Missing a Beat
by Aaron Belz
Saying "Kaddish" for the late poet Allen Ginsberg
So many high-profile poets taught in the NYU Creative Writing program while I was there Philip Levine, Sharon Olds, Galway Kinnell, Robert Bly, William Matthews that it didn't seem incredible that Allen Ginsberg was to teach "The Craft of Poetry" in Spring, 1994. For me, a 22-year-old poet who had just graduated from an isolated Southern college and now was studying in the fifth highest-rated writing program in the country, it was like, "Well, this is heaven; why wouldn't all the angels be here?"
Even among that host, though, Ginsberg stood out. He had become a political and historical celebrity, a figurehead a person who, unlike the other poets, even my parents knew. I called my mom in St. Louis and told her the news. "You should take that class," she said. "If it weren't for Allen Ginsberg we might not be wearing jeans today. Do you realize that in the fifties it was uncommon to wear jeans? Ginsberg was one of the people who helped change that."
So I went to see the department head. "Sorry," she said. "Second-year students get priority, and anyway there's already a waiting list." So I told her what my mom had said about jeans, and that I really, really wanted to get into the class, and she started to laugh. While she was still in a weakened state, I managed to convince her to put me at the top of the waiting list.
I found out later that I had gotten in. The department secretary said that not as many people had signed up as the administration had anticipated, and several had dropped. Why? It seemed that there was almost a defensiveness against Ginsberg's fame among some of my fellow students. The same kind of dismissal as there was of Bly the next spring almost as if they were thinking, It's Ginsberg. He's thoroughly known; he's become a commodity. It was as though they thought his best work was over, that he had enjoyed his twenty years in the sun. Some students expressed disapproval of his recent work. Some surely wanted to avoid all appearance of fanaticism.
I, on the other hand, bragged about the class heartily to all my friends and former teachers, and I scurried to polish my knowledge of the Beat movement. I read "Kaddish" which I had never read before. I thought it was the most magnificent long poem I had seen, right up next to Eliot's "Waste Land" (a stylistic cousin, too) and was surprised that I hadn't studied it in college. I reread "Howl" and "America" and an assortment of others which I had learned under the tutelage of the laid-back Dr. Cliff Foreman, who himself had been arrested during the sixties. As I dug deeper and deeper into the volume of collected poems, I noticed that I was more and more enticed by the electrical presence of the work, but at the same time more and more repulsed by the explicit sexual references.
One night I walked down to a bar in Hoboken to pay 50 cents to see a crudely-produced documentary of Ginsberg's life, the title of which I forget. I think everybody there claimed to be a close friend of the man.
A colleague of mine who made a humble living as an assistant in the English department told me, "I could tell you something that no one is supposed to know."
"What?" I said.
"I know how much they're paying Ginsberg for this semester. $20,000."
For a two-hour class once a week, we calculated that to be quite a handsome reward. About six hundred bucks per hour. I read several months later in New York Magazine's Salary Report that he was also making $95,000+ a year at the Brooklyn College where he was full-time faculty. With that and the regular public readings, the book royalties, and other income, I estimated him to be making at least $250,000 a year, and I have a feeling that's conservative.
When "Craft of Poetry" first met, I was not in New York; I was in Alabama at the funeral of a friend who had committed suicide.
I made it to the second class, though, on February 1, 1994; we met in a fluorescent-lit room in the basement of Tisch Hall. I was late, panting (how could I be late?), and dropped my books on a desk and sat. I would later learn that Ginsberg had zero tolerance for lateness, and he liked to embarrass people by calling out their names and asking them why they were late. He was very boisterous in that regard.
Fortunately he was still calling roll when I got there, but switched quickly to Gregory Corso and "oxymoron theory." He said, "According to Corso, poetry is fried shoes." Then he read poem after poem from Corso's oeuvre, until the end of the period. The readings were interspersed with Ginsberg's delightful, sharp, spur-of-the-moment commentaries. For instance, after reading "Whales" he said, "You have to remember, this poem is 1958 not nineteen-yuppie-seal-killers. It's a pop poem." Everybody laughed.
It was during that class too that Ginsberg gave one of the best readings I ever heard him give. It was of Corso's famous poem, "Bomb." The power was in the way he stopped and stated the oxymorons he had a funny way of rolling his head when he wanted to underscore something he was saying. He had a very deep voice, and inflected his words almost comically "athletic death! sportive bomb! ... before you the past! behind you the future!"
A week later we didn't have class because Ginsberg was reading in Soho with Anne Waldman and Robert Creely, who were coming in from out of town. The place was packed. It was sold to capacity well before the show started on that snowy night and hundreds were turned away at the door. My friend and I got there about an hour and a half beforehand, and the ticket line was already wrapped around the block. A lot of neo-beat poets, performance artists, and many white-whiskered hippies, yuppie New Yorkers in black leather, and Generation X types lighting up smokes. Quite a mixed crowd. Creely called in sick.
Waldman reminded me of a noisy jester from the musical "Pippin" or something very dramatic, overstated, seventies-drama-class. And somewhat predictable.
When Ginsberg got up, there seemed to be a painful consciousness of his elderliness. He was only 67. The last time I had seen him read was about two years prior in Athens, GA, to a huge auditorium of university students. He looked retirement-age then; now he looked thin and yellow, fragile. Still he belted out poems from Cosmopolitan Greetings and brought down the house.
