A Song for Allen Ginsberg
by Michael Slate
Revolutionary Worker #903, April 20, 1997
|Allen Ginsberg would have
loved it. I woke up that Saturday morning in another world. My clock radio alarm went off
but the droning NPR news reports were gone. Cokie, Nina and Bob were gone! Instead, there
was a voice I hadn't heard in quite a few years, a voice with an urgency that still
reached out and grabbed me by the brain. The voice of a poet reading the opening lines of
a poem that changed my life. |
As I listened to these words--hearing them again for the first time in a dozen years--a shadow of sadness crossed my heart. Before the final zzzzzzzz of jazz entered my ear, a tear grew in the corner of my eyes. I knew what changed. Allen Ginsberg--friend of the people, poet supreme, human being, clown, truth teller, dragon chaser, oppression hater who celebrated life and shouted out against all evil and inspired generations to follow--was dead. When the voice was gone the droning news was back--Allen Ginsberg, 70 years old, died at 2:39 in the morning on April 5, just a few days after being diagnosed with terminal liver cancer.
Dead is one word I never would have thought of to describe Allen Ginsberg. Irrepressible, defiant, in your face, loving and living--those are his words and they always will be. As his friend and original publisher, the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, wrote when he was told of Allen's cancer, "Allen Ginsberg is dying/ It's in all the papers/ It's on the evening news/ A great poet is dying/ But his voice/ won't die/ His voice is on the land."
It's hard to imagine today the effect that Allen Ginsberg--together with the other beat poets, writers, artists and jazz musicians--had on generations of youth and on the entire political and cultural map in the United States. My own experience might help tell this story. When I was a freshman in college, a professor gave me a copy of Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" and told me to read it. At that time I was convinced that poetry was "The Charge of the Light Brigade" or "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere"--stuff to memorize and robotically repeat, not stuff to set your life on fire.
I took "Howl" home, set it on my dresser, glanced at it every now and then but never picked it up. When a week had gone by and the professor found out I had not yet read the poem, he sat me down to drop some understanding on me. He told me what it was like for him going to school in the suffocating and reactionary fog of the 1950s in America and then hearing the voices of Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Gregory Corso and all the other beat writers punching huge holes in the fog. I went home and read "Howl." It was like Ginsberg had drilled holes through my skull. His words were buckets of starburst candies exploding flashes of light deep in the folds of my brain. I read "Howl" a second time, then looked up all the words and references I didn't understand. Then I read it a third time--things were never quite the same. Later, when Allen came to the city to read, I showed him some pieces I had written. His words then had a big impact on me. He read my work and encouraged me to keep at it. He offered important words of advice. He told me that I had a choice, I could write for "them" or I could write to make a difference. And he said that if I wanted my writing to have any meaningful influence on the world then I had to be honest. Honesty was the key. In a lot of ways this was my first step towards revolutionary journalism.
Allen would have gagged at some of the obituaries he has gotten during the week after his death. He would have laughed and found some way to defy and outrage all those now trying to turn him into some kind of American saint after they spent a lifetime painting him as satan. The idea that network newscasters who carry out the nightly brainwash would be sitting there trying to read "Howl"--the very poem that sounded the charge for a generation to overturn everything these people hold dear in the politics and culture of society--would have had him doubled up on the floor. When the stuffy official and academic poets were lured out of their offices to comment on Ginsberg's place in the Pantheon of great poets who influenced him--William Blake, Walt Whitman, Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams--we're just supposed to forget that many of these same poets and academics vilified Allen in life, criticizing him for his failure to follow the rules and what they considered his low-brow poetry. Now that he's dead, he's safe so they can praise him.
Allen started out in Paterson, New Jersey as the second son of a socialist schoolteacher father and a communist mother who was born in Russia but who fled the terror of the Cossacks in 1905. Allen's mother, who ended life lobotomized and in an insane asylum, used to take Allen to Communist Party meetings when he was young. Allen said that his mother's political dedication led him to Columbia University with the idea of becoming a lawyer. While he was a student at Columbia he became friends with Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs and others and decided to stop "speaking through an empty skull" and pursue life as a poet. Allen was expelled from Columbia because a school official suspected him of having a homosexual relationship with Jack Kerouac.
There was a point in his life where Allen did try to be "normal"--he got a job in advertising but, soon after he took part in a marketing research effort to figure out the best way to sell Ipana toothpaste, he left that world like a bat out of hell.
Allen Ginsberg's life was built around defying all authority and breaking all conventions. He loved to drive the system nuts. When he was once asked to describe his political beliefs he answered in two words--absolute defiance. When he read "Howl" for the first time in the fall of 1955 at the Six Gallery in San Francisco, the reading electrified everyone who was there. And, much to his surprise, this poem that he never intended to publish became a clarion call that unleashed rebellious youth and others all over the country. The government hated it--they sent their police to arrest Ferlinghetti for publishing and selling it. They put Ferlinghetti and "Howl" on trial on obscenity charges. When the system lost the trial, "Howl"--with all of its celebration of alienation, rebellion, sexuality and love--rolled over the country bonding together rebels everywhere.
