For the countdown to Allen’s 90th birthday celebrations (he would have been 90 this coming Friday), we thought to feature a little biographical evocation – Ed Sanders, from 1998, a year after his death, lecturing at Naropa on “The Poetry and Life of Allen Ginsberg”. As he observes, “one could recite a twenty-thousand-page biography of Allen Ginsberg”, so, these random notes, “picking up on the items of Allen’s life that are interesting to me”, (qualified also by time-constraints – tho’ he’s given a little extra time to continue his chronology).
Ed only manages to make it up to 1948, but it’s a fact-filled journey, told in his inimitable style, and not to be missed.
The whole work (taking it up to the very end of Allen’s life) was subsequently published and is available – here
Key sections from Ed’s notes are on his web-site – here
We would also want to give a shout-out to Bill Morgan’s arguably definitive biography,
and to Michael Schumacher’s and Barry Miles’ (both published in Allen’s life-time)
Steve Finbow bravely surveyed the life in 2012 for Reaktion Books
Ed’s is singular and unique, being a biography-in-verse, documentary poetry.
As Lawrence Ferlinghetti has written: “Documentary poetry at its best is better than conventional biographies, being closer to verbatim reality, without the necessary distorting lens of the interpretive biographer…Here in Sanders’ docudrama the interpretation is pretty much left to the reader…Nothing but the facts, man, in great detail, and poetry is in the detail (the concrete is most poetic Allen always said)…A fine journalist gets it all down without catering to his subject, and here Allen rises from it, alive in our minds and hearts.”
Here’s an early (oral) presentation of (some of) the material.
Ed Sanders: Okay, the life of Allen Ginsberg, of course, is a vast rhapsody and inner weaving of many many different strands. He lived about eleven lives at the same time, he was a very complicated person. And so, it goes to the question of why..why do we study the lives of the poets? why is it? To me the reason is similar to why we might follow the latest researches into cosmology or particle physics. It’s to try to get a sense of what it is that’s happening to us and our loved ones in the eighty or ninety years that we are above room-temperature. From our studies of the lives of poets we are praying for something more specific than, say, Bob Dylan’s “Something is happening here but I [sic] don’t know what it is“, and in, of course, our data-retentive era, one could recite a twenty-thousand-page biography of Allen Ginsberg. So what I’m going to do is merely to grab a thread from the thousand-threaded, gnarled, woven, beauteous gnarl of time that was the life of Allen Ginsberg, and I’m going to useas a text notes that I… poetic notes that I created for a course I taught at the Schule Fur Dichtung in Vienna last year called “The Poetry and Life of Allen Ginsberg” and I’ve been serializing it in Miriam (my wife) and my newspaper, The Woodstock Journal. So I’ve photocopied the seven sections..or six sections..that we’ve printed so far, and if you’ll pay for the photocopy costs, (two-fifty, three bucks, something like that) you can have one. I’ve made about twenty copies.
So, Allen Ginsberg -“The origin of Allen Ginsberg, really, is in this map of the Northern part of what is known as the Jewish Pale and a little town called Nevel on the Msta River. The Msta river went down the Jewish Pale into the mouth of the Black Sea at Odessa. Miriam’s, my wife’s family, came from Mogilev, which is about twenty miles south of Allen Ginsberg’s grandparents and his genetic antecedents lie in two revolutionary strands, a revolutionary strand that grew out of the assasination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881 and a strand that grew out of the great revolutionary surge in Russia in 1905. In 1881, a secret society (it was a very police-state-y thing in Russia, so if you wanted to do any overt political action you had to.. (you) were pretty much doing it underground, and that was true for the Decembrists of 1825 or the violent revolutionary populists of the Norodniki of 1881. Anyway, they succeeded in bumping off Tsar Alexander II and there was an immediate… and one of the people that had conducted the assasination was Jewish, so it triggered off a giant anti-Semetic wave in Russia. The Tsar banned the Yiddish theatre in Moscow, Jews were expelled not long after from Moscow and from the big cities so that Anton Chekhov‘s friend, the great, the wonderful, Russian painter Isaac Levitan had to live outside of Moscow and had to commute in.. (he was Jewish)..had to commute in to his studio. So, out of that turmoil in 1881 and thereafter came Louis Ginsberg‘s father, Pincus, (who) fled Russia, fled the Pale, right around the assasination of Tsar Alexander II and then settled in in Newark, where he met a woman named Rebecca Schechtman. And Louis Ginsberg was born in the United States, in 1895.
