Obituary: Allen Ginsberg

James Campbell
Monday 07 April 1997 00:02 BST

Allen Ginsberg was the exemplary avant-garde figure of the post- war world. In verse, in politics, in his own intimate life - there was no room for a "private" life - Ginsberg resisted and disdained the orthodox, the social lie. Few people have done as much to make non- conformism respectable in our time as he did.

Surprisingly, though, for one who was feted as a revolutionary as far back as the mid-Fifties, he never became the victim of his own progressiveness. It was never felt about him that he was passe. His liking for experiment did not lead him to the extremes of addiction that claimed, temporarily, William Burroughs and, permanently, Jack Kerouac.

Ginsberg managed to stay in one place - he made his home in New York's Lower East Side for most of the past half-century - and keep moving all at once. Those who observed him from a distance could be annoyed or bemused by what seemed to be exhibitionistic political or poetic antics, but almost everything he chose to do had a rationale, even if it was the rationale of absurdity. Few artists succeed in fusing life and work, so that one touches the other in a constant interplay, as Ginsberg did.

Ginsberg, Kerouac and Burroughs, who came to be seen as the "holy trinity" of the Beat Generation (though others disliked the term and later accused Ginsberg of marketing the concept), were introduced to one another in student digs around New York's Columbia University in the spring of 1944. Ginsberg was the callow one. Burroughs and Kerouac, both older, treated the frenzied, sexually confused, over-talkative "little Allen" with affection but also sometimes with impatience.

At that time, Ginsberg's ambition was to be a lawyer, serving good causes. He studied in the English department of Columbia under Lionel Trilling, and made attempts (not entirely vain ones) to seduce Kerouac. Later, it was Burroughs who fell hopelessly in love with Ginsberg, and it was the former's letters to the poet, written from Tangier in the mid-Fifties, that formed the basis of his apocalyptic novel, The Naked Lunch (1959).

Ginsberg's father Louie was a poet who published slight, accomplished verses in newspapers and anthologies, and Ginsberg's own early work is highly wrought, formal, often archaic in tone. It was his struggle to come to terms with his personal difficulties in the late Forties that eventually led him to his proper place in poetry. Mental turbulence (his mother was hospitalised for most of Ginsberg's life, and he himself had a spell in a psychiatric hospital in 1949), sexual ambiguity coupled with self-disgust, and literary inhibition, if not total failure, were conspiring to push him into a life of frightened conformity - a grand fib of social sanity conditioned by the terror of what lay beyond it. At this time, the homosexual crusader was nowhere in evidence. Far from it: at the behest of his analyst, Ginsberg had embarked on a programme of committed heterosexuality.

The crucial experience of those years - perhaps of his whole life - had occurred the year before he entered the Columbia Psychiatric Institute. While reading William Blake in a his Harlem apartment, Ginsberg had a vision of first Blake himself, then God. He never denied its validity:

My first thought was this was what I was born for, and second thought, never forget - never renege, never deny . . . don't get lost mentally wandering in other spirit worlds or American or job worlds or advertising worlds or war worlds . . .

The pivotal point of a spiritual and poetic development that began then can be dated quite precisely. In December 1955, at the Six Gallery in San Francisco, Ginsberg read the first part of his poem "Howl, for Carl Solomon". Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, Robert Duncan and others were also present. All the poets were up to something new, but it was "Howl" with its long Whitmanesque lines, its mixturef of lyricism and obscenity, its gauche but heartfelt desire to immortalise Kerouac, Neal Cassady and other members of the group, that caught the moment. Michael McClure later described the scene:

Ginsberg read on to the end of the poem, which left us standing in wonder, or cheering and wondering, but knowing at the deepest level that a barrier had been broken, that a human voice had been hurled against the harsh wall of America and its supporting armies and navies and academies.

With "Howl", Ginsberg achieved a nakedness in poetry that reflected his soul. No more formalism in verse - and, to boot, an end to attempts to conform in everyday life. With just the kind of misleading eagerness to slot poets into "schools" that Ginsberg was reacting against, academic criticism of the Sixties came to identify the fashionable "confessional" mode with Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath and John Berryman; but it was "Howl" (as Lowell acknowledged) that helped to make possible the others. It is also worth noting that while the three poets mentioned began in gladness but ended in despondency and madness, to make a rough summary of Wordsworth, Ginsberg wrestled with his madness, as a poet "wrestles with rhyme", as Robert Duncan might put it, to emerge into a personal freedom.

The urge to strip off social disguises was carried over into the realm of performance art, and while the purpose was therapeutically serious enough, the result was funny as well. On more than one occasion, he confronted a startled heckler (and there were quite a few, especially early on) with a marching striptease to a reading of "Howl". A more significant result of this urge to freedom in all of Ginsberg's actions by this time was the "Howl" obscenity case, a landmark in the battle against literary censorship. Lawrence Ferlinghetti's City Lights bookshop had been prosecuted in 1958 for selling the volume containing the poem, but the following year a California state court found that the work could not be supressed as obscene by the local police.

