Peter Orlovsky: Beat poet and life partner of Allen Ginsberg

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The Independent Online

Peter Orlovsky was a poet who worked in the background of the Beat Generation movement, best known for his 40-year partnership with the leading Beat figure and poet, Allen Ginsberg.

Orlovsky was born in New York City in 1933, one of five children of Russian immigrants. By the age of 17 he had dropped out of the education system and was supporting himself and his family through doing odd jobs. Following work as a medical orderly at Creedmoor State Mental Hospital in New York, he was conscripted into the army in 1953, just at the beginning of the Korean War. Fortunately, his singular behaviour and pacifism meant that he was not sent abroad to fight and instead worked at a hospital in California.

It was in San Francisco in December 1954, while he was posing as a model for the painter Robert LaVigne, that Orlovsky met Ginsberg. The couple soon became inseparable, with Ginsberg later listing himself in Who's Who as "married" to Orlovsky, long before America's current gay-marriage controversies.

The 1956 publication of Ginsberg's poem "Howl" brought much attention, both favourable and unfavourable, to Ginsberg and Orlovsky. In early 1957, copies of the book were seized by customs officers on the grounds of obscenity. In the meantime the pair had journeyed to Tangier to help William Burroughs with editing his latest work, Naked Lunch. By October the trial had concluded and ruled that "Howl" was not obscene.

Around the same time, Ginsberg had encouraged Orlovsky to experiment with his own writing, which he took to with delight, bashing out ideas on a second-hand typewriter at their Paris lodgings. His "Frist Poem" from this period, published in 1958 in the literary review Yugen, begins:

A rainbow comes pouring into my window, I am electrified

Songs burst from my breast, all my crying stops, mistory fills the air

By 1959 the fun-loving Beats were attracting a curious fascination from the mainstream press. Time magazine reported on the visit of three members of the group to an event in Chicago, introducing themselves as:

"I'm Peter Orlovsky. I'm very fine and happy and crazy as a wild flower."

"I'm Allen Ginsberg and I'm crazy like a daisy."

"I'm Gregory Corso and I'm not crazy at all."

The same year the pair took part in scientific trials of LSD at Stanford University, a project which Ginsberg later speculated may have been run by the CIA. When the couple tried psilocybin the following year at Timothy Leary's home, Ginsberg said: "We're going to teach people to stop hating... Start a peace and love movement."

Orlovsky was involved in a number of films. He appeared in Couch (1964), a silent, 52-minute, black-and-white pornographic film, shot by Andy Warhol at the Factory, which also features Ginsberg and fellow Beat writers Corso and Jack Kerouac. Me and My Brother (1969), directed by Robert Frank, deals with Orlovsky's brother Julius's mental illness. In 1990 he took part in the film C'est Vrai, a 60-minute real-time journey through the Lower East Side of New York, again directed by Frank.

His first published volume of poetry was Dear Allen: Ship Will Land Jan 23, 58 (1971), a love poem to Ginsberg, with photography by Richard Avedon. There followed Lepers Cry (1972), Clean Asshole Poems & Smiling Vegetable Songs (1978) and 1980's confessional Straight Hearts' Delight Love Poems and Selected Letters, 1947-1980, co-authored with Ginsberg.

The couple travelled widely throughout the US, and to Morocco, India and Europe. The film Ah! Sunflower – Live at the Roundhouse (2006), documents their 1967 London readings together.

In July 1968 Ginsberg bought a 90-acre farm in Cherry Valley, New York, aiming to provide a degree of stability for Orlovsky as a retreat from the drugs scene of the city. Whilst he enjoyed the farm life, the presence of his brother Julius and other beats made at first for a chaotic environment, which was later to calm down. From 1974 onwards Orlovsky taught poetry at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

Throughout the Sixties and Seventies Orlovsky and Ginsberg organised and participated in demonstrations for gay rights and the legalisation of marijuana, and in opposition to the Vietnam War and nuclear weapons. Their involvement in the blockading of nuclear trains in Colorado is immortalised in the book A Year of Disobedience (1979), which includes Ginsberg's "Plutonian Ode".

After Ginsberg's death in April 1997, Orlovsky continued to be engaged with Beat-related events and readings. The docudrama film Howl (2010), which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, examines the events around the obscenity trial and sees Orlovsky played by Aaron Tveit.

The poet Michael Horovitz, who read with Orlovsky during his visits to Britain, remembers him as "a tremendous influence in Ginsberg's development and hugely effective in his role as secretary. He was a great force and refreshingly unliterary. His spirit and his work will live for a long time."

Marcus Williamson

Peter Orlovsky, poet: born New York City 8 July 1933; died Williston, Vermont 30 May 2010.