On February 22 Corso substitute-taught our class. Although this meant one fewer Ginsberg class, we were, for the most part, excited (two Beat legends in one semester?) and wondered what Ginsberg could have meant by his prediction that Corso would "push our buttons." A longtime friend of Ginsberg's, Corso was straight and didn't have the provocateur reputation that Ginsberg did. When Corso walked in a small man with a white mop of hair and a grandfatherly beard, overcoat and stack of books he told us he was really getting into Homer's Iliad at that time (as Ginsberg had warned) and gruffly asked if anyone had read it. Outraged to see only a few hands, Corso went on and on about how little we knew of poetry. "In the old days schools used to require Homer, sometimes in Latin." The rest of the classtime sucked: several minutes at a time passed in total silence. About half-way through he got up from the table and started to close his briefcase. Someone in the front said, audaciously, "Are you leaving? The class period is only half over." He went back sheepishly to his chair and muttered something about how he thought it was time to leave. We wondered how this man could be Ginsberg's closest colleague. I think most of us concluded that, well, he's an artist and ... not a teacher.
Ginsberg returned, and we spent two whole classes on the Finnish epic, The Kalevala, in which, according to Ginsberg, "A young punk poet challenges an older poet." It was hard not to notice the eerie similarity between this ancient Scandinavian poetry and the Beat voice. Lines like "He was up to his eyes in mud,/ up to his teeth in a bad place,/ up to his beard behind a rotten tree trunk" sounded as though they could have come right out of Ginsberg's mouth.
During these meetings Ginsberg spent most of the time reading his favorite poetry to us: John Wieners, Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, Jack Kerouac, and many others. Between readings he threw out statements like "Campion was the Bob Dylan of the Renaissance," and, "The principle of mindfulness itself is the American measure." He was always aphorizing, always philosophizing. "The poem is a simulacrum of the mind itself." "Revise yourself." Many of these phrases were included on a handout we got on the first day of class entitled, "Mind Writing Slogans."
During the April 26 class, Ginsberg actually tried to teach us how to write poetry. He put together several poems of his own, showing us how it was done. He recited the mantra of the Beat movement, "First thought, best thought," to which he added, "avoid commas and periods whenever possible," and then he wrote this on the blackboard:
Walking the park dogs, grass
A skinhead shrieking
Unsatisfied with the effort, he erased it and wrote:
My own with a fringe of gray
Corso's mop salt and pepper
Alas, poor Warren Harding,
and his girlfriend's
Then he stopped and erased "and his girlfriend's" and wrote in its place
his skull lily
again my own
He surveyed his masterpiece for a moment and changed the first line to "My own gray-fringed," which reflected his stated belief that one should eliminate all unnecessary words.
Someone in the class asked, "I thought you didn't revise your poetry. I thought you said 'Revise yourself.'" Ginsberg hemmed and hawed and then admitted that it was necessary to go back through your poetry and make sure it was good. He explained that his practice of revision was to reread his poems through the eyes of people he knew, see what they thought. The same student then asked Ginsberg whose eyes he read through. He said, "Burroughs, Dylan, Corso."
One time Ginsberg brought in a tape recorder and a stack of cassettes. He said, "These are from my personal collection recordings Jack made while he was drunk." He gave us a little background on Kerouac first, and then played a tape of him speaking improvised Haiku. He stopped the tape and made up one of his own:
A flash in the sky a lightning bug -
A meteor supper's ready.
Then he put in another tape; this time Kerouac was reading a selection from his novel Dr. Sax, which Ginsberg told us was "an apocalyptic novel based on Shakespeare." After playing the tape, he lamented that young people don't read Shakespeare anymore, but Kerouac knew it well. Also Ginsberg admitted that he himself had always had to revise his work, but that Kerouac "never did." He played a final tape of his beloved "Jack" and then began to cry.
My mother came to visit New York on a weekend that happened to be Mother's Day her own mother in Baltimore had recently suffered a stroke and died, and we were on our way to the funeral. Mom and I were tooling around in the village; I was showing her the sights Shakespeare & Co., where I worked, The Temple in the Village, that great vegetarian buffet. While we walked through Washington Square we happened upon none other than the poet himself, surrounded by an entourage that included Corso and the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, as well as a couple of camera-toting young men I didn't recognize (there were often journalists in his midst). Ginsberg recognized me from the class, and I introduced him to my mother. He asked what the occasion was. Mom explained, and he expressed his condolences. He extended his hand to shake Mom's, but she was distracted. I whispered, "Mom, he's trying to shake your hand." I couldn't help but recognize that the hand that had written "Kaddish" possibly the greatest Mother poem was shaking my own mother's hand on Mother's Day, a day before her mother's funeral.
I think all the students who took the class were richly rewarded. If not with a master's imparted wisdom, with the realization that Ginsberg was a normal person just like any one of us. He made himself that way; he wasn't averse to hanging out with us, never condescending. He telephoned my apartment in Hoboken once to invite me to a reading. One time he invited me up to his apartment to go over my thesis (though he and his twenty-something friend promptly ran out the door to a Spin interview). He always knew my face, if not my name.
When I knew him, Ginsberg was a nervous old man, a somewhat sad character. Every time he gave a reading he included a late poem of his entitled "After Lalon," which said among other things, "how'd I get into this/ wrinkled person?" and, "Allen Ginsberg warns you/ dont follow my path/ to extinction." It was clear that he was touched by mourning, even though he had become celebrated, successful, and rich doing what he loved to do.
Certainly he was loved by other poets; William Matthews once told me, "Allen is Allen."
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