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The Dreams of Allen Ginsberg

The Yage Letters Redux

by William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, edited and with an introduction by Oliver Harris
City Lights Books, 127 pp., $13.95 (paper)

1.

Allen Ginsberg died on April 5, 1997, in the loft on East Thirteenth Street that he had purchased a couple of years earlier with money raised from the sale of his vast archive to Stanford University. Although his collection of drafts, letters, journals, and photographs had been assessed as worth over $5 million, such a sum could only have been realized if Ginsberg had agreed to split up his holdings and hive them off to different institutions. He hated this idea, and decided instead to settle for the cool million offered by Stanford. All parties involved in the deal agreed not to divulge the price for fear it might attract adverse publicity, but Ginsberg, never a great secret-keeper, volunteered the figure to the first reporter who got wind of the sale, and this ignited one of the innumerable mini press controversies that, since the trial of “Howl” in 1957, had done so much to make Ginsberg into a household name, even in households utterly uninterested in poetry. This being the Nineties, it was his membership of NAMBLA (the North American Man/ Boy Love Association) rather than his denunciations of US foreign policy or use of obscene words or promotion of illegal drugs or antinuclear protests that generated the headlines: “Pro-Pedophile Poet Paid $1M by Stanford” was the story line.

Meanwhile, liberals were still sniping at him for having appeared, the year before, cross-legged before his household shrine in a Gap advertisement promoting a style of loose-fitting khaki trousers. The $20,000 he received for this went toward shoring up the shaky finances of the Naropa Institute, the Buddhist university in Boulder, Colorado, founded by the Tibetan Lama Chögyam Trungpa, who functioned as Ginsberg’s spiritual adviser from 1974 until the holy man’s premature, alcohol-fueled death in 1987. Although Ginsberg had insisted that the ad include a disclaimer stating that all proceeds would go to support Naropa, inevitably he found himself presented as yet another lapsed counterculture hero succumbing to what “Howl” calls “the nitroglycerine shrieks of the fairies of advertising.”

The purchase of the loft on East Thirteenth Street, in a building owned by the painter Larry Rivers, was not Ginsberg’s first venture into real estate. In 1967 he bought a seventy-acre spread in upstate New York near Cherry Valley, despite the dilapidated state of the farmhouse, which lacked heating and water, and shortly after that purchased twenty-four acres of land in the Californian Sierras, on which, in 1974, he and Peter Orlovsky and friends built a cabin they called Bedrock Mortar. At heart, however, Ginsberg was a city dweller, and a wanderer, and he spent little time in either of his pastoral retreats. He abandoned the Cherry Valley farm in 1985, and seven years later sold his land in the Sierras to Gary Snyder, whose property it adjoined.

One of the many fascinating aspects of Bill Morgan’s I Celebrate Myself: The Somewhat Private Life of Allen Ginsberg is the insight it provides into the poet’s relationship with money, a subject addressed directly in the poem “American Change,” composed in 1958 during Ginsberg’s return by sea to New York after a year and a half spent in North Africa and Europe: “Money, money,” he declares, while contemplating a nickel, a dime, a quarter, and a $5 bill, “reminder, I might as well write poems to you—dear American money—O statue of Liberty I ride enfolded in money in my mind to you.” It was Bill Morgan, Ginsberg’s archivist and bibliographer, who negotiated the sale of the poet’s papers to Stanford. He was also one of an ever-expanding backroom team that helped run the poet’s affairs like a small cottage industry out of an office rented on Union Square. By the early Nineties there were as many as seven or eight people on the Ginsberg payroll, and yet, Morgan notes, “Allen was able to create more work than they could all handle.”

Ginsberg’s artistic enterprise, like that of Andy Warhol, was essentially a communal one. (There is an amusing description in Jane Kramer’s Allen Ginsberg in America, first published in The New Yorker in 1968, of a meeting between the two in the backroom of Max’s Kansas City. “Hare Krishna,” intones Ginsberg, giving Warhol a hearty slap on the back, at which the artist winces slightly. “Wow” is the only word Warhol utters in response to Ginsberg’s enthusiastic description of a poetry reading by Basil Bunting, and then to a barrage of insults from Gregory Corso.*) Both Warhol and Ginsberg depended on the creation of an environment in which visionary comrades and ancillary support staff collaborated to project a particular style of living and a shared aesthetic and moral (or, in the case of Warhol, amoral) agenda.

In broad outline such projects can be seen as replicating many of the principles and ideals of the Founding Fathers, and certainly more than once reading I Celebrate Myself I was reminded of John Winthrop’s stirring address to his fellow Puritans on the deck of the Arbella in 1630:

Wee must be knitt together in this worke as one man, wee must entertaine each other in brotherly Affeccion, wee must be willing to abridge our selves of our superfluities, for the supply of others necessities, wee must uphold a familiar Commerce together in all meekeness, gentlenes, patience and liberality, wee must delight in eache other…for wee must Consider that wee shall be as a Citty upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.

