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A Look Back at Allen Ginsberg (Part 3)

I think of a line from William Wordsworth's poem "Resolution and Independence" as I sit at my desk searching for a way to wrap up this encounter with Allen Ginsberg: "We Poets in our youth begin in gladness; / But thereof come in the end despondency and madness." Ginsberg followed something of a reverse trajectory. Childhood experience with his mother's illness left its mark. Bouts of despondency, melancholy, and doldrums afflicted him as a young man struggling to come to terms with his sexuality and unsure what to do with his life.

From their early years at Columbia Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac were drawn to a fringe world of hustlers, low-level hoodlums, ne'er-do-wells, and decadents that throughout the modern era attracted poets and artists who found bourgeois conventionality insipid and uninspiring, its values and ethos hypocritical and soul deadening. The two friends were not the first to romanticize this world in poetry and fiction. Nor were they alone in taking the poor choices and foolish moves it invited. The fact that Ginsberg's admittance to the Psychiatric Institute of Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in 1949 was part of a plea bargain to avoid prison did not mean he was fully hinged or that he did not benefit from his stay there.

Another line in Wordsworth's poem expresses a sentiment Ginsberg in his fashion shared: "By our own spirits are we deified." Ginsberg spoke of the realization while writing a poem that he was hitting on things that were absolutely true and applicable universally. With the Blake vision came awareness that he was born to realize the spirit of the universe. Poems and interviews are laced with grand claims of this sort. He appears to have been sincere when he made them. This exalted sense of himself and his role as a poet is hardly unique. In A Defence of Poetry Shelley declared that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. Mayakovsky wrote that his thundering voice shook the world as he walked the street, handsome, twenty-two years old ("A Cloud in Trousers"). Gregory Corso, albeit perhaps as much impish as serious, put poet up there with king, emperor, pope.

Mayakovsky's wonderful image comes in a poem and is thus open to being taken figuratively. Shelley's declaration comes from an essay, Ginsberg's statements from interviews, where attribution to poetic imagination and flight of fancy is more open to question. To my way of thinking, the role of poet is not a mantle to be taken on lightly, but it can be assumed with due regard for the calling and its traditions without appending dubious assertions of absolute truth, universality, and the like.

In the early 1950s Ginsberg was living in Manhattan, unhappy working in an advertising agency, and seeing a therapist. One day the therapist asked what he wanted to do with his life. Quit his job and write poetry was the answer. "So why don't you?" By mid decade he was in San Francisco in the midst of the community of anarchists, pacifists, artists, and poets that had come to be known as the San Francisco Renaissance. In 1956 he wrote "Howl," premiered it at the Six Gallery reading, and was on his way.

Howl and Other Poems was published in 1956, followed by Kaddish, Reality Sandwiches, and other books in the 1960s. The books were enthusiastically received by Ginsberg's peers defiantly writing outside of any main stream and earned him a popular following among youthful bohemians, avant-gardists, and radicals. Reception was equally hostile, grudging at best, in some circles within the academy and the critical establishment, as was noted in Part 1 of this essay.

The winds began to shift in the 1970s. The Fall of America: Poems of These States received the National Book Award in 1973. That same year Ginsberg infiltrated the establishment when he became a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, where he would successfully lobby for election of his friends William Burroughs and Gary Snyder. 1979 brought a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and in 1993 he was awarded the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres (the Order of Arts and Letters) from the French minister of culture. Ginsberg cofounded with Anne Waldman and taught at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, in 1974. He would go on to teach at Brooklyn College and New York University in the 1980s and '90s.

As a teacher he could be idiosyncratic, scattershot, and captivating. While poets from his crowd—Kerouac, Corso, Gary Snyder, Robert Creeley, John Weiners, et al.—would be given prominence, the breadth of his interests and reading was on display when Sappho, William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, Shelley, Whitman, Hart Crane, and other representatives of the canon cropped up in various contexts. A 1995 class at NYU was turned on by his reading of Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind," clapping at the finish, after which he launched into Hart Crane's The Bridge, focusing on the "Atlantis" section, which he read "aloud with great gusto." Afterward his face was flushed, eyes gleaming (Schappell, "The Craft of Poetry").