Now, the revolutionary movement in Russia had not developed fully by 1882. It was sort of like the American revolutionary movement, exemplified in the Haymarket riots in Chicago and the Knights of Labor. There was hardly any.. there were no fully-developed labor unions, and there were certainly no things like child-labor laws, or social security, or workman’s comp, anything like that. It was very primitive. And the same way in Russia, only doubly so. So Louis Ginsberg’s tradition was as socialists, democratic socialists. In Russia, things got considerably worse during the last part ofthe nineteenth century. So bad that by 1905 there was a great event (great, in the sense that it had a world-wide impact among those who wanted reform, economic reform. And it was a thing called “Bloody Sunday”, which was an early.. 1905 there were.. it was pretty well-developed. There were hundreds of thousands of marchers and protestors. It was very.. There was many of them hungry, but also those who wanted things like an eight-hour day, more pay, and the right to vote (there was no parliamentary system yet). This thing that happened in 1905 in Russia was to trigger off the beginning of parliamentary..the parliament, the duma, in Russia. And these hundreds of thousands of demonstrators marched upon the Tsar’s Winter Palace and the soldiers fired and a hundred were shot dead. But it triggered a massive set of strikes all over Russia which basically shut down the country. Russia was a huge empire had suddenly become… The telegraph combined with very early telephone (Chekhov, the great Chekhov, got to…before he died of tuberculosis, got to talk over the telephone, to Tolstoy) and the railroads unified Russia in a way that you could now travel quite easily throughout the Russian empire. But it also facilitated the growth of the proletarian sense of the eight-hour day and more pay and the actual right they might have to make enough money to stay fed.
So this..this big upswing in Russia had a world-wide effect, but it also caused, again, a wave of pograms (“pogram” is the Russian word for devastation) – The image, I think, of pograms,( I always read of many wonderful books, wonderous and scary books, on the pograms in Russia), but, the image of streets with floating feathers – they would.. you know, the thing was not only to herd and stab, shoot Jewish people and burn their houses, but also to look for money and they would rip open feather beds and toss stuff out the window and the streets would be like a swirl of feathers). And in this context of swirly pogramic feather-blizzards, Naomi Ginsberg moved with her parents to New York City (they escaped – the first.. the social democratic wave, Louis Ginsberg’s parents came in 1880’s after the violent cataclysm anti-Semitism pograms in the ‘8o’s, and then in 1905.. So she was born.. Louis was born in the United States but Naomi was born in.. she was from Nevel, and they moved, again, to a city, Vitebsk? (I’m not quite sure how to pronounce it), nearby Nevel, where there was a strong proletarian, much more Leftist underground (You recall that (it was) in 1903 that the Bolsheviks were formed, at the big Bolshevik Conference in London, and they was total press censorship but they had a way of printing things abroad and then getting them back in the country, so that there was quite a..really overtly Communist movement in Russia by 1905 (and Naomi’s family were more Communist, more of the early, pre-Stalin.. a purer form of proletarian socialism).
So those are two of the currents, the genetic currents, that coursed through the young Irwin Allen Ginsberg, when the social democrat tradition met the more vehement Communist tradition in the same cell-line.
So the name was Livergant – on Naomi’s mother’s line (but, of course, you never knew what the people at Ellis Island would do to your name, and what they did, “Livergant” became “Levy”
Mendel Livergant was Naomi’s father, and, as it got filtered through Ellis Island, “Mendel” became “Morris” and “Livergant” became “Levy”. Previously his gig had been selling Singer sewing-machines to the rural population around Nevel in the Jewish Pale. Mendel had married a woman naned Judith and they had four children, Eleanor, Naomi, Max and Sam (names that you’ll find in Allen Ginsberg’s poetry)
But we’ll focus on the mother, Naomi, which.. it’s in the tension between Louis and Naomi.. (I never knew Naomi but I knew Louis, and I could see what helped make this young poet tick). Naomi grew up speaking Yiddish and you can see Allen’s great.. (one of the poems he wrote late in life … “Yiddishe Kopf “) . She played the mandolin (so there was a musical tradition, which I’ll get into)…
(You know I’m just going to rave forward until there’s no more time, because it’s a very complicated story and so I’ll just take my time.)
And so Vitebsk, where they came from in the Pale was where Marc Chagall had lived when he was young (later destroyed by the Nazi’s).
