I don’t know where it was that I first read Allen Ginsberg, but strangely enough, I wanted to follow in his footsteps. He accomplished something most poets cannot: he had readers. A lot of them.
I guess it wasn’t too long ago when I was reading his newly-released journals from when Ginsberg was a teenager. I couldn’t believe how much he had delved into life at such an early age. That was something I could scarcely comprehend. He had well-adjusted political opinions long before he was of military age, all the way back in the early part of American history, before the Beats became a huge part of that history—with their art, literature, intelligence, and pizzazz.
Ginsberg had plenty to say. And the best part about it was that he wrote it all out, he got it down. And that impacted me greatly … all the things he wrote about had been going on inside of me for quite some time. Only I didn’t know how to express it. So I thought, “Why not keep some kind of journal of your own?” And I did.
I got some notebooks. Tiny ones. You know the kind: Kerouac talked about them plenty in his secret, decoded way … little notebooks for your own pleasure. What did Ginsberg do with his notebooks? He kept a little diary, sure. But there was plenty of meaning and sense in Ginsberg’s words. When Kerouac flew off the hinges, who was always there, inevitably, to help him make sense of his wildman prose? Ginsberg.
I got the notebooks and took them back to my little apartment in South Philadelphia. I got wildly into the thought that not only was I going to be a successful writer (if I could only follow in his footsteps) but I was going to do what Ginsberg mentioned in his journals. He wrote about wanting to be a regular person. That got to me, big time. I can even remember now, some years later, putting the book down in Barnes & Noble and staring at all the people wandering around aimlessly, killing time … like me. What am I doing with my life? I wondered.
Each time I’d read Ginsberg, he transported me to another realm. Another realm of possibility that I hadn’t seen before … and he had left me the keys. So whenever I walked away from Ginsberg’s poetry, I always came back somehow to his words, his persona, his attitude toward life and living it.
In Kerouac’s books, Ginsberg was usually my favorite character. He’d be the one to criticize his friend, gently if possible, to inquire why Kerouac was always busy doing nothing. What kinda life is that? Ginsberg seemed to protest. I could see him doing the same, though. That was his public image, to some. Ginsberg, with a long and flowing black beard. Ginsberg in the tall grass in San Francisco, sitting like Buddha in the weeds, smelling the mint around his ramshackle pad … inviting in his literary friends, only possessing the bare necessities of life. Ginsberg with lilies in his hair. Ginsberg at Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s bookstore in the city, talking about politics.
Ginsberg related to everybody. That was his importance in American history, among the Beats. And that was the echo throughout the decades that he was destined to leave behind. A booming voice, going OMMM, OMMMM, OMMMM. He’s banging that drum and creating a public persona. But I looked to his words for solace. Maybe it was Howl that started me off, back in school.
That first line grabbed me. And still does.
He was writing about his friends. And he was writing for them, too. It wasn’t always about himself, with Ginsberg. That’s why he had eventually garnered such a vast and expansive audience, across the cultural divide in America. The world would come to know this political teenager from Paterson, New Jersey, due to his dedication to his art, to living life to the fullest. Writing about ordinary people, for ordinary people. Because that’s what Ginsberg really was, at least to me.
Yes, Ginsberg changed my life with his words. Who would’ve thought? I always seemed to wonder about that after reading his letters or journal entries. Did he ever consider what kind of effect his words would have on others? On future generations?
I think that Ginsberg really didn’t care about any of that, truly. And he if did, it was in the spiritual sense, that he was a writer and a poet to leave his mark on the world. And I can’t think of any American poet throughout the entire 20th century who did that as well as Allen Ginsberg. The ordinary man among the masses. Except, as we now know, Ginsberg wasn’t very ordinary. That’s why he had such a great impact on me, reading his journals some forty years later. “Get a regular job,” he wrote to himself, “become an ordinary person.”
