Saturday, April 23, 2005

How Some Stand on ALLEN GINSBERG Today 

Recently I sent around some questions concerning Allen Ginsberg to a handful of poets. Those questions and answers are arranged below for you to read.

The list of participating poets:

Caroline Bergvall
Anselm Berrigan
Edmund Berrigan
Jim Cory
Jordan Davis
Brett Evans
Maria Mazziotti Gillan
Nada Gordon
Anselm Hollo
Chris McCreary
Carol Mirakove
Frank Sherlock
Chris Stroffolino
Christina Strong
Elizabeth Treadwell

Many thanks to all of you who took the time to participate in this Q&A,

Allen Ginsberg would be 79 years old this year. Although he has always been a controversial figure, a floodgate of vitriol against him has been released since his death. He has been publicly branded a misogynist, a pervert, a clown, and many other things. Not that he wasn't called these things in his lifetime, but since his death there has been a particularly intense wave of criticism coming from many different sources.

Are you familiar with these things I'm talking about? If so, would you care to comment?

Also, what does Ginsberg's work mean to you and your own poems?

What else do you have to share with us about Ginsberg? Please tell us, thank you.

Q1. Ginsberg is a misogynist a pervert and a clown.

Ginsberg's misogyny is something I have increasingly come across since being in the States. From the lived account of female poets. The extent of his despondency and disdain towards female peers has quite shocked me. Perhaps it shouldn't have. His work is very clear about what it rejects aesthetically (broadly, explicit artifice) and it is also profoundly unconcerned about a great number of things (ie. existing female figures/poets, though not his own feminised fantasies) which might have otherwise informed the movement he became such a central figure of. Diane Di Prima and Anne Waldman are very clear, in that documentary Beat Generation, about how the male poets had a tendency to speak among themselves, to develop their own social codes, to avoid close fraternising with female poets, thus making sure to keep Beat to themselves and for themselves.

There is in this a particularly old-fashioned form of male homosexual and homosocial bonding, which is at the root of these short-sighted and deeply problematic attitudes towards gender (their own notwithstanding!). Very conventional views about art and genius as unquestioned male domain are also obviously at work. If this is still more or less a norm among artists in the late 50s early 60s, it is suprising how he and his pals never much bothered to change with the times, and seemed never to include gender (or even their own masculinity as gender) as part of their ideas of social change. The many different reactions to the Beats' anti-intellectuality and unquestioned poetic subjectivity which followed, later in the form of LANGUAGE notably, is in this respect a welcome relief to this rather stifling aspect of the era/aura.

In a sense, it is punk music, punk writers, inspired more by Burroughs than Ginsberg, of the mid- to late 70s, the rise of performance arts and the insistent fact of feminism's stronger cultural foothold in the arts since the 60s, that forced change in this gender imbalance and let through gendered anger, gendered fantasies, and generally a more sexually and also culturally diverse, complex and queer view of poetic sexualities. Now of course, there's been so much of it that many think we've gone past politics of gender and more or less past politics of sexual difference. After barely 100 (50?) years of collective work! The climate is such at present, and in England and parts of Europe too, that soon we might well find ourselves squarely back at square one: the fear of sex, the horror of human bodies, and a reindoctrination into two antagonised (essentialised) genders.

Q2. What Ginsberg means to me and my work.

Paradoxically, given my own work and comments above, Ginsberg has become quite important to me as a reader. His work only affects my work indirectly. Although the list I wrote for my piece GONG may well owe something to his poetry. Just a few years ago, I read Indian Journals and loved both how distant it seems culturally and yet how fresh and unhinged the writing is. A dream diary in late surrealist vein. At the same time, I came across Patty Smith's gorgeous, slumberous reading of his "Footnote to Howl" in her Peace and Noise album. This sent me back to my battered copy of the text and other pieces. Very recently, I've enjoyed the seminal Composed On the Tongue series of essays and interviews. His interest in verbal breath and vibratory practices for a form of body poetry is of particular interest to me. His interest in the highly formal yet spontaneous structures of the blues. Also the long notes on the audio compositions of the Whichita Vortex Sutra. There's a great piece by Michael Davidson in Sound States on the Beats' use of the tape recorder for writing.

