You may think you know who Allen Ginsberg was. His name alone conjures up what Thomas Pynchon called the “anarcho-psychedelic” era, a counterculture of which Ginsberg was both the media symbol and the progenitor. But a recent critical biography published in London by Reaktion Books paints a picture that explodes myths about the poet and agitator — some of them engendered by Ginsberg himself.
Take Ginsberg’s relationship with Peter Orlovsky. When Gay Sunshine Press, in 1980, published “Straight Heart’s Delight: Love Poems and Selected Letters” by Ginsberg and Orlovsky, it was intended as “a celebration of their 25 years together as lovers.” But, Steve Finbow’s new “Allen Ginsberg” tells us, “Allen maintained the pretence that they were a couple: in reality, the relationship was fake, poisonous, and detrimental to the mental health (and happiness) of both men.”
Orlovsky’s profound mental illness and manic-depressive outbursts and physical violence toward Ginsberg — including assaults with a machete and an iron bar — were so recurrent and severe that at one point, after many Orlovsky sojourns in the mental wards at Bellevue, Ginsberg went to court and took out a restraining order against him.
In fact, Ginsberg maintained the myths about his relationship with Orlovsky to mask — to others and to himself — his inability to form a loving sexual relationship with another man. And this was born in part out of the deep guilt Ginsberg felt at having consented to a lobotomy for his mentally ill mother back in the days before this surgical intervention was discredited as a “cure” for illnesses of the mind.
Ginsberg was, in fact, as Finbow — a friend of Ginsberg who teaches at South Africa’s North-West University — tells us, a masochist who had many temporary boyfriends but who almost always chose as his love objects “straight” men, dooming their relationships to failure even when he managed to seduce them.
By the time of his death in 1997, Ginsberg was firmly ensconced as part of America’s literary establishment — a member of the American
Academy of Arts and Letters, a winner of the National Book Award (for his collection of poems “The Fall of America”), a recipient of the National Arts Club’s Gold Medal, and a tenured professor at Brooklyn College. And Ginsberg’s final years were made more comfortable when Stanford University paid him $1 million for his archive of photos, artifacts, manuscripts, and even laundry lists, filling boxes that stretched 1,000 feet.
Was Ginsberg a great poet? Certainly he wrote a number of great poems. When fellow poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Books in San Francisco published “Howl,” his epic poem of alienation from America, in 1956, it catapulted Ginsberg into national celebrity, with the book tried for obscenity by a San Francisco prosecutor. (The court rejected the prosecutor’s charge.) These events were captured in the excellent 2010 experimental film “Howl” by Academy Award winners Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, which starred the intelligent actor and writer James Franco in a sharp and sensitive performance as Ginsberg.
As the poet Michael McClure wrote, the publication of “Howl” heralded “that a barrier had been broken, that a human voice and body had been hurled against the harsh wall of America and its supporting armies and navies and academies and institutions and ownership systems and power support bases."
I well remember how, at the age of 12, I purchased a copy of “Howl” with money I’d collected from the deposits on soda bottles. It was for me a transgressive act.
“Howl” was noted for its overt and explicit celebrations of homosexuality, at a time when sodomy laws made same-sex love illegal and psychiatry declared it a form of mental illness.
And there was also “Kaddish,” another epic, early Ginsberg poem that the culture welcomed into the literary canon.
But much of Ginsberg’s later work is either unreadable or trivial. To take just one example, the poem he wrote in 1994 to the tune of “Here We Go ‘Round the Mulberry Bush”:
I got old and shit in my pants
Shit in my pants
Shit in my pants
I got old and shit in my pants
Shit in my pants again.
As Finbow writes, “For Ginsberg, language speaks only of him, the poet Allen Ginsberg. His poems are autobiographical confessions in which ‘Allen’ performs, their form driven by self-referential content. Ginsberg’s poetics comprise the liberation and revelation of the author in the very act of living.“
There have been other full-length biographies of Ginsberg, notably those by Barry Miles, Michael Schumacher, Ed Sanders, and Bill Morgan. But one of the merits of Finbow’s more spare critical study — filled with details of Ginsberg’s friendships, travels, and activism — is that it reminds us of what a workaholic Ginsberg was, despite the multiple illnesses that plagued him and against the advice of his doctors.
In addition to the 24 books that bear his signature, Ginsberg was a master networker with thousands of friends across the world. He was a constant force who shepherded the writings of his friends to publication. Thus, without the constant editorial collaboration and promotion by Ginsberg, drug-addled William Burroughs’ chef d’oeuvre “Naked Lunch” would never have seen the light of day, nor would Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” or Gregory Corso’s poetry.
Ginsberg set up the Committee on Poetry as a non-profit project to encourage avant-garde poetry and political activism, and poured all the money he made from his lecture tours and poetry readings into it. His protests and politics and civil disobedience, as well as his “obscene” poetry, made him the most arrested poet of the 20th century.
Ginsberg dreamed of becoming a rock star, and toured and recorded with John Lennon, Bob Dylan, the Clash’s Joe Strummer, and Philip Glass, among others, and made numerous albums of his poetry.
He spent years tracking and researching the CIA’s involvement in drug smuggling, and in 1971 lunched with New York Times columnist and editorialist C.L. Sulzberger to make his case, which Sulzberger dismissed as mere “paranoia.” When reports surfaced in the press seven years later confirming his findings, Ginsberg was rewarded with a note of apology from Sulzberger.
Ginsberg was tireless in lending his presence to benefits for an endless list of causes and friends, from Bangladesh’s starving masses to the defense of Timothy Leary to poetry projects and publications. He was also involved in the struggles against America’s war in Vietnam and its support for the contras in Nicaragua, and he was always available to fight against censorship whenever it raised its ugly head. For Ginsberg, “court appearances became the new performance poetry,” Finbow writes. Ginsberg won numerous battles against the Federal Communications Commission’s censorious strictures, helping create more liberty on our airwaves.
I had only a nodding acquaintance with Ginsberg, whom I confess was never really my cup of tea — his adventures in Buddhism, a religion that promotes the abnegation of the self, seemed to me hypocritical given his capacious, not to say domineering, egotism, and as a deep-dyed atheist I’ve always been turned off by the mystical. Moreover, his endless search for the “perfect high” from a myriad of hallucinogenic drugs struck me as largely a waste of time.
But Finbow’s meticulously documented study reminded me of Ginsberg’s admirable courage and his devotion to helping others, and it can be read with profit by all of us. He was an outsized international figure who consciously built his outrageous image, and we can still learn much from his life, which was studded with a truly astonishing range of friendships with some of the last century’s most celebrated writers, artists, and poets. We shall not see Ginsberg’s like again.
An extensive compilation of Ginsberg’s writings, recordings, photographs, and more can be found online at the Allen Ginsberg Project (allenginsberg.org).
ALLEN GINSBERG | By Steve Finbow | Reaktion Books | $16.95 | 235 pages | reaktionbooks.co.uk