As in other famous twentieth-century obscenity trials, such as that of the nonexistent Australian poet Ern Malley or that of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, proceedings often verged on the farcical: “What are ‘angelheaded hipsters’?” demanded the deputy district attorney of the literary critic Mark Schorer, who was then asked to paraphrase lines such as “Who got busted in their pubic beards returning through Laredo with a belt of marijuana for New York” and “With dreams, with drugs, with waking nightmares, alcohol and cock and endless balls.” Even Ginsberg’s right to use the word “bullshit” was queried. In his final ruling Judge Clayton Horn insisted that to impose “vapid innocuous euphemism” on Ginsberg’s graphic and figurative language would be to violate the First and Fourteenth Amendments.
Many of the contributors to Jason Shinder’s collection of essays celebrating the poem’s fiftieth anniversary begin by recalling when and where they were when they first came across the poem: novelist Rick Moody was introduced to it by a punk rocker he calls Mike Velocity while he hung with a band of Providence vagrants by a wall in front of the Hospital Trust Bank; Amiri Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones) was stationed in Puerto Rico with the US Air Force; Luc Sante, Anne Waldman, Phillip Lopate, Kurt Brown, and Mark Doty were thirteen or fourteen and in school, and on all it had a catalytic effect. Their testimonies do much more to capture the originality and energy of the poem than professional literary critical scrutiny, to which Ginsberg’s poetry seems to me largely immune.
Perhaps the most important thing he learned from his studies at Columbia in the late Forties was how much he hated the literary critical establishment, especially that segment of it presided over by Lionel and Diana Trilling. “Howl,” both the poem itself and its success in the world, proved that poetry might have a life outside the groves of academe, might be written without a knowing wink to other poet-critics brought up on Cleanth Brooks’s The Well-Wrought Urn and William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity. “The stance,” as Baraka puts it, summing up the responses of so many searching for something beyond the “oatmeal lying” culture of the Fifties; “The sense of someone being in the same world, the defiance.”
Many of Ginsberg’s greatest hits are to be found in this first volume: in “Dream Record: June 8, 1955,” he is visited by the ghost of Joan Burroughs, “her/face restored to a fine beauty/ tequila and salt had made strange/before the bullet in her brow.” The bullet had, of course, been put there by her husband four years earlier in the course of a tragic game of William Tell played out in Mexico City. Ginsberg questions her:
—Joan, what kind of knowledge have
the dead? can you still love
your mortal acquaintances?
What do you remember of us?
faded in front of me—The next instant
I saw her rain-stained tombstone
rear an illegible epitaph
under the gnarled branch of a small
tree in the wild grass
of an unvisited garden in Mexico.
In “A Supermarket in California” he imagines running into his greatest poetic hero while out shopping:
I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys.
I heard you asking questions of each: Who killed the pork chops? What price bananas? Are you my Angel?
I wandered in and out of the brilliant stacks of cans following you, and followed in my imagination by the store detective.
We strode down the open corridors together in our solitary fancy tasting artichokes, possessing every frozen delicacy, and never passing the cashier.
And in “America” he perfects the mixture of naive outrage and hyperbolic absurdity so crucial to his unique brand of comedy:
America I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing.
America two dollars and twentyseven cents January 17, 1956.
I can’t stand my own mind.
America when will we end the human war?
Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb.
I don’t feel good don’t bother me.
I won’t write my poem till I’m in my right mind.
America when will you be angelic?
When will you take off your clothes?
When will you look at yourself through the grave?
When will you be worthy of your million Trotskyites?
America why are your libraries full of tears?
America when will you send your eggs to India?
I’m sick of your insane demands.
When can I go into the supermarket and buy what I need with my good looks?
Even in the course of his most bitter jeremiads Ginsberg never quite loses faith in the possibility of an America reshaped according to his utopian ideals. Much of his poetry’s effectiveness depends, as a character in a Saul Bellow short story of 1974 called “Him With His Foot in His Mouth” points out, on a fusion of the traditional Jewish role of “comic self-degradation” with an unassailable American optimism: “Under all this all-revealing candor (or aggravated self-battery) is purity of heart,” Bellow’s narrator muses:
As an American Jew he must also affirm and justify democracy. The United States is destined to become one of the great achievements of humanity, a nation made up of many nations (not excluding the queer nation: how can anybody be left out?). The U.S.A. itself is to be the greatest of poems, as Whitman prophesied. And the only authentic living representative of American Transcendentalism is that fat-breasted, bald, bearded homosexual in smeared goggles, innocent in his uncleanness. Purity from foulness…. The man is a Jewish microcosm of this Midas earth whose buried corpses bring forth golden fruits.
