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Allen Ginsberg’s Many Contradictions

REAKTION BOOKS

REAKTION BOOKS

BY DOUG IRELAND | You may think you know who Allen Ginsberg was. His name alone conjures up what Thomas Pynchon called the “anarcho-psychedelic” era, a counterculture of which Ginsberg was both the media symbol and the progenitor. But a recent critical biography published in London by Reaktion Books paints a picture that explodes myths about the poet and agitator — some of them engendered by Ginsberg himself.

Take Ginsberg’s relationship with Peter Orlovsky. When Gay Sunshine Press, in 1980, published “Straight Heart’s Delight: Love Poems and Selected Letters” by Ginsberg and Orlovsky, it was intended as “a celebration of their 25 years together as lovers.” But, Steve Finbow’s new “Allen Ginsberg” tells us, “Allen maintained the pretence that they were a couple: in reality, the relationship was fake, poisonous, and detrimental to the mental health (and happiness) of both men.”

Signature counter-culture poet’s work could be trivial; man with vast friendship web lacked intimate love

Orlovsky’s profound mental illness and manic-depressive outbursts and physical violence toward Ginsberg — including assaults with a machete and an iron bar — were so recurrent and severe that at one point, after many Orlovsky sojourns in the mental wards at Bellevue, Ginsberg went to court and took out a restraining order against him.

In fact, Ginsberg maintained the myths about his relationship with Orlovsky to mask — to others and to himself — his inability to form a loving sexual relationship with another man. And this was born in part out of the deep guilt Ginsberg felt at having consented to a lobotomy for his mentally ill mother back in the days before this surgical intervention was discredited as a “cure” for illnesses of the mind.

Ginsberg was, in fact, as Finbow — a friend of Ginsberg who teaches at South Africa’s North-West University — tells us, a masochist who had many temporary boyfriends but who almost always chose as his love objects “straight” men, dooming their relationships to failure even when he managed to seduce them.

By the time of his death in 1997, Ginsberg was firmly ensconced as part of America’s literary establishment — a member of the American

Academy of Arts and Letters, a winner of the National Book Award (for his collection of poems “The Fall of America”), a recipient of the National Arts Club’s Gold Medal, and a tenured professor at Brooklyn College. And Ginsberg’s final years were made more comfortable when Stanford University paid him $1 million for his archive of photos, artifacts, manuscripts, and even laundry lists, filling boxes that stretched 1,000 feet.

Was Ginsberg a great poet? Certainly he wrote a number of great poems. When fellow poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Books in San Francisco published “Howl,” his epic poem of alienation from America, in 1956, it catapulted Ginsberg into national celebrity, with the book tried for obscenity by a San Francisco prosecutor. (The court rejected the prosecutor’s charge.) These events were captured in the excellent 2010 experimental film “Howl” by Academy Award winners Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, which starred the intelligent actor and writer James Franco in a sharp and sensitive performance as Ginsberg.

As the poet Michael McClure wrote, the publication of “Howl” heralded “that a barrier had been broken, that a human voice and body had been hurled against the harsh wall of America and its supporting armies and navies and academies and institutions and ownership systems and power support bases.”

I well remember how, at the age of 12, I purchased a copy of “Howl” with money I’d collected from the deposits on soda bottles. It was for me a transgressive act.

“Howl” was noted for its overt and explicit celebrations of homosexuality, at a time when sodomy laws made same-sex love illegal and psychiatry declared it a form of mental illness.

And there was also “Kaddish,” another epic, early Ginsberg poem that the culture welcomed into the literary canon.

But much of Ginsberg’s later work is either unreadable or trivial. To take just one example, the poem he wrote in 1994 to the tune of “Here We Go ‘Round the Mulberry Bush”:

I got old and shit in my pants
Shit in my pants
Shit in my pants
I got old and shit in my pants
Shit in my pants again.