The official "real" poets also hated "Howl" and Allen. Allen's convention-breaking poem and all of the ideas he helped to develop about poetry changed the face of poetry forever. Allen brushed aside all of the old rules about meter and rhyme--joyfully declaring instead that candor was the most important element of poetry, that a unit of thought could be a line of poetry and that anyone's personal expression could be a poem. He said rhyme and meter could be the language of the streets or the notes dropping from the end of a saxophone. He argued that people's lives could and should be the "stuff" of poetry. Allen helped to drag poetry out of the academic closet and opened it up for everyone to not only read and enjoy but to write. Suddenly poetry became an avenue for the masses of people to express themselves and their feelings about their life. Poetry became an important part of the movement.
In the years that followed the publication of "Howl," Ginsberg's defiance only grew stronger. There was no major movement against oppression that Allen wasn't part of. He fought racism tooth and nail and, working together with Black poets like Amiri Baraka and Bob Kaufmann and jazz musicians like Charles Mingus, Elvin Jones, Don Cherry and Thelonius Monk, he tried to bridge the gap between white and Black people. He marched for Civil Rights. When the Vietnam War began Allen helped to begin the protests and movement against it. He was arrested at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, 1968. He was tear-gassed at a Black Panther rally at Yale on May Day 1970. His art became legendary for ripping into American militarism, crass materialism, the rape of oppressed countries around the world, racism, discrimination and conventional ideas of all kinds. He took up and became a major figure in the youth rebellion of the 1960s and its culture, and he joyously rolled around in its total defiance of traditional family values and all things sacred to the American way of life. Many of the major cultural figures at the time worked with and were influenced in some way by Allen, his work and his political activism--including people like Bob Dylan, Ken Kesey, Andy Warhol, John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Charles Mingus, Abbie Hoffman and countless others.
Up Against the System
When the 1960s ebbed, Allen didn't. Certainly, praise and honors began to come his way but it did not bring him back to "normal." Allen became a member of the American Academy of Poets and the Institute of Arts and Letters. He was awarded the National Book Award in 1973 for his book "The Fall of America: Poems of These States, 1965 to 1971." And he was a finalist for the Pulitzer prize in 1995 for his "Cosmopolitan Greetings: Poems 1986- 1992." At the same time, Allen wrote poems that tirelessly campaigned against the horrors of U.S. imperialism, both at home and around the world. He wrote about and demonstrated against the Shah of Iran and the U.S. crimes in Central America. Allen marched against nuclear power and exposed the War on Drugs as an attack on the people that had all the signs of a fascist police state. He exposed the role of the CIA in dealing dope, first with Southeast Asia connection and more recently with the Contra/cocaine connection. He railed against the CIA dope dealers in poems like the "CIA Dope Calypso" in 1972 and the "NSA Dope Calypso" in 1990. Ginsberg completed his calypso trilogy in 1991 with the additions of the "Just Say Yes Calypso," a withering statement against the Gulf War that ends with the lines, "When they wave a yellow ribbon & an oily flag/ Just say yes or they'll call you a fag."
For all his poetic and political activism FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover put Allen on an Internal Security list. In 1965 Hoover told the Secret Service that Allen was a potential threat to the president of the United States. According to Hoover, Ginsberg was "potentially dangerous" and a "subversive" with "evidence of emotional instability (including unstable residence and employment record) or irrational or suicidal behavior." Hoover also accused Allen of making "expressions of strong or violent anti-U.S. sentiment" and having "a propensity for violence and antipathy toward good order and government." Never mind that Allen was a devout Buddhist and pacifism was a very significant part of his outlook. Beyond this, there were also a number of blatant attempts to set him up for a drug bust over the years. Allen often told people that he had a stack of FBI documents on him at home that was at least three feet high. And all the way up to the early years of the Reagan administration Allen was still on a list of people that were categorized by the U.S. Information Agency as "unsuitable" to be government-paid speakers abroad. Much to his credit, when Allen spoke about how he was harassed by the powers, he made sure that he also talked about how much worse various Black artists and activists had it.
You get into trouble when you try to pick works that would really lay bare the heart of Allen's work. There is so much to pick from. He was an amazingly prolific artist, producing at least 16 collections of poetry, an equal number of prose collections, two books of photography and at least a half dozen recordings with various musicians. Since 1977 Ginsberg worked with Bob Dylan and the Rolling Thunder Revue, the Clash on their Combat Rock album, Patti Smith, Sonic Youth, Kronos Quartet, Philip Glass, Beck and U2, among others.
