Saturday, April 23, 2005
Not really, not aware of such a "flood of vitriol" ... I'm sure the NeoCon Gang presently in power don't approve of him.
Well, once your dead, your fans and enemies tend to crawl out of the woodwork ...
Allen's work was epoch-making. "Howl" is a seminal poem of the past (20th) century. It changed lives, it changed poetry. While I have never consciously emulated his style, I am sure that his work, and his vision, has influenced my own considerably.
I knew him for forty-odd years, and I am still teaching at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics of Naropa University -- which school he and Anne Waldman founded thirty years ago.
I came to Ginsberg early on, as do many poets, I think – it was his work, along with that of Kerouac, Corso, and McClure that really blew things open for me late in high school and on into freshman year of college. (I swear I have a memory of reading the Allen “New American” anthology in my high school library, amazed that it had been sitting there on the shelves in the first place, but maybe my brain manufactured that particular moment after the fact.) In the dorms freshman year, this guy from New York, Andy K., would do amazing comedic readings of the randy rhyming material from “White Shroud,” and I’d love to think Ginsberg would’ve gotten a kick out of it had he been a fly on the wall on one of those hazy eves. Later Ginsberg got mixed in my mental blender with plenty of other voices – first Creeley, then the American Tree folks, etc. – but the sheer breadth of his work keeps me coming back, now and again, for inspiration. And I teach “Howl” and some of the others quite regularly, always knowing that it’s going to rev up or somehow incite the class.
I think part of your question is about his public persona, no? Here I’m referring to the bit about if he was a “pervert,” “misogynist,” etc. Was he all of these things? I mean, my guess is he was all of that and more. Is it a stretch to say that perhaps he contained a Whitmanic multitude of voices, personas, and the like, often contradictory but somehow cohesive when you step back to see the Big Picture? I dunno. But what really jumps out at me is that people gave (and continue to give) a shit at all. I mean, he was famous in a way that we may never see again, really, what with the sheer number of poets publishing, and reading, and generally making the scene these days. Poets of all stripes at least knew his name, even if they didn’t know his poems, right? That’s an amazing thing – his overall impact on popular culture, his ability to inspire and provoke even after his death. That said, I confess that I didn’t realize the debates around him and his work were even more heated after his passing. It’s interesting, though, that the critiques you speak of all address his politics, essentially, rather than the actual work itself. Again, I reckon this just speaks to the enormity of his cultural impact. But these are interesting issues you’ve raised, and I’m curious to see how a range of people respond…
i had no idea that these things were being said about ginsberg.
Also, what does Ginsberg's work mean to you and your own poems?
ginsberg's poems for me are celebratory, playful, social criticism. at their best, they are publicly integrated and liberally introspective, which is a balance i strive for in my own writing (and life!).
What else do you have to share with us about Ginsberg? Please tell us, thank you.
i like that ginsberg made stuff that was bad. like, his collaborations with the musician don was are just awful, but he was obviously feeling it. this kind of thing reminds me that you've gotta do what's right for you, even when projects may not be valuable to other people. that said, i don't know that everything we make ought to be shared. i don't like that ginsberg appeared in ads for the gap. i mean, the gap! that same summer (1994) william s. burroughs appeared in nike ads. i guess it's good to lose some heroes when you're young.
I wasn’t aware that this kind of backlash worsened after his death. Is being a pervert or a clown a bad thing? Sorry, I didn’t realize. On a serious note, the only reason someone like me can comment on the private life of Allen Ginsberg is because he lived with a kind of Diogenes candor that all but abolished the private. So this is my luxury, to pick apart the dead. Because of Ginsberg’s openness, he left a lot of meat behind to clean from the bone.
