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Peter Orlovsky, poet and muse of longtime partner Allen Ginsberg, dies at 76

By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 2, 2010; B06

Peter Orlovsky, 76, a writer best known as a longtime muse, inspiration and companion of Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, died May 30 of lung cancer at a respite care center in Williston, Vt.

Mr. Orlovsky and Ginsberg were partners for more than 40 years until Ginsberg's death from liver cancer in 1997. They met in San Francisco in 1954 and committed to each other in a ceremony held the following year.

"At that instant, we looked into each other's eyes," Ginsberg later recalled, "and there was a kind of celestial cold fire that crept over us and blazed up and illuminated the entire cafeteria and made it an eternal place."

Ginsberg would soon be launched to national attention for the profane and sexually explicit poem "Howl," for which his publisher was hauled into court on charges of obscenity. "Howl" helped make Ginsberg a hero of free-speech advocates, an anti-establishment cultural icon and the prolific poet laureate of Beat generation writers.

Mr. Orlovsky was credited with sparking Ginsberg's creative impulse. "Allen needed someone to write to -- whenever he wrote poetry, he was sort of writing with someone else's ear in mind," said Ginsberg biographer Bill Morgan. "A lot of times, it was Jack Kerouac; and at other times, it was Peter Orlovsky."

Encouraged to write by Ginsberg, Mr. Orlovsky became a poet in his own right. He won a $10,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1979 and published several books, including "Dear Allen, Ship Will Land Jan. 23, 58" (1971), and a book with Ginsberg called "Straight Hearts' Delight: Love Poems and Selected Letters" (1980).

Mr. Orlovsky's poems were playful and frank, featuring unusual spellings and a conversational style. "Peter's poetry does not stand beside Allen's best work like 'Howl' and 'Kaddish,' but it had its own goofy, sweet integrity," said Steve Silberman, who came to know the couple as Ginsberg's apprentice and later as his teaching assistant.

"Morning again, nothing has to be done/maybe buy a piano or make fudge," reads Mr. Orlovsky's "Second Poem," written in Paris in 1957, when he and Ginsberg were staying with fellow poets William S. Burroughs and Gregory Corso at a boarding house known as the Beat Hotel.

Mr. Orlovsky was at the center of the out-on-the-edge Beat-poet culture, even if only by virtue of his relationship with Ginsberg. In 1959, the two appeared in "Pull My Daisy," a short film directed by Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie. Based on a real-life episode from the life of Beat legend Neal Cassady, the film seemed to be an unrehearsed embodiment of the generation's signature spontaneity.

In 1963, acclaimed fashion photographer Richard Avedon made a portrait of Ginsberg and Mr. Orlovsky together in the nude. The picture, circulated widely as a poster in New York's subway system and elsewhere, was seen by many as a bold validation of homosexuality. The next year, Mr. Orlovsky was one of many countercultural figures who appeared in Andy Warhol's film "Couch."

Mr. Orlovsky struggled with drugs and alcohol over the years, and his relationship with Ginsberg waxed and waned. The couple was not monogamous -- Mr. Orlovsky was primarily heterosexual, Ginsberg told the New York Times in 1984, adding that Mr. Orlovsky was at the time living with a woman he loved.

Nevertheless, when Ginsberg died, Mr. Orlovsky was by his side, and Ginsberg left Mr. Orlovsky money to buy a home in St. Johnsbury, Vt., where he lived until shortly before his death.

Peter Orlovsky was born on July 8, 1933, in New York, one of five children. His parents separated when he was a teen, and he dropped out of high school to support himself as an orderly at a mental hospital.

He came to San Francisco as an Army medic in the early 1950s. After finishing his military service, he became a model for the local artist Robert LaVigne in 1954. Ginsberg saw a painting of Mr. Orlovsky and asked to meet him; within months, the two were living together.

The couple traveled widely, including in the late 1950s to North Africa and Europe. In the early 1960s, they traveled with the poet Gary Snyder and his wife Joanne Kyger to India, where they developed a lifelong affinity for meditation.

Mr. Orlovsky joined Mr. Ginsberg in protesting war and nuclear proliferation. They once demonstrated by meditating together on railroad tracks leading to the Rocky Flats nuclear facility in Colorado. Mr. Orlovsky also taught at Naropa University's Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics in Boulder, Colo., founded by Ginsberg and poet Anne Waldman in 1974, and ran the couple's organic farm in Cherry Hill, N.Y.

Over the years, Mr. Orlovsky helped care for siblings who suffered from mental illness. His relationship with his brother Julius, who had been institutionalized, was captured in the 1969 independent film "Me and My Brother," directed by Frank. A complete list of survivors could not be confirmed.

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