How Allen Ginsberg Thinks His Thoughts

from the New York Times
Tuesday, October 8, 1996

by Dinitia Smith

Sometimes the poet Allen Ginsberg still fantasizes about his old Columbia College friend Norman Podhoretz, who became the conservative editor of Commentary magazine. In Mr. Ginsberg's fantasies, Mr. Ginsberg is yelling at Mr. Podhoretz that the C.I.A. is selling drugs in Los Angeles and yelling that Mr. Ginsberg's epic poem "Howl" cannot be read on the radio during most daylight hours because of Federal limitations on obscenity. And he is warring with Mr. Podhoertz, who once called beat poets like Mr. Ginsberg "know-nothing bohemians," about the very nature of poetry itself.

But one day a few years back, a "light bulb went on in my head," Mr. Ginsberg said in the garden of his favorite Polish restaurant on the Lower East Side. "I though of Norman. I though how can I hate him? All those years he's had to suffer all my contumely in my head. It's served as an education, to make me think my thoughts. He's been a great help." Now, said Mr. Ginsberg, Mr. Podhoertz is "kind of a sacred object on my horizon."

Seventy years old and still fighting the battles of 50 years, Mr. Ginsberg will be honored tonight by the St. Mark's Poetry Project. The occasion is the publication of his new book, "Selected Poems: 1947-1995," and the 30th-anniversary celebration of the Poetry Project, which has fostered "spoken word" poetry in New York, a tradition that extends from Whitman through Mr. Ginsberg to the poets of rap. Mr. Ginsberg is to read from his poetry, accompanied by an eclectic group of musicians including Lenny Kaye, who plays guitar with Patti Smith; Lee Ranaldo from Sonic Youth, and Kim Deal, formerly of the Pixies.

Over the years, the Poetry Project has offered workshops and readings for aspiring poets and nourished the careers of Patti Smith, William Burroughs, Yoko Ono and Sam Shepard. "St. Mark's was my club," said Mr. Ginsberg, who lives only a few blocks from the church.

Today is the release date for Mr. Ginsberg's new CD, "The Ballad of the Skeletons," after his poem of that name. Produced by Mr. Kaye, and with a video directed by the film maker Gus Van Sant, it has music by Paul McCartney, Phillip Glass, David Mansfield and Marc Ribot. In both, Mr. Ginsberg chants his poem, which is basically a diatribe against his familiar enemies: the military-industrial complex, politicians, homophobes and censorship.

At first glance, Mr. Ginsberg seems fit and mellow these days with his rep tie, herringbone tweed jacket, well-cut flannel trousers, beard neatly trimmed. But his heart was badly damaged by a reaction to an antibiotic, he said. And he has diabetes. "I only smoke dope once a week now," Mr. Ginsberg said. "I get tremors from it. It lowers your blood sugar."

His old friend and fellow beat Lawrence Ferlinghetti said, "Allen is increasingly visionary and increasingly exhausted." Even small tasks like shopping are difficult from Mr. Ginsberg, who is moving into a new loft with an elevator so he won't have to climb stairs. The loft will have a room for his 90-year-old stepmother, who visits often. Mr. Gonsberg's longtime lover, Peter Orlovsky, will remain in their old apartment nearby.

"He's more quiet, more stable," Mr. Ginsberg said of Mr. Orlovsky, who has struggled with mental illness and alcoholism. "The main thing is he's not drinking." Mr. Ginsberg will also move his office, where he has a staff of three to handle his speaking engagements, correspondence, contracts, papers and photographs, from Union Square to the new space.

The new loft was made possible by the 1994 sale for $1 million of Mr. Ginsberg's archives to Stanford University. But the money ended up being less than he had hoped. He ticked off the taxes: "The Federal Government, 38 percent. The state 12 percent, the city 6. My agent took 5, the archivist who worked on the project for 10 years, 10. I was left with a third. I bought the loft. Now I'm back to square one."

Next year, Mr. Ginsberg will retire from teaching at Brooklyn College, and so far the rewards of established poets, like a Pulitzer Prize or a Mac Arthur award, have eluded him.

But the main thing Mr. Ginsberg wants to talk about is poetry. These days, for instance, he is claiming victory for the beats in the poetry "wars" of the 1950's and 60's, between formalist poets with their set meters and fixed stanzas, and open form poets, personified by himself. "The boundaries are not that strict anymore," he said. "The conflicts are resolved. Almost all poets have opened up, Louis Simpson, Donald Hall have opened up. Formalist poets have begun to write in the vernacular, to study the cadences of actual talk." Nowadays, he said, "the St. Marks Poetry Project has more influence on poets than the Academy of American Poets."

Meanwhile, the beat writers have become cultural icons. They are the subject of scholarly papers and symposiums in universities. Last year, the Whitney Museum of American Art had a retrospective about the beats, and the show has just opened at the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco. And 'Howl' is one of the most widely read and translated poems of the 20th century.

Not going well, however, is another of Mr. Ginsberg's causes, which he describes as free speech. In January, the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal by Mr. Ginsberg and a coalition of free-speech advocates, including PEN, in an obscenity case. They failed to overturn a Federal ruling that limits the broadcast of "indecent" material to late evening and early morning hours. But Mr. Ginsberg is not giving up.

"Many of my major poems, like 'Howl' and 'Kaddish,' are studied by students under 18," he said. "They're in anthologies." The Federal Communication Commission rules "mean the same students can't hear them on the radio or see me reading them on TV," Mr. Ginsberg said. "Oration is my specialty. I'm being denied a free market." If applied completely, Mr. Ginsberg said, the F.C.C. rules mean that "Catullus can't be broadcast, or Petronlus' 'Satyricon,' or a whole class of modern and ancient poetry."

The cause of "free speech" is one reason, Mr. Ginsberg said, that he is a member of the North American Man-Boy Love Association, which describes itself as a self-help organization for pedophiles. "It's a discussion society, not a procurement organization," he said. "I myself don't like underage boys. But they have a right to talk about the age of consent. I see it as a free speech issue, a discussion of the law."

Behind the efforts of ordinary citizens and politicians to limit obscenity, he said, is "a perverted preoccupation with homosexuality. No normal heterosexual man would be that interested in homosexuality."

"Somebody's got to stand up to those idiots!" Mr. Ginsberg said with a flourish as he began digging into some honey bread and potato soup.


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