Of course Warhol, whose career began with “the fairies of advertising,” had no qualms about allowing his work to circulate in the intertwined economies of celebrity and financial exchange that the Factory both emulated and parodied. For Ginsberg, however, brought up a Communist, his fame founded on denunciations of Moloch (“whose blood is running money!…whose soul is electricity and banks!”), the issue of how much he should be allowed to earn and spend was never clear-cut. The eyes of all people were upon him, and when in 1985 he sold the rights to his Collected Poems to Harper and Row, with the full permission of, and due dividend paid to, Lawrence Ferlinghetti of City Lights, Time magazine unkindly and unjustly took advantage of the Bell’s palsy that afflicted the poet’s left eye to characterize him as a shrewd and hypocritical financial operator:

It requires vision and careful work to make a life, let alone leave a literary legacy. This follower in Whitman’s footsteps has shown that he is capable of both. One can see it in his eyes: one wide and innocent, gazing at eternity; the other narrowed and scrutinizing, looking for his market share.

Morgan reveals in full detail just how extraordinarily—at times even foolishly—generous Ginsberg was throughout his life. For many years he refused to accept payment for readings, living on a shoestring on his royalties, but in 1964 founded an organization he called the Committee on Poetry—COP for short—in order to generate funds to fight the New York authorities’ attempt to crack down on the burgeoning underground scene, which even involved insisting that coffeehouses such as Le Metro buy prohibitively expensive cabaret licenses if they wanted to stage poetry readings. COP took on the City License Department, and won.

Thereafter the committee metamorphosed into an action group that supported similar anticensorship causes, such as the defense of Lenny Bruce, and then into a permanent not-for-profit foundation that would make grants to poets in need—i.e., Ginsberg’s myriad artistically inclined friends. In 1966 he decided he would demand fees for poetry readings, but all payments would go to COP, which began disbursing money to people such as Herbert Huncke (a Times Square hustler much mythologized by the Beats), Gregory Corso (who, like Huncke, spent most cash that came his way on drugs), a hippie friend known as Maretta to fund a spiritual pilgrimage to Outer Mongolia, and so on. It was with COP funds that he bought his land in the Sierras and the Cherry Valley farm, which he envisioned as an exemplary community in a “lonely Eden,” rather as the Puritans figured their first settlements as beacons of right living in the Promised Land.

Not all, of course, agreed that this move was groovy. In Allen Ginsberg in America Kramer describes a meeting of the radical Diggers that Ginsberg attended in Haight-Ashbury. Her account gives an illuminating sense of the kinds of resentment that Ginsberg’s success generated among others in the counterculture. “What does a guy like me do who’s making some bread and decides he wants to buy a little piece of land?” Ginsberg demands when berated by an enraged Digger. “Let’s cut the money,” the Digger responds fiercely. “Say I make beads and you make sandals—we’ll trade them.” “Who’s going to decide how much each of Allen’s poems is worth?” inquires another. They bat this to and fro awhile, until the angry Digger ends up declaring contemptuously, “Allen’s just a rich Jewish merchant.”

2.

Ginsberg’s life must be more exhaustively documented than that of any other poet of the twentieth century. His record-keeping began early, and he is engagingly frank about its origins: “Began writing to (I suppose) satisfy my egotism,” opens his journal entry for May 22, 1941, when he was still only fourteen. Morgan describes Ginsberg’s outsized ego as one of his “greatest problems,” although it was also, as the journal entry acknowledges, the source of his urge to write: “I want to be known as the most brilliant man in America,” he confesses in “Ego Confessions,” as well as “to set surpassing example of sanity as measure for late generations.” Both biographer and poet proffer Whitman as the template for Ginsberg’s compendious self-celebrations, though one can read Leaves of Grass many times without feeling one knows its author at all, whereas there is nothing mysterious or withheld about the Ginsberg poetic persona as it develops in the course of the 1,161 pages of his Collected Poems.

Howl” is undoubtedly the watershed moment, the “breakthru” poem that changed his life, and is now being marketed as “The Poem That Changed America” too. Paradoxically, its impact on the culture at large depended to a great extent on the absurd attempt of the San Francisco collector of customs, one Chester MacPhee, to have the book banned as obscene: “You wouldn’t want your children to come across it,” he opined of a poem destined to become one of the most widely taught in American history. “I suppose the publicity will be good,” observed Ginsberg, who had spent several years in his twenties working in marketing, in reply to a letter of Ferlinghetti’s informing him of the Customs’ swoop and seizure of 520 copies of the second printing.

The trial attracted large crowds and was covered extensively in the press. The prosecution mustered only two somewhat dubious witnesses: David Kirk, an assistant professor of English at the University of San Francisco, declared “Howl” of “negligible” literary value because too closely imitative of Whitman—but such an assessment hardly justified banning the poem; and one Gail Potter, after distributing little brochures announcing the lessons she offered in speech and diction, and revealing, to the gallery’s great amusement, that she had rewritten both Faust and Everyman, complained of Ginsberg’s poetry that “you feel like you are going through the gutter when you have to read that stuff. I didn’t linger on it too long, I assure you.”

  1. *

    Jane Kramer, Allen Ginsberg in America (Random House, 1969), p. 180.

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