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The Poet Who Became a Climate of Opinion : GINSBERG: A Biography by Barry Miles (Simon & Schuster: $24.95; 520 pp.)

October 29, 1989|Todd Gitlin | Gitlin is the author of "The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage" (Bantam) and editor of "Watching Television" (Pantheon)

Allen Ginsberg's life is the stuff of saga. Indeed, Ginsberg has written that saga himself: His thousands of poems and songs, his published letters and journals amount to a voluminous record of a great, improbable, wholly American picaresque life, full of exuberance and rebellion, weirdness and gayness, political and philosophical witness. Since 1955, when he burst into public view reading "Howl" in San Francisco (as Jack Kerouac passed around jugs of wine and chanted "Go!"), Ginsberg has made himself up as he's gone along, hurled himself into grand adventures and thought seriously about them, created and promoted his own myth. One of the essential poets of our time, and more--a star-poet, a minstrel--he became, as Auden wrote about Freud, "a whole climate of opinion."

From the "Howl" reading on, Ginsberg has been celebrated, and execrated, for representing something beyond himself: the uncontrollable, declaimer of poems, lover of men and boys, promoter of beat writers, apostle of psychedelics, defier of cops, public nuisance and public Buddhist. He has made (and I mean created) scene after scene; he has been a dervish of energy and a moral force. In his blunt, bearlike, Jewish-uncle form, he was "the return of the repressed" in person. As the poet with the marvelous combination of shaggy beard and open stare, he personified the subterranean Beat counterculture of the '50s; wearing his American flag top hat, depicted in a poster sitting on the toilet, or on the evening news chanting OM to the camera or the police, Ginsberg the LSD guru and cooler-out of Hell's Angels--love him or leave him--was a major personification of the spirit of the '60s.

That a poet should have played such a part in the public life of postwar America seems nothing short of miraculous. Though celebrity cheapens any artist's achievements, one never should lose sight of Ginsberg's poetry--and indeed, the poems have been far from a minor ingredient in the public persona. The fitful, sketchy, matter-of-fact style he arrived at in "Howl"--long breath units, rhythmic accumulations, poker-faced references to sex and drugs, lists and riffs--he put to work tracking his personal odyssey in public. Many of his poems have come out as transcriptions of intimate experience--facts of his mother's insanity and death, confessions of sexual anguish and pride, tales of love-making and many a spiritual pilgrimage on American and other back highways. Again and again, Ginsberg has done it in the road, in public--not only in his own writings in voluminous interviews in print and films, on posters and video, and then as a presence in other people's books: as Carlo Marx, in the novelistic renditions of Jack Kerouac; as himself in Jane Kramer's evocative 1969 book, "Allen Ginsberg in America," in Don McNeill's "Moving Through Here," Joyce Johnson's "Minor Characters," and many others. If you read him seriously, or hear him read, you may think you already know all you need to know about Allen Ginsberg.

Which poses a considerable challenge for any biographer. What can you say about a life that has been, for more than three decades, lived in public, with so many revelations and such gusto, such style? One might have thought there was nothing more to say about the life of Allen Ginsberg--a man already so well known that the name "Ginsberg" seems to make "Allen" unnecessary as "Rushmore" does for "Mount" or "Reagan" does "Ronald."

Not so. Barry Miles, an Englishman who has known Ginsberg for 20 years, has plenty to add. Miles had access to Ginsberg's vast archives of correspondence and prior interviews; he conducted voluminous interviews on his own. With Boswellian ambitions, he doesn't tell all, but he tells much. Ginsberg was forthcoming to Miles about his childhood--much of it already much raked over (most beautifully, of course, in Ginsberg's heartbreaking "Kaddish") but a good deal hitherto unknown, at least to this reviewer. Ginsberg told Miles about committing his mother to a mental hospital, about giving permission to have her lobotomized, about early sex play. Some of this is heartbreaking, some explanatory (one understands why he is forever sheltering unstable people). Ginsberg often has talked about his early vision of William Blake, for example, his attempt to hold onto it and extrude it into poems, but in Miles' book he talks about the influence of Cezanne's brush strokes on his style--his way of building up impressions through omission as well as commission.

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