Written by Zsolt Alapi
Shortly before his death in 1997, the Beat poet, Allen Ginsberg, gave a reading in the Hall Building of Concordia University at the invitation of Professor Lászlo Géfin, the then President of the Liberal Arts College. He called me to ask if I wanted to join him and Ginsberg for dinner before the reading. How could one say no? Besides, Ginsberg and I had a history:
I am back in high school, and my friend, Jenny, tells me that her father, who is the head of the English Department at the State University of New York at Buffalo, is going to be introducing Allen Ginsberg tonight.
“Who’s he?” I ask her.
“He’s a famous Beat poet.”
“A what poet?”
“Beat…my father says it’s a must see event. After, he’s going to be at our house for a party. You can come if you like.”
So, we go into the Fieldhouse Auditorium that night at 7. There is a huge crowd gathered, around 600 people. I have never been to this type of event before, only having been to coffee house readings with maybe 20 people in attendance. The crowd is mostly students, though there are older people as well. Long hair, beards, sandals, and palpable excitement. There is the strong smell of marijuana filling the hall, and incense is wafting from the holders on top of the oriental rug that is spread out on the stage scattered with rose petals.
Jenny’s father goes up to the podium to introduce the poet. He talks about his poem, “Howl,” and how it is the voice of a generation, how its relevance to our time and to all time cannot be measured. He is elegant, and then Ginsberg comes out, kisses him on both cheeks and raises both hands in the Buddhist sign of prayer and supplication over his head and bows to the crowd.
Ginsberg is dressed in a long white robe and has an Old Testament prophet’s beard and long, wavy black hair barely covering a balding skull. He comes out with a beautiful young man, Peter Orlovsky, his lover, Jenny tells me. Also a poet, Orlovsky holds hands with Ginsberg and gives him a petal from the rug, putting it in his hair. They are like innocent children, lovers deeply in love. Ginsberg kisses Orlovsky on the lips and lingers over the kiss. The crowd goes wild and claps, as Jenny feverishly clutches my hand.
Then, Ginsberg takes out a harmonium, Orlovsky picks up what looks like bongos, though Jenny tells me it is a tambala, and begins a slow beat, as Ginsberg starts to chant accompanied by the drone of the harmonium.
“Hare Krishna… Hare Krishna… Hare Rama… Krishna… Krishna…”
Ginsberg chants over and over again, louder and louder, Orlovsky and the crowd joining him. He is swaying now and trembling, sweating, totally into it. Orlovsky has his eyes closed and is beating the small drum skins, chanting, his long hair coming loose from its pony tail, a beautiful man, swaying like most of the crowd.
Ginsberg knows the moment is filled with magic, and holds it, holds all of us in its sway, holding the final note of his chant for an absurdly long time.
And then, just as suddenly, he is up by the lectern, screaming into the microphone:
“I have seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness……”
He reads “Howl” for the next twenty minutes, and when he yells the Moloch section, I am transported with all of the others, so that I don’t see Jenny or feel her gripping my hand, but only follow the passion of the words, knowing that this is what I want more than anything in the world to understand, to utter, to sing.
Ginsberg reads for over an hour and rants and berates his audience, telling us to end the war, to embrace the Great Gay Creator, and to dance in our naked secret joy and wonder. And, true to his word, he whips off his robe and the shorts underneath until he is naked, hairy, bestial, his dark genitals flapping before the crowd as Orlovsky too takes off his clothes and dances naked with him, free of inhibition.
Ginsberg pleads and exhorts the crowd to join him, and many do, all naked, some embarrassed, but caught up in the moment until the campus security finally makes its way up to the stage and hustles the two of them off into the wings.
Later, we are at Jenny’s house, her father playing host to the members of his Department, to poetry groupies, hippies, and some students who have somehow snuck in. I am the youngest one there, and I don’t know what to do, so I hold on to Jenny’s hand and follow her around the house through the crowd.
“Do you want to meet him…Ginsberg?”
“Ok…yeah…I guess…but what will I say?”
She takes me up to her father and whispers in his ear, and Dr. F. pushes us through the crowd until we get inside the circle where Ginsberg is holding court with Orlovsky next to him. They are both smoking a joint, and Ginsberg is holding a bottle of beer from which he takes the occasional slug and is laughing about something someone has whispered to him.
Jenny’s father introduces me, and Ginsberg looks me up and down and smiles. His eyes look big behind the black frames of his glasses, and his pupils are dilated from the weed. He smiles again and takes both of my hands and pulls me down next to him on the floor and whispers something in my ear, something about a Blake-light vision, something about a sunflower and of children on the echoing green. His coarse beard brushes my cheek and he smells strongly of body odor, incense, beer, and cigarette smoke.
I am embarrassed and mutter something about how great his reading was, something about never forgetting this moment. His eyes sparkle with glee and some inner, secret joy. I don’t know what to do, so I shake his hand formally, thank him again, and turn to go after saying goodbye.
As I turn my back, I feel his fingers close on my buttock in a sharp pinch, and I hear him giggle to his lover.
And as I am thinking of this, I also think about the line I used to say to my students when I told them this story:
“So, I guess I will always be able to say that Allen Ginsberg pinched my ass.”
Almost always, the class would burst into laughter when I used to say this, having built them up to this point, usually after we had finished studying “Howl” and “America”.
I would save the punch line, delivering it with perfect timing:
“And I haven’t washed it since…..”
And that night, decades after in Montreal, Ginsberg so small and frail, eating a scant macrobiotic meal, talking quietly of poetics, William Carlos William, and all the great ones he has known and whom we both love. Ginsberg, knowing he was writing against time, knowing that his death from liver cancer was months or perhaps weeks of agony away, listens to my story, his eyes bright from behind his Coca Cola bottle glasses, smiles and whispers:
“Well, I sure as hell wouldn’t pinch it now!”
So, now, as I read through his Collected Poems, it is like the caress of a familiar friend’s smile. I think of Ginsberg, so small and humble before his death, stooped over, wrapped in his own humanity, suffering, yet still having the courage to smile and wonder about the surprise of his own fleshless frame disappearing into infinite space.
I read from “Song”:
I always wanted,
I always wanted,
to the body
where I was born.