Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997)

By Rorem, Ned | The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine), January 20, 1998 | Go to article overview

Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997)


Rorem, Ned, The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)


I've been rereading Allen Ginsberg's early poems. Despite their unflagging energy, long lists of Whitmanesque "yawps," all-embracing compassion, and stinging eroticism, I'm impressed anew at how melancholy they mostly seem. Listen:

"...all movement stops

& I walk in the timeless sadness

of existence...

my own face streaked with tears

in the mirror

of some window -- at dusk

where I have no desire"

Or listen again to the notorious opening of "Howl":

"I saw the best minds of my

generation destroyed by madness,

starving hysterical naked,

dragging themselves through the

negro streets at dawn looking for

an angry fix. "

-- followed by a thousand lines of depressing fervor that in 1956 established Ginsberg, at the age of 29, as our most influential American bard.

The verses recall my own mother, who spent her life as an activist for pacifism and for all civil rights. When the world did not listen, she gave up and died. Ginsberg never gave up. Yet with the years he became less and less the subjective poet and more and more the objective sloganeer for the teenage minds of the 1960s and '70s: mantras, flower power, LSD, counterculture. But he was also crucial to more worldly movements: gay rights, environmental protest, Buddhist solutions to violence. Like Hemingway, he grew to be more guru than creator.

Was it in 1958 that we met? I recall a drunken bunch of us piling into a cab from Virgil Thomson's at the Chelsea to Kenneth Koch's on Perry Street, with me seated happily on the lap of Allen's boyfriend, Peter Orlovsky. Did Allen mind? "Not if Peter doesn't," said he and began to sing, "Where is the world we roamed, Ned Bunn? ... who roamed a world young lads no more shall roam." For the next four decades, whenever he saw me my name would spark those verses of Melville. …

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