Editor’s note: This essay, written by Eliot Katz, author of The Poetry and Politics of Allen Ginsberg, is a response to this article published in Beatdom last week by Kirby Olsen.

The Poetry and Politics of Allen Ginsberg

Years ago, I read and enjoyed parts of Kirby Olson’s book on Gregory Corso’s poetry, and we had some friendly email conversations about it. But for Kirby now to assert that Allen Ginsberg had ever abandoned his leftist, or progressive, political views is unfair and wrong, as is Kirby’s assertion that Allen abandoned his belief in coalition-building for the arena of politics. One of the problems here is that Kirby offers a false dichotomy between exploitative capitalism and authoritarian forms of communism—both of which Allen understandably criticized—and does not recognize the existence of other, more democratic leftist ideas, including democratic socialism, even as groups in the U.S., like Democratic Socialists of America, have been growing larger than ever, partly a result of the Bernie Sanders presidential campaigns. What Kirby sees as a rejection of left politics is rather a principled opposition to the exploitative or repressive aspects of both the actually existing East and the West. Kirby also ignores Allen’s lifelong belief in progressive solidarity—initially and most powerfully illustrated in the “I’m with you in Rockland” section of “Howl.”

Furthermore, Kirby’s piece seems based on the mistaken assumption that one cannot see oneself on the political left if one is willing to criticize some excesses and mistakes of the left. One of the most famous examples of a well-known pioneer of leftist ideas who was willing to criticize mistakes of the left was the early 20th century democratic socialist theorist and activist, Rosa Luxemburg, who was, in her later years, imprisoned and then killed (in 1919) for her democratic-socialist and anti-war views. Luxemburg wrote an incredibly insightful and prophetic small book on the Russian Revolution, in which she praised the Bolsheviks, under Lenin, for overthrowing the dictatorship of the czar, but then also heavily criticized Lenin and the Bolsheviks for getting rid of the Parliament, for creating a one-party state, and for suppressing freedom of expression. For Luxemburg, the idea of socialism was to create both more political democracy and more economic justice—for Luxemburg, one could not be built without the other—, and socialism therefore required multi-party elections and freedom of expression, and could not simply be declared by undemocratic bureaucrats sitting behind their desks. Furthermore, for Luxemburg, the meaning of freedom importantly included freedom for individuals who think differently.

I wrote an entire book on Allen Ginsberg’s poetry and politics, published in 2016 by Beatdom Books, which anyone can read who would want to see my fuller arguments. But basically, my argument regarding Allen would be similar to what I’ve just said above about Luxemburg: that Allen was willing to be critical of mistakes, including acts of violence by small segments of the late 1960s U.S. student movement; and by the Soviet Union, which, for most of its existence, most extremely under the murderous Stalin, Allen would not have even considered it to be any part of any real left because of its deeply authoritarian governing style, a belief of Allen’s with which I would certainly agree. But just because Allen criticized Soviet-style, anti-democratic, and repressive communism in a poem like “Capitol Air” (quoted by Olson), and just because he was occasionally in poems self-reflective enough (and sometimes with a sense of humor that Olson ignores) to ask questions about whether he may have ever contributed to the violence from small parts of the U.S. student left—which I would argue he did not—does not mean at all, as Olson claims, that Allen was criticizing and abandoning the entire idea of a democratic left, or of his being part of a democratic left. Indeed, in one of his journals, he wrote clearly about himself: “Left wing but suspicious of communism.” Like Luxemburg, Allen also always believed in individual freedoms (which Olson correctly points out), but he saw those beliefs as being consistent with, not in contradiction with, placing himself within a larger democratic left.

