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Allen GINSBERG…and his times California Renaissance to St.Marks
This is decidedly not just an essay on Allen Ginsberg but rather the milieu, the times in which he lived. It is rather a selection of notes, anecdotes and meditations; a petite memoir of a remarkable epoch in the history of American literature. Being there as a young poet was a fortunate mistake that could never have been calculated, a co-incidence or chance, of time and place.
Born in a big city like New York, life becomes surprisingly provincial. Growing up on the Lower East-Side of Manhattan, New Jersey, where Ginsberg was born (1926) was like the other side of the world. It was just another gang called a State. As a young man I strolled downtown Broadway to Battery Park where Melville boarded his Moby Dick, drank beer at the White Horse Tavern on Greenwich street in the West Village where the great Jack London and Dylan Thomas got drunk; peeked in at the old Cedar Street bar on University Place where legend had it that de Kooning, Jackson Pollack and Franz Kline held tipsy conference sharing elbows at the long bar…from modern transcendental and social realism, to abstract expressionism and emergence of pop art, New York was the place to be. My first real job with Theodore Gaus printers & publishers in downtown Brooklyn was just a few blocks away from where Walt Whitman’s 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass was first printed at Romano’s. In a concrete sense we were all children of Whitman’s revolution of modern American literature. We were all among the first post-Atomic Bomb generation of poets not unlike Rimbaud, Wilfred Owen, Blaise Cendrars and Guillaume Apollinaire. But America was different then, as it is now. Art follows empire, affluence and freedom, and New York City was capitol of the Empire State.
Do I contradict myself?
I first met Allen Ginsberg hanging out at St. Marks poetry project in the East Village around 1965. I had just published my first poem (under a pseudonym) in the Wagner Literary Magazine. edited by the Willard Mass; including Gerard Malanga, Andy Warhol, Frank Lima, David Shapiro and Richard Eberhart who reviewed my poem with praise. I had also just gotten married and withal went about fluttering like a peacock. Though we weren’t exactly friends, I did have occasion to meet Ginsberg several times throughout the years; in Boston, in Montreal, and later in Tel Aviv. He lived on east 10th street, just around the corner from where my grandmother lived on east 9th when she first came to America. In 1959, I left home and moved into a boarding house on St.Marks and Second Avenue, down street from where the poet W.H. Auden had lived. In the late 50s and early 60s, the Lower East-side between 8th street, Cooper Union and St.Marks, to Tomkin’s Square Park was positively teeming with new poets, jazz musicians and artists fleeing the high rents and gentrification of Greenwich Village. Among them Paul Blackburn, Gregory Corso, Tuli Kupferberg, Ted Berrigan, Thelonious Monk, Frank O’Hara, Larry Rivers, John Ashbery, Claus Oldenberg, John Berryman, Richard Brautigan, Jackson Mc Low and Jerome Rothenberg. If not as numerous but just as inspiring were the great female poets Lenore Kandel, Diane Wakosky, Erica Jong, Bernadette Mayer, Ann Waldman, Denise Levertov and Dianne de Prima.
LOVE SONG FOR SNOW WHITE
In retro, I see now what I failed to see then. Then it was just happening all around me like a stream too swift to catch up. St.Marks was at the heart of the New York School of poetry, and Ginsberg was just another poet among an astonishing array of great poets. It was roughly the same year I met Andy Warhol through Jerry Malanga at the Café Figaro, in the Village. [The rumor was he and Ginsberg disliked each other.] Though hailing from the east coast, Allen was first published by City Lights in San Francisco. Paul Blackburn who later ran the St.Marks poetry project in New York was the first to record Ginsberg in San Diego, circa1954? Paul and I were friends, he had a lovely wife and children and smoked maybe 3 packs of Camel cigarettes a day. He lived above McSorlys old ale house on 7th street and more than once took me home upstairs and sobered me up. Thelonious Monk once came to visit me between sets when I lived on 17th and Irving Place. I treasure the memory. He was a quiet man. It was all ebb and flow, and I was in love. Following in the tradition of Walt Whitman, Blaise Cendrars, Carl Sandberg, Charles Reznikof, Jack Kerouac, e.e. cummings and William Carlos Williams, Ginsberg’s poems introduced a sense of freewheeling vernacular, always on the verge of discovering new flashes and turns in the landscape of language and experience. Closing allied to the oral traditions of language, his poems like Kerouac’s prose seem always on the road or along the rooftops. The distinction between poetry and prose had all but disappeared, it was more or less a revolution in content than form. Williams, cummings and Robert Creeley’s poems were minimal if not prosaic while Ginsberg tended to be maximal and overflowing. Kerouac wrote maximal prose but minimal poems.
