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.

Allen Ginsberg
Allen Ginsberg; drawing by David Levine

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…


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