So, the first thing they went to..in New York City was to Orchard Street (you know, that’s still a street where yiou can get inexpensive fabrics and apparel). They moved there and her father, Morris (Mendel now Morris) opened a candy-store in the Lower East Side. Then the family.. There was all this.. They called them “greenhorns” – and there was.. it was very unpleasant.. there were no.. people would sell things on a.. they’d get two pickle-barrels and put a slab on top of it and get something to sell, because there was no social platform, there was no monthly cheques from anywhere. So it was a very nitty-gritty, naked lunch, Darwinian situation. But they had come, of course, to America, not only as the golden gate but the golden zone of revolution.
So, Naomi’s parents moved to Newark, where they.. (Communism, in those days, had not acquired the Gulag image or substance that it was later to be, then, it was quite.. it didn’t have any J.Edgar Hoover opening files on you if you thought you might want to be a Communist, because it was to seize the economy in the name of the people and to operate it democratically, to spread the largesse for all, so it did not have any power-freaks and dungeon-oids sort of curdeling the galactic milk there at that time).
So Naomi, in the happenstance that happens to all of you, you.. – (If I had taken Russian, instead of Greek, I would have never met Miriam, so what happened was – we met in Greek class in NYU – so, and, it was a very last-minute thing, I was going to take Russian right up to a couple of days before – she’s saying, “God, if you’d only taken (Greek)…” – no, no, sorry, Miriam!)
So Naomi was in Barringer High in 1912, and this billiard-balls-of-the-abyss-ricochets thing, and met a guy named Louis. She was seventeen. And there was another strand that kicked in (this was six years before Allen Ginsberg, seven years before Allen Ginsberg was born in 1926). So she was a young Communist firebrand meeting a more.. a little more.. a different roadway, a social democratic family, meeting the Ginsberg family. And Naomi then, as a young..as a teenager, had her first breakdown. And it manifested itself not in the weird wires-in-the-head and sticks-up-the-spine manifestations that you read about in Allen’s great poem, “Kaddish”, but in..light, light was painful. So in her first breakdown, she lay in a room, a dark room, for three weeks until it was over. It was right around that time that she had become,, she was becoming a school-teacher, and she would have these unknown spells where she had to retreat. Now the thing that it’s all dark, you know, there’s a (Robert) Creeley line, “the darkness sur-/rounds us..” [in the poem. “I Know A Man”], so it could have been a little of that, a little bit of metaphysical analysis of the universe and, anyway, so she would go into these prolonged…And, you know, in-laws don’t really want the woman their son is marrying to be residing in a dark room for a month, you know what I mean? So there was a certain amount of tension there in the Ginsberg family over Naomi, but, if you see the pictures of Naomi and Louis, Louis Ginsberg, they’re quite wonderful and charming, full of life and energy, you can see the intelligence and the hope and the expectation and all beaming from their faces, so they.. you know.. I mean, all of us.. If you listen to your elders about whom you should marry?..I mean, you know, you.. Anyway, they went ahead, told them to go to hell and got married.
[Louis and Naomi Ginsberg]
They had a son, Eugene in 1921, and, again, Socialism won out over Communism, a big difference, because the son, ‘Gene, was named after the great American socialist, Eugene Debs, he wasn’t named Vladimir, for instance, or Leon. And they had a regular.. there was a whole culture, a left-wing culture in the United States before the horror of the show-trials of the (19)30’s where they had this whole network of rings – Socialist Sunday Schools, and they had…they went to a camp, the brothers.. this is Allen’s.. you wonder why…what the origins of the “CIA Dope Calypso” and “Ballad of the Skeletons” (were) and it might have been from his experiences at a left-wing camp called Camp Nicht-Gedeiget (which means “No Worry”, “Camp No-Worry”). where they would go in the summertime (not far from where Miriam and I live) in Orange County, north of New York City, and that’s…Allen learned his first songs at these.. his Mom (his father was also a school-teacher but ir was more, a little more proper in his…the acceptability of his political activities, but the mother belonged to a secret Communist cell – which didn’t have the negative connotations that it might have in the (19)50’s and during the Rosenberg trials, but they were..they would just meet, it was sort of like a social club, you know), and Allen learned his first songs at his mother’s Communist meetings – “On The Line” and “The Red Flag”, and other socialist songs, which I think probably fed.. (and she played the mandolin, of course, so this musical, leftist, left-wing musical tradition led to his great populist songs of later years. I think this was the first evidence that would point him in that direction, you know, of the populist tune.
