While the frizzy-headed daughter of a hair tycoon yammers away as the first guest on CBS' "Nightwatch," a producer consults with Allen Ginsberg, the most famous poet in America. She would like Ginsberg to read something on the show from his new book, "Collected Poems: 1947-1980."
"How about reading that poem about your mother?" she asks.
" 'Kaddish,' yes, that's the one Time magazine calls my masterpiece. But I don't know . . ."
Ginsberg points to his copy of the poem and quotes one word that will probably not find its way to the airwaves. The producer's eyes glaze over and for an instant she seems on a terrible inner journey. There is a long silence in the Green Room. Ginsberg keeps his forefinger on the troublesome noun.
"Your mother's . . .?"
"I mention it in the poem," he says. "Couldn't we just bleep that part out?"
"No," the producer says evenly. "The problem is that we don't have bleep capacity."
Another long and magical silence ensues, and in it you can practically hear the two minds whirring, the producer wondering what to say, Ginsberg turning the phrase over and over, massaging it, kneading it like a clump of dough. As a concept, as a nugget of found poetry, "bleep capacity" clearly tickles him. "Howl," the poem that made him famous and the laureate of the Beat Generation in 1956, is filled with such juxtapositions -- "Peyote solidities of halls," "hydrogen jukebox," "lamb stew of the imagination."
Ginsberg beats on, without irony, without any need to belittle anyone. He has decided to transform this small and cheesy waiting room in downtown Washington into a seminar hall. He asks, in a voice as resonant and deep as the bass register on a pump organ, "What are the constrictions? What can't you say? Couldn't this be an object lesson in censorship?" Of course it can't, and Ginsberg knows it.
Then the producer starts off on a lovely stem-winder on TV taboos, ending with ". . . you can't show a healthy woman's breast on TV, but you can show a diseased one because then you're showing sickness, not sex."
There are pinched giggles in the room, the smug grins and arched brows of the hopeful hip, but Ginsberg merely strokes his graying beard -- patient, generous, a bit faux naif.
"It's okay," he says, "I've got other poems. I'll read 'Homework.' No problems in there. Except the political ones. How about that?"
Strange now to think of him, "born June 3, 1926, the son of Naomi Ginsberg, Russian e'migre', and Louis Ginsberg, lyric poet and schoolteacher, in Paterson, N.J." -- as Ginsberg described his roots on the jacket of "Howl" -- disciple of local physician and bard William Carlos Williams; student, poet and jester at Columbia; inheritor of the woolly poetic tradition of Christopher Smart and Walt Whitman and Guilliame Apollinaire; called by Norman Mailer "the bravest man in America."
He is the Jewish-homosexual-beatnik-hippie-radical-Buddhist counterculture icon who had a vision 36 years ago in a Harlem apartment of William Blake reading "Ah! Sunflower"; who was elected King of the May in 1965 by 100,000 citizens of Prague and was later expelled by the Czech government; who was awarded a garland of onions by a hostile talk show host; who told the Senate Judiciary subcommittee that LSD had made it possible for him to forgive and pray for Lyndon Johnson; who sang blues with Bob Dylan at Jack Kerouac's grave and punk with the Clash in downtown Manhattan; who tirelessly promotes one political cause after another; who, like Whitman, sounds his "barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world." As a character says in Saul Bellow's story "Him With His Foot in His Mouth," "the only authentic living representative of American Transcendentalism is that fat-breasted, bald, bearded homosexual in smeared goggles, innocent in his uncleanliness."
But a bit less innocent these days. After years of publishing his books with City Lights, Ginsberg has signed a $160,000 contract with Harper & Row to publish six books, which will include another volume of poems scheduled for 1986 and collections of essays, journals, letters and other papers.
"The first notion I had of trying a bigger publisher came to me when I was in Russia and they told me that it was impossible for them to order books from smaller houses like City Lights," Ginsberg says.
He is walking now down M Street after taping the "Nightwatch" segment, the first of a half-dozen media stops in Washington to promote the publication of his collected poems. He trudges along in Gore-Tex shoes and black leather jacket, slightly stooped, bald pate into the wind, a gray Danish school bag stuffed with poems slung over his shoulder.
Over the years Ginsberg has often appeared tired, pale from having to keep so many engagements with friends, with colleges, with countries, with his own soul and notebook. He has just returned from a two-month stay in China with a sheaf of new verse. He looks healthy, relaxed and at ease.
"I think some of that has to do with fewer drugs, no drink, better food and my tai chi exercise routines," he says.
It may also have to do with a new opportunity to reach a wider audience and make a few dollars to bolster an income "about that of a schoolteacher's."
With the publication of the new book has come a spate of reviews in which Ginsberg finds himself stereotyped in new and wondrous ways. He still lives in a $260-a-month tenement apartment on the Lower East Side, but from reading some of the articles you half expect to see him playing squash at the New York Athletic Club.
