The Last American Hero
by Robert Allen
At 2:39am, eastern standard time in the USA, on April 5, 1997, Allen Ginsberg succumbed to liver cancer following a stroke the previous evening. He was 70. It wasn’t a surprise. Ginsberg had a weak heart and, as a sufferer of hepatitis C, he had been diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver in 1988. When the inoperable liver cancer was discovered, doctors told him he had ‘four to twelve months’ to live. This news cheered his followers, who hoped the time left could be used to celebrate his work and maybe see him awarded a big prize. For Howard Park, in an email after the news about his cancer was made public, a comet was about to dim.
‘Allen Ginsberg was, and is, a shining light that illuminates the world with a relentless spirit of truth and love. This man has spoken truth to evil in all its forms – the evil of totalitarianism be it communist, capitalist, fascist and every other ism or ist of our age. As his body fails, I’m moved to reflect on the only serious discussion I ever had with him, almost exactly a year ago. It was about hope, joy and optimism, qualities of beat writing which I believe are often overlooked. Allen never, ever, has shied away from the dark side of things in his art but I have always felt that there was a bedrock of joy within him. Joy so powerful that I knew that Moloch would be overcome, person by person. It’s not the joy of escapism, though that is part of living a full life. It’s the joy of always being able to see the good that is all around us, within us, the beauty of commonplace things, the beauty of the sunflower in the railroad yard. [Walt] Whitman had this quality too, Jack Kerouac and Jerry Garcia too. I could go on, but for me the effect of Allen – his art and simply who he is – has simply made life more worth living. Thank you Allen Ginsberg. I know that death is natural, can be beautiful. I know it on an intellectual and perhaps a spiritual level too. But I can’t escape a feeling of deep, deep sadness now also. [Allen Ginsberg’s] performance of ‘Father Death’ haunts me … but I also remember his sly, knowing squint of a smile as he sang that poem the last time I saw him do it. I see him now, in my head, with the same expression. I guess he knows something that I don’t.’
But Ginsberg didn’t get the extra months. On the day the poet died Jeffrey Weinberg offered a paean that said more than the assembled words. ‘Rejoice in that Allen gave us all so much of so many kinds of so many things – different ways to look at politics, religion, poetry, photography, music and on and on … wasn’t that Allen at the Summer of Love taking us with Michael Bowen and the other organizers into the age of Aquarius? And remember the Democratic Convention and the trial of the Chicago Seven and Allen got up in the witness box and started to meditate and chant. And when John Sinclair of MC–5 got busted for possession of two joints, wasn’t that Allen there helping to free John through [the] great Free Sinclair rally? And all those anti-war demonstrations throughout the sixties and into the seventies, Allen’s writing continues with all the grace that God can grant a poet and Allen circles the globe for a lifetime to teach, bring peace, to write poetry, help found JK School of Disembodied Poetics, Naropa, chant, book signings, TV programs, audio, video, etc. etc. and photography and awards and time to write introductions for so many books by others to help their books sell a few more copies and because he believed in their words. No computer on this planet has enough memory to hold all the names of every person whose life Allen Ginsberg has touched in a positive way.’
It is poignant that the muse and the missive combined the way it did in the days before and after Ginsberg’s death. Park and Weinberg had written to the BEAT–L mailing list, a web forum dedicated to the discussion of Beat literature run by Bill Gargan of Brooklyn College. The subsequent tribute began on Wednesday, April 2, with the first mention of Ginsberg’s terminal illness, ending the following Monday, April 7, at 13:42 when a MW Barton wrote: ‘Sitting in the east village feeling a touch beat … anyone interested in having a cup of coffee and a smoke?’
This brief set of letters contrasts bleakly with the lively correspondence of the man himself, for the time had come to look at his legacy and wonder what his influence had been on the world. Gargan, believing the doctors when they suggested that Ginsberg had some time left, understood that meant raising the poet’s profile to an even higher level. ‘I’d sure like to see a push for Allen to get the Nobel prize before he dies. I can’t think of anyone who is more deserving.’
The Beat-Listers and other Ginsberg acolytes responded to Gargan’s call and for some time after the poet’s passing there was a brief flurry of activity, but the feeling prevailed that the establishment would never award such a prize to such a man. Ten days after his death, Camille Paglia encapsulated the problem in her Salon column. ‘Through his influence on Bob Dylan (who in turn influenced the Beatles), Ginsberg revolutionised rock lyrics and directly affected the thinking of several generations of young people around the world. For this alone, he deserved the Nobel Prize – which continues to be awarded to safe, standard, derivative, politely leftish, literary humanitarians. Ginsberg’s Buddhist mysticism, Hebrew severity, Hindu comedy and African polyrhythm were too original a mix for the stuffy patriarchs of Stockholm.’
That originality comes out strongly in Ginsberg’s correspondence, which is now starting to reach the public domain. A prolific letter writer, Ginsberg gave his biographer and archivist Bill Morgan a bit of a headache when his 4,000 odd letters had to be sifted for a general collected letters volume. Morgan selected the choicest and then got round the problem of the others by putting out one volume specifically on Ginsberg’s correspondence with Gary Snyder, a friend for 40 years.
While the general volume is interesting, it is nothing more than a flickering set of snapshots of Ginsberg’s diverse life that has no immediacy. The same can’t be said for the correspondence with Snyder. This has a thread that is intimate and revealing, so much that it is sometimes difficult to follow unless you know what is really going on. Morgan selected 355 out of the 850 letters Ginsberg and Snyder exchanged with each other.