I wanted to follow in Ginsberg’s footsteps, more than anybody. Sure, I went through my Kerouac phase, bouncing around the country, staying with friends like a vagabond in Denver and Colorado Springs, Colorado. But what came of it? It was a shoddy life. And what most people overlook about Kerouac is how he always returned to his mother, at home in New England, whereas Ginsberg lived the life of the poet. As Rimbaud said, “Advance, always!”
Eventually, I couldn’t live like that anymore. And when I read poetry back home, just as I had done in Denver, it was always a little book by Allen Ginsberg. The Fall of America. I had that book in my hands when I’d walked into the Denver courthouse to pay for a ticket I got while driving to work one morning. The guard at the door saw the book after I dumped it into a little basket before walking through the metal detectors.
He looked at the book, then back at me. “Any good?” he asked.
I nodded, smiling. “Yes.”
And then, back at home on the East Coast. I had another Ginsberg book with me at my grandmother’s house. My aunt was there, all avid readers on my mother’s side of the family.
“What’s this?” she asked.
“Ginsberg,” my brother smirked, rolling his eyes.
My aunt flipped through the book.
“Oh my god,” she said,” “he’s SICK!”
It was true, that flowing, wild beard. His appearances in public, chanting like a Buddhist, tilting his head back, eyes closed, yelling up at the stars. That was the kind of guy I really was, only I didn’t have the cojones to show it, to express it, to live up to it. Like Ginsberg did, all his life.
No, he wasn’t a sick man. He was nothing akin to Raskolnikov. And he was certainly no Neitzche. Maybe he resembled a bit of the tragic figure in Rimbaud. But the beautiful and mysterious thing about Ginsberg was his ability to pick these figures apart and put them back together again. He never succumbed to his dark side, Ginsberg. Merely he embraced it, wrote about it, digested it and then later, for lack of a better term, crapped it out again.
Then it fell among the trees and bushes surrounding his front lawn, to give new life to elsewhere. Ginsberg’s words were so huge because he was always willing and able to give new life to other creatures who couldn’t live for themselves.
And what a poet, what a dreamworld he created by living life to its fullest. All across America, and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, India, North Africa, etc. A well-traveled man, who only wanted to be ordinary. And intelligent!
Ginsberg in Paris with other Beat poets. Teaching them, guiding them. Like a conductor, a maestro pulling at the strings. All of a sudden, he’s back in America. This time, in Chicago—1968. The Democratic National Convention.
Ah, but I was there, too. In 2016. And it was in Philadelphia, my hometown.
I was following in Ginsberg’s footsteps. Just become a regular person, I told myself. Observe the world, yes. But get a regular job. Pay your bills. Live an ordinary life.
And then make a statement.
Whenever I read Ginsberg’s books of poetry I always seemed to travel to that other realm he created through his mind and throughout his work. Ginsberg was a great seer and he was able to transport his reader, his audience, to the places he went in search of himself. He went to so many different places because it was clear that he craved it, he needed it—to see the world. It changed him and made him a bigger man, and a much better poet.
Going back to his earliest journal entries and then reading his later works in poetry and prose was a great treat for me. After a great deal of reading through my 20s, when I got to about 30, I derived more pleasure from reading unpublished works that had been set aside by my favorite writers and then published posthumously (or very late in their careers). I liked reading the letters of writers like Hemingway, Hunter Thompson, Kerouac, Bukowski, and Ginsberg. I learned something more about these writers as men and artists, more than I could’ve had I only read their poetry and prose.
I compared the letters of Hemingway when he was only a boy to those of Ginsberg’s journal entries. What a difference! Hemingway was an early favorite of mine. Nobody had ever captured my attention quite like The Sun Also Rises. But after that, he seemed to fall a little flat for me.
Ginsberg, however, went further than any American writer throughout the 20th century. He delved deeper and deeper into his art, his subconscious, his psyche. He was always tremendously open and honest, even though it is sometimes said that he was sensitive and shy. Really? I can only think of Henry Miller as a comparison between other American writers whose private life had become so public through his life and work.
And that changed me, too.
