So who will be the new radicals?

Allen Ginsberg, who died last week, was not just an old hippie: the man had important things to teach us
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The Independent Online
Radical is a word that is being thrown about a lot lately. It has been toned down, or perhaps I should say Toned down, so that we even hear talk of the "radical centre", whatever such thing might be. Yet, at time of serious political talk by those who despite their age we are given to believe have never inhaled, the death of Allen Ginsberg reminds us of what it means to inhale, not just dope, but a spirit of non-conformism, a vision of an alternative life, of true radicalism.

Ginsberg, if we freeze him in time as another bearded hippie given to ranting long poems, wearing beads and placing flowers in gun barrels, is easy to ignore. Another relic of the Sixties bites the dust, and those naive, idealistic times recede even further into the past. Did anybody really think that advising everyone over the age of 14 to drop acid would change the world? Could poets and writers instigate a new consciousness? Could a war in Vietnam be stopped by a series of raggle-taggle public protests? Could the power of the state be challenged by an ideology that merely divided the world into "them" and "us"?

I cannot say, but Ginsberg's death, or I should say Ginsberg's life, will be totally meaningless if we preserve him in aspic as just another old hippie. It is tempting enough to do just this, especially for those of my generation, the punk generation who were brought up with the credo: "Never trust a hippie".

The nihilism of punk thrived on its own separation, its own precious separatism, that denied any other subculture before it. It had to sever its links with its past to sever its links with a future from which it was alienated. Punk had to present itself as some sort of final solution, as the last counter-cultural movement on earth.

Ginsberg's relentless optimism, his passionate engagement with the world, his sheer busyness, run counter not only to the miserablist apathy of punk but also to the myths about lazy, stoned hippies. But then Ginsberg was only belatedly a hippie. In fact he provided the link between the beats and the psychedelic culture of the late Sixties. Like many of the "inventors" of the Sixties he was no spring chicken by the time it arrived.

He will be remembered for more than his poetry, more than the much parodied Howl, his revolutionary free-form composition which gave voice to the beat ethos, a profound anti-conformism in reaction to the socially repressive Fifties and America's growing global power and consumerist values. Ginsberg will also be remembered for the links he made, the connections he set up. He was a full-time activist for his friends, for literature and only sometimes for politics. He was the consummate fixer, arranger, enabler, curator. His address book was a Who's Who of the counter-culture.

Though less respected as a writer than the other two of the triumvirate of beats - Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs - it was Ginsberg who found Kerouac a publisher for On the Road. He edited Naked Lunch and encouraged and introduced hordes of lesser-known writers to editors and publishers. Just as he bridged the gap between the beats and the psychedelic drug culture of the Sixties, earlier on he had demonstrated another lineage. The Black Mountain Review, a magazine in which he was involved, helped establish that the beats were the true heirs of Modernism. Providing a support system for his friends, Ginsberg was a part of a group of writers whom Ted Morgan, author of Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William Burroughs, likens, interestingly enough, to the Bloomsbury group.

Ginsberg also slid easily between the underground and the straight world, enjoying the various gongs he received, and upsetting the old ladies at an award dinner at the National Arts Club by reading his poem "Cocksucker Blues". The poet, Ginsberg believed, was a force for social change; his job was to reject all that was boring, respectable and repressed about American life. His homosexuality, somewhat played down in the obituaries, his arrests in his own country and abroad, his Buddhism, his curiosity, all aided him in this quest.

So who are Ginsberg's heirs today, or is the idea of life as a kind of permanent protest, a howl against the system, just a thing of the past? The environmental protesters with their misty-eyed internationalism, cod spiritualism and theatrical style of dissent seem the obvious choice, but there are others. Ginsberg's work prefigured much feminist writing in that it absolutely refused to accept the bourgeois divide between the personal and the political. His best work is often little more than a blast of private pain elaborated into an accusatory charge against the whole of society. His mother, Naomi, was, after all, lobotomised for her madness.

Should we also look to the much maligned chemical generation to see Ginsberg's legacy? While it's true enough that they may simply have found a recreational drug that fits snugly into an otherwise completely straight lifestyle, some of its members at least have forged connections with the psychedelic explorers of yesteryear. At a Kraut rock celebration I was at last year, Brian Barrett, sometime collaborator of Timothy Leary, drew a crowd of eager ravers in awe of his contact with Leary, the guru. "The thing about Tim," said Barrett "is that the man has actually been dead for seven years." You can never top the life-enhancing irreverence of these old cosmic jokers. I wonder, too, what Ginsberg made of the Net libertarians for whom information has proved to be power, and to whom making connections is also way of life.

Yet what Ginsberg did that was truly radical, and is needed now more than ever, was to live a life in which politics and culture were not separated into different worlds. They were intertwined, they fed off each other, they aroused each other. This simple and still avant-garde idea ruled his life.

His death brings home the sterility of the state-sanctioned but disembodied political culture that we are currently supposed to be excited about, a culture that divides the world up into little boxes that we can tick or not. Ginsberg saw it wasn't enough to tick the box. One had to make the box, dismantle the box, play with the box, and then some. Which is how it should be. He is reported to have said, "I'm dying in heaven", and I hope he did.

For all his wisdom, this old fool could also be remarkably silly. When he and Gregory Corso, a fellow poet, had tea with Auden, Corso, who, according to Ted Morgan, liked to make provocative remarks, asked Auden "Are birds spies?" Full of British common sense, Auden replied, "No, I don't think so; who would they report to?" "The trees," said Ginsberg. May his beat go on.