The world could sure use Allen Ginsberg’s sane voice and political vision today. Lucky for the planet, his voice is still with us—in books, recordings, and recollections.
Allen was a generous teacher and friend. I met Allen late one afternoon in the fall of 1976. I was drinking coffee, or maybe it was beer, with my roommate Danny Shot, on our Guilden Street, New Brunswick, NJ front porch. We were taking a Rutgers University class on “The Beat Tradition in American Literature,” taught by an inspired grad student, Bob Campbell, and we were anticipating a Ginsberg student center reading later that night. A taxi drove up to the apartment across the street where our friend Kevin Hayes lived, and Allen got out of the back seat and started unloading cardboard boxes from the trunk. Kevin was a local poet and friend who was—previously unbeknownst to us—the organizer of the night’s event. Danny and I went to help unload cartons that turned out to be Allen’s father’s manuscripts stored, until that night, at the Rutgers library.
After the reading, Kevin asked if I could drive Allen and his boxes back home to Manhattan in my orange Chevy Vega, my car at the time being an unexceptional example of one of the worst American car models ever made. Driving around lower Manhattan with Danny and Kevin, Allen guided us on an informative automobile tour of the historic East Village, pointing out landmark sites where famous writers and agitators like Leon Trotsky, Thomas Paine, Emma Goldman, and Abbie Hoffman had lived, worked, or bought egg creams. Allen told us that night he did his best to answer all of his mail. So weeks later, following Danny’s lead, I sent a few samples of my earliest poems. Allen responded kindly, taking about 10 lines of my verse and suggesting clarifications, deletions, and condensations that might improve the work. He also suggested reading particular books by Williams, Pound, and Reznikoff. Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” and Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” had been the two main poems that turned me on to poetry, that made me realize how energizing and relevant poetry could be. I was amazed and grateful that this world-renowned poet would take the time to offer thoughtful advice to a young poet he had barely met.
In the summer of 1980, having written poetry for about four years, I applied for a one-month apprenticeship with Allen at Naropa Institute in Boulder, which is probably where he would have remembered meeting me. There, I typed his difficult-to-read handwritten manuscripts and helped go through some of his correspondence in exchange for valuable suggestions about my verse. Although my poetry at the time wasn’t very good, I think Allen appreciated my activist instincts. I think he also liked that I was a Jersey poet who had studied William Blake with Alicia Ostriker at Rutgers, since he himself had been using the version of Blake’s Complete Poems that Alicia had edited, along with Alicia’s endnotes, to study Blake. As Allen’s apprentice, I had opportunities to see up-close his principled commitment to opposing injustice, and his extraordinary desire to help young people striving to create a more peaceful and democratic future. In my work, I would open letters from activists working on a range of issues that Allen was supporting, from ending homelessness in the U.S. to promoting free expression in Eastern Europe. When a Boulder group asked Allen for permission to use an old poem on a poster for an upcoming rally against the impending reintroduction of military draft registration, Allen instead wrote a new poem especially for them, called “Verses Written for Student Antidraft Registration Rally 1980.” With humorous imagination, the poem redefined courage as a pacifist trait: “The warrior never goes to War / ...only helpless Draftees fight afraid... / The warrior knows his own sad & tender heart, which is not the heart of most newspapers / Which is not the heart of most Television—This kind of sadness doesn’t sell popcorn.” How relevant this poem sounds now, during a disastrous and unwarranted war in Iraq, a war whose path was paved in part by a complacent mainstream news industry relaying with too little skepticism the Bush administration’s false claims about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
At a young poets’ midnight reading during a 1982 Naropa celebration of On the Road, Danny Shot and I opened up for one of Allen’s favorite younger poets, Andy Clausen. Allen attended the reading and, recognizing that my poetry had improved, grew supportive of my work. Around that time, he donated poems and a portion of a reading fee to help Danny and I start Long Shot literary journal, to which he consistently contributed original work up until his death. Over the years, he recommended my poems to journals, nominated me for a PEN younger poet’s award, and invited me to open up for him at some nice readings, including one that also featured Gregory Corso at New Brunswick’s Kirkpatrick Chapel. He wrote an introduction for my first book, Space, and offered to write one for my second, Unlocking the Exits, which helped convince Coffee House Press to publish the book. He sent postcards from his travels and answered letters and questions about poetry. Since he was one of the busiest writers on the planet, I was always conscious of how generous it was for him to prioritize spending considerable chunks of time supporting the work of younger poets.
Like all good teachers, Allen was also a perpetual student, always thirsty for more ideas and information, and always curious about what his friends were reading. I remember him asking me once while we were walking around the Lower East Side to tell him about the theoretical debates I’d been reading between Brecht and Lukacs around questions of literary modernism. While he appreciated spontaneous energy in the writing of poetry, Allen also had some great ideas for editing, including picturing respected teachers or friends looking over one’s shoulder to give their opinions. Allen said that he would often imagine what Kerouac, Corso, or Burroughs might say about the lines of a new poem, and that would help him see his own lines in a new way. I will always remain thankful for Allen’s personal kindness and literary support, and I still keep Allen as one of those pairs of editing eyes hovering over my shoulder looking at a new poem.