"People ask me if I've gone respectable now and I tell them I've always been respectable. It's just the difference between reality and commercial imagery," he says. "These days it's a different stereotype. Before, I was disreputable; now I'm a yuppie. The stereotypes used to be the rebel, the buffoon. Now it's the older man gone mellow, losing his inspiration."
Ginsberg is particularly wary of the charge that after the publication of "Howl" in 1956 and "Kaddish" in 1959, his work has taken a sad slide. He is treated like a '50s rock star who plays revival concerts. Critics often point to the weak, uninspired poems of the last two decades that read like political tracts or homoerotic diaries. In one long poem he even catalogues his junk mail.
But as poet and critic Randall Jarrell once wrote, a good poet is "someone who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times." It is certainly the case with Ginsberg. His early volumes are filled with brilliant, shorter works, such as "Love Poem on a Theme by Whitman," "A Supermarket in California" and "America." After "Kaddish," lightning hit several times more and produced "Wales Visitation" (1967), "On Neal's Ashes" (1968), "Don't Grow Old" (1976) and "White Shroud" (1983), a brilliant postscript to "Kaddish."
"The stereotype is that a poet shoots his load at 25 years old and goes around the rest of his life doddering," says Ginsberg.
Read straight through, Ginsberg's collected poems, a 746-page volume with 66 pages of notes, form an extraordinary autobiography and social history. "Who touches this book touches a man," Whitman said of "Leaves of Grass," and the same is true of Ginsberg's collected poems. It is a book filled with mistakes, poetic and political, but it is also alive with wit, pain, vision, language and personality.
There is a garrulous side to American poetry. Whitman's "Leaves of Grass," Ezra Pound's "Cantos," Williams' "Paterson," Charles Olson's "Maximus Poems," Louis Zukofsky's "A," John Ashbery's "Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror" and Ginsberg's "Collected Poems: 1947-1980" all thrive on varying degrees of encyclopedic strangeness and confession.
Ginsberg arrived on the scene at a time when academic critics stressed technical elegance and the poem as something to be read and understood independent of any political or biographical concerns. After experimenting for years with traditional verse forms, Ginsberg, with the encouragement of William Carlos Williams, helped shatter the "well-wrought urn" beloved by the New Critics and moved to the sort of long-lined forms favored by Whitman and Smart. He found, as critics say, his voice, his own explosive voice, and helped foment what Robert Lowell saw as a debate between the "raw" and the "cooked" in American poetry.
"The academic idea of perfection is just another abstraction, someone's idea of perfection. What I wanted to be was perfectly frank. To notice what I noticed.
"My intention was to make a picture of my mind, mistakes and all. Of course, I learned I'm an idiot, a complete idiot who wasn't as prophetic as I thought I was. The crazy, angry philippic sometimes got in the way of clear perception."
Ginsberg's errors are not hard to find. In between his more inspired works, a reader is likely to find him lazily including every erotic yelp and slogan that passes before him. He knows it, too. Assembling the collected poems "gave me the chance to see the whole spectrum of what I've been through. I'm astounded and horrified and amazed at the thought."
Poetically, Ginsberg says, he has "turned away from a theistic mind, using abstractions like 'the infinite,' and toward a nontheistic, Buddhist concentration on seeing what's there, paying attention to the thing itself." Politically, he has also erred: "I thought the North Vietnamese would be a lot better than they've turned out to be" and "I shouldn't have been marching against the shah of Iran because the mullahs have turned out to be a lot worse."
His mistakes and trials may have been painful but not tragic. Nothing like the awful end of one of Ginsberg's poetic models, Ezra Pound. Pound ended his days in pain, filled with self-hate and frustration with the anti-Semitism and bizarre obsessions that frequently mar his life's great project, "The Cantos." Ginsberg visited Pound in Italy in 1967. Pound was nearly mute, communicating with nods, winks and, only occasionally, short phrases and sentences. Pound reproved his own work as "all tags and patches."
"But the lesson was that Pound could take all that pain and make something of it," Ginsberg says. "The very last cantos might be the best and they talk about mistakes . . . 'I cannot make it flow thru.' "
Or as Pound remarked to another visitor: "I began with a swelled head and end with swelled feet."
Ginsberg walks to another studio for an interview. The host of National Public Radio's "Morning Edition" asks him if the life of a poet is a painful one.
"I think poets probably have more joy than most people," he says. "They're aware of the mistakes, the suffering, and they expect it. Of the pain, they try to make something."
He may not admit it, but there are times when Allen Ginsberg seems lonely. No matter how combative or silly he can be at times, there is a sweetness and neediness in the way he looks at his friends and acquaintances. Everywhere Ginsberg goes, people tell him how much he has meant to them. They give him presents -- brownies, poems, joints, cigarettes. Then they go away.
He has had many lovers (not a few of them are celebrated in his poems and journals): William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac and Kerouac's model for Dean Moriarity in "On the Road," Neal Cassady. Ginsberg's companion for the last 30 years has been poet Peter Orlovsky, but recently Orlovsky moved down the hall to live with musician Denise Mercedes and raise children.
