Ginsberg, Allen (Profile)
Five storeys up in a nondescript apartment building, workmen are hammering and sawing, renovating a sunny Manhattan loft in a cacophony of Italian song and shouted curses. Amid the clatter, lying on a modest double bed, Allen Ginsberg - original beatnik, gay iconoclast, Buddhist peacenik, hippie guru and, arguably, America's Last Famous Poet - is taking a nap. As incense wafts through the room, he seems a pool of repose surrounded by what he once called "the vast animal soup" of the everyday world. It is tempting to view the professorial, diminutive gentleman as a saintly figure - a madman-poet who has at last found peace. But as Ginsberg, roused from his sleep, begins to talk about his twin passions - poetry and politics - it is clear that he remains a clear, energetic, even dangerous thinker. "Candor is the whole key [to poetry]," he says. "It's exactly what we're missing in politics. Everybody is a bunch of hypocritical liars in public - everybody knows they are, and yet the whole system sustains itself on secrecy and lies."
It is one of those sweeping, characteristically Ginsbergian statements that makes it hard to believe that the man who wrote "Howl," an epic homage to youth that remains one of the most important poems of the 20th century, is now 70 years old. But although his brash New York drawl has taken on the softened tones of old age, and his body has been wracked by battles with diabetes and heart disease, Ginsberg is very much alive, and still kicking at the system. He is a beatnik who refuses to be beatified, to be rendered safe and sterile as a museum artifact. And 40 years after the publication of "Howl," Ginsberg is riding a wave of renewed interest in the Beat movement, a literary and quasi-philosophical quest that Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs and a clutch of others began in the mid-1940s.
For a septuagenarian, Ginsberg certainly gets around. He maintains a busy schedule of readings and lectures - a schedule that will take him to the University of Toronto on Nov. 15. A new volume, Selected Poems, 1947-1995, released by HarperCollins in October, is already in its second printing in the United States. Ginsberg's admirers and acquaintances include the icons of cool in the '90s - actor Johnny Depp, an ardent fan, recently had the poet read in his trendy Los Angeles nightclub, the Viper Room - and last month he released a new rock CD, The Ballad of the Skeletons, with music provided by ex-Beatle Paul McCartney and composer Phillip Glass. In short, Ginsberg is hot. "There are a lot of reassessments of the Sixties, and a lot of nostalgic crap," he says. "But also a lot of younger people are now picking up on what was pronounced in the Sixties as making sense."
If one thing remains consistent in Ginsberg's life and writing, it is a fierce anti-authoritarian stance. And in conversation, he remains a firebrand. He still supports liberalization of drug laws - "the ones on marijuana are originally racist," he says, arguing that the substance was outlawed to oppress blacks. And he has little time for big-business interests. "It isn't as if welfare is just poor people, because corporate welfare is colossal," he says. "There is no area you can talk about in America which doesn't involve some sort of state control or state subsidy, and yet they're babbling on about a free market as if it existed - it's a lie, a hallucination, a scam." Ginsberg was planning to vote for Ralph Nader in this week's election, unless Republican Bob Dole made a late charge, in which case the poet planned to vote for Bill Clinton. The incumbent, he says, "is more intelligent and better hearted - and, I think, somewhat less connected to the rich."
Ginsberg's poetry is intimately linked with his political concerns - most notably, his vehemently held passion for freedom of speech. A particular object of his scorn is state and corporate control of the news media, and the only tonic for its disinformation, he believes, is poetry - frank, open, spontaneous. "Poetry in relation to public, political media - it's like day and night," he says. "Poetry is free to say all these things the media and politicians aren't. It's one of the only places that you can hear the news that's essential." Last year, he lobbied (unsuccessfully) to change the U.S. Federal Communications Commission's obscenity laws, which ban use of the F-word during daytime radio - effectively censoring much of Ginsberg's poetry, even though he is probably the country's most widely anthologized poet.
