later, so I tried to get out of that, tried to get away by giving him the apartment, and I was going to go down and visit Burroughs in New Orleans, and was preparing to do so, and got all my manuscripts together and letters and documents and writings and poems, piled them in a car and was driving---and then that's when we went down the one-way street. The police found all the letters. In fact, when we crashed I had a horrible sensation, you know, like it was really my fault, it was sort of so inevitable and so clear beforehand I could see this whole vortex or chain of circumstances leading to that instant. The cops didn't read the manuscripts or letters, actually, they were too illiterate. What they did was they dragged me to the station house and looked in my diaries and threatened to beat me up as a queer. I remember the detective saying, 'All right, so you're a queer, hey? You'd like to get beat up, well, you've come to the right place!' He was drunk, so drunk that he started manhandling me, and the other detectives had to pull him off. Obviously an old freak himself. This is the police. Frightening.
"And then the newspapers were frightening, too, because they were even more heartless. Sort of like vultures feeding on other peoples' suffering. And that's the whole cast and complex of the newspapers and the whole cast and complex of the newspaper-reading public, and that's why this country is doomed. In fact, that's why all live civilizations are doomed, ultimately. They get inhumane. Who needs them after a while?
"Well, three of my professors at Columbia offered to help---Lionel Trilling, Mark Van Doren and Meyer Shapiro. Shapiro was a beautiful man through it all. He was one that really understood that it was a humane, human situation and not a newspaper headline scene, and instead of bawling me out or asking me what I dared do or meant to do, he took me in and treated me kindly and told me stories of how he was in jail when he was a kid in Europe for not having a passport, which was really the kind work of a good Joe. Otherwise, everyone else was scared, which is a strange thing, because any great writer knows, as Celine said, the only way to know a country is through the jails, which is true and which is wisdom from Dante and Shakespeare, they would have been amused by that. The trouble with the academic mind is that it isn't amused by anything real in that sense---it's frightened of some respectability. It frightened me at the time, the whole conspiracy, the horror about it. Actually, I hadn't gotten my degree yet. I was finished with my studies, but I owed a couple of papers. So the alternative was to go to jail or to go to the bug house, and since I was buggy enough anyway with all these visions, I went to the bug house, which was sort of a refuge."
The distance between his mother's madness and his own was not of Iambic measure. To reach this destination, Ginsberg had covered much other ground. "I was hung up on politics when I was a kid in Paterson," he says, "but I didn't inherit my mother's politics, actually, because she was communist and I was fooling around with the Democrats. In fact I was sort of anti-communist when I was young for a while. You know, most of the sons and daughters of people who were active communists in the thirties grew up to be sort of like Trotskyite-anarchist-liberals, except for those who turned completely. But in 1940 I used to help write speeches for a guy named Irving Abramson, who was running on the Democratic platform during the big battle in '40 between the isolationists and the interventionists. And I got all hung up on politics then. In fact, I got to be a political fanatic.
Like perhaps a generation of others since then, Ginsberg eventually became unhung from politics and he hung instead around Times Square with college pal Jack Kerouac and their other friends, Burroughs and Huncke, meeting the lush-workers who rolled drunks on subways, the Eighth Avenue hoods who carried guns or lead pipe silencers, the junkies who pushed narcotics just to feed their own habits, hipsters who saw the future and who saw God in a Godforsaken way.
"It's not that they get high on junk and lay back and see visions," Ginsberg says. "It's that during withdrawal, when they are junksick, when they don't get their junk, the body undergoes a kind of transfiguration and change which is quite hideous. And the suffering is so absolute that it's like a death in life. So that almost every ex-junkie is marked as someone who has been through a Buchenwald is marked. They've been through their own Buchenwald by themselves, you know or you wouldn't know it looking at them. An experience of absolute physical and psychic pain and depression and death and rebirth afterwards. So that actually the whole race of junkies is probably a race of illuminated types. I've used a lot of junk, but I've never had a Habit, fortunately. It's just that I spaced it out---it isn't as dangerous as people make out.
