There was a time in the Fifties when, no doubt about it, the literary and even extra-literary activities of the Beats were an exhilarating contrast to the careful sobriety of Movement poets and the wistful glances in the direction of social orthodoxy made by the younger English novelists. The heroes of Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’, ‘destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked/dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix’ positively bounced with energy when put beside Donald Davie sitting wrapped in his overcoat beside the fire saying Heigh-ho on a winter afternoon. It was possible then to see Ginsberg, Kerouac and their friends as anarchists articulating and exemplifying a morality that flouted the values of liberal Western society and the rigidities of orthodox Communism in favour of a romantic code that valued above anything else personal friendship and the capacity for ‘feeling everything, liking everything and going beyond the need for choice’.
A decade later such illusions should have disappeared. At bad moments in the war a friend of mine used to ask: ‘Why don’t we all just get in one great bed and fuck one another?’ This was on his part a gesture of hopelessness, an acknowledgment that the Good Society dreamed of in the Thirties would now never be attained. For the Beats, however, polymorphous sexual activity stepped up by drugs was accepted as an ultimate, almost the ultimate good. Ginsberg was the most extreme advocate of such random and complete sexual freedom. After drug experiments in Peru, and a visit to India from which he returned saying free love would save the world, there were times when even admirers were disconcerted. ‘Allen wanted everyone to be one happy family,’ one of them said, adding that the leader of a San Francisco poetry group thought Zen okay, but ‘found the orgy scenes utterly repulsive’, while ‘this smearing your eastern goo on everyone was unheard of.’
One problem in writing about Ginsberg, and the influence he has exerted on the beliefs and actions of the young, especially young Americans, is the difficulty of taking him seriously. He is a comic character, whether hearing Blake’s voice and realising that he is the poet’s sunflower, while ‘absentmindedly masturbating’, expressing outraged astonishment at Cuban disapproval of homosexuals, trying to explain the beneficial qualities of various drugs to Yevtushenko (‘I feel rejected,’ he said when the Russian refused to listen), or chanting ‘Om’ for seven hours in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic Convention troubles, and keeping up a continuous chant of ‘Om Ah Hum’ while being mugged by two youths in New York until they yelled: ‘Shut up or we’ll murder you.’ When his biographer calls Ginsberg the most famous poet in the world he means that he is the most successful platform performer. Ginsberg’s appearance on a platform is likely to draw a crowd anywhere in any country, but they come to watch the performance rather than to hear a reading. He no longer strips off as he was likely to do in youth or early middle age, but when doing a tour with Bob Dylan he suggested that they should be filmed together in bed, talking about ‘ecology, capitalism, communism, God, poetry, meditation and America’. The couple settled for improvising a slow blues, ‘trading verses back and forth’ over Jack Kerouac’s grave.
The Ginsberg Story, as his biography might have been called, has had less to do with poetry than with the adroit use of publicity. In youth he was a market researcher, working among other things on a toothpaste campaign, and by the Eighties was employing a secretary, a filing clerk, a booking agent, a bibliographer, teams of students to transcribe his journals, and a variety of lawyers. The poetic end-product of what friends call the Ginsberg cottage industry offers weaker and weaker echoes of ‘Howl’, like the piece in which every line begins with ‘Fighting phantoms’ (‘Fighting phantoms various fairies chased adolescent athletes through steam bath locker rooms’), or confessional verse on the level of
He fucked me in the East
He fucked me in the West
He fucked me South
my cock in his mouth
he fucked me North
No sperm shot forth
The dismaying thing about such verses as this one from ‘Love comes’ is the inadequacy of the language, the idea that a serious poem could ever be written in these terms. Ginsberg once rebuked the poet W.S. Merwin because, when Merwin and a woman friend were attacked and forced to strip by the acolytes of Ginsberg’s Tibetan Buddhist teacher Trungpa, the woman cried out for someone to call the police. ‘Do you realise how vulgar that was?’ Ginsberg asked an interviewer. ‘The Wisdom of the East was being unveiled, and she’s going “Call the police!” ’ It is a strange standard that uses the word ‘vulgar’ in such a context, yet fails to realise the utter vulgarity of pieces like ‘Love comes’. The poetic best of Ginsberg is in ‘Howl’ and some other early exclamatory near-Surrealist poems, but although their energy still seems admirable, the emphatically ‘contemporary’ language has by now the look of rusting aluminium.
