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Allen Ginsberg: Still Controversial : Beat Generation's Bearded Bad Boy Focuses on the Mind

April 18, 1985|GARRY ABRAMS | Times Staff Writer

Allen Ginsberg is getting ready to die, among other things.

Poet, proselytizer, perennial electric-bearded bad boy of the beat generation, Ginsberg is coming to grips with the inevitable. In idle moments he's likely to be thinking of "death, old age, sickness and death," he said in an interview.

"I'm 58, so I'll be 60 soon, so better prepare for that. I have kind of haunting dreams about having a permanent place to die in, a house, because I don't really have a reliable place of my own," he said. "I have a slum apartment on the Lower East Side (of Manhattan) where I have an eviction notice. I have this sort of haunting dream that my place isn't there or I don't have a place or I can't find my key."

Ginsberg thinks he'll beat the eviction notice just as he has survived decades of controversy and calculated outrageousness. Whether he'll have a place of his own is less likely, but possible, he said. And he is not going to waste time railing against the grim reaper.

For decades a student of Eastern religions, he is drawing on serene contemplations for the ultimate test.

"There are prolonged meditative exercises that accustom you to the disorientation and chaos (of death)," he explained, "just like you might prepare for outer space by practices that prepare you for weightlessness. That's part of the oral transmission of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, but basically I just use simple meditation practice and some visualization practice, nothing that mystical or esoteric."

In the meantime, in late middle age, he is enjoying the rather placid rewards of a life that appeared bent on blasting Middle America's favorite shibboleths. Whether it was politics, homosexuality or drugs, Ginsberg always was on the far-out fringe in a fine frothing fury, advocating anarchy, free love and psychedelics in abundance.

Some of this image is true. He does protest what he sees as flagrant abuses of power. He is an avowed homosexual whose poetry includes celebrations of that preference. He is still an advocate of peyote and LSD.

In person, though, Ginsberg comes across mainly as a calm, reflective intellectual rather than a passionate poet of the alternative. Baldness has conquered the bushy hair. The untamed beard, which he shaved several years ago, has been reincarnated in a trimmed version, a fitting topping to his button-down shirt and tie. In fact, he wishes that his audience--critics and admirers--would pay less attention to his personality and more to his poetry. The reason is simple: His writing has been gathered into a single 800-page volume, "Collected Poems 1947-1980" (Harper & Row, $27.50).

This doorstop of a book is a drastic change from the slim paperbacks published by City Lights Books in San Francisco that until now have been the primary source of Ginsberg's work. Its red, black and gold jacket and black and gold binding emanate mainstream respectability. The volume has brought his work more visibility than it has had in years and more invitations to read from his poems, including a recent one at UCLA where he was warmly received by a crowd of students.

Nonetheless, the new book is still too slim and perhaps too new to hide its author, who most critics imagine to be leering from its pages, he said.

"The one thing I haven't seen is a review that goes to the text," Ginsberg said. "Generally (the reviews have been about) either the history or the historical significance or the persona of the author, after many years of complaint that the persona of the author has gotten in the way of the poetry, finally when presented with nothing but the poetry, nobody is paying attention to it."

One reason his writing is getting short shrift, Ginsberg maintained, is that he doesn't fit the dismissive mold created for poets by the literary industry. University professors, critics and others are much more attuned to the likes of Dylan Thomas, John Berryman or Delmore Schwartz, poets who fulfill accepted romantic notions of self-destructive versifiers, he said. By his own assessment, Ginsberg is more in the mold of Walt Whitman or Henry David Thoreau, hardheaded enough to prefer impudence to addiction.

"It's a lot easier, particularly for academics and journalists who are lushes, to identify with the academic poets who drank themselves to death and say, 'Well, those poets, they're great but they drank themselves to death,' " he said.

'It's Under My Control'

Despite its reception, to Ginsberg the book is a roping in of undisciplined children, the maturing of wayward creations, some of which he has revised. "Now it's under my control," he said. "I don't have to mess around with it any more and that's really useful because I've had a chance in the City Lights editions to read aloud maybe a hundred or more times each poem, so I've been able to test them vocally and find out where there's deficiencies of intelligence, deficiencies of sounds or deficiencies of abstraction, or I no longer understand what I was talking about."

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