"It is dangerous, but I don't know, I always had other things in mind. I've had what Jack calls the pure morphine---Jack says, 'This is the pure morphine' or 'The true morphine, Heaven,' But I never had a Habit. . ."
Ginsberg was neither high on narcotics nor depressed by lack of them when he had his own visions.
"They happened in Harlem in my room on the sixth floor," he says. "It was an auditory hallucination of Blake's voice reading three little poems, A Sunflower, The Sick Rose and Little Girl Lost. I heard Blake recite these poems to me while I was reading them, and I looked up and I saw the sky open and had an Illumination of eternity which lasted for a few
'It seemed that the universe had turned inside out and was going to devour me'
seconds and then returned over a period of, returned about three or four times during the week and ended on Columbia campus where I was walking and I had---these were blissful sort of experiences, of a feeling that I was loved by God and had been always waiting for that moment when he would reveal himself to me, God being a name, say, not that it was a God, but Father of Eternity. But then I had an experience walking on the campus at Columbia in which it seemed that the universe had turned inside out and was going to devour me. I became so frightened, I sort of shook it off. Closed my mind for a while. . .
"Well, that turned my life inside out, actually. First of all, I realized the power of poetry, the prophetic power, that it was real, that the prophetic power was quite real, and if you could build a poem grounded deeply enough in experience of eternity, it would communicate itself through time and catalyze the same sensation. So, it's like the transmission of Gnostic wisdom. Poetry is like a machine for the transmission of a Gnostic wisdom through centuries, and there's a definite tradition from one person to another that inherits it. So this is like a priestly mission. Second---well, it just sort of took me out of the world, out of worldly life, because the illumination I had was so strong that it transcended any other experience I've ever had in my life in terms of intensity and absoluteness. And there was nothing after that that I could turn to any longer except direct understanding through my own senses rather than acting according to other peoples' opinions or rules or societal orders or arbitrary or verbal concepts."
At Columbia, from which Ginsberg received a degree, if not an altogether satisfactory education, Ginsberg is remembered not with reverent silence, perhaps, but certainly with silence, and his mention brings a great shushing of lips from former professors and classmates alike. Part of the shushing, of course, covers his arrest and his commitment to the New York State Psychiatric Institute, even though the doctors there finally conceded he was not a schizophrenic but merely a neurotic. Also covered by the shushing, however, is the year Ginsberg was suspended. He says the real reason for his ejection from Columbia was the belief by Columbia authorities that he was sleeping with another male student, an accusation, he recalls bitterly, which was not yet true. Even so, Ginsberg has commemorated the official reason in a line in Howl: ". . .who were expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull. . ." The obscene odes in this case were the words, "Fuck the Jews," which Ginsberg traced with a finger on a dusty window in Colombia's Hartley Hall.
"But he's a Jew himself!" the properly shocked dean of students told Ginsberg's teacher, Professor Trilling, whose wife later wrote, "Even the part of Lionel that wanted to laugh couldn't. . ."
Trilling played a major role in Ginsberg's undergraduate life and has continued to play bit parts in Ginsberg's life ever since. In retrospect, Trilling seems to look upon Ginsberg with a professorial and reluctant but perhaps growing affection. Certainly Ginsberg has courted this affection, a reflection, perhaps of his own, although during his studenthood it wasn't apples which Ginsberg brought to his teacher but revelations of Kerouac and Burroughs and what Ginsberg had learned of the reality outside the Nineteenth Century coffin he considers his classes to have been.
"In the early years, I tried to be open with him" Ginsberg says, "and laid on him my understanding of Burroughs and Jack---stories about them, hoping he would be interested or see some freshness or light---in the openness, or in the idea of them---but I see by hindsight all he or the others at Columbia could see was me searching for a father or pushing myself or bucking for an instructorship or whatever they have been conditioned to think in terms of."
