On May 11 1997 I went to a memorial for Allen Ginsberg at Brooklyn College, where he had been a professor till the time of his death. I enjoyed sharing a stage with Dennis Nurkse, the Poet Laureate of Brooklyn, Tuli Kupferburg, and many names I’d vaguely heard of. I also heard some great poems from various young poetry students who’d studied under Ginsberg, and it was wonderful to hear that he indeed did succeed in passing the torch on to at least one new generation.
Myself, I was unwilling to attempt to read a poem in front of all these well-educated poetry experts, and I chose instead to read this short memoir about the one time I met Allen in person.
How I Met Ginsberg
I always used to see Allen Ginsberg around the Village. I’d go to his poetry readings, and he’d often show up at other poetry readings I went to, especially at St. Mark’s Church, or at Buddhist benefits. But I avoided meeting him, because there was always such a long line of fans waiting to get him to sign an autograph. And sometimes when I looked at his face, he didn’t seem to be enjoying signing the autographs anymore. Ultimately there were too many fans, more faces than he could remember, and
I think it all became very tiring for him, as much as he loved being the center of attention.
After I started my Literary Kicks website, I started getting to know some people who worked with Ginsberg, and I would get invited to visit his business office. However, I was afraid to go, first of all because I felt intimidated by his status as one of History’s Great Literary Characters. I didn’t want to actually meet somebody that legendary. It seemed like it was somehow interrupting the fame/non-fame continuum, or something. But that wasn’t the real reason I didn’t want to go. The real reason was that I’d scanned a lot of the photographs in his book “Snapshot Poetics” and used them in my web pages. I’d never really asked permission for this, and I had a feeling I might be in for a serious talking-to if I casually dropped by the Ginsberg office and announced my name.
So — it seemed like everybody in Greenwich Village knew Allen Ginsberg personally, except for me. Every person in
the village, and I guess every poet in the world. It got to be ridiculous — I’d get e-mail’s from Spain and Iceland and Russia from people who apparently had been exchanging Christmas Cards with Allen for decades — and here I was living in the same city and we’d never met!
Brooklyn College proved to be my answer. Bill Gargan, the guy who created the BEAT-L mailing list on Brooklyn College’s list server, also studied Blake in a graduate seminar with Ginsberg. He told me they met in Ginsberg’s office on campus every Wednesday. Finally I asked Bill “Do you think I could sit in one day?”
Bill asked Allen’s permission and got it, explaining to Allen that I was the person who ran the Literary Kicks website, which
I knew Allen had never seen since he stayed away from computers –which I consider a wise decision on his part, by the way — but which I worried Allen might have heard of, since I’d used all these photos of his without permission. I figured, though, that if I was ever going to find Allen in an exalted and non-materialistic mood, it would be at a Blake Seminar at Brooklyn College.
I arrived, and Allen nodded with a slight shudder of unhappy recognition when Bill Gargan introduced me to him. I sat at a seat near Allen’s desk, and he looked up and gruffily mentioned that, as a sit-in student, I ought to take one of the crummy seats in the back of the room. That seemed to be the extent of my punishment, if there was to be any punishment at all. The class consisted of about 20 students, comfortably gathered around his desk in various chairs and sofas. Ginsberg passed around an eclectic stack of rare, antique-looking hardbound collections of Blake, and we began to study in detail a single passage from a single poem. During the three hours of the seminar we read maybe fifty lines, stopping to discuss each single one. Ginsberg managed to steer the conversation from homosexuality to Marxism to psychedelic mushrooms to CIA involvement in South America — all his favorite topics, all arising naturally from the words as if Blake had planned it that way from the beginning. I raised my hand and attempted to impress him by tying in Descartes’ proof of the existence of God to one of Blake’s lines, just for the hell of it, but Ginsberg didn’t seem especially impressed. I wanted to make an impression on him, though. Bill Gargan and I
hung around after class and talked to Allen for a minute or two. He told me he hated computers (I’d already known this) and then he suddenly reached for his phone book and told me there was somebody I needed to talk to, a person who worked for Microsoft who was arranging a chat with him there. Allen dialed this poor unsuspecting Seattle office-worker’s number, announced into the phone “This is Allen Ginsberg, there’s, uh, somebody who needs to talk to you,” and suddenly I found myself holding the receiver, speaking to a stranger across the continent who also had no idea what we were supposed to be discussing. We quickly found a way to hang up.
On the way out, though, I did manage to get his attention for a minute. Somehow, through some feeble excuse, I managed to mutter something about Raymond Weaver. Raymond Weaver had been a professor of Ginsberg’s at Columbia, and is also a famous name among Herman Melville scholars for having resurrected the unknown Melville’s reputation in the 1920’s, and also for discovering the manuscript of “Billy Budd.” I suppose I mentioned the name just to impress Ginsberg — but maybe it worked, because he suddenly stopped what he was doing and fixed his eyes upon me for a moment. He said “You know Melville?” and I said “Yeah!” (hoping he wasn’t about to challenge me with some hard questions). He stared at me a moment more and then nodded with approval. He started to smile and we talked a few minutes more and then when we parted he shook my hand firmly. I think it was Melville that made the difference.
This was in the autumn of 1996, a few months before Ginsberg died. I would run into him again a few times, but this was the one and only time we actually spoke.
NOTE: About the copyright issue, I should mention that on a separate occasion I had a few minutes to talk to Bob Rosenthal (acting as Ginsberg’s representative on copyright issues) and he was commendably open-minded and humane in letting me know what he considered fair use of copyrighted materials and what he did not consider fair use. In our ego-obsessed age, as
respectable literary figures fight shamelessly in public over money, power and position, it’s nice to report that to the end Ginsberg and his associates seemed to have avoided catching the “Greed Disease.” I am honored to have briefly known Allen and the people he worked with.