On May 30th, 2010, Peter Orlovsky died at the age of 76. He is best known as the long-time partner (and muse) of Allen Ginsberg, but he was also a great poet in his own right.
My biography was born July 1933
The first sentence of Orlovsky’s biography in New American Poetry 1945-1960
Born into poverty, Orlovsky dropped out of high school to support his family by working in a mental hospital, and was drafted to fight in the Korean War in 1953 at age 19. After telling his commanding officer that, “An army with guns is an army against love,” he was sent to work at an army hospital in San Francisco.
At 21 Orlovsky met Allen Ginsberg. It’s part of Beat legend that Ginsberg fell in love with a painting of Orlovsky (who was then working as a model) just before meeting the man himself in the San Francisco studio of painter Robert LaVigne in December 1954.
The couple moved into a North Beach apartment together and announced that they were “married.” They spoke openly of their relationship, and were listed as “married” in Ginsberg’s Who’s Who entry in the years following his rise to fame.
They travelled around the world together – spending two years in India, learning about Eastern philosophies. Both men took great interest in Buddhism during their travels.
Peter Orlovsky became an important part of the Beat Generation, although he only began writing poetry at the provocation of Ginsberg while the two were in Paris. He appears in Jack Kerouac’s Book of Dreams and Desolation Angels as Simon Darlovsky, and in The Dharma Bums as George.
Later, he taught at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado. His course was called, “Poetry for Dumb Students.”
As well as working as a model, teacher and a poet, Orlovsky made several movie appearances. Along with Ginsberg, Kerouac and Gregory Corso, he appeared in Couch (1964), which was directed by Andy Warhol. Me and My Brother (1969), directed by Robert Frank, concerned Orlovsky’s relationship with his brother Julius, who was schizophrenic. He appeared (uncredited) in Bob Dylan’s 1979 Renaldo and Clara. In 1990 he appeared in Frank’s C’est Vrai.
Although their relationship was not always monogamous (with Orlovsky displaying heterosexual leanings) they were inseparable at times, and stayed together on-and-off until Ginsberg’s death in 1997.
Orlovsky’s poetry became known for its simple, earthy honesty. He spoke freely (and often enthusiastically) about bodily functions and most famously about assholes. He couldn’t spell, but through his misspellings and the unusual phrasings of his work comes a refreshing freedom and originality.
His “Frist Poem” was published in 1958 by Yugen literary journal. It begins:
A rainbow comes pouring into my window, I am electrified
Songs burst from my breast, all my crying stops, mistory fills the air
Of his poetry, William Carlos Williams once exclaimed: “Nothing English about it – pure American.” That was something Williams hoped poetry would become – a natural, organic voice, free of rules and traditions. Orlovsky’s poetry celebrates that which is distinctly natural and does not attempt to grasp grandiose philosophies.
As Gregory Corso put it,
An agricultural romantic, the Shellean farmer astride his Pegasusian tractor re-poems the earth with trees of berry and roots of honey; whose dirtian hands scribe verses of soy, odes of harvest; whose hymns to redolent shovels of manure nourish the fields that so nourish us, both in body meal and the cosmetics of soul.
Perhaps he was best described by the poet Michael Horovitz (with whom he read on his trips to the United Kingdom) as “refreshingly unliterary.”
Dear Allen: Ship Will Land Jan 23, 58 (1971)
Lepers Cry (1972),
Clean Asshole Poems & Smiling Vegetable Songs (1978)
Straight Hearts’ Delight Love Poems and Selected Letters, 1947-1980, co-authored with Ginsberg (1980)