Thursday, October 7, 2010

Where I wax poetic about an angelheaded hipster . . .

Today is the anniversary of Allen Ginsberg's first public reading of his famous poem "Howl." He was only 29 years old that night.

Peter Orlovsky/Archive of Allen Ginsberg

I was thrilled to find this piece, written about the event. It's full of all the usual suspects and plays up to the romance that follows the Beats.

I loved Allen in college because he was a fucked up kid from a fucked up home who kept his nose in books and, eventually, blew the world away. He put the word fuck in poetry. Fuck. He wrote about masturbating. His whole last collection is mostly about shitting. The week he died, a poem of his was published--perhaps in the New Yorker. It was a couple pages and pretty much listed all of the lovers he'd had--from the life loves (Orlovsky) to the pizza boy who didn't know what was coming . . . He wrote openly about how he saw and experienced the world the whole way through life:
what more could I name, the smoked ashes of some cock cigar, the cunts of wheelbarrows and the milky breasts of cars, wornout asses out of chairs & sphincters of dynamos--all these 
--Sunflower Sutra, 1955

1955. He wrote the word cunt in a poem in 1955. That invigorates me.

He also wrote about politics. He lived politics. As a radical. In his last years, he sent at least one poem to President Clinton. I read that he received a polite thank you in response--too bad. Billy shoulda taken the opportunity to visit Allen in his apartment in the Village and had a good sit down.

I met Allen the year before he died. I called his agent and booked a three-day event for him at UMass Amherst. The other members of the Distinguished Visitors Program were more than a little hesitant, figuring he couldn't fill an auditorium (bunch of engineering students who'd never heard of him). He was incredible. He led a couple poetry classes I was in (the profs were in heaven), went out to dinner with people ("No salt!" his manager kept scolding), and gave a phenomenal reading.

Sitting in the center of the front row of a packed, standing-room-only theater, I listened to him read and recite and sing. He sang Blake ("Tyger! Tyger! burning bright") and read "America" ("America I've given you all and now I'm nothing."). And eventually, he read "Howl," shouting "Moloch" at the end:
Moloch! Solitude! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and unobtainable dollars! Children screaming under the stairways! Boys sobbing in armies! Old men weeping in the parks!
After the reading, I spent time with him, and many anxious others, at a small reception. Sitting indian-style before him, I felt the awkwardness--a man who has lived many lives, now sitting above eager college students who are looking for answers--but without questions. I read that he felt a heavy weight to be a wise sage to those he met. I can only imagine how exhausting this must have been.

I put something about him on Facebook earlier, and a friend who was there with me that night just wrote that it was a privilege to see him in Amherst that evening. It was.

I believe he died about a year later. Though sad, I was touched and inspired by the number of people who came out of the woodwork--there were so many readings and gatherings and memorials. Western Mass is that kind of place: a lot of deep, smart folks living in the woods and mountains. I met a lot of people in those following weeks, though none held fast. And I also heard, several times over, my favorite lines of his:
--We're not our skin of grime, we're not our dread bleak dusty imageless locomotive, we're all beautiful golden sunflowers inside, we're all blessed by our own seed & golden naked hairy accomplishment--bodies growing into mad black formal sunflowers in the sunset . . . 
--Sunflower Sutra, 1955 

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