In 1968, Jane Kramer published a tender profile of Allen Ginsberg in the New Yorker, one that begins on a curious note. It's not the scene Kramer describes, a sparsely furnished apartment in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco where, on an evening in January of the previous year, the planning committee for a "Gathering of the Tribes for a Human Be-In" is holding an eleventh-hour meeting. Nor is it the one remaining item on the agenda: Is the LSD evangelist Timothy Leary a poet, in which case he will be allowed seven minutes to speak, or is he a bona fide prophet and therefore entitled to as much as half an hour during the next day's gathering in Golden Gate Park?
Rather, what's odd is that when Kramer first introduces Ginsberg, who sits (cross-legged) on the planning committee, he's identified as "Allen Ginsberg, the poet." That Kramer felt obligated to remind her readers that Ginsberg was a writer of verse cannot, I think, be chalked up to the stylistic protocols of the New Yorker. After all, Ginsberg the poet had metamorphosed into Ginsberg the grand guru of the counterculture—chief spokesman of the Beat Generation, shaggy incarnation of flower power, tireless crusader against the war in Vietnam—during the twelve years since the publication of Howl and Other Poems. He had become a hero—and pariah—abroad as well, especially behind the iron curtain. During a stay in Prague in 1965, Ginsberg was crowned King of May by a few thousand students. Displeased that such a monarch of misrule was in their midst, the city's Communist Party leaders deported him. In his personal life, Ginsberg had also gained notoriety as the generous and compassionate paterfamilias to the many friends, lovers, groupies, and flameouts who drifted through his East Village apartment. Because Ginsberg was "a hero, a prophet, and the man who was largely responsible for the love-happy condition of so many children," Kramer had to emphasize that he was first and foremost a poet.
This year is the fiftieth anniversary of Howl and Other Poems, and to read the various volumes issued to celebrate the book's golden jubilee is to be reminded that half a century later, Ginsberg has remained an iconic countercultural figure, at least among readers who first picked up "Howl" between the waning of the Eisenhower years and the blossoming of punk rock. Ginsberg is many things to his admirers: a "dangerous Beat guru"; an "authentic made-in-America holy fool"; a genius who did nothing less than commit "an act of cultural treason" by writing "Howl" and who "helped create the conditions for both the San Francisco protests against the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1960 and the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley in 1964." There are nearly one million copies of the City Lights Pocket Poets edition of Howl and Other Poems in print, yet "Howl" itself is reproduced in several of the commemorative books, as if the text were no less sacred than the Upanishads or the New Testament.
Like Walt Whitman and Bob Dylan, Ginsberg exists in the cocoon of myth, and like them, it isn't only his admirers who have installed him there. No one was better at flogging the virtues of Allen Ginsberg than Allen Ginsberg. In "At Apollinaire's Grave," written a couple of years after "Howl," Ginsberg stands at the French poet's tomb in Père Lachaise Cemetery and places a copy of Howl and Other Poems "on top of his silent Calligramme." He then imagines his own work being vital enough to merit an identical homage: "I hope some wild kidmonk lays his pamphlet on my grave for God to read me on cold winter nights in heaven." Ginsberg's audacity in comparing himself to Apollinaire was matched by his knack for advertising "Howl" as an all-purpose cultural barometer. When he learned in the spring of 1956 that the New York Times had assigned the poet Richard Eberhart to write an article on the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance, he sent him a long letter explicating his poem: "Howl is an 'affirmation' of individual experience of God, sex, drugs, absurdity etc." In an interview with Gay Sunshine in 1974, Ginsberg remarked that "Howl" was a "coming out of the closet." Two years later, in a volume commemorating the twentieth anniversary of "Howl," he announced that the poem "was really about my mother."
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To pick up Bill Morgan's I Celebrate Myself: The Somewhat Private Life of Allen Ginsberg (Viking, $30) is immediately to feel a few more pounds being added to the poet's hagiography. Morgan calls Ginsberg a "true American hero" because of his unparalleled love for freedom and equality, and, to underscore his admiration, Morgan has modeled his book after a biography of another such hero that he enjoyed as a boy, The Real Abraham Lincoln, by Reinhard H. Luthin. (Morgan's personal attachment to it aside, the book is a peculiar choice, since Ginsberg, despite his leftward sympathies, was an anarchist contemptuous of politics.) Like Luthin, Morgan draws extensively on primary documents authored by his subject, material he knows well. Morgan met Ginsberg when he moved to New York City in the late '70s to organize the poet's vast archives and compile a comprehensive bibliography of his work. The bibliography was finally published in 1995, one year after Morgan and others had helped Ginsberg arrange the sale of his archives to Stanford University.
