Happy Birthday Allen Ginsberg

It’s hard to understand why some people get into your mind and your heart and some don’t. A mystery that applies to life, to football, to politics and to literature. As a reader I’ve tried hundreds of interesting authors and poets; but the only ones who ever really provoked a feeling of intense affection, loyalty and kinship in me were the Beats, and a few other vaguely related writers, like d.a. levy, Richard Brautigan, Hunter S. Thompson.

I know a lot of people who don’t share my feeling for the Beats. I also know a lot of people, old and young, who do; and the majority of those favour Jack Kerouac, if they’re called upon to name a preference. Kerouac is huge for me too, but I’ve always been a Ginsberg aficionado first and foremost. I have a picture of him on my lounge wall sitting cross-legged on a stage beside Gary Snyder at the Human Be-In. Underneath that there are two pictures of Allen with Bob Dylan in the Lowell cemetery where Kerouac is buried. And upstairs over the decommissioned, architecturally misaligned fireplace in my bedroom Allen leans against a car with arms folded while Neal Cassady shows his ribcage, chest and tongue (which is longer than a lizard’s) to some unspecified person off camera.

Elsewhere I have written how I became acquainted with Ginsberg’s work, but that’s in an essay that hasn’t appeared yet. I won’t pre-empt the publisher by repeating the story here. What I will say is that – however sentimental and unsophisticated it sounds – Ginsberg as poet, thinker and public figure has been a vital touchstone and scandalously funny companion for me now for thirty years. When he died of cancer a year after my mother I was really sad for weeks…as sad as you would be if you heard about the passing of a brilliant, wise, salty old grandfather. No doubt the hangover from my mother’s painful death had an impact on the news about Allen, but those feelings were real in themselves too. I hesitate to say it, but I’d lived with him for a long time; and I’d grown to love him, albeit in an entirely one-sided way, with little of the expansive, warming amplitude of real love.

He wrote, in my reckoning, two masterpieces: “Howl” and “Kaddish”. That means he pulls even with T.S. Eliot, generally supposed to be America’s greatest poet by sophisticates. There are countless other poems, usually smaller, that are less celebrated but quite wonderful. But the distractions of fame, teaching, illness and – as he freely admitted – ego seemed to cause a gradual decline in his writing as the Seventies turned into the Eighties, particularly in the area of form; some of the poems in the later volume Cosmoplitan Greetings are, simply, boring because he has thoroughly exhausted, by this point, the incantatory repeated phrase at the start of new lines. The language he uses is sometimes strangely artificial too, although this is a habit he indulged in earlier as well, in more successful poems like "Kaddish". It’s a kind of faux-Romantic rhetoric, peppered with affectations of speech that would get you beaten up in a bar. No one said “mayhap” after Flanders, Allen.

There’s little human feeling on show in most of the later, published poems either; you’re more likely to be treated to a virtuoso display of scatological wit or Buddhist wisdom – but what’s really in your heart, Ginsberg? I always think, when I read them. Some pieces provide notable exceptions, of course. One of the “American Sentences” in Cosmopolitan Greetings shows him responding irritably to a request from a little magazine for poems; and another reveals, poignantly, that he still imagines Neal Cassady when he masturbates. But these are rare. And while the other poems are good enough (certainly better than anything I could write), they don’t satisfy; they don’t pierce through to the root of our beautiful, sad predicament here on Earth.

It hasn’t been said anywhere else as far as I know, and as a (bad) practitioner of the same religion I shouldn’t be the one to say it probably; but I’ve always felt that Ginsberg lost something as a poet when he committed himself to Buddhism and Chogyam Trungpa. Buddhism is a system; it’s a profound and wonderful system, but it is a system, and it’s more dangerous and seductive than some of the others because it disguises itself in (to paraphrase Ginsberg) the harlequin speech of liberty. The rules that Buddhists provide for each other may be exactly what a person needs to get out of the endless round of birth, death and rebirth, but I’ve never been convinced that they were helpful to someone trying to think and write freely and independently. After establishing Naropa Ginsberg even proposed, to a private journal, that he should write his own twentieth anniversary response to “Howl” cataloguing positive experiences instead of negative ones. But despite its apparent wallowing in suffering and horror, despite a contemporaneous newspaper description of Ginsberg as a “hate merchant”, “Howl” is the most moving and uplifting statement about human love that I’ve ever heard.

However. This is just an opinion and like all opinion, even that of people who have studied a subject for a long time, it’s not as interesting or illuminating as the work itself. I just write about Ginsberg because it’s his birthday today, and because I enjoy thinking about the man; he has given me a lot more than I have been able to show here. Readers only familiar with “Howl” are encouraged to dig a little deeper into his mammoth oeuvre for a vision of the world that runs counter, powerfully, to the technological multi-national Armageddon that our leaders have brought down on our weeping heads.