When Politics Disappoints, the Young Turn to Allen Ginsberg
Chasing the ghost of Allen Ginsberg takes a lot more energy than following his mentor Walt Whitman. Whitman just loafed and leaned observing life. Ginsberg danced and chanted his way around the world.
His bass voice in full throb, his brass finger cymbals always handy, he rushed in front of the Peace Eye Bookstore to calm East Village toughs. He intoned besides the grave of Senator Joe McCarthy to sweeten the karma.
Posthumously, he became a kinetic talisman for those seeking someone to believe in. He embodied and previewed the yearning Obama rode to the White House. Now, when the man from Illinois disappoints, many of the young are again seeking Ginsberg and his exuberant purity.
His spirit was invoked in the Bowery Poetry Cub, a scruffy, card-table-chair space in New York. Matvei Yankelevich, a poet in his twenties who looked half East European, half Midwestern and whose hair stood up and lay down in unusual places, was about to read "Howl" in Russian. He ruffled the loose pages of Cyrillic splayed on a music stand, the verses that Ginsberg endlessly revised in his Berkeley apartment during the fall of 1955. The dim light glinting off his glasses, with only the slightest accent and awkwardness, he said, "I will not begin with the first section of "Howl. It's very familiar to you." He was right. The first line, "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness," became part of America when "Howl " was discovered in small towns across the country. Then, as now it spoke to those tired of compromises, stifled by the blandness, conformity, war mentality and sense of threat, the corporate culture that made Ginsberg pity those "who were burned alive in innocent flannel suits."
Ed Sanders, the former owner of the Peace Eye Bookstore and the mimeograph machine that fueled much of the sixties cultural revolution, said the poem changed his life. In his Missouri shop class, he wood-burned the first line into a spice rack, woke his parents to read it to them, and, when they couldn't take it anymore, shouted the verses to the cows.
The audience at the Bowery was more attentive as Yankelevich began reciting. His slight frame swelled and deflated with the rhythm of the long lines, the cadences of compassion for the crazed Carl Solomon locked away in Rockland, the name Rockland repeating like an indictment through the Russian syllables spilled before the navy backdrop.
When he eased off the stage, he joined some converts to the frail remnants of the counter culture. Gesturing towards his friends, , he said, "They have a certain nostalgia for Ginsberg." Then with an edge of impatience at their limitations added, "Nostalgia is a lazy emotion. It is not enough." He was channeling the poet. Ginsberg always criticized the hippies because, after their LSD trips, they didn't take care of the thousand details needed to change the world. He always took care of the details. In his E.10th Street tenement, beneath a tapestry of a fire-spitting dragon, he sat barefoot on a pallet surrounded by a phone, Rolodex, press releases, and the latest people bringing their cause to Utopia Central. His operating style was an equal blend of the formidable marketing skills he picked up as an advertising man selling Welch's grape juice and a Buddhist vision of a joyous, humane, peaceful universe.
Now, some from Yankelevich's generation, searching for traces of the poet's radiant ideals, for the authenticity and candor so rarely found in the world they knew, or expect in Obama's Washington, are knocking at the door of the Ginsberg Trust.. In a corner of what was the poet's last New York apartment, Bob Rosenthal, the plump, good-natured man who was his assistant for 20 years, often comforted those feeling the past decade has been too hollow, too hard. "You know," he explained, sagging in his chair besides a desk that was a chaos of books,"people keep asking me, 'What would Allen do now? What would Allen say now?" He sends them back to the writing for answers. "I think the truth of the poems hold up. Amiri Baraka did a reading of "Howl" last year substituting the name of Bush for Moloch. It read beautifully," he assured as the phrases floating on the air became, " Bush whose eyes are a thousand blind windows...Bush who has frightened me out of my natural ecstasy."
The doorbell kept ringing and bringing more seekers. Rosenthal welcomed them with a rapid, easy flow of words like a spigot that could go on forever, chuckling over memories and unwilling to let go. He mentioned the film independents are making about "Howl." Gave an impromptu tour past the place where Ginsberg's small oak organ had been. Pulled out photos of the poet in Prague wearing the paper crown of the King of May and being driven through the streets in a rose-covered chariot.
Looking at the pictures he said softly, " That public role cost him. " He paused and in the pause was the weight of all the needs people put on Ginsberg during his life, during the Bush presidency, and now when Obama seems all cautious calculation.
In the past, Bill Talen was one of many who had written the poet for guidance and gotten back a letter full of personal and political advice. As an overreaching, 20-year-old wanting to be Ginsberg, he had taken to the stage of an East Village church to recite "Howl" from memory and do an interpretive dance. Still probably wanting to be Ginsberg, he continues to grab the stage at St. Mark's as performance artist Reverend Billy. One evening he was busy converting "Howl's line, "Moloch whose blood is running money," into the Church Of Stop Shopping. With a gospel choir behind him, wearing white minister's vestments, blond hair pomaded into perfect immobility, hands raised to heaven warning of the coming shop-apocalypse, he strutted to the beat of the singers rocking the room with the poet's credo-"I'm telling you my imagination is not for sale. Not for sale." The male lead boomed it as the clapping mounted and the choir echoed back, "I'm burning with the justice ghost." Reverend Billy kept shouting, "Give me justice children," and, like Ginsberg, kept trying to make America more than just getting and spending.
Others turning the poet into their ghostly exemplar can find his needed spirit in many of the blocks surrounding of St. Mark's. He can still be seen as a beaming red ,white, and blue mystic wearing an Uncle Sam's hat in a mural on Avenue C. He can be found in neighborhood memories of him having breakfasts of toast and coca cola or trying to convince the anarchists not to call the yuppies "scum." He is most present in Thompkins Square Park where the tree planted for him stands all light-shimmer, and, in a rush of wind, dancing.