What attracts me the most in his poetry is his generous sense towards his teachers and peers. His long epigraphs. His emphatic yet structured lines. His use of repetition and devotional vocabulary for poetic purposes and for line punctuation. His flattened mix of autobiographical and public imageries. His robust and uncompromising inclusion of homosexual desire and sexual appetite in his poetry long before Stonewall. His social conscience and the way he believes in poetry as being able to affect social change through individual awareness.The sloppiness of many of his later poems and the fact that he is quite peaceful about letting it all be published. The way he argues for writing more poems than one could reasonably read. There is in this an acknowledgment of the inevitable imperfection of art, and of living, yet also an enjoyment of its ephemeral, temporary nature. There is in this a deep understanding of one's own (short-lived) timeliness.

Q3. What else I could say about Ginsberg.

I've recently come from spending many years in England where Ginsberg is not as prominent as he ever was here and where the shower of insults you mention doesnt seem to have had the same strong emotive hold. But then Ginsberg is fundamentally, importantly an American, a whitmanesque, poet and it is here that his legacy will always affect, offend and irritate the most.

The problem is the lack of depthful conversation, writing and thinking about Ginsberg's work. It's much easier to talk about him as a figure because that, generally speaking, requires very little effort of mind at all. There is no Allen Ginsberg-as-social-phenomenon without his poems, and the poems, right up until the very end (read the title poem in Death and Fame, for instance) are utterly unique and often astonishingly good. To point to "Howl" and maybe "Kaddish", bow to their altars, and move on without a word to anything else is a cop out, but there are a lot of folks doing the culture war boogie on both sides that like to play cop. The complexity, spirit and range of Ginsberg's poetry, if we can begin to articulate these things beyond the pseudo-democratic language of surface culture and the bullshit that is literary/intellectual fashion, will outlast his attackers.

Allen was a complicated person, whose private and public generosity has benefited all poets. If you doubt it read the transcript of the Howl censorship trial. All poets have benefited from this, period. I would guess Allen’s contributions greatly outnumber those of his critics. This really can’t be overstated. Of course Allen was a flawed person, like everyone else, and probably paid more attention to young attractive men in general. But he had strong friendships with women and that’s probably easy for people who didn’t know him to overlook. Allen’s honesty about his life, his body, his thoughts also make him an easy target for those who wish to take issue, or criticize his work, but I count this among his strengths, personally & professionally. Allen was unique, we were lucky to have him, and I think about him with pride and a sense of duty. It seems that he left us right when we could’ve used his clarity and directness. Allen’s contributions as a political writer and activist are strongly reflected in my generation, again, prodigiously in both women and men. This is not to say he was on the forefront of feminism, this is to say that his contributions surpassed his person and spread far beyond it.

I would also say that I’ve only known Allen as kind, wild, energetic, honest, and positive in all my personal interactions or public observations of him, and he comes up often in my thoughts.

Yes, I'm answering my own question!

There have been many attacks on Ginsberg since his death that I have witnessed, heard of, and even taken part in defending the poet. Not blindly defending the poet mind you, but insisting the attackers make themselves clear about their accusations.

More often the argument has been that Allen Ginsberg was a misogynist. Okay, let's talk about it I'd say, but all I would ever add up in these debates were vague feelings that a certain woman poet here or there felt ignored. I mean, really, is that evidence? Well I have met plenty of women who knew him, studied with him, taught with him, etc., who have had nothing but marvelous things to say about the man Allen Ginsberg, about how generous and amazing he always was. If anyone has an actual firsthand account that is contrary to this, then bring it on!

I'm not afraid of listening to what you have to say. I'm not afraid of discovering that Ginsberg might have been a misogynist, but I AM afraid he was most certainly NOT and is now being wrongfully accused. "Misogyny" is a terrible thing when it is true, or can be a terrible weapon if it is not.

The type of slander that has been thrown at Ginsberg gets whispered down the filthy streets and soon enough everyone just believes. Everyone gives up and just believes with lazy ears and lazy hearts. Until someone brings me a solid argument defending this slander I will argue and argue and call bullshit bullshit!

But was he a pervert? How delicious! I hope so, and I hope he had fun! So long as we're dealing with legal age adults who are having consensual relations, then anyone getting in their way should just piss off and get a life! I had an argument about Ginsberg on the Buffalo Poetics List with one such poet who needs a life. The homophobia he displayed about Ginsberg made me certain he has had more than his share of fantasies about men, to his horror, in his dreams, when and where he cannot control the action! Ooo my!

