Bill Morgan’s I Celebrate Myself: The Somewhat Private Life of Allen Ginsberg takes us back to an era when poets received couch time on network talk shows and tutored rock stars on the finer points of Blake’s work. Well, at least Ginsberg did these things, which made him a cultural arbiter like no other poet of his generation. Timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the publication of Howl, this is but one of a number of Ginsberg-related books coming out this fall. In addition to a reprint of the original Howl manuscript, there is a new edition of Ginsberg’s poems, as well as a collection of his early journals and an anthology of pieces devoted to the Howl obscenity trial. A Paul Giamatti biopic surely can’t be too far behind.
Published in paperback by Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Bookstore in 1956, Allen Ginsberg’s cri de coeur for a gifted generation lost in the military-industrial supermarket was, along with Kerouac’s On the Road, a two-megaton bomb, introducing demotic language and fleshy subject matter to a cosseted ’50s culture. As Morgan points out in this overstuffed bio, even early champions of Ginsberg’s writing, such as his Columbia English professor Lionel Trilling, had trouble wrapping their minds around Ginsberg’s free-verse thrill ride, parts of which were written during a peyote trip. Despite the tiresome pop-cultural appropriation of the most famous opening line in American poetry — “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness” — Howl’s exuberant rage and passion, its long lines packed with the disjunctive imagery of a postnuclear world run amok, can still blow the minds of those encountering it for the first time. Its half-century in print is certainly an anniversary worth celebrating.
Howl was the first important Beat document, followed in short order by On the Road and Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. As recurring waves of youthful insurgency held these sacred texts close to their chests, and rock stars name-checked the Beats as a barometer of their own hipsterism, the Beats over time morphed from rear-guard movement to mainstream signifiers of some inchoate “underground.”
We have Allen Ginsberg to thank for all of it, although I’m sure he would have blanched at the sight of Kerouac as a Gap model. Were it not for this openhearted son of an amateur poet, Morgan tells us, Kerouac and Burroughs would not have published these two aforementioned ur-Beat novels, and other poets, like Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen and Gregory Corso, would have been forever stuck in the coffeehouse ghetto. Morgan’s large yet unsatisfying book, the first Ginsberg biography to be published since the poet’s death in 1997, enumerates the many ways in which Ginsberg stuck his neck out for writers he believed in, even at the expense of alienating the very patrons who might have helped his own literary fortunes. Ginsberg is the fulcrum around which the Beat movement revolved.
Reared in Paterson, New Jersey — which, in a nice bit of symmetry, was the home of his hero and mentor William Carlos Williams — Ginsberg was the son of Russian poet-teacher Louis Ginsberg and a mother who dabbled in the Communist Party. It was never a suburban idyll; Naomi Ginsberg suffered her first nervous breakdown when Allen was 6 years old, and was subsequently diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. It was his mother’s mental illness that shaped Ginsberg’s early childhood; her behavior, writes Morgan, “was imprinted upon the boy so that he grew up seeing craziness as another side of life, an illness no different from other ailments.”
A suicide attempt by Naomi in 1937 led to frequent stints in and out of mental hospitals; she was convinced that Louis was trying to kill her, and Allen found himself tending to his mom during her home visits, the first of many instances in his life when Ginsberg came to the aid of those he loved.
Ginsberg himself was convinced that his mother’s psychosis manifested itself in the fragmentation of his own psyche. In an era of “don’t ask, don’t tell” sexual repression, Ginsberg initially thought of his own homosexuality as aberrant, something to be cured over time. That attitude would change in short order when, in the early ’40s, Ginsberg’s Columbia classmate Lucien Carr introduced him to his friends William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, who had dropped out of Columbia after one semester.
This was the start of an apprenticeship that opened up Ginsberg’s purview beyond the close reading of classical texts, into a life of restless exploration that was not only literary but spiritual, sexual and psychoactive as well. Out went Milton, in came Rimbaud and Verlaine. Eager to emulate Kerouac and Burroughs’ lurch toward self-actualization, and crushing hard on Kerouac, Ginsberg followed their lead. He smoked dope, grew out his beard, and began his decades-long path toward selfhood.
