THE RAGE AND THE TEARS, IT seems, came from those who loved Allen Ginsberg. When the poet himself was told on March 28 that he had fatal liver cancer, he took the news with grace: A Buddhist for over two decades, the tender renegade who fueled the Beat movement and inspired a generation of writers and musicians focused on “finishing his life’s work,” in the words of archivist Bill Morgan. For Ginsberg, 70, that meant capturing his thoughts in poetry and phoning a legion of friends. On April 2, he talked through the night with comrades including poet Amiri Baraka, to whom he said, “I’m dying, but I’m not worried—that’s how it is.” Telling Baraka that he had provided for his lover of 43 years, Peter Orlovsky, he added gently, “Do you need any money?”
The end was mercifully swift. In his apartment on the Lower East Side, Ginsberg dozed most of the day on April 3. That evening, a stroke left him in a coma. By 2:40 a.m. on April 5, he was gone. “It took everyone completely by surprise that he did not get up the next day,” says Morgan. “He worked hard [at the end]; we thought he was going to drive us crazy for another year.”
Instead, Ginsberg’s intimates drew together to send him on his way: The evening of his death, guru Gelek Rinpoche led mourners in a chanting vigil at his apartment; two days later, 400 friends—rockers Patti Smith, Laurie Anderson and Lou Reed, writer Kurt Vonnegut and poets Michael McClure and Gregory Corso among them—gathered at Manhattan’s. Shambhala Center to share memories of the exuberant iconoclast whose tranquil spirit was a counterpoint to his ruthlessly candid art. In his last poem, “Death and Fame,” he wrote, “I don’t care what happens to my body/ Throw ashes in the air….” In fact, Ginsberg lay in state—dressed in a tweed jacket and striped suspenders—and afterward was cremated. Later, Corso said, “He worried about me like a Jewish grandma. Now I don’t know who’s going to hold my reins.”
Ironically, the man who made his mark as an agent provocateur left the world as an éminence grise: A distinguished professor of English at Brooklyn College, Ginsberg was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and had charmed public figures from Bob Dylan to Czech President Vaclav Havel. The author of dozens of volumes of poetry, he collaborated with Paul McCartney and Philip Glass, and he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1995.
“Torn between respectability and total rebellion,” in the words of longtime friend Charles Peters, editor of The Washington Monthly, Ginsberg was the son of the poet and teacher Louis Ginsberg and his wife, Naomi, a Russian-born Marxist. Raised with brother Eugene (now a lawyer) in Paterson, N.J., he grew up in the shadow of Naomi’s madness; a paranoid psychotic, she died in a mental institution in 1956. By that time, her son (who, at Columbia University, had found literary soulmates in ex-jock Jack Kerouac and erudite junkie William S. Burroughs) was embracing the scandal that defined his life as an artist. On Oct. 13,1955, he had read his profane epic “Howl” at a gallery in San Francisco. A passionate invective against postwar complacency and an ode to gay eroticism, it “took poetry out of the academy and put it back in the streets,” in the words of Columbia professor Ann Douglas, an authority on the Beats. “Everyone there knew this revolution had started.”
A man whose “openness to experience,” as Douglas puts it, never faltered, Ginsberg savored his role as a social and political catalyst; after winning the 1957 obscenity trial sparked by “Howl,” he was a tireless advocate of free speech. In the ’60s he battled the cultural status quo—championing mind-altering drugs and demonstrating against the Vietnam War. A spiritual adventurer, he visited ashrams in India and studied Buddhism in Asia, but he never missed an opportunity to provoke: In 1965, he was deported from Cuba after declaring Ché Guevara to be “cute.”
In the end, Ginsberg will be remembered for his selflessness as well as his gleeful spirit: In the ’50s he edited and promoted the novels of Kerouac and Burroughs. He quietly supported financially strapped friends, and he always had time to connect with strangers. At a signing in San Francisco last October, Ginsberg (noticeably frail even then) was set to greet fans from noon until 2 p.m. But “people kept streaming in,” reports Rani Singh, his assistant. Ginsberg stayed in his seat until 6 p.m.—and every last pilgrim had left with a signed book.
CYNTHIA WANG and LAN N. NGUYEN in New York City and ROCHELLE JONES in Washington