At a French restaurant downtown, Ginsberg lifts his head up from a plate of salmon and tiny asparagus, smiles and says, "I wouldn't mind being loved by Henry Kissinger. Or anybody else, for that matter."
Ginsberg even jokes about his recent interest in New Wave music: "Since I'm a pederast, I was attracted to young people. To keep up the conversation, I had to listen to the music."
Ginsberg talks as freely about his love life as he does about anything else. He always has. It is both part of his practice of "perfect frankness" and a desire to lance the bourgoisie. More than his anti-establishment politics and poetics, more than his use of psychedelic drugs, more than playing Hare Krishna finger cymbals or wearing a Uncle Sam hat while the whole world is marching off to the office, more than any of that, Ginsberg has been mocked mostly for the homosexuality he has celebrated in his poems. He has paid a price for his insistent honesty.
"Disrespect for poets is a kind of tradition," he says. "William Blake was thought a crude nut. Whitman was bounced from his job for keeping a copy of 'Leaves of Grass' in his desk. William Carlos Williams was considered a rude provincial by the Columbia University English departments when I was there in the '40s.
"The condition of society is one of homogeneity and hyperindustrialism, so the individual perceptions of body and mind are not valued. Poetry is not the expression of the party line. It's that time at night, laying in bed, thinking what you really think, making the private world public, that's what the poet does."
Ginsberg's night thoughts, his perfect frankness, have provided his readers with stunning moments and the language with heart's delight. His ability to take the pain of his life and make it shapely as well as frank has been his gift.
Never has the gift been more apparent than in the litany for his mad, ruined mother, Naomi Ginsberg. In her youth she had been an idealistic Marxist. But during Allen's childhood, she was a paranoid, constantly seeing visions of secret agents before her. Allen, his brother, Eugene, and their father, Louis, suffered as they watched her horrific deterioration.
Two days after she died at the Pilgrim State Mental Hospital on Long Island in 1956, a note arrived in the mail for Ginsberg, a last, almost lucid, message from Naomi:
"The key is in the window, the key is in the sunlight at the window -- I have the key -- get married Allen don't take drugs -- the key is in the bars, in the sunlight in the window. Love, your mother."
It's hard to say what the rest of us would do at such moment. Allen Ginsberg began to write one of the great American poems of his generation, a work of great sympathy, of sweeping lines containing excruciating, autobiographical detail.
The poem is "Kaddish":
"Strange now to think of you, gone without corsets & eyes, while I walk on the sunny pavement of Greenwich Village,
downtown Manhattan, clear winter noon, and I've been up all night, talking, talking, reading the Kaddish aloud, listening to Ray Charles blues shout blind on the phonograph
the rhythm the rhythm -- and your memory in my head three years after -- And read Adonais' last triumphant stanzas aloud -- wept, realizing how we suffer . . ."
In the Green Room again. This time at WTTG on Wisconsin Avenue for an appearance on Maury Povich's "Panorama."
The previous guest has been Ted Danson, the actor who plays the Boston stud-barkeep in "Cheers." Danson rises from the chair. He eyes Ginsberg, makes a move toward him but finally turns away. Ginsberg, who does not watch "Cheers," has no idea who Danson is.
"Allen, we have a surprise for you," one of the producers says a few minutes before air time.
"Yeah, it's the anniversary of 'Panorama' and we were wondering if you'd write a poem about it."
"To read on the show?"
"If you can do it . . ."
One wonders what Wordsworth and Blake might have done had they lived in the age of the television talk show. Imagine T.S. Eliot in his best banker's pinstripes improvising a few lines for the anniversary of "The Tonight Show," Johnny tapping his pencil on the anapests, Ed McMahon guffawing after every strophe. Ginsberg does not hesitate before the modern challenge. With a fountain pen he scratches away for a few minutes on yellow lined paper until the lights go up and the cameras focus on him.
Povich is effusive and tells Ginsberg he's always loved his poems.
"I hope you didn't get brain damage from them," Ginsberg says with concern.
Ginsberg always has an agenda for these shows, a list of things he feels compelled to mention: the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colo., where he teaches poetics; his Buddhist teacher, Chogyam Trungpa; a list of seven political proposals written with Ed Sanders; a protest against CIA support of the contras in Nicaragua. Povich waits patiently for Ginsberg to finish an extended riff but when the time comes for a question, all he can say is, "Uh . . . Ah . . . I lost my train of thought."
"That's all right," Ginsberg says brightly. "That's called ordinary mind, empty mind."
Povich does not seem edified by this Buddhist turn of events. He blushes from the neck up.
Ginsberg reads his improvised poem to celebrate "Panorama's" birthday. He eats a bit of cake. He is asked if doesn't get lonely from being away so often.
"I'm having a ball," he says.