|Allen Ginsberg, our great poet and teacher, this saint
and holy madman, has died. I first heard of his illness last week without
hearing any details, and thought, oh, he will still be with us for years
yet. Then George Stanley told me last night that he had been diagnosed
with incurable cancer. Together we discussed the need for Vancouver poets
to come together and write to him in his extremity expressing our undying
gratitude and appreciation for his great life.
This afternoon, I spoke to George Bowering on the telephone to begin this process, and George told me Allen had died during the night, and now it is too late. He had been scheduled to read in our city on the very night that he died, but the engagement was cancelled because of his illness, and now we will never see him in the flesh again.
He had not visited in our city for many years, and all of us, including a whole new generation of young people who remain interested in his work and vision were looking forward to seeing and hearing him again. The last time I saw him in the flesh and talked to him was in 1963 at the poets' conference here. My wife and I and some friends took Allen on the Grouse Mountain chairlift for an outing. I remember the day as one of the most beautiful of many beautiful days that summer. Allen carried with him a set of thumb cymbals, which he beat together prayerfully as the chairlift slowly ascended the mountain, delivering us an exalted view of the ocean and the city. I am not at all religious, but Allen was able to inspire in me a sense of the tremendous beauty of the world and the cosmos, and of human beings which has never left me. I don't often speak of the soul, it's something that I barely understand, but the human soul and its universal quality of love was always the substance of Allen's discourse, so I am free to do so today, and I have Allen to thank for this freedom.
The silvery, insistent sound of Allen's cymbals echoed off the tops of the mountains. The top of my head seemed to open and become part of the sky. The thundering power of Hare, of Rama, of Krishna, gods I still do not know, seemed imminent, seemed present. Yet the day remained a perfectly ordinary day, and all of us were here on earth, plain beings of human flesh.
The night before at a party at my place, saying he liked the way he danced , he had propositioned my friend Dallas Selman, who was accompanying us that morning. But Dallas, who was not gay, put him off by lying, telling him that his wife wouldn't like it if he went with Allen. In the morning, as we set out to drive up the mountain, Allen asked Dallas about his wife, and, stupid me, big mouth, blurted out, "What wife?' There was plenty of silliness and laughter surrounding Allen Ginsberg, but he was serious, and critical, too. I remember he made harsh fun of me later for my "hip" affectations, because that was his way of love. His aim both in his poetry and his life was to shock and to awaken, and he was so momentously successful at his work.
The last time I saw him was in Montreal in 1975. Thousands, (literally thousands!) of Quebecois young people came to see him and William Burroughs there, and listened with close attention, even though many of them spoke only French, and they were awakened as they had expected to be, because Allen never stinted in his the speaking of his truth.
He came to Vancouver again about 1990, when he gave a reading with Gregory Corso and Michael McClure, I think. But I was living elsewhere and wasn't able to attend. Gregg Simpson, an artist friend who is also a musician and lives close by to me, often speaks with great pride about working as the percussionist in the band that opened the reading. There are many people in Vancouver whose lives have been touched by his presence in ways they will never forget. In the near days to come all of us will be talking together about Allen and remembering what he gave to us from the unparalleled generosity of his American soul, from his grand passion.
There are not many poets and poems of which it can be said that they have changed the direction of human life. Leaves of Grass is certainly one such poem, and Allen Ginsberg, through the stewardship of his beloved William Carlos Williams, is the direct inheritor of that wonderful fearless American public democratic voice. The opening lines of HOWL, that holy poem, cannot be erased from the consciousness of North America or the world. From the moment that I first read HOWL, my life was changed forever, and the same is true of almost all my contemporaries and friends. This sexy apocalyptical rant was the clearest and steadiest voice of the visions of a generation.There was a time when I could recite the poem completely off by heart like the Bible itself. Mad as Ginsberg sometimes liked to act, he had a scholar's knowledge of so many things, of the Jewish rabbinical tradition, of Buddhism, classical and Zen, of Hindu visions, and of Tantric meditations. He was instrumental in awakening an entire generation of America to the fact that there were other powerful forms of knowledge that could enrich the American pragmatic and scientific consciousness and expand the possibilities of human life. From this mix, Ginsberg concocted a stew both flavourful and spicy. And full of a delightful laughter. He never went passive in the world, he was always striving to make an effect, to wring some changes, and even when at his most clown-like, playing, the fool, beneath it and under it all was a deep and important human dignity which commanded respect, but especially love.
Official America laughs and makes a joke of this holy fool, but he, in his person and in his work, represents the new soul of the New America which is still being born. For many years he mainly disappeared from the public media, but recently I have seen on television a wonderful documentary about the life and work of William Carlos Williams, in which Allen gives a wise and beautiful analysis and summation of the contradictions within the American society and psyche which were expressed by Allen's great teacher, the hope and the desire for a richer and more humane human life, thwarted by the blindness of official morals and society in America--
"The pure products of America/go crazy."
"I have seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness."
With these and the lines that followed, Ginsberg fashioned a call and a program for a kind of mental and social insurrection which is still going on in America, and there is no going back. Once said, this cannot be cancelled, and the message will be heard by this generation, and the next generation, and the next. Allen cannot die. He has already joined the Immortals.
Then again, during the Gulf War, Allen Ginsberg appeared on television, the only one among thousands of Americans who gave their views during those horrifying traumatic months, to speak unequivocally and clearly in the voice of an Old Testament prophet, with the learning of a rabbi, and the deep understanding of the American democratic political tradition, condemning the holocaust visited on the Iraqi people by the merciless bombs of American military power, so unjustifiably, so contrary to the purest ideals of American democracy. It was the speech of a hero, an act of the purest human courage and made me proud that I had once stood in the living presence of this wonderful American human being. That one speech erased forever my skeptical doubts about the power of the truth that Allen Ginsberg carried in his soul and daily spoke, the mightiness of that "queer shoulder" he vowed so many years ago to put to the wheel in hiis poem called "America," tough, unbending speaker of human love that he was.
These two television programs and anything else that he has done, should be made available to the world as we think back upon the life of this great poet and the profound knowledge he has given us of America and its soul.
It was through Allen Ginsberg and his friends that I came to know so many things I would otherwise have never known. Today, I know I am together with poets in my own country and in the United States, England, The Czech Republic, Slovakia, Russia, Cuba, India, Mexico, Japan--all the places in the world that his monumental love has touched. Allen was instrumental in bringing to the consciousness of ignorant North Americans, the beauty and wisdom of the religious texts of the East, including the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Now Allen is receiving the emanations of all our love assisting his soul in its passage to that other world.
Dearest, beloved Allen, I am not alone in loving you: there are thousands world wide who are thinking about you today with love and gratitude. People everywhere are sending you their blessings as you pass into the spirit. All of our shoulders are still at the wheel, still at the work which you showed us must be done, and how to do it, given the example of your own magnificent courage and devotion, the splendour of your awakened human vision.
Jamie Reid was one of the founding editors of TISH, a fixture on the Vancouver poetry scene since the early sixties and author, most recently, of Prez: Homage to Lester Young (Oolichan Books, 1993) & The Man Whose Path Was on Fire (Talon Books, 1969). The online version of Mad Boys can be seen at the Coach House Press web site.