Editor’s Note: Eliot Katz has issued a response to this essay, which can be read here.
Toward the end of his life, Allen Ginsberg expressed remorse about his politics and wondered if he had gotten everything wrong. In I Celebrate Myself, Bill Morgan writes:
Allen fretted endlessly about the choices he had made in his life. He had worried that he had contributed to millions of deaths in Cambodia. He wondered if it was worthwhile to spend his life writing poetry…(574)
The immediate result of the US evacuation from South Vietnam was that the North Vietnamese came down to destroy the South’s infrastructure and impose an anti-Buddhist tyranny. As the US hawks had predicted, Cambodia was invaded by the Maoists, the populace was tortured […] Allen felt that he had lost the confidence he needed to speak out against US policy in the future.(573)
His lament found its way into a poem that Morgan mentions, where he claims, “Every political cause I tried went sour,” (576) citing various examples of causes he had supported that had resulted in unforeseen tragedy.
This was hardly the first time he had engaged in such self-critical political introspection. Twenty-eight years earlier, Ginsberg had written “Afternoon Seattle,” a grim study of a city in decay. In the poem, he walks around Seattle with Gary Snyder to examine the city’s progressive labor history but finds only the crumbling remnants of the old left mixed with the aimlessness of the new. When they visit the old red-brick Wobbly Hall at Fourth Avenue, they encounter workers playing cards. One of them remarks:
these young fellers can’t see ahead and we nothing to offer.(Collected Poems 158)
This assertion that the labor movement had run out of steam is followed by other utterances of failure. Seattle is depicted as a city in stark decline, with the phrase “the cities rot” repeated throughout the poem:
The cities rot from the center, the suburbs fall apart a slow apocalypse of rot the spectral trollies fade.(Collected Poems 158)
This depiction of a rotting city is all the more jarring considering that Seattle was only about a hundred years old. It had been started in 1851 with a single cottage in an area called Alki Point, but by 1956, when Ginsberg visited the city on February 2nd, the city had grown to almost a million inhabitants. It had bloomed during World War II because the war in the Pacific had fired up the need for shipping and airplanes, but now everything is “rotten,” “rusty,” covered in “slime,” and “six thousand beggars groan at a meal of hopeful beans.”
In a poem entitled “Tears,” written that same day and included on the following page of his collected works, Ginsberg writes, “I cried all over the street when I left the Seattle Wobbly Hall.”
The Wobblies (a left-wing labor movement) are mentioned again in “America,” written later that same year, with Ginsberg declaring, “America I feel sentimental about the Wobblies.” He then asks his country, “When will you be worthy of your million Trotskyites?” (CP 154). It is an amusing poem that satirizes anti-communist sentiment in the US and lampoons capitalist greed. “Howl,” partly written in that same year, also celebrates those who “burned cigarette holes in their arms protesting the narcotic tobacco haze of Capitalism” and who “distributed Supercommunist pamphlets in Union Square weeping.” In another 1956 poem, he writes:
The wage they pay us is too low to live on. Tragedy reduced to numbers.
This for the poor shepherds. I am a communist.(CP 162)
Communism remained an interest for Ginsberg until his 1965 visits to Cuba and the Soviet Union, when he began to understand that it was just another system of oppression, no better than the American capitalism he had previously critiqued. In 1980, he wrote:
The only place socialism worked was in Gdansk, Bud
The communist world’s stuck together with prisoners’ blood
No hope Communism no hope Capitalism(CP 753)
Communism and capitalism were both police states that use media and rifles, he said, to corral the population. Ginsberg more and more had no political message to which he could point, and admitted he was sadly wrong about much of what he had espoused. Even the Buddhists had done wrong. At Naropa, Ginsberg helped install Chögyam Trungpa as an authoritarian guru. This resulted in a terrible collision with the poet W.S. Merwin that is documented in Tom Clark’s history of the period, The Great Naropa Poetry Wars. Clark writes, as a summation:
The poets have chosen metaphysics, magic, and the mumbo-jumbo of a spiritual kingdom ruled over by a witty Oriental whose unashamed contempt for democratic institutions is starting to invade their poetics.(GNPW 43)
Earlier in the volume, Clark wrote that the event in which Merwin and his girlfriend were forced to strip in order to show that they could yield their egos to the guru’s was interpreted by Allen Ginsberg as an “experiment in monarchy” (cited in Clark, 32). Clark quotes Ginsberg telling students, “…democracy was anyway a failed experiment, the atom bomb proved that” (32).
Ginsberg’s political extraction seems crazy. The entire democratic tradition from ancient Athens forward should be scrapped because of the atomic bomb? The Buddhist “Crazy Wisdom” tradition is perhaps the only one that Ginsberg never wholly rejected. Buddhism in the early Seattle poem is lightly referred to in terms of Snyder’s adoption of the religion, but they took up different lineages. Snyder was never a student of Chögyam Trungpa’s and instead took up Japanese Zen.
The monarchical lineage that Ginsberg adopted had many issues. The W.S. Merwin incident sent ripples of distrust throughout the poetry community. Poets such as Robert Bly and Ed Sanders, who had been long-term allies of Ginsberg’s, balked. Even Snyder himself balked, but did not criticize Allen publicly. When Trungpa died, he left Ösel Tendzin in charge of his lineage. Tenzin had AIDS, but slept with students without informing them, and several were infected. Although he had tolerated Trungpa’s excesses, Ginsberg was critical of Tenzin and left the Vajradhatu organization for another, called Jewel Heart Sangha.
Ginsberg is a set of walking contradictions. He saw the good side of most people, including problematic friends such as Gregory Corso and Herbert Huncke, but perhaps stemming from issues with his mother’s mental health problems, he was too tolerant, and was thus incapable of seeing the negatives in the people he loved. In East Hill Farm, Gordon Ball wrote also of Ginsberg’s “natural inclination to mythologize, romanticize…” (317). In his poem “Howl,” the first section presents an amazing variety of “best minds” seeking enlightenment in jazz, sex, or soup; some reveled in kabbala or St. John or Poe, but all were destroyed by Moloch. Ginsberg was in an insane asylum, but reverses the stigma, and argues that it is America that is crazy.
This puts into perspective the “mad noontime businessmen” of Seattle in their rain-resistant gabardine coats, “keep[ing] up the structure.” The city of Seattle is rotting, but the businessmen are holding it together, the poem seems to aver. Ginsberg was himself a successful capitalist, but he redistributed most of this money to his fellow poets, in keeping with the more altruistic values of the communist movement he had largely turned against. Whether capitalist or communist or even anti-democratic, Ginsberg was primarily interested in helping people. In his Seattle poem, he uses seagulls to represent humanity, “their bleak lone cries representing our souls” and their hunger standing in for the starving masses failed by both the vehicles of capitalism and the good intentions of the labor movement. Many progressive ideas became like the “spectral trolleys” he mentions in “Afternoon Seattle.” Against the failures of the mass proletarian movements, Ginsberg preferred to soar alone. He encourages us to be like the seagulls.
Ball, Gordon. East Hill Farm. Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2011.
Clark, Tom. The Great Naropa Poetry Wars (Santa Barbara: Cadmus, 1980).
Ginsberg, Allen. Collected Poems. New York: HarperCollins, 2006.
Morgan, Bill. I Celebrate Myself. New York: Viking, 2006.