On Ginsberg Dying

by Ezra Shales

In a society of carefully calibrated appearances, it was always a shock to see Allen Ginsberg on television. He invaded the television's frame. His presence on the screen, when friendly or angry, was always a transgressive one because his smiling visage and body language never smoothed out; he trembled, wiggled, gestured, and laughed so that I thought someone was always about ready to pull the plug on him.

No one did or could quiet him, and that, in itself is remarkable; his vitality seems impossible in retrospect. His death only makes the watermark of his energy-level seem even more out of reach, and supra-human. If you don't like his poetry, or think he had only one good poem, or think he wasn't a poet at all, that's okay, because he was an opportunist don't be embarrassed to say you think so for he was a supreme one: an opportunist who cared about education, love, poetry, people, sex, alienation, and religion. Not many opportunists go about pushing poetry these days. These are the subjects people bury in their lives out of fear, and Ginsberg exhumed these themes with only gesticulating hands and a pleading, didactic rant-and-rave style.

He was the good type of opportunist, the kind we need more of. Even if you didn't like him because of he was overbearing and seemed to parade in his own body odor just as much as that of the other dead poets', now is when you must begin to realize that we will all feel his absence. Because everyone else out there in the cultural elite seems concerned with smelling perfumed and pleasant and only Ginsberg seemed to wholeheartedly express the dirtiness of which life is full. He put a spotlight on those human pheromones which embarrass the prudish, the snotty, and the uptight.

And he left nothing out of his poetry. He showed that there wasn't anything you could not put into poetry. Everything was poetry.

The gap he left is immense; there is no one else who can say "transcendent" on prime time, and mouth it with his own mortal breath. There is no one else who can say "Molok" without making you feel like he's going to ask you for money. There is no one running from sea to shining sea, or lecturehall, or to an open-mike night to run off his mouth with love. With love? Yes, he poured it out in public for so many years that you thought there would always be someone shouting Walt Whitman into the wind. That unabashed overflow, that down-to-earth zealot was who we all needed.

Ginsberg was generous in a euphoric way, and generosity is sorely lacking in our cultural climate. His irrepressibility marks this, the moment of his death, as a time too quiet and too repressed to be healthy.

Since his death many people have told me that they liked his work when they were adolescents, but had long since dropped it along with other juvenalia. I had the fortune to be with him one afternoon ten years ago, when he spent a few hours reading the poetry of Poe, Melville, and Whitman aloud. "The bells, the bells, the bells. . ." I can still hear him shout, throwing himself into breathlessness, his eyes bouncing in their orbs like plastic buttons on a doll. His love of words encompassed the room. Ginsberg talked about "Expansive Poetry" as an American tradition, and as a poetry that rode breath as if it were the crest of a wave. He boomed out the poetry so that the words filled the room. His love, whether for poetry or poets, be they dead or unread, grounded Ginsberg in the present, and irrevocably denied him from becoming a dated specimen.

The voice I can still hear will always be a bridge, or perhaps a promenade, where the atmosphere is energizing and heroic, and the mood of living generous with no restraint.

It is that spirit we will yearn for. Generosity free from pettiness.

When the Whitney Museum recently exhibited the remains of the Beat "movement," I found the exhibition so barren of this type of generosity. The fuselage of so many lives lay all around scraps of paper, all of it semi-romanticized, silent, and nostalgic. Look at how many photographs are Ginsberg's. All those photographs of people reading, speaking, and talking. All those photographs and words about touch: Touching books and bodies, physical contact and intermingling breath. I worried whether any of it would mean anything to me if I could not hear the voices in my head ("the bells, the bells, the bells. . ."). Would I have ghettoized all the Beatnik Apparatchnik as a historical moment?

Yes. But look with me at Ginsberg on a button, wearing an Uncle Sam outfit, and if you can only see an opportunist, something's wrong. You must have lost your sense of humor. Here was someone who only wanted to be a shaman if he could also still be a clown. And he only wanted to talk about spirituality if he could also talk about sex.

Look out on the American horizon. There are no other poets globetrotting goodwill. No poet on prime-time news or late-night talk shows. Politics always played second fiddle to ecstasy with Ginsberg. He was a candyman; the Ambassador of Free Egg Creams. His desire to touch and be touched was unequaled by any president or politician; everyone else wanted to withdraw from the public and be alone at some point. But not Ginsberg. When he wasn't the guy reading at the microphone, he would be taking pictures of the guy who was.

Ginsberg always wanted to be with all of us. That's a pretty impossible feat, but one he pulled off on occasion. He was religiously social, running from crowd to crowd. If you want to be miserly, say he tooted his own horn. But he stands alone in my mind as the Great Cultural Ventilator, always exhaling our culture, debris, beauty, joy, warts and all, always full of breath on the television, or over the radio. The poetry is there and always will be; he made sure of it. Read it, if you will, because it's more candid than any newspaper. But reflect on how he gave his life, so openly, to us all: it is a powerful thought that is scary and warm in the same mythical way.

Memories. Every scenario and every mis-en-scene have always been constructed by or on memories. One must change that start from affection and new sounds.

Jean-Luc Goddard

Copyright ©1997 Ezra Shales & REVIEW All Rights Reserved