On the other hand, joys of perversion aside, it still bugs me to this day that Ginsberg supported NAMBLA. As far as I know he did not ever have, or claim to have, or claim to be interested in having sex with boys. Boys meaning boys by the way, not 19 year olds, but meaning 8 year olds. When I first started working at the queer bookstore in Philadelphia I had no idea the store sold the NAMBLA bulletin, until I had to ring it up. Oh BOY, I mean, Oh MAN, I mean, I mean it really was weird having it there and not knowing. I had a HUGE argument with my boss who THREW Allen Ginsberg in my face while defending it, and it is the only time in my life I ever said, "I DON'T CARE WHAT ALLEN GINSBERG HAS TO SAY ABOUT THIS!" It really was shitty of my boss to use Ginsberg like that, but to be honest, well, he wasn't making it up, so, was it really unfair to use Ginsberg? I wish I had had the opportunity to discuss NAMBLA with Ginsberg, because I believe he defended it the way my boss did, which was by way of First Amendment protection. Maybe I'm wrong though, maybe Ginsberg DID advocate having sex with boys. Whether he did or not, defending NAMBLA really is defending having sex with boys, destroying boys. Boys don't want to be fucked and beaten, they really don't. I was a boy, and I didn't want it, and I knew lots of others boys when I was a boy and none of them wanted to be fucked and beaten either. Boys want joy and care and to have fun, like girls, only different. Well, I actually liked the toys the girls had better than the toys of the boys, but that's something else of course. But back to NAMBLA, it's an organization which has NO shame or understanding about what they advocate. They are this weird organization that seems to want to bring everyone together like one big cozy, what? I won't hate Ginsberg for this because he wasn't a pedophile himself, like my boss. My boss was not a pedophile, but as I pointed out to him he was aiding a crime with a lifetime of trauma as a result. Defending the right for NAMBLA bulletin to be printed is along the lines of defending the Klan for cross burning. It's where Free Speech tests us like nothing else.

On the other hand...
The importance of Allen Ginsberg to my first awakenings as a poet is so powerful it's nearly impossible to word. I grew up on the verge of the internet in a dusty, working class rural town where the books you found were all the books that existed as far you could tell. That library was unaware of the ocean, and a young poet studied the puddles wanting more. But HOWL, when HOWL came to me there (HOWL really was and is everywhere, as I'm sure you are very much aware), HOWL helped me flinch into other possibilities. And I'm confessing now that when I moved to the city and saw the ocean for the first time I put HOWL off to the side. Looking back now I can see that it was an immature gesture, a simple psychological trick to not remind myself of my poverty. It wasn't until I heard Allen Ginsberg read a few years later in Philadelphia at The Painted Bride Arts Center that I was finally aware of how important he had been and continued to be for me, and for poets everywhere.

That reading continues to be one of the most powerful events I've ever experienced. Granted I was a little stoned, and with my older boyfriend Barry who insisted I jerk him off during "Sunflower Sutra," but Ginsberg filled the room with what many have once called Magic. Magic is one of those words that seems to embarrass some when saying it. Well I'm not embarrassed, and I know it when I feel it. And I do mean FEEL it, because the energy the air your blood everything bends into the curve they are creating, and Allen Ginsberg shot us to the curve over and over that night!

For the love of Ginsberg! Missing him!

I haven't actually heard those charges made. Certainly there's some element of truth to each, though none are essential to the man, only aspects of him or, perhaps more accurately, byproducts of the persona he cultivated. Was AG a misogynist? Well, he was a gay man, and paid an inordinate amount of attention to men. That's the nature of the beast, ladies. (Although his best poem - Kaddish - is about a woman, his mother.) My guess is that that's probably what a lot of this is about and whoever's leveling that charge - of misogyny - is simply giving voice to their/her own homophobia. In my experience, the "woman hater" label, when applied to gay men, usually comes down to the accuser's own petty bourgeois prejudices. Ditto for the next charge. Pervert. That sounds like an epithet Ralph Reed, Jerry Falwell or some similar type of cultural brownshirt would fling. What exactly constitutes perversity? Anything outside the missionary position? I suspect this one is about AG's decided - and unconcealed - admiration for young, i.e, under 21, men. That is a desire shared by far more people - of both sexes - than would ever actually own up to it. AG was simply guilty of honestly expressing his fantasies and desires, and his technique - which consisted of arranging notebook material in poetic long lines - made it inevitable that these would see print. Philistines may bristle - it's always about subject matter with these people, isn't it? - but by doing so he considerably extended the range of subject. His brilliance - and his contribution - was to create a tone & form that allowed for discussion of what had previously been considered inappropriate, or tasteless.

As for being a clown, he was merely guilty of having a sense of humor and the skill to make it intrinsic to his work.

