October 7, 1955. Clean-shaven and dressed in a sport coat and tie, 28-year-old Allen Ginsberg, recently liberated from his market-research job at a San Francisco advertising agency, stood in front of an enthusiastic and energetic audience at the Six Gallery on Fillmore Street to read from a new poem — “Howl” — that he had begun writing 44 days before.
Allen Ginsberg (right) and Peter Orlovsky
“Howl” was not a virgin effort. If Ginsberg’s Collected Poems 1947-1980 is any indication, he had 83 poems to his credit by that time — or at least 83 that he considered worth saving. Since he was by nature a hoarder, a collector, a pack rat, that number is significant. By clearly defining one parameter of his life (I almost wrote “professional life,” but for Ginsberg there was precious little separation between the personal and the professional), he established the base line — that of “poet” from the start — against which he would be measured.
For most of us, however, Ginsberg began — and begins — with “Howl,” a ferociously intimate song, the opening lines of which are no less powerful today, even as they are well known:
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix
angelheaded hipsters burning for the heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night . . .
As was true of so many potential readers, my idea of Ginsberg was much more concrete than the fact of his poems. Or at least that was the case when, sometime in 1967 or 1968, I set out on what is today called the Red Line from my parents’ house in Dorchester for Harvard Square. I don’t remember what prompted my interest. Beatniks, hipsters, hippies — the natural Ginsberg constituency — were in short supply in St. Gregory’s Parish. Perhaps it was an appearance on William Buckley’s Firing Line, a political-and-cultural discussion show that was popular back in the days when PBS was known as educational television.
Whatever the spur, my destination was clear: Plympton Street’s all-poetry Grolier Bookstore, around the corner from Bartley’s Burger Cottage and down the street from the now-disappeared (but then 24-hour) Hayes Bickford cafeteria. Several years later, when I was beyond the parameters of parental supervision, I saw Ginsberg gently strumming his dulcimer at Hayes while presiding — he wasn’t actually holding court — over a table of what appeared to be friends. (I wonder if Elsa Dorfman, who took the portraits of Ginsberg reproduced here, was among them.)
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Perhaps only the bookish can appreciate the shimmer of anticipation that comes from slipping a new volume from the shelf. Will the promise lead to desire? In the case of Howl (the book was named for its signature poem), the answer was clear.
City Lights editions — slender, not-quite-square books of chaste black-and-white design with pamphlet-like heft — are, as packages, monuments to seriousness; as products, they are highly subversive. The counterpoint, I suspect, was intentional.
At first glance, however, it was the words that consumed, that riveted: Howl, followed by Kaddish, followed by Reality Sandwiches. To this day, I still find it more satisfying to read Ginsberg in those City Lights editions than to navigate the bulk of his Collected Poems.
For all the greatness of some individual pieces (take a read, or a re-read, of the under-appreciated “In the Baggage Room at the Greyhound”), Ginsberg was an uneven talent, a major minor poet — as one snarky critic put it with too much accuracy for fans like me. But the truth need not wound; it can illuminate. Like Oscar Wilde, Ginsberg put his effort into his work and his genius into his life. And what a life it was.
I Celebrate Myself: The Somewhat Private Life of Allen Ginsberg, by Bill Morgan, the editor of Ginsberg’s selected essays and the poet’s long-time archivist, is a magnificent celebration of his life. It is not the last book that will be written about Ginsberg, but — for now — it is the best.
Morgan takes as his organizing principle Ginsberg’s most-intimate relationships. And the range of those relationships, from acquaintances to friends, from colleagues to lovers, is staggering. But central to Ginsberg — occasionally for the better and too often for the worse — was his long-time involvement with Peter Orlovsky. It was a bond that too often teetered on the brink of mutually assured destruction, although the truly self-destructive Orlovsky would outlive Ginsberg.
Ginsberg played many roles in his life: poet, musician, photographer, pharmaceutical philosopher, erotic practitioner, political activist, spiritual agitator, and godfather to the Beat Movement which, Morgan maintains, should be dated from that October night in ’55 when Ginsberg took part in the Six Gallery reading.
Despite the multitude of masks he assumed with varying degrees of success, Ginsberg had — essentially — a single persona: he was a pilgrim. Allen Ginsberg died as good a man as he knew how to be. That’s a rare enough accomplishment.