continuing from yesterday, Ed Sanders on the early years of Allen Ginsberg
So Allen then, by the end of high school learned that he was gay. And he had a crush on a guy from Paterson High School who was..who went to Columbia. So he.. (so, let’s talk about happenstance!), so Allen wanted to go to Columbia also. And, Allen’s mother, I think when he first went to Columbia, she was hospitalized again. So, in 1943, occured Allen’s first vow that I found. (He was prone to vows. He made his famous vow with Neal Cassady, he made another vow of love and devotion with Peter Orlovsky). He loved this – making a pact with the universe kind of thing. And (for) this pact he would..he was taking the ferry from Hoboken to Manhattan in 1943, on his way to taking the Columbia University entrance exams, and he made a vow that, if he got into Columbia, he would devote his life to helping the working-class. And I think it was in fulfilling that vow (vows are very serious, now), I think it was in fulfilling that vow, that he did.. (he never became (just) anyone… he was going to manifest this vow by being a labor lawyer). And I think, in a certain way, that’s just what Allen did become, over the years, was a labor-lawyer-without-a -shingle, in that he was always sensitive to the suffering of working people, (as in his great poem from 1969 (“Memory Gardens“) that has the lines, “And what’s the work? – While I’m here, I’ll do the work. And what’s the work? To ease the pain of living. Everything else, drunken dumbshow” – And that’s a more elegant way of his vow, of 1943 to help the working-class, on the Hoboken to Newark ferry).
So he enrolled in Columbia University in 1943 at the age of seventeen, and it was hardly a place of overt sentiment for the workers, although they had an interesting mixture of professors at Columbia at the time that included the great Marxist art-genius Meyer Schapiro, who was Allen’s mentor, (and I know they were going out to lunch till a couple of years ago). Oh, and there’s another thing that I always admired in Allen was his ability to stay in close contact with his professors at Columbia, including those who weren’t so friendly, like Lionel Trilling, an ex-radical but who was, by the time Allen enrolled in Columbia, was a kind of a Cold-War Liberal. And that was the school-year, that, at Columbia, that he met all the people that later congealed to become what was known as the Beat Generation. But then they were the Confused-Testosterone-Maddened-Young-Men Generation. He met a young Republican named Jack Kerouac, and he was influenced by people like Thomas Wyatt was one of his.. rhymers..and Christopher Smart. He was beginning to.. you know, he had this…mother, you know, who he knew that genetics are genetics, so he had a mother who had long spells of flip-out and freak-out so he..and he, himself was prone to having visions, and I think.. I know he did, all the time, quite often. The first time I ever went out for a beer with him, he had a few while we were sitting in Stanley’s Baron 12th and Avenue A, or Avenue B [Avenue B] – So he’d be..
Christopher Smart was important because this was a guy that was bonkers but could turn out great great poetry…
(I’ve no idea of the time..what time is it?)
…whose poem, Jubilate Agno, you know, the Jubilation of the Lamb, written while he was crazy was always one of Allen’s (favorites). So he was a rhyme-freak, and this early immersion in rhyme paid off later on during his spontaneous poem… He was amazing.. They always said Leonardo da Vinci was an incredible spontaneous poet. The only other genius-level spontaneous poet that I know about is Allen Ginsberg who could (I have tapes to prove it) just spontaneously create these interesting rhymed patterns, I’ve seen him do it many times, and I think part of it, though, derived from the years he spent studying (Thomas) Campion and Elizabethan lyrics. He took studying very seriously. He would make lists of classical music he wanted to listen to, he would make lists of operas, He went to the opera. His mother, his crazy Mom, when she got out of the insane asylum, they would go together to operas.And he met these Beats, Kerouac and William Burroughs in December of (19)43, and I’ve always called it in my own poetry, that concept of “the book boat”…December of (19)43, he met William Burroughs, and, one of his first experiences with these guys was not a brilliant wise-assed young man’s witticisms tossed back and forth as they all had to deal with the question of whether they were going to go into World War II or not and get shot, but..book-boats! You know, you go through your life and you accumulate this boat-load of books, and Burroughs had a wonderful book-boat. He was working as a bar-tender in the Village, William Burroughs, but he had this library, where Ginsberg first read William Blake and (Charles) Baudelaire (Allen had a big French poetry wing to his aesthetic that’s not talked about much and, you know, he was quite conversant, knew French very well, I watched him translate for Jean Genet in a riot in Chicago in 1968 and he was able to translate (and) speak French quite well in a tear-gas attack, so.. Allen had a facility for French verse, and he picked up on Baudelaire first in William Burroughs library. And the same way with (Jack) Kerouac. There was.. there not there anymore,you can’t buy there now, but during those years, the (19)40’s, (19)50’s and early (19)60’s, there was a row of.. on Fourth Avenue, between, like, St Marks and Thirteenth, Fourteenth, Street, there were like forty or fifty used-books stores. Kerouac went there to get all of his books. And so Allen would.. Everybody would share their books, they’d get this book-collection.
