“When Allen Ginsberg Came To Town“, Gail Collins’ New York Times Op Ed piece last week, addressing issues of homophobia and censorship (particularly, misguided censorship on college campuses – see also, by way of comparison, Loretta Graceffo 2019 piece here), elicited, as such pieces do, a considerable amount of follow-up commentary. The Times published 500 plus responses
Here are a few (just a few) selections.
One Peter Murphy, from Ventnor, New Jersey, writes:
“Thank you, Gail. In 1968 I was a freshman at St. Bonaventure University, which had banned Ginsberg from reading on campus the previous spring. According to The Olean Times Herald, Fr. Reginald Redlon, Bonaventure’s president, said Ginsberg’s “reported activities and behavior are not sufficiently compatible with the standard of propriety and the stated educational goals of this university.” After calling Ginsberg a “hippy poet,” he said that his decision did not “pass judgment on Ginsberg’s poetry, his Buddhist religion or his homosexuality.” What did it pass judgment on? I wondered. During freshmen orientation I asked Fr. Redlon why he wouldn’t allow Ginsberg to read on campus. He lectured me and the other freshmen about the sacredness of the body and how we shouldn’t abuse it, and that we should not grow our hair long because it offends God and our parents who were paying for us to attend Bonaventure and…and…and….I didn’t understand a word of it. Despite Bonaventure’s claim to not flunk any freshman out after their first semester, to give them a second chance, I flunked out under dubious circumstances. When I met Ginsberg twenty years later, I wanted to tell him this story, but I was too awestruck, and just thanked him for changing my life.”
& “Majorie” from Sicily:
“Thank you, Gail for the amazing update on evolution of Father Sherburne! (sic) I was there for Ginsberg’s forbidden reading at UWM and will never forget it. He used finger cymbals and chanted in a mesmerizing, hypnotic rhythm. For an eighteen-year-old girl who had never been exposed to Buddhist culture, it was overwhelmingly beautiful and the experience only made more intense by the controversy surrounding it..”
“Allan” from Old Tappan, New Jersey:
“I too have had similar experiences when I went to hear Allen Ginsberg – one of the great intellectuals of our time. He was a Buddhist. His poetry readings were mesmerizing. The audiences were always silent and respectful. I think most people that experienced his wisdom in a live setting came away with a new perspective on the world and it was a icily healthier one.”
and Annie Robinson, from “California”
“I had the good fortune of hearing Ginsberg read “Howl,” as well as his other poems at a Friday night reading on Washington University’s campus in St. Louis in 1968. He had a big voice, big hair, and big Whitmanesque words. It was packed and we sat on the hoods of our cars, listening. Finally, we went in. I had never heard a poet so brave, so unashamed of who he was. His lover was onstage with him. The frat boys left, we got front row seats. Why did it take America so long to pass these laws which should have been passed a long time ago? No, don’t say that it takes time. Frankly, we don’t have that kind of time.”
“Cal Prof” (a California Professor?) from “Berkeley” (University of California, Berkeley?) writes:
“One of the hidden gems in my neighborhood is a little historical plaque outside my hardware store (which in a former life was a beat hangout), marking the place where Ginsburg first read “Howl” in public. It was more than a poem I think – really a manifesto. Ginsburg was a rare thing, a pacifist warrior for personal freedom and civil rights. He was also a student of spiritual wisdom from all sources, so I’m sure he would see the deep wisdom in the Father (Father Sherburne)’s words to Gail, “You were right and I was wrong.”
Joe Green, from St Paul, Minnesota, notes the myopia and hypocrisy of the times:
“I was at that reading and the March to it. I was a student at Marquette and in 1966 W.H.Auden was invited to read at the Student Union. Somehow his homosexuality was missed by the Jesuits! So at 18 when The Ginz was banned I got an insight into the absurdity of it all. The reading by the Ginz was the best poetry reading I have ever attended. He read from Wichita Vortex Sutra..”
“Bob” from Colorado offers this disarming and amusing moment of solidarity:
“Many years after Ms Collins’s story took place I happened to get arrested with Ginsberg during a peaceful civil disobedience action on a different campus. While awaiting processing he asked me, “What’s your major?”
More recollections. Here’s “Sandalwood” of New York City:
“Allen Ginsberg came to our campus in 1976. He gave a reading and a public lecture and visited classes. Spontaneously and unexpectedly, he also taught a small group of us how to do sitting meditation and gave an informal talk on “emptiness,” a fundamental tenet of the Buddhist tradition. Among the many visiting writers who came to the campus over the years, Allen was one of the most generous and most receptive to others’ views. He seemed far more interested in listening and learning than in preaching or playing the celebrity poet. Whatever the merits of his poems, Allen’s’ contribution to the evolution of American poetry, and, more generally, to the liberation of poetic form from conventional restraints, was immeasurable, and his visit made a profound impression on many of those present. During his three-day visit, gay identity and gay rights were never the focus of anyone’s attention. Those issues never came up.”
“Miss Bear”, “lost in the woods”, tells a sweet story:
“I fondly recall a visit by AG to my college. His was a fantastic magnetic personality. He showed that poetry could be about anything, and anything could be poetry. I recall finding him late in the night alone in the kitchen of the house where we had a party for him. He was washing the dishes and weeping because no boy there would go home with him. We talked a little while. Eventually, a nice lad offered his hand, and the two left. It was a beautiful night.”
The article drew out a number of other sweet Ginsberg recollections:
Here’s two that date from the ‘Fifties – “James” from Northport (on the Ginsberg-Kerouac connection):
“When our family moved into a house sold to us by Jack Kerouac in 1959, Jack’s mother said to my mother, “Do NOT tell Allen Ginsberg where we are moving!” As if Jack was not going to tell his own best friend!”
And another, “hase” (now based in New York City), recalls:
“During the summer of 1958 I was touring Europe with an American jazz group. A friend of mine asked if I would like to meet AG while we were performing in Paris. Got the contact info and myself and another band member stopped by a bare bones apartment near Notre Dame. There was one chair in the place and he offered the seat while we talked, with him standing and slowly moving around the room. The conversation was about music and our mutual friend for about two hours.I was taken by how gracious, calm and natural his actions were. Wish I could do it all over again.”
“RF” from Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts has another Catholic college campus tale:
“I went to a Jesuit High School in NYC from 64 to 68. Once, in an English Literature class taught by a young Jesuit, a student brought up the writings of Kerouac, Ginsburg, etc. Our teacher let slip that Ginsberg lived on East 7th street. A friend and I decided to look him up in the phone book and give him a call. Of course, there were lots of Ginsbergs in the Manhattan phone book, but only one A. Ginsberg on East 7th street. So we called. And he answered the phone! All I can remember of the conversation was that Ginsberg was surprised and laughed about the fact that two Irish Catholic kids were calling him from a phone booth in a Catholic High School and that a Jesuit Priest knew what street he lived on.”
Susan Schrenzel of New York actually got to visit him:
“So many years ago I was “fixed Up” with Allen’s cousin. My parents knew Allen’s aunt and uncle, etc, etc,. who lived in our small New Jersey town. What did we do on our first date? Visit cousin Allen in his East Village apartment. He was lovely. Proffered us with tea as he spoke of his experience with some drug or other when in Mexico. Soft spoken, very hospitable. Peter was padding around in one of the rooms of their apartment. I think of it and him as a very sweet experience.”
Back to the campuses – “Prunella”, from North Florida, writes:
“In late 60’s I recall Ginsberg reading at Univ. of So. Cal by the fountain in front of the library, because he wasn’t permitted to read in front of the Philosophy Building as had originally been arranged. The reason: He wasn’t a philosopher, he was a poet. Wrong! He was a first order philosopher who happened to write poetry instead of torturous philosophy tracts”.