Hence the comically defiant and determined ending of “America”: “America I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.”
Ginsberg’s poems repeatedly invite us to participate in his own physicality, which even in old age he presents as “unashamed wide open for joy.” In “Sphincter,” written in 1986, he celebrates his “rubbery muscular” anus, which, despite AIDS and “occasionally a small hemorrhoid” (these get much worse in the Nineties as his death nears), is still “active, eager, receptive to phallus/coke bottle, candle, carrot/ banana & fingers”:
out with the dumps, in with the condom’d
Of course not all Ginsberg’s poems successfully alchemize his flesh so that it brings forth golden fruits. After “Kaddish,” his great lament for his mother, who suffered from paranoiac delusions and was eventually lobotomized, an operation Ginsberg himself had to authorize, the misses begin to outnumber the hits.
On a good day his compositional mantra of “First thought, best thought” could result in verse of enchanting freshness and freedom, but it also allowed much that is footling, windy, and banal to find its way into print. The problem was partly with Ginsberg’s quite extraordinary celebrity, and the multiple roles he assumed as a counterculture figurehead; increasingly he had less and less time to write—and hanging out with Bob Dylan and the Beatles also began to make him wonder if poetry was the best way of reaching the kinds of audiences he yearned for. His description of a Beatles concert at Portland Coliseum in 1965 conveys envy as well as excitement, and the occasional traces of exasperation in Morgan’s on the whole highly admiring account of Ginsberg’s extraordinary life normally concern his fantasies of being a rock star.
Certainly dreams of fame vanquished the quest for inner enlightenment in November of 1975, when he canceled plans to spend a month at a Buddhist meditation center in Vermont to join the motley crew assembled by Dylan for his Rolling Thunder Revue. In Renaldo and Clara, the four-hour film that emerged from this tour, Ginsberg is cast as the alchemist king whose role is to awaken America to its spiritual redemption. He plays the part convincingly enough while trading gnomic utterances with Dylan beside the grave of Kerouac in Lowell, Massachusetts, but the size of the task confronting him is made painfully clear in a rather unkind scene shot in a New England resort hotel: here Ginsberg reads “Kaddish” to an assembly of mahjongg-playing grandmothers, who pay him almost no attention; the clicking of their tiles almost drowns out the poem.
The spiritual, and sexual, revolution of which Ginsberg dreamed was to be fomented initially by the lives and writings of a set of friends he made during his time at Columbia. He met Burroughs in December of 1943, Kerouac a few months later, and Neal Cassady shortly after the “cocksman and Adonis of Denver” arrived with his sixteen-year-old wife LuAnne in late 1946. Street smart, a compulsive liar, blessed—or cursed—with an insatiable sexual appetite, Cassady soon figured out how to impress the thrill-seeking Upper West Side intellectuals who were to ensure his Beat immortality. In truth, winning over the somewhat geeky and love-hungry young Ginsberg seems not to have been too difficult, once the irresistibly handsome Cassady had decided a night of gay sex was adequate “compensation to you,” as he put it in a letter to Ginsberg, “for all you were giving me,” by which he meant intellectual stimulation. The night in question, one of all too few as far as Ginsberg was concerned, is graphically described in “Many Loves,” which perhaps also offers some insight into Ginsberg’s lifelong propensity to fall in love with straight men:
I first touched the smooth mount of his rock buttocks, silken in power,
rounded in animal fucking and bodily nights over nurses and schoolgirls….
Morgan reports Ginsberg “puzzled” by the fact that the “manly attachments,” to borrow a phrase of Whitman’s, that he coveted were nearly all with heterosexuals. This aspect of his sexual makeup led to much grief, and terrific feats of rhetorical and amative ingenuity: he became adept at talking men such as Cassady and Peter Orlovsky into bed with him, but then faced the problem of sustaining his beloved’s sexual interest. “Group sex,” Morgan explains,
seemed to be the best solution for Allen, since he loved straight men so much. Even if a young man was unwilling to get into bed with Allen, he might be willing to wind up naked with him if there were one or two women involved. Then during love play Allen could focus his attentions on the man instead of the woman.
