When poet Allen Ginsberg journeyed to Cuba, the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Britain in 1964, homosexuality was illegal in most of the world. So was marijuana. Furthermore, those laws were usually enforced by those in power. Ginsberg was already an internationally known figure because of his poetry and the obscenity trials some of those poems had produced when they were published in the 1950s. The counterculture of the 1960s was germinating in some western countries, but for the most part, it was limited to a segment of the arts and literature world. When it came to the political situation in Ginsberg’s nation of birth, the underlying context was anti-communism. US residents of virtually every political stripe (except for those few who were actually communist) considered the Soviet Union an existential threat and believed the United States was the fairest and best place to be in the world. This was despite the vicious racism displayed by police and politicians on television screens across the nation. In other words, US residents believed the propaganda of the national security state they lived in. Some things don’t change much at all.
The recent publication of the first volume of Ginsberg’s Iron Curtain Journals detailing his trip mentioned above reveals that Ginsberg was susceptible to this perception of the United States, too. Despite his well-earned reputation as a sexual and cultural outlaw, his reaction to the police repression of his sexuality and marijuana use in Cuba and elsewhere echoes with a certain American arrogance. In his telling of his interactions with police and other authorities regarding his activities, he comes close to sounding almost like a politician telling their audience that the US is the greatest country in the world. Left barely remarked upon by Ginsberg is his history with the authorities in the United States over some of the same issues he criticizes the Cuban, Soviet and Polish authorities for. Remembering this while enjoying these journals led this reviewer to wonder if Ginsberg was not just an outlaw, but a man either ahead or out of his time.
The writing in the journals is classic Ginsberg. A combination of notes, dream sequences, travelogue and poems, the book is broken up into sections defined by the country he is traveling in. Ginsberg describes his conversations with the artists and writers who invited him to each country, his formal and informal meetings with anti-establishment and counterculture individuals in each country, and his thoughts regarding all of this throughout. In doing this, he reveals his desires, his fears and his frustrations. He also reveals a certain egotism that seems so (for the lack of a better word) American. As noted earlier, it borders on an arrogance that is essentially American. There is also an innocence that comes across; an innocence that too is very American. Then there are the pages of travelogue that bring the beauty of the landscape he watched from a train window as they travel through Eastern Europe. These pages are the most poetic in the text. Ginsberg’s prose captures the landscape and the people in beautifully wrought descriptions and concise anecdotes. It is as if the reader is sitting next to the poet while the poet describes what they are seeing.
By 1964, Ginsberg was a relatively famous person; certainly one of the world’s better-known poets. His notoriety was due both to the nature and subject matter of his poetry and to his outspoken defense of his sexuality and the use of mood-modifying substances. In 1964, the substance he championed was marijuana. His primary agenda was one that celebrated personal freedom and challenged authority. His message was being heard and accepted by more and more young people, especially in the western capitalist world. What this wonderfully edited set of journals makes clear is that there were also many young people on the other side of the Cold War’s Iron Curtain that found Ginsberg’s challenge to authority appealing, as well. Likewise, there were many authorities who either found it repellent, beyond their comprehension or both. The expansion of the US role in Vietnam is lurking in the background of this text, as is the blatant racism of the United States. Both of these political phenomena would reshape the nature of the international youth movement and Allen Ginsberg’s emphasis and focus in the years to come. However, at the time of the journeys detailed in this text, he exists as a twentieth-century Walt Whitman—egoism and freedom combined and considered in poetry and prose unlike almost any heard before.