Allen Ginsberg, (1926 - 1997)

from In Pittsburgh (April 17, 1997)

by Mike Schneider

He couldn't live forever, you knew that. Still, the headlines, April 6, Ginsberg dead. Too much. There should have been warning, time to re-read the poems, take up a collection for wine. Get laughing, howling drunk, call off work, read his poems out loud in the open air. Shout them. Have sex in the afternoon, every which way. Refuse to pay this year's taxes, or next, until we have government deserving of our holy madness and beauty.

Ginsberg, Ginsberg, Ginsberg. What is there to say, except everything? Like his American literary forebear, Whitman, Ginsberg was a cosmos in himself. He passed like a Hale Bopp comet through the last half of this century -- a prophetic, lustful, singing Jewish Buddha. His great poem "Howl," probably the best known 20th century poem in any language, was to 1950s American poetry what Elvis was to pop music, only moreso.

Following from Whitman and from William Blake, who in 1948 appeared to him in a vision, Ginsberg carried forward the tradition of prophetic, visionary poetry. No poet had more impact, as much by his personality and commitment as by what he said. In the 60s, he was everywhere -- helping Ken Kesey with acid-test festivals in San Francisco, a key figure in anti-war protest at the 1968 Chicago Democratic convention, arriving the day after the Stonewall gay uprising in NYC to lend support. He bridged cultural worlds, touring with Dylan -- reputedly the only literary type Dylan could stand, writing lyrics for the Clash, and last year recording "Ballad of the Skeletons" with Paul McCartney.

I saw him twice. Once in 1981 at The Three Rivers Arts Festival -- as far as I know his only visit to Pittsburgh. [It wasn't; I've been informed there were other Pittsburgh readings. M.S.] I wasn't really a fan, didn't know his work outside of "Howl," and went to the reading out of curiosity. It was transfixing. What he read -- "Plutonian Ode," "Capitol Air" and others -- was only part of the effect. His sad, groaning, strangely beautiful chanting, his impish smile, behind a graying beard and glasses -- his public poet's persona carried ineffable charisma, the aura of one of the world's great free souls.

I saw him again in Philadelphia in 1984, at a conference on "poetry and politics." Nobel-prize poet Czeslaw Milosz was also there. Not really part of even the poetry establishment, Ginsberg missed out on most of the big prizes, but I saw how even Milosz deferred to him, with graciousness and respect. I worked up my nerve and asked Ginsberg to autograph my copy of Plutonian Ode, the City Lights paperback. He took it from my hand eagerly, pointing out errors in the printed text, which he corrected in pen. In looking directly into his shrewd, wise, glittering eyes, I felt I'd done something I wouldn't forget, and I haven't.

Everyone it seems who followed Ginsberg has stories to tell. In his biography, Dharma Lion, Michael Schumacher tells of a reading at which a heckler harassed Ginsberg and fellow Beat poet Gregory Corso. Trying to pick a fight, this drunk man wanted to know what the poets were trying to prove. "Nakedness," said Ginsberg, who maintained a commitment to non-violence. If you want to do something brave in front of the audience, he said, take off your clothes. Walking toward the drunk, Ginsberg stripped, throwing his shirt and pants at the retreating man.

In poems of political outrage, visionary Buddhist teaching and tender gay love, for four decades Ginsberg stood naked before us. Like his Beat mentor Kerouac, he worked to capture consciousness accurately, in the act of unfolding. No self censorship. His refusal to be ashamed or deny himself is part of his greatness.

He spoke unpopular political truths aimed at "the system," left and right. He was expelled from communist Czechoslovakia in the 60s, and he was thrown out of Cuba when he questioned treatment of homosexuals. "I don't like the government where I live," he sang in Pittsburgh in 1981. "I don't like dictatorship of the Rich." He also sang his haunting "Father Death Blues."

Genius Death your art is done
Lover Death your body's gone
Father Death I'm coming home

No comments:

Post a Comment