ALLEN GINSBERG AND THE BEATS
My introduction to the Beats came with a bizarre conversation I had with a violinist with the RTE orchestra in the 1990’s. I remember we were sitting in a bar drinking wine near the RTE buildings and and my erstwhile friend began talking about a writer I had never heard of, a man called William Burroughs, a drug addict and an alcoholic who had written this awful shocking book called Naked Lunch. Apparently, the violinist went on, he shot his wife. I was shocked. Bill Burroughs shot his wife, I repeated? Really? Yes, the Violinist went on, nodding at my understandable shock. He did. It was all a game, he went on. Some game, I thought. It all sounded horrifying. My friend went on to say it all happened when, at a party in Mexico,
in September 1951 when Burroughs, who was drunk and depressed all day, told Joan, his wife, to put a shot glass on her head as part of a ‘William Tell routine’. Now there was no William Tell routine. It was the first Joan had heard of it. So Burroughs, in a moment of supreme madness, takes out a pistol and tries to hit the shot glass Joan has put on her head. He misses and puts a bullet through her forehead and kills her. All that day, Burroughs later commented, the ugly spirit had been following him. He could feel it. That was what was depressing him. The story was, as I said, shocking, sickening, and I had to learn more.
So I read everything I could find on him. (For more articles on WSB go HERE) Burroughs was part of a group of writers, Herbert Huncke, Lucien Carr, Allen Ginsberg, among others, who comprised a generation of writers and thinkers who advocated more than simply a counter cultural revolution. They rejected Capitalism in favor of a type of democratic socialism. They also rejected militarism, racism, homophobia and advocated a radical re-examination of the human condition in the light of the Cold War ( a strange name for a war whereby super powers were stockpiling weapons so lethal that the extinction of all life on the planet became a real possibility). The Beats also were spiritual travelers. They advocated Eastern spirituality, particularly Buddhism, an embarkation on a kind of spiritual quest to the center of the human person and the use of hallucinogens’ to aid oneself upon this journey. Their rejection of formalism in favor of a kind of radical individualism made for an extremely exciting and new type of writing, one that while rejecting forms that did not serve their needs, did not do so in a way that betrayed any ignorance of other kinds of writing and creativity. These were people who read widely and deeply, which is one of the many reasons why their work will stand the test of time.
Their radicalism, in other words returning to the roots of writing, the personalization of their narrative, their awareness of the crucial part the individual writer as universe writ tiny within themselves plays in any narrative, all contributed to a body of riveting, disturbing, hilarious, clever and disarmingly authentic writing.
But to go back to my original story, I was of course very grateful to that violinist, whom I met only once or twice afterwards, for introducing me to the Beats. But back then I never got into reading Allen Ginsberg. I certainly read him as he was one of the exemplars of the Beat movement. I even attempted to read a few biographies of his life, but at that time it was William Burroughs more than any of the others that turned me on, if that is the right word when referring to the author of the The Soft Machine, Naked Lunch, The Wild Boys, The Ticket That Exploded, among others. Ginsberg eluded me until a student of mine suggested I talk about Allen Ginsberg’s Howl as a kind of introduction to William Blake, whom Ginsberg studied and read much of his life.
Then I read Howl. I actually had already read the poem, but I think this time the poem really spoke to me. There’s a world of difference between reading something as a purely ego driven or academic exercise so as to be well read, or to regurgitate facts, figures and theories for an exam, rather than to take the plunge and allow something to speak deeply to one’s soul. The goal of education is not to create an obedient functionary for the economic machine, but to create free individuals. But this is not always the case. In fact it is rarely the case if we look at education from this viewpoint. We are largely educated to fit into a particular worldview, to marry in a certain way, to have certain careers as opposed to others, not to disappoint others or bring shame to our families, which has far more personal disadvantages than advantages. Education should lead us to the doorway of moral choice, to be free to become who we truly are. Ginsberg among others wrote about things and themes that brought great confusion to others, including a lawsuit for writing obscene materials (one that was eventually and swiftly defeated)
Howl takes us on a Dantesque trip across the underworld of America, stripping away the bright smiles and the picket fences and the nuclear families and the post war optimism to reveal the desperation, the squalor, the horrors and the unhappiness behind the endless striving for military dominance and economic dominance, the narrow definitions of character and sex and personhood, the sexual repression, the endless search for love across the vast American hinterlands of the 1950’s. He lifts the lids of our eyes and while looking at these dark visions points of those who live along the margins of society. he, the poet, stands with the lost, the broken, the addicted, and the desperately lonely. So, in the midst of this, our eyes are drawn to that which would heal the soul of a nation individually and collectively: compassion, forgiveness, and most of all, love. But its not for me to interpret it. What do you think?