Kissed by Allen Ginsberg
It was at a conference of small press editors and publishers back in the Seventies, that I first met Allen Ginsberg. The event was hosted by California State College which you would assume was somewhere in that eponymous state on the west coast. However, you'd be mistaken. It was actually in California, Pennsylvania, a small liberal arts college hidden in the rolling hills which border the Monongahela River.
I was a member of a trio of poets which included Dianne Wakoski and Allen Ginsberg. Our contract required us to each give a couple of workshops to writers, editors and graduate students during the three day conference. Each night there was to be a poetry presentation from one of us. On Thursday night Diane would give a reading to a small group in the library; Friday, I would do the same, and on Saturday, Allen would give the final "master's" reading. I knew Ginsberg's work quite well. I had read "Howl" as a teenager. I had even taught that poem, as well as the more accessible "America" as part of my junior English class offerings in American Lit.
Ginsberg was an icon to my students, but to me he was someone more complex: a fellow war protestor whose courage I admired, a beatnik who heralded my own hippie youth, a notorious homosexual known for his forwardness. It was hard to separate the public figure from the artist. I knew that he had become part of the canon, but he was neither my favorite poet nor someone with whom I associated literary depth. He was a writer of the rant, the barbaric yarp of Whitman; one who shocked the establishment and etched a place for himself on the mutable wall of contemporary fame.
What a surprise then to attend his class on the French surrealists and watch writers, graduate students and professors, struggling frantically to keep up with their notes as Ginsberg analyzed text, quoted lines from the poets in French, made biographical references, and connected literature to art and history. Eyes blazing above a trimmed beard, he was the epitome of a brilliant professor; not a sign of the ageing beatnik to be seen. His thick lips pursed as he thought of examples to illustrate his points; his New York accent was crisp and his delivery rapid. The lecture was a tour de force.
That evening the three of us were invited to conduct a discussion in the round which was televised by a local PBS affiliate. We answered students' questions on the art of writing, problems with revision, the importance of close reading in literature, and the value of the masters as models. At one point a graduate student was holding forth on the feminine mystique in literature and I noted several of her classmates had begun to get that glazed look in their eyes which usually signals something less than rapt attention.
"Perhaps you should change the subject," I whispered to Allen. "I think we're losing some of our audience."
"Why don't you change the subject?" Allen replied.
"Because you have so much more authority," I said.
"Just do it, Hogan!" Allen snapped. "Show some chutzpah."
I cleared my throat and then suggested that maybe we had belabored this topic long enough. Perhaps we could turn to an earlier question, as to how a carefully chosen particular can suggest the universal.
Allen smiled, then turned and kissed me right on the lips. "Mazel tov!" he crowed.
Just then the camera, which had been focused on the student, suddenly shifted and presented the audience with the luridly thick lips of Allen connecting with my own.
Whatever the average viewer thought (or did not think) about my sexuality in those days, there was no question that my young wife of six months, who watching the show at home, suddenly had reason for concern about my road trips. Nor was the fact that I was blushing madly as a sixteen year-old lost on the students who sat around in the circle until one mercifully rescued me with a reply to the suggested topic change. Diane smiled knowingly, as if to say: I am amazed at nothing men do.
That evening Diane read from her recent book entitled The Motorcycle Betrayal Poems which she dedicated "to all the men who have ever betrayed me, in the hope that they will fall off their motorcycles and break their necks." It was a responsive audience, made even more so by the claque of young female groupies who sat in the front row and chuckled at her quips, applauded every poem, and added "Oh, wow!" in breathless whispers after every other verse.
The following evening I read my poems to a group which, although more subdued and not as emotive, was no less attentive. Like Diane, I managed to sell sufficient copies of my book to insure that next month's rent was covered. Allen, in his generous-spirited way, supported both our readings, and even stood in line until everyone else had gone before he stepped forward with his copy to be autographed. Both Diane and I were touched by that.
Towards the close of the book signing, when we were drinking wine and eating strawberry crepes, the moderator suggested that those who wished to attend the Saturday Ginsberg reading sign up now. He said that the administration was concerned about seating and wanted to make sure there were sufficient chairs in the library, so that the reading would not be interrupted by shuffling and scraping. He also said that he expected some local citizens might be attending and so would place the sign-up sheet on the library desk where it would be available throughout the following day.
As we came out of the library into the muggy Pennsylvania dark, a dozen or more busses began arriving and parking in the lot below. When they discharged their passengers, the atmosphere of the campus changed at once. Young girls wearing shorts, t-shirts and tennis shoes descended onto the tarmac and began singing scraps of songs, calling out to one another, collecting baggage and backpacks and heading to the dorms.
"They can't all be writers and editors," I remarked to Bill Welsh, a local poet.
"Nope. It's the Eastern High Schools Cheerleader Camp. Girls from all over New England came here to sharpen up their skills at cheering, tumbling, dancing. Probably not Diane's favorite group!"
"Oh, I don't know," I said. Some cheerleaders these days are pretty sharp. Cheerleading is more like gymnastics, much more athletic than it was in the past."
"Still, I doubt many are interested in poetry..." he observed, as the raucous groups passed us in the parking lot, shouting and chanting as they headed for the empty dorms.
