Although the anniversary of the publication of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” was celebrated recently, I knew him more as an activist than a poet. Our paths had crossed often—at civil-rights marches, antiwar rallies, marijuana smoke-ins, environmental demonstrations—and when it came to gay rights, he was on the front lines. As a researcher, he meticulously acquired files on everything that the CIA ever did, and I’m pleased that they’re included in his archives at Stanford University.
In 1982, there was a celebration of the 25th anniversary of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road at Naropa, a Buddhist college in Boulder, CO, where presumably they refer to his book as On the Path.
The Outspoken Activism of the Legend Allen Ginsberg
I was invited to moderate a discussion, “Political Fallout of the Beat Generation.” The panelists: Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Abbie Hoffman and Timothy Leary. During that conversation, Ginsberg said:
“I think there was one slight shade of error in describing the Beat movement as primarily a protest movement. That was the thing that Kerouac was always complaining about. He felt the literary aspect, or the spiritual aspect, or the emotional aspect, was not so much protest at all, but a declaration of unconditioned mind beyond protest, beyond resentment, beyond loser, beyond winner—way beyond winner—beyond winner or loser… but the basic thing that I understood and dug Jack for was unconditioned mind, negative capability, totally open mind—beyond victory or defeat. Just awareness, and that was the humor, and that’s what the saving grace is. That’s why there will be political aftereffects, but it doesn’t have to win, because having to win a revolution is like having to make a million dollars.”
As moderator, I asked, “Abbie, since you used to quote Che Guevara saying, ‘In a revolution, one wins or dies,’ do you have a response to that?”
Hoffman: “All right, Ginzo. Poems have a lot of different meanings for different people. For me, your poem ‘Howl’ was a call to arms.”
Ginsberg: “A whole boatload of sentimental bullshit.”
Hoffman: “We saw in the ’60s a great imbalance of power, and the only way that you could correct that imbalance was to organize people and to fight for power. Power is not a dirty word. The concept of trying to win against social injustice is not a dirty kind of concept. It all depends on how you define the game, how you define winning and how you define losing—that’s the Zen trip that was learned by defining that you were the prophets and we were the warriors. I’m saying that you didn’t fight, but you were the fighters. And I’ll tell you, if you don’t think you were a political movement and you don’t like winning, the fuckin’ lawyer that defended ‘Howl’ in some goddamn obscenity suit— you wanted him to be a fuckin’ winner, I guarantee you that. That was a political debate.”
Ironically, Ginsberg was very insecure about “Howl,” and he questioned the big fuss over it. “There shouldn’t be a trial over this poem,” he once lamented. In fact, a biography of Allen Ginsberg—American Scream by Jonah Raskin—has a surprising revelation:
“In the mid-1970s, in the midst of the counterculture he had helped to create, he promised to rewrite ‘Howl.’ Now that he was a hippie minstrel and a Pied Piper for the generation that advocated peace and love, he would alter ‘Howl,’ he said, so that it might reflect the euphoria of the hippies. He would include a ‘positive redemptive catalog,’ he said.”
The famous opening line of “Howl” goes: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving, hysterical, naked…” Abbie Hoffman would’ve been shocked to learn that Ginsberg had planned to rewrite “Howl,” this time beginning with an upbeat line: “I saw the best minds of my generation turned on by music…”
On one hand, Ginsberg was a pacifist. When he first started taking LSD, he thought that world peace would come about only if President Kennedy and Russian premier Nikita Khrushchev took acid together. And yet I remember a scene—this was in the early ’70s—when Ken Kesey, my daughter Holly and I were visiting William Burroughs in New York. He lived in this huge loft, with a great many cardboard boxes and one cat, and he was wearing a suit and tie with red high-top sneakers.
We decided to visit Ginsberg in the hospital. He’d had a stroke, and part of his face was paralyzed. He was in bed, and I introduced him to Holly, and he graciously struggled to sit up and shake hands with her, but he was weak and deep under some kind of medication. A little later—in psychiatry this is called a “primary process”—he blurted out, “Henry Kissinger should have his head chopped off!” It was a pure case of Ginsbergian Tourette’s syndrome.
Ginsberg sought out musicians—the Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Clash, Jello Biafra, Beck—exulting in their talent and status. He wrestled with his own ego. In fact, a few days before Ginsberg’s death, he wrote to Bill Clinton, revealing that his days were numbered and asking the president, “If you have some sort of reward or medal for service in art or poetry, please send one along.”
Subsequently, Kesey would reminisce, “I was at a party one time, when I first knew Ginsberg, and he was standing by himself over by the fireplace, with a wine glass in his hand and people milling around, and finally some young girl sort of broke off from the rest of the crowd and approached him and said, ‘I can’t talk to you—you’re a legend.’ And he said, ‘Yes, but I’m a friendly legend.’”