In my book, what I wrote, and would still argue, is that Allen’s leftist or progressive politics were more practical than ideological. I called his political philosophy “ideologically flexible,” staying always within the wide arena of the democratic left, as a poet influenced by previous progressive poets like Whitman and Blake. Allen’s politics never veered rightward—although it sometimes, in various poems, moved within wider left traditions like anarchism, trade unionism, or democratic socialism (which is where I place myself)—, but always remaining committed to progressive and democratic ideas like a world with much less poverty and war; with far cleaner air and water and health care; and with a deeper commitment to civil liberties, civic participation, gay rights, interpersonal cooperation, and democratically accountable social institutions. By embracing different ideas within the wider democratic left, I would argue that Allen was in one way trying to avoid the kind of divisive arguments about specific ideological positions that he had seen between his communist mother and Debsian socialist father, and that his idea of embracing inclusiveness within the democratic left would prefigure the kind of inclusiveness seen in the early years of the New Left (like early SDS) and that was markedly different from the argumentative sectarianism of large segments of the Old Left.

I should be clear here that I would contend, as I do in more detail in my book, that Allen’s political beliefs and his spiritual beliefs—in Buddhism—should not be considered to be in the same sphere—that political spheres and spiritual spheres are different, sometimes separated by semi-permeable membranes, sometimes overlapping or pushing against each other, and sometimes remaining separate and apart, as issues of love and death, for two examples, will remain highly important for humans whether in any decent or indecent political system. Along these lines, I would contend that Allen’s trust in Trungpa (which Olson focuses parts of his piece on) as a leader for Naropa’s tradition of Buddhism does not explain in any way Allen’s commitment to democratic forms of national or political leadership.

One can see Allen’s progressive politics in poems throughout his full career, from his great, early and well-known poems like “Howl” and “America”; to his powerful anti-Vietnam War era poems like “Wichita Vortex Sutra” and “Anti-Viet Nam War Peace Mobilization“; to his great anti-nuke poem, “Plutonian Ode” (soon after which he was arrested as part of a group, which  also included the terrific poet, Anne Waldman, for sitting on railroad tracks in Colorado to attempt to block the shipment of plutonium); to memorable mid-career poems like “September on Jessore Road” and “Verses Written for Student Anti-Draft Registration Rally”; and to his anti-1991-Iraq War and anti-NSA poems like “NSA Dope Calypso” and “Hum Bomb!” Another powerful late poem (1993), offering a clear and wide range of democratic and progressive solutions to social problems, was “New Democracy Wish List.” A number of Allen’s poems criticized the right-wing, so-called “Moral Majority” of his time—and those poems could easily be read today as a critique of the right-wing religious fundamentalism that has taken over the majority of today’s U.S. Supreme Court, including recent rulings against abortion rights and against the power of the EPA to regulate fossil fuel emissions. And Allen ended his poem, “Why I Meditate” (1981) with “I sit for world revolution,” a line which would clearly not fit into any analysis of a post-political Allen. This does not mean that Allen only wrote political poetry or that he focused solely on politics in his daily work, but that yes, he continued always to be a political poet and a political activist and supporter of many political activist projects.

Besides his poems, one can also see Allen’s progressive politics in the groups and causes he supported for many years—including the War Resisters League, The PEN Freedom to Write Committee, and the progressive media watchdog group, Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), whose advisory board Allen served on. Of course, in earlier years, he had played a large and influential role in the anti-Vietnam War movement, both through his widely published antiwar poems and by participating in many protests. The first organized protest that he attended was a protest against the Vietnam War. He was a high-profile participant in the antiwar protests outside the Democratic Party Convention in Chicago 1968—at which he both protested the Vietnam War and also tried to help create a more peaceful scenario through chanting—and he was a key witness during the ensuing Chicago 8 trial. He was also a participant and chanter at the well-known 1967 Pentagon “levitation” protest.

I can also say from personal experience that Allen was always responsive and supportive to progressive activist causes for which I asked for his help: from supporting a Central New Jersey anti-apartheid campaign in the mid-1980s; to reading at a 1991 anti-Iraq war poetry event that I had helped put together at The Nuyorican Poets Café; to reading at an early-1990s NYC benefit, which I had helped organize with Johanna Lawrenson and the Abbie Hoffman Activist Foundation, for a Vermont congressional campaign by the well-known democratic-socialist, Bernie Sanders; to reading at, and helping to draw students to, a national student activist convention with 700-plus attendees at Rutgers University in February 1988; to serving on the Advisory Board (along with such well-known national leftists as Noam Chomsky, Adrienne Rich, Cornel West, Frances Fox Piven, Dave Dellinger, Manning Marable, Barbara Ehrenreich, Howard Zinn, Abbie Hoffman and more) of a national student activist group that I had helped organize, as a follow-up to our Rutgers convention, called Student Action Union. I’m fairly sure there are many more next-generation activists who could also cite Allen’s support for their projects.