Perhaps because of his work as an archivist and bibliographer, Morgan has written a biography that hews closely to primary materials. To each year of Ginsberg's adult life, Morgan allots one chapter, the narrative of which is basically a log of events and observations culled from Ginsberg's letters, journals, and poems. Morgan amasses facts and ideas without providing much context, all of which amounts to a biography that is exhaustive but not thorough. Morgan says he has written a biography of a literary figure instead of a literary biography since "trying to tell someone what a poem means is a waste of time." He is entitled to his opinions about criticism, but bypassing literary for straight biography doesn't relieve him of doing the job of a historian, which is to select and synthesize material and tell a story.
Despite his serious shortcomings as a narrator, Morgan does manage to sketch faint outlines of a critical portrait of Ginsberg. By gravitating to certain recurring issues in his life and occasionally offering acute asides about them, Morgan ends up asking of Ginsberg a critical question that the poet himself asks of public figures in "Wichita Vortex Sutra" (1966): "What kind of flesh hangs, hidden behind their Images?"
One unavoidable issue is Ginsberg's homosexuality. In 1954, Ginsberg underwent therapy for depression, and his analyst, Dr. Philip Hicks, suggested to him that he simply do what he wanted—which was to pursue a budding relationship with a painter's model named Peter Orlovsky. When Ginsberg met Orlovsky, the poet had been trying to lead a House Beautiful existence—living with a woman, working nine to five as a market researcher, keeping his hair short, wearing a jacket and tie. This was his most recent attempt to follow the orders of the doctors who had treated him at the New York State Psychiatric Institute in 1949: His depression would be cured if he had "normal" relationships, they told him. Hicks helped Ginsberg to acknowledge that his being queer wasn't abnormal. But Ginsberg still had trouble shaking the idea that homosexuality was a disease. In 1958, during the first of many tumultuous periods with Orlovsky, he wrote in his journal: "Mentalcancer—homosexuality." Ginsberg eventually dropped such clinical shorthand, but, as Morgan notes, the quandary he sought to diagnose didn't go away. Ginsberg was attracted mainly to heterosexual men, Orlovsky among them, and sometimes when the sexual relationship between him and his lover cooled, or when his friendship with another man wasn't consummated, he would wonder whether his own desires were genuine.
A longing that went entirely ungratified was Ginsberg's yearning to be a rock star. It was stirred after Ginsberg saw the Beatles perform in Portland, OR, in 1965. He liked the music, but what really fascinated him was the band's power to reach tens of thousands of people who'd "bounce in their seats, bash / each other's sides, press / legs together nervous / Scream again & claphand / become one Animal / in the New World Auditorium," as he wrote soon after in "Portland Coliseum." That rock 'n' roll fantasy got a boost in 1975, when Ginsberg was invited by Dylan to join his Rolling Thunder Revue. Dylan was also shooting a movie (Renaldo and Clara) during the tour, and he cast Ginsberg in the role of an alchemist king (often shadowed by the yodeling Orlovsky). The poet, however, never got close to the spotlight. As Morgan notes, during the entire time Ginsberg was on the tour, "he was not much more than a glorified groupie, watching every one of the performances from the wings and hoping, usually in vain, that Dylan would invite him onstage." The closest Ginsberg came to satisfying what he called his "shop girl ambitions" was in 1981, when he was asked by the Clash to sing before eight thousand fans crammed into Bond's, a club on Times Square.
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Morgan's presentation of such episodes avoids reducing Ginsberg to a mere heap of imperfections. In many respects, he has followed the example of Ginsberg himself and simply highlighted the serious qualms the poet harbored about his life. In an unfinished poem started in 1984, Ginsberg observes, "Poet, but sick of writing about myself / Homosexual, role-model noted for stable relationship, but separated out from companion and now worried about lack love who's going to take care of me in deathbed senility / . . . Scholar but hardly read books no patience anymore / Peacenik protestor but coward and bored with confrontation Left / Wing but suspicious of communism and revolutions including American Revolution / Anti-Bourgeois but want a house and garden and car." This catalogue reads like an outline of I Celebrate Myself.
