The Beatnik Goes On: Poet Allen Ginsberg Throws a 25th Birthday Party for 'Howl'
Poet Allen Ginsberg boomed out the familiar opening line of his Beat Generation anthem, Howl, and a respectful hush fell over the SRO audience at Columbia University. He was the picture of surprising respectability. The Old Testament beard was neatly cropped; he wore a coat and tie. The occasion last week was the silver anniversary of the publication of Ginsberg's 384-line poem, which has become as much a revered museum piece as the rallying cry for a bygone era.
It was a sentimental return for the 55-year-old poet, who graduated from Columbia a year late—in 1948—because he spent too much time with such kindred spirits as Jack Kerouac. In McMillin Theater, Ginsberg was greeted by three generations of rebels—anti-conformists from Ike's interregnum, Vietnam War protesters from the '60s and anti-nukers from today. "I can't think of anything that influenced me as much as Howl," said ex-Yippie Abbie Hoffman (on weekend leave from his one-to-three-year prison sentence for selling cocaine). "When I first heard him read it in 1959 in San Francisco, it seemed like a call to arms. Tonight he emphasized the humor."
Has time dulled the scathing poem that was once condemned as obscene in California? "Not at all," Ginsberg insists. "It's still appropriate because a '50s-style fatheadedness, hysteria and draconian moral militarism is rising again. There's a conspiracy to roll back the cultural revolution of the past 30 years."
Allen himself has visibly mellowed from the days when he assaulted public sensibilities with his open homosexuality and iconoclastic free verse. He recalls that he typed out the first section of Howl in a single afternoon in San Francisco before turning it over to poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti's City Lights press. "I was breaking through my inhibitions poetically and emotionally," Ginsberg says. "Because of that, the poem caught on. It was just a little froth on a biohistorical wave."
He is being modest. Howl and Other Poems is in its 30th edition, with almost 325,000 copies sold. The title work has been translated into 13 languages. Next month the poet will publish his latest collection, Plutonian Ode, and in January CBS will distribute First Blues, an album on which Ginsberg sings. It includes two never-released songs that he improvised with Bob Dylan in 1970.
For the past seven years the poet has lived either in Manhattan's East Village or in Boulder, Colo., where he teaches at the Buddhist-oriented Naropa Institute. He estimates that between publishing royalties of about $10,000 a year and income from teaching and poetry readings, he earns "about as much as an underpaid grammar school teacher in Iowa." Still, he is no longer a tax resister "because it gives the government an advantage over you. They take your property, and now I have property."
Ginsberg sees no inconsistency between his previous nonconformity and his behavior today. He considers the aging radicals arrested in connection with the recent Nyack, N.Y. shootout to be "obviously nuts. What they did defied every progressive principle—they were isolated, cut off from everybody else. I only hope nobody forgets that these ex-CIA types with their arms deals are just as crazy." The future? He cheerfully foresees "just regular citizens carrying old insights, tempering grudges and learning peace. There are lots of people left who are still mentally active."