Ginsberg was among the team of inventors of the whole concept of "the Sixties". By the beginning of the decade, he had taken on the now-familiar appearance of psychedelic prophet which is how he is best remembered: long black curly hair, beard to match, and large sad eyes behind thick glasses. His energies were still funnelled into exercises in liberation, but it was a much more politicised spiel than before. Ginsberg sometimes talked as if America was a police state equivalent to the Soviet Union, and was apt to make pronouncements such as "To be a junkie in America is like having been a Jew in Nazi Germany", which are not saved from stupidity by the fact of his own Jewishness. He seldom wrote subtly about politics; his campaign style, rather, was to rant, or chant, in the hope of spreading awareness of what he considered to be America's crimes against the world at large. He is partly responsible for the conscription, and proper marshalling, of an entire generation's protest against the war in Vietnam.

The FBI accumulated a huge file of mostly trivial information about Ginsberg's views and movements ("The Beat Generation is an accusation of the system", states one memo with thudding insight, while another describes him as an "entertainer" with a fuzzy beard who "chants unintelligible poems"). Though profoundly indignant at the intrusion, Ginsberg delighted in taunting the organisation. When J. Edgar Hoover insidiously let it be known that the Bureau possessed photographs of Ginsberg in the nude with other men, perhaps scheming to blackmail him, Ginsberg asked for permission to use one of them on the cover of a book.

Ginsberg's exhibitionism was part of his character, but he understood its political usefulness, at this stage, in getting his message across, even though it might obscure his more thoughtful side. He was far more knowledgeable about poetry, ancient and modern, than he is often given credit for. Similarly, his political skills, often based on the obvious but practicably inapplicable idea - war bad, peace good - sometimes entailed the valuable knack of saying the unsayable. Talking about the troubled relations between blacks and Jews in America, for example, Ginsberg upset many of his own race by pointing out an "astonishing mirror image resemblance between Nazi theory of racial superiority and Jewish hang-up as chosen race . . . Any fixed categorisation of the Self is a big goof."

He was always willing to get himself arrested at a demonstration, believing that it could only help whatever cause was at stake. In 1965, he was thrown out of Cuba for a combination of offences against free speech and sexual mores, and in the same year was deported from Czechoslovakia. Students had elected him King of the May in Prague, but the intervention of a Party official, with the police behind him, prevented him being crowned and given the freedom - as if there was such a thing - of the city. A few days later, Ginsberg was beaten up (ostensibly by anti-homosexual thugs) and put on a plane.

After Kaddish (1961), Ginsberg's poetry concerned itself more with politics and, as is usually the case when that happens, the quality suffered. "I see nothing but bombs" runs a line in one poem, and the weary reader might say yes, and when not bombs boys, and when not boys buddhist mantras. The volumes continued to come: Planet News (1968), Plutonian Ode (1968) White Shroud (1982), to name only some, and with them awards by the very establishment he had vehemently opposed. Ginsberg was oddly attached to his honours, which included membership of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

He had a magpie nature which resulted in the accumulation of a vast Beat archive, now at Stanford University. There is a Ginsberg office in New York which will presumably continue to deal with his affairs, such as requests for photographs (he was an enthusiastic photographer), and to administer the Committee on Poetry. This organisation absorbed the large fees which Ginsberg got for readings, and helped poets in need of rent or legal fees. Burroughs remained a life-long friend, but Kerouac, befuddled by drink, was lost after 1960, and was apt to hurl anti-semitic insults at his old colleague over the telephone.

Only a Communist Party apparatchik could fail to respond warmly to Allen Ginsberg in person. Dogged by ill-health in recent years, he was gentle and charming, and as generous with his time as anyone with such obligations could be. A few months ago, while in New York, I rang him for help in relation to a literary project. It was a Sunday morning and, still running on GMT, I had called unconscionably early. Ginsberg showed slight exasperation at first, then explained that he had his meditation teacher with him, then threw off a list of helpful suggestions, ending with an invitation to join him at a party at the weekend.

Even his attackers were invited to commune with him in meditations as he described in one of his best late poems, "Mugging": "as I went down shouting Om Ah Hum to gangs of lovers on the stoop watching / . . . have they knives? Om Ah Hum."

Allen Ginsberg lived a life that could scarcely be surpassed for engagement and its twin, eventfulness. It takes a grand ego to live as he did, but he could be modest, too, as he showed in a summing-up he gave to his biographer Barry Miles, 10 years ago: "Perhaps the good outweighs the bad. I'll never know. Still I feel guilty I haven't done more."

Allen Ginsberg, poet: born Newark, New Jersey 3 June 1926; died New York 5 April 1997.

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