It begins in February 1956, five months after they had first met as young unknown Bay area poets, with Snyder suggesting a blurb for their next poetry reading –
good–time poetry | nobody goes home sad | Ginsberg blowing hot | Snyder blowing cool | Whalen on a long riff |
– and ends in June 1995, Ginsberg explaining that he has bought ‘a nice big loft’ with the remaining money from his ‘Stanford archive sale million’. By now Ginsberg is weak, and taking naps to conserve his energy. ‘With 2/3 of my heart working I have less physical energy approaching age 70 – tho I feel like 16 emotionally,’ he writes.
It is a positive ending to a book that oozes with positivity, honesty and respect. Morgan said he was surprised by the wealth of information that Snyder’s side of the correspondence provided. ‘Together they reveal a friendship that helped shape American literature, environmental concern and spiritual discovery in the second half of the twentieth century.’
In this volume Ginsberg’s road from unknown Beat poet via travels the world over to celebrated anti-war and civil rights activist is a long one, with diversions into hallucinogenic and spiritual experimentations, teaching, photographing, songwriting and political agitation. ‘Every country in Europe is a world of its own,’ he writes to Snyder in December 1980. ‘Thank God for your Olympus Camera! once more!’ he writes from China in 1984. ‘I’m supposed to teach in Brooklyn September, so alas Tibet, but I wonder if I’d be up to it physically,’ in 1988. ‘Finished 30 pages close work liner notes to four CD record,’ in 1994.
By publishing this correspondence, Morgan is fulfilling the role Ginsberg set out for him in the late 1970s, to ensure that his legacy remains in the ascendancy. But it addresses another issue.
When Ginsberg and Snyder met in the mid-1950s, modern America did not like what this generation of poets were saying and why they were doing it. In August 1955 Ginsberg had started the long poem, Howl for Carl Solomon, a young writer he had befriended when they were both inmates of the Columbia Presbyterian Psychiatric Institute in 1949 and 1950. In October 1956 Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Books in San Francisco published Howl and Other Poems. The following May, police entered City Lights Books store, bought copies of the volume, and returned with a warrant for Ferlinghetti on the charge that he sought to ‘willfully and lewdly print, publish and sell obscene and indecent writings, papers, and books’.
The subsequent obscenity trial, with the American Civil Liberties Union taking the defence, boosted sales of the book and Ginsberg’s reputation. The poet had released ‘an emotional time bomb that would continue exploding in U.S. consciousness in case our military-industrial-nationalist complex solidified into a repressive police bureaucracy’ but Judge Clayton Horn ruled that Howl was not obscene and had a redeeming social value.
From Europe, where he had settled in Paris, Ginsberg writes to Snyder on April 2, 1958, that he had ‘been getting quite a lot of money in this last half year’ – royalties from among others City Lights books who had sold 10,000 copies of Howl. Ginsberg said he would use the money to ‘take off for more travel’.
Ginsberg returned in New York politicised by the trial, inspired by the travel and still traumatised from the death of his mother. ‘Overwhelmed with letters, readings and huge new poem,’ he tells Snyder in December 1958, ‘50 pages mein gott, prose, verse stropes, chants, wails, autobiog facts, asylums, rides in buses with mad Naomi [Ginsberg’s mother, who had died in a mental hospital in 1956 after years suffering from mental illness]’. The huge poem, Kaddish for Naomi Ginsberg (1894-1956), which Ginsberg started in Paris in 1957 wasn’t finished until 1960. City Lights Books published it in a collection in April 1961.
The response to the book elevated Ginsberg to iconic status. He now had the means to write and travel, and the freedom to live his life in the manner that suited him. ‘Happy freeways,’ he writes to Snyder in 1964. By 1972, the year after he wrote CIA Dope Calypso (about CIA drug trafficking in IndoChina), he tells Snyder: ‘Here in D.C. spooking the CIA again.’ Ginsberg’s status was such that he was seen as a hero among those who could see what he was doing, and he never ceased. He never relented. In that June 1995 missive he writes a PPS. ‘I’ll be back in New York June 28, thence to Naropa two weeks and third week June with Burroughs in Lawrence, Kansas, before settling back in New York for all fall and prepare U.S. English–German Selected Poems and teach in Brooklyn.’
In 2002 Michael Schumacher expressed a hope that Ginsberg’s legacy is nothing less than inspirational. ‘Every day, somewhere in the world, perhaps in a farm town in Nebraska, or in a café in Berlin, or in a village in Southeast Asia, some kid is picking up Howl and Other Poems and beginning the next journey down the corridors of imagination from which a more patient and generous world just might evolve.’
That may be so, but it is hard to see anyone, anywhere in the world having the sort of impact Allen Ginsberg had on his and successive generations. If there is a lesson to be learned from the Ginsberg–Snyder letters it’s a simple one. No one, no matter how imaginative and inspired they may feel when they are young, can blossom without the support of other, like-minded, people among their contemporaries and peers, and the support of elders who know from experience what they need. Ginsberg had lived modestly, wasn’t consumed by money or materialism, and understood what it was like to be a struggling poet. He supported and boosted the lives and works of those with creative, enquiring minds, and made sure that the positives of his Beat generation lived on in college courses.
If ever the line ‘only the poets can save us now’ was true it was with Ginsberg but, and this should not be read as a negative note, if this New Jersey poet is not to be remembered as the last American hero, those who aspire to the kind of world he believed in need to realise that America is not the world and that social status does not grant right and wrong. If anyone understood that more than anyone in the past 100 years it was Ginsberg.