Allen Ginsberg, 1926-1997 (05-29-97)


That’s the fifth line of “America,” a poem Allen Ginsberg wrote in Berkeley, in 1956, just as he was finding his voice, and if you don’t think it’s funny maybe you’re not an American. Certainly you don’t live in the same country that was invented by tall-tale tellers—crafty and sly, indomitable and bitter—like Davy Crockett, Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, William Faulkner, Ralph Ellison, Cassius Clay, Bob Dylan, and Allen Ginsberg. That was always Ginsberg’s country, whether in “A Western Ballad,” a perfectly still, empty-desert song he composed in Paterson, NJ., in 1948—

When I died, love, when I died
there was a war in the upper air:
All that happens, happens there

—or in a not so famous line from the famous “Howl,” so famously debuted at the Six Gallery in San Francisco in 1955: “The cosmos instinctively vibrated at their feet in Kansas.” The line confused me when I first came across it, so I made fun of it (“Kansas?”) to a friend who’d seen a lot more of the country than I had, as Ginsberg had. “Look,” said the late Sandy Darlington, a writer and folk singer from Washington state, in words Ginsberg’s Kansan comrades Bruce Conner and Michael McClure might have used, “anyone can run off to Japan like Gary Snyder and get the cosmos to vibrate at their feet at the top of Mount Fuji. To get the cosmos to vibrate at your feet in Kansas—well, then you know you really got it.”

Like “Howl,” like the 1966 “Wichita Vortex Sutra” (perhaps Ginsberg’s greatest poem, certainly his most expansive, his most American-geographical: The cosmos doesn’t vibrate at his feet in this Kansas; America itself does), “America” is, among other things, a comic rant. Its cadences are simple, blunt and in perfect balance, so much so that the lines of the poem seem less made than found, picked up off the street, one-liners anybody else might have thrown away that only Ginsberg had a use for. Whether you hear the poem on the page; on Ginsberg’s four-CD set, Holy Soul Jelly Roll, as Ginsberg in stand-up-comedy drag recited the piece to a laughing Berkeley audience in 1956; or as collected on the three-CD set The Beat Generation, in a more somber recording Ginsberg made in 1959, the same qualities are present, and they take the poem out of the time from which it emerged, connecting it to all American time. There’s a bemused but finally baffled—almost defeated—reverence toward the enormity and impenetrability of this thing, this America, this terrible, looming, witch-hunting Godzilla of infinite hope and charm (in 1956, Ginsberg performs the poem as if all of America’s crimes against him, against itself, are a kind of shaggy-dog story, just like the poem itself). There’s an instinctive, soon enough cultivated impiety toward any or all of America’s priests. And at rock bottom there is embrace, the impossibility of separation or exile or even pulling away: America as the tar baby and Ginsberg’s hand stuck. Whenever I hear Ginsberg say America, go fuck yourself with your atom bomb, I see him grinning with pleasure—the pleasure of telling your own country to go fuck itself, to be sure, but also the thrill of Slim Pickens riding his atom bomb at the end of Dr. Strangelove, wahooing himself and everybody else into oblivion.ginsberg-screentestsIf Ginsberg had reformed himself, renounced a few past errors, smiled through a bit of youthful excess, he too might have been present at Bill Clinton’s first inauguration, along with such dubious characters as Bob Dylan and Michael Jackson: On that day in 1993 the barrier of legitimacy was very low. As it happened, though, Ginsberg never renounced anything, in the same way that a statement often offered by elders never passed his lips: “There is nothing new under the sun.” When I met him last fall, he seemed most excited by plans for his own Unplugged special “with Dylan, Paul McCartney and Beck!” In all of his gestures of quietude or vehemence, basking in celebrity while at the same time raising old grudges from the dead, he was as he’d always been, spreading the word, promoting the cause, honoring his fellows, casing the room.

Even shaking hands for the first time, Ginsberg was cruising. Not well, moving very carefully, dressed like a retired, respectable Jewish bookseller from his parents’ generation, he was a dirty old man in the guise of a clean old man, like the “clean old man” in A Hard Day’s Night—unless it was the other way around. “Fuck the Beatles, fuck the songs, fuck the cute direction and Marx Brothers comparisons,” the late Lester Bangs once wrote, “it’s BLATANTLY OBVIOUS that the most rock & roll human being in the whole movie is the fucking grandfather!” So speaking softly, like a rabbi, Ginsberg spent a solid hour giving me hell for once calling Jack Kerouac a phony. Not because he knew him and I didn’t, but because I hadn’t read all there was to read, hadn’t heard all there was to hear (“You don’t know Mexico City Blues, do you. I didn’t think so. I’ve just recorded it. I’ll send you a copy”). Sitting there with Ginsberg, the America he had so often evoked so eloquently and so completely seemed small enough to see whole, and too hot to touch.

Rolling Stone, May 29, 1997

7 thoughts on “Allen Ginsberg, 1926-1997 (05-29-97)

  1. Did G.M. revise his opinion of Kerouac based on what G-Berg sent him ? Or did K’s life-he became a hippie-hating, anti-Semitic right winger at the end of his alcoholic days suggest that G.M. knew something that Ginsberg’s friendship blinded him to ? Today,is a great day for Ginsberg fans ,by the way,as his previously uncollected poems become available in Wait till I’m Dead…To appreciate Ginsberg as a poet doesn’t mean you have to agree with him on everything-even on matters that are at the heart of Beat Generation mythology.

  2. I can’t cite chapter & verse here, but my memory of Marcus labeling Kerouac a “phony” was his comment somewhere that Jack wasn’t an active doer like his friends Neal Cassady, Gary Snyder, and of course Ginsberg himself, but rather a passive observer and chronicler of their busy involvements. Kerouac always rode shotgun while Cassady was at the wheel on their hyperactive highway journeys across North America, for instance. That much may be true, but it negates the intense quality of the writing Kerouac produced from his observations, and this is what Ginsberg wanted to impress upon Marcus during their rabbinical moment, that Greil should read and value Kerouac’s writings above any legends, good or bad, about his persona. Yes, Jack took drugs, yes, he wore khakis, yes, he became a gnarled and bitter reactionary during his profoundly unhappy latter 1960’s (thanks to his long & tortured relationship with his mother, who both infantilized him and made his writing possible, by supporting him), but none of that negates the greatness of his writing, for me, nor apparently for Ginsberg either. Allen Ginsberg had a huge, caring soul, a quality he developed very early in life when he had to deal with his mentally ill mother, then take care of his father and brother in her absence, and that solicitude kept him a believer in Kerouac through all the changes in their relationship. If you really want to know Kerouac, read his “Mexico City Blues”, the poetry collection Ginsberg suggested, or one of my own favorites, the bop prose of “October in the Railroad Earth”.

  3. Oddly enough, the day I posted this item I was listening to an interview with Ginsberg — not sure what year it was, sometime in the ’90s — and the subject of Kerouac came up, and Ginsberg noted that Dylan told him, in the mid-70s, that his earlier discovery of “Mexico City Blues” (around ’59) was the poem that first got him interested in poetry. Maybe this is already well known about Dylan, hadn’t heard it before myself, but I thought it was interesting. I will definitely take the advice of Ginsberg, Dylan, and Riegel and give “Mexico City Blues” a go. (FWIW, I tried reading On the Road several years ago, and truthfully just found it fairly boring. I didn’t finish it. Big fan of Ginsberg’s work, though.)

  4. The only thing I remember about Marcus on Keroac was a piece about The Beat Generation box. He pointed out the, let’s call it irony, of the Beats rejecting Bourgeois Values while their mothers, wives and girlfriends supported them.

  5. Admin: I was happy to hear that I’m not the only one who had that reaction to On The Road when I tried to re-read it in the mid 80’s, unlike the powerful impression it made on me when I first read it in the 60’s.I think K’s best novels are The Subterraneans & Dharma Bums which were as good or better the second time around. Too much”wow-ism” I think in On The Road……Ginsberg was a tireless booster of the talents of other people.He told me,the one time I had a substantive talk with him,”if you want to write like me -read the first 116 pages of Visions of Cody”.But I am convinced he was being unduly modest -and that his influence on K was at least as great as K’s influence on him…Kerouac is one of those writers whose life takes on as great a fascination as his work making it sometimes difficult to separate the two…when you become more than “just a writer” and attain the status of a cultural icon,the leader of a movement ,your life becomes fair game for judgement in the way the lives of other writers do not,it seems to me.At any rate in his note on poetics appended to the selection of Mexico City Blues included in The New American Poetry,Donald Allen’s groundbreaking anthology,Kerouac says “I myself have trouble covering up my bullshit lies”…..

  6. Not certain GM ever knew it, however Ginsberg was a flat out pedophile and supporter of legalizing pedophilia. Here is the great Andrea Dworkin calling him out for it; There are many other examples out there of his views on child sex, including his desire to groom kids at the earliest age possible for sex with adults. As a survivor myself, I think his past sins are heinous, and cannot be attributed to youthful ignorance, but point to a deep and lasting lifelong sickness that he wished to spread everywhere, without the least remorse.

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