Born in Newark, N.J., in 1926, Ginsberg was the second son to rather unconventional parents: Louis, a middling-fair poet, high-school teacher and socialist, and Naomi, a Communist, nudist and severe paranoid who battled with mental illness throughout her life (she is the subject of Ginsberg's famous, touching prose-poem "Kaddish" from 1961). In 1945, while a pre-law student at Columbia University in New York City, Ginsberg - a shy and sexually confused teenager - met up with Kerouac (also a student) and Burroughs, and began a long swirl of drug experimentation and explorations of the Greenwich Village gay scene. By 1955, Ginsberg was in San Francisco, where a performance of "Howl" in the Six Gallery established his fame - or infamy.
"Howl," in which Ginsberg chronicles the spiritual sojourns of the "best minds of my generation" in language rife with street lingo and four-letter words - not to mention depictions of gay sex - was published in 1956 by City Lights Books, a small San Francisco firm run by fellow beatnik Lawrence Ferlinghetti. The next year, the U.S. customs department seized 520 copies of the poem being shipped from the printer in England. Then, with the release of a second edition of "Howl," San Francisco police raided the City Lights bookstore, arresting Ferlinghetti for selling "obscene and indecent writings." At the end of a months-long trial, Ferlinghetti was found not guilty on all charges - setting a precedent for protecting artistic expression that stands today, and catapulting Ginsberg into the status of Famous American Poet.
By the late 1950s, the beatniks' ill-defined ethos of independence and iconoclasm had become a pop phenomenon, thanks not only to Ginsberg's bad-boy reputation but also to the publication of Kerouac's seminal novel, On the Road, in 1957. And then - at the height of the Beat Generation craze, when even TV sitcoms (like Dobie Gillis) included Kerouac-like characters - Ginsberg left the United States. "I thought it would be best to just disappear," he recalls. "The literary work was the important part, and everybody here was making some kind of a kitsch thing out of it." Ginsberg travelled around the world, spending a year in Europe and another two in Asia, where his spiritual yearnings found a home in Buddhism. In 1963, he returned to the United States by way of Vancouver.
Back in the United States, Ginsberg, then in his late 30s, threw himself into the youth counterculture movement. In the process, he became a visible antigovernment, anti-Vietnam War protester and the acknowledged godfather of the hippies - even as Kerouac fell into a slow alcoholic decline, growing increasingly reclusive until his death in 1968. Ginsberg hung out with LSD guru Timothy Leary and was part of Ken Kesey's Acid Test festivals in San Francisco, drug-crazed parties that inspired Kesey's 1968 best-seller The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Along with Burroughs and French playwright Jean Genet, Ginsberg played a key role in the antiwar protests at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago.
But even as he became a notorious figure in American public life, Ginsberg amassed an almost incredible body of work - scores of poems, pamphlets and books. And the corpus of his writing is still growing today, as he continues to compose songs and poems. "I carry a little notebook around, for fugitive thoughts," he says. "It's all fugitive thoughts, things that come through."
Selected Poems, the latest collection, captures the most significant of those thoughts, and clearly traces the development of Ginsberg's style from free verse to the extended-line form of "Howl" through to the long prose paragraphs of "Kaddish" and the rhymed-lyric songs he wrote with Bob Dylan in the 1970s, and finally to Buddhist-influenced poems of the 1980s. His latest work seems to return to the social commentary of his earlier poems. "The Ballad of the Skeletons," for instance, employs naïve rhymes to damning effect: "Said the NAFTA skeleton/Get rich, Free Trade, /Said the Maquiladora skeleton/Sweat shops, low paid."
Ginsberg still manages to push the envelope of acceptability. He produces a clipping from a recent New York Times profile. The first paragraph recounts how a few years ago he had a moment of self-awareness - like "a light bulb went on in my head" - in which he forgave his longtime enemy, conservative commentator Norman Podhoretz. It was a catchy opening, but Ginsberg says it was all wrong. "'A light went on in my head'? It was an insight I got when I was high on [the drug] ecstasy," he explains. "The point is that you can get permanent, usable insights from psychedelics - but the Times took that out." Even at 70, it seems, Allen Ginsberg is saying things that aren't fit to print.
Maclean's November 11, 1996