Following Ginsberg's example, however, also serves to protect the poet from legitimate scrutiny. Consider Morgan's handling of the Merwin affair. In 1975, Chögyam Trungpa, a master of Tibetan Buddhism and Ginsberg's spiritual mentor, threw a Halloween party at his Vajradhatu Seminary in Snowmass, CO. Among the invitees were the distinguished poet W. S. Merwin and his companion, Dana Naone. That summer, Merwin had taught a seminar at the Naropa Institute, in nearby Boulder, which Trungpa had established the previous year, and Merwin convinced Trungpa to allow him and Naone to attend Vajradhatu in the fall, even though they were not advanced students of meditation. The Halloween party at Vajradhatu grew wild, and Merwin and Naone retired to their room. "Irritated, Trungpa sent his guards to strip the couple and bring them to the party naked, over their heated protests," Morgan writes.
This is quite an understatement. Trungpa's guards escorted Merwin and Naone to the party only after breaking down the door to their room, which the couple had barricaded with furniture. They were stripped naked before a hundred of Trungpa's disciples, only one of whom tried to intercede on the couple's behalf. Morgan says that "neither Merwin nor Naone made a big issue" of the evening, which isn't exactly accurate. Several books about the incident soon appeared, and in a letter sent to the author of one of them, the poet Ed Sanders, Merwin wrote, "An autocratic set-up using organized force, group pressures, fear and informants to bring about conformity of attitude and induce 'devotion' to an individual seems to me to be fascism, even at a classroom level, or in a street gang." Merwin had reflected enough on the evening and on Trungpa's Rocky Mountain Shangri-la to ascertain that they involved some big issues.
Ginsberg, who was a founding director of the Naropa Institute's Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, saw different issues at play. Although he had not attended the party, he defended Trungpa's actions, conceding only that Trungpa was deep in his cups that night. At one point in the evening, after Trungpa's guards had returned Naone and Merwin to the party, Naone cried out, "Call the police!" Four years later, in an interview with Tom Clark, Ginsberg said of Naone's plea: "In the middle of that scene, to yell 'call the police'—do you realize how vulgar that was? The Wisdom of the East was being unveiled, and she's going 'call the police!' I mean, shit! Fuck that shit! Strip 'em naked, break down the door!" In 1967, Ginsberg had told a group of students, "I propose that we avoid any organization which is top-heavy and authoritarian. I propose that mystical types beware of god-gurus and the politicos beware of dictators." When it came to his own pet guru, he ignored his own good advice.
Another vexing issue Morgan sidesteps is the diminution of Ginsberg's literary powers. Ginsberg's strengths are considerable. In "Howl," he channels the incantatory thunder and cumulative force of Whitman's catalogue, but he also reinvigorates Whitman's long line by packing it with surreal images arranged with a disorienting syntax. If Whitman's line unfolds like a slowly breaking wave, Ginsberg's moves like a subway car surging and jerking from one stop to another, disgorging and absorbing the scorned lovers, social irregulars, and wounded questers who wander around cities in the early-morning hours:
who were expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull who cowered in unshaven rooms in underwear, burning their money in wastebaskets and listening to the Terror through the wall who got busted in their pubic beards returning through Laredo with a belt of marijuana for New York . . .
Like Whitman, and Ezra Pound as well, Ginsberg was more a poet of accumulation than of condensation, but he possessed a fine sense of proportion, by which I mean the ability to juxtapose lines and images with delicacy. The last line of "America" (1956)—"America I'm putting my queer shoulder to the wheel"—is startling and memorable, in part because of the self-deprecating humor of the line preceding it: "It's true I don't want to join the Army or turn lathes in precision parts factories, I'm nearsighted and psychopathic anyway." There is the moment in part 2 of "Kaddish" (1959) when Ginsberg recalls how his mother, Naomi, deep in a paranoid funk, may have tried to seduce him one day when he was an undergraduate at Columbia. He launches into a recollection of his mother's body—"dress up round her hips, big slash of hair, scars of operations, pancreas, belly wounds"—that culminates with the remark, "What, even, smell of asshole?" Instead of adding to the repulsiveness of the catalogue, the observation partially disarms it by focusing on a pungent detail that restores a degree of humanity to his mother.