Then, Allen was born and when..around 1929, she (Naomi) had pancreas surgery and flipped out again. This time it was more serious and she had to go to a sanitarium. And the family..there was a very strong family bind, which I think led to Allen’s concern for family and he would knit.. the most distant cousins and aunts and uncles,the most…and he extended it to professors, to people he had met, he would keep in constant contact with, he was very very kind to his father, and to his step-mothers, and, of course, “Kaddish“, his great poem to his mother, grew out of this intense sense of family, and I think he got it from, partly from, the determination of Louis, and Eugene, and himself, and.. to answer for the family, no matter what happened to the mother, but not to exclude her from the on-going sense of family, so she would… This time she was in six months and she finally got out and joined the family in Paterson in (19)30, and went along, and I think she was still teaching, and then, Allen was not quite a teenager, in 1935, had another session with a big flip-out cycle (again it was light – so.. I don’t know, I don’t remember reading anything about light and depression, but anyway..) So she had this. And.. The twentieth century where was when they invented shock-treatments, and late 1935 and (19)36, she went under again and was sent to Greystone and given shock-treatments. She was in a lot longer. And, I don’t know, they didn’t seem to work, because her paranoia grew during the (19)30’s. Now the (19)30’s, you know, what was happening in the United States, it was very stark and ghastly thing going on, much worse than probably anything they had ever experienced in the culture in general, the Great Depression, where millions were without proper food, where there was a sense of ghastliness to the civilization, the great migrations from the Mid-West to the West and so it was..The golden dream of America had become the golden Dust Storm, so, you can.. And there was this ghastly phenomenon in Europe occurring – Fascism and Nazi-ism – and so Naomi was sensitive to these things, and Allen, meanwhile, was growing up, and slowly discovering that he was gay.
In 1940, for instance, he.. I found the first evidence of something I learned as a young man (I emulated him) and that is he was the first “Jack-the-clipper” I ever met, in that, when he was a teenager, he would amass big files of news clippings, on Hitler, Mussolini, and the Spanish Civil War (that would be another factor to cause great distress in the American left is that the Spanish Civil War..you know the Anarchist-Syndicalist movement and the Socialist movement in Spain, it looked like there was going to be a genuine Republic devoted to Anarcho-Syndicalist people, people owning the whole economy, it looked like it might work, except for American indifference, Hitler supplying the Franco forces and this horrible war that depressed the American left
Anyway, so Allen was the first “Jack-the-clipper” I ever met, and I didn’t even know that he was a proto-Jack-the-clipper, when he was in his teens, but he..you know, those of us who knew him, he was always giving us files on CIA or James Angleton or on this cause or that cause, it was an early phenomenon that he got from, perhaps his mother and dad’s.. there was a lot of debates, there was a lot of tension, not only because his mother tended to flip out now and then but, over politics, because, you know, in the United States, the Socialist Party was formed in 1901, and it grew, even during and after World War I, the Socialist Party really.. I mean..there were members of..six or seven members of Congress that were Socialist.There were a number of, forty, fifty, sixty, mayors that were Socialists. It was a big movement then. Oklahoma, believe it or not (you wouldn’t know it by now, but) Oklahoma was one of the biggest – and Kansas also was one of the biggest states with Socialist infrastructures. So..
But in the Ginsberg family, there were a lot of fierce debates over the…By the time Allen was born, this concept of Marxist-Leninist vanguardism had appeared. The Socialists were more inclined to make some rapprochement with greed, with capitalist greed, whereas the Communists were determined to have a dictatorship of the proletariat, and guided from Moscow. And so there was a… right around the time Allen became a teenager and on then there was the Moscow Show Trials, there was the isolation of Leon Trotsky and there was a whole robot-Communist surface in American Left structure that sort of threw everything…it’s a very complicated subject… that threw everything into confusion and then..Allen..it washed over the mind, the obviously-brilliant mind, of Allen Ginsberg, this tension between Socialists and Communists, which came..which had come to its head in..when was it? 1919? or 1920, when the Communists split off from the Socialists, and both sort of went into decline slowly thereafter.
to be continued
[Audio for the above can be heard here, beginning at the beginning of the tape and concluding at approximately twenty-nine-and-a-quarter minutes in]