Most of the poetry may be null, but the Ginsberg Story, well and lucidly told here by an admirer, is absorbingly interesting. Ginsberg was born in 1926, the grandson of Russian Jews who were firmly settled in the United States when his father Louis and his mother Naomi were born. Both his parents taught for a living. Louis was a poet (‘You have the lyric touch,’ Louis Untermeyer said) and a Socialist supporter of Eugene Debs, Naomi was a Communist. When Allen was three or four years old Naomi had the first of several emotional breakdowns. She suffered from what would now be called paranoid schizophrenia, spent much time in mental homes, and when released varied between apparent normality and parading round the house naked, singing to herself and accusing members of the family of planning to kill her. Allen often ‘stayed home to mind my mother’, as he noted in a journal kept when he was 11. He noted also, in a matter of fact way, an occasion when she locked herself in the bathroom and cut her wrists. His biographer does not seem to overstate the case when he says that Allen, when he went to Columbia at the age of 17, had no experience of life. ‘The only thing he knew a lot about was madness,’ and ‘to reject madness meant to reject his mother.’ This he never did, and after her death in 1956 wrote ‘Kaddish’, a long free-wheeling piece more about the poet himself than its ostensible subject.
Given the boy’s total devotion to his mother (which did not exclude love of his father), much else followed naturally. Allen was looking for extreme attitudes to life and society, perhaps for a mystical justification of his mother’s delusions. At Columbia, getting nothing from the rational liberalism of Lionel Trilling, he gravitated towards the rebels among the students. It was also when he was 17 that he met and was impressed by the much older William Burroughs; a year later he encountered Jack Kerouac. He read Hart Crane, adopting and adapting the passion for rhetoric, but ignoring Crane’s attempt to comprehend the culture of the past in a vision of contemporary America. He ignored also Crane’s metrical strictness, and under the influence of William Carlos Williams looked for ‘the open form ... and variable breath-stop length for verse measurement, that enabled him to write “Howl”.’
He fell in love with Kerouac but did not dare to make a sexual approach, and had his first experience with a forty-year-old sailor. Kerouac was the first of many, succeeded by Neil Cassady (‘Neil Cassady was my animal: he brought me to my knees’) and Peter Orlovsky. And although Ginsberg’s orientation was basically that of a homosexual masochist, he made occasional forays into heterosexuality, writing enthusiastically to Kerouac of ‘a great new girl who digs me, I dig – 22, young, hip’, with ‘a wild mind, finer than any girl I met’. When he revealed his homosexuality, however, she was shocked. (This was in 1954.) ‘She didn’t want to sleep with me any more, so I went through all sorts of masochistic tortures, with a girl this time for a change.’
One of the attractive aspects of Allen Ginsberg’s personality is that the tortures were real, unlike the drug-induced emotional highs and lows of his contemporaries among the Beat Generation, a phrase invented by Kerouac and John Clellon Holmes in 1949 but not widely used until three years later, when Holmes’s article ‘The Beat Generation’ appeared in the New York Times. Most of the Beats, Kerouac included, were out for nihilistic self-destructive fun of a kind which, as forecast by their elder statesman Kenneth Rexroth, implied the abandonment of all civilised values, and their own early deaths. Ginsberg was different. He really was looking for a mystical truth that might be reached through total personal freedom and the use of drugs. In Peru he became obsessed with ayahuasca, the drug used by the Amazonian Indians, through which he at first saw visions of bees, bugs and serpents, then of ‘the great squid of Eternity’, and finally believed himself to be a snake vomiting out the universe. The experiments with drugs, including the ‘magic mushroom’ psilocybin, led him to Eastern mysticism, chanting, meditation, and eventually to the appalling Trungpa, who advised him not to rely on ‘a piece of paper’ when reciting on a platform, but to ‘improvise spontaneously’. Trungpa, whose mysticism included a liking for wine, women and fast cars, fulfilled Ginsberg’s need for emotional submission, and the guru’s death in 1987 did not affect his disciple’s sense that the master’s mind was everywhere, and that ‘the final resting place really is just open empty mind.’
So far Allen Ginsberg the mystic. But combined with him is the practical man who is now a respected and respectable member of the society he once despised, winner of the National Book Award, member of the American Academy, lecturer in the history of the Beat Generation. The last photograph in this book shows an amiable professional figure, beard neatly trimmed, wearing a button-down shirt and sober tie, pens and spectacle case poised in the shirt pocket. To any rationalist he must seem the prime example of Aldous Huxley’s dictum: ‘High minds low loins, the higher the lower.’ The reality hidden by his Oms and Hums in the face of violence is the enforced mass copulation involved in Trungpa’s doctrines or, worse, the mass suicides ordered by the Reverend Jim Jones. To anybody who believes poetry is a craft and an art his advocacy of ‘open breath poetry’ derived from Williams is moonshine, and most of his own verse junk rhetoric. Yet there is in his personality a blend of unintended comedy and pathos that remains appealing, a sense that behind the secretary and the filing clerk and the smart awareness of the blessings of publicity there still lingers the Jewish boy who didn’t know much about the world, and could not reject madness because it would have meant rejecting his mother.