Ginsberg had the ability to find humor in such shameful or awkward situations. In poems scattered throughout Plutonian Ode (1982), he treats his sexual inadequacy with a casual, clumsy, and funny frankness. And in "Mugging" (1974), as he is being rolled by several young toughs, he grasps that his chanting is no match for their aggression and desperation: "as I went down shouting Om Ah Hu-m to gangs of lovers on the stoop watching / slowly appreciating, why this is a raid, these strangers mean strange business / with what—my pockets, bald head, broken-healed-bone leg, my softshoes, my heart."
The softshoes and heart frequently gave out. The author of "Howl," "Kaddish," and "America" wrote a lot of work that sounds like a young poet writing bad imitations of those poems, and it makes for dispiriting reading. There is the tossed-off tourist verse of "Ecologues of These States" (1971), in which details succeed one another with as much design as mile markers on a highway. There are catalogues of doggerel like "Birdbrain!" (1980), in which Ginsberg introduces a spin-off of the Moloch of "Howl" with little success: "Birdbrain runs the World! / Birdbrain is the ultimate product of Capitalism / Birdbrain chief bureaucrat of Russia, yawning / Birdbrain ran FBI 30 years appointed by F. D. Roosevelt and never chased Cosa Nostra!" What's puzzling is how Ginsberg went so quickly from grandness to grandiosity, how his aesthetic of refined and ecstatic accumulation unraveled into excessive and tedious diffusion, how his tone of lament collapsed into rant. It's commonplace to account for such lapses by arguing, as Thom Gunn does in a 1989 critique in the European Gay Review of Ginsberg's Collected Poems, 1947–1980, that "most collections of a lifetime's work have their longueurs." That is certainly true, but what distinguishes the current edition (Collected Poems, 1947–1997 [HarperCollins, $40]) is how extensively longueurs exceed passages of jouissance.
Perhaps the central mystery of Ginsberg's career is why he published so much work he knew wasn't up to snuff. Morgan says that Ginsberg thought many of the poems in Planet News, 1961–1967, which appeared in 1968, were drivel but that he chose to include them in the book nevertheless. Ginsberg admired the poetry of Basil Bunting, especially Briggflatts, but he didn't share Bunting's affection for the wastepaper basket or the blue pencil. ("Howl," which was heavily revised, is an exception.) Was Ginsberg's work blighted by the poet gradually becoming a prisoner of what Morgan calls "the business of being Allen Ginsberg," with the constant travel from one reading or meeting or protest to another making his desk into another foreign destination? Whatever the answer, the sad truth is that Ginsberg, through his failure to create a body of work that wasn't merely derivative of his greatest hits—which are truly great—did end up sharing the fate of many a rock star.
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In her New Yorker profile, Kramer tags along with Ginsberg one day in 1967 to catch an installment of a daily afternoon seminar at UC, Berkeley, that he has been conducting about himself. The room in Wheeler Hall is packed with students, and after Ginsberg discusses some of his literary influences—Ezra Pound, Hart Crane, Krishna—a boy hanging on to the sash cord of a window asks him if his poems will survive. "There are some pretty things in them," Ginsberg replies. "I don't know. Maybe they'll be valuable as like big important historical documents." He concludes by saying, "I'm just a transitional character."
It's a remarkable statement, not only because Ginsberg was a monumental figure when he made it but also because, like some of his advertisements for "Howl," his pronouncement has come true. One of the recent volumes about "Howl" is The Poem That Changed America (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $14), a compilation of essays by more than two dozen poets and critics reflecting on the impact of the poem on their lives and American culture. If one considers the inverse—how America has changed the poem—it becomes possible to grasp why Ginsberg has become mostly that transitional character. David Gates claims in an essay in The Poem That Changed America that "Howl" has become an "American classic, like 'Evangeline' and 'Snow-Bound,' except that people still read it. There it sits in The Norton Anthology of Contemporary Poetry, complete with sobersided footnotes." The poem counts "on being opposed," Gates argues, and the respectability bestowed by canonization has vitiated its ability to offend. In fact, the canon makers at Norton weren't alone in taming "Howl." Ginsberg himself had a hand in the job when he published the original-draft facsimile edition of the poem in 1986, complete with sobersided (if mostly edifying) appendixes.
