We’ve been focusing on William Blake for the last couple of weeks and thought today to take time out to recommend an extraordinary (and immensely readable) new book – Blame It On Blake by Jacob Rabinowitz.
It should be pointed out at the outset that this book is only peripherally about Blake (as is made clear in its provocative tongue-in-cheek subtitle – “a memoir of dead languages, gender vagrancy, Burroughs, Ginsberg, Corso & Carr” (one might even add, AA redemption, paganism, eros, maverick scholarly research, & more, plenty more, to this already-heady mix) – all told with measured and mature self-aware intelligence (Rabinowitz is an erudite and entertaining raconteur) – A precocious punk polymath (at least erstwhile thus) looks back, from three-score years, over an acknowledged blessed, (undeniably remarkable), life.
“I am grateful to all the astonishing people who filled my life as they have these pages, memorable, hilarious, many intentionally so. Especially I’m thankful to a particular few who basked their genius in the transfiguring light of fame, and were made yet more saintly or tragically baffled by the universal interest and permission. Their vast substantial gifts were fully and fairly applauded, and they were generous enough to admit me to their company..”
“I am now sixty years old, a white-bearded man…”.. “I myself have no more than a family resemblance to the person I was when I first wrote to Allen in 1975.”, he writes.
The book is dedicated to Allen – “You, who living, I so rarely allowed the last word, you’ll be the last word here, dear Allen.”
“I never lost touch with (him)”, he writes. “He was always my best friend. I saw him often as I was near Manhattan. He would tell me of his travels and poetic discoveries, and I would narrate my fiascos and show him whatever I was working on. The older he got, the sweeter he became..” (well, most of the time!)
“..(S)ince I’m ten years older than (he) was then, “I recollect my own youthful illusions (“a pale youth trembling, speaking rhymes Poe spoke before” is how Allen describes him in “Hearing “Lenore” Read Aloud at 203 Amity Street”), and I’ve gained with age an empathy for what (were) Allen’s feelings and needs..”
That belated (in contrast to contemporary) awareness nowhere better in evidence than here – from the section, “Meet the Beats” – (shock!) – “Seducing Allen Ginsberg”:
“…So there I was in bed with Allen Ginsberg, terrorizing him with lies about my erotic sophistication. About how I’d had a pet spider-monkey named Lucifer who I made into a sexually aggressive witch’s familiar, finally sacrificing him to his namesake. (Huysman’s novel of Satanism, La Bas, which Oscar Wilde described at his trial as the book which corrupted Dorian Gray, was a major if general inspiration for my romantic CV.) I wasn’t about to tell Allen that I was essentially a virgin with opinions cribbed from de Sade. I was in Manhattan, the capitol of the twentieth century, in the bed of the world-famous poet. If he found out I was just a rube from the provinces – which I was – what then?”..”
“Allen was remarkably tolerant”, he notes, “of everyone’s insanity. In fact, he thrived on it, though he didn’t want any for himself. He was always the “designated driver”, so to speak. He thought he craved a normal loving supportive relationship, but sought out comet-like people who lit up the sky as they went down in flames. This dovetailed somewhat with my agenda. I wanted the cover of passion’s pyrotechnics if I was going to be the public lover of a bad, pot-bellied fifty-year-old.”
“If I was going to be Allen’s boy wife I wanted my self-immolation on the altar of his genius to be matched by poetic madness on his part. I wanted to become a legend not a sad little example. Allen was saintly, sincere and sane. I was by turns charming, petulant, reverent and petty, a wet-dream come true, a greedy grisette sullenly allowing herself to be loved..”
“Allen didn’t need an audience to sustain his self-esteem, he didn’t need everyone’s permission to feel himself sufficient. Rather he acted out of a sense of, well, civic responsibility. He felt he owed the full measure of energy to the people who esteemed him and whose admiration had brought him fame. He was public-spirited in a way that may be barely comprehensible in an America where the concept of community has vanished and all are atomized consumers and Facebook friends.”
“Exasperated at having to share his friendship with the American people, I selfishly pleaded his part to him, taking him to task for never having time to read Blake’s prophetic books, despite having recorded all of his Songs of Innocence and Experience. Allen knew I meant business when it came to literary learning. I had already made him read me aloud, in bed, all of Paradise Lost..”
On Allen Ginsberg as “one’s private tutor in poetry” – “Had I studied the classic English poets in school, I would have written dull abstract critical essays comparing their content to themes from Greek myths, or, by the end of the twentieth-century, subjected them to trendy French pseudo-philosophy. Allen gave me a real craftsman’s view of their merits. This wasn’t a seminar with Northrop Frye (the 20th century’s holy monster of lit-crit erudition), it was more like learning sculpture, with a chisel in your hand from Michelangelo“ – “”I didn’t realize then what an unusual perspective on literature I was getting. But I was fascinated, and (I) absorbed the lessons…”
On himself as muse and inspiration for the legendary “Contest of Bards“ – “I persuaded Allen to take two weeks off from his endless itinerary of interviews and readings to hole up in Baltimore and read the complete works of Blake. Baltimore appealed to me as a place of Edgar Poe pilgrimage. The implication was we’d have an uninterrupted erotic idyll as well..” – “For the next week we were sequestered in a hotel room reading Blake’s prophetic books eight hours a day”…. ” – “Allen’s frustration at our purely platonic Blakation erupted at last in the mini-epic, “Contest of Bards“, (his) account of our entire affair..”
