FOR A KID growing up in Scranton, Pa., there was nothing like these two literary devils. They rode into America of the mid-and late 1950s with a verve, a courage, an energy and honesty that was bracing, courageous, intoxicating, exciting and totally, honestly new. Nothing had been seen like them before. Nothing has been seen since. For wiry kids like me, growing up in towns whose only "bookstores" stocked five racks of paperbacks at the rear of a shop that sold cards and 45 rpm records, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac were spirits from another world, another universe. For those of us tired of Thomas Wolfe's prolixity, Ernest Hemingway's kick-your-ass posturings, Scott Fitzgerald's wan sentimentalities, or the sociologies of Theodore Dreiser or Sinclair Lewis or Upton Sinclair, Ginsberg and Kerouac caught the possibilities of books, which meant that they opened them up beyond their covers, which meant that pagination had to be extended to the infinite, which meant that all boundaries instantly and permanently collapsed, cowards before the New World and the New Word.
New rhythms, spontaneities, improvisations flew in the face of the expected and the established. Gray flannel gave way to corduroys and jeans and blue work shirts bought for just over a buck in the sort of Army/Navy surplus stores our parents told us to stay away from. Julie London and Mantovani gave way to Brubeck and Monk and Bird and Coltrane; iambics and pentameters gave way to Old Testament incantations, Hindu mantras, Zen sutras, Japanese haiku and the good, old-fashioned ins-and-outs of the American breath; arms held at length gave way to the mirror of self-reflection and the courage of self-doubt and the love of the candid, whatever its destinations and conclusions.
Kerouac died in 1969, a broken near-alcoholic nursing anti-Semitic grievances, anti-communist conspiracies and deep regrets and embarrassments about a youth he feared he had misspent.
Ginsberg died on April 5 at 70, the Grand Old Man of American Poetry, the Whitman of Our Day, the Bard of a Generation. A few years ago, I interviewed him in Washington for an article I was writing about him. We planned to meet at the office of a mutual friend - a dentist. I arrived at Ted's office a bit earlier than scheduled, and was flipping through a magazine or two in the waiting room when Ted came out: "Come on back. Allen wants to meet you."
So down the hall we went into one of those tiny rooms where dentists do what they do to people - and there was Ginsberg, almost flat in a dental chaise lounge: Famous howler and pederast, the would-have-been levitator of the Pentagon during an anti-war march in October 1967 and the fellow who was kicked out of Cuba after calling Che Guevara "cute." Pleased that his incisors were getting a major renovation, Ginsberg wanted to start the interview right there: Despite the sides of his mouth being stuffed with cotton and a mask delivering nitrous oxide clamped over his nostrils. For 10 minutes, the interview was conducted that way. Then we moved to a nearby cafe, Ginsberg came down from his nitrous oxide high, and for more than two hours, he impressed me with his instant recall of lines of his and others' poetry and of obscure biblical verses, with his generosity of spirit, and most surprisingly, with his quick, frolicsome humor.
When the interview appeared in Q&A; form, Ginsberg sent me a rather complimentary note, but he did question whether my tape recorder had been functioning during the beginning of the interview. He couldn't believe he had made some of those peculiar statements that were at the start of the published transcript.
There is a longevity in books and poems that is enticing and seductive, and before Ginsberg, the man, went to the ages, Ginsberg, the poet, went to other, younger generations. In 1993, one of my daughters was sitting in the living room, reading Whitman (not, gratifyingly, for a school assignment). I pulled out my copy of "Howl" - bought for 75 cents in an alleged bookstore in Scranton - and we took turns reading aloud a line or two from our respective poets, each songwriters of themselves, each celebrators of their nation, each joyous scribes of their world:
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me belongs to you ...
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,
angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection
to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night.
I am of old and young, of the foolish as much as the wise
I resist any thing better than my own diversity,
Breathe the air but leave plenty after me,
And am not stuck up, and am in my place ...
What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for I walked down the sidestreets under the trees with a headache ...
I went into the neon fruit supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations!
... I saw you, Walt Whitman, ... poking among the meat in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys.
I heard you asking questions of each: Who killed the pork chops? What price bananas? Are you my Angel? ...
For Allen Ginsberg, angel-headed hipster son of Louis and Naomi Ginsberg, we now recite Kaddish: Yisborach, v'yishtabach, v'yispoar, v'yisroman, v'yisnaseh, v'yiskador, v'yishalleh, v'yishallol, sh'meh d'kudsho, b'rich hu. We recite blessings for his memory and his soul - and we sing his song.
Arthur J. Magida is the author of "Prophet of Rage" and "How to be a Perfect Stranger."
Pub Date: 4/13/97