It's been more than a decade since the death of Allen Ginsberg, but in the interim I've found that he's stayed with me as an informing, tempering, guardian-like presence of a stature equaled only by my late father. Allen and I were never really friends, but having said that I feel an urgency to qualify and emend it. He meant as much as or more than any friend I can think of, and in the years since his death it's come to me that he was one of the two or three great teachers of my life. He looked me up and down, and looked me in the face, taking my measure for good or ill, and then informed me, on several critical occasions, where I had gotten it right or wrong. I bridled at the negative assessments but then quickly or slowly realized the generosity implicit in them and, more to the point, their correctness.
I also realize that with his passing there is simply no one to fill his shoes. He had the energy and curiosity and hunger for the crowd to be seemingly everywhere, and that is something we could do with more of in our poets. Our great ghosts of the outer limits, from Emily Dickinson to Robinson Jeffers, are all well and good, but we need more of the shambling, love-besotted Whitman, Allen's great exemplar, of whom he was the finest avatar we've yet had. That he was Jewish is also, to me, half-Jewish and much in colloquy with that side of myself, a wonder and a blessing. He was a Jew who rejected and defied the worst, and at the same time typified the best, of our tribe. He left the inbred zealots and the mammon-obsessed equally behind and demonstrated, into the bargain, the native practicality of my grandmother's putting a bowl of chicken soup down on the table and commanding one to eat. He paid the rent and the utility bill and only then sat down to write poesy. He was a mensch.
The Jews, like the Armenians wronged by history on the scale of genocide, are obsessed by morality, and this can swiftly segue into self-righteousness. Allen, the brilliant pied piper of the hippies during the '60s, had the insight to see in Kerouac's disgruntled redneck—"Blow me, Ginsberg," he reports being commanded more than once when Kerouac had grown fat and old—to see in this drunken misanthrope a golden teaching. When all of us were caught up in being right, so to speak, Kerouac bedeviled everyone by being heartbreakingly wrong. He kept the other side in human perspective, perhaps in a way similar to Allen's later teacher Chogyam Trungpa, the Tibetan Buddhist with whom Allen and Anne Waldman collaborated to create Naropa's Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics in Boulder.
Trungpa came from the Crazy Wisdom lineage in Buddhism. Before his early death, he scandalized the American spiritual community with his drunkenness, his promiscuity, and, most notably, a confrontation with W.S. Merwin in which his devotees at a retreat violently terrorized the poet and his girlfriend. Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism is perhaps the most famous of Trungpa's books, and the title summarizes his approach. The story goes that when Allen first met him, he was surprised and put off by Trungpa's drinking.
"You should stop drinking," Allen told him. "You can't be a drunk when you're a spiritual leader."
Trungpa told Ginsberg fine, he would stop drinking if Allen would cut off his long hair and shave his beard. Allen, always up for a cosmic joust, went off and did that, then returned clean and shorn to Trungpa, presumably still at the bar.
"Okay," Allen said. "Now it's your turn."
Trungpa reportedly told Allen that he liked drinking too much to give it up—which sounds a lot like that Catholic Buddhist, Allen's other guru, Kerouac.
As a teenager in Manhattan, I turned to poetry because I couldn't understand what life was about and thought I might uncover some clues in such writing, which, according to Louis Zukofsky, finds an order "that can speak to all men." Howl, which I found during high school, was like an encyclopedia of the emotional and psychic life that had been driven under in me, with the result that I felt restless and bored a lot of the time. It was like finding a deep neural and psychic autobiography in the middle of the snow job of late-1950s/early-1960s America. Life is big, it said. It has a lot of colors. It's serious. It's funny. It's full of suffering that is also like bread, nurture, on a journey of the soul. I could say that reading it broke me open, so that I could discover myself in the deeper history of our time and kind.
Which was quite a favor to render a screwed-up adolescent.
Allen called me from Naropa one year, trying to track down a photograph of Kerouac that I'd used in Genesis Angels: The Saga of Lew Welch and the Beat Generation. It was a head shot of Jack wearing a crucifix, which had appeared originally in Mademoiselle. The crucifix had been airbrushed out of most of the reprints of the photograph, which may have been why Allen was looking to find the photographer, a man named William Eichel, whom I never located. After going over these details, we got on to other things. My father had died recently, and Allen told me a story about his father, the late poet Louis Ginsberg, who had been a high school teacher in New Jersey. When he'd visited his father in the hospital during his last illness, Allen said Louis told him that as a little boy he'd lived near a magnificent building, a great tower with chimneys from which, at certain hours of the day, huge plumes of smoke billowed. Louis had dreamed of this building and wondered what went on inside it. He promised himself that when he grew up he would go there and find out. Years later, as an older man, Louis made his pilgrimage.
"Do you know what it was, Allen? That great tower that set me dreaming?"
"It was a glue factory."
During the same call Allen lightened my spirits by telling me how much he liked Genesis Angels, which had received mixed reviews. We talked a while longer and then he said he was getting worried about the phone bill, and I let him go. The part about the phone bill is pure Allen Ginsberg to me, the great poet of his time with one eye on the utility company.