In addition to spending time advising on poetry matters, Allen was also giving with his assistance on activist projects. In my own case, I think/hope he appreciated that I tried to keep my requests for favors to a minimum. Here are just a few of the efforts I remember to which Allen lent support: He participated in an antiwar reading that I organized at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe during the 1991 Gulf War. When the NJ Anti-Apartheid Mobilization Coalition, led by a terrific Central Jersey activist Valorie Caffee, organized a campaign to press a national arts group to move its New Brunswick convention out of a hotel owned by Johnson and Johnson, which was then the largest U.S.-based company that refused to divest from apartheid South Africa, Allen endorsed our campaign and opened his rolodex for us to look up other key phone numbers and addresses. Long before the Internet, Allen coordinated his own version of a Worldwide Web of Poets, Activists, and Alternative News. In February 1988, to help us draw more student activists from across the country, he came down to read with me and another New Brunswick poet, Cheryl Clarke, at a convention at Rutgers, where we were hoping to start a new national student activist group modeled after S.D.S. At that National Student Convention ’88 reading, with our conference’s main advisor, the late organizing genius Abbie Hoffman, in the audience, I remember Allen cautioning a new generation of young activists to learn how to separate opposition to government policies from any anger they might feel toward their parents. I took this advice as meant both literally and metaphorically, that activists should deal with their personal emotional issues outside of the movement so that unresolved psychological conflicts wouldn’t interfere with attempts to develop sane and effective political strategies. After having watched sectarianism and violent tactics hinder some segments of the 1960s U.S. student left, Allen was eager to help a new generation of activists build on the previous era’s strengths and avoid repeating some of its mistakes.
In the mid-1990s, with Bill Clinton moving the Democratic Party away from its liberal traditions and toward the political center, and with Newt Gingrich engineering far-right Republican victories with his “contract with America” that many of us were calling a contract on America, Allen began asking poet friends around the country for poems addressing those deteriorating times. (Little did we know how much worse things could get only five or six years later!) Allen spoke to me and to Andy Clausen quite a bit about that project, and after Allen’s death, his longtime assistant Bob Rosenthal invited Andy and me to complete the collection Allen had nearly finished, initially intended for the Nation magazine and eventually released in 2000 as a book called Poems for the Nation, published by Greg Ruggiero’s Open Media Series at Seven Stories Press.
Prevailing cultural mythology says that 1960s radicals became more conservative as they got older. Along with thousands of known and unknown organizers from that era who continued to display long-term progressive commitment, whether by public activism or private lives spent in professions like social work or education, Allen’s life and work help put the lie to that myth. Throughout the years that I knew Allen, his social-activist commitment never wavered; he only grew better able to explain his thoughtful, progressive beliefs in clear, lively language that was usually difficult for open-minded people to dismiss. (Take a look at his later interviews in Spontaneous Mind to see what I mean.) Along Shelleyan lines, I think it would be fair to say that Allen Ginsberg was an important democratic conscience of Cold War America—often unacknowledged by the mainstream corporate political pundit class, but probably more well known and influential during his lifetime than any other poet who had come before. He set an inspiring example of how to combine a literary life with principled social engagement, spiritual concern, and personal integrity.
Today, we are back in a time that in many ways resembles the era Allen described in “Wichita Vortex Sutra” when “almost all our language has been taxed by war.” The George W. Bush presidency—accompanied by a Republican-controlled Congress and a conservative Supreme Court—has been a fiasco both at home and abroad. Since the atrocity of September 11, 2001, the Bush administration has been cynically able to manipulate American fears to promote an unpopular menu of right-wing proposals that were largely on their to-do list from the moment they took office: from tax cuts for the wealthy to the deadly and illegal war in Iraq, from domestic spying and conservative judicial appointments to eco-destructive industrial policies. Also worrisome is the expanding right-wing TV and radio talk-show circuit that has been at least partially successful in marginalizing dissent by accusing those who vocally disagree with Bush administration policies of being “unpatriotic.” Thankfully, as I write this piece in March 2006, the American people in growing numbers are finally beginning to see through the Bush adminstration’s rhetorical smokescreens, and Bush’s approval rating has dropped to the low 30s. Now, if we could only figure out how to effectively translate these growing progressive energies into a new, more humane policy road for America.
In 1965, Allen had suggested that a Berkeley anti-Vietnam War rally be made more theatrical, and offered imaginative ideas to make that happen. (See “How to Make a March/Spectacle” on p. 9 of Deliberate Prose.) Those suggestions influenced some key rallies of the 1960s antiwar movement, and one can see their continuing influence in contemporary activism by taking even a cursory look at the theatricality—the huge puppets, the creative signs, the dancing and drumming—of the global justice protests beginning with Seattle 1999 and the recent international protests against the Iraq war.
With an astonishing literary imagination, an original sense of poetic forms and rhythms, a unique mixture of humor and historical insight, and an extraordinary ability to show the interconnectedness of various aspects of our emotional, spiritual, and political lives, Allen energized poetry to give his work a sense of timelessness that I think really will make it “good to eat a thousand years.” Certainly, 50 years after “Howl,” Allen’s poetic and activist legacies continue to move young people to believe that, as the global justice movement puts it, “another world is possible”—a world with much less poverty and war, with far cleaner air and water, and with a deeper commitment to civil liberties, civic participation, interpersonal cooperation, and democratically accountable social institutions.
© Eliot Katz 2006. From Katz’s Love, War, Fire, Wind: Looking Out from North America’s Skull, drawings by William T. Ayton (Narcissus, 2009).
Eliot Katz is the author of Unlocking the Exits (Coffee House Press, 1999) and a co-editor of Poems for the Nation (Seven Stories Press, 2000), a collection of political poems compiled by the late Allen Ginsberg.