“Caroline P” from New York:
“Ginsberg came to Syracuse University in 1965 or 1966. I went to his reading and afterwards spoke to him about how moved I was that he included a poem about Rockland Mental Hospital, since I had interned there during a few summer months. He squinted at me and said, “Oh I just liked the language. Rockland is a great poetic word, but I wasn’t referring to any place. You say you worked in a place called Rockland Mental Hospital?” I was totally disheartened!..”
“Eric” from New Mexico:
“It was one of large anti-war protests, I believe it was the 1971 May anti-war protest, when tens of thousands of us gathered in DC. At one point, hard-core radicals tried to turn over buses that were parked around the White House, resulting in a massive response by police and Guard troops. It was chaos, people running everywhere, teargas, etc. In the middle of all this I saw Allen, standing in a small platform by himself, calmly playing a harmonium and chanting the Om mantra. Great memory.
Sylvia C Figueroa, from Miami Florida (with a Spanish-tinged encounter):
“I met Ginsberg at the University of Connecticut. I was a library assistant in the Homer Babbidge Library. My coworker George Butterick who was a scholarly recognized expert on the Beatnik movement invited him to campus. He told me about Ginsberg visit, so being Cuban I had kept the first Spanish translation published of the Howl in Revolucion newspaper, his famous poem. As he was passing by my desk I approached him and introduced myself. He started talking in a flawless no-accent Spanish. And suddenly said “Fidel kicked me out of Cuba because I was queer so I never came back”. He signed my newspaper and I still have it very well kept.”
& here’s “Debra” from Yellow Springs, Ohio, with another note on Allen’s inspirational force against censorship”
“I too was moved by Allen Ginsberg’s words, the recursive structure of his poetry. While in graduate school at Wright State University, he was my subject for a writing seminar. Back in the ‘eighties I got an LP of his works along with a record player from the university library to play his poems during my presentation. As I set up the equipment to play “Howl” I explained how Ginsberg’s writing mimicked Whitman’s. I dropped the needle onto the record. The professor asked what I was doing and I repeated the previous sentence about poetic structure. His next words were that I’d offend the sensibilities of the students in the class, “You need to turn that off.” I did, gave my presentation, and walked back to the library to find Ginsberg’s address in Who’s Who. Later that day I wrote him a letter and dropped in the mail. Several months later, after he’d visited China, I received a postcard, black and white photo of a woman with short, punky hair like my own, her bright eyes staring deeply into mine. When I flipped the card over, his salutation grabbed me, “Three Cheers for the Red White and Blue!” He wrote of censorship in China and an angelic order of English professors along with words that I needed to keep writing and doing what I was doing to stand up to them. His words had long before changed my life, but getting that postcard showed me that I could reach out and touch the stars! Thanks, Gail. for the lovely essay.”
& we’ll conclude with this recollection/testamonial (from William Rabinovitch of New York City):
“I was likely the last to video Allen Ginsberg (that) I know, at his reading/ book signing at the then Downtown Guggenheim, when, after the book signing, my camera still on, following him out to the corner of Prince & Broadway, when he paused & then crossed over (before) disappearing into the vast SoHo crowd…”
Memories of Allen? recollections of Allen? Notices of singular encounters? We’ve asked for them before. Maybe for next year (2023) we’ll publish and feature more of them. Send them our way if you think they are something to share.
Meantime… Seasons Greetings!
Allen read at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1968. My friend and I drove him back to his Cherry Valley farmhouse. Along the way we stopped at Friendly’s for ice cream. At the farmhouse we met Peter Orloff and Allen played some songs he composed to the poetry of William Blake. A week later Allen was involved in a serious car accident at the Albany Airport after dropping off Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
“And gladly wolde he lerne, and gladly teche.” Brooklyn College was lucky to count such a talented poet and teacher among its faculty for so many years.