Tributes to Allen Ginsberg
X. J. Kennedy
FOR ALLEN GINSBERG
Ginsberg, Ginsberg, burning bright,
Taunter of the ultra right,
What blink of the Buddha's eye
Chose the day for you to die?
Queer pied piper, howling wild,
Mantra-minded flower child,
Queen of Maytime, misrule's lord
Bawling, Drop out! All aboard!
Finger-cymbaled, chanting Om,
Foe of fascist, bane of bomb,
Proper poets' thorn-in-side,
Turner of a whole time's tide,
Who can fill your sloppy shoes?
What a catch for Death. We lose
Glee and sweetness, freaky light,
Ginsberg, Ginsberg, burning bright.
X. J. Kennedy is the author of over a dozen books of poetry, including, most recently, The Minimus Poems (Barth, 1996), Dark Horses: New Poems (Johns Hopkins, 1992), and Winter Thunder (Barth, 1990). He has also written many books for children, among them The Eagle As Wide As the World (Simon & Schuster, 1997). This poem appeared in the June 1998 issue of Poetry Magazine. © 1998 by The Modern Poetry Association. Online Source
Buffalo, New York
April 6, 1997
When Allen Ginsberg died last Friday night, the shock was instant and profound. His fellow poets had so long turned to his generous attention and response for a sense of their own validity--as I had certainly for years. He told me we first met in 1949 but my real sense of him begins with a time we shared in San Francisco in the early '50s, when our lives were still young and intimate. Then, as continuingly, it was his singular care for his fellows, men and women, that struck me as wondrous. How tender, kind, he always was!
I think we would make a useless mess of all that time and place and what came after, were we to see it now simply as some drug-inspired, free-love determined indulgence, with Allen its charming yet tainted Pied Piper. Those who remember the adamant loneliness of the post WWII years, "the lonely crowd" which was all of us, the seemingly endless wars then continuing, the paranoia, despair, the public deceits, the separation of young and old, of ordained authority and outcast will know well the Ginsberg of that same time, whose "Howl" was an immense opening and relief of private terror. He had an absolute commitment to reduce the paranoia, as he put it, to bring literal humanness to a recogition of its own delight, its simple sweetness, its factually collective person.
Year after year he worked to realize this vision of our world, a common world of people far beyond any tedious insistence on their possible divisions and privileges. His Buddhism was so inspired, to clear the mind of greed and regret, to open to that "heaven which is everywhere about us..." Endlessly he returned to the moral place of order and belief--as in his protection of the young at the Democratic Party Convention in Chicago, or his adamant protest of the Vietnam War, or his care for the old folks sitting in on classes at Brooklyn College, or his patience with his austerely confused peers at the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Or his persistent looking after his fellow writers and friends, thoughtful and tireless always.
He was not ever pious or removed from where all were of necessity. He never gave to the world a condition other than its own human fact. People were never "more" or "less" in an isolating scale, but were people, gifted, needy, inept, genius, all one. William Burroughs speaks perceptively of his candor. It was like the first, relieving freshness of spring comes in through an open window.
It would be so harshly disappointing now--given one must realize that he is no longer here to be called on, or spoken to, or asked, or recognized--if all we could make of this dear man and what he gave us were a lurid replay of forties mindwash and propaganda. Drugs were not his point or preoccupation. Gay politics, despite his committed support and respect, were not either. He wanted a freedom for us all, a recognition that could bring us home, the guilts and arguments and painful oppositions finally let go of. That burden is always in his writing, in his determined clarity of detail, in the care he has taken to understand. Don't ever let that be forgotten.
Out the plane window brown gas rises to heaven's blue sea
--how end the poetry movie in the mind?
how tell Kabir Blake & Ginsberg shut their ears?
Folded in silence invisible Guru waits to fill his body with Emptiness
I am leaving this world, I will close my eyes & rest my tongue and hand.
(from "Guru Om")
I have the secret, I carry/subversive salami in/my ragged briefcase/Garlic, Poverty, a will to Heaven.
Not to mention steamed flounder with ginger sauce at Mee's Noodle Shop in the East Village. Almost as soon as we heard he was sick, he was suddenly dead. In short order, like overkill in the night kitchen: liver cancer; stroke; heart attack. There wa more than enough heart to attack.
