Tuesday, September 30, 2014

October 2nd: Allen Ginsberg Day 5 — Fame and Death in the 1970s and early 80s

Ginsberg at the 1968 National Book Awards ceremony with
fellow poets Robert Creeley (left) and John Ashbery (right).
One of the first poems you'll read for today is "Who," Ginsberg's response to the folks at Who's Who when they asked him for a biographical blurb in 1973. In that same year, he'd release his collection, The Fall of America: Poems of these States 1965-1971, which would go on to win the National Book Award for Poetry in 1974. This recognition, as well as his admission to the American Academy of Arts and Letters and winning a National Arts Club gold medal (both in 1979), and Ginsberg's co-founding (with Anne Waldman) of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University (in 1974) were emblematic of the poet's evolution from a feared radical to an accepted and even lauded cultural figure over the course of the 1970s — a strange and wonderful occurrence when you consider that in the late 1950s, his alma mater, Columbia University, wouldn't even buy a copy of Howl and Other Poems for its library. At the same time, it's worth noting that while Ginsberg might've garnered more mainstream attention, that doesn't mean that his social, sexual or political perspectives dimmed in their contrarian intensity. Upon being invited to join the American Academy, for example, he immediate began lobbying for his friends and peers to receive the same honor, eventually seeing William S. Burroughs join the organization as well. He also continued to criticize injustice and abuse of power wherever he saw it, particularly in his great latter-day work "Plutonian Ode," part of his protest of the Rocky Flats nuclear power plant near Naropa in Boulder, Colorado.

This period was also marked by a growing awareness of his own mortality. Ginsberg had already mourned his mother, Naomi, and friends including Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac, and in the mid-70s, he'd also lose his father, Louis, but in the process, write some of the finest, most moving poetry of his later years. Ginsberg faced each new change in his life with an unfaltering sense of self-awareness, and tracked his evolving role in society, in his relationships with friends and lovers, and natural process of aging (and eventually death), guided by his art and taking solace in his Buddhism.

Ginsberg was a guest on David Letterman's late-night talk show in June 1983.
If a major thread of Ginsberg's life in the 1970s is his struggle to once again come to terms with a new public persona (as he'd similarly done in the wake of "Howl" in the late 1950s) the 1980s were a decade in which he happily embraced his myriad roles in American and international cultural spheres and even added a few more.

While he'd been somewhat ambivalent about his position as professor at Naropa (and taught, unpaid, for the sake of the program and so that other poets might make a little money), Ginsberg was appointed Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College in 1986 and taught there until his death eleven years later. The opportunity to revisit germinal texts, share the work of his Beat comrades, support up-and-coming writers and interact with students was rejuvenating for Ginsberg and helped shape his work throughout the decade.

With Joe Strummer of the Clash, 1981.
A spirit of retrospection and nostalgia hung over the poet as he marked the changes in his ever-lengthening life — losing both of his parents, moving back to New York from Boulder, his problematically-evolving relationship with Orlovsky, the growing AIDS crisis, Reagan-era conservatism and political misdeeds, etc. — and while he sometimes felt like "a prisoner of Allen Ginsberg" as one of the poems you'll read attests, he often took these stresses in stride and relished the potential his worldwide renown brought for advocating social change. While he continued to use poetry as a forum for his activism, his growing interest in popular music — which began with his friendships with Bob Dylan and the Beatles in the 1960s and would yield albums of Blake songs and blues numbers in the 70s — came into full flourish in this decade, with Ginsberg using song as a vehicle for strident political commentary (cf. his collaboration with the Clash, "Capitol Air;" "The Little Fish Devours the Big Fish;" "Birdbrain!"), religious instruction ("Do the Meditation Rock") or general lyrical embellishment (on tracks from the 1989 Hal Wilner-prodced album The Lion for Real, including several you've already heard: "To Aunt Rose," "Xmas Gift," "The End," "Stanzas: Written at Night in Radio City," etc.).

Ginsberg also reconnected with his love of photography at this time, thanks to the encouragement of friends including Raymond Foye and Robert Frank. He had his first exhibition of photos from the Beats formative years, "Hideous Human Angels," at Holly Solomon Gallery in 1985 and would eventually publish several collections of his work, in addition to staging many more showings. Several years ago, for example, there was a landmark exhibition of his photography at the National Gallery in Washington, DC.

Finally, during this decade we see what's perhaps the clearest evidence of Ginsberg's prominent role in American life and culture and the significance of his work in two major financial transactions: his signing a six-book contract with Harper and Row — which would yield Collected Poems 1947-1980 along with a lengthy volume of the poet's mid-50s journals and several subsequent collections of poetry — and his arrangement for Stanford to house his archives. While many in the poetry world cried sellout, one should note that though Ginsberg's busy reading, teaching and publishing schedule did bring in a respectable income, he immediately divested himself of much of that through charitable donations and gifts of money for living expenses to an ever-growing roll of indigent artists, poets and musicians (Gregory Corso, Peter Orlovsky, and esteemed folklorist Harry Smith all drew regular paychecks from Ginsberg). Moreover, his business deals often sought to benefit others besides himself: most importantly, Ginsberg protected City Lights by insisting upon provisions in his Harper and Row deal that would allow the independent publisher to continue issuing his books in individual Pocket Poets volumes. What these deals did was provide an aging poet in increasingly-poor health a small modicum of comfort in his autumn years.

Here are our readings for Thursday:
  • Xmas Gift (595): MP3
  • Who (603)
  • Yes, and It's Hopeless (604)
  • What I'd Like to Do (610) 
  • News Bulletin (613) 
  • Manifesto (625)
  • Mugging (633) : MP3
  • Who Runs America? (636)
  • Gospel Noble Truths (649): MP3
  • Junk Mail (665) 
  • "You Might Get in Trouble" (668)
  • Punk Rock Your My Big Crybaby (691): MP3 / MP3
  • Don't Grow Old (659): MP3MP3; excerpt, "Father Death Blues": MP3
  • Plutonian Ode (710): MP3
  • "Don't Grow Old" (718): MP3 (read my note on this recording here)
  • Brooklyn College Brain (725)
  • After Whitman and Reznikoff (740): MP3
  • Fourth Floor, Dawn, Up All Night Writing Letters (744)
  • Ode to Failure (745): MP3
  • Capitol Air (751): MP3 (note: live with the Clash 1981, see "Ghetto Defendant" below as well)
  • Why I Meditate (851)
  • Do the Meditation Rock (863): MP3
  • The Little Fish Devours the Big Fish (865): MP3
And here are a few supplemental videos:

Ginsberg sings "Father Death Blues"

Another version of "Father Death Blues"

Ginsberg sings "Gospel Noble Truths"

Ginsberg (with Steven Taylor on guitar and Arthur Russell on cello) performs "Do the Meditation Rock" on Good Morning, Mr. Orwell, Nam June Paik's live satellite TV celebration of New Year's 1984 (which is astoundingly great). That's Peter Orlovsky meditating, by the way.

Ginsberg's appearance on the Clash's track, "Ghetto Defendant"

Ginsberg sings "Capitol Air" with a Kansas City punk band in the film Poetry in Motion

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