“The young bard, skeptical of the elder’s professed detachment, puts it to the test. Here Allen condenses the initial, physical phase, of what would be our decades-long friendship, into a long passage of mature romantic tenderness. It’s not erotica but great love poetry, achieving what Whitman might have in his Calamus cycle, had he had the luxury of uncensored speech – a point Allen himself suggests, ending his account with a Whitmanesque panorama of nationwide everyday life.”
“I am to this day abashed to have been the immediate subject of such poetry. This is a genuine portrayal of love, as full of warmth and empathy as it is poetically rich and elegant in expression. A gay relationship between youth and age, painted with deep and realistic humanity, such as one sees in Rembrandt‘s most personal portraits.””
“This “contest of bards” as Allen very correctly called it”, Rabinowitz goes on, “was the first of many sparrings between us over the years. It was pretty much what you’d have gotten if you set Baudelaire and Camus at each others throats. My overly-literal adoption of the nineteenth-century Romanticism was easily disarmed by Allen’s twentieth-century aesthetics, deepened (or muddied, depending on your point of view) by an admixture of eastern mysticism. I was a silly if winsome Mephisto, an implausible. superstition, a sexual daydream clamoring to be taken seriously. No wonder Allen didn’t have any had feelings about the love affair fizzling..”
Here’s his likewise unflinching assessment of another of Allen’s poems, “Lack Love”
– “I recognize myself..in the poem “Lack Love”, wherein appear the lines – “Now I lie alone, and a youth/Stalks my house, he won’t in truth/Come to bed with me, instead/ Loves the thoughts inside my head/ He knows how much I think of him/Holds my heart his painful whim/ Looks through me with mocking eyes/ Steals my feelings, drinks & lies” – It’s all there, my admiration for Allen’s mind that had come Platonic, my alcoholism, and my adolescence, which entailed a cynical manipulation of his emotions, and a brutal delight in exposing the compromises and inconsistencies in an adult’s beliefs. An unlovely image of me, embodying Buddhist insight into the hollowness of desire…”
Rabinowitz makes it clear throughout the book that he is not one to simply defer. His critique of “Contest of Bards”, for instance – “The sincerity of Allen’s message, the force of his poetic voice are obvious, but perhaps the content would have been transmitted more effectively to a reader had it not been so tersely and urgently telegraphed. I argued for classical poetics with Allen for that first year we were together. Finally I would see that it was a matter of taste not truth.”
“My prefered style has always been lyric, metered and rhyming, polished and deliberately artistic. The heroic self-defining deeds of Allen’s poetic life have been in antithesis to the classical tradition. Allen couldn’t fathom how I could learn so much from him and then so perversely misuse my learning. He couldn’t appreciate that my relationship to him was not of antithesis but of synthesis. I was not trying to refute him any more than the flower “refutes” the bud. It was a tension between us never resolved.”
Hence his dismissal (and sometime outright scorn) for Allen’s (in his view, naive) “religiosity”. Religiosity – “(I)t’s not really fair to subject Allen’s religiosity to the kind of critique I have just offered (sic), he declares, (after passionately so doing), “He was a poet not a theologian. My purpose here is only to show that my disquiet about his Buddhism had some intellectual basis.”.
But then he turns the corner – ” ..(W)hat was really interesting about Allen’s Buddhism (was) its originality and creativity”…”Allen was of course a Jewish Buddhist, and to some extent he Judaized the Buddhism he adopted”….”Considered on the basis of its strengths, Allen’s Buddhism was a remarkable innovation that joined his own areas of greatest sensitivity to authentic aspects of Buddhism. (He) created a new Buddhist poetics, a promethean and successful synthesis which enabled him to break new ground in poetry to the end of his days”
Furthermore, on this Buddhist-Hebraic synthesis:
“Allen’s belief that ordinary mind and ordinary speech contained the holiness that is poetry – that’s in the oldest and noblest Hebrew tradition. In that, as in more obvious ways, Allen spoke with the resonating truth of a prophet, a voice that echoed back to Moses... (He) who was not overtly interested in Judaism, by the power of his genius and the honesty of his heart, reached back three-thousand years to rediscover, with poet’s intuition and prophetic common-sense, the same existential wisdom Moses had learned in the shadow of the pyramids – Material reality is the visible face of God.”
If the singularly Ginsberg focus of this digest masks the various other highways and byways of this book, it shouldn’t. There are valuable first-hand recollections here, not only of Allen, but of Peter Orlovsky, Harry Smith, Corso, Burroughs, Lucien Carr, and, lovingly evoked, mentor and friend, Peter Lamborn Wilson, amongst others. There is much to engage the reader.
Order this book from here. Not to be missed.