Thursday, July 1, 2010

My Allen Ginsberg — Part Two of Four

"Heaven balanced on a grassblade."

In the 50’s and 60’s poetry readings happened not only in coffee-houses and local art galleries, but also before large audiences numbering several hundreds. I remember hearing T.S. Eliot reading at Jordan Hall in Boston around 1959 or so, and Kenneth Rexroth’s last major San Francisco poetry reading at Herbst Hall, and I’m thinking also of the first time I’d heard Ginsberg read in San Francisco, around 1968-69.

Allen read together with Gary Snyder before a packed audience at Nourse Auditorium (in the old School District building at Fell St and Franklin, now closed since the Loma Prieta earthquake), and I think it was the first time either of them had read in San Francisco in a good many years.

It was a spectacular event. I’d never heard Allen read before, and the effect of his sonorous vocalisms completely filling the auditorium as he worked his way from one crescendo to another overwhelmed me. I’d heard poets (my poet-friends Paul Mariah and Hunce Volcker among them) read their works in a musical fashion, but it most cases it was a sort of chanting and crooning which emphasized short phrases, up-and-down lines, and off-beat accents – rather like jazz and poetry without the jazz.

Allen’s style was more dramatic, because it coincided with his enthusiasm for and recollection of the experience that was being articulated – it seemed that he was transforming himself backward in time to re-live the same event that had inspired the poem, subjecting the listener to whatever shamanic agencies might have been operative in the moment. It was confessionalistic, visionary, utterly convincing somehow, and the exact opposite of today’s brainless poetic formalism.

His reading of Wales Visitation in San Francisco was simply mind-blowing. I don’t think anybody had heard him read it before, and so it came rather as a surprise. I would post it here, but I think “Ginsberg, Inc.”—as Jack Micheline used to call AG’s management interests—might be unhappy with my doing so, so if you’re interested you can read the poem right here.

Now anybody who has taken LSD a few times would know exactly what’s going on with Wales Visitation. Practically everyone in town could and in fact did go out to Land’s End or up Buena Vista Park when the fog was rolling in and drop acid and have similar visions. But there are few indeed who could combine that mastery of imagery and musicality of language in Allen’s poem, combined with some ancient cultural allusions to add a bit of English intellectual history to the mix.

I thought it was a great poem, and I still do. I think Ginsberg peaked with Wales Visitation, but it wasn’t clear then that his writing would gently lapse into a kind of business-as-usual quasi-surrealist/expressionist travel narrative in the years to follow (quite readable, but not equally inspired).

I remember in those years Bob Glück telling me he thought AG was a “master,” an estimation from which he and other friends perhaps pulled back from later on. But in 1969 Allen was at the top of his form, and everyone waited to see what he would do next.

In the same year I put my own queer shoulder to the wheel and started up a gay-lib poetry magazine called Sebastian Quill, about which more later. I wrote to Allen asking him for a submission, and he sent me a little poem called Please, Master—a miniature S&M phantasy, which of course I was delighted to publish. The manuscript was nicely calligraphed with some pleasantly innocuous phallic drawings. I donated it to the SF GLBT Historical Society in 1997 when Allen died.

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