The Allen Ginsberg Photographs at The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, May 23-September 8, 2013
There never has been an English-language poet more universally known or influential then Allen Ginsberg. Not even Byron, Wordsworth or Dylan Thomas knew the breadth of reputation enjoyed by the New Jersey-born poet at the height of his dazzling fame.
Coming virtually from out of nowhere during the McCarthy era, Jewish, skinny, neurotic, bespectacled, publicly homosexual and obsessively codependent – everything that a post-war American poet ought not to be – Ginsberg blazed through the literary scene on both sides of the Atlantic and then went on to sweep over both sides of the Amazon, the Yangtze and the Black Sea.
Single-handedly he trounced the prodigious and seemingly insurmountable antisemitic god of modernism, T.S. Eliot, shrugging the monumental Wasteland aside with his epic old testament Jeremiad HOWL. Just to let Eliot’s mentor Ezra Pound know that a new boy had arrived, he paid the reclusive former fascist polemicist and make-it-new demagogue a visit in his redoubt in Rapallo, by which time Ginsberg was, arguably, the most popular poet alive.
It must have sent a message to Pound, who during World War Two, over Mussolini’s airwaves, had ranted gloating predictions about the inevitable demise of world Jewry. Here, gazing tenderly down upon him with big warm wet Blakean eyes was the queer Jew Ginsberg, come to slip the poetry torch from Pound’s trembling fingers and bring it back to his beloved Greenwich Village.
A superb tactical promoter who had for a time worked as a Mad Man on Mad Ave, Ginsberg played the media like a harpsichord. Cunning, irrepressible, this Edward Bernays of the poetry avant-garde assembled – from a loose network of free versifiers intoxicated with Charles Olson’s theories of projective verse – his own stable of charismatic hip darlings to parade before the cameras of Vogue and Vanity Fair.
Ginsberg’s mass media and television-promoted cultural revolution not only swept over the American pop scene and Partisan Review but also laid the groundwork for the Sixties and all that was to come. When not arranging publication for his pals, he was finessing the Associated Press to report on their latest shenanigans, especially a faithful inner cohort that included Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Neal Cassady, Michael McClure, Herbet Huncke, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso and a host of lesser-knowns along for the ride. Never before or since has so much media spotlight been trained on such genuine eccentrics. Everyone knows that organizing artists is like herding cats. Yet somehow he succeeded. And from his efforts came to be born, for better or worse, much of the world as we know it.
It was more a movement of friends then any conjoined take on literature, though the production of great novels and poems was certainly it’s grand premise. A close examination of seminal Beat documents shows very few of the aesthetic correlatives typical of a literary uprising. On The Road, Howl, Naked Lunch, Bomb – these texts bear little if any correspondence beyond a vague notion of rebellion and estrangement.
Yet we feel that we know these writers as intimates. That feeling of instant befriending is one of the secret sources of the Beat’s ongoing appeal. They befriend you with their words, their faces, their acts, their snapshots. That was due largely to Ginsberg’s faithful documentation and broadcast of their every little move and mood, and nowhere do we see this aesthetic of publicised intimacy and friendship better demonstrated then in the his private photographs, BEAT MEMORIES on display until September 8 at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum.
The exhibit, which comes to the Bay Area from the National Gallery has been something of an event in this city. Despite the fact that Ginsberg hailed from the East Coast and spent the bulk of his time there, he remains most identified with San Francisco, particularly the North Beach district, where poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who stood trial for his publication of Howl, can still be found shelving Dostoyevsky’s novels under D in the Fiction section of his historic City Lights bookstore.
In fact the display of these snapshots taken over decades of Ginsberg closest friends, lovers and associates has sparked a kind of Beat reunion among many of the locals who knew him. This will reach a celebratory crescendo from July 12-15 when The Allen Ginsberg Festival, which I’ve co-curated, celebrates three days of Beat culture with panels, readings, performances, lectures and general Beatific city-wide mayhem.
Standing before a photo of Beats assembled in front of City Lights Bookstore, leaning close in to read Ginsberg’s handwritten inscription is Neeli Cherkovski, poet and biographer of Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Charles Bukowski, and a longstanding intimate of Ginsberg. “Boyyy, look at this…” he says aloud to anyone who might be listening. Around the exhibit and its planned events hover other longtime Ginsberg confidantes like poet David Meltzer, Beat historian and longtime assistant to Ginsberg, Bill Morgan, Kerouac biographer and poet Ruth Weiss, who first contrived the performance of serious poetry to jazz in the late 1940s. Weiss was an associate of such San Francisco legends as Kenneth Patchen and Kenneth Rexroth – the same Rexroth who later MC’d the historic Gallery Six reading where Ginsberg’s performance of HOWL in a storm of trembling and tears (as Kerouac passed jugs of wine and shouted ‘GO!”) launched The Beat Generation.
Viewing Burroughs slumped lazily across a bed, or hunched on a sofa with Kerouac, or Ginsberg lounging on a rooftop, or Kerouac enjoying a smoke on a fire escape in dreamy-gritty black and white, one becomes oneself black and white, lost in a legendary marginality that time will redeem with immortal technicolour fame. It’s a strange poetic effect of time-inversion, witty and yet innocently earnest in its celebration of ordinariness, but with powerful déjà vu echoes of tragedy foreseen. One can feel Ginsberg’s visionary, far-seeing eye in each frame, sense that somehow he knew that some of the figures in the photographs would become iconic, eternal, in ways that would destroy them. One wants also to draw back from the awful snapshot of Kerouac in later life: overweight, drunken, the dissipated image of his own father, as something too private and painful to share on a museum wall. But then, if the Beats had anything to bind them one to another as writers and friends, and them to us, it was in precisely this sort of unrestrained sharing of the most intimate self-truths revealed, no matter how stark, how raw, with anyone who willing to read or listen.
Alan Kaufman’s most recent book is Drunken Angel. A co-curator of The Allen Ginsberg Festival, he was an occasional colleague of Ginsberg in the 1990s.