“When asked how he wanted to be remembered, Allen Ginsberg smiled modestly at his BBC interviewer and said, “Father Death Blues”. Then he opened up his harmonium and sang the poem on television – a sweet, mournful Buddhist spiritual, more vulnerable than the exuberant “Howl”, the counterculture anthem for which the Beat poet is renowned.
This humble performance came two years before Ginsberg’s own death in 1977. Now we have Wait Till I’m Dead, an intimate new collection from the “shy but outspoken Jewish bard”, as Rachel Zucker dubs him in her artful foreword, Concisely annotated by editor Bill Morgan,Wait Till I’m Dead gathers Ginsberg’s “stray” poems, those previously unpublished or printed in obscure journals.
For readers (like myself) familiar only with Ginsberg’s greatest hits and daunted by his 1,200 page collected works, Wait Till I’m Dead expands our vision, takes us on a wild road trip with the poet and his friends through the second half of the twentieth-century, from high school to his final years.Arranged chronologically by decade, the collection reads like a mini-autobiography, often citing the date and place of a poem’s composition. We enter Ginsberg’s journal and sometimes his bedroom, see him riding with a stranger “on a lonely bus/for half a night”, or savoring a sexual encounter in a Turkish bath.
“War is black magic”, Ginsberg declares in a poem he carried on a poster during a 1963 anti-Vietnam demonstration in San Francisco – “How many boys been slapped around/by midnight cops downtown in/the colored section” he asks in “Busted”, showing parallels between the ‘Sixties fight for peace and social justice and ours today given the war on terror and the Black Lives Matter movement.
Ginsberg celebrated candor in poetry above all else; like his “ultimate American mentor” Walt Whitman, he wanted to make the private world public. Whether mourning John Lennon’s murder, writing a postcard to Bob Dylan, or taking a pee after meditating, he reveals his inner life with magnificent range, from traveling epics to lucid haiku. “(A) message may arrive as a soft electric shock of feeling”, he writes in a birthday poem for Marianne Moore, and Wait Till I’m Dead offers such a message; Ginsberg’s singular voice, speaking out from the past.”
Memories of Allen – (we continue to encourage and look forward to featuring these). Here‘s Zen practitioner, Shiju Ben Howard, recalling Allen’s visit to Alfred University in October, 1978 – “My unexpected teacher“:”During his three-day residency, Ginsberg gave an exuberant reading (where he recited the entirety of “Howl“), delivered a scholarly lecture on modernist poetics, engaged in lively conversation with students, and joined my first wife and me for dinner at our wood-heated farmhouse. A generous. sweet tempered man, he treated everyone with courtesy and respect, and he seemed more interested in looking and listening, than expounding his opinions. “What is that bush called?”, he asked me, noticing the red-leaved sumac along Elm Valley Road. “A work of art”, he remarked while viewing our fuel supply; twenty face cords of firewood, split and neatly stacked..” – More of Howard’s recollections – here
Essays on Allen – Here‘s a recent one – Delilah Gardner – “Ginsberg in the Underground – Whitman, Rimbaud, and Visions of Blake” in (the ever-readable) Beatdom.Ipswich in England once again this week hosts its Festival of the Beats. Among the highlights – John Power and Jordan Savage (speaking on Women of the Beat Generation), music and spoken word (featuring Adam Horovitz and Serious Times) and the UK premiere of Nic Saunders‘ “The Good Blonde” (adapted from the short story by Jack Kerouac)
And, Anne Waldman‘s birthday – check out this space tomorrow