Allen Ginsberg was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in February, 1973 — and made his last public appearance as a special guest at the NYU Poetry Slam on February 20, 1997. We honor this pioneering poet and activist with this 1st of February remembrance.
by Jules Chametzky
Drawing by Marty Carey
One of the smartest co-editors of the Norton Anthology, John Felstiner, ends his lengthily astute introduction to Ginsberg and his place in Jewish American letters with quotes from Harold Bloom (negative: reading “Kaddish” is like being forced to “watch the hysteria of strangers”), and Saul Bellow (positive: “Under all the self-revealing candor is purity of heart”). Felstiner concedes that Ginsberg changed “the face of American poetry,” but adds that the word for him is khutspe. I go along with Bellow: candor, and heart. “Howl” was the great breakthrough work of our generation, and “Kaddish,” for his mother who died in an insane asylum, is his Jewish declaration of love for her, warts and all, and of his heartbreak.
When Ginsberg published “Howl” in 1953, I couldn’t agree with his opening lines — I didn’t see “the best minds of my [our] generation, destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,/dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,” though undoubtedly there were some of those among Ginsberg’s friends, but they were a fairly small, marginal and self-destructive bunch. There were many other “best minds” of different persuasions around, let’s not exaggerate, but undoubtedly Ginsberg’s raw and raunchy poem shattered the last vestiges of Eliotesque, academic gentility and literary anemia. That was and has been of inestimable importance. Harold Bloom as critic and teacher did some of that important work, too, with his Freudianism, Romantic or Emersonian oracular style, and interest in Kabbalah, so I cannot fathom his hostility to Ginsberg. In some crazy way, they are brothers under the skin, if Harold but let himself admit it.
For a long time I associated Ginsberg with the George McGovern (a good man who deserved better) disaster at the 1972 Democratic Convention in Miami Beach, which I attended with my three sons, given tickets by an old friend from Minnesota who had been Hubert Humphrey’s press secretary. Ginsberg didn’t do much there except sit in the mud in Flamingo Park with hundreds of other alternative lifestyle types, in trees, in tents, in a ripped T-Shirt, rubbing his belly and intoning “Ommmm—Ommmm.” It was emblematic of all that went wrong with the organization and PR of that event, culminating in the nominee’s acceptance speech at 2 a.m. Imaru Baraka was running around as well, that year wearing a Mao jacket, surrounded by thuggish bodyguards, and there were some women in combat jackets and boots, all caught on television. Not good.
Over time, my impression of Ginsberg changed completely. We did get him up to Amherst on March 22, 1986 (he inscribed the date for me in his Collected Poems), when he was wearing a three-piece flannel suit and was by then a professor at Brooklyn College. It was an historic occasion, for one thing because it was the only time he and James Baldwin met — a photograph of them together is the cover of a Massachusetts Review that deals with Ginsberg’s 1963 Prague experience. That experience was the real reason for Ginsberg’s appearance among us.
Andrew Lass, an anthropology professor at Mount Holyoke College and in another part of his life a well-known Czech poet, had grown up in Prague with his American journalist parents and had been Ginsberg’s cicerone and translator that year of 1963. On May 1, Ginsberg was crowned King of the May by the university students, an act of deviance that presaged the uprising of 1968 and the later Velvet Revolution. Andy had told me he thought he had a short film of the occasion. My excitement was predictable, and ultimately that was what brought the poet up to Amherst, for he had never seen the footage either. We showed it to a full house in a local bookstore. Lass’s film took less than 20 minutes, but it was gorgeous and fascinating. The student rebellion in naming Ginsberg led to his expulsion by the regime. The secret police had also confiscated his journal, which was rather risqué, to say the least (and which we published in part in MR), and that became the ostensible cause of his ejection from the country. He did eventually get the journal back, heavily censored. Ginsberg wrote all about it in the airplane taking him out of the country, in a poem called “Kral Majales,” which ends as follows:
“And tho’ I am the King of May. The Marxists have beat me upon the street, kept me up all night in the Police Station, followed me thru Springtime / Prague detained me in secret and deported me from our kingdom by / airplane.
“Thus I have written this poem on a jet seat in mid Heaven.”
Candor, and courage. Never mind khutspe.
Finally, the part of Ginsberg I most respect. Not just his brave stands against war, nuclear weapons, environmental degradation and all that, but his extending friendship and support to all who needed it. One of my son Robert’s best friends at Columbia College was writing a dissertation for a graduate degree on Lionel Trilling and Ginsberg — a connection, between the two begun when Ginsberg was an undergraduate at Columbia, that others have commented on, including Ginsberg himself, and hinted at in Trilling’s own story, “Of This Time, Of This Place.” The dissertation promised to be immensely illuminating about that relationship. It’s author, Nat, a slight, good-looking Jewish kid from New Jersey, took a job teaching in New Orleans, and there he came out — a turn that surprised all his college friends, none of whom had realized earlier that he might be gay. Not too long afterwards, he was diagnosed with AIDS, which he endured bravely for some time. In his final sickness, his family refused to see him and so Robert left Chicago, where he was a graduate student, to spend a week with Nat at his bedside.
During that bad period, Allen Ginsberg, in Colorado then, I believe, called Nat several times. He knew Nat only as someone who had corresponded with him about his own time at Columbia for the dissertation. Ginsberg’s calls offered warm affection and regard, and were extraordinarily meaningful to Nat, as he told us when we visited him. Ginsberg, I’ve read, kept an elaborate, extensive file on all those in similar and other needy circumstances, frequently making helpful connections with and for them. Candor yes, courage yes, and most assuredly heart.
Jules Chametzky is an emeritus professor of English at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and editor emeritus of the The Massachusetts Review. His books include Jewish American Literature: A Norton Anthology (co-editor, 2000) and From the Ghetto: The Fiction of Abraham Cahan and Our Decentralized Literature.