Trilling's reception to Ginsberg's understanding of Kerouac and Burroughs was somewhat less than his reception to Ginsberg. "In 1949, when Allen told Trilling I was about to have my first novel published," Kerouac recalls, "Trilling flipped a quarter in the air and said, I'll bet you a quarter it's no good.' This little story throws light on Trilling's strange attitude towards the most eager young literary students on the campus at the time---an attitude not entirely impartial."
Ginsberg also invaded Trilling's after-school privacy with samples of his own poetry, which at first pleased Trilling much as Ginsberg's present poetry displeases him. Because he is displeased. Unwilling, even as a literary critic, to be drawn into any public discussion of his former student or of his former student's literature---or even of all the Beats' literature---Trilling has, in more private company, said that he is bored both with Ginsberg's manner and Ginsberg's doctrine and is not much interested in his poetry, either.
"Look," he once said, lifting from his desk in Colombia Hamilton Hall an envelope containing sheets of poetry and drawings, the work of various modern and Beat poets, a sort of Christmas card sent to him by Ginsberg. "This stuff reminds me of what you used to see in Paris years ago---everything so avant-garde and so nicely printed."
On another occasion, when Ginsberg called Trilling to ask him to moderate a poetry reading at Columbia, Trilling refused, whereupon roommate Corso grabbed the phone from Ginsberg and shouted into it:
"Why don't you kiss Allen on the lips?"
Although Trilling refused even to attend the reading, his wife, Diana Trilling, was present, along with fifteen hundred others, who filled Colombia's McMillin Theater, leaving five hundred more standing outside. If her husband remained unmoved by Ginsberg's post-graduate poetry, Mrs. Trilling was moved by it, moved enough, at least, to write an article about it in Partisan Review.
". . .It was to him (Ginsberg) that one gave one's pity and for him one felt one's own fullest terror," she wrote, telling of her reactions to the Columbia reading. "I am no judge of his poem, Lion in the Room, which he announced was dedicated to Lionel Trilling; I heard it through too much sympathy, and also self-consciousness. The poem was addressed as well as dedicated to Lionel; it was about a lion in the room with the poet, a lion who was hungry but refused to eat him; I heard it as a passionate love-poem, I really can't say whether it was a good or bad poem, but I was much moved by it, in some part unaccountably. It was also a decent poem, it now strikes me; I mean, there were no obscenities in it as there had been in much of the poetry the 'beats' read. . ."
When the reading was over, Mrs. Trilling wrote, she resisted a temptation to go up to Ginsberg and tell him she liked the poem because "I couldn't be sure that Ginsberg wouldn't take my meaning wrong; after all, his social behavior is not fantasy." Then she headed home for the door that Ginsberg, during his student days, used to knock on "to deliver a new batch of poems and report on his latest adventures in sensation-seeking."
"There was a meeting going on at home," she continued, "of the pleasant professional sort which, like the comfortable living-room in which it usually takes place, at a certain point in a successful modern literary career confirms the writer in his sense of disciplined achievement and well-earned reward. I had found myself hurrying as if I were needed, but there was really no reason for my haste; my entrance was an interruption, even a disturbance of the attractive scene. [W.H.] Auden, alone of the eight men in the room not dressed in a proper suit but wearing his battered old brown leather jacket. was first to inquire about my experience. I told him I had been moved; he answered that he was ashamed of me. I said, 'It's different when it's a sociological phenomenon and when it's human beings.' and he of course knew and accepted what I said. Yet as I prepared to get out of the room so that the men could sit down again with their drinks, I felt there was something more I had to add---it was not enough to leave the 'beats' only as human beings---and so I said, 'Allen Ginsberg read a love-poem to you, Lionel. I liked it very much.' It was a strange thing to say under the circumstances, perhaps even a little foolish. But I'm sure that Ginsberg's old teacher knew what I was saying, and why I was impelled to say it."
