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,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,
Allen Ginsberg, the madman, the one who would rave from the mountains talking about the doom that would one day beseech man. Or so said Jack Kerouac. Allen Ginsberg is one of those countercultural figures that pops up throughout different places in history. He is Carlo Marx in the revised version of On The Road, he was a member of Timothy Leary’s inner circle, and a one time lover of Neal Cassady: “the secret hero” of Howl. In Rob Epstein’s Howl the movie adaptation of Allen Ginsberg’s trial in response to the poem, Ginsberg (played by James Franco) outlines his life, loves and poetry, based on interviews and trial transcripts. The movie is fascinating, with animated scenes by Eric Drooker, who had worked with Allen Ginsberg on his last poetry book.
Allen Ginsberg’s story starts with his meeting Jack Kerouac at Columbia University. Kerouac another famous writer from the Beat Generation was said to have turned on Ginsberg to writing poetry from the heart. As Franco’s character says:
Jack gave me permission to open up. He’s a romantic poet. And he taught me that writing is personal, that, it comes from the writers own person, his body, his breathing rhythm.
Kerouac and Ginsberg would eventually meet Neal Cassady, the man who would become the basis for Kerouac’s On the Road, and Ginsberg’s opening up and exploration of his sexuality. Ginsberg lay in bed awkwardly beside Cassady, and Cassady seeing that, held Ginsberg in his arms. This would blossom the lifelong love for Cassady. Ginsberg and Cassady would sit for hours on end trying to see if they could completely open themselves up. They would stare and talk about what Jack thought to be gibberish, in a Benzedrine haze. Cassady would get married and move on with his life. When Neal Cassady mysteriously died on February 4th 1968, Ginsberg wrote a series of poems entitled: Elegies for Neal Cassady
Tender Spirit, thank you for touching me with tender hands
When you were young, in a beautiful body,
Such a pure touch it was Hope beyond Maya-meat,
What you are now,
impersonal, tender —
you showed me your muscle/warmth/over twenty years ago
when I lay trembling at your breast
put your arm around my neck,
Allen Ginsberg (left) Neal Cassady (right)
While Neal Cassady was off with Ken Kesey driving the day-glo crazies across America in a bus called ‘Furthur’, Allen Ginsberg ended up in New York, becoming good friends with Dr. Timothy Leary, and Richard Alpert (then known as Ram Dass). Ginsberg having heard about the work that Leary was doing, burned with a passion to be involved, and so in 1961, Ginsberg, Leary and Alpert dosed psilocybin mushroom pills, and went on their own journey ‘Furthur’. This would lead Ginsberg out of the Beat Generation and into the Hippy movement that would culminate in 1967 San Francisco in the Summer of Love. Ginsberg would travel to India, and bring back some of the eastern mysticism with him.
One of the gravest errors of Timothy Leary though bears into Allen’s story. In a playboy interview in 1966, Timothy Leary would comment on the rise of LSD and Allen Ginsberg’s sexuality. After having not-really-but-kind-of kicked out of Harvard, Leary would tell the New Left, and burgeoning hippy movements to “Turn on, Tune in, Drop out.” Leary would comment to Playboy that one of the great uses for LSD was its ability to cure homosexuality. For all the enlightenment that may (or may not) have occurred in the 60’s we cannot forget the prejudices that still existed. From Leary:
Consequently, it’s not surprising that
we’ve had many cases of long-term homo-
sexuals who, under LSD, discover that
they are not only genitally but genetically
male, that they are basically
attracted to females. The most famous
and public of such cases is that of Allen
Ginsberg, who has openly stated that
the first time he turned on to women
was during an LSD session several years
ago. But this is only one of many
Ginsberg’s style of writing is both elegant, and jarring at times. Even for the modern reader who has moved to a time where gay rights are less controversial, and sex less puritanically infused, it can still be quite surprising to read Ginsberg’s poetry which can shift from more traditionally beautiful poetry to speech about fucking. If you had any question on whether or not this is art, you can either read the original poem, or listen to Allen Ginsberg recite it:
Countercultures is a new bi-weekly series on Thursdays at Existential Awe that looks at life histories of artists and thinkers who pushed against the system and created countercultural social change.