"Howl," 50 Years Later
I don’t remember the exact dates of my many encounters with Allen Ginsberg. But it would be hard for anyone to forget where we first met.
I had run into a buddy, "Spade Charlie" Hameal. His woman, a white, owned the Cafe East, on Manhattan’s 6th Street, between 1st and 2nd Avenues. It was a good-sized place, but hardly in business. Charlie wanted to sell marijuana from the kitchen without his gal knowing about it. Her bulb wasn’t lit, and it was doable, if she had no reason to go into it. So I joined him as crime-partner and dishwasher.
Months later in 1958, we closed around 3 a.m. and went across 6th to The $ Sign, a tiny all-night cafe. Owner Barron Buckholst descended from the Barrons of Wall Street and the money behind O’Sullivan’s heels. Peyote was still legal. He bought it by the freight car from the Southwest and sold retail, discreetly.
A customer came in. U.S. customs had impounded Ginsberg’s poem Howl for obscenity in March 1957. When the feds dropped charges, the San Francisco police juvenile division sued publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti for selling lewd material. The ACLU won the case in October. Ginsberg’s picture was everywhere. We asked his name. "Allen."
We chatted for about two hours, beginning with his experiences after the publicity started. As Charlie’s specialty was reciting Baudelaire in French and English, we got deep into poetry. But I particularly remember Barron’s "I think people are gay to be chic" and Allan’s low, sad "no one sucks cock to be chic". (We leave Barron here. A tad later he killed himself by shoving a pencil up his nose.)
Sometime after it was published, I heard Allen read his Kaddish called that after the Jewish prayer for the dead. He wasn’t a great voice. But he didn’t have to be. The poem, listened to or read, automatically impresses anyone with the least interest in people. Later Charlie Foster, arguably the greatest poetry reciter of his day, privately read Howl to me. Inspired by his deep voiced rendition, I’ve read it in public to thunderous applause. But the credit belongs to Charlie.
I met Allen some years later, at an antiwar rally in San Francisco. He made enough money from Howl to go to India. His bookish Buddhism became a certainty while burning the dead with the monks. That kind of basic reality can be a step on the path to fundamental human understanding. But in his case Buddhism was little more than a sublimation of his sexually-based passive character. He was a lamb who found the perfect philosophy for gentle baaing sheep, and he got ever deeper into bleating.
In the 60s he was thought of as a radical pacifist. After the Hell’s Angels attacked an anti-draft march in Oakland, he walked into their local HQ with some LSD and cooled them. They never bothered the movement again. But there was also a pathetic liberal side to Ginsberg that most of his present fans aren’t aware of.
I clerked in Eli Wilentz’s Eighth Street Bookshop in 1972. It had America’s biggest selection of contemporary poetry. Allen frequently came by. One day he told me that he was for George McGovern for President. As I knew of murders committed by Democratic administrations in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Indochina, I challenged him. "McGovern stopped coming to antiwar rallies in 1969 so that he wouldn’t scare the public into thinking he was a red." Allen was glum for a couple of minutes, until a youth interrupted us to ask him a question about poetry. He excused himself, saying he’d be right back. In nothing flat he was happy, chatting with a fellow poet. Then and there I decided not to pull him away from what he was good at, to attend to politics, where he was as useless as the tits on a bull. After all, it is hard to envision Buddha voting, much less voting for a party that killed over one million people in Indochina, most of them Buddhists.
If you believe that the goal of life is to escape from it, that victories and defeats are equally meaningless in the end, you tend not to bother to learn from either. But, as a sensitive person, he wanted the Indochina horror to end. Voting Democrat was what such touchy-feelies did when they came to the blank in the questionnaire where it asks, "what are you doing about it?", and they hadn’t a clue as to what to really do to build the antiwar movement.
Life was a photo-album. Snapshots on the road to death. "What’s the work? To ease the pain of living. Everything else? Built-in dumb show." If the antiwar movement invited him to speak, good, that would be a photo in his album. If not, good, there would be an other in its place. With such it is as with the apostle John: "In the beginning was the Word." But in life it is Goethe who got it right: "The deed is all."