In June 1993 poetry scholar and critic Marjorie Perloff attended a large conference about poetry of the thirties held by the National Poetry Foundation at the University of Maine in Orono. Ginsberg had been invited to pay homage to ninety-year-old Carl Rokosi and give some readings. Like Elissa Schappell, his student at NYU, Perloff noted that the bohemian poet dressed like a college professor: "navy blue blazer, red tie, white shirt, neat laced Oxfords, slicked-back short black hair." She described him as friendly but aloof, saying she was not quite sure he knew who she was even though they had shared the stage at various poetry events in New York and corresponded for some time about his archive, which she helped bring to Stanford.

Ginsberg dutifully attended every session of the conference, but his real preoccupation was the analysis of prosody, about which he would hold forth during late-evening gatherings in the lounge at the country inn where Perloff and a few other conference attendees were staying. "He never let up," she wrote. "The intensity could be a bit overwhelming for the rest of us." When asked what he thought about speakers at the conference, he would nod, say "fine," and "return, as quickly as possible, to his own experiments with rhythm and meter. He wanted to include us all in his project but had little interest in our own work. His was, so to speak, a one-way street but it was certainly not a vacant or dull one."

Perloff's next and last encounter with Ginsberg was in 1996, in a supermarket in Palisades, "the very incarnation" of the setting for his poem "A Supermarket in California." She found it sad that no one recognized him as they strolled down the aisles, he looking tired, unwell, and somewhat distracted, prompting her to think of his description of "Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys." After that she saw "beneath the bravado…the scholarly, learned, almost pedantic 'rose rabbi,' who parsed Pound's lines to anyone who would listen" and who "stood isolate in the crowd" in that California supermarket.

Allen Ginsberg remains a popular poet and an iconic figure with an international reputation. His status is as secure as that of any poet of his generation. Writers I respect, Kenneth Rexroth, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gary Snyder, held him in high regard as a poet and considered him a friend dating back to the San Francisco scene of the 1950s. Marjorie Perloff, coming to Ginsberg as an academic and scholar, was impressed by his lectures on poetics and his interest in the minutiae of poetry, for instance, the ins and out of quantitative meter in Greek poetry, how it is distinct from the stress prosody of English poetry, and how quantity and stress are in tension in Ezra Pound's poetry.

He read widely and was at least familiar with a remarkable range of poetry, for which he seemed to possess an equally remarkable memory, calling to mind the critic and teacher Harold Bloom. His reading and his ideas about poetics, politics, and social affairs were filtered through the lens of a conceptual framework that could be both rigid and less than rigorously thought through. How deeply he read and how well might be worth considering but is beyond the scope of this exercise.

Ginsberg also seemed to notice and remember everything and to write about it. At his best the details add richness: as Elaine Falone put it, "creating the atmosphere/environment, bringing the ppl into the scene or how the ppl were inseparable from the scene or to use one of my old phrases, 'brocaded to the space around them'…how it's all one thing."

I still like the first part of "Howl" quite a lot. "America" is laced with wry humor largely absent from the political broadsides. The commentary is more restrained, suggestive rather than bombastic. The first two lines set the tone:

America I've given you all and now I'm nothing.

America two dollars and twenty-seven cents January 17, 1956.

Other examples, chosen as they catch my eye skimming over the poem: "America I feel sentimental about the Wobblies. / America I used to be a communist when I was a kid I'm not sorry." "You should have seen me reading Karl Marx." "It occurs to me that I am America. / I am talking to myself again." The conclusion is a sort of call to activism:

It's true I don't want to join the Army or turn lathes in precision parts

factories, I'm nearsighted and psychopathic anyway.

America I'm putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.

The poem "The Lion for Real" in Reality Sandwiches has a kind of Mel Brooks hit you over the head humor that I usually go for only in small doses. Here it cracked me up. The first two stanzas give an idea:

I came home and found a lion in my living room

Rushed out on the fire escape screaming Lion! Lion!

The stenographers pulled their brunette hair and banged the window shut

I hurried home to Paterson and stayed two days.

Called up my old Reichian analyst

who'd kicked me out for smoking marijuana

'It's happened,' I panted 'There's a lion in my room'

'I'm afraid any discussion would have no value' he hung up.

The absorption in himself noted by Marjorie Perloff was one side of Ginsberg. Another side was loyalty and generosity to friends. He was convinced of their genius and tireless in promotion of them and their works using whatever connections and influence he had to help find publishers for their books. His efforts at the American Academy of Arts and Letters on behalf of Burroughs and Snyder is another manifestation.