Of course he was a clown! And a scholar, activist, cheerleader & public intellectual. It seems critics of his role as joker have issues with the public nature of it all. There is an ugly sense that class plays into the motives of his detractors. He took his arguments out of the universities and onto television. Who else was talking about Blake on American TV in 1968? Maybe it’s ridiculous, maybe it’s genius. Maybe it’s a hustle. Privileged classes never respect a good hustle, because they never needed one. Yale wasn’t going do deliver Ginsberg to the masses, so AG found a way to make it happen. What a gift. I only wish today’s intellectuals were a little less logy & a little more loki. To paraphrase the magnificent Brit poet Tony Lopez, “Allen, where are you now?” *
I’ve heard stories about Ginsberg sleeping with his (adult, albeit young) students. Okay. I don’t teach, but I know enough to know that it’s not a good idea. It’s not criminal, but it’s certainly unethical. I could also provide a laundry list of straight (male & female) poet/professors who have slept, or continue to sleep w/ their students. So he was lecherous perhaps, but not alone. Again- AG was flagrant about it, while his amorous colleagues continue to hush-hush their transgressions.
Misogyny? Maybe specifics will come to light from others when I see the answers, but so far I’ve only heard condemnations in the vaguest possible terms. To my knowledge, Ginsberg was very supportive of women poets around him- particularly later in life. I’m not saying AG was not a misogynist, by the way. I am asking for someone to reveal specifics. I have zero interest in defending misogynists, just as I’m not interested in smearing someone’s reputation without just cause. Someone please fill me in…
I can talk about Ginsberg in terms of reach, which I think is remarkable. No poet in the 20th century (or since) has touched more Americans outside the university than Allen Ginsberg. No other poet has brought sexy radicalism to America’s neighborhoods. So many who encounter his work from these communities respect his fearlessness, thus eventually respecting his sexuality & politics, where they otherwise wouldn’t have. If for nothing else, bless him for that.
* "In Memory" from Devolution (The Figures, 2000)
In my experience, I haven't noticed a particular INCREASE in criticisms of Ginsberg since his death. What I have noticed, however, may be worse: a gradual erasure of his importance in recent years, in both the so-called "experimental" and "mainstream" poetry scenes. I don't simply want to rehash the comments I've made in, for instance, the 2004 FULCRUM ANNUAL about this trend in which the "fresh air" many of the "new American" poets brought to poetry in the late 1950s has become rather stale, even by many of the people who oh so politely respect the Beats as history. But like many people on the so-called "left," there's a sense that now we can rest on the laurels of the great social and cultural progressives of that period (from Martin and Malcolm to Lenny Bruce and Baraka, etc.). It's sort of like "if Christ came back today, he'd be crucified by many who call themselves Christians." "Oh, yeah, sure, we'll teach Ginsberg and maybe even Corso and Baraka as important historically, but if any young poet dares write that way, we'll call them uninformed, unsophisticated, and too derivative; of course if they write like Duncan or Spicer or Merrill or Bishop, we won't call them as derivative." I personally such attitudes (whether explicit or, as is more often the case, implicit) are at least as destructive to the health of contemporary American, and world, poetry, as any UPSURGE in criticisms of Ginsberg that may be happening in recent years (with Homeland Security, Campus Watch, Attorney General Gonzalez, etc.). I'm almost tempted to say that any upsurge in public controversy might be exactly what's needed to help shake many poets from an institutionally legitimized complacency that has, in effect, lead to a insidious "self-policing" since the "60s generation" decided to settle down and (perhaps unwittingly but nonetheless hypocritically) nip in the bud later generation's attempts to do what they themselves did when they were young, on the grounds that "oh, it's been done before; WE did it before; so don't waste your time." Ah, no zealot like a convert.
Also, what does Ginsberg's work mean to you and your own poems?
Personally, as for many I know, Ginsberg was an early galvanizing force. He brought many into poetry that may have otherwise not considered it relevant to them. I don't know how much influence he's had on my own poetry in any stylistic way. I knew quite a few who've "studied" with him, and had to laugh at the kind of formal criticisms he would often make---often involving removing of articles, etc. I could go into this more in depth later, but the point I need to stress is that the FIGURE of Ginsberg as a cultural worker remains important. I personally witnessed him talk people out of bad acid trips, for instance, and just as importantly, it was his role as public spokesman, as bridge between "high culture" figures like Shelley and Blake with his championship of (or one may even say crass commercial shameless self-promotion by glomming onto the energy and fame of figures like) Bob Dylan and The Clash. This was certainly not the ONLY option for a "successful poet" when I was coming of age (and even he would admit there was a decay in the intensity of his WRITING as he got older), but it WAS an option in a way that it's not so much today for many poets. In the course of the history of poetry, perhaps then the kind of public role Ginsberg celebrated and embodied, can be seen as an anomale, but for those of us who grew up while he was alive, the loss of that possible role is lamented in a way that it is not for many of those who first began writing and publishing poetry in the late 1990s and since. The hope, for me, is that this may change. The existence of a figure like Ginsberg or Baraka DOES NOT THREATEN the existence of a Jorie Graham or Peter Gizzi; at least in my opinion. The WRITING isn't always the most important thing.
