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
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."