On any number of occasions Ginsberg looked after the often hapless Gregory Corso, an alcoholic and heroin addict who rationalized stealing from his friends, and from City Lights Books, on the grounds that he was a poet and had to survive. Corso was nineteen when he met Ginsberg after getting out of prison in November 1949 (he had been in for robbery). He was spending time in Greenwich Village and hanging out at a lesbian bar called the Pony Stable, where a friend did caricatures. One day Ginsberg walked in.

He had these eyes: deep black pools of light. I didn't know he was gay then, that he was out cruising. But he was looking at me, so I went up and hustled a beer out of him. We started talking and poetry came up…I had my prison poems with me and showed them to him. That was how we got to know each other. Then he introduced me to Kerouac and Burroughs; he said to them, "Look who I have found."

Corso said Ginsberg became his brother, his Jewish grandmother, his teacher, his PR man. "He pushed me like he pushed everybody. In the end, I guess he didn't teach me how to live too well. But he did teach me how to die. He let go so beautifully. The last thing he said to me: 'Toodle-oo.'" ("Memories of Allen, April 1997," Rolling Stone Book of the Beats)

In the end came not despondency and madness but grace and dignity as Allen Ginsberg shuffled off this mortal coil. No small thing. Toodle-oo.

References and Related Reading

Allen Ginsberg

  • A Ballad of American Skeletons, with Paul McCartney, Royal Albert Hall, 1993 (youtube)

  • Collected Poems 1947–1997, HarperCollins Publishers, 2006

  • Father Death Blues (youtube)

  • Journals Early Fifties Early Sixties, Grove Press, 1977

  • Paris Review interview by Thomas Clark (1966), Beat Writers at Work, Random House, 1999

  • Andrei Voznesensky and Allen Ginsberg: A Conversation (1980), Beat Writers at Work, Random House, 1999

The Allen Ginsberg Project

The Rolling Stone Book of the Beats, Rolling Stone Press, 1999

  • Barry Alfonso, "Elder Statesman, Unrepentant Rebel: A Chat with Ginsberg"

  • Gordon Ball, "A One-Man Generation"

  • Lester Bangs, "A Beat Record Review: Songs of Innocence and Experience"

  • Lawrence Ferlinghetti, "Allen Ginsberg Dying, April 4, 1997"

  • Mikal Gilmore, "Allen Ginsberg 1926–1997"

  • John Grissim Jr., "A Beat Book Review: Planet News (1961–1967)"

  • Harvey R. Kubernik, "Innerview"

  • Greil Marcus, "Death of a Patriot"

  • Marshall Rosenthal, "A Beat Book Review: Indian Journals"

  • Patti Smith, "Dear Allen"

  • "Memories of Allen, April 1997"

Allen Ginsberg, biosketch and poems at, Academy of American Poets

Allen Ginsberg, biosketch and poems at Poetry Foundation

William F. Buckley Jr., Firing Line: The Avant Garde, May 7, 1968, at Hoover Institution Library & Archives

Lawrence Ferlinghetti interviews (1969, 1999 ), San Francisco Beat: Talking with the Poets, ed. by David Meltzer, City Lights Books, 2001

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, I Greet You at the Beginning of a Great Career: the Selected Correspondence of Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg, 1955-1997, City Lights Books, 2015

Joanne Kyger interview (1998), San Francisco Beat: Talking with the Poets, ed. by David Meltzer, City Lights Books, 2001

Elenore Lester, Allen Ginsberg Remembers Mama, The New York Times, February 6, 1972

Louis Menand, "The Best Minds" and "The Free Play of the Mind," chapters 6 and 13, respectively, in The Free World, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2021

Marjorie Perloff, Allen Ginsberg, Poetry Magazine, July/August 2013

Kenneth Rexroth, American Poetry in the Twentieth Century, Herder and Herder, 1971

Elissa Schappell, "The Craft of Poetry: A Semester with Allen Ginsberg" (1995), Beat Writers at Work, Random House, 1999

Scott Timberg, Before 'Howl,' the Hospital, Los Angeles Times, January 7, 2007

John Tytell, Naked Angels: The Lives and Literature of the Beat Generation, McGraw-Hill, 1976

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