Still Beat : Allen Ginsberg's Poetry, Songs Remain Anti-Authoritarian

Times Staff Writer

Still anti-authoritarian after all these years, Beat-movement luminary Allen Ginsberg opened his appearance Friday at Cal State Fullerton with an a cappella rendition of his "CIA Dope Calypso."

The humorous ditty--to the tune of "Kingston Town"--chronicles decades of alleged U.S. involvement in worldwide drug trafficking, ending with a recounting of the Reagan/Bush era: "They couldn't sell Congress, so the Contras sold cocaine."

Ginsberg--dressed conservatively in a dark jacket and tie, his once-lengthy beard now neatly trimmed--battled a crackling sound system and constant rumbling from a next-door bowling alley to regale a capacity crowd at the University Center Pub with his poetry and song.

The poet, now 62, was, along with "On the Road" author Jack Kerouac, one of the central figures of the bohemian Beat movement, which rebeled against the corruption and materialism they saw in post-World War II America. Ginsberg's now-classic 1956 poem "Howl" is one of the central statements of the movement, which set the stage for the rock 'n' roll-led rebellion of the '60s.

On Friday, Ginsberg went from "CIA Dope Calypso" to a sound poem titled "Whom Bomb?" and on to another song, "Do the Meditation" (which includes the line "I fought the dharma and the dharma won"). Ginsberg said his practice of "psychedelic meditation" has supplanted his use of drugs, but still he chastised the government for driving "educational drugs"--namely marijuana and LSD--out of the marketplace, where they have been replaced by speed, heroin and crack.

Ginsberg then launched a chronological reading of selected poems, interspersed with occasional songs. The poet told the university crowd that he wanted to start with older poems "that you're more familiar with from the Norton Anthology."

Starting with "Pull My Daisy" (1948), which he wrote with fellow Beat generation icons Kerouac and Neal Cassady, Ginsberg moved through such works as "The Archetype Poem" (1950), "A Crazy Spiritual" (1952) and "A Strange New Cottage in Berkeley," "A Supermarket in California" and "Sunflower Sutra," all from 1955.

But he skipped his most celebrated work, "Howl," and instead read fragments from his 1960 poem "Kaddish," a moving account of his mother's long confinement in a mental institution. "I'd rather introduce those who are familiar with the flash to the shadow underneath," Ginsberg explained.

Themes of physical decay and of mortality continued in later poems, including recent works from the 1988 collection "White Shrouds" and several as-yet-unpublished works. In "Airplane Blues," based loosely on Robert Johnson's classic "Love in Vain" (which the Rolling Stones popularized), Ginsberg sang: "The sun's not eternal; that's why there's the blues."

In "The Guest," a bemused Ginsberg detailed a homosexual encounter with a young admirer, comparing his lover's taut, youthful body with his own sagging flesh. ("This is pre-AIDS, incidentally," he told the audience Friday.)

Figures from his bohemian past haunt much of the recent poetry Ginsberg read Friday, especially in poems based on actual dreams. In "I Went to the Movie of Life" (1987), the poet encounters figures from his past while wandering the Mississippi Delta at night--Neal Cassady, old lovers, even members of the prototypal '60s San Francisco acid-rock band Quicksilver Messenger Service.

"Wily wrinkled wanderers," Ginsberg called them in the poem: "Profound American dreamers--I was in their company again." Yet, later in the same poem, "I wanted to meet someone new."

Ginsberg told of (but didn't read) a recent poem about Kerouac, who died in 1969. Kerouac visited his fellow '50s traveler in a dream to praise a talk he had given ("The first thing he had approved of in years," Ginsberg said.).

A reading of the unpublished "Written in My Dream by William Carlos Williams" led to an impromptu lecture by Ginsberg on his fellow New Jersey native, whose use of vernacular and vivid description were a great influence on Ginsberg and other Beat poets. Ginsberg recited Williams' "Red Wheelbarrow" from memory and read his "To Elsie," which was included in the 30th anniversary edition of "Howl."

Ginsberg read from a series of short poems collectively titled "Don't Grow Old," largely anecdotal works written in 1976 after the death of his father, poet Louis Ginsberg. He closed the reading about 10:30 p.m. with a final song, "Father Death Blues."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
51°