WHY DOES HE bother? Why does he care? Allen Ginsberg keeps coming back to Washington, prying and scratching at the CIA, the FBI, the State Department, the Justice Department, the Pentagon like an old dog sniffing around a house after his master has died, like an orphan looking for his true parents.
Just now, for instance, his big goofy nasal New Jersey bass rings out across the television studio: "Institutionalized paranoia!"
Allen Ginsberg - poet, prophet and polemicist, epic confesser of homosexual dopefiend Commie desires and accomplishments sits owlish and 50, balding and graybearded, on the klieg-lit couch of Channel 5's Panorama.
"The FBI forged letters to discredit LeRoi Jones, they disrupted the relationship between Eldridge Cleaver and Timothy Leary," Ginsberg says, booming into his conspiracy rap, in which the FBI, CIA, etc., are accused of messing with our rights, the Consitution, etc.
Pat Mitchell, hostess, stares at Ginsberg. Beneath her notable blond gloss and smile, she looks wary. She should. From the moment Ginsberg started his segment, he has overridden, with his cheery aplomb, any possibility that she'll get him to talk about what she wants him to talk about.
"So paranoia becomes institutionalized with our own government manipulating our private lives . . ."
There is even some danger he will sing, accompanying himself on the Indian harmonium. In short, the Allen Ginsberg we have known ever since he outraged us in 1956 with the publication of his poem How still makes the Pat Mitchells of the world nervous.
I saw the best minds of my generation
destroyed by madness,
starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro
streets at dawn looking for
an angry fix . . .
Pat Mitchell stares at him like the most popular girl in the best sorority on campus, wishing she weren't afraid to be seen with him, wondering how, for all his goofiness, he manages not to annoy, not to seem fraudulent. His plugging is shameless.
"I'll be appearing Friday night at Lisner Auditorium, reading with William Burroughs.That's the same place that E.F. Shumacher will be speaking in a couple of weeks . . ." Shumacher is the author of Small Is Beautiful, and a cult hero to ecologists and no-growth economists, plus Ginsberg, who has been plugging him for three days now in Washington radio interviews. It's Wednesday. Ginsberg arrived Monday, talking up conspiracies and Shumacher, reading to a packed house, Monday night, at the Folger Shakespeare Library. As he puts it: "I'm here to read poetry and investigate the CIA."
Sure enough, with all his causes advertised, Ginsberg reaches for his little hand-pumped harmonium, summons a guitar-playing accompanist, and groans into a long, new song about Father Death and all things dyring - not exactly noontime housewife talk-show fare, but he pulls it off, twitching and swaying under the very still stare of Pat Mitchell.
Walking down the dim, gritty hallways of Channel 5 after the segment is done, Ginsberg says: "I got it all in."
Ginsberg's Washington day is scarcely begun.Next stop is the Georgetown home of lawyer Ira Lowe, defender of the famous and radical, to see documents proving persecution of Ginsberg by the U.S. government. Then, late this afternoon, an appointment at, yes, for the first time in his long and persistently notorious career, the White House - with Peter Bourne, special assistant to the President on drug matters.
We pile out of the cold spring wind, and into the car of Bob Corbett, producer of the Friday night reading at Lisner. Ginsberg, me and Ginsberg's longtime companion, Peter Orlovsky.
"You see, it's sort of a classic Kafkaian straw-dog situation," Ginsberg is saying, winding into his conspiracy cadence again. "When we got to see the FBI files in the Media, Pennsylvania, office, that's where we learned that Hoover wanted us to be paranoid."
And as we head down Wisconsin Avenue, past Sears and Hechinger's, I'm thinking to myself: "Why does he bother? Why does he care?" Because I don't, very much. I believe everything he's saying. I believe our FBI and CIA and all of them are willing to do everything but jam the Bill of Rights up our noses and set it on fire. I am very cynical, today, but then, I'm running a 101-degree fever, with the Hong Kong flu, and my head feels like a piece of hot, throbbing baklava, and I'm having a hard time keeping track of the conversation.
"Aren't you playing into their hands, then?" I ask, as we roll past the Cathedral, down towards Georgetown. "If Hoover wanted you to be paranoid, he got what he wanted. Why not just say the hell with it?"
"Well," Ginsberg says, "It doesn't seem to be the sort of thing a government should be doing. It's the old poetic notion, from Blake - the idea of definite outlines and clarity. And these people are just confusing things. And it's, like, totally illegal ," he says with a cheery nasal italic punch, a nearly gleeful sound, as if he's somehow glad to know that the government of the United States does sneaky immoral things, the tone, perhaps, of a drug addict telling you that all doctors are hooked on Demerol, of a homosexual claiming every male hero is gay.
Okay, I think, but paranoia was the psychic fad of five years ago, when we were all suspecting our phones were tapped, when the war, Nixon, the CIA, FBI, etc., were all going strong.
"Don't you think it's better now?" I ask.