Is it possible to envy the dead? Apparently so.

I encountered AG's poems at age 16 thru friends. (This would've been in 1969 or 70.) The great thing about his books/poems were that they presupposed acceptance of the writer's self-referenced homosexuality, yet were hip & forward thinking enough that few challenged this implicit transgression. He became one of the poets I shamelessly imitated. Like many 60s teens, I found myself committing whole sections of Howl to memory. His reinvigoration of the catalog poem - which I suspect he picked up from the French & Spanish surrealists, rather than Whitman - provided a model I've always found useful. He remains among the poets I periodically re-read and inevitably with pleasure. Time has shown his work to be energetic & original.

AG in person was extraordinary. I encountered him several times in contexts of readings/tours & was amazed at his cool detachment from the attendant hysteria & groupie-dom. He was completely free of self-importance, which, to say the least, is highly unusual in the poetry world. I served as his host for several hours at the Painted Bride Art Center prior to introducing him at a reading that, I believe, drew the largest crowd ever to that august Philadelphia institution. This would've been in the spring of 1990. "Do you have a boyfriend?" he asked, at one point, as we were sitting in the dressing room talking. No, I told him. He seemed genuinely perplexed. "Imagine that," he said to someone a few feet away from us who was adjusting lights or something. "He doesn't have a boyfriend." I was at a dinner with him a few years later, in St. Paul, after he had just given a kick-ass reading at a local college. Where many celebrity artists seize the floor & never yield it - Robert Duncan was infamous for this - AG was polite, low-key, funny, inquisitive. He had humility, and it was genuine. The older I get, the more I admire that, especially in someone so accomplished.

Jim Cory

First of all I want to say that the convention of referring to a writer by his or her last name flies out the window with Allen Ginsberg -- I met him a few times but that's not why "Ginsberg" sits on the edge of the ear and doesn't rest. He was Allen, and so I hope he will continue to be.

I don't think we're seeing a post-mortem backlash. What I do think is that the criticism has continued to grow while the critical re-appraisals and contextualizations have yet to come in. The arrival of Allen's defenders is so belated partly because the Allen industry (the late Mr. Ginsberg CEO) treated him as a posthumous author from the 1984 collected poems on. Biographies during the life -- how many other poets get that kind of respect?

My sense is that when Allen is reread over the next ten years, yes the discussion will have to cover his stubborn tone-deaf support of NAMBLA and the stories of his protective/abusive behavior toward people in his circle, but also we'll get to say goodbye to the canard that he wrote two or three masterpieces and that's about it.

Allen didn't single-handedly bring about the tumult of the 60s, but he didn't mind being the international symbol of radical change. As the pendulum nears the outer edge of its swing in the other direction I hope, we're seeing constant vicious attacks on FDR, even. All in all I think the bad guys are letting Allen off easy -- they're going after Ammiel Alcalay instead, which tells me that I haven't given Ammiel enough credit.

Also, what does Ginsberg's work mean to you and your own poems?

It took me a while to get over his cool distance and near-complete obliviousness to what seemed to me was interesting in his own work. I got over it. His prosody is unstoppable (that's a good thing), his epithets are bulldozers, and his spirit will not be diverted. Love those two-to-four word noun clusters. I remember wanting to do what he did without the repetitiousness -- to dream the impossible dream...

What else do you have to share with us about Ginsberg? Please tell us, thank you.

I was very proud when, during a Valentine's Day reading at St Mark's, he gave a poem of mine a Bill Luoma-style hearty laugh. And I was amused when, at Kenneth Koch's apartment, he asked me how Kenneth treated lineovers in his typescripts.

That's all I've got right now -- thanks for asking.


I know a lot of people (poets) aren't very high on the Kashner book, WHEN I WAS COOL. But one thing that really came across in it to me was how Ginsberg managed to A) actually help get a poetry school up and running and B) maintain his steez in the pastel hinterlands of 80s America -- the book actually made him (Ginny) even COOLER in my estimation. Weirdly enough it made me nostalgic for the excampus 80s life (similar in that book to what I experienced in the Codrescu-&-pals--tinctured LSU scene in Baton Rouge) -- I didn't realize that this first decade of the 21st century would make that time seem raw and (gulp) "authentic" in its way.

