Friday, May 31, 2013

"i Celebrate Myself" (2006): the very un-private life of Allen Ginsberg

Perhaps it's due to his own at times overwhelming self-promotion (his final published poem, appearing in The New Yorker, was entitled "Death and Fame," a long litany of people he wished to attend his funeral) that there seemed no more to tell about Allen Ginsberg. What was there more to know about the poet whose lifelong ambitions were to find love and acceptance, as well as understanding, from his family and acquaintances?

Much, apparently. Not unlike that other obsessive diarist and collector, Andy Warhol, Ginsberg noted everything that happened and wrote it all down, from the William Blake-inspired epiphanies to the failed sexual encounters, and eventually hired assistants who had the task of sorting it all out.

Bill Morgan writes, in the introduction to I Celebrate MyselfThe Somewhat Private Life of Allen Ginsberg (Viking, 2006) that Ginsberg's apartment "was crammed with documents, and the mountain of paper spilled over into hundreds of boxes stored in the vaults at Columbia's Butler Library." Allen, perhaps realizing he wasn't up to the task of curating his own outsized legacy, agreed to let Morgan organize his files. After Ginsberg died, Morgan realized "the time had come to put it all together at last."

It's a biography not for the squeamish or the faint-of-heart. I Celebrate Myself (Morgan's title, taken from Walt Whitman, is not without a little Ginsberg irony) is a rollercoaster ride through much of the twentieth century, most of it in a society of underground circles and outside the pale of contemporary considerations.

It's a real surprise, however, to read of Ginsberg's early, earnest struggles to find a place in 1940s post-war America: the bright student (a genius!) involves himself in a round of well-intentioned jobs, enrollment at Columbia, letters of introduction to literary journals, trying to scale the walls of society in very acceptable ways. He entered Columbia, originally, in hopes of becoming a lawyer.

In these, he is disappointed both by a family history of mental instability (Naomi, his mother) and by his never-satisfied desire for acceptance, to fit in, with whoever would listen to his ideas. After a while, his association with certain individuals dooms his academic career (and he is threatened with expulsion for the most un-Ivy League appearance of being continuously unshaven). Once out the door at Columbia, the Ginsberg saga becomes a parade of what used to politely be called "colorful characters" -- and his search for love and acceptance gains velocity to the point of centrifugal force. From 1947:

"(By the time Allen arrived at the New Waverly farm) Burroughs was deep into a morphine habit and spent most of his time sitting on the porch ... Joan was awake twenty-four hours a day as she was using even more Benzedrine than she had before her hospitalization in Bellevue. By summertime she was seven months pregnant, and only Huncke seemed to be concerned about the effects that all the drugs might have on the baby. She busied herself by reading the newspaper religiously every day taking special interest in articles about odd items like skin diseases and unexplained explosions....It was so far from the neighbors that they hardly noticed William's frequent gunshots, for he liked to practice firing weapons of every kind."

He tries drugs with a scientific experimenter's zeal, writes unsatisfactory poetry in pale imitation of his literary models, falls in and out of love trying to make up his mind who -- or what -- he really wants.

Morgan's book is unblinking in its retelling of Ginsberg's sexual awakening, and he admits in the introduction that I Celebrate Myself is not a critical biography of Ginsberg's poetry ("Trying to explain what a poem means is a waste of time" -- a useful sentiment in defense of a poet who explained so much about his poetry during his lifetime, both to admirers and detractors). With the intensity of his "ecstatic" visions and his continuously overwhelming insecurities, it's astonishing that Ginsberg had the time to write poetry at all.

But his poetry becomes the hinge that opens the door. When Ginsberg finally realizes what it is he needs to say, he finds a path of expression so direct it shocked his family, his friends, and an American public unprepared for him (and which still hasn't fully recovered from the shock, generally, fifty years later after the publication of "Howl"). Years of doubting his own abilities as a poet found Ginsberg was ready to scale the walls of social and literary convention with a force that surprised everyone.
"A new confidence had come with Allen's successful readings onstage and that, combined with his already large intellectual ego, made him appear overbearing at times. ... But more often, rather than feeding on disputes, Allen tried to arbitrate problems and help people get along better. He knew that more could be accomplished by cooperation than by identifying too closely with the various literary camps. He always wanted to be inclusive, and get everyone involved, even if he didn't appreciate their poetry."

Morgan's biography celebrates the citizen of the world that the poet eventually, so determinedly, became after the publication of "Howl." (Three thousand names were in his address book -- from the Dalai Lama to Henry Kissinger.) Reading I Celebrate Myself provides a skeleton key to Ginsberg's public obsessions, as well as his private life, as if there were whole new aspects to discover. Perhaps there's a book waiting to be written about the poet's forty years of informal, international statesmanship: now, that would be something to read.

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