When the alarm bell rang to end the fifties snooze, for many it sounded like Elvis. But for some of us, it was Ginsberg's Howl, that elegy for beautiful losers. I heard him intone it for the first time in San Francisco's North Beach in 1956, the summer before we went off to fertilize our eggs at Ivy League colleges. At such colleges, imagining ourselves angel-headed hipsters, we'd write about Fats Domino, Chuck Berry and the Beats for student newspapers that were basically prep schools for the Luce magazines. What we were really saying is that we didn't belong, and would rather not: When can I go into the supermarket and buy what I need with my good looks?
It may not have been Ginsberg's sexuality that subverted us. (Many of us, fifties kids, wouldn't even understand it, technically speaking, till James Baldwin explained how in Another Country.) Nor, necessarily, his druggy evangelism. (Paperback books were sufficient to get high.) Nor, later on, would it be what Morris Dickstein called his "spiritual push-ups." ("Om Om Om Sa Ra Wa Du Da Da Ki Ni Yea" and so on unto sedation.) Rather, it was his Other America -- an alternative nation of Tom Mooney, Sacco and Vanzetti, the Scottsboro boys, the Wobblies and his Communist Jewish mother: "Get married Allen don't take drugs."
We'd never met any of these people. They'd been left out of our Southern California high school textbooks to make room for Richfield Oil and the colonialist/Indian-basher Father Serra. But Ginsberg included everyone, all the children who had ever disappeared into Moloch. A closet history! And so inclusive you'd even find a Whittaker Chambers. I had lunch once with Chambers, in 1959, which was like having lunch with the Brothers Karamazov. Although his favorite poet was Rilke ("every angel is terrible"), he believed Ginsberg to be the only Beat with genuine talent and staying power. This should not surprise. Ginsberg and Chambers had Lionel Trilling in common; at Columbia, the good professor had been equally bewildered by both of them.
In Barry Miles's Ginsberg, we meet the gentle poet-father, Louis, and the crazy Communist mother, Naomi. We grow up in Paterson, New Jersey, with a kid whose favorite writer was Edgar Allan Poe and whose favorite book was Dr. Dolittle. We smoke his pot when he writes a paper on Cézanne for Meyer Schapiro and when God talks back to him through William Blake. We ship out with the merchant marine. We're there in North Beach for Howl; in Tangier for Burroughs, morphine and the machete; in Machu Picchu when God talks to him again after the death of his mother and tells him to love women; in Castro's Cuba where they kicked him out for talking too much about dope and homosexuality; and in London, Moscow, Budapest, Jerusalem and Chicago '68 -- hobnobbing with the Stones, the Beatles and R.D. Laing, writing lyrics for Bob Dylan and the Clash, turning Robert Lowell on to LSD, telephoning Henry Kissinger, telling Ezra Pound "but I'm a Buddhist Jew," composing Kaddish, posing for the Gap, loving Peter, hating cocaine, becoming on the occasion of his Pulitzer dangerously respectable...though not for long.
What we don't get from Miles, and didn't get in many of the obits, is much sense of the civil libertarian/anarchistic politics so emblematic of our Buddhist Jew. For a while, in the early sixties, we thought he'd gone away forever, "washed up desolate on the Ganges bank, vegetarian & silent hardly writing." But in 1965, at Charles University in Prague, dissident students crowned him "King of the May." Novotny was no more amused by Ginsberg as king than Trilling had been by Ginsberg as student; the poet was expelled from Czechoslovakia, too. If everywhere an exile, he was also everywhere a king of all our Maydays -- at the levitation of the Pentagon, in the parks for the Chicago convention, in Judge Hoffman's subsequent kangaroo court, on Bill Buckley's Firing Line. As if, late at night, nailing stanzas to the door at the St. Mark's Poetry Project: Ban the bomb...Hands off Nicaragua... Om. America I'm putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.
