Sunday, October 18, 2009

Remembering Allen Ginsberg

 Allen Ginsberg

Allen Ginsberg on
Royal Street

Photo Copyright:
Jack Miller

Buddha, Dionysus, political activist? Ginsberg was a bad ass poet who could chant and enchant. He sang to kids in the ghetto. He read to the enlightened and the not so. His anger was that of a trickster; his verse went right to the heart and shook it with hard-boiled reality.


Allen and I met on three occasions: First, in New Orleans in 1971. 

We met in October when Allen was invited to read his poetry at a Tulane University Poetry Symposium. I was invited to join the welcoming committee and to take photographs. Allen arrived several days early and we were charged with meeting him at the airport and taking him to his hotel. Tulane had reserved a room for him at the Pontchartrain Hotel on St. Charles. But the place was far too elitist and bourgeois for Allen. For one thing, the desk clerk was appalled to see a band of "hippies" accompanying this denim-clad, beaded poet enter the main lobby. He informed us after pretending not to find the reservation, that only Ginsberg could go to the room and that the rest of us must remain outside. Allen threatened to stage a sit-in protest. When the clerk gave in to Allen for fear of a major scene, Allen demanded that we take him to a more hospitable hotel. Our group returned to the Tulane van and drove to the French Quarter where someone suggested the quaint Olivier, which was not only friendly, but had a lovely courtyard where I took the photograph below. 

For several days, we wined and dined at parties in the homes of English professors and other literary liberals, and at New Orleans' finest restaurants. Allen would complain of the high prices at the famous restaurants, then order the most expensive seafood or French dinners, compliments of Tulane. Right away, Allen had shocked some of our entourage by asking where the boys were, where he could find the "peg houses." I was the only one willing to take Allen on a tour of the Quarter and its most notorious nightclubs. We spent hours visiting Lafitte's in Exile, and the bars along Bourbon that the tourists didn't reach. We even looked in on a particularly popular bath house on Toulouse St.  We ended the night on a balcony overlooking Bourbon, having a midnight breakfast and talking of Allen's travels to India. Allen told me of his love for Peter Orlovsky, of his past friendship with Jack Kerouac, of his interest in Blake and Whitman. I was pleased that the irascible activist we first met had transformed into the compassionate poet.

Ginsberg chanting
Tulane U.
Photo copyright
Jack Miller

During the week we visited schools where Allen chanted and read his poetry, stirring up the younger children who would try to imitate his chanting. Allen walked the streets of the Quarter carrying a long, brass trident from India and wearing beads. He had shaved; so the characteristic beard was missing. But he was otherwise clearly the Beat poet. He chanted on the Quad, drawing a large crowd of onlookers, and on the night of the Symposium he had a group of Hare Krishna followers join him on stage for a lively chant.
All in all, I saw that Allen Ginsberg had many faces and was, like some other famous gadflies, harsh with those he found pompous and self-righteous, while being gentle with those he liked.

Allen Ginsberg and friend
at the Olivier House,
New Orleans
Photo copyright:
Jack Miller

Second, in San Francisco:

It was probably in 1980 when I lived on Russian Hill all summer, but it could have been any summer from 1976-1980 when I spent several weeks each year with my friend Julian. I attended a reading and party at City Lights, hosted by Lawrence Ferlinghetti and featuring a colorful assortment of writers. Another friend of mine named Tess was there and doing her bit socializing and charming Ferlinghetti, among others. There was ample wine; so most people were quite relaxed.
I knew Allen wouldn't remember me, but I walked over to him and asked if he remembered his visit years ago to New Orleans. When I identified myself, he politely pretended to remember the evening we spent together, and remarked how much he liked the French Quarter and its hedonistic delights. Speaking of which, he then lowered his voice, and whispered slyly to me with a grin, " Did we sleep together?"

Third, with Dar in New York at an Aperture opening featuring Ginsberg's photography:

I was with my husband Darryl in New York at an
Aperture opening in 1993 featuring Ginsberg's photography. It was
a bustling, crowded opening-- very New York chic. Allen looked fatigued
and sat on one of the few seats outside the gallery entrance. Darryl
spoke to him and I resisted the urge to remind him of our past
encounters. I enjoyed the photographs-- there were several of William Burroughs, and a nude of Allen and Peter Orlovsky. Allen was proud of the photograph Darryl was asking him about-- a lovely boy on a Greek Island-- or was it that the boy was Greek? I recall the photo-- a beautiful face and torso.

Ginsberg Reading Howl in 1956

So now we have his voice, the photographs from 1971 and, of course, the thousands others have taken and shared. The films and videos bring back his image and his voice to us. His own 
photos give repeatedly his wry humor and heart. And yet, if ever there was a spirit that was likely to be reincarnated, I think the soul of Allen Ginsberg is it. He reminded me always of the Hopi trickster Kokopelli.

Allen Ginsberg, W. S. Merwin, and I

Lunch, New Orleans



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