Writing about Books, Music and Pop Culture
Bye-Bye, Beautiful Dreamer
Ginsberg Gone at 70
The sudden, decidedly unprotracted death of the poet Allen Ginsberg at age 70 has made me backburner an earlier, half-written column in favor of some thoughts about this remarkable man. So, I am once again late for a deadline; this seems somehow appropriate for a column about a poet so determinedly outrageous, one so dreamily attuned to the backbeat of his own drummer, this formalist who was so roisterously anti-literary, this most personal of poets who insisted upon the inescapable connection between the dreams of his art and the socio-political realities of his time. Ginsberg always seemed to love tossing a monkey wrench into the timetables of normalcy; let's just say I have missed this deadline in his honor.
Ginsberg was so constitutionally ebullient, so consistently boyish in the scope and intensity of his enthusiasms, that it is difficult to believe he ever made it to seventy; not difficult to think of him living so long, but hard to think of him ever aging at all in the conventional manner. And yet he aged very well, becoming over the past twenty years a kind of greybeard, a venerated interpreter of the tattered aspirations of the counterculture to a new generation that styles itself more sensible, more interested in the bottom line, and done with all that damn dreaming. With quiet reasonableness and characteristically total candor, Ginsberg never stopped interceding on the side of the dreamers. Who could have imagined --who except Ginsberg himself, perhaps-- that this author of the shocking, censored and celebrated "Howl," this flagrant exponent of homosexuality and of all sexuality, this veteran of sit-ins, be-ins, love-ins, this co-conspiritor in the creation of the Beat Movement, this drug-addict, this round, balding, potbellied bard, this mental patient, this visionary who met the ghost of William Blake, this constant companion of Leary and Lennon whenever their asses were on the line, this childlike, ancient, radically innocent creature, this lifelong lover of the young at heart, who could have thought that Allen Ginsberg would become, at the end of his life, a voice of reason and possibility, a sweet mediator between the forces of change and the forces that fear those changes? And yet this is so.
Reality has shifted some to accommodate Ginsberg, and Ginsberg is one of those chiefly responsible for that shift. Ginsberg himself changed only so he could stay himself, in the way the weather changes. Changing, he kept himself at the center of his time, dreaming. Dreaming, he changed the weather around him. In the past decade or so, Ginsberg probably appeared before congressional committees, giving "expert testimony," as many times as he was arrested at demonstrations during his early years. He was a thoughtful and effective advocate for the moderation of ridiculously severe drug laws, long after he stopped doing drugs himself, and for the repeal of anti-homosexual statutes nationwide. He continued, as teacher and spokesman, to instruct the young in the difficult, confounding art of candor. He maintained his faith in the ultimate holiness of the human body and human experience. A religious visionary, he remained an implacable enemy of religious dogma and bigotry.
Ginsberg's concerns stayed consistent; his means of making them known were modified as the times demanded. He strove all his life to make his thinking useful to men and women and the society made up of them. He was always willing to appear clownish, even absurd, if necessary, in this pursuit. Like all born poets, who must perforce be students of human nature, Ginsberg was something of a master politician. Like all great poets, Ginsberg made all his interests feed his poems. His best poetry revolves around the intersection of particular time and eternity. His best poems endure and are timeless because of their attention to immediate, irreducible moments of experience. This guileless attention to detail is something poets talk about and theorize upon but rarely achieve; it is perhaps the one absolute requirement for any poet who hopes to say anything real: to see the world as it is, rather than as we are taught it is. This, of course, in a digression so obvious we need only nod at it, is the central problem with the almost exclusively academic origin, and orientation, of American Poetry today.
Above all, Ginsberg the Poet is the adamant enemy of fear, and the corrosive effect of fear on the human being's ability to live in and with his own body, and with others. Fear of our fingers, fear of our hearts, fear of our genitals, fear of the self which feels such fear, fear of the self projected on others, fear of others, fear of touch, fear of death, fear of life. Ginsberg, of course, found his subject by facing these fears in himself, by chronicling their assault upon his own self-esteem and sanity, and by recording his liberation from fear into the palpable heaven of the present. This liberation was effected by that most difficult and deceptively simple act, telling the truth you know. Ginsberg's particular truth became notorious, thanks to that screwy combination of salaciousness and moral condemnation that is the bread and butter of what we call "the news," because he was gay and he wrote about it openly. He called it "holy." He put it in our faces. At any rate, he was not sufficiently guilt-ridden to avoid prosecution, and Ginsberg became a cause celebre. He never resigned the position.
Now, some forty years after "Howl" was turned into a national sensation by the kneejerk fear of those who most wanted to suppress it, Ginsberg's sexual orientation seems almost irrelevant, at most a condition of his immediate reality, like other elements of the bohemian fantasia so vividly presented in the poem. What really mattered in "Howl," and what always mattered most through Ginsberg's long turn on the public stage, was his willingness to tell us the truth he knew. And also his willingness, like Whitman, to treat his own experience as representative. In writing openly, transparently, about himself, Ginsberg wrote for every soul that ever cowered in self-inflicted or social fear, terrified of its own desires. The result is a kind of poetry, exemplified by "Kaddish," Ginsberg's take on the traditional Hebrew "Song for the Dead," which is intensely personal, but certainly no more so than some of the most beautiful books of The Iliad.
In the big picture, Ginsberg must be understood as a visionary poet. By this, I distinctly do not mean that he was some kind of fortune teller. A visionary poet does not foretell the future; rather, he stares, like Homer, into the round eternity of the present. He discovers at the still center of being an endlessly unfolding now. His reality is an intransitive verb. His verse becomes a means of abiding there. Like his poetic fathers --Blake, Whitman, Lawrence, Williams . . . even, oddly, Ezra Pound-- Ginsberg knew that the lie you tell yourself is the killing one, and that such a lie is usually a dream of the past, or of future ransom. And, like these great visionary poets, Ginsberg knew that the killing lie in the individual heart, this fear of experience, this worm in the rose, is, in the broadest sense possible, a social disease. Like these writers, Ginsberg believed that poetry, the art of telling the truth you know, can uplift and ennoble an entire nation as well as an individual. Fear, and dogma, which is codified fear, and History, which is a fearful record, reside in time, in abstract regions of future and past, but all we shall know of eternity is given in the present. Ginsberg believed that poetry, at its best, could help us become better people, and more complete.
My friend Ken Tucker, who writes about rock and country music, and books and movies, and television, once told me a great Ginsberg story. Ken was somewhere in the Village, Greenwich I mean, late at night. He was going to see some band at a bar. He came to a crosswalk at a busy street. There was a red light, he stopped at the curb to wait, and he realized he was standing beside Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg was idly humming to himself. He kept repeating some lines of poetry, varying the words, trying different phrasings and rhythms. Then, Ginsberg stepped suddenly into the street, starting to cross absentmindedly, just as a truck came barreling through the light. Ken managed to grab his shoulder and pull him back on the curb. Ginsberg thanked him, acknowledged that he was indeed the Poet, then went on his way, still trying out lines on himself. "And that," said Ken, "is how I managed to affect the course of literary history."
I'd like to thank Ken for that kind act. And I like to think about Ginsberg like this, out on the town, working on his poems, always tied up in that endless process, that dreaming that made his life, and ours, more rich. At any rate, the story perfectly indicates the dangers inherent in poetry, and thus may serve somewhat to balance my bold claims for that most difficult art. I'd like to end by observing a moment of silence for the Poet, but observing a moment of silence on the written page is as tough as standing to attention over the radio. So, I refer you to the empty box in the middle of the page. It's a metaphor of course. I see it as an utter absence as well as a window, both of which Ginsberg has left us.