Today is the anniversary of the birth of Allen Ginsberg.
I first heard of Ginsberg in the 10,000 Maniac song “Hey Jack Kerouac.”
Of course, the song is mostly about Kerouac.
You chose your words from mouths of babes got lost in the wood.
The hip flask slinging madman, steaming cafe flirts,
in Chinatown howling at night.
Then Ginsberg gets his mention.
Allen baby, why so jaded?
Have the boys all grown up and their beauty faded?
I’d never heard of Jack Kerouac, so I looked him up my 1979 edition of the World Book Encyclopedia. He wasn’t there! Then I looked him up in the index and found a mention of him in the short article on the Beat poets. Did I learn about Allen Ginsberg in that encyclopedia article? I don’t remember, but where else would I have learned about him? (Our young, hip, [closeted] teacher never mentioned the Beats when we covered American Literature in 11th grade English class.)
Somewhere in my teenage life, I discovered Allen Ginsberg and grew to love him. William S. Burroughs was a really weird, really old guy and Kerouac’s work never turned me on. (Hey! Want to know what life’s like on the road? Quit reading Kerouac–or Blaize Sun, for that matter–and go spend some time on the road!) But Ginsberg? Ginsberg was a poet. I didn’t always understand what he was talking about, but the way he put words together stirred my heart.
According to Wikipedia,
Irwin Allen Ginsberg (June 3, 1926 – April 5, 1997) was an American poet and one of the leading figures of both the Beat Generation of the 1950s and the counterculture that soon would follow. He vigorously opposed militarism, economic materialism and sexual repression and was known as embodying various aspects of this counterculture, such as his views on drugs, hostility to bureaucracy and openness to Eastern religions.
Ginsberg is best known for his poem “Howl“, in which he denounced what he saw as the destructive forces of capitalism and conformity in the United States. In 1956, “Howl” was seized by San Francisco police and US Customs. In 1957, it attracted widespread publicity when it became the subject of an obscenity trial, as it described heterosexual and homosexual sex at a time when sodomy laws made homosexual acts a crime in every U.S. state. “Howl” reflected Ginsberg’s own homosexuality and his relationships with a number of men, including Peter Orlovsky, his lifelong partner. Judge Clayton W. Horn ruled that “Howl” was not obscene, adding, “Would there be any freedom of press or speech if one must reduce his vocabulary to vapid innocuous euphemisms?”
My dearest association with Ginsberg came in the early 90s. One of my closest friends called me up from where she went to school across town and told me Ginsberg was going to speak at her university. On the appointed night, she borrowed her mom’s car, disentangled me from my controlling boyfriend, and drove us across town to hear the man read poems, his poems and the poems of William Blake.
I remember Ginsberg reading
Tyger Tyger, burning bright,In the forests of the night;What immortal hand or eye,Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
After intermission, Ginsberg invited the audience to sit with him on the stage. I would have been too shy to go up there alone, but my friend pulled me along, and I shared a stage with Allen Ginsberg. I was so young and naive; I didn’t even fully understand the great energy I was enveloped in.
A few years later, when Ginsberg died, some poets I knew were absolutely heartbroken. I wasn’t a poet yet, and I didn’t understand how they could hurt so deeply for someone they didn’t really know.
What I realize now is that anyone who’s read Ginsberg knows him. The man exposed his heart in every poem he wrote. He didn’t try to hide or sugarcoat. He laid himself on the line with every word.
I understand now that I owe Ginsberg a tremendous debt. I couldn’t be the writer I am today if he hadn’t come before.