15 CHORUS Sex is an automaton Sounding like a machine Thru the stopped up keyhole __Young men go fastern Old men Old men are passionately breathless.. From San Francisco Blues by Jack Kerouac, 1954
Not surprisingly Ginsberg took to Buddhist practices of meditation and breathing, measured his lines and full stops according to where one would naturally pause at intervals, to catch one’s breath - to which he added a ‘base point’ or refrain of repeated words and incantations, much like the prayers and songs of the ancient shamans. Nothing new, but in Ginsberg’s unique voice always electrifying! Perched between recitation and meditation, Ginsberg throughout his life performed his poems in public, and at this he was a master. With the publication of ‘Howl and Other Poems’ in 1956, Allen Ginsberg catapulted himself into mass media recognition and fame as king of the foul-mouthed poets, and leading spokesman for the beat generation to follow. Here are the first 6 lines from Howl, the now historic, short modern epic of his era:
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving, hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, angel headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night, who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernal darkness of cold water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz,
Extremely adept at breaking through to main-stream media, the book was banned as obscene, which is always good for publicity. What most people don’t realize is that these lines are haunted by the little known heroin epidemic that devastated NY in the early 50’s…the poem reeks of it, along with many other startling revelations! This also from Lenore Kandel:
I met Allen again personally in the mid-sixties when a version he wrote of Kaddish was being performed at the Village Theater on east 3rd street. My friend JB was close to his circle and arranged a meeting back stage. She also came along. I can hardly remember the jabber we blabbed, but what struck me most in retro was that when he turned his eyes and fixed on a person he made you think you were the most important person in the world…for that moment. Like you’re on. I’ve seen him in crowds and how he handles people, with kindness and affinity.
Like Dylan, Ginsberg was a troubadour. Both were Jews born out of the 20s’ and 30s’ socialist traditions in art, politics and literature, and neither of them were observably Jewish, both left of left, as we say in Israel. I was more closely bound to my father’s generation of yiddishkeit, and Yiddish was my first language. Nonetheless, these poets deserve their accolades; have an effect on the inner landscape of our souls, our hearts and our minds. Ginsberg lamented the loss of his Judaism, while he embraced Buddhism along with Philip Whalen and Gary Snider. Dylan flirted with Judaism for awhile in the late 70’s I believe, but nothing really to identify himself as culturally Jewish. I missed more than one opportunity to meet him through my friend J.B. Ginsberg read my poems and praised them but objected to one I wrote about Theodor Herzl. Hmm…I thought about Al Capone who once said “How can I trust this guy if he is willing to abandon his own people”.
Here it’s relevant to point out that Ginsberg was a product of the pre-WW1 wave of emigration of Jews to America, my father came after the war, in 1922. When I was 8 years old my mother took me to the Yiddish theatre on second avenue to see Molly Picon. When I was nine years we were herded into a dark room at the Grand Street Settlement House, shades drawn in darkness and showed holocaust films of the liberation of Dachau, and the pile of dead bodies. The Jews who came to America before the war where not displaced but chose to come. Those who arrived after the war in 20s were very poor and went to America to join families that preceded them. While Ginsberg was studying Whitman, and Dylan the songs of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, I was still steeped in the Jewish literary tradition of Shalom Aleichem, the Yiddish poets and Isaac Bashevis Singer. In a word, both Ginsberg and Dylan were assimilated Jews and I raised in a filthy ghetto, quit school when I was 11 years old, slept late, wandered the lonely streets living in the garbage they seemed so much to admire and idealize. I found nothing beatific about junkies shooting up in our bathroom in the hall, climbing through the windows, and dying outside our door. My brother was one of its casualties. I positively hated William Burroughs and his buggering young boys in the bush and public bathrooms. Not because he was gay but simply repugnant! Surrounded as I was by Jewish and Italian street gangs and local mafia I learned that even poets must go to the grave with some secrets. One learns that what’s left out of the poem is always more important than put in.This living quietly comes directly out of Talmud: ‘One cannot live in peace without a certain degree of anonymity’. As for literature and art? ‘So what do you do for a living?’ Ginsberg was unique in combining the two but also worked most of his life teaching a class at Brooklyn College.
