Last look at Ginsberg

Date: Sat, 26 Apr 1997 08:50:37 -0700

Tim Brown ( sent this in in regard to both Ginsberg and the recent debate in RealPoetik over "civic" art.

Allen Ginsberg Reading at the Writer's Voice,
Chicago Cultural Center, June 10, 1994
First appeared in LETTER EX, Aug. 1994.

(Author's Note: This is an account of the last time I saw Allen Ginsberg perform. His advanced age prompted this assessment of his career.)

A standing room-only crowd greeted Allen Ginsberg in a reading that was part of the Duncan YMCA/Writer's Voice Series, held on June 10, 1994 at the Chicago Cultural Center's Preston Bradley Hall. A number of counter-cultural elements were present in the audience, ranging from graying hippies to grunge kids, all out in force to hear the legend himself read. Performing solo, Ginsberg delivered a two-plus-hour show, his material mainly taken from his latest poetry collection Cosmopolitan Greetings: Poems 1986-1992.

To start, Ginsberg recited a poem by one of his two major poetic influences, William Blake (the other being Walt Whitman), "The Tyger," from Songs of Innocence and Experience. Ginsberg often invokes Blake's name in his readings; he is perhaps the late-twentieth century's greatest cheerleader for this brilliant, if oddball, English Romantic poet. Ginsberg proceeded to read from Cosmopolitan Greetings in more-or-less chronological order. The poems covered themes familiar to every Ginsberg fan: Buddhist philosophy, the state of his asshole, his obsession with youthful men, proper breathing techniques, and radical politics, the last of which accounted for the strongest poems of the evening. During several pieces, he accompanied himself on harmonium or kept the rhythm with claves. After a delightfully spastic reading of a brand-new poem cataloguing all of the unhealthy foods Americans eat, Ginsberg concluded by leading the audience in singing the last line of "Nurse's Song" by Blake. As he promised, repeating the words "And all the hills echoed" produced the effect of a mantra; the spirit of poetry infused the room's occupants and rose to fill the dome of the venerable ex-library.

In short, Ginsberg's performance was vintage Ginsberg. Part poetry reading, teach-in, love fest, sing-along and happening, the evening reminded that Ginsberg is the true originator of performance poetry, a pioneer of the medium widely practiced by Chicagoans. And yet, after what was a generally uplifting reading, I walked away profoundly depressed. Straining to understand why, I came up with two reasons.

First, it was evident that Ginsberg, nearly 68 years old, had aged considerably since the last time I saw him, in 1988. I would describe him as almost fragile in appearance. Now, I realize that Ginsberg, like everyone else, is subject to the aging process; nature is simply running its course with him, and I accept that fact. What is harder to accept and what truly makes me sad are the themes of physical decay and impending death which have entered his work.

Not so long ago, the Ginsberg we have come to know and love was a vigorous man, who, armed with a formidable intellect and an ironclad will, was prepared to battle everything wrong with American civilization: war, poverty, conformity, hypocrisy, injustice, prejudice, you name it. We've witnessed his many legendary exploits: experimenting with mind-altering drugs; living the life of a sexual outlaw; shocking the poetry establishment with the seminal poem "Howl"; fighting government censorship of his books; getting expelled from Czechoslovakia during that country's 1968 May Day celebration; leading the parade of anti-war protesters to the site of the 1968 Democratic Convention; practicing an unconventional (by American standards) Buddhist religion; and, closer to the present, fronting a rock band and belting out the words to "Birdbrain," the perfect nickname for members of the Reagan administration. Against this backdrop, hearing him express the sentiment "I'm an old man and I'm going to die soon" saddened me. Ever since the reading, a part of me has been grieving over the loss of something dear, Ginsberg is capitulating to the enemy Death, rather than going down swinging, very uncharacteristic of him.

Nevertheless, even with his physical powers somewhat diminished, senior citizen Ginsberg is still capable of penning devastating critiques of this nation's political misadventures and reading them with extreme gusto. Playing along with himself on harmonium, he attacked the blatant hypocrisy of Reagan/Bush policies toward Latin America in a snazzy, sarcastic poem titled "N.S.A Dope Calypso." However, despite its right thinking, caustic humor and energetic presentation, this poem enjoyed a rather tepid response from the audience. Which brings me to the second reason I came away from the reading feeling depressed: the truly big poetry subjects don't seem to go over well anymore.

To see this exhibited, one only had to look at how the audience cheered and roared at "Put Down Your Cigarette Rag," the poem which received the loudest demonstration of approval that night. Propelled by Ginsberg clicking his claves at a rapid tempo, the poem admittedly was entertaining to listen to, and it made legitimate points throughout. What mainly struck a chord with the audience, I think, was their identification with the anti-smoking cause. I can appreciate the laments of non-smokers (I'm one myself), but is a poem taking on this issue really worthy of the huge praise it received at the reading, given other poems on meatier subjects?

Apparently so, because it seems the 1990s are shaping into a decade when the tiniest personal beef takes on the significance of a global scourge. It's a time when Americans act more concerned with the effects of second-hand smoke than with the threat of AIDS. It's a time when Americans would rather spend time lobbying for laws to make restaurants smoke-free than to bring the constitutional criminals of Iran/Contra mentioned in "N.S.A. Dope Calypso" to justice, and I don't mean the hand-slap, overturn-their-verdicts-on-appeal variety, I mean impeachment, heavy fines and hard jail time. Maybe Virginians were too preoccupied with debating the ills of tobacco to bother to vote against Oliver North, winner of Virginia's 1994 Republican primary for U.S. senator. How else to explain such an obscene scenario except that ours has evolved into a terribly small-minded society?

I think it can be officially announced that Ginsberg has entered the final stage of his illustrious career; and when you reflect on his tumultuous life and times you wonder if perhaps things aren't really that bad in the U.S. presently. This perception might explain why there are so few socially conscious poems being written these days. Compare our situation with the social upheavals Ginsberg has survived in his lifetime: the Great Depression, World War II, Korea, the Cold War, the Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam, Watergate, Iran/Contra. Look at the evil personages he's outlasted in commanding a public pulpit: Joe McCarthy, J. Edgar Hoover, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George Bush. Coincidently, during the same week as Ginsberg's visit to Chicago, celebrations marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Normandy Invasion were taking place. Other than age, Ginsberg probably has little in common with the veterans of that historical event. Still, though polar opposites in outlook, D-Day veterans and beatnik poets share one thing in common: they are representatives from a bygone heroic era, when Americans vanquished Nazis abroad and establishment squares at home.

Big subjects inspire big poetry; can we expect in our age of relative social stability a poetry besides the middlebrow masturbation of MFA programs or the self-indulgent psychodrama of performance poetry? (And even if you don't believe that we are living in a stable world, then where is the "Howl" of protest over issues like AIDS, economic dislocation, environmental degradation or ethnic cleansing?) Throughout his career Ginsberg has consistently responded with poems of an heroic scale to address the issues of his day. In the final appraisal, Allen Ginsberg will be remembered as a poet whose work contained that rare combination of aesthetic pleasure plus social utility. From his example, we can learn much about leading a life of courage and writing poems that matter.

--Tim W. Brown,


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