As Finbow writes, “For Ginsberg, language speaks only of him, the poet Allen Ginsberg. His poems are autobiographical confessions in which ‘Allen’ performs, their form driven by self-referential content. Ginsberg’s poetics comprise the liberation and revelation of the author in the very act of living.“

There have been other full-length biographies of Ginsberg, notably those by Barry Miles, Michael Schumacher, Ed Sanders, and Bill Morgan. But one of the merits of Finbow’s more spare critical study — filled with details of Ginsberg’s friendships, travels, and activism — is that it reminds us of what a workaholic Ginsberg was, despite the multiple illnesses that plagued him and against the advice of his doctors.

In addition to the 24 books that bear his signature, Ginsberg was a master networker with thousands of friends across the world. He was a constant force who shepherded the writings of his friends to publication. Thus, without the constant editorial collaboration and promotion by Ginsberg, drug-addled William Burroughs’ chef d’oeuvre “Naked Lunch” would never have seen the light of day, nor would Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” or Gregory Corso’s poetry.

Ginsberg set up the Committee on Poetry as a non-profit project to encourage avant-garde poetry and political activism, and poured all the money he made from his lecture tours and poetry readings into it. His protests and politics and civil disobedience, as well as his “obscene” poetry, made him the most arrested poet of the 20th century.

Ginsberg dreamed of becoming a rock star, and toured and recorded with John Lennon, Bob Dylan, the Clash’s Joe Strummer, and Philip Glass, among others, and made numerous albums of his poetry.

He spent years tracking and researching the CIA’s involvement in drug smuggling, and in 1971 lunched with New York Times columnist and editorialist C.L. Sulzberger to make his case, which Sulzberger dismissed as mere “paranoia.” When reports surfaced in the press seven years later confirming his findings, Ginsberg was rewarded with a note of apology from Sulzberger.

Ginsberg was tireless in lending his presence to benefits for an endless list of causes and friends, from Bangladesh’s starving masses to the defense of Timothy Leary to poetry projects and publications. He was also involved in the struggles against America’s war in Vietnam and its support for the contras in Nicaragua, and he was always available to fight against censorship whenever it raised its ugly head. For Ginsberg, “court appearances became the new performance poetry,” Finbow writes. Ginsberg won numerous battles against the Federal Communications Commission’s censorious strictures, helping create more liberty on our airwaves.

I had only a nodding acquaintance with Ginsberg, whom I confess was never really my cup of tea — his adventures in Buddhism, a religion that promotes the abnegation of the self, seemed to me hypocritical given his capacious, not to say domineering, egotism, and as a deep-dyed atheist I’ve always been turned off by the mystical. Moreover, his endless search for the “perfect high” from a myriad of hallucinogenic drugs struck me as largely a waste of time.

But Finbow’s meticulously documented study reminded me of Ginsberg’s admirable courage and his devotion to helping others, and it can be read with profit by all of us. He was an outsized international figure who consciously built his outrageous image, and we can still learn much from his life, which was studded with a truly astonishing range of friendships with some of the last century’s most celebrated writers, artists, and poets. We shall not see Ginsberg’s like again.

An extensive compilation of Ginsberg’s writings, recordings, photographs, and more can be found online at the Allen Ginsberg Project (allenginsberg.org).

ALLEN GINSBERG | By Steve Finbow | Reaktion Books | $16.95 | 235 pages | reaktionbooks.co.uk

9 Responses to Allen Ginsberg’s Many Contradictions

  1. David Ehrenstein April 25, 2013 at 10:32 am

    Being deeply nvolved with the avant-garde film scene in New Yrok I ran into Allen a lot. I invariably found him sweet, funny and charming. Obviously this was buy one angle ofhim. He was clearly as te saying goes "a piece of work." His relatonhip with orlovsky was by no means what he hoped it would have been, given Orlovsky's ragng bi-polarity. But it was love of a sort.I wishe Robert Frank's "Me and My Brother" were more widely available. It gos into Peter and Julius in great detail — and Allen is of course in there too.

    Reply
  2. @stevesilberman April 25, 2013 at 8:27 pm

    Doug, I knew Ginsberg well for 20 years, and was his teaching assistant at Naropa University, and I must say, you're quite wrong in many of the assertions you make, particularly at the beginning of this piece.