So. He met a young man named Kerouac, who then was, around May of 1944, Kerouac was a mechant seaman. It was World War II, it was quite dangerous to be a merchant seaman because your German U-boats or sub-chasers, you know, you could get bombed out of the water, so it was sort of a form of participating in World War II. Kerouac, of course had been a football-star, anyway. He had flunked out of Columbia basically and joined the Navy. Then he was discharged from the Navy, let’a put it like that, and joined the Merchant Marines. And there was all this early, complicated, fermenting-fermented young-man group. It was a very lofty form of what always happens at college among young men, if three or four. five young men, bond. But in his case it was.. I’m not sure if it was happenstance, or decision or deliberate choice, it was a “best mind” type of bond. Allen always said, you know, (and).talked of.. the implication was to find the “best minds of your generation” in the different art forms and groove with them. And through this and that, (I guess it’s a form of natural selection) but when you… in recording, there’s a concept called “never pass a take”. In other words, you’re doing a series of takes of a song or a piece and there comes a point when you’ve done the best you can and it doesn’t do any good to do anymore and it’s called “not passing a take”, and so, in selecting friends, during your,.. if you’re a writer, selecting friends when you’re young, you don’t want to “pass a take”. So he didn’t want to pass Burroughs and he didn’t want to pass Kerouac, so he didn’t want to pass Lucien Carr, and others.And Allen, he was like Elmer’s glue, I mean, he wouldn’t let…he was like.. like gluons, that bind neutrons together in a nucleus of an atom. Allen was a glue-on, So he would not let (go), no matter how weird (it was). Yeah, a group of young writers is sort of like a rock band, it’s very unnatural, it’s very prone to sneees and shrieks (and it was – there was a murder in there, where the guy who came from St Louis [David Kammerer] who was sort of obsessively attracted to Lucien Carr, right?, and, again, the glue-on factor worked because..he was stabbed and the body was tied up and tossed in the rush of the river – that was August 14, 1944 – and William Burroughs gave Carr some cash and Kerouac helped figure out how to get rid of the knife and the glasses).
And this was the bonkers era, Allen’s own crazy set of years. When it could have been..it could have come about that he would have ended right there and not be able to go on to be have founded the Allen Ginsberg Library or to have had such an impact around the world. He was in bed with Kerouac and (colleges are much more liberal now but the dorm scene was a real regulated environment back in the (19)40’s and (19)50’s, and even when I went to college in the late (19)50’s, it was quite regulated, They were clothed, but anyway Kerouac was in Allen’s room and the Dean rushed in. And there were other (things), Allen had written some things on the wall, on the window, I guess, because of.. to rile up some anti-Semitic cleaning-woman. Anyway, Allen got into enormous trouble. It’s the type of trouble where they want to make you think, like, it’s the end of your career, but.. He was suspended from college and ordered to see a shrink and tossed from the residence for having Mr Kerouac as an overnight guest,and he took a year from college. He worked (again, this was the war-time, you know, this was Hitler, and so everybody, it was a war that almost everybody could take part in in some way). He worked as a welder at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in 1945 in the Spring.Then he worked at the Gotham Book Mart (the only guy I ever knew that got fired from the Gotham Book Mart, by Frances Steloff – well, she was quite a tough woman, so, I don’t know, maybe he was probably reading.. that wonderful poetry section, probably was reading too much poetry there).
So, he got drafted, and he told them that he was gay. So what did they do? – they sent him to Merchant Marine training school! – and beginning of August 1945 he was in the Merchant..US Maritime Service. And that was the year so intensely important to Jack Kerouac that his father was dying of cancer. So Jack was spending lots of time.. And that’s when they began to kick around this concept of “New Vision” (the word “Beat” was way down the road a little bit, but they were talking about this “New Vision”, and Allen, of course, had fallen in love with Jack (Jack was not a.. It’s a complicated story, I guess you can’t go into it. Anyway, Kerouac was basically heterosexual, had some homosexual experiences, including with Allen). And in (19)46, Allen was re-admitted to Columbia, and in the same Fall, Kerouac was in Ozone Park, working on his first novel, The Town and the City. And it was a pretty good year – Lou Carr was out of prison, after two years for this stabbing he did. And, again, showing the interplay with his father, Allen, you know, typical young man, young writer.. I mean, you can look at the young Edgar Allan Poe, the young (Arthur) Rimbaud, the young (Paul) Verlaine, the young… my god! the testosterone-maddened young men – I guess you can extend it to..the wild woman – well, there are plenty of examples in the twentieth-century of the wild woman young poet too). Anyway, so Allen had this intense communication with his dad, all the time, throughout every (event), microscopic analysis (they were like Maoists it was like criticism-self-criticism, you know, this constant interplay, and it was mainly the father trying to keep his brilliant young son from, you know, going out into the space-zone too much.
In the Fall of 1946 into New York City with a seventeen-year-old wife named LuAnne came a young man from the flophouse realm of Denver named Neal Cassady,with a gift of gab and a fascination for methedrine, which was the secret drug of that..part of that generation, which were “uppers”, a lot of the poems (and) novels were written, in part, under the influence of.. , you know, you used to be able to open up the nose inhaler and get the benzedrine thing out of them, toss it down, or get.. you know, before you tssk and shudder, you know, any middle-aged doctor now who went to medical school in the (19)60’s, you know, getting through college on “bennies”, especially final exams. So it was available. The other main drug, of course, was pot, which came from the bebop, the jazz end of things. Kerouac was a great scholar of the bebop and jazz world of New York City, so he…anyway, meeting those people. So, anyway, Allen met Neal Cassady in January of 1947, Cassady was already a friend of Kerouac. And Allen and Neal. Neal was.. He had a Viagra-implant, ok? – he was very erotically active, Neal. I mean, I knew him sort of, we had some adventures. I would say that he set the world’s record for Viagra-implant. So he was sort of ambi-sexual, multiples. So, anyway, he and Allen were occasional lovers. One of Allen’s.. here.. Allen’s the only major.. he wrote this nice poem to Cassady’s derriere, it’s kind of an interesting read – for the first time a major poet has celebrated same-sex derriere. Cassady would go back and forth to Denver. In the Summer of (19)47 –
[What time is it? – What time is it now? (AW: It’s two, but…) – That’s it. (AW: No, wait wait) – Next year, I’ll be back. (AW: Ed, well, I hope you will, but I talked to Steve Dickison and to Donald Guravich and we can go another half-hour with you, ok?) – ES: Well, I don’t want to.. AW: It’s ok, I’ve set it up.]
Okay, I only have… I can travel along the Ginsberg path. But the point is, what I’m saying about (all this), I am picking up on the items of Allen’s life that are interesting to me because that’s what you get when you read the lives of poets, you pick out this (as complicated as you want) this strand of anecdote and interest. Because, what I really want to get to is a strand of his personality where he helped other writers ( I don’t think I’m..), where he carried around Denise Levertov‘s manuscript, trying to find, trying desperately to find a publisher for it, and he carried around the manuscripts of (Gary) Snyder, (Gregory) Corso. He typed Naked Lunch(a lot of Naked Lunch, he typed), he got (Jack) Kerouac two book contracts, you know, this determination to help, to be.. what’s this great tune of his? – “Generosity” (“Do The Meditation”). Anyway, he wasn’t in the carry-around-the-manuscript mode quite yet. In (19)47 Kerouac and Ginsberg.. Kerouac was also fascinated with Neal Cassady for his ability to be spontaneous. Kerouac came from a very rigid, politically rigid situation, so the ability.. he helped to leap out of this rigidity through be-bop, through jazz solos, you know, Jack Kerouac being able to beat on a cianti bottle during Allen’s first recitation of “Howl”, and shouting “Go!, go!”, was an enormous act for him, coming from his background. And he was fascinated with Neal Cassady for this ability Neal had, which some of us experienced a little bit anyway, of this instant ability to transform and talk about what’s going on in a kind of interesting, flowing, pulsing, interesting way.
Allen was puppy-loved-up for Neal and followed him but Neal was.. had to.. Carolyn, and.. Neal was seeing.. there was a.. I don’t know.. (a) love-triangle – what’s the next step? – quadrangle? love-quadrangle,anyway they were. .- huh? – yeah.. polygon, or something, he was a polygon with a number of sides indeterminate. But Allen wrote one of his first good poems on that summer of (19)47, “The Bricklayer’s Lunch Hour”. And, again, he was writing rhymed quatrains, that tended to.. he, too, you know, was looking to break out of the Campion-Wyatt. There was a long way, it was a few years away from the ten-leauge line that he was able to find in San Francisco in the summer of 1955 when he wrote “Howl”.But then it was on, you know, very disciplined, rhymed, eighteenth-century-couplet-type stuff.
