Allen Ginsberg and Me

A few days ago, I read the illustrated version of “Howl,” the classic American poem and cornerstone of all things Beat. Although I liked the way the illustrations slowed the poem down and made me read each line more slowly than I do when I see it all tumbling out in its traditional fashion–what struck me most while reading the work was that I have my own Allen Ginsberg story and I’ve never written it down. I thought perhaps I should rectify that situation.

It’s not the happy story that I would like to relate–I met Allen Ginsberg and he changed my life!–but rather a tale, on my part, of lost opportunity and fear.

When I was attending the University of Charleston, West Virginia, Allen Ginsberg came to stay for a few days as a visiting poet. At that point, sometime in 1986, I’d never heard of him. Although I was on my way to being rather well read, I’ve always been a slow starter and was ignorant of many, many great books and poems that I’d soon recognize as classics. One of my professors brought to class a tape of Jack Kerouac reading and said that another very famous “beat” poet was coming to our school as a guest. She said that those interested would be able to meet with Mr. Ginsberg to discuss writing. I fancied myself a poet at the time, and a rather fine poet at that (no snickering from the peanut gallery…please allow me the fantasies that sustained me as a yoot) and I was eager to meet a famous poet, although I had no idea what that meant at the time.

My writing? Awful, I suspect. Ramblings of a twenty year old who’d spent too much time writing in a spiral notebook without really reading much poetry. My poets were songwriters–good songwriters (or groups) like Lou Reed, John Prine, Dylan, Pink Floyd, The Police, The Call, etc.–but songwriters nonetheless, not poets. I hadn’t yet figured out that I wasn’t a poet, but a fictioneer. I was probably fifteen years from writing a decent story, but I really liked words. I loved to read and loved to fantasize about the life I’d lead as a rich and famous poet (my delusions knew no bounds). At UC, for one class, I read: Crime and Punishment, Jane Eyre, The Adventures of Augie March, and Middlemarch. Well, I sort of read Middlemarch. I didn’t fall in love with that book for a few more years. The teacher that introduced me to those great novels and brought in the scratchy recording of Kerouac also issued a warning about Ginsberg.

In my memory, she spoke directly to me, but perhaps she warned the whole class. I think I might have been the only student who was openly professing the fact that I was a writer. In any event, she told me she was glad I wanted to meet Ginsberg, but that I should be careful of him. And under no circumstances should I let him keep my work if he asked to see it. She gave no reason for this warning and I was too young to contemplate questioning the dire cautionary admonition.

So, I went to see Allen Ginsberg. I wish I could remember it better. He was staying in a nice little house on campus with two young men whom he called assistants (they also played squeeze box and guitar during his reading) and they were all very nice to me. I was nervous meeting him–I would’ve been nervous without the warning, but the warning set me on edge. I wanted him to like me and I wanted him to like my poems. I had a sheaf of wrinkled papers in my hand. He read them while I was there and we talked about other poets I liked (the only one I could think of was Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Lord only know how I knew him, who was Ginsberg’s publisher, but whom Ginsberg called a little derivative). And then he did exactly what my teacher told me he would do–he asked to keep some of my poems to look at and comment on.

It’s hard to believe that I said no, but I did.

Typing the words is heartbreaking to me now. He looked sort of shocked, too, by my refusal, but perhaps everyone was saying no. I imagine it must have been a little baffling for him.

What I write next is even harder to write: I had it in my head that my teacher warned me away from Ginsberg because she thought he might steal my ideas. That really hurts, my youthful stupidity.

It hurts that I couldn’t see beyond it, beyond the stupid warning. It hurts to know that I might’ve had some poems (bad poems, certainly) with marginal comments by Allen Ginsberg if only I hadn’t been so afraid of…something…or if I hadn’t been guided toward that fear.

It hurts to admit that I thought Allen Ginsberg wanted my poems because he wanted my words, not because they were paying him to come and be a mentor and offer a few encouraging and perhaps constructively critical comments on my raw efforts. But that’s the truth. That’s what happened.

Later, I went to see this lovely man at his reading. This was Charleston West Virginia, not the most wild place in the world. And there was Ginsberg–he was about a decade from his death–but wild as ever, playing songs and reading poems and getting this uptight crowd (I considered myself so very not uptight, but man, I was) to chant “Legalize it” and playing the squeeze-box with wild abandon, hair loose and flying about, his young boy/men infusing the whole place with energy and a youthful sensualism–it was, to be cliche and perhaps a bit starstruck, great. It stands, even in the foggy haze of my memory, as one of the greatest readings I’ve ever been to.

In hindsight, I know my teacher wasn’t afraid that Ginsberg would steal my poems. I have a sneaking suspicion that the fact of his homosexuality prompted the warning. She was an older teacher and very formal, very much a part of the establishment. Ginsberg was the antithesis of nearly everything she represented. I think she feared for my integrity. Or my soul. Maybe she thought I’d catch his gayness. Or that he’d corrupt me, invite or coerce me into his den of sins. I know she didn’t mean to rob me of something, that she issued the warning out of good intentions. Still, I’m left wondering what he might have said about my work. Maybe he would have said, “Jeez, kid, you stink. Better pack it in.” That would’ve broken me. I don’t know if I could have kept writing. Maybe my teacher recognized that I couldn’t yet handle direct negative criticism.

Or maybe he would have said, “Kid, it’s going to be harder than you know to become the writer you imagine yourself to be.” That’s the advice I now give to my students. I try to encourage, too. In fact, I think my whole teaching philosophy is based on encouragement, but I also let young writers know that the road is freakin’ hard. For me it has been anyway.

One of the hardest things to admit is that lost opportunities happen. These days, I try to let fewer opportunities pass me by. I’m twenty-four years older than I was when I refused to let Allen Ginsberg comment on my poems.

I can safely say that if another famous (or infamous) poet comes my way and wants to read and comment on my work, I’m going to say yes.

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