    Allen and Peter loved one another deeply. Yes, Peter had serious problems — schizophrenia was prevalent in his family, and his abuse of alcohol, cocaine and amphetamines later in his life did not help. Eventually, Allen sought help at Hazelden, the famed addiction treatment center, so that he could understand (as the loved one of any addict must eventually understand) how his own behavior might have been enabling Peter. But that was because they loved one another. Allen could easily have abandoned Peter and had a less stressful life, but they stuck with one another because they had made a sacred vow early in their relationship not to enter Heaven without the other. It's particularly distressing to see this shallow dismissal and derogation of their devotion to one another in a gay publication; they were the first gay "married" couple that most people in my generation ever saw. It sounds like you're getting your bad information on that from Finbow; I'm curious to see the book myself.

    Likewise, the characterization of Ginsberg's deep and lasting friendships with straight men as "doomed" is histrionic and shallow. Frankly, the numerous guys I know who loved Allen profoundly would laugh or weep at how wrong that is. Yes, most of them were primarily heterosexual and ended up marrying women, whether they slept with hm or not, but they maintained those soul connections with him until his death. Would they have slept with him if he wasn't famous? Who knows. Allen was charming, sweet, and attentive in ways that made him quite lovable. (No, I never slept with him myself.) I'll grant that Allen tended to get crushes on younger guys who would never have been able to be his peers, but to brand these relationships as doomed simply ignores the fact that they flourished and lasted for decades, sexually or not.

    I frankly don't even know what to make of this:

    > Was Ginsberg a great poet? Certainly he wrote a number of great poems.

    I dunno, Doug, was Picasso a great painter? Certainly he painted a lot of great paintings. Was Charlie Parker a great sax player? It's a mystery! Despite the fact that he played such great alto sax on so many landmark jazz recordings, he might *not* have been a great sax player. Am I getting this right?

    Your choice of the mulberry bush poem as a basis to dismiss, well, nearly every poem he ever wrote after Howl and Kaddish, is the laziest and most blatant kind of cherry-picking. Were the Beatles truly a good band beyond "Revolver"? Let's see, "to take one example," let's go with… "Revolution 9." It's intolerable! No one would ever sing it in the shower. No commercial potential whatsoever. Clearly, the Beatles were overrated.

    As anyone who has actually read Allen's allegedly "unreadable" work knows, there are plenty of high points after Howl and Kaddish. For starters: Kral Majales, The End, Wichita Vortex Sutra, Wales Visitation, The Change, Jahweh and Allah Battle, Plutonium Ode, White Shroud, After Lalon, Written in My Dreams By W.C. Williams… and so on. Had you actually read this stuff, you'd know that Allen himself realized, quite early in his career in fact, that the search for highs of any type, "perfect" or otherwise — pharmaceutical or mystical — were a indeed a waste of precious time. In fact, he addresses that realization at length in his work (as in, say, The Change). That's precisely why he became a student of Buddhism: so he could stop searching for cosmic highs, and ground himself in the here and now, and in the realities of old age, sickness, and death.

    Claiming that his massive ego made him a "hypocritical" Buddhist is like claiming that an overweight person who goes to Weight Watchers is a hypocrite, because they're obviously not watching their weight. Buddhism offers specific prescriptions for the overgrowth of ego — that's exactly why Allen sought help and advice there. Summing up Buddhism as "abnegation of the self" is an oversimplification.

    The latter half of the article is generally more accurate and insightful. I hope your readers are not misled by your (or Finbow's) claim that Allen and Peter's relationship was "fake." They had serious problems, which Allen in particular went to great lengths to address. Thankfully, Peter was cared for in his own last years by Allen's Buddhist community. Their relationship was not easy, but it was as real as it gets.

    Reply
  3. Jim Cohn April 25, 2013 at 9:55 pm

    Regarding this statement: "But much of Ginsberg’s later work is either unreadable or trivial. To take just one example, the poem he wrote in 1994 to the tune of 'Here We Go ‘Round the Mulberry Bush,'" how could you possible make a jump from "Kaddish," written in 1956, and then fast forward to one of the poems from "Death & Fame: Last Poems 1993-1997" which was not even edited for publication by Allen who had drafts of poems he never got to finish. Your example basically ignores his entire work and is less than credible. This is about the worst scholarship or reporting on scholarship or review of scholarship I've ever seen. The writer is lucky to have given you the nod to write this since, as you admit, you held little regard for the poet, and know not of what you are saying.