What else do you have to share with us about Ginsberg? Please tell us, thank you.
If you want to look at my piece (about meeting him) on Gary Sullivan's blog (click HERE),feel free. I'd paste it in here, but I've already gone on pretty long.
Initially, a web search for "dirt" on Allen Ginsberg came up zero. No dirt. Or barely any. I found lots of praise for the man and poet who befriended criminals, was an "out" homosexual in a time when this was not condoned, fought the law on an obscenity trial and won, admittedly took drugs when american culture "just says no", wrote about subjects that at the time were "taboo," protested the government and it's various wars, and so on and so on.
I began to summarize my argument contrary to the statement, "a floodgate of vitriol." All I could find was that Norman Podhoretz slammed him (and if you want to listen to this name-dropping, opportunistic, pompous neoconservative who wrote a hysterical essay called: World War IV: How It Started, What It Means, and Why We Have to Win go right ahead), a friend of Ginsberg said he was arguing with him (meaning: Ginsberg could be difficult), he did drugs, he liked young boys (and had some association with NAMBLA), his poetry was too self-conscious and narrative (re: his later poems are weak), and I surmised after reading bio after bio of him, despite his Buddhist practice, he had the ego the size of New Jersey, his home state.
I typed in "ginsberg is a clown" in google and I was looking for a number of things, first his writing, and second his life. I surmised a number of things:
1) clown as trickster/ego/clown
2) clown as drugs
3) clown as poems
1- I took as his personality, a trickster mentality, an ego.
Although he was Jewish and an American Buddhist, he had elements of trickster, tho he did not bilk but he may have cajoled. He may have preened. It's understandable why some people did not or do not take him seriously. I saw Ginsberg perform in winter 1990 in Brattleboro VT (with my mom and Sean Cole - the place was packed but on the other hand, VT is a "blue state."). He "behaved" for a while and read poems, then did a performance piece called "Don't Smoke" (cigarettes that is). He stripped down to a loincloth, banged on a drum and chanted "don't smoke, don't smoke, don't smoke" over and over for a good 7-10 minutes. I'm sure many in the audience had visible question marks over their heads, translatable to: what the fuck? On the other hand, my mother was completely won over and bought a few books of his and has been a fan ever since. She owns 5 books of his; I own zero. I do, however, have an mp3 recording of his reading "Howl." I don't remember what I thought, but it was probably something like: I wish I had the balls to pull off something like this! Meaning: I want to make a complete ass of myself in public and get away with it and why not? It looked like Ginsberg was having fun, with himself and with the audience. If one can pull that off, great.
2- I took his drug use as something to consider
Regarding his drug use, it didn't seem to be a problem for him and in fact, he was open about it, The Yage Letters, for example. Yes, drug addiction and alcoholism are problems, but he wrote that if the united states would legalize marijuana (which is not physically addictive and actually beneficial in some cases) and had better treatment for addicts, we might have a more tolerant society.
I don't know if we would have a more tolerant society, but it would probably be less punitive. And I agree that our drug laws need to be revamped. It seems to be a sin just to drink alcohol these days. Of course he had no clear plan. Nor does anyone else, but he erred on the side of rehabilitation. How is this any more different than a drunken night out on the town? Well, only a little in that, marijuana, hash, opium, and such are harder to obtain and illegal. It seems that the united states wants to go for the bit time user vs. the real culprit: the us government. Those cocaine field in Columbia, those poppy fields / fuel Afghanistan...anyone?
I would advocate legalizing marijuana (for starters) but I don't trust the government these days. I don't have a problem with any writer's use of drugs and alcohol unless it causes a problem or kills them outright. Tho I'd like to point out that drug and alcohol use is contrary to one of the 5 precepts of Buddhism. and Chögyam Trungpa, Rinpoche, a mentor friend of Ginsberg, from the stories I read, had a big problem with alcohol.