I didn't disagree.
The following day, Saturday afternoon, as we went about conducting our workshops and heard their voices raised on the athletic field, I pictured them, eluding their chaperones after lights out, descending on the town's little disco and bar, dancing up a storm and tempting the local boys, then coming home a little drunk and flushed after their night out. I envisioned at least one or two sick in the bathroom, getting caught by a wide-awake coach, and threatened with expulsion from the camp. The tears, the threatened phone calls to parents....
We went out for an early dinner on Saturday evening, and then returned shortly before Ginsberg's reading was scheduled to begin. When we got to the library at 7:30 we found that it was closed. A notice on the front door informed us that, due to the size of the crowd for the reading, it had been moved to the football stadium. What? It seemed incredible that Ginsberg could draw that large a crowd of townies from a little village in the Pennsylvania woods. This we had to see!
As we headed to the stadium we heard the din of the crowd. Not only were all the participants of the conference there and a couple of hundred folks from the town, but the entire contingent of cheerleaders as well. The open-air venue was packed with blow-dried and lipsticked blonds, chatting away as if this was just another event in their cheerleading agenda. Incredible! And what would the ageing beatnik/intellectual professor have to offer this motley crew? They seemed world apart.
As he strode to the stage in his dashiki and knitted yarmulke, the crowd hushed, and then burst into warm applause. The girls joined in and accompanied their applause with cheers, an occasional whistle, giggles and woos. Woos? Hmm. This will be interesting.
He played a few notes from his harmonium and then began to speak about death, the loss of his mother, the Jewish prayer for the dead. Then he read his haunting and well-known "Kaddish." The girls were quiet and respectful, as typical an audience for a poetry reading as you'd see at any college venue. Ginsberg was subdued as well. He read only a handful of poems as the evening progressed, perhaps three more of his own, a couple by William Carlos Williams, a long passage from Whitman, each piece drawing us into his inner world while opening us up to a language that was both concrete and expansive. Mostly he talked about art, about life.
And then as the hour wore down, he switched tactics. He began speaking of music, of Indian mantras, of incantatory verse and the importance of parallelism and repetition, of sound and echoes and how all of these had a spiritual essence. He talked about William Blake, the mystic, artist and poet who could write disturbing lyrics like "Tyger, Tyger," as well as simple, often sentimental Christian verses such as "The Lamb" ("Little lamb who made thee?"). Then Ginsberg actually sang each of these poems accompanied by the harmonium: "TY-ger, TY-ger, BURN-ing BRIGHT, in the FOR-est of the NIGHT/WHAT immortal HAND or EYE, could FRAME thy FEARful SYM-atree."
The girls cheered this rendition of a poem that most of us had read at one time or another, but never actually heard sung. Ginsberg told the students that these poems were from Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience and were all written to be sung. He also reminded us of the words of the Chinese poet Li Po: "Make it new! Make it new!" and said that is what poetry was all about. Just as their rendition of cheers and gymnastics "snatched beauty from the jaws of time," poets find ways to praise life that are unique while at the same time realizing that they stand on the shoulders of all those who went before and who taught us how to dance and sing. Even poetry readings like this one, he said, honor those who have gone before, remind us that all dance, all song is prayer, and that our time here is short. Carpe diem.
But now the stadium, which sat deep in a hallowed-out valley that abutted the rolling Pennsylvania hills, had begun to darken. Evening was descending and the sun blinked in and out among the trees which bordered the field. Ginsberg had waited too long to recite his well-known "Howl," a long poem which would leave him reading in the dark. It was almost time to end it. So, which one of his favorite poems would he choose? "Walt Whitman in the Supermarket"? "America"?
Now the strumming began again. And this time it was the seldom-anthologized Blake poem called the "Nurse's Song" that relates a story of children playing in the fields as darkness is descending. Told by their mother that the children must be in before nightfall, the nurse calls them. But the children, wanting to take advantage of the last dying rays of the sun, are reluctant. Finally, they persuade the nurse to let them play just a little longer. The song with its haunting refrain of childhood goes like this:
When the voices of children are heard on the green,
And laughing is heard on the hill,
My heart is at rest within my breast
And everything else is still.
"Then come home, my children, the sun is gone down,
And the dews of night arise;
Come, come, leave off play and let us away,
Till the morning appears in the skies."
"No, no, let us play, for it is yet day,
And we cannot go to sleep;
Besides, in the skies the little birds fly,
And the hills are covered with sheep."
"Well, well, go and play till the light fades away,
And then go home to bed."
The little ones leaped, and shouted, and laughed,
And all the hills echoéd.
Now the light was fading behind the trees, and the cheerleaders all stood up the green-gold dusk as Ginsberg began the refrain a second time.
And all the hills echoéd, and all the hills echoed,
And the little ones leaped, and shouted and laughed,
And all the hills echoéd.
Now the light voices of hundreds of teenaged girls joined him in his deep-throated amplified chorus, and the valley was filled with the sound of them, and we all rose and our voices joined in harmony chanting the ancient refrain again and again until all the hills indeed echoéd in the soft Pennsylvania evening. Oh, if only you had been there, when we were kissed by Allen Ginsberg.