Ginsberg/Podhoretz – Allen versus his arch-nemesis – “When Norman Podhoretz Spent The Night With Allen Ginsberg,” Tablet Magazine this month featured a lengthy excerpt from Daniel Oppenheimer‘s new book Exit Right, “a compelling and beautifully written work of political history”, as the author Jason Sokol has described it – “By tracing the stories of six individuals [Whittaker Chambers, James Burnham, Norman Podhoretz, Ronald Reagan, David Horowitz and Christopher Hitchens] Daniel Oppenheimer not only gives us a nuanced look at America’s rightward turn, he also tells a more elemental story about political action – about who we are and what we believe and how these things can seem unshakeable one moment yet so tenuous the next”.

The Ginsberg-Podhoretz section is drawn, to a large degree, from Podhoretz’s own highly-defensive account (from 1997 – “My War With Allen Ginsberg” – reprinted, pretty much verbatim in his 1999 memoir, pointedly titled Ex-Friends (Allen, it should be pointed out, is in good company – the full title of that book is Ex-Friends – Falling Out With Allen Ginsberg, Lionel and Diana Trilling, Lillian Hellman, Hannah Arendt, and Norman Mailer, Allen’s sometime Columbia classmate, cultural-critic-turned neo-con, seems to have been extraordinarily adept at pissing people off!)

Podhoretz’s most infamous sally was, of course, the essay “The Know-Nothing Bohemians” (specifically about Kerouac but extended to all of the “Beat Generation”)

So, Allen here (from the Village Voice, October 1958):

“Podhoretz doesn’t write prose, he doesn’t know how to write prose and he isn’t interested in the technical problems of prose or poetry. His criticism of Jack’s spontaneous bop prosody shows that he can’t tell the difference between words as rhythm and words as in diction…(and).. The bit about anti-intellectualism is a piece of vanity, we had the same education, went to the same school, you know there are “INTELLECTUALS” and there are “intellectuals”, Podhoretz is just out of touch with twentieth-century literature, he’s just writing for the eighteenth-century mind. We have a personal literature now – Proust, Wolfe, Faulkner, Joyce. The trouble is Podhoretz has a great ridiculous fat-bellied mind which he pats too often.”

and, even more frustated, (to their Columbia classmate, John Hollander – which Podhoretz, revealingly, quotes):

“..(Podhoretz lacks) even the basic ability to tell the difference between prosody and diction (as in his…diatribes on spontaneous bop prosody confusing it with the use of hip talk, not realizing it refers to the rhythmic construction of phrases and sentences). I mean where am I going to begin a serious explanation if I have to deal with such unmitigated stupid ignorant ill-willed inept vanity as that – somebody like that wouldn’t listen unless you hit him over the head with a totally new universe, but he’s stuck in his own hideous world, I would try, but he scarely has enough heart to hear – etc etc – so all these objections about juvenile delinquency, vulgarity, lack of basic education, bad taste, etc, etc, no form etc, mean it’s impossible to discuss things like that – finally I get to see them as so basically wrong (unscientific), so dependent on ridiculous provincial schoolboy ambitions & presuppositions and so lacking contact with practical fact – that it seems a sort of plot almost, a kind of organized mob stupidity – the final camp of its announcing itself as a representation of value or civilization or taste – I mean I give up, that’s just too much fucking nasty brass.”

One theory for such vindictiveness (and its perpetuation) was thwarted ambition. Paul Berman here traces it back to Allen’s editing of one of Podhoretz’s poems in their college magazine, but Podhoretz vigorously denies this: (“..the truth was that my gratitude to Ginsberg for publishing my poem far outweighed my shock at his editing it, and if I was ever “taking revenge” on anything connected with him, it was not his verse but on what he himself called his “vision”)

Podhoretz again:

“..I was repelled by Ginsberg’s world. In the abstract he spoke of freedom from the oppression of arbitrary social constraints, but in his own work he made no bones about the concrete consequences of this freedom – they were madness, drugs, and sexual perversity. In praising him at first for not “glamorizing” these consequences, I had failed to grasp just how radical he really was..”

