Allen Ginsberg at The University of Maine, 1969

Robert Solotaire  writing in The Maine Times, November 7 1969

“If much of this report sounds adulatory there will be no apology made”

RS: The country that is Allen Ginsberg can’t be toured in one Thursday. And the guidebooks are misleading. A piece of fictional non-fiction by Jane Kramer called Allen Ginsberg in America aroused my interest in its subject and I looked forward to seeing the original man during his day at the University of Maine in Portland. After a day of listening and looking I realized that Kramer’s was the Disney version.
There is the famous bushy black beard and high forehead (the hairline is receding) and the glasses which reflect the light. Never has a beard look more a part of the man.

The sentient man. The sentient being. Ginsberg uses the word to refer to a tree, an animal. It correctly denotes a pantheistic frame of mind which in one classroom dwells on ecology. Buckminster Fuller is mentioned and his concept of our planet as spaceship prompts Ginsberg to recall his time as a sailor. He draws a picture of a crew that disposes of its garbage and crap over the deck. But that’s what we’re doing too our planet.
When Ginsberg talks of the rebuilding of our cities he wants it done so each of us will be able to raise some part of our own sustenance .He sounds like an eighteenth-century man. But the idea sounds appealing. When he pleads for more trees in our cities it sounds more reasonable and realizable.
The next day, Friday, in Boston, not far from the Museum of Fine Arts I see people gardening in plots provided by the city for a small fee. True there’s a long waiting list but Ginsberg’s idea suddenly seems to be  at least a twentieth-century possibility. But the twenty-first century must be considered, we can’t in good conscience say we’ll let it take care of itself.

At the Boston Museum of Science there’s an alcove dominated by a red light that blink on two hundred and sixteen times per minute – the world’s current birth rate. A cold blue light subtracts one-hundred-and-two of us every minute leaving a minute by minute advance of one-hundred-and-fourteen persons added to the world’s population.
The figures dramatically emphasize true concern Ginsberg showed on Thursday in Portland when he talked about the proliferation of human and robot excrement flooding our earth.

Ginsberg said we need to talk too other sentient beings like trees and animals. The Indians would understand this  – they talk to wolf and coyote.

Ginsberg on grass:  “Marijuana is no more  physiologically or physically harmful than perhaps television.
Ginsberg on horse:  “Heroin is literally a destroyer of human beings, and some addicts die every year when forced to withdraw cold turkey, i.e being taken off their daily fix without medicinal support. The solution of supplying free heroin for maybe twenty cents a day somehow offends so many people that we are instead saddled with the theft of millions of dollars of goods every year that are  used to obtain daily drug money. Prohibition creates a demand and maintains a price that legislation would destroy.
So a poet whose apartment has been robbed three times in a year has studied a problem and found his community the victim of a business operating outside  the law as assisted by a bureaucracy that finds the status quo to profitable to change.

I hadn’t been part of an entourage since the days when Joe DiMaggio was practically part of the family. But with Ginsberg going for  a U of M classroom to coffee lounge, the DiMaggio days some twenty or so years ago are recalled for a moment as a mixed bag of fifteen or so students follow another kind of hero. WCSH TV Newsman Larry Garaghty has Ginsberg’s ear but others of us manage to get in a question or comment while waiting for the TV cameramen to arrive. Happily, they’re late, some pictures are taken and Ginsberg, harmonium by his side, talks.

The harmonium sounds a little like an organ and is played to accompany a mantra (Hare Krishna) at the close of the TV interview. At his next class, poetry workshop, Ginsberg opens with another mantra – an evocation of compassion. His voice is strong and as he chants it becomes louder. It comes from deep down,
Silly questions are asked like where is poetry going and interesting ones like who’ll be in the anthologies collected twenty-five years from now. Jack Kerouac, at whose funeral Ginsberg had been a pallbearer a few days earlier (sic) , was Ginsberg’s first choice. He read at length from Kerouac’s poetry and at least one person’s concept of what poetry should sound like was transformed by the time Ginsberg read the last stanza. Hopefully, anthologies twenty-five years hence will be recorded not printed.

