Allen Ginsberg: Still Controversial : Beat Generation’s Bearded Bad Boy Focuses on the Mind
Allen Ginsberg is getting ready to die, among other things.
Poet, proselytizer, perennial electric-bearded bad boy of the beat generation, Ginsberg is coming to grips with the inevitable. In idle moments he’s likely to be thinking of “death, old age, sickness and death,” he said in an interview.
“I’m 58, so I’ll be 60 soon, so better prepare for that. I have kind of haunting dreams about having a permanent place to die in, a house, because I don’t really have a reliable place of my own,” he said. “I have a slum apartment on the Lower East Side (of Manhattan) where I have an eviction notice. I have this sort of haunting dream that my place isn’t there or I don’t have a place or I can’t find my key.”
Ginsberg thinks he’ll beat the eviction notice just as he has survived decades of controversy and calculated outrageousness. Whether he’ll have a place of his own is less likely, but possible, he said. And he is not going to waste time railing against the grim reaper.
For decades a student of Eastern religions, he is drawing on serene contemplations for the ultimate test.
“There are prolonged meditative exercises that accustom you to the disorientation and chaos (of death),” he explained, “just like you might prepare for outer space by practices that prepare you for weightlessness. That’s part of the oral transmission of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, but basically I just use simple meditation practice and some visualization practice, nothing that mystical or esoteric.”
In the meantime, in late middle age, he is enjoying the rather placid rewards of a life that appeared bent on blasting Middle America’s favorite shibboleths. Whether it was politics, homosexuality or drugs, Ginsberg always was on the far-out fringe in a fine frothing fury, advocating anarchy, free love and psychedelics in abundance.
Some of this image is true. He does protest what he sees as flagrant abuses of power. He is an avowed homosexual whose poetry includes celebrations of that preference. He is still an advocate of peyote and LSD.
In person, though, Ginsberg comes across mainly as a calm, reflective intellectual rather than a passionate poet of the alternative. Baldness has conquered the bushy hair. The untamed beard, which he shaved several years ago, has been reincarnated in a trimmed version, a fitting topping to his button-down shirt and tie. In fact, he wishes that his audience--critics and admirers--would pay less attention to his personality and more to his poetry. The reason is simple: His writing has been gathered into a single 800-page volume, “Collected Poems 1947-1980" (Harper & Row, $27.50).
This doorstop of a book is a drastic change from the slim paperbacks published by City Lights Books in San Francisco that until now have been the primary source of Ginsberg’s work. Its red, black and gold jacket and black and gold binding emanate mainstream respectability. The volume has brought his work more visibility than it has had in years and more invitations to read from his poems, including a recent one at UCLA where he was warmly received by a crowd of students.
Nonetheless, the new book is still too slim and perhaps too new to hide its author, who most critics imagine to be leering from its pages, he said.
“The one thing I haven’t seen is a review that goes to the text,” Ginsberg said. “Generally (the reviews have been about) either the history or the historical significance or the persona of the author, after many years of complaint that the persona of the author has gotten in the way of the poetry, finally when presented with nothing but the poetry, nobody is paying attention to it.”
One reason his writing is getting short shrift, Ginsberg maintained, is that he doesn’t fit the dismissive mold created for poets by the literary industry. University professors, critics and others are much more attuned to the likes of Dylan Thomas, John Berryman or Delmore Schwartz, poets who fulfill accepted romantic notions of self-destructive versifiers, he said. By his own assessment, Ginsberg is more in the mold of Walt Whitman or Henry David Thoreau, hardheaded enough to prefer impudence to addiction.
“It’s a lot easier, particularly for academics and journalists who are lushes, to identify with the academic poets who drank themselves to death and say, ‘Well, those poets, they’re great but they drank themselves to death,’ ” he said.
‘It’s Under My Control’
Despite its reception, to Ginsberg the book is a roping in of undisciplined children, the maturing of wayward creations, some of which he has revised. “Now it’s under my control,” he said. “I don’t have to mess around with it any more and that’s really useful because I’ve had a chance in the City Lights editions to read aloud maybe a hundred or more times each poem, so I’ve been able to test them vocally and find out where there’s deficiencies of intelligence, deficiencies of sounds or deficiencies of abstraction, or I no longer understand what I was talking about.”
By his own reckoning, the best poems in the book include “The Green Automobile” (1953), “Siesta in Xbalba” (1954), “Howl” (1955-56, almost certainly his best-known work), “Kaddish” (1959), “TV Baby” (1960), “Wichita Vortex Sutra” (1966), “September on Jessore Road” (1971) and “Birdbrain!” (1980). Although not in the book, “White Shroud” (1983), a meditation on death, is another favorite.
“Collected Poems” is frequently punctuated by political poems such as “Birdbrain!”: “Birdbrain rules the World!, Birdbrain is the ultimate product of capitalism, Birdbrain chief bureaucrat of Russia, yawning, Birdbrain ran FBI 30 years appointed by F.D. Roosevelt and never chased Cosa Nostra!”
The poem seems to be a summing up of all the politics that have angered Ginsberg over the decades. But he pointed out that he is not in a constant state of agitation over the actions of governments.
“It comes and goes, doesn’t it?” he said. “I calm down, and two years later another outrage comes along that’s so awful, like mining Nicaraguan harbors or walking out on the World Court, or saying that Russia’s the center of evil, so that I realize fresh over and over again, AGGH , what we’re going through and I think almost everybody has that feeling.”
However, Ginsberg does not write about politics for the sake of politics. “I’m not so much interested in politics as I am in my mind, i.e. making a graph or a picture of my mind over the seasons, months, years, decades,” he said. “So the subject is how does politics get me upset or how does dope turn me on or how does sex turn me on, how does poetry turn me on?”
It seems fair to say that Ginsberg’s mind is in a state of intermittent fulmination over the entrepreneurial ‘80s. Even the drugs are different from his heyday. A casual reference to cocaine rockets him to a hyperbolic trajectory.
“If anybody on acid (in the 1960s) had shot a narc, it would have been such a scandal , an intellectual scandal,” he declared. “It’s funny, cocaine is part of the rat-race thing. It fits in with the rat race, it fits in with the aggression, it fits in with the nastiness and the paranoia. Acid at least revealed the paranoia and cut through it and was a spiritual drug compared with cocaine, which is a sort of materialistic aggression shot. . . . Yuppies who do cocaine say, ‘Oh, no, acid is very awful, bum trip.’ ”
Putting digressions aside, Ginsberg returned to the subject of poetry and perception, offering a summation of what he has tried to do in his work:
‘World Is Subjective’
“What Gertrude Stein and (Jack) Kerouac proposed was that the mind itself was coherent and complete and sufficient. That if you were the stenographer of your mind, it would be comprehensible, that you didn’t have to edit your mind, that vividness is self-selecting, that first thought, best thought, don’t stop to think of the words but to see the picture better, not ideas but in things, the natural object is always the adequate symbol, ordinary mind is the area of illumination. All those sort of slogan-like ideas are really a revolution of writing in the 20th Century that fit in with Einstein’s notion of all we know is subjective. There is no objective, phenomenal world, there is only what we measure with our varying senses. So the whole world is subjective. Even Kissinger’s world is purely subjective. The Pentagon’s world is their projection, their subjective fantasy. The poet’s world is his. . . . There is no purely objective yardstick.”