Sad commentary in concluding is that fame and recognition though sought after by most, is usually brief and fast fleeting. Sometime early in the 80s before Ginsberg came to Tel Aviv to celebrate the publication into Hebrew of his book Kaddish, I visited my old neighborhood in Manhattan. Before I left, a friend asked me to get him a recording of Ginsberg to hear him read. I found a store in the village for records and videos. When I asked the guy at the counter if he had any recordings of Allen Ginsberg he said ‘Ginsberg, never heard of it. Is it a new band?’ So went the tide from literature to music as the chief inlet to the soul for that generation, and punk was on its way to anarchy, disintegration and chaos. Now we are faced with the new Millennials and further decimation/de-construction of the written and spoken word. The attention span has diminished too severely to sustain a continuing interest in Ginsberg’s epic Howl. Who knows what these young artists and poets may dream up, their digital art, flash fiction and instagram culture. The age of modern realism and abstract expressionism has passed, but can there ever be an art without continuity? Poetry is the collective soul of the human race, it’s not altogether an object but a story, like the flood.
WHEN MY SOUL DIDN’T LOVE ME
Once upon a sad weird
For now the story seems imbedded in the news, in Hollywood, in soup operas, in Netflix and online publishing. Think of Allen Ginsberg and our generation of poets as a soap opera that will continue on through the 21st century. More importantly, one day you will wake up and be living it. My own take on this epoch thing is that not every generation happens to produce great art and literature. The latter 19th and 20th century was unique according to particular events and historical imperatives. We see two streams of art and philosophy merging and diverging: transcendental realism in America and social realism arising from the revolutions of 1848 in Europe. American literary transcendentalism is a co-product of the Monroe Doctrine. For Poe and for Whitman too, the war was always far away, unless civil and within its own borders. It was the age of the Robber Barons, the building of the great American empire of Democracy. Whitman knew it but Poe never had a clue. There is no art without continuity, and every notable epoch is a cross pollination of art, poetry, science, religion and politics. Some decades favor the visual like impressionism, others music, others literary, all in alliance with similar doors of perception for that age. Ginsberg, along with Whitman aspired to join forces with the real and tangible facts of life…people, movement, change and flux which poetry seemed to have lost to ‘education’ and formalism . It was all a dynamic process that would not yield to mere symbols and metaphors. Life is the poem writes Whitman in his preface to the 1855 edition of Leaves…and what I tell I tell for precisely what it is. When the beats from California Renaissance first came to St.Marks in the 50s, they were all united behind Whitman’s revolution. It was as if the whole landscape of the English language had been transformed, in the vernacular. The overall effect was phenomenal. Much like Dante, single handedly, creating/establishing the Italian language from the old liturgical Latin. In the late 60s however, the New York School replaced the old guard with John Ashbury, Kenneth Koch and David Shapiro at the helm. In her Author’s note to Memoirs of a Beatnik published in 1969, Diane di Prima writes:
What do you suppose happened to all those Beatniks?" mused a blonde freshman as she
About this time however, a third school of poetry emerged influenced by European currents of neo-Dadaism and the new Concrete Poetry, headed by Emmet Williams and Dick Higgins who ran Something Else Press. Simply stated, the difference between American and European poetry was that between more is more or more is less, between excess/expressionism and abstract minimalism. Personally, I was delighted either way. Williams, an American expatriate poet who had been living in West Germany for many years returned with a whole basket of new information. I began working for Dick Higgins at Something Else Press, where in 1967, An Anthology of Concrete Poetry (in which I was included) was first published. In 1970 I moved with the press and my family to northern Vermont. By then, both NY and California schools had waned and slowly disappeared…we bought a piece of land, built a house, grew our own food and wrote plays for a provincial theatre we helped found. For all intents and purposes we lived for 13 years like hippies until we moved to Tel Aviv, in 1982.
Of particular interest is the fact that during the 50s and 60s there was a marked resurgence of the free press. Lawrence Ferlingetti’s City lights Books in San Francisco, the L.A. Free press, and later Black Sparrow founded by John Martin. On the East Coast in New York there was New Directions, Grove Press, the Evergreen Review, Something Else Press and the more conservative Farrar, Straus and Giroux. The poet Vito Acconci, also an installation artist deserves particular mention with his 0 – 9 magazine of conceptual and avant - guard literature. Charles Bukowski who first published Notes of a Dirty Old Man with the L.A. Free press later moved over to Black Sparrow where he became a huge success. Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg, etal remained loyal to City Lights and can rightly be assumed along with Ferlingetti to be the big daddy’s of the beat generation.
In closing, I declare as Ginsberg, when I asked him if he had anything more he wanted to say at the end of my interview with him, in 1987 -
“No” he replied, “I’ve told you everything I know”.
© E.L.Freifeld - 11.2015 Photo of Ginsberg © E.L.Freifeld, 1987
Poems for Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Cendaars by E.L. Freifeld