“Savage Words”, Annice Jacoby‘s memoir of the 1997 San Francisco Memorial she helped organize and recollections of an earlier visit the poet made to the city three years earlier, throwing out the first pitch at Candlestick Park, was first published on Literary Hub under the title, “When Lawrence Ferlinghetti Defended A Tribute to Allen Ginsberg – Annice Jacoby on hosting a “Poets Kaddish”. We are grateful for her permission to republish it here
In spring of 1997, Nancy Peters the remarkable publisher at City Lights Books, called with the sad news that Allen Ginsberg had died. It was hard to imagine the world without him. Allen and I were allied as poets and pacifists over decades of reasons to rally. The world knew Allen as a rapturous poet who vigorously opposed militarism, materialism, and sexual repression. My freshman year, a college senior, the emerging poet, Anne Waldman, took me to a New Year’s Eve party in downtown Manhattan. At midnight, Allen led an ecstatic circle of rolling OMs. This was before his notorious chant at the Chicago 7 trial. Allen’s loss felt personal, as it did for a generation of poets.
Days after Allen’s death I met with Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Nancy Peters at City Lights. They asked me to put together a performance honoring Allen for a memorial. I invited hundreds of poets to partake in a chorale the following Sunday at Temple Emanu-el. We spread the word to gather at the temple, a landmark congregation founded during the Gold Rush.
When the San Francisco Chronicle showcased the roster of luminaries joining the Poets Kaddish, Michael Savage, right-wing radio attack dog, seized the chance to condemn the event. Savage treated Allen Ginsberg’s memorial as a target for suicide bombers, claiming no temple should soil itself with “pinko faggots.” Radio ballistics were material for Savage’s daily devouring in the days when he was still a local shock jock.
Like many under attack, I went into a zone of surprise and shameful fear. I felt responsible to both City Lights and Temple Emanu-el, that my passionate offering had drawn such cynical and dangerous attention. My night was completely sleepless remembering the last time I spent any real time with Allen. After a long rainy day meeting up at a bar in North Beach, probably Tosca’s, we argued about what he should read at the ballpark before a Giants game the next day. Allen had joined City of Poets, the San Francisco Public Library campaign staging poetry in public life. Allen was fierce dismissing my suggestions for a poem with universal appeal. “I’ve read to a stadium with forty thousand people in Prague. No one wanted to tame me. I don’t want to be polite to national television. I ain’t going to be no Maya Angelou for you.” That night in North Beach trying to pick a poem for the ballgame with a forcefield, I was on alert, always in a hot zone with Allen, ruffling the reactionaries.
The next day Allen knocked the ball out of the park reading his poem “Hum Bom!” to boos and cheers. My children were beaming in the skybox at Candlestick Park with San Francisco Mayor Frank Jordan, and a fleet of media. On the Jumbotron epic scale, Ginsberg bellowed, resembling an Old Testament depiction of God. Allen was such a big hit that he was interviewed on national sports radio for weeks following the Giants game. Ginsberg was treated like a hero, inspiring citizens how to be powerful without being violent. Allen was correct. Provocateurs get more results than pacifiers.
Now three years later, Ginsberg had died and Michael Savage took the Chronicle article as bait and went on attack. The memorial was Savage’s red meat. He harped and carped on insidious familiar fears that gained traction even in the progressive Bay Area. Racist and homophobes reside all over. Even after the fall of the USSR, the Peace Dividend had not abated Commie baiting.
I complained to Lawrence, “Isn’t it crazy how this shlock jock is living up to his name, yes that is his real name. Like that shyster Donald Trump who is destroying Atlantic City. Bad jokes about Trump cards play to empty casinos. All cashed out. Savage is a beast, takes pleasure in attack.”
Without hesitation, Lawrence put things in perspective, “This Savage attack would not have ruffled or reduced Allen! Man up to the haters. Bow down and you give them license. I am more worried about the temple as a target of anti-Semitism. We are organizing a mass public poetry kaddish.”
“The next morning Nancy, Lawrence, and I had an emergency meeting with Temple Emanu-el’s chief rabbi. In the past twenty-four hours, there were a barrage of bomb threats and congregant complaints. Ferlinghetti insisted, lamenting the loss of his beloved friend, “Allen Ginsberg must be honored in the City he first read “Howl”. Allen’s words still throb – Trust what you see. Yes, the insanity in the supermarket aisles. Yes, the airwaves full of madmen”
The rabbi was also adamant, “The memorial must go on. Capitulating to nasty intimidation would be contrary to everything Allen believed in, lived for and manifested.” We were emboldened to proceed. I was relieved but still nervous. Security would be beefed up.
On Sunday, thousands of mourners (many more thousands turned away for lack of space) gathered. Poets performed a grand oratorio drawn from Ginsberg’s elegiac “Kaddish,” a poem he wrote after his mother’s death riffing on the traditional Jewish mourner’s prayer. The temple courtyard was lavishly scented by thousands of oranges floating in the Moorish fountain. The poets, all dressed in white, the color of mourning or purity and hope, sang a lament of Ginsberg’s words, incantatory repetitions, dancing through the crowd they formed a processional of people praying and crying through the arched columns. The poets led the mourners into the chapel, everyone chanting under the celestial turquoise dome of stars.
Time now for Ferlinghetti, for his poets kaddish, or aria of lament. The beat will go on. The mourners’ words will roll in healthy dissent, purposeful euphoric living and shake all assumption. Lawrence Ferlinghetti is an everlasting star in our literary cosmos.
The contemporaneous (1994) San Francisco Chronicle account that Jacoby cites, written by Leah Garchick, (a sometime student of Allen’s it turns out), was, as she elsewhere points out, in focusing on the boos and not on any of the cheers, disingenuous, telling only half of the story.
“The somewhat less than rapt crowd”, Garchick had reported, “(were) waiting to see the Giants do battle with the Atlanta Braves, Ginsberg read “Hum Bom!” an anti-war chant from his new book …He chose (the poem) he told Personals (sic), “because it is a sound poem that would echo properly through the giant stadium, and penetrate through everyone’s skulls.” Although some members of the team introduced to the poet before the game actually seemed to know who he was – Bob Brenly for example – Ginsberg’s rousing rendition of his work was greeted with boos from impatient fans with unpenetrated skulls.”
“The cheesy mocking of disinterest in the Chronicle article”, Jacoby writes, “does not give the full picture of genuine enthusiasm. I don’t think most people could really hear or make out what Allen was saying when he delivered his poem. The teams were entering the field, some of the boos for the visiting team and the sound was clashing and confusing. But they could see his ferocious body energy and delivery, incongruously in a rumpled suit and tie in the middle of the field as a tiny figure, with his head the size of a cinemax screen, spraying spittle and knocking it out of the stadium.”
Elsewhere, she remarks, “As mentioned, he looked like a god on the jumbotron and the media surrounded him like a pop star after his pitch. He was the center of attention, beaming, talking about real strength and power, admiring physical beauty of the players and more. Those interviews played on national sports radio for weeks, maybe a first for a poet in that audience.”
Regarding the Temple Emanu-el event. Here’s Kathleen Sullivan‘s account in the San Francisco Examiner
“Dressed in white, pieces of torn fabric pinned to their clothing, more than a dozen men and women stood in a circle in a courtyard at Congregation Emanu-el, their faces towards the crowd, reading “Kaddish” (for Naomi Ginsberg). Sometimes the group,known as the City of Poets, read in unison from the narrative “Kaddish“, a Jewish prayer of morning, written by Allen Ginsberg in 1959 to honor his mother’s three years after her death – “Blessed be he in homosexuality! Blessed be He in Paranoia!, Blessed be He in the city!, Blessed be He in the book!” – This time though the poem was recited in honor of the poet who died in New York City, April 5, at these of 70 – “Strange to think of you gone, without corsets & eyes, while I walk on the sunny pavement of Greenwich Village” – At the sound of a gong, individuals wandered through the crowd, reading aloud different sections of the 36-page poem – simultaneously, creating a medley of Ginsberg’s words and phrases and exclamations.
The courtyard reading was the prelude to a formal memorial service and an open mike inside the vast synagogue, which was filled to capacity for the Sunday afternoon memorial. Inside, grieving poets read new poems and told fond anecdotes of Ginsberg, whose poetry focused international attention on the San Francisco-based Beat movement. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, whose City Lights bookstore in San Francisco published Ginsberg’s poetry for four decades – including his first major poem, “Howl” in 1956 – said there is “a big hole in the sky” with Ginsberg’s passing. “I’ll always remember Allen singing Blake“, he said, “I think I’ll remember Allen’s voice more than anything about him”. His speaking voice. His singing voice. His poetic voice, which continued to get deeper, probably from Buddhist breathing”. When Ginsberg called to tell his long-time friend that he was dying of liver cancer, Ferlinghetti stayed up late to write a poem, It begins, “Allen Ginsberg is dying, Allen Ginsberg is dying, It’s in all the papers. It’s on the evening news. A great poet is dying. But his voice won’t die.His voice is on the land“. The 1956 publication of the sensational “Howl”, a profane, graphic essay of Ginsberg’s own background of homosexuality and communist upbringing, stunned an uptight America – and inspired a new generation of poets.
Poet Joanne Kyger, another longtime friend of Ginsberg, said the world is living in “the widened consciousness” of Ginsberg, “experiencing its freedom of language, sexual identity, political honesty and love of the natural shapely spontaneous mind”. Mark Linenthal, a former poetry professor at San Francisco State University whose testimony helped acquit Ferlinghetti after he was arrested on obscenity charges for publishing “Howl”, said Ginsberg “found himself writing a kind poetry directly from the heart”. The San Francisco literary scene was ignited when Ginsberg recited “Howl” in a San Francisco club in 1955.”