Remembering Allen Ginsberg
A few facts to clear up a lot of bull. On the Road was written around 1950, in the space of several weeks, mostly on benny, an extraordinary project, sort of a flash of inspiration on a new approach to prose, an attempt to tell completely, all at once, everything on his mind in relation to the hero Dean Moriarty, spill it all out at once and follow the convolutions of the active mind for direction as to the ''structure of the confession.'' And discover the rhythm of the mind at work at high speed in prose. An attempt to trap the prose of truth mind by means of a highly scientific attack on new prose method. The result was a magnificent single paragraph several blocks long, rolling, like the Road itself, the length of an entire onionskin teletype roll. The sadness that this was never published in its most exciting form -- its original discovery -- but hacked and punctuated and broken -- the rhythms and swing of it broken -- by presumptuous literary critics in publishing houses . . . . Its greatness (like the opening pages of Miller's Cancer) -- the great spirit of adventure into poetic composition. And great tender delicacy of language . . . The long lines of Howl are piddling compared to the sustained imagic rhythms of that magnificent endless paragraph.-from a review of Jack Kerouac's The Dharma Bums, by Allen Ginsberg The Village Voice, November 12, 1958 Without Allen Ginsberg, there would have been no Beat Generation. He alone of the early group of Beat writers had the unflagging ambition and brash PR instincts to make the literary establishment and the media sit up and take notice. The attention he intially drew was that accorded scandal rather than art, but Ginsberg knew that notoriety sometimes paves the way to lasting fame. More important, over the 50-year span of a major poetic career, he exemplified and continuously updated the core values of the Beat movement. His friend, the novelist John Clellon Holmes, thought that part of his greatness lay in his willingness ''to be judged as much by his follies as by his successes.'' Whether stripping off his clothes during a 1956 poetry reading in response to a heckler's query, ''What do you mean, nakedness?'' or, more recently, performing with rock-and-roll musicians and in the process exhibiting his own musical limitations as well as his unending responsiveness to youth, to all those poised at the threshold of breakthrough, Ginsberg let himself be known with a candor and wit unmatched in American annals.He took chances. Would his Buddhist-derived practice of chanting ''Om ah hum'' calm the raging demonstrators and brutal cops at the Chicago presidential convention of 1968, or disarm the muggers who beset him near his East 10th Street apartment in November 1974? ''Shut up or we'll murder you'' was the muggers' response. He was never afraid to practice in public; he made clear for us all the undignified fact that we pass much of our lives in varying states of acute embarrassment, and he acquired the tremendous dignity that comes with the refusal to harbor secrets, to camouflage the unacceptable. In his own phrase, Ginsberg brought ''the monster'' to our door and found his art in its image. His example changed the face of American expression -- Baraka's early writing, Bob Dylan's lyrics of the mid 1960s, Robert Lowell's Life Studies, and Norman Mailer's Advertisements for Myself are almost unthinkable without him.Like Kerouac and Burroughs, Ginsberg cannot be understood outside of the Cold War context in which his career transpired. From the vantage point of 1997, the Cold War appears less the war against international communism it purported to be than a highly calculated crusade against closed markets and open minds. It was the Cold Warriors, violating the privacy of U.S. citizens in the name of ''national security,'' who first patented the postmodern concept of the personal as political; Ginsberg turned the tables on them. In an age that equated homosexuality with psychopathy and treason, he declassified the secrets of the male body and asserted, more than a decade before Stonewall, the centrality, the responsibility, of the gay presence in American life. A Jewish prophet for our time, he announced that the United States was in the emergency room; in an extraordinary feat of poetic prevention, he extricated from a state of national crisis, perpetrated now for half a century without ever achieving official recognition, fresh resources for an art nerved to the tragicomic rhythms of anticlimax. The world he documented grew older without becoming wiser, but visions continued to come to him, ''back of the brain'' imagery, as he called it, from city streets, from ''the sky above-an old blue place.''The Kerouac newsletter "Dharma Beat" has just published two of Ginsberg's recent ''Dreams of Kerouac.'' Ginsberg was always fiercely loyal to Jack Kerouac, still largely unrecognized by the American academy. In the dreams, Kerouac shares Ginsberg's hatred of today's United States as a ''narrow-minded province of multinational powers,'' yet manages still to prophesy, still to believe that ''Poetry America . . . will live after us.'' Just before he wakes, Ginsberg embraces his beloved friend and asks, ''When will we see each other again?'' Now he has his answer.