Problematizing My Faves:  A Conservative Remembers Allen Ginsberg

Norman Podhoretz, Ex-Friends: Falling out with Allen Ginsberg, Lionel & Diana Trilling,  Lillian Hellman, Hannah Arendt, and Norman Mailer

In a recent post, I acknowledged finally paying closer attention to the second precept of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Order of Interbeing. This means  consciously leaving my lefty, liberal echo chamber to “be open to receive others’ viewpoints.” From the mid-1980s to recently, it would never have occurred to me to read anything by Norman Podhoretz, the the intellectual force behind the right-wing magazine, Commentary.  

Last fall, I read his memoir and was struck by his pretty relentless criticism  of Allen Ginsberg, who is cited many times at this website.  I’ve offered a course on Ginsberg, loved his letters with Jack Kerouac, appreciated his literary influence, written “off” his poems, and found value in his and Anne Waldman’s work at Naropa.

I share the following in the spirit  of Simone Weil’s advice in Waiting for God: “Method of investigation— as soon as one has arrived at any position, try to find in what sense the contrary is true.”

Even as an undergraduate at Columbia, he had won my admiration with the amazing virtuosity that enabled him to turn out polished verses in virtually any style: love lyrics with an Elizabethan flavor, heroic couplets in the manner of Dryden and Pope, sonnets or rhymed stanzas reminiscent of Keats and Shelley. Now, through a fusion of Walt Whitman, Christopher Smart, William Blake, and William Carlos Williams, he had evidently found his own true voice. Hysterical and unmodulated, it was not a voice I liked; nor did I believe that the poems constituted the great literary breakthrough Ginsberg vociferously kept insisting he had achieved. 26-27

Being against what the Beat Generation stands for has to do with denying that incoherence is superior to precision; that ignorance is superior to knowledge; that the exercise of mind and discrimination is a form of death. It has to do with fighting the notion that sordid acts of violence are justifiable so long as they are committed in the name of “instinct.” It even has to do with fighting the poisonous glorification of the adolescent in American popular culture. It has to do, in other words, with one’s attitude toward intelligence itself.  28

In later life, Ginsberg would adopt a sweet and gentle persona, but there was nothing either sweet or gentle about the Allen Ginsberg I had last seen at Columbia ten years earlier, and there was even less evidence of those qualities in the Allen Ginsberg I met again that night. As an undergraduate he had been arrogant and brash and full of an in-your-face bravado; now, just into his thirties, he was still all those things and more, but there was also a fury in him that I had not detected in the past. “In those days,” as he himself would later recall, “I’d go into towering rages over literary matters because I was in the middle of a big fight with the whole New York Establishment . . . and I was on my high horse.” That night it was I in whom “the whole New York Establishment” was concentrated, and the rage was directed at me. 31

No doubt this consideration did play a part. (So relentless a self-promoter was Ginsberg that as he lay dying he asked his agent to do something about getting his latest collection reviewed in The New York Times Book Review.) And yet, as I could sense even then and as his weirdly unremitting fixation on me was to prove, he did crave my approval of his work, and even of his “lifestyle.” For he did not limit himself that night to literary matters or to throwing the accusation of know-nothingism back in my face. He also harped on, and expressed incredulity over, my defense of the “square” way of life (or what today would be called middle-class values) against the Beat assault. 33

Yet at the same time, I was repelled by Ginsberg’s world. In the abstract, he spoke for freedom from the oppressions of arbitrary social constraints, but his own work made no bones about the concrete consequences of this freedom: they were madness, drugs, and sexual perversity. In praising him at first for not “glamorizing” these consequences, I had failed to grasp just how radical he really was. But now I finally understood that to his antinomian mind, going mad in America was the only way to be sane, to get high on drugs was the only way to be sober, and to “scatter . . . semen freely to whomever come who may” was the only way to experience sex. 34-35

Much influenced by Ezra Pound in his poetry, as well as in his prose (and especially in his letters, down to the eccentric punctuation and the use of idiosyncratic mock-comic locutions), Ginsberg also, I recognized, saw himself as playing for his own literary movement the same role Pound had played almost a half-century earlier in tirelessly promoting the avante-garde (or “modernist”) writers of his own generation, to whom he was at once a leader, an exemplar, and a mentor. The difference was that Pound had had W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot, and James Joyce to push and promote (not to mention a host of lesser but still very important figures) whereas all poor Ginsberg had to work with were the likes of Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. And while many of the writers Pound sponsored were greater than he was (vicious though he was in his politics, where literature was concerned he could often be supremely selfless), Ginsberg was the best of his gang—such as he was and such as they were. 41

But why should he still have needed it when I was no longer even in the game (having pretty much shifted my attention from literary matters to politics and foreign affairs) and the rest of the world was falling at his feet with praises (“Ginsberg is responsible for loosening the breath of American poetry at midcentury,” ran a typical comment by the eminent critic Helen Vendler, who assigned him “a memorable place in modern poetry”); heaping laurels on his head (including, among many others, the National Arts Club Gold Medal for lifetime achievement, a National Book Award, and election to the august American Academy of Arts and Letters); and even showering him with riches (a publisher’s advance of $160,000—for poetry!—and $1.2 million for his papers from Stanford University)?  43

The rule is never to speak ill of the dead, but the obituarists and commemorators who wrote about Ginsberg upon his death could not have broken the rule even if they had wanted to, since they could see no ill in him to speak of at all. Except for George Will in his syndicated column and an anonymous editorialist in The New Criterion, everyone else reached lyrically for the stars. In The New Yorker, David Remnick, for whom “the distinguishing feature of Ginsberg’s character was his generosity, his sweetness, his openness,” accorded his work a place among the classics of the literary canon. In The Washington Post, Henry Allen also pronounced him “a great poet” who spoke “for the right and need of Americans to express personal and universal truth.” In Newsweek, David Gates concluded that “Ginsberg’s lifelong work was to say goodbye: in joy and sorrow, love and longing. And to remind us that ours is too.” In The Nation, John Leonard said that “his ultimate role at every engagement in our second Civil War was as a nurse, like his buddy Walt Whitman.  52

No such change ever came over Allen Ginsberg, for all the “generosity,” the “sweetness,” and the “openness” that David Remnick and others found in his character when he too was getting on in years. As a poet, he never grew or developed (even most of his admirers think that nothing he wrote after 1959 was as good as “Howl” and “Kaddish”), and he went to his death still preaching the same false and pernicious ideas about life in America with which he burst onto the scene in the 1950s and which spread (to borrow an image he once used about my ideas) “like trench mouth” through American culture in the 1960s.  55

But, disconcertingly, Kerouac was as likable in the flesh as he was repellent in print. In contrast to the seething Ginsberg, who went at me with everything he had, Kerouac (in spite of being the aggrieved party) was so easygoing and charming that I could not help regretting the nastiness with which I had treated him and wishing I could say that I had been won over and now saw his novels in a new light….It was about 3 A.M. when Kerouac and I left together. He walked me to the subway station in Sheridan Square, and we parted with pleasant words, which stood in the sharpest possible contrast to the ominous parting words Ginsberg had flung at me a few hours earlier just as I was leaving his apartment: ‘We’ll get you through your children!’ 40

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