"I don't know, with this Baraheni thing," Ginsberg says, referring to a Tom Braden column asking if Persian poet Reza Baraheni weren't using his anti-shah position here in America to mask his true role as agent for the dread SAVAK, the Iranian CIA. Ginsberg has been on the phone to Braden, to SAVAK watchers and Persian-lit professors and Iranian students, trying to get at the truth.
When in Washington, I say to myself, do as Washingtonians do.
Allen Ginsberg keeps coming to Washington. He comes here to give readings, march for peace, testify in front of a Senate committee investigating drugs, or hole up at the Institute for Policy Studies, trying to prove with years of reserach that the world's biggest pusher of heroin was actually the CIA, through its operations in Southeast Asia. He once enlivened a Georgetown dinner party by chanting across the table at the CIA's Cord Meyer: "We are murderers, murderers." He tried to cool out the Cambodia incursion riots over at George Washington University by leading om chants in the face of a helmeted phalanx of D.C. cops grinding past Lisner Auditorium with nightsticks flailing. He is a chronic writer of letters to congressmen, and a voter - last time for Jimmy Carter.
On this vist, he'll consult with columist Les Whitten on the Baraheni situation; he'll explain the roots of his police fear to me over lunch at the Kennedy Center; he'll buttonhole White House aide Greg Schneiders at a party at Ira Lowe's house (Schneiders stonefaced with Kennedy-esque broken-leg cast and little cigar); he'll shout a mantra greeting of "Hum!" across The Post's newsroom to Watergator Bob Woodward; he'll brunch with James Angleton, exspook savant of the CIA, discussing everything from drug traffic to Ezra Pound's infatuation with Provencal poetry; he'll boast to novelist William Burroughs of holding hands with Peter Orlovsky in front of the White House.
"It occurs to me that I am America./I am talking to myself again," as he's written, although, as he pointed out in "America":
It's true I don't want to join the
Army or turn lathes in precision
parts factories, I'm nearsighted
and psychopathic anyway.
American I'm putting my queer
shoulder to the wheel.
At 50, in fact, this career enfant terrible and poete maudit has made it. The Oxford and Norton anthologies, those Who's Whos of poetry, include his. The rare book and manuscript library at Columbia University, where Ginsberg was graduated in 1948, holds more than 50,000 letters, manuscripts, photographs and souvenirs pertaining to Ginsberg. "We get constant calls to see it," says the librarian, Kenneth Lohf, who estimates that "a dozen books are being written now about him and the Beats."
As fellow Beat poet Gary Snyder has said: "What Allen and I can say realistically, with absolute surety and with great pride, is we have moved the world a millionth of an inch. But it's a real millionth of an inch."
Ginsberg's most famous book, Howl , has sold 350,000 copies. He gets $1000 a crack for reading his poetry, mostly at colleges where he's also in big demand as a guest lecturer. He's come up with a nightclub act featuring his poetry and singing. He accompanied Bob Dylan on the Rolling Thunder tour. He was elected Kral Majales, or King of the May, by students in Prague before Czech police expelled him as a Western degenerate/alcoholic/homosexual, etc. Castro's Cuba booted him, he says, for saying that Che Guevara was "cute." Most important, he has survived the willful self-destructions of the Beat generation he helped found - the fatal alcoholic stomach hemorrhages of Jack Kerouac, the drugged collapse of Neal Cassady beside Mexican railroad tracks.
"He does not have vices that debilitate," says his stepmother, Edith Ginsberg, adding, perhaps in regard to his large reputation for the non-debilitative vices, that "Nothing succeeds like success."
Still, the question she says she'd ask him, were she the interviewer, is: "Are you happy?"
"He's the true Henry Kissinger of the last ten years," says Ken Kesey, over the phone from Oregon. But there's this other thing . . . "I was in Buffalo, speaking at a conference and Ginsberg got hit by a car. I was outside watching them carry him on a stretcher and I looked at him and saw this little twisted Jewish guy."
Or, in his own words, in a journal of twenty-five years ago: ". . . my scuffed hand me down shoes, unpressed illfitting post adolescent suit, dirt-ringed shirt and cheesy tie, hair askew and book underarm, perspiring perhaps . . . I have no function in the world I live in. I am oppressed by my own inaction and cowardice & conceit and crazy, running away from life . . . How I so long to tip my mitt - which is why I write . . ."
Tip his mitt! Ginsberg has regaled us, willingly or no, with his obsessions, perversions, grimy bathroom secrets and saddest fantasies.
Ah don't think I'm sickening.
You're angry at me. For all of my lovers?
It's hard to eats -, without having visions;
When they have eyes for me it's like Heaven.
- "Malest Cornifici Tuo Catullo"
Yet everyone likes Allen Ginsberg, calls him gentle or tender or, like Charlie Peters, editor of Washington Monthly, who knew Ginsberg at Columbia: "I had a sense back then that there was something of the saint in him. He's led a Gandhiesque symbolic life."