Oppenheimer’s account (indeed Podhortez’s account) focuses, in particular, on a 1958 “summit” (arranged by Ginsberg and Kerouac and warily-attended by Podhoretz)

Allen: “…”the know-nothing bohemians”, this big chunk of leaden prose which people took very seriously as a statement of civilized values. It was in Partisan Review, but then the idea spread like trench mouth and finally wound up filtering down to Life magazine and the Luce empire…Kerouac’s response was, “This is really too bad. That guy’s article will probably wind up confusing a lot of people, and he himself is confused. Why don’t we have him to tea?”. So we called up Podhoretz and invited him over.”

but it was not a successful event:

“The argument they had – for four hours, by Podhoretz’s later reckoning – was a multi-leveled one….The argument was also very personal…. With the stakes so high, no quarter could be given, and on they went past midnight, until they ran out of things to throw at each other. As Podhoretz left, Ginsberg threw out one last sally – “We’ll get you through your children!”

“We’ll get you through your children” – that was the line that got through, that would profoundly haunt him ( (“A decade later (1968) that threat would prove one of the fulcrums around which Podhoretz would execute his hard pivot to the right”, Oppenheimer writes).

And Allen too could never quite escape the nagging presence of his right-wing goad. As late as October 1996, from the New York Times:

“Sometimes the poet Allen Ginsberg still fantasizes about his old Columbia College friend Norman Podhoretz, who became the conservative editor of Commentary magazine. In Mr Ginsberg’s fantasies, Mr Ginsberg is yelling at Mr Podhoretz that the CIA is selling drugs in Los Angeles and yelling that Mr Ginsberg’s epic poem “Howl cannot be read on the radio during most daylight hours because of Federal limitations on obscenity. And he is warring with Mr Podhoretz, who once called beat poets like Mr Ginsberg “know-nothing bohemians”, about the very nature of poetry itself.”

but then, very late in his life, a beautiful revelation,

(from an interview, with Robert Stewart and Rebekah Presson, reproduced in the Fall 1987 issue of the magazine, New Letters):

“I had a very funny experience a couple of years ago when I dropped some Ecstacy…and I suddenly remembred Norman Podhoretz. Amd I said, Gee, good old Norman, we went to college together. He wanted to be a poet and he thought he’d commit suicide when he was thirty if he didn’t get to be a great poet. So that when he got to be thirty, he realized that John Hollander, who was also at college with us, was a poet, and he wasn’t. So he had to go some different way for power, and he got very perverse thoughts and started taking revenge on poetry power. Like denouncing Kerouac. He’s still denouncing Kerouac as a moral degenerate. And I say, Good old Norman Podhoretz . If he weren’t there like a wall I can butt my head against I wouldn’t have anybody to hate. And why hate him? He’s part of my world, and he’s sort of like the character Mr. Meanie or the Bluenose or the Blue Meanie. At the same time, he has some sense in him. And the poor guy is dying, like all of us. So, how could I pile my hatred on him anymore? But did I ever really hate him or was I just sort of fascinated by him?”

He goes further:

“I also saw him as a sort of sacred personage in my life, in a way: someone whose vision is so opposite from mine that it’s provocative and interesting – just as my vision is provocative and interesting enough for him to write columns against it in the newspaper. In fact, maybe he’s more honest than I am because he attacks me openly. So I should really respect him as one of the sacred personae in the drama of my own transitory existence.”

“I thought of Norman. I thought how can I hate him? All those years he’s had to suffer all my contumely in my head. It’s served as an education, to make me think my thoughts. He’s been a great help.Now, said Mr Ginsberg, Mr Podhoretz is “kind of a sacred object on my horizon .” (October, 1996, New York Times)

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