I have the secret, I carry/subversive salami in/my ragged briefcase/Garlic, Poverty, a will to Heaven.
Not to mention steamed flounder with ginger sauce at Mee's Noodle Shop in the East Village. Almost as soon as we heard he was sick, he was suddenly dead. In short order, like overkill in the night kitchen: liver cancer; stroke; heart attack. There wa more than enough heart to attack.
When the alarm bell rang to end the fifties snooze, for many it sounded like Elvis. But for some of us, it was Ginsberg's Howl, that elegy for beautiful losers. I heard him intone it for the first time in San Francisco's North Beach in 1956, the summer before we went off to fertilize our eggs at Ivy League colleges. At such colleges, imagining ourselves angel-headed hipsters, we'd write about Fats Domino, Chuck Berry and the Beats for student newspapers that were basically prep schools for the Luce magazines. What we were really saying is that we didn't belong, and would rather not: When can I go into the supermarket and buy what I need with my good looks?
It may not have been Ginsberg's sexuality that subverted us. (Many of us, fifties kids, wouldn't even understand it, technically speaking, till James Baldwin explained how in Another Country.) Nor, necessarily, his druggy evangelism. (Paperback books were sufficient to get high.) Nor, later on, would it be what Morris Dickstein called his "spiritual push-ups." ("Om Om Om Sa Ra Wa Du Da Da Ki Ni Yea" and so on unto sedation.) Rather, it was his Other America -- an alternative nation of Tom Mooney, Sacco and Vanzetti, the Scottsboro boys, the Wobblies and his Communist Jewish mother: "Get married Allen don't take drugs."
We'd never met any of these people. They'd been left out of our Southern California high school textbooks to make room for Richfield Oil and the colonialist/Indian-basher Father Serra. But Ginsberg included everyone, all the children who had ever disappeared into Moloch. A closet history! And so inclusive you'd even find a Whittaker Chambers. I had lunch once with Chambers, in 1959, which was like having lunch with the Brothers Karamazov. Although his favorite poet was Rilke ("every angel is terrible"), he believed Ginsberg to be the only Beat with genuine talent and staying power. This should not surprise. Ginsberg and Chambers had Lionel Trilling in common; at Columbia, the good professor had been equally bewildered by both of them.
In Barry Miles's Ginsberg, we meet the gentle poet-father, Louis, and the crazy Communist mother, Naomi. We grow up in Paterson, New Jersey, with a kid whose favorite writer was Edgar Allan Poe and whose favorite book was Dr. Dolittle. We smoke his pot when he writes a paper on Cézanne for Meyer Schapiro and when God talks back to him through William Blake. We ship out with the merchant marine. We're there in North Beach for Howl; in Tangier for Burroughs, morphine and the machete; in Machu Picchu when God talks to him again after the death of his mother and tells him to love women; in Castro's Cuba where they kicked him out for talking too much about dope and homosexuality; and in London, Moscow, Budapest, Jerusalem and Chicago '68 -- hobnobbing with the Stones, the Beatles and R.D. Laing, writing lyrics for Bob Dylan and the Clash, turning Robert Lowell on to LSD, telephoning Henry Kissinger, telling Ezra Pound "but I'm a Buddhist Jew," composing Kaddish, posing for the Gap, loving Peter, hating cocaine, becoming on the occasion of his Pulitzer dangerously respectable...though not for long.
What we don't get from Miles, and didn't get in many of the obits, is much sense of the civil libertarian/anarchistic politics so emblematic of our Buddhist Jew. For a while, in the early sixties, we thought he'd gone away forever, "washed up desolate on the Ganges bank, vegetarian & silent hardly writing." But in 1965, at Charles University in Prague, dissident students crowned him "King of the May." Novotny was no more amused by Ginsberg as king than Trilling had been by Ginsberg as student; the poet was expelled from Czechoslovakia, too. If everywhere an exile, he was also everywhere a king of all our Maydays -- at the levitation of the Pentagon, in the parks for the Chicago convention, in Judge Hoffman's subsequent kangaroo court, on Bill Buckley's Firing Line. As if, late at night, nailing stanzas to the door at the St. Mark's Poetry Project: Ban the bomb...Hands off Nicaragua... Om. America I'm putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.
This "lonely old courage-teacher" looked somehow younger, if also more rabbinical, every time we saw him, as though "the grey sign of time in my beard" were theatrical, and had been painted on to disguise an untamed wild-boy/subversive. What made him so special? When, as late as 1988, WBAI radio in New York dared not broadcast a reading of Howl in a weeklong series on censorship, for fear of a smutty-minded Federal Communications Commission, I wrote in New York Newsday: "He is of course a social bandit." This sentence was quoted out of context in the New York Times obituary. The context was Eric Hobsbawm's book about social bandits like Rob Roy, Dick Turpin and Pancho Villa. Except that Ginsberg was a nonviolent social bandit -- an incorruptible pacifist, like Dr. King and Joan Baez, even when it hurt. Maybe because he contained in himself all countercultures, he was a sixties bridge between Yippie media brats and New Left temper tantrums. But his ultimate role at every engagement in our second Civil War was as a nurse, like his buddy Walt Whitman.
Sending up his Oms, his toy balloons, against the technostructured Superstate, Ginsberg was all these -- wild boy, subversive, bandit, nurse -- but also magical, like a shaman, in the sense that all magic is a sleight of mind, a symbolism of spontaneity elaborated to preserve and defend a vulnerable self from a devouring society. "The only poetic tradition," he once wrote, "is the voice out of the burning bush." But there is another tradition, equally "metrical, mystical, manly," and no less honorable in these plague years. There is the Medicine Man.