Shortly after I heard the news of Allen's death I sat down and spent a couple of hours reading through his poetry. It brought back a lot of memories and conjured up some fresh thoughts and ideas. And it also reminded me that as much as I liked Allen and his work, there were things in his poetry that bothered me as a revolutionary communist. Even in some of the best of his works--pieces that were scathing in their treatment of U.S. imperialism--Allen would take some anti-communist swipes, oftentimes at revolutionary leaders like Stalin and Mao. And Allen told some interviewers over the last few years that he was starting to feel that some of the demonstrations and marches he had participated in were ineffective because, as things turned out, the suffering of the people didn't end but continued in other forms. Of course, it's true that the people in countries like Vietnam and Iran aren't yet free. But that doesn't mean that the struggles against U.S. imperialism were ineffective. Whenever I read these statements I wanted to find Allen and ask him straight up what he thought it would be like for the people in Vietnam or Iran or right here in the U.S. if they had not fought against their oppressors.
Allen was full of contradictions. Even as he ran out some anti-communism or questioned the effectiveness of the struggles of the past, he continued to put his voice and the power of his words in service to the people. Allen hated U.S. imperialism and all the suffering it caused around the world and at home. Trouble is, he really didn't have a deep understanding of the nature of imperialism and so he couldn't really see how to get rid of it--or how to really liberate the people. For Allen, the way to do this was to make sure people had absolute freedom to express themselves in whatever ways they wanted--in everything from sexuality to politics. I certainly agreed with Allen to the extent that his vision opposed censorship, the "bedroom police," book burnings and outright suppression of people for what they believe and how they express themselves. But for me, this goal of individual freedom is not radical enough and can't be the basis for building a whole new society free of all oppression. I've often wondered how Allen would have reacted if he had really understood what was going on in Mao's China during the Cultural Revolution where artists, poets and writers were really unleashed to develop and do art--not simply or mainly for themselves, but to contribute to building a real socialist society.
Howl for a New Generation
In the last few years of his life Allen had been teaching at Columbia in the late 1980s and finally at Brooklyn College in the 1990s. Undoubtedly the system hoped that Allen was contemplating a relaxed and quiet winter of his life. But that was never Allen. Instead he continued to speak with candor against them and everything they stood for. His most recent projects took aim at the politics of cruelty, the war on the poor and the lies and hypocrisy of the U.S. rulers. In the last year he worked with Ed Sanders to develop new verses of "Amazing Grace" that concentrate on the suffering of the homeless. In recent years Allen was keenly aware that this country was being run by what he called "people who call themselves Christians but hate the poor" and who display "Satanic intelligence" as they attack the poor. In early 1995 Allen produced a devastating response to Newt Gingrich and the Republican Contract With America. Allen's poem, called the "Ballad of the Skeletons" included stanzas like "Said the Military skeleton/ Buy Star Bombs/ Said the Upperclass skeleton/ Starve unmarried moms" and "Said the Underdeveloped skeleton/ Send me rice/ Said the Developed Nations skeleton/ Sell your bones for dice." Allen recorded the "Ballad of the Skeletons" with Philip Glass and Paul McCartney and toured the world with it. Film director Gus Van Sant also made a powerful video of the piece and it became an often-played favorite on MTV and later played at the Sundance Film Festival.
And through all this, Allen continued to reach out--especially to the youth--sending those bursts of light into new generations of rebels. When he was asked in a recent interview what he would be doing if he was 20 again in this dark age of America, he replied without hesitation that he wished he could write a "Howl II" covering the present. He said he hoped that some good will come out of the situation today in terms of somehow curbing "America's power to screw up the world." When he spoke of writing "Howl II" he also spoke of saving the "national soul" and he very clearly defined what would have to be done in his eyes. He said a "national apology" would be a necessary part of this poem and he went on to list a litany of American sins at home and around the world from the overthrow of governments to the invasions and wars to the murder of Native Americans and slavery and continued oppression of Black people in the U.S. And Ginsberg concluded, "Government is manipulative and full of hypocrites who are avoiding the real issues of ecology, overpopulation, underclass suffering, medical bankruptcy, homelessness, malnutrition, race divisions, the issue of drugs. With all the demagoguery (from Bill Clinton and particularly Janet Reno) and confusion, poetry can stand out as the one beacon of sanity: a beacon of individual clarity, and lucidity in every direction--whether on the Internet or in coffee houses or university forums or classrooms. Poetry, along with its old companion, music, becomes one means of communication that is not controlled by the establishment."
Those who were with Allen just before he died say that he was
feverishly writing poems all the way up to his stroke and subsequent coma. Who knows,
Allen's old words or his new words may wrap themselves around some young brain somewhere
out there sometime soon and then perhaps a "Howl II" or something even more will
be created. In the meantime, it is time to say goodbye Allen. And go knowing that you were
loved by the people and the people will surely miss you. And from me, a word of
thanks--for the encouragement, the inspiration, the celebration and for all that <%2>damn good poetry that still snakes through my brain, and helps keep my vision strong.
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online