Reprinted from yesterday's late editions.
Seven hundred strong, an unusually large turnout for a poetry gathering, they came to hear Allen GInsberg read in the still, sad strangely comic voice of a passing generation.
Monday at the Folger Shakespeare Library - an appropriate setting for the peerless performer Ginsberg is, what with the stage set for the play "Mummer's End" and the painted ceiling proclaiming Shakespeare's "All the world's a stage and all the men and women merely players" and the gallery's balustrade draped with enough red, white and blue bunting to mummify a reviewing stand - Ginsberg read for an hour from his recent work.
Not read so much as chanted or intoned and sang, sometimes accompanying himself on a small electric organ, but always amplifying his words with the loose-jointed, irrepressible body language for which he is famous. His feet (a baggy-trousered academic's socks slipping down his ankles) and knees and shoulders gyrating independently of one another, yet somehow managing to keep time.
Ginsberg, recipient of the National Book Award for poetry in 1972, who for two decades has represented in the American consciousness bold, sometimes obscene derision and "Beat" despair in defiance of middle-class values through his own brand of hashish smoking, incense burning, and Hare Krishna meditative social commentary, wore a three-piece suit and talked of growing old.
In "Don't Grow Old," a series of poems for his father, Louis, who died last July and with whom Ginsberg often used to give readings, he spoke deftly, almost off-handedly of the inevitability of death. "Stop smoking cigarettes? Will I stop dying?" he read. "Love's vanished in a cough . . ." Sentiment and detachment mingle in his verse, "Too tired to be heroic, too tired to take off shoes and black socks."
He has gained his audience not through strident polemic or outraged denunciation, but through that of a self-styled Hasidic leprechaun, a jester-provacateur whose sharpest barbs are tipped with mirth.
He sang in calypso of dope trafficking in Indochina as a pet project of the CIA and afforded "ministrel Bob Dylan" the same advice he offered Richard Helms - "Lay your mind down . . . Lay down your empire . . . Lay your whole world down."
Advice also applicable, one would assume, for poets who admit they are obsessed with writing: "Lay down your image . . . Lay down light."
Even a trip to Poe's grave in Baltimore yielded Ginsberg a line or two; even in flight to his father's funeral he composed "Father Death Blues."
He ended the evening strongly with an excerpt from a long visionary poem. "The Contest of Barbs, Young and Old," inspired, he said, by rereading the works of William Blake in company with a young poet.At mid-life this black-haired but gray-bearded poet of the counterculture and perpetual youth straddles, Janus-like, two generations looking back in fondness and having lost none of his rancorous mirthful vision.
Ginsberg is appearing Friday night in readings at George Washington University with poet and novelist William Burroughs.