There are some who think that "Howl" can never be tamed, however, and they've succeeded in limiting the ability of it and other works to raise temperatures and assault inhibitions. Howl and Other Poems was, of course, at the center of a landmark legal battle over obscenity (summaries of the battle and a collection of key documents relating to it are available in Howl on Trial: The Battle for Free Expression [City Lights, $15]). In June 1957, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the publisher of City Lights Books, and Shigeyoshi Murao, a clerk at City Lights Bookshop, were arrested by the juvenile division of the San Francisco Police Department on the charge of obscenity for selling Howl and Other Poems. The state judge in the case was Clayton W. Horn, who was also a longtime Sunday-school teacher. Drawing on standards recently established by the Supreme Court in Roth v. United States, Horn found that Howl and Other Poems, despite the fact that some readers might have found its language objectionable, had redeeming social importance and therefore was not obscene. "The People state that it is not necessary to use such words and that others would be more palatable to good taste," Judge Horn wrote in his decision. "The answer is that life is not encased in one formula whereby everyone acts the same or conforms to a particular pattern. . . . Would there be any freedom of press or speech if one must reduce his vocabulary to vapid innocuous euphemism?" Horn's question was answered by the Supreme Court in 1978 in its decision in FCC v. Pacifica, which established that anything broadcast on radio and television must be suitable for all potential viewers, and consequently that the FCC could restrict the broadcast of "indecent" works to the safe harbor of the late-night and early-morning hours when children are presumably asleep. The threat of a costly lawsuit became enough to prevent radio stations from broadcasting a recording of "Howl" outside the safe harbor.
Such increases in government censorship are troubling, but I think the change that's had the biggest impact on Ginsberg's poetry has to do with literary taste. The poetry of our time is dominated by a deep and sometimes rich skepticism about the self. When Ginsberg was a countercultural hero in the '60s, such skepticism was embodied by the work of Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, and W. H. Auden, among others. Its presence has grown only more pronounced during the last thirty years through the examples of John Ashbery (whose first book, Some Trees, appeared the same year as Howl and Other Poems) and Jorie Graham and a renewed appreciation of Wallace Stevens and George Oppen.
Ginsberg's strength was the evocation of vulnerability, a sensibility that could never accommodate skepticism because it grew out of his belief in the inherent innocence of the self. Frank Bidart writes in his contribution to The Poem That Changed America that, for Ginsberg, "within spirit itself there is no unresolvable dilemma, no dilemma inherent in the demands placed upon it by its own nature or the nature of being." The limitations or failings faced by the self are not native to it but planted there by an external force, whether that force is Moloch or Birdbrain or America. In turn, Ginsberg's dissatisfaction with the world often manifests itself as betrayal instead of despair. Ginsberg doesn't consider the world to be utterly indifferent to his fate; rather, the world singles him out and inhibits him from realizing his nature. Ginsberg's vulnerability is also at the root of his interest in visions: He hungers to be possessed and awed by the appearance of something miraculous in the world. The skeptic's experience of being overwhelmed by an inherent and insurmountable human inability to comprehend the world with any certainty is alien to him. And his vulnerability is what compels him to portray the body as a stage where cosmic dramas play themselves out, as with the wounded innocents in "Howl" who have "purgatoried their torsos night after night" in the hopes of experiencing metaphysical bliss.
The wounded innocents who populate Ginsberg's poems seem out of place, even alien, today, but that is no reason to declare smugly that the Age of Ginsberg is a closed chapter. "Howl" blew through an entire culture with fury and exuberance and eloquence and charm, and it was the work not of the guru but of the young poet. During the last half century, no poem, not even Ashbery's "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror," has been able to match the prominence and resonance achieved by "Howl." These days, few artists, let alone poets, are hailed as heroic prophets, and no amount of cheerleading during National Poetry Month will change that. Instead, it's the gurus—scrubbed, smiling, and outfitted with respectable titles like "motivational speaker," "life coach," and "personal trainer"—who continue to mesmerize.
John Palattella writes regularly about poetry for The Nation. He lives in Brooklyn.