The work reminded one student of poet Langston Hughes and jazzman Charlie Mingus. Ginsberg cited another jazzman, Charlie Parker, saying that Kerouac and Parker knew each other well.

Ginsberg’s voice, the words in the poems he chose to read brought back another memory – this time Dylan Thomas, The 92nd Street Y, McMillan Theatre at Columbia, the White Horse Bar upstairs on Hudson Street and a Greek restaurant on Eighth Avenue. There was an entourage then, and it followed like the tail of a wandering comet wherever Thomas went. They listened then, to the wisecracks and to that beautiful voice reading that beautiful work.Those great occasions were all in nighttime settings, however, and last Thursday was bright, cool and clearheaded. Even the evening’s reading in the U of M’s clinically clean new gym was lit to a daylight pitch.

Dylan Thomas at The White Horse Tavern

In what seems like a century or week since the death of Thomas something seems to have changed. Obviously Ginsberg isn’t going to die of alcohol poisoning. And, if Ginsberg has any influence, and it’s to be hoped he has a lot, hard liquor will play a minor role in the lives of the people that listened so carefully last week.

Perhaps its presumptuous to try to describe the mood of a couple of thousand people. If the random sample technique makes any sense, though, Ginsberg’s reading of his own work, Blake’s and Kerouac’s was met with deep attention , not unlike that seen at a concert. Indeed, the look of the people sitting on the floor of the gym was remindful of those photos taken on the lawns of Tanglewood. And, in a quiet way it recalled “the spirit of Woodstock”

If much of this report sounds adulatory there will be no apology made. During the day Ginsberg spent the University of Maine many more questions were raised than answered. Only little people find out answers. They take their stipend and run from the odd vacuum they leave behind. Ecologically speaking Ginsberg somehow improves the environment he moves through.
A good man to have as a fellow passenger on this fantastic space-ship.

Ginsberg is totally unselfconscious. His person is open by way of his poetry or through questioning to anyone who has the time to explore. The personal life, the freedom of language that has attracted much attention, none of it could be contained without maiming the rest of the man.

When Ginsberg asks what the students would like him to read he’s disappointed when they call for “Howl”. Its like asking Hoagy Carmichael to play “Stardust”.

When the school bell goes off in the middle of a poem he improvises a stanza without breaking pace and impatiently shushes the audience with his hand as it breaks into applause. When he’s finished he explains that he wanted to demonstrate improvisation. The applause added another element he didn’t want to use.

Earlier when a blonde girl in a leopard print vest asked about teaching poetry to children, Ginsberg advised that she start with Bob Dylan, Donovan, Ma Rainey, Lead Belly, and other poets of pop music and and lead the kids back in time.

Asked about the use of four-letter words, Ginsberg defended them either when used for their literal meaning  or when they simply provided the strongest way of saying something.

That he expresses himself so freely about human excrement and other subjects most people consider taboo tends to give a feeling that he’s preoccupied with the subject . Perhaps, but after listening to him for a day, it’s only that we’re so unused to hearing such things that even a single scatalogical reference has the disproportionate effect of stirring up  enough feelings for an entire essay.

Ginsberg’s thoughts on sex start with the idea that should be more out in the open. He says conspiracy of the Catholic Church and lay society keeps it secret so we’ll continue ro be titillated and our interest in it will be kept live. Open it up and our interest in sex would fade.(Wanna bet Allen?)

Ginsberg’s hosts during his stay in Portland were Mr and Mrs James Lewisohn of 29 Angell Terrace, a block like a thousand others across America – superficially anything but exotic. [Editorial note – for a bizarre update on the life of poet James Lewisohn – see here and here]
A small party was prepared following the evening ending and when the guests arrived it looked like  they’d been sent from central casting. It could have been anywhere – Haight Ashbury, the East Village or the Village of twenty-years ago. The star attraction was just that, the center of attention but without making any of the others feel like sub luminaries. Ginsberg patiently kept answering questions as he’d been doing since morning and Jim Lewisohn and the rest let it “hang loose”.
When Ginsberg disappeared to go to bed the mood stayed the same. A Chicago poet read a love poem to an audience of three and at around two-thirty a.m. the day of Ginsberg closed.

Allen Ginsberg on the campus at the University of Maine, October 1969

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