Drugs also helped, as did fame: many a poem from the years he spent teaching at Naropa recounts his delight at finding young straight would-be poets willing to extend their education into the maestro’s bedroom: “Mind tender, he loves girls / Sees me as poetry master / His pubic hair’s soft curls / press my breast to rapture,” he enthuses in a typical example of this genre, “The Guest.”
It was while living as Ginsberg’s guest in New York in 1953 that William Burroughs decided that he wanted to take full possession of Ginsberg’s heart and body and soul—an absorptive process he called “schlupping.” Although an enormous admirer and promoter of Burroughs’s writing, Ginsberg found the idea of being schlupped by him abhorrent, brutally telling his erstwhile mentor and analyst he didn’t want his “ugly old cock” anywhere near him. Ginsberg was, however, fascinated by accounts of the hallucinogenic effects of a plant called yagé that Burroughs had traveled earlier that year to the Amazon to find and sample. In the course of this trip Burroughs wrote Ginsberg a series of letters (first published by City Lights in 1963) that present some of the earliest glimpses of the persona that The Naked Lunch would launch upon the world some six years later. Here he is in Pasto, Columbia, for instance:
I saw working behind the bar what looked at first like an attractive boy of 14 or so (the place was dimly lit owing to a partial power failure). Going over by the bar for a closer look, I saw his face was old, his body swollen with pith and water like a rotten melon.
Yagé itself makes Burroughs vomit uncontrollably and collapse into numb dizziness: “Larval beings passed before my eyes in a blue haze, each one giving an obscene, mocking squawk (I later identified this squawking as the croaking of frogs).” His letters maintain a tone of caustic disaffection that is at the opposite pole from the hopped-up enthusiasm that characterizes so much Beat writing. In 1960, Ginsberg set off into the Peruvian hinterland in search of his own yagé-inspired mystical visions, and under the influence of the drug (again after much vomiting) saw “what I thought was the Great Being, or some sense of It, approaching my mind like a big wet vagina.” A confrontation with death ensues, and this leaves Ginsberg feeling “lost” and thinking of “poor Peter who depends on me for some Heaven I haven’t got, lost.”
Poor Peter…despite the ménages à trois or more, the 1977 publication by City Lights of his Clean Asshole Poems and Smiling Vegetable Songs, the celebrity he gained from stripping onstage during readings, despite Ginsberg’s unwavering financial support and steady flow of poetic tributes and willingness to put up with frequent drug and drink binges, Peter Orlovsky emerges from Morgan’s biography as increasingly thwarted and unhappy. By the Eighties he had a serious addiction problem, and spent his time shuttling between mental institutions, Buddhist retreats, and Ginsberg’s all-smothering love. On one occasion he rampaged through their building wielding a tire iron, causing $10,000 worth of damage.
Throughout his life Ginsberg surrounded himself with people in need and in trouble, perhaps, as Morgan speculates, as a way of expiating the guilt he felt at his mother’s condition and his own collusion in the doctors’ drastic solution to her problems. In 1985, for example, he invited Harry Smith, the filmmaker and compiler of the legendary Anthology of American Folk Music, to occupy the spare room of his New York apartment, where the by now seriously disturbed and cantankerous Smith proceeded to create paintings with his own feces and collect his urine in milk bottles. Ginsberg’s own “surpassing example of sanity” seemed to depend on some level on being surrounded by those on the edge of, or even destroyed by, madness. For if he knew how to play the role of the holy fool, “the madman bum and angel beat in Time,” his own poetry is an utterly sane exploration of the subject he knew best, a point made explicitly in the short poem “Objective Subject,” composed a few weeks before his death:
It’s true I write about myself
Who else do I know so well?
Where else gather blood red roses & kitchen garbage
What else has my thick heart, hepatitis, or hemorrhoids—
Who else lived my seventy years, my old Naomi?
and if by chance I scribe U.S. politics, Wisdom
meditation, theories of art
it’s because I read a newspaper loved
teachers skimmed books or visited a museum.