During the '60s, in my minimalist phase as a poet, I ran into Allen one afternoon on the corner of Fifth Avenue and Eighth Street. I'd just purchased some bell-bottoms and a hippie shirt, thinking I'd take the plunge into my generation's attire, and Allen looked me over seriously.
"What's going on?" he said.
"Well, I think the clothes are beautiful, so why not wear them?" I said, trying to keep my inflections relaxed, though I felt caught out by him in an experimental exercise.
He nodded and made no further comment about it, and we got to discussing my one-word poems.
"Are you lazy, or what?" It was the sort of comment that could have come only from Allen or from my father.
"No," I said.
Ten years later, when I'd abandoned postmodernism and become a writer in an older tradition, Allen attended a reading I gave with Bill Knott at St. Mark's Church. Afterward, he commented to me that a poem I'd read took an "us-and-them" stance that he considered incorrect. This was priceless information, not about the quality of the poem so much as about how it is one continues to write. It was, as I see it today, part of the higher literary physics that he and Kerouac reinstated, so to speak. The reason you didn't take an us-and-them stance I heard explicitly echoed later in my reading of William Hazlitt and Henry James, among others. The moral example of literature wasn't judgment, that is, but empathy, which is why Shakespeare is our greatest exemplar. Allen was telling me, in his way, that I had turned down a cul-de-sac.
* * *
The Paris Review interview with Jack Kerouac was the brainchild of Ted Berrigan at a time when, hard as it is to believe, Kerouac was an almost forgotten man. Thank God Ted didn't forget him. It was a few months before the fabled Summer of Love, 1967, and Ted stopped in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I was living at the time. He brought along fellow poets Ron Padgett and Tom Clark, as well as Larry Bensky, who went on to become a mainstay of Pacifica Public Radio's political reporting. For everyone but Ted, the Cambridge trip was a spur-of-the-moment lark. For several lovely spring days, people variously drifted in and out of, snacked and rapped in, napped and slept at the Central Square two-story house I was renting with a couple of roommates—everyone enjoying the atmosphere of the town at the height of the '60s—and then all of the impromptu visitors but Ted drove back to New York. Ted invited me to accompany him up to Lowell to interview Kerouac, and the poet Duncan McNaughton showed up with a big late-model car to drive us all there. I accepted the invitation on impulse—at that moment of the '60s I'd very nearly forgotten Kerouac myself.
Ted's impromptu choreography: Jack had loved my dad's work, Ted knew, and he also knew I'd be reluctant to come as the Ambassador of William Saroyan, as it were, and made his invitation spontaneously casual—and off we went.
Kerouac, a bull-like ruin in his dark Lowell ranch-house living room, was the last of the Beat triumvirate I met (Allen was first, then Burroughs), and I saw him only that single afternoon and evening, but it proved to be a strange rite of passage, a goofy but enduring literary baptism.
Ted, a red-haired Irishman in his early 30s who liked to pop pills, gave Jack a handful of Obitrols almost as soon as we stepped into the living room, and Jack gulped them and never looked back. Ted knew Jack's work comprehensively, minutely, and with intimate biographical details in the bargain. He was a great interviewer because he was also ready, willing, and able to run the full gamut of Jack's demotic vocabulary, which like Shakespeare's was a great repository, from the idiomatic to the high literary.
"God, man, I rode around this country free as a bee." Kerouac told us about his time with Neal Cassady. "We had more fun than five thousand Socony Gasoline Station attendants can have." I sat in the dark living room—the afternoon had turned to evening, but no one had bothered to turn on the lights—thinking this doesn't sound like the Paris Review interview I read with Truman Capote.
I had a signal Edward R. Murrow moment, but it came up a little too late for me to deliver a non-Murrow-like smart-ass punch line I had in mind. I asked Jack what the difference was between Buddha and Jesus. He looked up at me quickly, nodded seriously, and said, "That's a very good question. There is none."
This response, not unexpected, nevertheless kept me quiet, for which I thank both deities. My planned answer: "Buddha knew karate."
During the interview Jack, perhaps intrigued that the son of one of his first literary influences was now looking to him, asked me to repeat after him, line by line, the words of a poem of his from Mexico City Blues:
KEROUAC: Delicate conceptions of kneecaps. Say that, Saroyan.
SAROYAN: Delicate conceptions of kneecaps.
KEROUAC: Like kissing my kitten in the belly
SAROYAN: Like kissing my kitten in the belly
KEROUAC: The softness of our reward
SAROYAN: The softness of our reward
I stumbled once or twice—there were some complicated lines—but a thick-skinned, hardheaded 23-year-old writer was getting some basic training, not in literature per se, but in repeating the words of a master. That is the correct existential posture in the lineage of mystery—surrendering to it—that the Beats revived. So, my young friend, it was as if Kerouac was saying, Let's appreciate it together; even though I wrote it, it's both of ours now. When I'd completed this exercise, Jack rewarded me with a modest encomium that has traveled with me down the years and that I've tried my best to be worthy of. "You'll do, Saroyan," he said.