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Beat's Last Howl

Allen Ginsberg
Jeff Greenwald

Poetry in Motion: An animated Allen Ginsberg enjoys the sun, libations and conversation at SC's Cooperhouse in the late '70s.

The death of poet Allen Ginsberg signals one final turn in the revolution of consciousness he helped spin

By Eric Johnson

I sat at the foot of a
and he told me everything
Fuck off, 23 skidoo
watch your ass
watch your step
exercise, meditate, think
of your temper--
Now I'm an old man and
I won't live another
20 years, maybe not another
20 weeks,
maybe the next second I'll
be carried off to
the worm farm, maybe it's
already happened--
How should I know, says
Allen Ginsberg
Maybe I've been dreaming
all along

--from "After Lalon," 1992

TO CELEBRATE HIS 70th birthday three years ago, Allen Ginsberg gave a two-night series of readings up in San Francisco at Fort Mason. It was a full-blown retrospective of his favorite work, which had just been published as Selected Poetry: 1947-1995. On the second night, Ginsberg walked onto the stage, sat on the straight-backed wooden chair, and began fumbling through his beat-up leather briefcase.

"Shit," he said, finally addressing the audience. "I forgot my book."

He looked out into the crowd and spotted a young man in the fourth or fifth row who had just bought the new book from a table in the lobby. "May I borrow yours?"

The kid was almost reverential when he handed the book to the poet. When Ginsberg gave it back more than three hours later, just after leading the audience through a rousing rendition of a William Blake poem that Ginsberg had set to music, it felt symbolic--like some kind of passing of the torch. Many people were crying and smiling at the same time. By then, we had all witnessed a performance so transcendent it was almost liturgical. And also a lot of fun.

Ginsberg had covered 50 years in a matter of hours. He read everything from Howl to Plutonium Ode.

Allen Ginsberg was more than the greatest American poet of his generation--he was a cultural leader of unprecedented dimension and range. In the middle of the century, Ginsberg--along with Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Gregory Corso and the rest of the Beat pantheon--brought a real revolution to our native literature, and heralded an actual revolution in the entire nation's consciousness. The Beats showed up in the uptight desert of post-war America preaching artistic, political and sexual freedom to a bebop soundtrack. It was a tune that caught on.

In the decades that followed, Ginsberg remained at the heart of the nation's artistic life. The first thing Bob Dylan did after leaving Minnesota was to travel to New York to meet the bard. Ginsberg was there with the Grateful Dead at Kesey's place in La Honda when the Hells Angels came to town. In the 1970s, he hung out with proto-punker Jim Carroll (author of Basketball Diaries). In the '80s, he did a month-long gig on Broadway with The Clash.

Ginsberg was not just a hollow icon of the Beat generation, though. During his birthday retrospective reading, some of the best stuff was brand-new to me, written since 1992. And the man was still in complete possession of his powers of poetics.

Ginsberg didn't really "read" his poems--he delivered them. Playing a gorgeous old harmonium, accompanied by a young Hungarian/Appalachian fiddler, he sang, shouted, whispered, cried. It was beautiful. It was poetry.

I had seen Ginsberg a half-dozen times over the years. Twenty years ago, I hopped a freight train in San Jose and rode up to Kesey's farm in Eugene for the First Annual Poetic Hoo-Ha, a Beat reunion. I saw him in a basement bar in lower Manhattan, reading with his brother (who works a day job as a doctor in their hometown of Patterson, N.J., just like Ginsberg's mentor, William Carlos Williams). At a reading uptown a few years later with Jim Carroll, I got up the nerve to go up and say howdy. Ginsberg made fun of my nervousness and we drank a bunch of wine and talked politics.

In Russia, people brag that they fill stadiums when their poets read. We never brag about our poets, and we rarely recognize them as heroes. But for that kid in Fort Mason, and for a bunch of us, Allen Ginsberg was exactly that.

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From the April 10-16, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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