Allen Ginsberg
By: Amanda French | Categories: HiLo Heroes

Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky, 1978

With the recent death of Peter Orlovsky, our thoughts naturally turn to his famous lover, poet ALLEN GINSBERG (1926-97). The picture I’ve inserted above shows Ginsberg (left) and Orlovsky (right) in 1978, but it’s scarcely the most iconic picture of Ginsberg and Orlovsky. In particular, we prefer to think of Ginsberg as the hirsute howler of the fifties and sixties, and it can be a bit of a strain to think of him as the academic eminence grise he was and certainly appears to be in the above snapshot. It’s a picture, for once, of the Allen Ginsberg who studied with Lionel Trilling at Columbia.

But Ginsberg was always an analyst of excess as well as a practitioner. Like Freud’s, his best talent was the ability to bring a clinical eye to bear on the taboo and obscene. Ginsberg’s most famous poem, Howl, is a list, a catalog, an index of numerous and quotidian filthy modern lunacies, a database of perfectly ordinary Americans

who bit detectives in the neck and shrieked with delight in policecars for committing no crime but their own wild cooking pederasty and intoxication,

who howled on their knees in the subway and were dragged off the roof waving genitals and manuscripts,

who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy,

who blew and were blown by those human seraphim, the sailors, caresses of Atlantic and Caribbean love,

and so on.

Ginsberg (unlike Whitman) later mostly abandoned that most orderly of forms, but his poems were always deliberately prosaic except for the phantasmagoria of experience they described. For (unlike Freud) Ginsberg was an experimenter. He did it all: someone had to. And he wasn’t only a fucker and a sucker and a taker of drugs — he was a doer in other ways, an activist (he had wanted to be a labor lawyer in his youth), a teacher, a serious student of Buddhism.

I saw Ginsberg read once in Boulder in the late eighties. The auditorium was packed, standing room only — at first. Sixty percent or so of the audience left at intermission, quite obviously unable or at least unwilling to take any more of Ginsberg’s gleeful singsong about cock and ass and shit. I only stayed myself because I figured it would be broadening. It was.

ALSO BORN THIS DATE: Curtis Mayfield.

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Amanda French is a Research Assistant Professor at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. She likes to write now and then about how the study of literature and history is being changed by technology, or sometimes just about literary history.