He helped a lot of fellow writers along the way. Morgan is best when recounting how Ginsberg’s generosity of spirit sparked the Beat movement; the poet practically hustled it into existence. According to Morgan, Ginsberg was convinced of Kerouac’s genius, and pushed hard to get On the Road a publisher, which he finally did when he convinced Malcolm Cowley at Viking Press to take a flier on the book. Ginsberg also helped Burroughs to organize Naked Lunch into a coherent narrative. Kerouac’s unrestrained prose style in turn exerted a strong gravitational pull on Ginsberg’s poetry, as did Neal Cassady’s correspondence to his wife Joan. Thus for a brief period the Beat movement was a kind of alembic whole into which each member contributed his part.
But from the late ’50s on, the diaspora began in earnest. Burroughs moved to Tangier, while Kerouac retreated to his mother’s New Jersey house and alcoholism. Ginsberg just kept on moving in search of satori. Morgan’s book is taken up for the most part with Ginsberg’s globe-straddling adventures, and too often reads like a Baedeker guide. Instead of providing a judicious recounting of the salient moments in Ginsberg’s extraordinary life, Morgan serves up everything in a somewhat undigested and desultory fashion. He has virtually nothing to say about the poetry itself — a stunningly ill-advised editorial choice, given that the work was very much a looking-glass vision of Ginsberg’s interior and exterior lives. “Trying to tell someone what a poem means is a waste of time,” Morgan writes in his foreword. But has he never heard of Helen Vendler (the author of many valuable books doing just that)? Instead of providing any critical analysis, he plods on through the poet’s life, year after year, and we are left to reach for Ginsberg’s poetry books in order to connect the dots.
Ginsberg was on the road during the most life-changing event of his career, as it turns out. The intrepid poet was visiting Burroughs in Tangier during the Howl obscenity trial in San Francisco in 1957. In a letter written to Ferlinghetti that is reprinted in Howl On Trial, an anthology of writings co-edited by Morgan about the landmark ACLU case, Ginsberg offers moral support while proposing ways to exploit the trial for commercial gain: “What did you hear about Life story? Is it going to happen and how much of this in?” The press didn’t need stroking. Ferlinghetti was found not guilty of distributing obscene material and Howl wound up selling hundreds of thousands of copies.
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As an artist in the new age of literary celebrity, Ginsberg transitioned seamlessly from public menace to beloved papa bear of the counterculture. He was befriended by Bob Dylan and appeared with Michael McClure in the promo film of “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” Suddenly, he was that rarity of rarities — a famous poet. Morgan tracks Ginsberg’s ambivalence about fame as an internal battle between his craving for a large, captive audience and a countervailing urgency to get quality work done. But this section of the book feels perfunctory: Certainly Ginsberg’s influence on the counterculture deserves more than a quick run-through (and where is that infamous Hells Angels party at Ken Kesey’s La Honda compound?).
Howl became an albatross for Ginsberg. He disavowed it as a minor work, and for years refused to read it in public. But other great work followed — Kaddish, Wichita Vortex Sutra, The Lion for Real, poems underlined and read aloud by generations of undergrads and Beatnik manqués.
Mainstream recognition only steeled Ginsberg’s resolve to keep searching for something more meaningful than the approbation of Moloch. Despite his disdain for paid reading gigs, the money helped pay for trips to India, where he soaked up the tenets of Buddhism and exchanged drug-induced enlightenment for Eastern spiritual thought. For years, Ginsberg taught free of charge at the Naropa school, the first accredited Buddhist college in America, founded by Chögyam Trungpa. Even when the literary establishment belatedly embraced him, Ginsberg refused to behave like some éminence grise, or worse, a Beat relic. If Morgan’s workmanlike book teaches us anything, it’s that in the end, the seeker became the seer.
I CELEBRATE MYSELF: The Somewhat Private Life of Allen Ginsberg | By BILL MORGAN | Viking | 702 pages | $30