The King of May Revisited
When, on May the first, 1965, a thirty-nine-year-old Allen Ginsberg drove through the streets of Prague, observing the atmosphere in the crowded streets and in the park, where later the celebration and elections would take place, he definitely had good reason to feel elated. As the students’ candidate for Kral Majales, (King of May), he could, reasonably confidently, count on being elected.
Actually, he was already King of Prague. In the approximately ten weeks that had passed since his arrival, he’d already managed to make himself something of a legend.
Let´s skip all that preceded his February 18th arrival – his visit in Cuba, then the expulsion, the first weeks in Prague, a short trip to Moscow, Warsaw and Kraków
(for more detailed insight, plus an interesting bias in the historiography, see my extended essay from 2011 in Jennie Skerl´s and Nancy Grace´s anthology The Transnational Beat Generation– and there´s my two-hour lecture about Allen´s Prague 1965 visit here at the Václav Havel Library, but that’s only in Czech)
In a nutshell, Allen got to the Prague youth. He lectured, read poetry, gave interviews, and discovered Prague both as tourist and as lover. He kept his diary, wrote poems, and, although he denied it in his letter to his father, took drugs. (actually, it was then-legal drug called phentermine, prescribed for fasting, which was basically a kind of metamphetamine. He didn´t like the experience. As he told one of his Prague lovers, who told me, “It was the worst shit I ever had.” Notwithstanding this, he enjoyed the city and the city enjoyed him.
Allen was unaware that the Czech secret police enjoyed him too. They set informers on him. They bugged his hotel room phone (this all came to light few years ago when the file the police kept on him was discovered – see Petr Blažek´s important historical article)
Then came the First of May. As usual, the official Communist manifestation was to take place, the parade, where all people, young and old, “voluntarily” displayed their support for the ruling Communist Party. On that very same day something else was scheduled to happen – the student celebrations, the first since the ending of World Wat II. The students wanted to elect their own King of May. They initially nominated the writer Josef Škvorecký. Regrettably, he declined the offer, saying he had the flu, (which I seriously doubt), and would Allen take it over?
Here’s Allen’s account of the whole First of May story, as recounted in 1993 when I interviewed him for a documentary for Czech tv.
“Skvorecky told me he had been nominated by the Polytechnic school to be the candidate for King of May but that he had flu or a cold and he couldn’t do it and he suggested me and, was I interested? – I said, “Well, is it political?” (because I didn’t want to get into any more trouble, as in Cuba) . He said, “No, it’s just a student celebration, they haven’t had it since the Nazis came in. So I said “Ok”, but instead of there being just a small student show of five or ten thousand students, there was a whole town out, a hundred thousand people crowding the streets and it got to be kind of a serious demonstration/manifestation towards the government, you know, protest, protest of some other freedom. And I couldn’t speak Czech, so I chanted Om Shri Maitreya! Om Shri Maitreya! – Maitreya Buddha, the future Buddha, future Buddha, future Intelligence, future liberation.
So I got elected. And I remembered Vietnam. And I went to a theatre to hear this rock ‘n roll show, and was asked to come on stage. So I climbed over the balcony onto the stage, and, somewhere, someone took my notebook out of my pocket (a little small notebook, where I’d written a poem about Swan Lake, from the theatre here. And also I’d written, from gossip I’d heard, (that) (Alexander) Dubček had fallen on his head when he was a baby – and one couplet – “All the Capitalist lies about Communism are true/ And all the Communist lies about Capitalism are true.”
So I wandered around Prague for the next few days, working with people, and writing and talking. And, finally, I was sitting in a restaurant, on the 6th or so, of May, and a couple of plainclothesmen came and said, Are you Allen Ginsberg?”, And I said, “Yes”, and they said. “Well, somebody has found your notebook and we’d like to give it back to you if you come to the police station” – sort of like in Kafka, (very much like a Kafka scene).
And then fed in my room, and then put on a plane to London. So, on the plane to London, I wrote a poem called “Kral Majales”. And then within another day was in a hotel room with (Bob) Dylan and all four Beatles. So I went from one odd scene to another. Actually, sort of having a pleasurable time, but, not acting myself, sort of just falling into situations like Schweik, that were very pleasant situations, (actually, even being expelled was sort of interesting).”
Anyway, the morning before the election, Allen marched, with the philosopher Ivan Dubský, in the aforementioned Communist march. And, at some point, it seems that the Czechoslovakian president and head of the Communist Party, Antonín Novotný saw him from the tribune and could scarcely believe his eyes – as Allen sure didn´t looked like the typical citizen of those days!
The Prague experience was very important for him – not only did he write a singularly important poem “Kral Majales“ (King of May), he also got to experience what real Communism was. Not that he had any illusions about it, but first-hand experience beats all. Allen´s visit was important for Prague as well.
The regime, of course, tried its best. On May 16th, a full-page article was published in Mladá fronta, the Communist Youth daily, with the title “Allen Ginsberg and Morale” (subtitled “Why an American poet was expelled from Czechoslovakia”, sans any question mark!). In the article, Allen was portrayed as degenerate – an addict, a pervert, and an alcoholic! The article was accompanied with four pages from his “stolen” diary. Interestingly, we can see there, in Allen’s terrible scribble, an early draft of his poem “Message 2”. Interestingly, a translation of this article would later surface in Ginsberg’s FBI files (on April 26, while he was in Prague, J.Edgar Hoover had ordered him to be placed on the dangerous list).
Regardless, the young people remembered Allen, and his poems (despite the fact that there was a ban on any of them being printed). They copied them on typewriters, they read them. And when he returned to Prague in May 1990 he was still remembered. Even after twenty five years.
No wonder, as he said to me in 1993, “I was in a bar here in Olomouc last night and a man came to me, shook my hand and sat at my table. He said he had been in jail and had read my poetry and it has given him a certain kind of life encouragement while he was in jail. So I asked which poem, and he said “Sunflower Sutra”. He actually remembered it, which it was. I hear that in Czechoslovakia it seems to have had some kind of psychological impact that was useful to people.”