Ginsberg Apolitical? – I don’t think so!

Allen Ginsberg protesting Madame Nhu’s visit in San Francisco, October 30, 1963. Placard reads: Man is naked without secrets (?) Armed Men Lack this/how many million person without names/what do we know of their suffering?/”Oh how wounded How wounded!” Says the Guru/Thine own heart says the Swami/Within you says the Christ/Till his humanity Awake says Blake/I am here saying seek mutual surrender tears/That there be no more hell in Vietnam/That I not be in hell here in the street. (photographer unknown)

A couple of better-late-than-never responses to Lee Siegel‘s (October 10, 2010)  New York Times Book Review article (first noted here) that made some loose and somewhat bizarre parallels between the Beat Generation and the right-wing political phenomenon, the “Tea Party”. We include Eliot Katz‘s in its entirety below. Ishmael Reed‘s we’ve excerpted below that, but you can get the whole piece at Counterpunch

Dear Friends (who were also friends of Allen’s):

In the October 10th New York Times Book Review, there was an article by Lee Siegel comparing the views of Beat Generation writers, including Allen’s, to the right-wing Tea Party movement. I wrote a letter to the Book Review editor in response because I thought it was important to challenge Siegel’s misrepresentations, particularly with the elections coming up and so many crazy Tea Party candidates running. Of course, it’s difficult to get letters to the editor published in the NY Times (although I have managed to get in a few in the past) because they receive so many more letters than they can publish. Since I just found out that this one isn’t going to get in there, I thought I would at least send it around to friends who were also friends of Allen’s in the hope that some of you might appreciate it. With all best wishes, [Unpublished letter to the NY Times Book Review Editor by Eliot Katz:]

To the Editor:

As a poet, activist, and longtime friend of the late Allen Ginsberg, I wanted to challenge the characterization of Ginsberg’s political views and work in Lee Siegel’s provocative article, “The Beat Generation and the Tea Party” (Oct. 10). Introducing his piece with the claim that the Beat Generation writers were driven mainly by a desire for individual freedom, Siegel writes that they were “essentially apolitical” and that “insofar as they had sociopolitical ambitions, their goals…were the stuff of poetry, not organized politics.” After portraying Ginsberg as uninterested in working practically to improve government policies, Siegel then proceeds to link the ideas of Ginsberg and other Beat Generation writers to the right-wing Tea Party’s project of downsizing government’s role in ensuring people’s social and economic needs and rights.

Siegel’s portrayal of Ginsberg as uninterested in organized politics could hardly be more misleading. In both his poetry and his life, Ginsberg was one of the most politically engaged writers of his era. Influenced by such literary predecessors as William Blake and Walt Whitman, and raised by his communist mother Naomi, and his Debsian-socialist father Louis, Allen Ginsberg learned how to turn his political ideas and observations into some of the most memorable and widely read poetry of the second half of the 20th century. And in his personal life, he actively supported and participated in a wide range of organized political movements, beginning with the movement to end the Vietnam War and, in ensuing years, movements for such progressive causes as gay rights, civil rights, environmental protection, nuclear disarmament, and avoidance of the first Gulf War in 1990-91. He served on the advisory board of numerous organizations, including the progressive media watch group, Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), and a national student activist group that I worked with during the late 1980s and early 1990s, Student Action Union. In the years that I knew Ginsberg, from 1980 until his death in 1997, he was constantly writing or calling government offices to advocate for improved social policies and urging younger writers like myself to do the same. Most of the policies for which Ginsberg advocated—such as stronger social safety nets for homeless persons; deep cuts in military spending; and a more active government role in protecting civil rights, human rights, and the environment—do not at all resemble the right-wing policy calls that we have been hearing from Tea Party circles and candidates.

As Siegel notes, Ginsberg certainly believed strongly in individual freedoms, including freedom of expression; and he was a hard-working member of PEN’s Freedom to Write Committee, protesting literary censorship and working for the release of imprisoned writers in both the East and West. But contrary to Siegel’s narrow portrayal, Ginsberg also believed deeply in the importance of solidarity and well understood the reality of human interdependence. In his most well-known poem, note for example the key third section of “Howl” with its repeated assertion to fellow writer, Carl Solomon, who was at the time in a psychiatric hospital, that “I’m with you in Rockland”–an expression of interpersonal solidarity that works in the poem as a tonic to the sense of alienation decried in the poem’s previous and politically charged “Moloch” section, and that, beyond the poem itself, prefigures the kind of collective effort and movement building that is necessary to create meaningful social change. Throughout his life, Ginsberg was a Great Introducer, consistently trying to bring writers and activists together for the benefit of social-justice causes. For just one interesting example, it was Ginsberg who introduced Abbie Hoffman and Dave Dellinger to each other, an introduction that would help lead to the historic Chicago 1968 protests outside the Democratic Party convention and the subsequent Chicago 8 trial, in which Hoffman and Dellinger were defendants. Ginsberg kept a comprehensive rolodex of writers, political organizers, and journalists working for both the mainstream and the alternative press, a rolodex which was incredibly helpful in the pre-Internet days to those of us who needed difficult-to-find phone numbers or addresses in order to help organize or publicize upcoming meetings, events, and rallies. In recent years, many of Ginsberg’s old friends and colleagues have been working with coalitions like United for Peace & Justice to call—first from the Bush administration and now from the Obama administration—for an end to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and for a renewed respect for civil liberties and human rights. Again, we have not yet heard such calls coming from the Tea Party.