This "lonely old courage-teacher" looked somehow younger, if also more rabbinical, every time we saw him, as though "the grey sign of time in my beard" were theatrical, and had been painted on to disguise an untamed wild-boy/subversive. What made him so special? When, as late as 1988, WBAI radio in New York dared not broadcast a reading of Howl in a weeklong series on censorship, for fear of a smutty-minded Federal Communications Commission, I wrote in New York Newsday: "He is of course a social bandit." This sentence was quoted out of context in the New York Times obituary. The context was Eric Hobsbawm's book about social bandits like Rob Roy, Dick Turpin and Pancho Villa. Except that Ginsberg was a nonviolent social bandit -- an incorruptible pacifist, like Dr. King and Joan Baez, even when it hurt. Maybe because he contained in himself all countercultures, he was a sixties bridge between Yippie media brats and New Left temper tantrums. But his ultimate role at every engagement in our second Civil War was as a nurse, like his buddy Walt Whitman.
Sending up his Oms, his toy balloons, against the technostructured Superstate, Ginsberg was all these -- wild boy, subversive, bandit, nurse -- but also magical, like a shaman, in the sense that all magic is a sleight of mind, a symbolism of spontaneity elaborated to preserve and defend a vulnerable self from a devouring society. "The only poetic tradition," he once wrote, "is the voice out of the burning bush." But there is another tradition, equally "metrical, mystical, manly," and no less honorable in these plague years. There is the Medicine Man.
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"Allen Ginsberg Dying,"
the poem written by Lawrence Ferlinghetti on
Tuesday, April 8, 1997
Allen Ginsberg is dying
It's on all the papers
It's in the evening news
A great poet is dying
But his voice won't die
His voice is on the land
In Lower Manhattan
in his own bed
he is dying
There is nothing to do about it
He is dying the death that everyone dies
He is dying the death of the poet
He has a telephone in his hand
and he calls everyone
from his bed
in Lower Manhattan
All around the world late at night the telephone is
"This is Allen" the voice says
"Allen Ginsberg calling"
How many times have they heard it over the long
He doesn't have to say Ginsberg
All around the world in the world of poets
there is only one Allen
"I wanted to tell you" he says
He tells them what's happening
what's coming down on him
His voice goes by satellite over the land
over the Sea of Japan
where he once stood naked
trident in hand
like a young Neptune
a young man with black beard
standing on a stone beach
It is high tide and the seabirds cry
The Waves break over him now
and the seabirds cry
on the San Francisco waterfront
There is a high wind
There are great whitecaps lashing the Embarcadero
I am reading Greek poetry
Horses weep in it
The horses of Achilles weep in it
here by the sea
in San Francisco
where the waves weep
They make a sibilant sound
a sibylline sound
From Robert Weide: "On Saturday, June 21st, a public tribute/celebration honoring Allen Ginsberg was held at the Wadsworth Theater in Los Angeles for an audience of approximately 1,500 people. Vonnegut was asked to speak, but had plans to be out of the country on that date. He did agree to write an original piece for the ocassion, provided that someone else could read it at the event. I was asked to perform that honor, which I gladly accepted."
Please, please, please. Nobody else die!
Allen Ginsberg and I were inducted into the American Institute of Arts and Letters in 1973. A reporter from Newsweek telephoned me at that time, and asked me what I thought about two such outsiders being absorbed by the Establishment. I replied, "If we aren't the Establishment, I don't know who is."
Allen was inducted nominally as a poet, but had in fact become world-famous for the radiant love and innocence of his person, from head to toe.
Let us be frank, and admit that the greatest poetry satisfies few deep appetites in modern times. But the appearance in our industrialized midst of a man without guile or political goals or congregation, who was doing his utmost to become wise and holy, was for many of us a surprising, anachronistic feast for our souls.
Allen and I met at a dinner given in Cambridge by the Harvard Lampoon in 1970. We would hold hands during the ensuing entertainment.
I had returned from witnessing the end of a civil war in southern Nigeria. The losing side, the rebellious Ibos, had been blockaded for more than a year. There had been widespread starvation. I was there with my fellow novelist Vance Bourjailly. We arrived on a blockade-running Catholic relief DC-3. We were surrounded at once by starving children begging for mercy. They had distended bellies, everted rectums, hair turned yellow, running sores, that sort of thing. They were also dirty.
We were afraid to touch them, least we get an infection to take back home. But Vance was ashamed of his squeamishness. He said that if Allen Ginsberg had been with us, Allen would have hugged the children, and gone down on his knees and played with them.
I told this story at the Lampoon dinner, and then said directly to Allen: "We have not met before, sir, but such is your reputation."
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