Ginsberg's own interpretation of the so-called "love poem," is that the Lion represented not Trilling but God. "I dedicated it to him as a sort of ironic joke," Ginsberg says, adding that Trilling is represented by another voice in the poem, that of an analyst who dismisses the lion as being of "no value." But then this is only a part of the misunderstanding that separates the men in Trilling's comfortable living-room from the men in Ginsberg's East Side slum. If Ginsberg's joke was ironic, so's the fact that Trilling ever since has found himself in other comfortable living-rooms defending his old pupil and, in fact, defending all the Beats.
Otherwise, during that night at Columbia, it turned out that Ginsberg, too, was moved. In the middle of his reading of his Kaddish poem, Ginsberg broke down and wept.
Only to have not forgotten the beginning in which she
drank cheap sodas in the morgues of Newark,
only to have seen her weeping over tables in grey wards
of her universe,
only to have known the weird ideas of Hitler at the door,
the wires in her head, the three big sticks
rammed down her back, the voices in the ceiling shrieking
out her ugly early lays for 30 years,
only to have seen the time-jumps, memory lapse, the crash
of wars, the roar and silence of a vast electric shock
only to have seen her painting crude pictures of elevateds
running over the rooftops of the Bronx,
her brothers dead in Riverside or Russia, her lone in Long
Island writing a last letter---and her image in the
sunlight at the window
"The key is in the window in the sunlight at the bars the key
is in the sunlight,". . .
Later, Ginsberg apologized to the audience. He explained that his father was among them. It was the first time, he said, that his father had heard him read. . .
At the McMillin Theater, Ginsberg also explained a few other things. He said, for example, that he was glad to have gone to Columbia to read all the books and get the usual education, but he also explained what he thought of the usual education: "There is nobody at Columbia who is a great creative poet, who is original enough in poetry to inspire the young to some kind of' individualistic greatness." Although there was nobody at Columbia, there was somebody right across the Passaic River from Ginsberg's own Paterson.
"In spite of the grey secrecy of time and my own self-shuttering doubts in these youthful rainy days, I would like to make my presence in Paterson known to you, and I hope you will welcome this from me, an unknown young poet, to you, an unknown old poet, who live in the same rusty county of the world. . .
"I went to see you briefly two years ago (when I was 21), to interview you for a local newspaper. I wrote the story in fine and simple style, but it was hacked and changed and came out the next week as a labored joke at your expense which I assume you did not get to see. You invited me politely to return, but I did not . . .
"As to my history: I went to Columbia on and off since 1943, working and travelling around the country and aboard ships when I was not in school, studying English. I won a few poetry prizes there and edited the Columbia Review. I like Van Doren most there. I worked later on the Associated Press as a copyboy and spent most of the last year in a mental hospital; and now I am back in Paterson which is home for the first time in seven years . . .
"I do not know if you will like my poetry or not. . . I enclose these poems. . ."
The letter was one of two which William Carlos Williams received from Ginsberg and which Williams included in Paterson, his volume of poetry analogizing the city to his mind. Because, with poetry his angel, Ginsberg considered Williams an angelic representative. There were many who made the pilgrimage to the big wooden house in New Jersey's Rutherford, where the door was always open to young men who wrote in measure, no matter how irregular and often no matter how badly. For Ginsberg, the pilgrimage was shorter than for the others, but the homage represented by his pilgrimage was just as great. One of the first poets of the 1910 Revolt, Williams had become the last to continue disbursing its inheritance. From him came a transmission of technique and encouragement which Ginsberg, for one, had not found at Columbia. It was from Williams that Ginsberg received the elements of his prosody which freed the measure of his poetic line, received a preface to Howl which became his introduction to respectability, and received a personal inspiration which has prompted Ginsberg to claim the residual share of that legacy from 1910. There were, obviously, few contributions that Ginsberg could make in return. As one, however, he offered to be Williams' guide through the more colorful if less dignified sections of Paterson while Williams was writing his book on the city.
