Allen Ginsberg in Hell's Kitchen


illustration by A.J. Garces

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked...." The opening of Allen Ginsberg's Howl is probably the only line of contemporary poetry everyone at a reasonably well-read party could quote. This doesn't make it good (though it is); but it does mean that someone passed here and left a mark -- or, in Ginsberg's case, a scrawl.

For in Ginsberg's youth he wasn't trying to leave marks or bring peace on earth. He was scrawling like a madman and proud of it. He saw poetry as a kind of sacred graffiti meant to be painted on warehouse walls, tattooed on the arms of sailors, and inhaled like marijuana. While the literary mavens of the 1950s endorsed a formal and suffocatingly polite verse, Ginsberg championed a poetry of wild rides, adventures, disasters, and getting high. Not so much a drug-induced high (though Ginsberg loved his drugs), but the ecstatic highs that Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson had also tried to express and induce. The young Allen Ginsberg, in his late twenties and early thirties, gave America its first ecstatic poems of the century -- ecstasies of joy, grief, rage, lust, laughter, sweetness, and horror. For Ginsberg could impart a sacred, unbounded, almost trance-like quality to all these passions.

Ginsberg's finest poems were rebellious because ecstasy by its nature is rebellious. Ecstasy short-circuits our compromises and throws all common assumptions into question. The dignity of Ginsberg's 1950s poems is that they never shied away from the severe social price of such ecstasy -- and never denied the ecstasy because of its price.

Who were these "best minds" he sang of? To name a few: a heavy-drinking college football player named Jack Kerouac. A junkie named William Burroughs. A gap-toothed street savant named Gregory Corso. And, oh yes, a man whom The New York Times, in its Ginsberg obit, condescended to call "a railway worker with literary aspirations," one Neal Cassady -- a surreal-talking volcanic soul who was to be written of in more novels and poems than any other American I know of. (It was Cassady's improvised cascades of fantastic word-associations that inspired the styles of both Kerouac and Ginsberg.)

Whether this all-male, all-white crew constituted "the best minds" is another question. For myself, I don't think so. But best or not, they lived on their own terms with great audacity. And they were writers. Some very good, some only flashy, but writers unlike any before or since, backing up their intoxicating work with lives as free as their forms.

In Howl, Ginsberg described them as people "who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw Mohammedan angels staggering on tenement roofs illuminated... /who broke down crying in white gymnasiums naked and trembling before the machinery of other skeletons... /who drove crosscountry seventytwo hours to find out if I had a vision or you had a vision or he had a vision to find out Eternity... /who fell on their knees in hopeless cathedrals praying for each other's salvation and light and breasts, until the soul illuminated its hair for a second...."

Most of the pious esteem Ginsberg garnered in his obits concentrated on the older rabbinical man singing William Blake's songs off-key (a man who wasn't threatening to anybody) or the shaggy, often silly Sixties icon who thought chanting sutras to college kids might stop a war (a man whom history made a fool of). Those Ginsbergs were safe to praise because they'd proved charming but powerless. Which is how America likes its literary figures. The media briefly summarized the impact of Ginsberg's early poems, then added that his work since 1959 had been windy and repetitive (a judgment I'd agree with). They made clear it was Ginsberg's celebrity, not his poetry, which concerned and fascinated them -- and which, by implication, should concern and fascinate us.

Well, that's Ginsberg's own fault. Like Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer, and a slew of others, such estimates are the fate of writers who court celebrity for its own sake. But the Ginsberg of celebrity is not the Ginsberg of Howl and Kaddish. His 1959 chant for his dead mother (Kaddish) is still a soul-shivering, uncompromising challenge to the living; and the earlier Howl still howls, still calls upon the reader to leave his or her safe chair and seek revelation in the night, and damn the price.

Read them, just read them, and the cuddly grey poet will disappear, and in his place will manifest a soul-eyed young man of sudden extravagant gestures, an enticer into the risky realms of the adventuring soul.

A man, let it be said, of great courage. For in a time when it was still against the law in many states to be homosexual, and more than a decade before the gay rights movement got started, Ginsberg flaunted his sexuality in verse for all to read. And nearly a decade before Lenny Bruce would be jailed for obscenity, Ginsberg used explicit illegal language for explicit natural acts.

For myself, I owe Allen Ginsberg for a literary lesson -- a night that confirmed my faith in the power of the word to reach the outcast heart.

New York City, 1966. I was 21; my first great love was an 18-year-old named Antonia. (She, too, gave a literary lesson that year, saying, "I have learned that no one can write fast enough to write a true story.") Her sister Donata worked in a half-way house for the mentally ill in Hell's Kitchen, before that slum got gentrified, when it was still a dangerous place to walk after dark. Donata asked me to read for the "residents," as they were called. I brought a few of my poems and Howl.

It was a cold night in an old tenement. The radiators worked but not well; everyone wore their coats. We gathered in a small room with bad lighting, and sat in a circle on ass-chilling metal folding chairs. Antonia and Donata, their loveliness was unlikely in such a dim, sad place. And the residents: a dozen or so, old, young, middle-aged, men, women -- haggard, suspicious, fearful, longing. Most had been in and out of mental wards all their lives. Most had no more than high school educations. "Not readers," as Donata put it. There had never been a reading here, and they had never met a poet. They were curious, polite, distant.

My poem made no impression, which dismayed me but didn't surprise them -- they hadn't expected to understand. Poetry was a far-off thing, from a level of life that had never noticed them, never spoke to them. It was as though every word I read made them feel more excluded from the life beyond the wards. Then, saying only, "This is not by me, this is by a man named Allen Ginsberg," I read Howl:

"I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked... /who cowered in unshaven rooms in underwear, burning their money in wastebaskets and listening to the Terror through the wall... /who thought they were only mad when Baltimore gleamed in supernatural ecstasy... /with mother finally fucked, and the last fantastic book flung out of the tenement window and the last door closed at 4AM and the last telephone slammed at the wall in reply and the last furnished room emptied down to the last piece of mental furniture, a yellow paper rose twisted on a wire hanger in the closet, and even that imaginary, nothing but a hopeful little bit of hallucination... /with the absolute heart of the poem butchered out of their own bodies good to eat a thousand years." On and on for pages.

Right from the first line their eyes came to life. As I read they looked from one to the other, and to me, as though asking, "Could this be happening?" A few smiled. Two cried, but quietly, with, it seemed to me, tears of relief. When I finished, one older man broke the silence with, "That's my life, that's my life you just read." And the others joined in, echoing him. They asked me to read it again. (I realized much later that no one in the room expressed shock or felt excluded by Ginsberg's sexuality; going by averages maybe two or three were gay, but the rest of us weren't; we felt kinship with Ginsberg because the inner realities he was expressing held true for any sensual preference.)

They had come to life. Which is the function of poetry. They were excited and grateful, because something they'd thought inexpressible had been expressed. Which meant that though they weren't any less lost they weren't entirely alone. A poet, without the jargon of shrinks or the judgment of society, had understood their hells and those flashes of now half-forgotten ecstasy that had gripped them in what others called madness. They had been, in a word, accompanied. By a poet. By language. They had been expressed, and so, for the first time in a long time, they felt they mattered. They knew, at the very least, that their agonies and ecstasies would not go unremembered. Which is also a function, a mission, of poetry.

Over coffee, the one short conversation I had with him, I told Allen Ginsberg about that night. He just nodded, smiled slightly, said, "Yes, yes."

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