So it was the proto-On The Road period, you know. There was hitch-hiking around. Eisenhower had not yet built the inter-state highway structures, so it wasn’t quite so easy to hitch-hike around the United States as it is now, get on I-70 and, boom, you’re there. There were things like Highway 40 which wasn’t… There was the law..the law was more attentive to a hitch-hiker in the (19)40’s.. So they hitched.Burroughs had a grass ranch down in New Waverly, Texas, where he was growing some cannabis, and they went down there to check it out, and this was another vow – this is where Allen (maybe kind of cajoled from Neal, but..) – to (sort of the sub-structure of Allen’s poem,“The Green Automobile” is the vow that he and Neal Cassady took, in Oklahoma (formerly one of the most radical states in the United States..it shows how things change, now not quite so radical). Anyway, they took it together – a vow of love and fidelity – [inappropriate classroom response – ES: what are you laughing at?] – Ginsberg dropped out of Columbia again and went to Africa. There’s another thing – this concept of going to sea – they had all been..they had been fascinated with (Herman) Melville and they all read Pierre and (also) the sea-faring works. So those were the sub-texts of the Beat Generation too, was the nineteenth-century On The Road phenomenon of going to sea. And so we come to a..
I don’t have much more time, but..but we’ve come to the point that really led to the great poem, “Kaddish”, (I’ve) started leadng towards it – is that the year 1947 and 1948 were very crucial to the development of Allen Ginsberg. One is, his mother was living with..who was it?..her sister, Edie – was it her sister? – Yes – and Edie was a union-organizer but Naomi, again, in 194, went crazy, started hitting her head against a wall, and they took her to Pilgrim’s State in Long Island, and a source of Allen’s terrible anguish about his mother came when he signed the forms okay-ing a lobotomy, and I think she might have been there basically at Pilgrim State until she died in 1956. So, And when she died, there was not a minyan of ten men, so that the rabbi would not chant the kaddish. And it was in.. (and Allen, of course, was in San Francisco), and it was in this anguish of his mother not having a proper burial that led to the beautiful, threnodic, major poem, one of the major poems of this century, “Kaddish”.
And then, the final thing, in 1948 that helped him control this genetic propensity to bonkers-ness, and that was the big vision in Spanish Harlem, (East Harlem, excuse me). He went back to Columbia in (19)47 and (19)48. I think it was..you know, he was determined to continue his education and he wrote a paper on Cezanne for Meyer Schapiro and he would go to the Museum of Modern Art and stare at Cezanne for hours, trying to figure out a.. you know, those multiple planes.. trying to see how that might relate to a form of rhapsodic multiple-strand writing, which later surfaced in things like “Howl” and “Plutonian Ode”. And, there again, another thrown-together-in-the-universe act of serendipity, he’d got this pad, with orange-crate bookshelves, full of interesting books (somebody else’s book-boat).
So he got on somebody’s book-boat and then he had some of these images from “Howl” – St. Teresa of Avila, Plotinus, St. John of the Cross, books on the Kabbalah, that he, being a quick reader (anybody who knew him knew that he could.. he was a quicker reader than I.F.Stone, I mean, he was a magnificent quick read.. the purview of the greatest graduate student in world history, he could just read it and it would be put on the hard-disc of his noggin). But he was living in June and July of 1948 – and then I’ll close – when he had this vision, this auditory vision – he heard a voice chanting William Blake’s “Ah sunflower, weary of time..” and “The Sick Rose“, and “The Little Girl Lost”. Out of that vision came some interesting early poems – the one called “On Reading William Blake’s The Sick Rose”, but, it was a way of controlling this hallucination problem that had shaped.. in other words, this primal hearing of this voice, which he interpreted as being the actual voice of William Blake, on a hot day in Harlem, East Harlem, in 1948, became the guide-post for the next fifteen or sixteen years of his life, where he was searching to codify this voice that he heard from William Blake, all the way to the poem he wrote after he got back from Japan, visiting Joanne (Kyger) and Gary (Snyder),“The Change”, you know, where he turned his back on this determination to be this total visionary genius, and it re-entered his body. But during that period..another cautionary tale, out of this experience, So he’s heard the voice of William Blake. What does he do? He commits a metaphysical mistake. Never.. After you hear William Blake singing to you, do not do the following, do not crawl out onto the fire escape, knock on the window of the apartment next door, and when two women come to find out who it is, do not say, “I’ve seen God!”
– Thank you [lecture delivered July 7, 1998]
[Audio for the above can be heard here, beginning at approximately twenty-nine-and-a-quarter minutes in and concluding at the end of the tape] – see also – http://www.woodstockjournal.com/pdf/AllenGinsbergA.pdf]