Although some Nordic countries with strong social safety nets like Finland and Denmark continue to lead surveys on the UN’s World Happiness Index, none of us can yet point to any country that has fully achieved utopian progressive goals—thus, the use of surrealism in poetry, including in Allen’s poetry, which uses imagery that does not yet exist in the actual world and thereby, for leftist poets—carrying on the tradition of Breton, Mayakovsky, and others—implies the possibility of creating a better world in the future. But the fact that Allen offered continued and consistent support to the kinds of progressive group projects listed above proves that he did not ever abandon his long-held belief in the importance of political solidarity for creating progressive change. Although Kirby Olson quotes some briefly expressed moments of self-doubt in the terrific biography of Allen written by my friend and Allen’s longtime bibliographer, Bill Morgan, a few briefly expressed self-doubts are normal for any honest, decent person, but they don’t in any way show an abandonment by Allen of leftist poetry or politics. And Bill Morgan’s book does describe many of the progressive political projects that Allen worked on throughout his adult life. I would also recommend the excellent book by Allen’s longtime assistant, Bob Rosenthal (also published by Beatdom), in which Bob writes about spending much time helping Allen with progressive political advocacy work throughout Bob’s 20-plus years of working with Allen in his office.

Straight Around Allen

In the poetry world, Allen also spent parts of his last 18 months collecting progressive political poems from poets whose work he admired, poems that were in some direct or indirect ways protesting either the rising movement of the American right then led by Newt Gingrich and his “contract with America” that many of us were calling a “contract on America,” as well as Bill Clinton’s attempt to shift the Democratic Party further to the center and away from its more liberal FDR-type traditions. These poems were initially being collected to be published in The Nation magazine, but were eventually published in 2000 by Seven Stories Press as a small anthology, Poems for the Nation, with Andy Clausen and I assisting as co-editors, at Bob Rosenthal’s request, by helping to solidify some of the final selections that Allen had been considering but didn’t have time to make final decisions before his passing. We also added a few prose and poetry pieces that had been read at a tribute attended by over 2,500 people, a tribute partly focused on Allen’s activism, that took place at St. John the Divine Cathedral in NYC in the year after Allen’s death. Lastly, let me say that, until Allen’s last few months, when his health became more of a struggle, I had had many post-reading political conversations with him over dinner at Lower East Side restaurants, like The Kiev. Allen used to enjoy asking me about the left-oriented books that I was reading, whether about left political theorists like Rosa Luxemburg, or left aesthetic issues like the Brecht-Bloch-Lukacs debates about realism and surrealism. I know from those many conversations that Allen certainly always considered himself on the left. Throughout the years that I knew Allen, his social-activist commitment never wavered—neither in terms of his own activism, nor with his support and encouragement to younger activists like myself—although I’m admittedly no longer young at 65. As he aged, Allen only grew better able to explain his thoughtful, progressive beliefs in clear, lively language that was usually difficult for open-minded people to dismiss. Along Shelleyan lines, as I have written before, I think it would be fair to say that Allen Ginsberg was an important democratic conscience of Cold War America. Allen’s poems have continued to influence poets, songwriters, painters, and activists for more than six decades. And Allen’s suggestions for more peaceful and theatrical progressive protests, with music, puppets, and creative signs (suggestions made originally in a 1965 anti-war article, “How to Make a March/Spectacle”) have continued to influence the way progressive rallies and marches are shaped in the U.S., and around the world, to this day. Both in his poems and in his biography, there is much to prove that Allen continued throughout his life to write progressive poems and to engage in and to support progressive activism and causes.