Monday, March 22, 2010

Aimless Reading: The G's, Part 9.1 (Allen Ginsberg)

Ginsberg, Allen
Cosmopolitan Greetings
Poems 1986-1992

Purchased at Talking Leaves...Books. I remember buying this a few years ago after having had a conversation with Anselm Berrigan about poets who his mother, Alice Notley, had called 'exuberant' poets. That is, poets whose primary modes are celebration and optimism rather than say, meditation, pessimism, etc. I was about to write 'irony,' but I think I would put someone like Frank O'Hara in this group and there's no shortage of irony in his work. I guess Whitman would be the father of this tendency in American poetry, which would make Ginsberg his great-grandson.

I think Allen Ginsberg was probably then first poet I ever heard of outside the classroom. I became obsessed with the sixties as a teenager and I remember seeing a picture of him in some magazine article about that decade -- in long hair and beard, dancing among a crowd of people.

I always had him in my head as the poet of that generation. I didn't really have any clear idea of what that even meant -- there were no poets of my generation. It really didn't feel like there was an eighties generation outside of shopping malls and John Hughes movies and so forth, and I didn't see too many poets in either of those places.

I don't think I actually read any of Ginsberg's poetry until I was in college, and then it was outside of the classroom. In class, we followed the prescribed course of Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton, so reading Ginsberg was a kind of welcome antidote -- not to the poets, to be sure, but to the stuffy atmosphere of death and decay that most academic teachers of poetry bring to their subject matter. It always seemed like my professors hated living poets.

My friends and I used to take great pleasure in reading Ginsberg aloud late into the night, or into each other's answering machines or to each other over the phone or setting his poems to music and singing it at the college coffee house. When the Gulf war began, we got the school to sponsor an anti-war night at the campus coffee house and invited Ginsberg to read. He accepted, but then the war ended before the proposed date. We changed it to Peace and Justice night instead.

Me and several friends, all of us at the time trying to become the next Bob Dylan, opened for Ginsberg. I don't think I have ever been in such an overcrowded room before. By the time he came on, the crowd had clearly grown beyond the level of a fire hazard. I remember passing him on the way to the bathroom and saying hello and him saying hello back. Those were the only words I ever exchanged with him.

He read for something like two hours. He did two complete sets that included everything from his first book to his most recent. He sang Blake on the harmonium. It was great stuff.

The following year, I ran the programming in the coffee house and I decided to have the place painted. The basement walls were covered in graffiti and I decided I wanted something a little cleaner and more modern. When I informed a friend who'd run the place the year before that I had done this, he got very angry because among that mess of tags and so forth, Allen Ginsberg had signed the wall. Sigh. Alas.

A couple of years later I saw him read at the Dia Center in Soho. He was supposed to read with Creeley, but he got snowed-in and couldn't make it. They handed out this poem on a little broadside at the event. It hung on my wall for years.

Now and Forever

I'll settle for immortality
Not thru the body
     Not thru the eyes
          Star-spangled high mountains
               waning over Aspen peaks
But thru words, thru the breath
          of long sentences
loves I have, heart beating
inspiration continuous, exhalation of
          cadenced affection
These immortal survive America,
               survive the fall of States
Departure of my body,
               mouth dumb dust
This verse broadcasts desire,
               accomplishment of Desire
Now and forever boys can read
               girls dream, old men cry
Old women sigh
               youth still come.

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