Today, a recollection of Allen Ginsberg, and Peter Orlovsky
“One phase of my life was consumed by political poetry, Bob Dylan, underground theater, and Allen Ginsberg. Aside from the Ginsberg poetry readings I attended, and peace demonstrations, and readings with Peter Orlovsky and the blind writer-composer Moondog, and listening to Ginsberg sing and chant and play the harmonium- a lap-sized wooden organ with hand-pumped bellows – and listening to the rhythms of his reading voice, there were two specific personal encounters in 1966. One was on the Lower East Side, and the other in Sundance, Pennsylvania.
I saw Ginsberg one hot summer afternoon, in late June or July, walking toward his apartment in the East Village. We were in the same block but walking in opposite directions. He was walking east, I was walking west. A group of boys, maybe ten years old, had opened a fire hydrant, and water was gushing into the air, over the street and the sidewalk. A geyser of water towered over half the block. The boys were shouting and screaming and racing in circles, ecstatic with what they’d created. I debated, as I approached cascading surge, whether I should cross to the other side of the street, or scream and tell them to close the valve and shut off the water.
I looked at Ginsberg as he proceeded directly toward me and the edge of the geyser. Without speaking a word or faltering for even a second, he walked straight through the explosion of water, which instantly drenched him. He continued walking through the cascading explosion, poems under his arm, straight down the sidewalk toward me, and home. It was as if he walked through Niagara Falls on a regular basis.
The summer of 1966 was a time of love and constant war news, a perpetual contradiction. I watched the news with one hand over my eyes. Screaming children, burning villages, and millions of peace signs, women crying in foreign languages, environmental destruction. Even on a black and white television, the news was in red. Anonymous art filled the streets with no concern for reviews. Art and theater were based on passion, rebellion, creativity, and dedication. Events of the world were the events of theater. The news and art were one and the same. In New York, the smell of pot lingered in subways, elevators, schoolyards and theaters. It was in office buildings, grocery stores, and all city parks. It was probably on hospital wards. The weeks were incomprehensible, complicated, and they were very long. It was not a normal decade.
At the beginning of 1966, there were approximately 200,000 American soldiers in Vietnam. By the end of the year there were over 400,000—nearly half a million. That summer, I rode with Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky, in the latter’s Volkswagen van, to Ginsberg’s reading in Sundance, Pennsylvania. We left New York in Orlovsky’s van, and along the way Ginsberg asked me how often I read my poetry at readings. Whatever I answered, it wasn’t enough. He said that I had to read more. He said you can’t hear the poem on paper. If you want to understand it, you have to read it out loud. On paper isn’t enough.
For a man who was openly gay at a time of intolerance, and for a person who openly smoked marijuana at a time when the world wasn’t embracing the smoking of pot, and for someone openly and vehemently opposed to the Vietnam War, Ginsberg had an enormous innocence and bravery. That’s the way I saw him.
We stopped midway at a roadside stand in the middle of nowhere for something to eat. The menu probably consisted of three or four choices. Ginsberg and Orlovsky both professed to be vegetarians. I hadn’t made up my mind yet. Orlovsky ordered a cheese sandwich, I think, but then Ginsberg ordered a hot dog. I was shocked and ordered a hot dog myself. Ginsberg asked, “Are you sure that’s what you want?” I answered Yes, though I wanted to know what he was thinking. I didn’t question his behavior as I stood in a roadside stand with Ginsberg, the known vegetarian, the two of us chomping on hot dogs in the middle of nowhere.
We continued to Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and to a beautiful rambling farmhouse with a group of smaller guesthouses and an outdoor theater called Sundance, where Ginsberg gave his reading. The following day, people mingled, smoked, and skinny-dipped in a pool under trees. I didn’t swim then and still don’t, so I wandered around—fully clothed, then walked to the kitchen and made lemonade.
Ginsberg came into the kitchen, completely naked, sliced lemons, and proceeded to make lemonade. Orlovsky followed him into the kitchen, also completely unclothed. He gently and silently kissed Ginsberg’s naked behind as if it were the wing of a delicate butterfly, walked to the kitchen counter, and began to slice lemons for his own lemonade. I stood between them, fully dressed, with a tall glass of ice cubes, water, and lemon. Ginsberg returned to the group—some of whom were in the pool, others lounging under the trees. With iced lemonade in one hand and a manuscript in the other, he proceeded to read a poem to the listeners.
Three years later, in January, 1969, he would mail me a postcard. I was living in Newfoundland at the time, in a freezing, snow-covered town. He’d mailed the card from City Lights Bookstore. The tiny postcard traveled from City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco to a snow-covered house in western Newfoundland. He’d hand-written a lullaby on the card for my newborn daughter:
Tibetan mantra to Manjo Manjushri Buddha (Discriminating Wisdom) (symbolized w/ Book in one hand & flaming sword of intelligence in the other) which is used to pacify children also
OM ARA BA TSA NA
DE DE DE DE
repeated over and over gleefully.
An old girlfriend taught it to me
— Best Luck
And there was a small, orange Buddhist stamp pressed onto the card.