3- I took his poems as a cursory yet serious reading
What worked for Ginsberg was a style that didn't vary all too much, long lines and phrases with a great influence by Walt Whitman. His early work is of course political and at the time transgressive - hence Howl's obscenity charge, which propelled the myth of the "beats" and made them famous. San Franciscan's have been complaining about the tourists and gawkers making their pilgrimage to North Beach ever since. Ginsberg's legend supersedes his poetry, especially his later work. "Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb" from the poem America, is a great line. My comment about his later work: maybe first thought wasn't always the best thought. Read: where's my editor? For someone's first introduction to poetry, Ginsberg is accessible, plainspoken, carefree and gay (in all senses of the word) as well as critical, a little whiny, angry and not bitter, and in short - human.
So I then typed in the phrase "ginsberg is a misogynist" in google. What came up was web links accusing Hillary Clinton of being "misogynist," Serge Gainsborg of being "misogynist" and Gregory Corso of being "misogynist." If of those three, I'd say Corso was more the culprit. The standard definition of "misogynist" is one who hates women. Did then Allen Ginsberg hate women? I don't think that would have been within his Buddhist nature, on the other hand, during the 1950s one could argue that the culture was "misogynist." As in, look at Ginsberg's company: Burroughs, Corso, Kerouac and to broaden the sphere, Spicer, Duncan, Blaser. Let's face it, do a cursory study of the 1950s and on the surface you will find sub-cultures replicating learned cultural mores. You will find this more with Kerouac than anyone, he being the most troublesome. Most if not all of the "beat" writers (and I've only named a few) seemed to be misogynist. It was an old boy's club. Half preferred men as sexual preference and the rest were horrible to their wives and girlfriends. In William Burroughs's case, he killed his wife in a stupid drunken William Tell "accident."1
When I speak of "cultural mores" I do not mean they are sanctioned or even reflect all of America. When Eisenhower was showing Khrushchev our American kitchen appliances, concurrently the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Blitis were founded, America was under McCarthy laws and any subversive Hollywood writer was blackballed (see: Dalton Trumbo). Any personal anecdote to Ginsberg being a misogynist isn't something I'm privy to. Did he prefer men? Certainly. That should be obvious. When women who knew him complain about this, are they listened to? Certainly not. Bc after all, we're all hysterical according to the essentialist argument. Except when we get to item two: "ginsberg is a pervert."
"Ginsberg is a pervert" either gave me salutations, exultations and exonerations of his being a "pervert" or conversely, those on the right wing who practically accused him of child molestation, and those who accused him of such, were male. Imagine that, the same self righteous sobs who are running our country and conducting mass now lecture on morality! Not only that, but running the phrase through google brought up more hits bashing Ruth Bader Ginsberg than Allen Ginsberg. Some liberal media. The issue here of his being a pervert is a) he's a homosexual b) he likes boys and c) he was affiliated with NAMBLA.
a) homosexuality is not perversion, no matter how much the right wing/christian wackos want it to be
b) more iffy
c) more iffy
Two and three are more iffy, but on the other hand not. I will side line this with a description of a calvin klein billboard ad in nyc. Name any. Pre-pubescent young men and women in various stages on half-nakedness on a billboard or on a side of a bus selling underwear. You have tv advertisements of women who lost 108 pounds dancing in a bikini bragging that they can eat steak and not gain the weight back. Name the mainstream obsession with Michael Jackson's so called and as of yet not completely unsubstantiated by law complaints that he molests 12-year-old cancer patients. Name any product that uses the phrase "anti-aging crème."
Name for that matter the age of consent and how it has risen from year to year. 100 years ago or so if you weren't married by age 21 you were a lost cause. In fact, there were no age of consent laws, the law was the father. As if "father" could be trusted...
Did Ginsberg like young boys? Seems so, yes. Do I understand this? No. Twelve year old boys were and are inept and stupid and awkward. I guess to some people this is endearing. I didn't find this the case when I was 12 and checking out boys. Does his affiliation with NAMBLA then condone "consensual relationships" with older men and younger men? I suppose so. Would this be any worse if he had affiliation with the John Birch Society?
