Earlier this month, on the essential Our Allen Facebook page, James Cook (from upstate New York) proposed, “How about accounts of first reading Allen?”, and generously set the ball rolling, proffering his own:
“Mine was in 8th grade, middle school, Williamson, NY, 1995. Fourteen years old. I had heard about the Beats via reading interviews with Sonic Youth. I think I’d also read Ann Charters’ bio of J-LK, but no actual Kerouac. This was pre-internet (in my world at least), but there was the cool dad of a friend to point the way into unexplored worlds, and to be a model for productive old hippiedom. By this time I had become aware of our school’s inter-library loan system, and put in an order for Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems. A week or two later, sitting in ‘In-School Suspension’ – a punishment accrued for skipping classes, in which the student literally sits for the entire day, only leaving for lunch – when the phone rang in the little classroom, letting the study monitor know my book had arrived. I was given permission to check it out of the library and return directly. I did so, with mounting excitement, totally, instantly in love with the spare blue-and-white design of the old ragged City Lights Pocket poets edition which felt like a benevolent weapon in my hand. I returned to the tiny room enamored with this book: feeling the quiet heaviness in “The weight of the world is love”, entering into the desolate railyard sunflower loneliness of the poet as maker and recorder, and resolved to record my own ‘backyard green tree cemetery dawns’. I read the book over and over, found my friends at lunch to rave over the book, reciting lines: ‘Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb!’ and generally became an instant and eternal convert to poetry and the Beats. I further utilized the Inter-library loan system, ordering Kerouac books, Naked Lunch, Robert Frank’s The Americans. At one point, after I’d requested de Sade’s 120 Days (of Sodom)…. somehow thinking since it was a ‘proto-surrealist’ text that it was surrealist poetry à la (Andre) Breton, the librarian contacted my parents about my degenerate reading habits. But Allen really started it all. Alas when he came thru Rochester in 1996, my friend and I couldn’t get a ride to meet him, but his presence in my life and work is continual.”
Jeff Cannon responded – “As you came to him by youth, I did by some other round of Mid-Life Crisis hooking up with a slam/ “beat” bold, kind of poetry place that is still going, but not me unfortunately due to health problems.Damnnnnn!! Thanks for your story James!! I’m jealous!! but we all, or most of us, find our way, at some time to “the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night”!
Here’s Ben Schafer – “In eighth grade, I bought a copy of the first Bob Dylan biography, Bob Dylan, by Anthony Scaduto, for a quarter at a garage sale. There I learned about Allen Ginsberg’s influence on my newly-favorite singer. I went to the library (this is Indianapolis, IN), and the only AG book they had was “White Shroud,” at that time a brand-new book, and that was the first stuff I read. It was quite mind-blowing (and graphic!) to say the least. But it was exciting to read poetry I understood.”
and Kevin Pennington – “Howl” and “Kaddish”, in my second year of community college, in 1999. The whole class only read “Howl”. The instructor told me to read “Kaddish” and gave me some background. He said he didn’t assign it because he said I’d be the only read it. Read it I did. A month later I owned Selected Poems. Ginzy blew me away.
Steve Silberman, Our Allen’s moderator, writes, ” I wish I could remember, believe me. It was probably “A Supermarket in California” in some anthology, probably George J. Ryan 216 Middle School in Queens, circa 1970 or so. I’d probably seen Allen from afar at that point because my parents were anti-war activists and used to take me to marches. I would LOVE to know what I was thinking when I read it..”
Elsewhere, (and from “across the pond” in England), “Opher”, on his website, writes:
“Allen Ginsberg single-handedly rescued poetry for me. I had it destroyed for me in Primary School. The teacher’s view of poetry was to get us (nine and ten year olds) to learn a poem by rote each week. We had the delights of Tennyson and Wordsworth to memorise. We would have to stand in turn and recite a verse on request. She would point to you and you would have to comply. If you did not know it, then you had to miss PE (Physical Exercise), which we all loved, to stay in and learn it. I spent a number of afternoons peering longingly at the rest of the class outside. It instilled hatred. There was no attempt to look at meaning or appreciation. Poetry was merely a task, a pain, a punishment. In Secondary School all I can remember is the class reciting ‘The Jumblies’. Great though it was, it did not fill me with joy. It was only when I read “Howl” that I really felt I had found something that related to me personally. I felt like that outsider stumbling through the starry night looking for some kindred spirits and a real connection to the universe. I was only fifteen and I felt like an outsider in this conforming society. I wanted reality. I craved reality. I wanted honesty, connection and passion. I hadn’t found it anywhere else. Ginsberg led me to Kerouac and I was away. The Beat Generation rekindled a love of poetry. They were honest!”
Honesty, that, in the early days, contemporary American society found hard-to-accept – We’re thinking back on the classic fiasco of the landmark Howl trial. The People Versus Ferlinghetti – The Fight To Publish Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Howl, Ronald K L Collins and David M Skover‘s book, we’ve mentioned before. It’s reviewed here at Law.com, the on-line presence of the New York Law Journal.
and also the wonderful cover for the recently-published Ginsberg-Burroughs collaboration, Don’t Hide The Madness
It’s also the birthday of Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein