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The Exquisite Corpse - A Journal of Letters and Life
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the making and unmaking of person

An Homage to Allen Ginsberg
by John Olson

On a Friday afternoon in July 1995, Allen Ginsberg held an impromptu lecture and panel discussion in a large white tent set up on the grounds of Naropa University at the foot of the Rockies. This would be a pivotal event, a fulfilling occasion for me personally. Allen had been a seminal figure, a shaping influence in my life. On my 18th birthday, in 1966, a girlfriend who swam for the Santa Clara swim team gave me a recording of Howl. The first time I heard Allen's rich rabbinical voice intone the opening words "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix," I felt lifted out of the realm of the ordinary and into a domain of orgasmic brilliance and seismic cantillation. Howl presented a world vastly different from the cheerful green lawns of Golden Valley, Minnesota, where I'd been raised, or the breezy, jasmine-scented bonhomie of suburban California where I'd gone to live in my late teens and early twenties. I was neither Jewish, nor a homosexual, yet something in Allen's experience as a human being resonated deeply with my own hungers and excitements, my own personal cataclysms and ecstasies. Allen's poetry was intense, vivid, and fiercely authentic. It made me want to write work of equal merit. It opened me to the work of other probing American writers, Thoreau, Whitman, Emerson and Emily Dickinson. It opened me to hard living and lunacy and giddy, stratospheric concoctions. To stroll down a hall in one of the Naropa buildings and see Allen bent, with furrowed brow, over one of the poems a student had handed him in a classroom shortly after a workshop, was a bit jarring, but jarring in a good way. It was refreshing to see this figure, who I'd always imagined ecstatically leaping about or lingering, like a strange biblical prophet in the background of D.A. Pennebaker's Don't Look Back, in such a professorial mode, fussing so solicitously over a young man's poem. It was at the moment I saw how really sincere he was about poetry, and helping the world find a better, less destructive way to live.
      We had heard that Allen had been ill and so would not be lecturing that day as scheduled. But then there was a sudden change of mind, and Allen decided he would give a talk, and monitor the panel discussion scheduled for that morning. This sudden reversal is what made it seem impromptu, if not providential.
      My wife Roberta, her friend Jenny, and I entered the tent and sat down in one of the middle rows of some folding chairs. I could feel the heat of the sun through the cloth of the tent and noticed the poet David Bromige sitting further in the back, getting repeatedly divebombed by a dragonfly.
      Allen sat at the table looking pensive and sad. He was the first to arrive. His poor health was not immediately apparent. I would not have guessed that he was to die of liver cancer several years later, on April 7th, 1997. He was balding, his goatee was thick and bushy, and there was nothing in his poise and clear intention to be there that suggested the ineffaceable weariness of the dying. He wore a dark blazer, black trousers, and sensible, thick-leathered shoes. He appeared to be a completely sane, well-adjusted man. I knew different. I viewed him as a modern-day shaman, a modern-day prophet, a man whose ardor for the well-being and progress of the world could be volcanic in its vehemence. Which is not to say he was perfect. He could be cranky, conniving, and something of a P.T. Barnum when it came to self-promotion, or creating a media sensation like the Beat movement. He was flawed, no doubt about it. But so what. I saw him as a prophet, not a saint. There was nothing genteel or sedate about his poetry; it was full of rhapsodic visions, hydrogen jukebox rags, Apocalypse Rock, colossal steam whistles, "rotten old apricots miscellaneous under the leaves," "blear thoughts of death and dusty loveless eyes," jazz and sex and soup, drunken taxicabs of Absolute Reality, Kali the Destroyer of Illusions and the beard of Martin Buber. His work encompassed a range of experience from the kicks and drugs and seedy glitter of Times Square in the 50s to the holy slopes of Tibet and the temples of India. He was a colorful figure, a rabbinical trickster whose ecstasies and affronts to the purblind morality of the general public were as enlightening as they were farcical and impertinent. Allen hedged nothing, permitted everything. Drugs, gods, gurus, augers, hosannas, debauches, death, dreams, dharma desperados and his own robust homosexuality were all fodder for his work. His poetry was rough, raw, and ready. It was immediate and urgent and desperate and incandescent. It created a whole new movement. It revolted against everything conformist, repressive, and false.
      Jenny was a student. She was enrolled in the MFA program at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics cofounded by Anne Waldman and Allen Ginsberg in 1974. Roberta and I were guests. We had driven to Boulder from Seattle, enjoying the heat and thunderstorms of Idaho, listening to Eric Satie, The Doors, and the Cocteau Twins on our tapedeck, taking in the multifarious hues of Utah, entering Colorado in Dinosaur National Monument, heading east through Steamboat Springs and Snow Mountain Ranch on Highway 40, crossing Berthoud Pass, then dropping down into Boulder through the old gold mines and boisterous streams of Eldorado Canyon.
      Allen was lecturing that day on one of his favorite topics: William Blake. Specifically, William Blake's Urizen, the mythological being Blake invented to symbolize 18th century rationalism, that overweening emphasis and deification of reason that leads, inevitably, to a blankly materialist philosophy, an inner death of the soul prone to war and brutishness and a passive acceptance of the most arrogant tyranny. In Blake's colorful, muscular language Urizen is depicted as a vengeful colossus - "a shadow of horror" - living in the north, "obscure, shadowy, void, solitary," "self-clos'd, all repelling." A dark power, brooding and secret, "revolving in silent activity," "in tormenting passions." Urizen represents everything that is repressed, measured, rationed, controlled.
      As people continued to percolate into the tent, Allen paid them no mind. He was too deeply absorbed in his reflections. If he was feeling the weight of his mortality, he kept it well hidden. He seemed unconcerned with anything but that particular moment. He was animated, focused, and magnetic. As he began to talk, the temperature began to cool and the sky began to dim with clouds. I put on my jacket and zipped it up as high as it would go. In two seconds I'd gone from hot to cold. Sudden vagaries of weather are common to Denver and the Rocky Mountains. Denver is 5,283 feet above sea level and the air is thin and unstable. Winds blown across the prairie from the east crash into the mountains, generating a meterological combat of biblical proportions. Every time it thundered I expected the sky to crack open revealing the bright halls of eternity. I worried that a bolt of lightning might strike the metal framework of the tent, travel through one of the electrical wires into Allen's microphone and turn him into a ball of Saint Elmo's fire. Had that happened, I doubt he would have noticed. He was so completely focused on his topic that he paid no attention to the storm outside. He was far more preoccupied with the drums of war and the torments of Blake's Urizen.
      "Blake's prophetic books are actually reflections of Blake's personal conflicts of the time," Allen remarked. "Blake was struggling with some of the same emotions we struggle with. Blake's books are useful now as explorations of the same problems we have, somewhat related to the revolutionary fervor of the sixties in America and a subsequent so-called disillusionment. Blake was up to date in the psychology of wrath versus pity, compassion versus anger, that runs through all of his work and is visible for our own decade as well as his."
      Allen went on to list the litany of horrors surrounding us up to that time in the mid-90s: toxic waste, genetically engineered food crops, air pollution, water pollution, radioactive waste and stockpiles of unused plutonium; ecological disasters such as global warming, oil spills, acid rain, soil erosion, and water table shortage; the "new poor" who are victims of modernization and privatization and the breakdown of the welfare system; shifts in mode of production and patterns of consumption brought about by satellite communication and declining transport costs that have resulted in the sweatshops in Indonesia and elsewhere in the world where women and children work for 11 to 12 hours a day seven days a week for 56 or 58 dollars a month making T-shirts, soccer balls, and baseball caps; smart bombs, dumb bombs, cluster bombs, graphite bombs, dirty bombs, nuclear bombs, neutron bombs, and landmines; just about every evil, in fact, that science had brought into the world. As Allen went on with this dizzying litany of technological evils I began to fidget in my seat. I found it harder and harder to contain myself. It seemed to me that all the blame he was putting on science was faulty. But then there was a shift in his argument. He introduced a term he called "sweet science." Sweet science was science in the service of humankind--opportunities to improve, rather than exploit, our lot in the world. He asked for examples, and my arm shot up.
      Roberta nudged me. "This is for students," she reminded me. I felt embarrassed. I was but a guest. The students in attendance were paying money for opportunities such as this. I brought my hand down and hoped Allen hadn't noticed me. Another person spoke, and I felt relief. But no, when the other person was done speaking, he called on me.
      "Did you have to something to say?" he asked.
      "No, no, that's okay. I'm just a guest," I explained. "I'm not actually a student here."
      "That's ok, come on down," he insisted.
      I looked at Anne Waldman, who was sitting in the front row and had turned around to look at me. She gave me an amiable, inviting look, so I went down to the microphone that had been set up for questions. I looked at Allen, who looked back at me, and began to speak.
      Just the day before, at the University of Colorado, one of the most significant developments in science had occurred, and that discovery, I thought, had tremendous metaphysical implications, and that's what I was so anxious to convey.
      I explained that that very morning - July 14th, 1995 - the Rocky Mountain News had carried a story about a "spectacular discovery": Boulder physicists had created a new state of matter. They had cooled thousands of rubidium gas atoms into a single ultracold and dense "superatom." I gleefully explained that this was palpable, empirical evidence that all things in this universe are indeed one. This was a central tenet of Buddhist philosophy. Allen nodded agreement without seeming ultimately convinced that science and technology were not inherently evil. I wish I had argued at greater length that science, in fact, was inherently quixotic, since what scientists ultimately sought was knowledge, not wealth, or world domination. Science was like fire; it could be a force for good or evil depending on how you used it, and with what care you tended and watched over it. I was too nervous and too self-conscious to elaborate. I decided to stop while I was ahead and returned to my seat, hoping I might be able to meet Allen later and talk at greater length on the subject.
      Unfortunately, I never got my chance. When the discussion broke up and everyone left the tent, Roberta and I entered into a friendly conversation with Anne Waldman and Andrew Schelling and lost track of Allen. I saw him the next day at a theatre in downtown Boulder where there was to be a poetry reading for the students at Naropa. Allen was one of the readers scheduled to appear. I saw Allen sitting alone at a small table busily writing while people were in the process of arriving and grabbing drinks at the bar in the lobby (the theater functioned mostly as a discotheque). Because he was writing, and appeared deeply absorbed, I didn't want to interrupt him. I talked instead to another aging, white-haired poet named Robin Blaser, who had been a pivotal figure in the San Francisco Renaissance of the 50s. We talked about bathtubs. I had purchased a cube of pumice for removing the stains in our bathtub and had forgotten it at the restaurant where Roberta and I had just eaten. No doubt the waitress thought the piece of pumice was part of her tip. Robin suggested having the bathtub relined. When I glanced over to see if Allen had finished whatever it was he had been working on, he was gone.
      Since that summer in 1995 I have thought long and hard about what Allen had been saying. It has taken all this time to really absorb it. He hadn't really been maligning technology, but the thinking behind the technology. Nor had it been his intention to vilify Reason. What he was warning against was what he called "the paranoic, self-limiting, comparing, reasoning, Urizenic mentality of the armaments makers and the Pentagon." To quote more fully from a little book called Your Reason and Blake's System, an essay by Allen Ginsberg which was published by Hanuman Books in 1988, "The division of Blake's final system is relatively simple."
      There's the body, Tharmas; there's emotion in the body, Luvah; there's imagination, Urthona; and there's reason, Urizen. Blake's basic conception is that if any single one of them "takes over," like Urizen, (which he thought was characteristic of the Industrial Scientific Revolution), then all four parts of the entire human universe fall out of balance and that imbalance creates war and chaos.
      Allen was convinced that in our present Western Industrial situation a repressive spirit of hyper-rationalism, embodied in Blake's Urizen, had taken over. There was evidence of this everywhere. The very appearance of our streets and architecture, the carnivorous ferocity of our cars, the madness of the freeway, the grotesque obesity of SUVs, the obesity and laziness of American children, the growth of aliteracy and the loss of readers, the loss of intellectual curiosity and the rise of ignorance. Except for occasional blips of auspiciousness--such as the phenomenal popularity of the Harry Potter books--on our cultural radar screen, western culture has never seemed so bleak. So greedy, so brutal, so corrupt. So vapid, so inane, so materialistic.
      The Beats weren't the first movement to undermine the common-sensical quest for material security and the sanctity of the so-called Protestant work ethic with their outrageous behavior, mad poetry, and "radiant cool eyes hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy among the scholars of war." Before the Beats were the Dadaists and Surrealists, André Breton, Philippe Soupault, Tristan Tzara, Hugo Ball, Benjamin Peret, Hans Arp, and Leanora Carrington, all blending mysticism and visonary zeal with wacky, madcap antics and protoplasmic balloons. And if we go even further back into the annals of western culture we have the gnostic gospel of Thomas encouraging us to seek within for beatitude and enlightenment:
      Jesus said, "If those who lead you say to you, 'See, the kingdom is in the sky,' then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, 'It is in the sea,' then the fish will precede you. Rather, the kingdom is inside of you, and it is outside of you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will become known, and you will realize that it is you who are the sons of the living father. But if you will not know yourselves, you dwell in poverty and it is you who are that poverty."




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