Ginsberg!” you shout up at the sooty windows of the Lower East Side tenement—the buzzers are broken—and one of America’s most successful poets leans out and drops you the key.
Up three dank flights and through a battered door into an ancient apartment smelling of stale tobacco smoke, you join the crowd at the kitchen table. The curator from the Manhattan gallery that has displayed Allen Ginsberg’s snapshots of his bohemian friends is going through them with a woman who is buying 100 for the permanent collection of the New York Public Library. A free-lance bibliographer is poring over loose papers, as he has once a week for the past four years, cataloging every jot and tittle Allen Ginsberg has ever written.
Ginsberg is the small, bearded, rabbinical-looking fellow standing in the cramped pantry-office, between the shelves of alphabetically arranged translations of his poetry (“Greek…Hebrew…Hungarian…Italian…”) and his filing cabinets (“Cases: Nuclear, Gay, Current Mixed Politics”). He has taken a phone call from his editor at Harper & Row (which has just published his Collected Poems, 1947-1980 and is eager to follow it with his selected essays). “When would I have to finish it?” the harried poet asks. “April or May of what year? This year? Oy, gevalt! That’s too soon.”
He hangs up and turns to the library representative. “When can you pay?” he asks softly, embarrassed, “because I’m borrowing from MasterCard.”
Taped to the yellowing door of the antique refrigerator is a note on a doctor’s prescription form: “No salt, no butter, no liver. Limit meats and cheeses.” Allen Ginsberg, rebellious young bard of the Beats, Om-chanting guru of the hippies, author of two different poems called Don’t Grow Old, is 58.
“In my early poems I was worried about being old,” he acknowledges, after settling cross-legged on his bed for an interview. “Now it seems a pleasure. There’s a tremendous sense of chaos, uncertainty and self-doubt, which is terrific. I hope I’ll always have that, because existence is quite chaotic. There is no permanent identity for the self. I don’t even know who I am.”
He is the younger of two sons—his brother, Eugene, is a Long Island lawyer—of Louis Ginsberg, a high school teacher and locally renowned Paterson, N.J. poet, and his wife, Naomi, a paranoid psychotic who was sometimes left in the care of Allen when he was only 12. (Her mad and tragic life was to inspire his most critically acclaimed poem, 1961’s Kaddish.)
As a student at Columbia in 1945, the bookish Ginsberg fell in with former football jock Jack Kerouac and adding-machine scion-turned-visionary junkie William Burroughs. They began pounding out the writing—Kerouac’s On the Road, Burroughs’ Naked Lunch—that would speak for the disaffected postwar youth whom newspapers dubbed the Beat Generation.
“It meant the bedbug-ridden, cockroach-infested, long-haired, uncombed, dirty unwashed,” recalls Ginsberg, now professionally garbed in jacket and tie, although a T-shirt emblazoned “Nicaragua” shows through his oxford shirt. “We did not call ourselves the Beat Generation. However, once it got stuck on us, I thought better to go ahead and produce whatever golden literature there was and let time take care of whether the word Beat was considered honorific or negative.”
Time has worked wonders. In 1956 Ginsberg made his first big splash with the profane epic Howl, a lamentation on the repressive cruelties of industrial society, part of which he wrote while tripping on peyote. Censors banned it and critics panned it. “The conventional maunderings of one American adolescent,” sniffed poet James Dickey. Critic Norman Podhoretz, now editor of Commentary, bemoaned the poet’s celebration of “homosexuality, jazz, dope addiction and vagrancy.”
Now the New York Times finds among Ginsberg’s collected works, which include A Methedrine Vision in Hollywood, Pull My Daisy and Graffiti 12th Cubicle Men’s Room Syracuse Airport, the “poems that stake his claim to immortality.”
Not that Ginsberg has joined the Establishment. As recently as last February he was still blacklisted from the educational programs of the U.S. Information Agency, an exclusion he finds ironic since he is also persona non grata in Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe, having been expelled from Czechoslovakia in 1965 for “social extremism.” The FBI has extensive files on him, and he on it—he’s made an avocation of documenting illegal actions allegedly perpetrated by the bureau. In short his tempestuous love-hate affair with America continues unabated.
Does he see in the Reagan ’80s a reprise of the conformist-organization-man-gray-flannel ’50s against which the Beats rebelled? “Not really,” he says. “Everybody’s privately hip. I mean, enough people smoked a little grass and made love with their eyes open. So long as the literature is there and they’re not burning books, we’ll be all right.”
Still to be added to the literature is the 80 percent of his writing that remains unpublished. He’s under contract to Harper & Row for five more volumes. Meanwhile he has yet to type up what he wrote last year during a 10-week tour of China as a guest of the Chinese Writers’ Association. And every day there’s more: “Whatever I think, if I notice that I thought it, I write it down.” He continues to work on setting William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience to music for a new album. In April he’s off to teach minority literature at the Naropa Institute, a college for Buddhist studies in Boulder, Colo.
Despite his daily meditation and t’ai chi exercise, sometimes it’s all too much. Overactivity, coupled with “love problems,” has spurred him to resume twice-a-week psychotherapy after a 30-year hiatus. “I cry a lot, weep, then have to confront myself.”
Poet Peter Orlovsky, 51, Ginsberg’s longtime friend and former lover, still lives in the apartment next door but is getting married and may move away. Their landlord, riding a wave of gentrification, has served eviction notices on everyone in the building. Ginsberg has lived there for a decade, just a mile from the corner of Orchard and Riving-ton where his mother’s parents ran a candy store.
Amid these assaults on continuity, one thing remains constant: Ginsberg’s nearly messianic sense of his duty to enlighten and instruct. “Poetry seems to me like a great, noble occupation,” he says, and his goal is nothing less than “to save America’s soul, to the extent there is such a thing.”
“America I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel,” he wrote in 1956, and he’s still pushing.