Note that I am not condoning "non-consensual" sex, and I might be letting Ginsberg off the hook easy with his predilections, but on the other hand, the right wing / christian fundamentalists often accuse homosexuals of "sodomy" and "rape" and of "corrupting the young" hence that they don't want gay couples to marry or have children. Not only that, but by judging the websites I encountered, the men were more hysterical than the women. Men with a PC who seem to see themselves appointed by god to point out the wickedry and evilness of homosexuals. These same people never seem to get their briefs in a knot when daughters are being molested by their fathers or uncles. These same men have a heart attack about single women with two kids on welfare and food stamps, as if that's a sin. To be single. With children. On food stamps. Section 8 Housing. The horror! Our society will break down!
Yes there's a lot of sickos in the world, unfortunately sometimes the "sickos" preside in your own home instead of the "eccentric old man" in your neighborhood.2 Nor would I want to bring us back to the "idyllic" 1950s where the current administration would rather bring us, in that, war is natural, competition and strife were given, alienation was inevitable and that we should all put up with shoddy leadership for the "better good." And oh yes, keep your mouth shut. Don't ask; don't tell. You're either with us, or you're with the enemy.
In short, I'm not going to argue that Allen Ginsberg was our greatest poet. I'm not going to beatify him as others do, I'm not going to carry on the mystique of the "beat" writers. What I do and did like about him were the parts people had problems with. He was subversive, queer, outspoken, a little weird (well, a lot) and when I think if there was anything to like about the united states, I would put him in the "what's good about america" category. If you visit the american library association's web site of top 100 banned books, you will find a good portion of books "banned" are children and young adult books. I don't see Howl on that list. I do see a lot of Judy Blume tho...
1 This is why I haven not read much of Ginsberg, none of Burroughs, a poem here and there of Corso, some Ferlingetti, don't like Gary Snyder, did read Ken Kesey, and none of Kerouac. I didn't include other folks bc I'd be getting off topic. I found this group of people to be predominately a bunch of macho, sexist writers. I have in fact avoided these writers bc they have historically treated women like...objects. Maybe some day I will read On The Road, and maybe by then there will be less baggage surrounding them. They might have their merits; I might have missed the merit. They are a part of a "poetic history" but I'm not interested in hero worship. I am also sick of the "romanticism" regarding them. Does their literary standing merit this? It's quite possible I'm sick of their legend and cheap imitators. But if I haven't found Kerouac, for example, influential for my writing by now I never will. The legend of the "beats" is probably more of an influence than their actual work. We shall see.
2 Yes, NAMBLA is a little fucked up. Or not just a little, but on the other hand, I'm waiting for someone to propose an association called: I Love My Daughter Just A Little Too Much Association. And it's also called: Hey, Children Are Sexual Beings And Aren't We All Freaked Out About That? Conversely this is called: Our Society Is Too Fucked Up To Deal With That So We Need A Scapegoat. Conversely this is called: Sex Is Evil So Therefore The Condom Is Not Your Friend. Conversely, this is called: The Current Administration's Position Means The Missionary Position Between A Man And a Woman Is The Only Position.
In a rough time I worked amongst the stink of newish carpet, indoor fountain, and bestseller. This in my hometown of Berkeley. One day Allen Ginsberg came through to do a reading, imperious and stocky through the back door, next to which I stood manning the ‘cashwrap.’ He was whisked, and strode, into the awestruck crowd. A whiff of history, reality in that stodgy, corporate, dead-end space.
Later, just a bit, I lived for years near the Allen Ginsberg poetry garden on Milvia Street. I didn’t give it a lot of thought, in fact related most easily to Joanne Kyger’s descriptions of his boyish tyranny in her travelling diary*.
But I appreciate him and certainly live a bit in this atmosphere he helped create. It’s a nice tribute, the garden -- set in a little plot on the grounds of the arts-magnet elementary, with rotating displays of the kids’ poems on thick paper wrapped in plastic against the rain.
* Strange Big Moon: The Japan and India Journals: 1960-1964, North Atlantic Books, 2000.