He's famous. He's healthy. He's loved. He's admired. After telling us the worst, the goofiest, the grubbiest about himself for twenty years. And right now, he's rushing into the Georgetown dining room of lawyer Ira Lowe. In my feverish, flu-struck journalist's cynicism, I've decided that Allen Ginsberg, for all his lovable genius, is also a paranoid. Then I follow him into the dining room and see the stacks and stacks of documents Ira Lowe has gotten from the FBI, the CIA, the IRS, the DEA, under the Freedom of Information Act.
Some of it's just silly. On March 16, 1970, for instance, the special agent in charge, Springfield, Illinois, notified the director of the FBI that "ALLEN GINSBERG, billed as the 'Hippie Poet'is scheduled to read poetry at Social hall, Quincy College . . ."
On September 28, 1967, a narcotics agent notified the Bureau of Narcotics that:
"1. On this date, I received a photograph of Allen GINSBERG where he is pictured in an indecent pose. For possible future use, the photograph has been placed in a locked sealed envelope marked 'Photograph of Allen GINSBERG - Gen. File: Allen GINSBERG.' The locked sealed envelope has been placed in the vault of this office for safekeeping."
"I have no idea," Ginsberg says. "Maybe it's that picture Richard Avedon took of me and Peter."
Ginsberg, brisk and studious, settles in at the table, examines these records of government snooping and manipulation; of letters forged by the FBI to discredit poet LeRoi Jones; of probes of poet and author Ed Sanders, describing him as "beatnik & freethinker, i.e., believer in free love, free narcotics use . . ."
Later, in the car riding down to the White House, with my fever and stuffed head reducing me to near clonehood, I've still got enough energy left to wonder why Ginsberg seems so . . . not angry , but well-occupied with pacifist outraged.
"I was brought up to think that you don't investigate poets," he says, staring worriedly at the Pennsylvania Avenue prelude to a rush hour. "They're poets!"
I ask if he's ever been to the White House before.
"Never.I don't know why I'm going now."
"Are you excited?"
"No," Ginsberg says, impatience verging on scorn.
The appointment with Peter Bourne is at four. For all of Ginsberg's Buddhist-meditation-induced ease, transportation renders him instantly frantic, a baldheaded clown in a Salvation Army Brooks Brothers suit, galumphing across avenues with his harmonium in search of taxicabs, asking the same directions of the same people over and over again. "How far is it? How many blocks? Is the light changing?" Near the Executive Office Building, we pile out of the car. As we near the White House, I notice that Ginsberg is holding hands with Peter Orlovsky, or rather, I notice tourists noticing them, mouths moving in whispers of HOLDING HANDS!
"I wrote a blues," Ginsberg says, starting to sing: "I look in the White House/And no one talks to me . . ."
The reader may ask why, if I'm going to keep complaining about being sick, I didn't just go home and let somebody else, or nobody else, write the story about Allen Ginsberg in Washington.
In my off-hours, when I'm not being an objective journalist, I hold the opinion that Allen Ginsberg is a great American poet, a bard in the Whitman tradition, a yeasayer lifting a "barbaric yawp" above the smug, pinched imperialism of 1950s and 1960s America. I read and reread his poetry, relishing the ease of the ordinary beauty he celebrates:
All afternoon cutting bramble blackbarries off a tottering brown fence under a low branch with its rotten old apricots miscellaneous under the leaves
And his wistfulness and nostalgia:
I saw her rain-stained tombstone rear an illegible epitaph under the gnarled branch of a small tree in the wild grass of an unvisited garden in Mexico.
And his goofy humor, listing the contents of the baggage racks at a Greyhound station:
hundreds of radiators all at once for Eureka, crates of Hawaiian underwear, rolls of posters scattered over the Peninsula, nuts to Sacramento, one human eye for Napa, an aluminum box of human blood for Stockton and a little red package of teeth for Calistoga . . .
And finally, the huge machine-drive power of the opening of Howl, celebrating:
Peyote solidities of halls, backyard green tree cemetery dawns, wine drunkenness over the rooftops, storefront boroughs of teahead joyride neon blinking traffic light, sun and moon and tree vibrations in the roaring winter ducks of Brooklyn, ashcan rantings and kind king light of mind . . .
I want to know how Ginsberg writes this stuff. And, maybe if I get some key to his personality, something that explains both him and poetry, he'll cease to loom over me as inexplicable giant, and menace to my own ego. So right now it's bad enough that I've got the flu, and will have it the rest of the week, but Ginsberg is strung out on his FBI/CIA/SAVAK/KGB conspiracy theories. And vanishes into the White House, whispering, all bright-eyed: "They didn't even search me!"
I spend Thursday in bed.
Friday morning I head up to Capitol Hill with a pocket full of Kleenex and nasal spray and aspirin and antihistamines, plus a question. It seems to me that one thing might explain: Ginsberg's gleeful fascination with the attention the government has paid to him; his desire to "tip his mitt"; his self-accusations of ugliness, glibness, cowardice; his courtship of the media; his plugging of comrades such as Schumacher, and constant references to other best minds of his generation, such as Kerouac, William Burroughs and Gregory Corso; his desire to epater les bourgeois in front of the White House.