Thusly, I've come to appreciate more and more with time GInsberg's investing of all the apparatuses of life with poetic grace and malady. By temperament and inclination, I hewed more naturally as a youngster to the likes of Berrigan in his more romantic way of glowing up the soda can or other li'l bits of the everyday, which I still love, but also dig increasingly the Ginsberg method as time goes on. There's just something about his maniacal dating and cataloging of his work that raises it not only to the Blake point but also the stuff of stiff timber such as any good accountant would beef out his file drawer with.


I believe that Ginsberg has often been the subject of controversy;however,the kind of nastiness that appears to be emerging since his death is very disturbing. The summer after his death, I taught at Naropa, a place he helped to found and support, where very disrespectful comments were made about him in the presence of a tent full of students and faculty. I felt called upon to defend Allen who had always been very supportive of the Poetry Center and of my work in Paterson with poetry. - I was particularly disturbed that these disparaging remarks were made at Naropa, a place so much associated with Allen.

I believe that Allen was responsible for radically changing American poetry and that in particular, his books, Kaddish, Howl, and America, taught us the value of specificity and directness and honesty. I believe that he also made room for women poets and poets of many ethnicities, races, and sexual orientation, and that without him, those voices would not have been heard. He told me once that William Carlos Williams suggested to him that the sonnets he was writing when he was at Columbia, those deadly poems about waterfowl, were not what he should be writing. He suggested that Allen write about Paterson and the life he had experienced. Those letters and conversations with Williams resulted in Allen's book, Howl. The publication of that book is the demarcation point for a radical change in American poetry, a change that gives it its vitality and power.

Lastly,I'd like to say that at Ginsberg was always generous about helping younger writers. I recall a reading that he gave for me as part of conference on Williams and the poetry of urban experience. Allen had recently had heart attack and he agreed to participate in the conference anyway. Even after the conference was officially over, Allen agreed to go over poems by several poets and to allow young film=makers to interview him for a documentary. He must have been exhausted after signing books and posters and after a conference that ran much longer than we had thought. I think that generosity marked him clearly as a truly exceptional human being and poet. Allen would find a level of humor, I think, in the small-minded people who are attacking him; I feel t;ese attacks are fueled by jealousy adn by the knowledge that Allen's place in America's literary history is secure.

Maria Mazziotti Gillan,
Executie Driector, Poetry Center, Passaic County Community College

I'm not really aware of the floodgate of vitriol, although if it does exist, it is perhaps an inevitable counter to the (for me, hard-to-take-) hagiography that has surrounded Ginsberg for so long. I am not aware of any notable misogyny from Ginsberg -- certainly no more than was emitted by other male members of his generation, even those with "the best minds" (gag). There is the weird part about his mom's crotch in Kaddish, but you could almost read that as a love poem, and as weird as the image of his mom's crotch is, it is certainly memorable.

I am not surprised that people think of him as a pervert, but it is not my place or my nature to judge him as such. It always seemed to me that his approach to sexuality was somewhat abject, rather than abusive, and I haven't heard about anyone coming forth to say that they were tramautized by him. And while I do believe that children need some kind of protection from experiences they are not ready for, or that they do not want, I don't necessarily believe that the legal definition of "a minor" can or should apply to everyone in all circumstances. Pretty much everyone I know has been sexually active jailbait at some time in their lives, often with much older partners. And besides, the times in which Ginsberg presided in the center of the right place at the right time were exceedingly liberal, and the "normal" norms (such as they are in 2005?!?) didn't always apply. I have heard that his pick-up line to attractive young men at parties was "Do you want to make me come?" You have to admire his direct approach.

That he was a clown is what I treasure most about him. He was a wonderful entertainer and cantor. I remember seeing him perform splendidly at Naropa in the 90s: "Don't smoke don't smoke don't smoke smoke pot smoke pot suck cock..." (a loose paraphrase). And my very best memory is of him leading a whole-audience reading of Shelley's Ode to the West Wind. That was perfectly enlivening. It made me understand why people loved him so much, although most of his poems have always seemed pretty weak and chatty to my ear. Of his crew, I prefer the poems of Corso, Whalen, McClure, and Kerouac, in that order. Especially Corso and Whalen.

If you mean his work in popularizing "marginal" poetry and his empassioned scholarship and style of declamation, I suppose it means a great deal, but his actual poetry has no direct influence on my poems that I can discern.

When I saw him in person, I was surprised by how petite he was.

He looked like he could be a relative of mine.

I enjoyed reading about him in Joanne Kyger's Japan Journal. That's a really wonderful book that helped sustain me during my own Tokyo years.

I can think of many other poets who should be at least a tenth as famous. Sigh.

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