Behind the jacket and tie, the poet-prophet of the 50s and 60s has lost none of his radical fury
The Beat Generation's International Visionary, whose Howl in the mid-1950s was heard across astonished continents, the Hippie's Hero incarnate, the Flower Children's apostle of Bliss and mind changing substances — is a very middle aged gentleman now.
Can this really be Allen Ginsberg, the man and voice who launched a hundred outrages, deported from Cuba and Prague, who went from Poland to Primrose Hill with his poetry? He sits unnoticed in the restaurant: that straggling hair which fell below the shoulder line is almost classically kempt now. The luxuriant beard cultivated like a halo has almost been trimmed away. He wears collar and jacket to the formal manner born.
Tomorrow the collected Allen Ginsberg, from 1947-1980, is published over here, a huge volume of some 800 pages, encased in a cover so sedate and sober that it would not be out of place for a volume of episcopal reminiscences.
But who goes for straight appearances now? The Allen Ginsberg under the skin is quite unchanged by time. In the 1940s Ginsberg saw himself as some later heir of Blake, Whitman and, perhaps, Ezra Pound. And right from his poetic beginnings until today (and the significant fact of being collected between hard covers) Ginsberg has lived a public life; little or nothing has been left private or hidden.
"The problem," he says, "was always to break down the barrier between the public and the private. Authoritarian governments thrive on secrecy, blackmail and intimidation. If poetry can include our actual lives and reveal the secrets of how we live, that would be a bulwark against the fascists."
Whatever criticisms may be made of Ginsberg as a poet, anyone leafing through this new record of his years will be struck by the consistency of his writing: those lamentations for an America of fierce wars, materialism and repressions; those pleas for spontaneity of emotions and an uninhibited record of his own (gay) life.
"Fascists and authoritarian right and left thrive on censorship, particularly on censorship of emotion and sex. If you have nothing to be blackmailed about, you are free to criticise the state." The Ginsberg private voice is quiet, schoolmasterly; and it's hard to imagine it reaching the exultant, lurid cries and incantations of his poetry reading style, as he expresses his conviction that candour should be the chief characteristic of the American poet.
Whitman he says could not be so in the days of certain loves which could not speak their name. And it is only in this definitive volume that even Ginsberg has finally published his Many Loves, which the dust jacket primly describes as "an erotic rhapsody" hitherto withheld "for reasons of prudence and modesty."
Ginsberg, looking back on his own sexual forays reckons that his do not emerge as "much different from straight loves." Right from his teens he owned up sexually to that begetter of the throwaway phrase "The Beat Generation" — Jack Kerouac. Kerouac, a heterosexual to his fingertips, groaned and accepted. It was no issue or matter for criticism, though interestingly, Ginsberg uses the word "tolerant" to describe Kerouac's response to his teenage confession.
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