the fall of l979, I received a missive from Allen Ginsberg, scribbled in
typical Ginsbergese, rife with ampersands and dashes, his response to a
19-year-old's small batch of poems. It was as if I awoke to a dream to which
I'd suddenly become accustomed, a feeling that came to characterize most of
my experience of him.
He wrote something about ``natural rhythm'' and followed with ``so sure,
come here to study.'' The following spring, I departed Waldorf Street on
Pittsburgh's North Side, and after a two-day bus ride, arrived at Naropa
Institute in Boulder, Colo.
I remember that first evening, walking to Allen's apartment on Mapleton
Street, discussing poetic fame, which he reminded me Milton called ``that
last infirmity of Noble mind . . . no plant that grows on mortal soil.''
He wondered how I could afford to study with him. I had received grants
from the government, which surprised or perhaps disappointed him. Was he
that acceptable to the establishment? But here was the poet-celebrity,
co-father of the Beat Generation, signal participant in the counter-cultural
movement, political activist, Buddhist scholar, sleuth of FBI and CIA
activities, cult hero, interested in me.
``Fame is not really real,'' he said that night and many times
thereafter. ``Nobody is real save the people we're close to.'' This was the
poet who'd traveled the world, studying and writing his own perceptions, his
``Reality Sandwiches,'' ``Planet News,'' ``Mind Breath,'' ``Plutonian Ode,''
He had transcribed, perhaps like no other human being before him, what it
was like to be a real and mental traveler, an inhabitant of the earth with a
global consciousness. He had recorded his minutest and grandest thoughts and
sentiments, without exception or self-censoring.
From musings on an adolescent eating ice cream, to a mannequin staring at
its fingernails, to auguries of nuclear disaster, he had laid open his
``first'' and nearly every thought. His interest in a young fellow traveler,
one who'd crossed his path, was in no way diminished by his already vast
experience, nor by my lack thereof.
He was truly a Blake adherent, seeing ``eternity in a grain of sand'' and
``infinity in an hour.''
The next several months were perhaps the most interesting and instructive
of all my life. As an apprentice and teaching assistant to Ginsberg, I
commanded large blocks of his time, as he did of mine. I typed his poems
while he looked over my shoulder and screamed if I made the lines break
where I thought they should, rather than at the end of the page. Then we
discussed my poems. It was a classical mentor-student relationship, with
time devoted to discourse on any and all matters - political, religious,
philosophic, literary, practical - interspersed with downright arguments.
Of course, being around Allen Ginsberg meant endless phone calls,
visitors, heaps of mail. I remember opening a scathing letter from Lawrence
Ferlinghetti about Bob Dylan's then new album, ``Slow Train Comin.''
Despite these obvious thrills, Allen's public persona had also become an
unmanageable Frankenstein creature. The responsibility he felt to legatees
of the Beat Generation, for instance, those who'd gambled and hadn't
succeeded as he did, seemed quite onerous to him.
I left Naropa after six months. Allen came to Pittsburgh the following
year to perform at the Three Rivers Arts Festival. My brother Jerry
accompanied him on guitar while I sang background vocals to several of
Allen's song-poems. He packed an audience into the Westinghouse lobby and
proceeded to sing his ``Capitol Air,'' denouncing, in his typically
whimsical and nearly self-parodying fashion, the ``government where (he)
lives'' and ``dictatorships of the rich.'' Right there in the corporate
lobby at 7 p.m. on a Friday, in his priestly black suit and wild hair, he
stomped his feet and ranted through the microphone, while passing executives
wondered what was happening. It was a very special day indeed.
That was 15 years ago. I nearly discarded Ginsberg for several years,
criticizing his poetry and politics for having no coherent theory. Recently,
however, I came to a new understanding of his importance to American letters
and life. Ginsberg believed himself to represent no system. Instead, he
claimed as an inviolate right the expression of the mind's own processes. He
advanced the body itself as the de facto seat of political, religious and
material law, above and beyond all others.
Over the past several years, I had occasion to see and talk with Allen on
many, albeit widely separated occasions. He offered me advice in
correspondence (``always come back to your breath . . . enlarging your
awareness to include the sky, vast & open. & let yr anxiety dissolve into
awareness of the spacious Vast. Why not? It's there, unnoticed, like the
breath''), wrote recommendations for graduate school, wrote a blurb for my
poetry book, answered my every phone call and letter, gave generously of his
time on every occasion.
I recently interviewed Allen for a literary radio show I hosted at Penn
State and asked him what it felt like to learn about the death of other
poets he knew, such as Ted Berrigan and Charles Bukowski. He answered that
death is ``not such a big deal . . . every third thought shall be my grave
and then somebody else will die.''
Reading old letters and listening to Allen's voice on my tape-player, I
have a strange sense of absence-in-presence, knowing that he's flown to
Father Death, that he's gone home, leaving me and others to sing the
``Father Death Blues.'' We bemoan his death, the death that we experience
and which he doesn't know. Like waking after a dream during which a truth
has been revealed, only to disappear, I find myself trying to grasp at
something brilliant, meaningful, evanescent and lost, something or someone
as knowing and sympathetic as Allen Ginsberg.
Rather than panic that he is gone for good, I take his advice. I ``come
back to my breath . . . let my anxiety dissolve.'' I notice that my breath
follows Allen, released into the spacious Vast. ``Why not?''