One day in 1984, a fellow in Greenwich Village gave me a ‘vote for Walter Mondale’ leaflet. We chatted, and he introduced himself. "Carl Solomon." "From Howl?" "Yeah." Its full title was "Howl for Carl Solomon." Allen dedicated his 1956 masterpiece to Carl, then in Rockland, New York State’s lunatic asylum. He met him earlier, in his own eight-month stay in Columbia Psychiatric Institute.
There he was, off the printed page, quite sane and a nice guy, but plotting "the Hebrew socialist revolution against the fascist national Golgotha" he was not. As he told me to vote for his party, it controlled the congressional CIA oversight committee. Those Democrats and the Reagan White House were arming Afghani Islamic fundamentalists against the Soviet Union and women’s rights.
Sometimes a poet tells us about a character, sometimes his character tells us about the poet. The 50s and 60s saw an uprising of the most suppressed and repressed of Americans. The traditional official values re ethnicity and sexuality collapsed. But the whole of the insurgency was greater than the sum of its parts. The active minority of blacks who sat-in or rioted weren’t bent on restructuring the whole of society. Nor were most anti-Vietnam war demonstrators seriously thinking about other aspects of U.S. imperialism. Still less were the Beats revolutionaries. They looked for the truest of the truest mantra-chanting holy men, not dross earthly power.
Ferlinghetti and the ACLU’s victory was the end of government literary censorship. But, unfortunately, the proverb remains true: "Better a leap over a hedge than a bishop’s prayer." Although Allen was the most famous gay of his day, his "flower power", i.e., chanting mantras and playing finger cymbals at left demos, didn’t liberate them. It took a 1969 riot, a swinging brawl against the cops in the Village’s Stonewall Inn, to spark the mass movement that has achieved so much. Eventually the saner of "the best minds" of his generation lost interest in Allen’s ongoing poetry, even while his fame grew among tens of millions of youths, worldwide, who studied his early masterpieces in English lit classes.
Their separate actions shook America to its foundations, and blacks, women, the disabled and others gained much. Gays were decriminalized. But most in attendance in those stormy events were, like Allen, politically semi-literate Democrats, hurled into motion on their issues by the momentum generated by each other’s gains. When their upsurge ebbed, as it had to, given their limited goals, Allen’s "Moloch," ye rich, ye lawyers and ye hack politicians, still produced and directed the show. The profound poetic personal and social voice that won the public ear lost its strength when the people lost their strength.
I ran into Allen again in the early 90s at PEN, the writers’ organization. He had enough literary morality left to be a member of their Freedom to Write Committee. But he never criticized it. They were the English-lit class pretending to be the poli-sci class. They wrote letters to dictators, asking them to kindly please release some writers in their dungeons. Most gorillas flipped their letters into the round file. They didn’t have to do a damned thing for some do-gooder committee in far off America, which would do nothing worse to them then sending another letter.
I proposed that PEN’s celebrity authors should testify before congressional committees, focusing on despotic regimes subsidized by Washington. If they demanded that the U.S.A. stop funding them and followed up with letters to newspapers in their home states, the hacks would worry about losing votes if they went on patronizing criminal regimes. But the Committee didn’t want to antagonize the Democrats, domestically their lesser evil, better than the Republicans re the National Endowment for the Arts.
Allen would sit like a lump, silently, while the chair and her cronies argued that PEN would lose its nonprofit status if they so testified. I knew it wouldn’t have happened. But I said that, if they were worried, "we could set up another organization just so it could testify". After a few months I quit in disgust.
I didn’t see Allen again until a few weeks before his death in 1997. He was poking around in a Salvation Army store on 8th Avenue in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. I asked if he was still with PEN. "Yes." I said goodbye and headed for the art books.
Who could hate Allen? And I sing his praises in that our last meeting was in a Sally. He had gotten huge bucks for his papers. But neither world fame nor material fortune changed that infinitely honest, humble soul. Unfortunately nothing could. By the end, oral fixation was all there was to him. Neo-con Norman Podhoretz knew him from their student days at Columbia University. His August 1997 Commentary magazine obit said that "as a poet, he never grew or developed (even most of his admirers think that nothing he wrote after 1959 was as good as Howl and Kaddish)."
The rightist was right.
LENNI BRENNER is the editor of Jefferson & Madison on Separation of Church and State: Writings on Religion and Secularism and a contributor to The Politics of Anti-Semitism. He also edited 51 Documents: Zionist Collaboration with the Nazis. He can be reached at BrennerL21@aol.com.