    As for this quote: "As Finbow writes, 'For Ginsberg, language speaks only of him, the poet Allen Ginsberg. His poems are autobiographical confessions in which ‘Allen’ performs, their form driven by self-referential content. Ginsberg’s poetics comprise the liberation and revelation of the author in the very act of living,'" what kind of gibberish is this? Are we to take such sophistry seriously? What does Finbow even mean by "For Ginsberg, language speaks only of him…" That doesn't even register as an understandable thought? Did it make sense to you? Had you ever heard anyone talk about language in such a way? It doesn't even get at the methodology of Allen expressing his own secret naked thoughts aloud as a way to connect with others and their own secret naked thoughts. To say that he had no sense of others in his language is categorically false.

    Reply
    • @stevesilberman April 26, 2013 at 12:06 am

      Jim, I actually think I get what Doug was going for with this:

      > Ginsberg’s poetics comprise the liberation and revelation of the author in the very act of living

      For Allen, his life and his poetry were unified. You and I know it wasn't quite that way, and in fascinating and subtle ways; but that was Allen's own PR about himself, and Doug is right to pick up on it. The poet even played with the idea in lines like "I am a prisoner of Allen Ginsberg." Just before my book on the Grateful Dead came out, I asked him what it was like to be famous. He said, "Always remember, 'Je est un autre.'"

      I do think he ended up feeling like some of "Fall of America" was too verbatim and unfiltered, stuff from the radio and whatnot, but I think Doug was saying something there that's valid.

      Reply
  4. jim fouratt April 28, 2013 at 3:45 pm

    I first met Allen in San Francisco in 1962-3.I knew him until he died. Allen did not desire gay men, He desired straight or "confused " men.

    Allen was the straight literary world and the left political world's favorite homosexual. And shielded them from ever accepting how they could be homophobic . He was not, contrary to his own fabricating at Stonewall the first night of the Rebellion.

    He did love Peter and took care of him and his girlfriends until Allen died.

    Allen was always concerned about his public image. Although I asked a number of times to tell the truth about his relationship with Peter, he refused. I did spend time with Allen , Peter , his girlfriend and Peter's brother Julius in Cherry Valley.

    Allen and I were the only two voices inside the Youth International Party (YIPPIE) that objected to the way the ABBIE gang was promoting Chicago during the Democratic convention as a Woodstock like rock festival. We both knew that only John Sinclair had committed the MC-5 to appear. We both knew it would be a confrontation with the police. And wanted this to be up front rather than manipulating kids to come unprepared for what we knew would take place. Abbie refused . Particularly after I had gone with Abbie etc to Chicago in June to apply for a permit to stay overnight in the Park.

    I consider Allen a great american poet and some of his work I consider as good as anything in the American cannon. Sure he could write crap..but what poet does not … the fact that he was like a faucet of words and since his death almost anything he out his name to is published , one has to be selective when considering his poetry.

    I have not read the book so I will stop here .

    But let me be clear ..despite all his contradictions Allen was a force for peace in the world. I loved him

    Reply
  5. peter nolan smith April 28, 2013 at 6:50 pm

    I concur with jim. HOWL stood out in a time of surrender. The poet spoke against the status quo in a time of utter silence.

    His words ring true today.

    Democracy! Bah! When I hear that I reach for my feather boa! – Allen Ginsberg

    Reply
  6. John Penley April 28, 2013 at 7:31 pm

    My photo of Ginsberg protesting the first Gulf War… .http://www.flickr.com/photos/tamiment/8632163794/in/set-72157620867253660

    Reply
  7. Stuart Baanstra April 30, 2013 at 6:41 am

    "…chose as his love objects "straight" men", Doug? We're not all clones, in clone-relationships.

    Reply
  8. carol ann March 26, 2015 at 12:06 am

    lol talk about the fact that he was a fucking pedophile

    Reply

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