With a 'Howl,' Writers House Remembers Beat Poet Ginsberg

The Daily Pennsylvanian
April 14, 1997

Beat poet Allen Ginsberg -- considered by many to be the greatest American poet in the latter half of the 20th century -- was honored Thursday at the Kelly Writers House.

Ginsberg died of a heart attack April 3 at age 70.

More than 30 people attended the memorial, many sharing their "'It was because of him' stories" on how Ginsberg's poetry influenced them.

The participants were careful not to mourn the loss of the man so often referred to as "the greatest living American poet."

"I can't think of anyone who has ever walked this earth who has had a richer, fuller life," 1996 College graduate Jeffrey Wachs said.

The conversation was often stilted as people struggled to find the right words to remember the writer, most famous for his poem "Howl" -- a graphic and controversial work published in 1956 that dealt with such personal issues as homosexuality, drugs and communism.

Many spoke of Ginsberg's visit to the University in January 1995, when he treated students to a rare reading of "Kaddish," his acclaimed memorial to his late mother.

"What was so special about him was seeing him as a real person," College senior Cary Kaplan recalled.

And College junior Josh Marcus remarked on the brusque exterior Ginsberg exhibited during his campus visit.

"I loved the fact that he was a prick," Marcus noted. "He responded to being an icon with total irreverence."

Others talked of how Ginsberg and the Beat poets -- his circle of literary friends, which included Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassidy -- impacted the state of modern poetry.

Wachs, who organized the event, emphasized how the Beats permitted "drug addicts and thieves and homosexuals to be 'holy'."

When Wachs asked the student-poets in attendance how many had been influenced by Ginsberg, almost every hand went up.

The evening included a time for participants to read their favorite Ginsberg poems, including "Supermarket in California," "Father Death Blues" and "Sunflower Sutra."

Others read poems they had written when they heard about Ginsberg's death.

In an effort to break through the barriers of shyness and high-brow intellectualism and turn the evening into something which Ginsberg would approve of, one participant brought out a role of toilet paper and proposed that each person speak a line of poetry, then throw the toilet paper to someone across the room who would do the same.

While many cowered and fled to avoid having their poetic inadequacies revealed, others stayed to continue the memorial.

After only a few minutes, the room became draped in white. Two students stood and shared the taxing duties of reading aloud "Howl," and two others sat in a corner and composed Ginsberg-esque spontaneous poetry.

"He was the first person who showed that words can really move people," Wachs noted.