Beats offer their dignities to the Nineties: Peter Pringle hangs out with a spruce Allen Ginsberg, now 67, at a New York revival

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The Independent Online
IN A celebration of their half-century, the Beat poets, writers and artists have returned this week to old haunts in the cafes, jazz clubs and coffee houses of Greenwich Village. Allen Ginsberg, David Amram, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso and others are here to recall the literary and artistic movement of the 1940s and 1950s - and to meet 'Generation X', young people of the Nineties.

'What is the message of this for the youth of today?' I asked Mr Ginsberg, who was dressed as befits his new professorial role at Brooklyn College, in a shirt and tie, a grey flannel suit and with his grey hair and beard neatly trimmed. It was a marked change from the unruly figure I remembered when we last met in 1977 on the publication of his collection of poems, Mind Breaths.

'Where is the noun in your sentence, this what?' the professor rounded on me. 'Well, this celebration, this exhibition, these concerts and readings. What can the Beats say to the young?'

'We might inspire them to understand humour, ecological sanity, sexual openness, political candour, Eastern thought and camaraderie,' he said as we walked round an exhibition of photographs and paintings. In other words, all those things valued by the upstart and unorthodox Beats.

'You are saying they lack such things?' 'Now don't be mean, these things are latent in everyone,' he cautioned. To be Beat is also to be generous. Meeting the Beats, he said, was a chance for the new generation 'to pick up on the dignities' of the old movement. And the most important of these was a 'meditative consciousness'.

So why are the young not displaying such qualities? 'Because of suppression of such things during the Reagan-Thatcher era and its Malthusian politics.'

At 67 there is a new dignity to Mr Ginsberg, who rocked the establishment in the Fifties and has now published 30 books, including two collections of photography and four albums of recorded works. There was a documentary about him last year and in July there will be an elaborate tribute to him at the Naropa Institute, a Buddhist college in Boulder, Colorado, which he helped to establish.

The work of the Beat poets is experiencing a resurgence among young people, which is why New York University decided to sponsor the week-long celebration. Beat members even find themselves in advertisements aimed at the young.

The Gap clothing store uses a photograph of Mr Ginsberg with his permission, of course, in a campaign for khaki trousers that also includes shots of Jack Kerouac, Salvador Dali, Andy Warhol, Miles Davis and John Wayne. The caption reads, 'Allen Ginsberg wore khakis', even though the poet is better known for his threadbare trousers - 'I get all my clothes from the Salvation Army' - than trendy Gap jeans.

But what of the American hate- callers, such as the talk-show host Howard Stern whose shows are filled with the weird, the obscene, and the dead? Why has this kind of crudity developed in America? 'It is because of his candour and also the deliberate evocation of the death penalty,' answered Mr Ginsberg, abruptly. 'And it is not only in America,' he cautioned. 'It is all over. We may lose the planet this way.'