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October 28, 1997

Allen Ginsberg in Mobile

Clark Powell

Then come home my children, the sun is gone down, And the dews of night arise;
Your spring and your day are wasted in play, And your winter and night in disguise.

-- William Blake, "Nurse's Song"

The above lines were often chanted at the readings of one Irwin Allen Ginsberg, the famous (or infamous, if you wish) Beat poet, 60's radical, friend of Jack Kerouac, Ken Kesey, Terry Southern, Jean Genet, Bob Dylan (toured with him), William Burroughs, Gary Snyder, and everybody like you & me, author of the much anthologized "Howl," outrageously "out" homosexual, Buddhist disciple of Tibetan Rinpoche Chogyam Trungpa, founder of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at the Naropa Institute in Colorado.

Allen Ginsberg died in New York of liver cancer last April 5th. It is hard to believe, but Ginsberg was 70 years old.

I would like you to try to imagine Allen Ginsberg at the Joe Jefferson Playhouse here in Mobile. This was in April, 1987, and he was there, all right, and was about to give a reading to a disappointingly half-full house.

I felt bad about the turn-out. After all, I was the one who had wangled this reading and worked it out to bring Ginsberg to Mobile. This was back in the days when I was hosting a program of monthly poetry and fiction readings at the old Lumberyard. With Sammy Maisel, Carolyn Haines and a few others, we started having modest gatherings on the second Saturday afternoon of each month. The series came to be called Second Saturday Series, and soon it became something of an event. WHIL started taping and playing the readings, and the Lumberyard would be packed - for a poetry reading, of all things!

We usually featured local poets, or pried Rhette Maddox loose from the legendary Mapleleaf Bar in New Orleans. Thomas McGuane, who was visiting his wife Jane's folks Peets and J.D. Buffett, even came for a "talk" (he does not read his fiction). Mainly we had fun, until I got the bright idea to incorporate SSS the next year, which turned into a headache.

When I heard Ginsberg was going to be at the University of Mississippi, I called his agent and got him to come for only $700 plus hotel and airfare. Charging $10 for the reading, together with a grant from a local Arts agency, and we could just cover it. The grant came with the proviso that it should remain secret - odd, but understandable, given the notoriety of Allen's readings. (Everyone who knew Ginsberg even slightly, like me, seems to call him by his first name).

As it turned out, the Ginsberg reading would be the last of the Second Saturday Series. A good friend of mine had just died from Lou Gehrig's Disease, and I was entering a dark phase of cynicism and despair. I was in the middle of what I now refer to as my "death period," which ran roughly from my father's death in 1979 to my mother's death in 1987.

So when Lloyd Dendinger and I went to pick up Allen at the Mobile airport, I had a strange disconnected feeling, as if I were carrying out something in which I no longer believed, but felt duty-bound to complete. Poetry struck me as rather flimsy and frilly against the stark cold of death. And Ginsberg was to be here two days!

Ginsberg was the last off the plane. Here is what I wrote in my diary: "Lloyd and I met Ginsberg at the airport. A gray-bearded thick-lipped splay-footed man, his eyes huge and blinking behind the heavy lenses of his square clear-frame glasses, fumbling at a Walkman headset on his bald wrinkly crown, dreamily shuffling to the tune of some private music, wearing a lumpy frayed cream pinstriped coat, narrow black tie, shouldering a small dufflebag filled with notebooks, stray manuscripts, cassette tapes and a cheap camera, and, under the other arm, a gypsy-looking squeezebox, plastered with all kinds of stickers, which he would use as accompaniment for his reading. He looked every bit the shtetl scholar, distracted and shrewd at the same time.

I introduced myself and Dr. Dendinger, and we took Allen over to South Alabama, where he was set to give a lecture on his favorites; Whitman (first and foremost), Blake, W.C. Williams, Kerouac, Corso, the Beats, Naropa, and whatever else he wanted to talk about. We ate in the faculty lounge, but Allen seemed unhappy - he wanted to eat with the students. This was the first of my many mistakes.

