Recently I have been in a "beat" generation literary frame of mind. It all started last summer when I happened to be in Lowell, Massachusetts on some personal business. Although I have more than a few old time connections with that now worn out mill town I had not been there for some time. While walking in the downtown area I found myself crossing a small park adjacent to the site of a well-known mill museum and restored textile factory space. Needless to say, at least for any reader with a sense of literary history, at that park I found some very interesting memorial stones inscribed with excerpts from a number of his better known works dedicated to Lowell's "bad boy", the "king of the 1950s beat writers, Jack Kerouac. And, just as naturally, when one thinks of Kerouac then Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Neal Cassidy and a whole ragtag assortment of poets, hangers-on, groupies and genuine madmen and madwomen come to mind. So that is why we are under the sign of one Allen Ginsberg.
As I pointed out in recent review of a film documentary about the life of Jack Kerouac, "What Happened To Kerouac? (which I gave a five-star rating to, by the way) I was just a little too young to be directly influenced by the "beats", and just a little too driven by the quest for political solutions for what ailed me and what I thought ailed this society. Nevertheless, as I recounted in that review entitled, "On The Road" And On The Sidelines", after I came of political age I kind of crept back, like a million other members of the "Generation of `68" and re-evaluated that influence. In short then, starting with Kerouac's "On The Road", through William Burroughs "Naked Lunch" and on to Ginsberg's madman-like, but provocative, "Howl" and sensitive "Kaddish" I devoured every "beat" thing I could get my hands on.
And that last sentence is a good place to start in reviewing this one and one half hour production about the trials and tribulations, the fight for literary recognition and the journey of discovery of one hell of a beat poet, Allen Ginsberg. The film speeds through the now rather familiar saga (for that generation that was born between World War I and II and formed the core of what is deemed "the greatest generation") of a dysfunctional Jewish immigrant family, additionally burdened by a very overwrought and frequently institutionalized mother. The real story for our purposes, however, starts in 1940s New York where some very alienated youth like Ginsberg, Kerouac, Holmes, etc. and their mentors like Burroughs meet up and start a quest, literarily and physically, to `discover' America. And they do it on their terms, at least for a while.
Along the way Ginsberg becomes very aware of his innate poetic skills, his previously submerged sexual orientation and his almost surreal sense of the absurdities of living in post-war America, at least on the "squares" terms. Things begin to happen though. His "Howl" is premiered in San Francisco in 1956 to critical acclaim, Kerouac's "On The Road" finally gets published to rave reviews and suddenly in Eisenhower's America it becomes almost a rite of passage for the young to show up at some poetry reading in some smoky café, or dress in the de rigueur black, or like black-driven jazz. And that is where my generation and I come in. That is where, if nothing else, we owe a debt to the beats- and to the king hell beat poet who, unlike Kerouac who couldn't, or wouldn't, make the transition, came over with us when we started pushing back.
And that is the positive side of the Ginsberg story, the ability to transition, as least partially, as the leftward cultural currents shifted. I would not, and I believe psychologically could not, go on that psychic consciousness-raising trip that led him to Buddhism for a while. Moreover, in viewing the film of his role in the 1968 Democratic Convention as a messenger of tranquility only brought the hard fact that that was not the way to fight the monster home. But, I was then as I am now very indulgent toward the poetic spirits, the protest song singers, and the other cultural figures who "rage against the monster", politically correct or not. What bothered me more than anything though was Ginsberg's fate in his later career when he was no longer front and center in the public eye. In one of the many Ginsberg interview segments that dot this documentary, which was produced in 1994 just a few years before he died he notes, I believe while he is reciting one of his poems that one of his life achievements that he was proud of was that his had become a distinguished professor (I assume, of literature) at Brooklyn College. That is an unpardonable sin Brother Ginsberg. Where did you go wrong?
Note: One of the great things about this documentary, from a personal perspective, were the great number of evocative photographs, including many taken by the closet "shutter-bug" Ginsberg himself, of various personalities of the "beat" generation that I had not seen before like the young Ginsberg, Burroughs (was he ever young?), Cassidy and Kerouac. Additionally, for poetry buffs, there are number of segments included where Ginsberg read from his works (and with his poet father in join readings, as well). You do not know how really good and provocative "Howl" and "Kaddish" are as poems of rage and remembrance, respectively, until you hear his readings