When I went and compiled a collection of my own writings—after living like a regular person, with an ordinary job—I was terribly sensitive and shy about it. I never had that self-assurance as Ginsberg did, and I still don’t. He was certainly never afraid to express himself, as I’ve seen through his pictures and obviously throughout his books of poetry. That was the whole point of his writings, in fact. To never be afraid of oneself. And that sort of openness in American writing was non-existent before the Beats. Before poets like Allen Ginsberg, nobody really had the courage to say whatever it was on his or her mind, truly. And with style, intelligence, and a certain lack of self-consciousness that would probably even have made Walt Whitman blush.
Ginsberg carried that torch. He knew what Whitman had been trying to say. And that was exemplified by the Beats more so than any other period in American literature. That left its mark on so many future writers and artists, including me.
Creative writing was pushed forward by many years by a poet like Ginsberg. And even then, he was one of a kind. So it’s no wonder that he befriended a folk singer like Bob Dylan. A recent documentary by Martin Scorsese prominently features Ginsberg among the 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue across the country when America needed it the most. Here were two of America’s most famous—and infamous—poets. Jim Morrison was gone. Bukowski was effacing the human race …. and himself along with it. But Ginsberg and Dylan were enrapturing audiences, LIVE, across America, making history, reinventing themselves as they had always done.
I loved it! And now … any time I hear Ginsberg’s words or when I see him in a documentary, I feel a little revived and enlivened. He even aged like a poet. And his mystique and wonder only grew, as if to say that even death could not stop his artistic output. Ginsberg was encouraged by death.
I saw that somewhere, in a documentary once. A reporter asked him if he were afraid of his approaching death.
Ginsberg laughed, seemingly put off by such a question.
“I’m not taking that bait, you bastard!” he seemed to imply with his body language. That was the thing that always got me the most about Ginsberg. As he aged, you were able to see it more and more. How intellectually ahead of us he truly was, especially when he was interviewed by a typical reporter from a typical “news” channel in America.
Something like that was commonplace for a Dylan interview, and the Beatles as well. They toyed with reporters and their silly questions. They made the whole thing somewhat of a joke, although Dylan was at times a little more intense than the rest of them.
How could life be nothing but a joke?
Ah, but that was the trick that Ginsberg played with his life. The game that was being played with all of us. Ginsberg wasn’t going to be toyed with, certainly not by anybody, all throughout his life.
He told the reporter, actually—he ENLIGHTENED THE REPORTER to the facts. “There’s no point in being nostalgic for eternity,” was Ginsberg’s response. To see and hear that left an infinite smile upon my face.
Ginsberg knew something the rest of us didn’t. And he didn’t keep that all to himself; rather, he shared it with everybody he knew, no matter where he went, no matter the circumstance. Ginsberg was a genuine poet, in candor and commonplace exchanges, among his friends and in his writings. You can even see it in his photographs. The seer observing everything, knowing that we’re all connected, somehow. In some magical and mystical way, life is only what you make of it. And nothing more.
But then, Ginsberg made a mockery of the whole thing. Not in any meanness of the heart, nor in any bitterness of the mind. Ginsberg wanted to push the whole human race a step forward to get us out of the mire and muck of past centuries. He saw American life for what it was worth, before the wars of the 20th century had really kicked us into high gear. He was right there in the middle of it all.
Banging pots and pans on a train track, the very route of a nuclear exchange between wild-eyed and deranged nations. There was the living embodiment of Whitman, the true American poet who knew when and how to say it. “Enough is enough, Jack! I’m not letting you take me down your road to permanent destruction anymore! I want to live! Let us live in peace, goddamnit!”
That’s why Ginsberg will always be one of my favorite poets. He stood for peace and harmony in a world that is utterly at war with itself. If his words were ever sick or sickening, it was because that’s what the world really is. That’s what the world is doing to us, to all of us. He seemed to say.
Nobody had the balls to say it quite like Allen Ginsberg.
His poetry, his life in words and strange intonations, changed my life.
As always, it was for the betterment of humankind.
What other poets, in America, could you say that about?
Not too many.