In looking at Ginsberg’s body of poems over five-plus decades, I have written elsewhere that his political philosophy was flexible and pragmatic, not rigidly ideological, but that his political views were always within a broad spectrum of democratic-left traditions—including a consistent belief in values like civic participation, economic fairness, peace and international cooperation, accountable institutions, ecological protection, and civil liberties and other human rights. Right up until the end of his life, Allen Ginsberg never wavered from his dedication to progressive causes, which is why I think it is so important to challenge this article by Lee Siegel, whose work I have previously read and enjoyed. While it is true that not all of the Beat Generation writers shared the same politics, in the case of Ginsberg (and many of the other writers associated with the Beat Generation), Siegel would have been fairer and more accurate if he had shown how Ginsberg’s legacy continues to be seen in the contemporary and international anti-war movement; in recently increased efforts to urge the government to play a stronger role in halting the questionable bank-driven housing foreclosures that have led to vastly increasing homelessness in America; and in the global justice movement (as seen most visibly in the Seattle 1999 WTO protests and most recently at the September 2010 G-20 protests in Pittsburgh), with this movement’s effective and theatrical demonstrations and its poetically phrased insistence that “another world is possible.”

Eliot Katz, Astoria, NY

Eliot Katz is the author of six poetry books, including Unlocking the Exits, and, most recently, Love, War, Fire, Wind: Looking Out from North America’s Skull. He has published several essays on Allen Ginsberg’s poetry and is a coeditor, with Ginsberg and Andy Clausen, of Poems for the Nation, a collection of contemporary political poems that Ginsberg was compiling in the year and a half before his death. Katz currently works as a writer for the Center for Constitutional Rights. [2015 update – He is also the author of the recently-published The Poetry and Politics of Allen Ginsberg from Beatdom]

Ishmael Reed:

Voting With Hard Hats,Brown Shirts, Black Shirts, T-Shirts (via Counterpunch)

… I was surprised when Lee Siegel, writing in The New York Times Book Review, made a bizarre attempt to link The Beats to the T-Shirts. He wrote “The Beats, though pacifist, were essentially apolitical.” Apolitical? He hasn’t read Ted Joans, Bob Kaufman, Amiri Baraka, Allen Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti. Ginsberg’s “Wichita Vortex Sutra,” which condemns war politicians by name, is one of the best antiwar poems. I asked Kerouac biographer Gerry Nicosia his opinion of the Siegel claim.

“It is absurd to say the Beats were apolitical. The Beats—speaking now of Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, John Clellon Holmes, among others—were deeply shaped by World War II. They understood the necessity of fighting evil – Kerouac volunteered for the merchant marine—but they also believed that militarism for its own sake was a highly dangerous path and likely to become addictive to those in power. The Beats were, to a man and woman, appalled by the use of the atomic bomb against the Japanese, and they felt that the rapidly escalating buildup of American military armaments after World War II and the concomitant Cold War—with its threat of mutual destruction—was absolutely insane. Kerouac comments on the show of empty-headed military might in On The Road as Kerouac and Cassady drive through Washington, D.C. at the time of Truman’s inauguration and Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady) wonders why a good “man from Missouri” like Truman had “fallen asleep at the wheel.” When Kerouac defined Beat Generation for John Clellon Holmes, he also talked about the need to transform America into a kinder and gentler nation (long before George H.W. Bush used it as a political catch-phrase)—a nation that would welcome and try to understand other cultures and religions, not bomb them. Ginsberg’s poem “Hum Bomb!” is of course the most obvious satire and condemnation of America’s propensity to bomb rather than love and understand peoples who are different from us, but Ginsberg’s whole career twined with antiwar activism—culminating with his great poem against the madness of the Vietnam War, “Wichita Vortex Sutra.” As for Burroughs, almost his entire oeuvre is about the misuse and abuse of power, the continual institution of control systems which limit human growth and fulfillment, and an exploration of the destructive effects of government on the course of human cultural evolution. If Naked Lunch were not so threatening to the established system of government, and to the constrainment of natural human behavior that government seeks to enforce, the U.S. government’s strenuous efforts to suppress it would be almost incomprehensible.”

Moreover, while the T-Shirts seek to cut off knowledge from the world by banning Ethnic Studies in Arizona, and banning the teaching Islam in Texas (in the name of Western civilization about which they also lack knowledge), Allen Ginsberg, a Buddhist, and his followers were always known for their cosmopolitanism. A few years before his death, Ginsberg taught Black Literature at Brooklyn College; I was one of his guest lecturers.

All one has to do is read the ads for writing workshops, conferences, retreats, etc. carried in Poets and Writers, The American Poetry Review, and AWP, to see that Naropa University, founded by Ginsberg and now run by poet Anne Waldman, is one of a handful that appreciates diversity beyond tokenism. The American literary scene is as white separatist as the Tea Party.

While the man who occupied the White House at the time enthralled the majority of Americans, Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s document ends with Eisenhower’s resignation.

Continue reading Ishmael Reed’s entire piece  at Counterpunchhere  


  1. More Thoughts on Allen Ginsberg's Politics

    [Ginsberg's] manner of fusing prayer and political strategy seem evergreen for today's problems, though he used them in and for a different era and different world tensions … I can see him and Peter Orlovsky, sitting by the proposed Islamic cultural center in lower New York chanting — om om om — to the upset crowds there, calming their fears. He might have done the same thing earlier on the steps of the New York Stock Exchange. We could really use him now.

    – from Courtney Gerber's interview with Terrence WIlliams at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis – Allen Ginsberg and the Quiet Librarian see:

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