Saturday, June 03, 2006

HAPPY BIRTHDAY HOWLER

From Writer's Almanac:

A Strange New Cottage in Berkeley
by Allen Ginsberg

All afternoon cutting bramble blackberries off a tottering brown fence
under a low branch with its rotten old apricots miscellaneous under the leaves,
fixing the drip in the intricate gut machinery of a new toilet;
found a good coffeepot in the vines by the porch, rolled a big tire out
of the scarlet bushes, hid my marijuana;
wet the flowers, playing the sunlit water each to each, returning for
godly extra drops for the stringbeans and daisies;
three times walked round the grass and sighed absently:
my reward, when the garden fed me its plums from the form of a
small tree in the corner,
an angel thoughtful of my stomach, and my dry and lovelorn tongue.

It's the birthday of poet Allen Ginsberg, born in Newark, New Jersey (1926). He fell in love with the poetry of Walt Whitman when he was in high school, after hearing his English teacher read a passage from Whitman's "Song of Myself" to the class. He later said that he would never forget his teacher's "black-dressed bulk seated squat behind an English class desk, her embroidered collar, her voice powerful and high ... so enthusiastic and joyous ... so confident and lifted with laughter."

He went to Columbia University, planning to take pre-law classes and become a lawyer like his brother, but he switched his major to English after taking a Great Books class from the critic Lionel Trilling. He fell in with a group of poets and artists that included Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, and William S. Burroughs. They read poetry to each other and took drugs and had all-night conversations, and sometime in the late '40s they started calling themselves "Beats."

When Ginsberg was twenty-six years old, he was sitting in his apartment in Harlem when he suddenly had a vision of William Blake. He told friends and family that he had found God. He said, "My body suddenly felt light, and [I felt] a sense of cosmic consciousness, vibrations, understanding, awe, and wonder and surprise. And it was a sudden awakening into a totally deeper real universe than I'd been existing in." But Ginsberg still wasn't sure that he wanted to be a poet after he graduated from Columbia. He worked as an apprentice book reviewer for Newsweek magazine for a time, and then he spent five years working for an advertising agency in an office in the Empire State Building. In 1955, he and his psychiatrist decided he would be happier writing poetry. He took six months of unemployment insurance money and moved to San Francisco, where he became part of the poetry scene that included Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. In October of 1955, he read his poem "Howl" to a large group of people at the Six Gallery in San Francisco. It was a huge success, and it launched a writing career that lasted over forty years.

"Howl" begins, "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 ..."

Ginsberg wrote, "I want to be known as the most brilliant man in America ... who sang a blues made rock stars weep ... who called the Justice department & threaten'd to Blow the Whistle / Stopt Wars ... distributed monies to poor poets & nourished imaginative genius of the land."

He said, "Poetry is the one place where people can speak their original human mind. It is the outlet for people to say in public what is known in private."

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