“Beat Memories,” poet Allen Ginsberg’s photo collection of fellow Beatnik writers like “On the Road” author Jack Kerouac and “Naked Lunch” author William Burroughs, on view at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery, call up my interview with Ginsberg in 1996, a year before he died..
It was a good “get,” as journalists like to call sought-after guests. After all, Ginsberg, famed for his poem “Howl,” was one of the Beat Generation that jolted America http://www.examiner.com/article/shock-art-that-isn-t by rejecting its social values.
He spoke softly but sold himself hard, which was surprising in one so famous. Ginsberg - long extolled as a latter-day Walt Whitman and inspiration of the political protests of the '60s - talked himself up throughout the interview from Brooklyn College, where he taught English, saying stuff like, "I'm a distinguished professor of English. It's a slot that they have for `special professors.”
As if anyone would doubt the specialness of America's best-known living poet at the time. Prior to the interview with me, he attended a writers' festival in Ireland, where he read his poetry for two nights to standing ovations, the demand for more was so great, he was called back for a third night.
At 70, Ginsberg was actively sought-after. Harper Collins had just published a volume of his selected poems; Nonesuch recorded a reading of his poetry to the musical accompaniment of Philip Glass and Paul McCartney; and Gemini, a leading graphic studio, commissioned a portfolio of his lithographs made in collaboration with David Hockney and other noted artists.
Despite his continued success - Stanford University paid him $1 million not long ago for his journals, tapes, letters, even his beard clippings - Ginsberg's conversation was an uninterruptible advertisement for himself, complete with name-dropping.
"I'm trying to finish my sentence," he said at one point, resisting a question put to him during a pause. The "sentence" ran on for nearly three quarters of an hour in a style not unlike his long-breath poetry.
Ginsberg was mercifully brief when asked if his popularity indicated a renaissance of the '50s and '60s.
"Oh, I'm just having fun," he said without reflection, and continued with his litany of professional activity.
One of the few questions that Ginsberg warmed to concerned the role of a poet. He spoke of politics, one of the themes of "Ballad of the Skeleton."
"My job is to say candidly what I think, what goes through my mind; to write my mind, or sing my mind."
Ginsberg cited Walt Whitman's advice to American poets: that they specialize in candor - a necessary component of democracy.
"The role of the poet," then, said Ginsberg, "is to say what one really thinks, rather than politicians saying what the polls say they should say. There's a schizophrenia between what you can say officially and what you think . . . and that's getting us into a lot of trouble; because now people are really confused about what values everybody's talking about.
"Young (Percy) Shelley used to say, `Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the race.' I wouldn't go that far, but they certainly are in a position to say what they think. And not too many people are."
Ballads of a poet at work
An excerpt from "Howl," the poem that made Ginsberg famous in 1955, reads:
"I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, / dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, / angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night . . ."
And the Beat goes on, don’t you think?