The next mistake became clear when I took him to the Riverview (as the Adams Mark was then called). This was far too posh for Allen's taste. I believe he had the notion that Mobile was a seaport, and he was looking for some salty action. He asked me if there were any good blues clubs in the black section of town, and I told him yes, but our white faces might make people (me) nervous.

The next day I showed Ginsberg around Mobile - or at least, my Mobile. We had lunch with some local literati, but I could see Allen was again bored out of his skull. I decided to take him for a walk through Magnolia Cemetery, which was a place I frequented quite a bit in my Death Period. As we walked along, I pointed out various headstones and told some stories, and soon found myself talking about the death of my friend, and how vacant I felt inside. Allen got out his camera and took some pictures.

Shyly, I asked Allen about the guru he had been following since 1970. "So, how is Rinpoche?"

Allen shrugged. "He died."

I was aghast. "He died? When?"

"About two weeks ago."

Now I was truly astonished. Here was Ginsberg talking about someone who had to mean far more to him than I could imagine, and speaking of his death so non-chalantly, as if he were saying, "Oh, he went to the grocery store."

"Well ...I'm so sorry. How are you doing?" Allen looked sidewise at me as if I had asked a strange question. "Fine," he said.

I couldn't let it go with just this. "Well," I persisted, "did you see Trungpa before his death, or, um, mahasamadhi?"

"Yes."

"Did he say anything to you?" I was eager to hear the parting words of the famous crazy-wisdom guru to his disciple Allen Ginsberg.

"I went by to visit him in the hospital," Ginsberg said. "This was three days before his death. He just told me this: 'Continue your celebration'."

This hit home. I hardly felt my life at that time to be a celebration, but it sounded like a good attitude to try for. Ginsberg said he wanted to get a new coat for the reading, and asked me if there were any Goodwill or Salvation Army used-clothing stores nearby. I took him to the Sallie on Dauphin Street, and Ginsberg picked out another seersucker coat. I knew from a conversation yesterday that Allen made over $60,000 as a professor, plus his royalties and reading fees. But this was just Allen's stroke, you see - he preferred to dress like a Trailways cowboy in his Goodwill duds.

The reading at the JJP was shocking to some, fun to others. It was amazing that a man then in his 60's could still manage to be radical, as he had been for four decades. Ginsberg was onstage what he was offstage - completely honest. And also frankly graphic, some say pornographic, in his homosexual rhapsodies. At the time, I never managed to reconcile Allen's spiritual pronouncements from his satyr-like pursuit of young men. Just before the reading, he asked me why I hadn't announced the reading in all the Gay bars - a promotion idea that had completely escaped me. But he did give a good show, reading and croaking and chanting and singing, sometimes with a hastily arranged guitar back-up. The contract for Allen's readings required that they be taped, and a copy given to Allen's agent, since Ginsberg improvised and composed onstage.

Here I must say that I never really cared for Ginsberg's poetry. To me it seems like second-rate Whitman. He once told the Paris Review that poets should feel free to write about anything - for example, even about the time with the broomstick in the Budapest hotel. Yes, I would have responded, you may write about anything, but must you? Some things I just don't need to hear about.

But Ginsberg's aura, his actual presence and his life, were wondrous, as was his sheer love of poetry and his bravery. He really did have no secrets, it seemed, and this made him uncomfortable to be with for many people. I found his candor refreshing. When I used the word "analemma" Allen wrote it down in his journal with my sketchy definition of the word as the infinity symbol, or the shape the sun makes on a sundial. He seemed utterly without guile, and was happy to learn something new from anyone. This impressed me as much as anything about him.

Two months before he died, Ginsberg wrote a poem called "Death & Fame," which is a really funny poem that contains the usual Ginsberg-Whitman catalogue of long lines and big breaths. In it he lists everyone who will be at his funeral, from family, to friends, to ghosts, and to young lovers ("young boys met naked recently in bed") and wraps the list up with: "Everyone knew they were part of 'History' except the deceased/ who never knew exactly what was happening even when I was alive."

It is a good line. Honest. I shrug, stroll on through the cemetery, and, yes, continue the celebration. While I'm here, until I too fade and disappear, this seems the right choice.


The Harbinger, Mobile, AL