It was by his own travels through the seamier side of civilization that Ginsberg has been able to see it coming apart at the seams. Ginsberg's guide was Jack Kerouac, whose friendship is at least one debt that Ginsberg owes to Columbia. It was with Kerouac that Ginsberg found his way to the neon connections of Times Square, the switchblade dives of Eighth Avenue and the society that William S. Burroughs and Herbert Huncke introduced them to, a society which can be found in the writings of all of them, even in Huncke's little manuscripts. Together, Ginsberg and Kerouac launched an investigation of the Underworld that might have pleased Dostoevsky but probably would have irked that other expert on crime, also a boyhood hero of Kerouac, The Shadow. But then it was souls they said they were seeking, not criminals.
Sometimes it was difficult to tell the guide from the guided. "Allen. . ." says Kerouac, "Allen's a great influence on me." But Neal Cassady, another great influence on Kerouac, adds, "Jack's always putting Allen down. He'll be riding along and we'll pass a beach and it'll be a big Jewish resort, see, and Jack'll say to Allen, 'How come there's no beach for French-Canadians, huh? How come there's no beach for French-Canadians?" And Cassady continues, parenthetically, "Allen's a pagan. . . I like Allen best of the bunch. . ." The relationship between Kerouac and Ginsberg has had its effect not only on the writing of each other but on that of a whole new generation of poets, building on a writing style which Ginsberg and Kerouac call spontaneous bop prosody, based on rhythms of hipster speech and drawn from jazz and everyday talk, words meant to be music and set down on paper in the same mystical pattern in which they appear in the mind.
"Jack believes in letting what he writes stand as is," Ginsberg says, "but I like to go over mine after I've written it and improve and correct it." Adds Kerouac:
"Let the world know that I love Allen Ginsberg."
And the world does know about Allen Ginsberg. His poetry has been translated into Japanese, German, Spanish and Bengali and he has read it to audiences in at least as many countries more. The Chilean government has had him as its guest for an international literary conference, at which, by the way, other guests were Arnold Toynbee and Pierre Mendes-France. And if he has read in coffee houses and bars all over the United States, he also has read, by invitation, at the Library of Congress, where, for the benefit of a tape recorder and the archives, he chose a special poem denouncing America: ". . .Millions of tons of human wheat were burned in the halls of Congress while India starved and screamed and ate mad dogs full of rain. . ."
"If I were living in Russia," he said later, "I probably would have written a poem denouncing Russia."
In other more recent experiences, he has undergone electric shock treatment just to see what it would do to his mind, he has attended, with full beard, a Brooklyn convention of Hassidic rabbis, and he has taken lysergic acid, a new wonder drug that he thinks might undermine the price of heroin.
"It seems to have approximated and reaffirmed my memory of the Harlem 'sensation,"' he says.
Traveling in Europe, he has sought out Samuel Beckett in Paris, talked with Dame Edith Sitwell in London, and walked with W. H. Auden on Oxford campus.
Corso: Do you think the birds are spies?
Auden: Who would they report to?
Ginsberg: The trees!
He has visited the graves of Shelley, Apollinaire and Blake.
As for Blake, Ginsberg reports: "He didn't say a word. Not a word."
And, stranded penniless overseas, he has appealed to the world for funds to pay for his return to New York.
His father answered the appeal.
Today, Ginsberg, dressed in eternal blue jeans and living on scattered royalties and honorariums which sometimes total as much as eighty dollars a month, continues seeking new experience, new Gnostic insight and new poetry along with Corso, Orlovsky and weekend friend Kerouac, who, when asked why he has never used Ginsberg as the prototype for a central figure in any of his novels, answered:
"Oh, because he's not an interesting character to me. He doesn't do anything but talk. He's always sitting and talking." ## NEXT: THE BEAT PAPERS OF AL ARONOWITZ: PART 6: CHAPTER SIX: THE SAN FRANCISCO RENAISSANCE
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