Allen Ginsberg: Buddhist Rabbi

One afternoon in fall of 1977, I sat in my college professor's office talking about Yeats or Wallace Stevens when a fellow student poked her head into the open door to apologize. She wouldn't be able to make it to Allen Ginsberg's November 1st reading at the Neuberger Museum later that week. She was Greek Orthodox, and bound to observe All Saints Day with her family. I didn't know the fellow lit major, but I'll never forget the professor's sotto-voce wisecrack as her footsteps faded down the corridor: "But Allen Ginsberg is a saint."

A saint? No. An angel? Maybe. I know I "got religion" that night as I heard Allen Ginsberg read "Kaddish" in the Neuberger Museum in Purchase, N.Y. more than 30 years ago. The call came: a tap on the shoulder that doubled as a lightning bolt; an epiphany was had, and a conversion -- not forced but seduced -- transpired. I left the museum that night, on the Feast of All Saints, with a mission to "throw down" with life as a poet.

Amid the fresh fervor for Ginsberg and the Beats that is being fueled by the impending theatrical release of the motion picture Howl, I notice that my first thought -- which Ginsberg might therefore insist is my best thought -- is a of poet not so much hip as rabbinic. Schoolmarmish, even. Allen Ginsberg was my professor for two years in the late 1980s. He was a conscientious teacher. He came to class early, was always well prepared, made copious remarks on students' work, and always wore a necktie. I had been a teacher for four years when I first began to study with Ginsberg, and it was clear to me, early on, that he had uncommon respect for educators. (Poet Louis Ginsberg, Allen's father, had worked as a teacher for many years.)

Ginsberg scolded his graduate students when assignments were incomplete or undone. Sloppy mechanics made him cross. On one occasion he made of an example of me over my failure to capitalize the "d" in "Duomo." This, in the era of typewriters, before the advent of Spellcheck. I think that Ginsberg believed being a poet was an important job. Poets keep the world safe for imagination, and imagination preserves the liberty of even those who care as little for it as for poetry. Ginsberg's admiration for nonconformists did not always extend to emerging poets enrolled in his classes. He was one of those who believed poets should read newspapers, and that a poet should know a rule before breaking it.

Ginsberg sought not so much to teach his students how to write poetry as to teach them (us) to become poets. It was not always easy to forget that the guy running his mouth at the head of the seminar table every Monday afternoon was a legend who had already attained a "major poet" status, but it was possible, because what he had to impart upstaged his celebrity status, and Allen was eager to bottle, uncork and share his magic. Inspired in this by Jack Kerouac's "List of Essentials for Modern Prose," Ginsberg distilled his way of working into a short list of poetry principles that comprised a de facto "Dos and Don'ts" for poets, which has since become his poem "Cosmopolitan Greetings." No great artist wishes to imagine that his or her strategies for achieving excellence can be reduced to the size of an iPhone Application, but anyone who knew him at all knows that no one would more enjoy the notion of a "Ginsberg Versification App" than Allen himself.

He exhorted writers to "remember the future" ("Cosmopolitan Greetings") and, in this regard, he practiced what he preached. Ginsberg liked the future and maybe knowing that he was already there. In practical and more ethereal ways, Allen operated simultaneously in the past, present and future. Unlike many (most?) poets who write with one eye on the fantasy long-shot of a posthumous "career" and the other fixed on the more earthly prize of getting a few good poems off our desks before we die, Allen had nailed down his spot in the pantheon of American poets while still (at least in poets' years) a young man. He was the surviving, thriving heart, soul and voice of (the past that was) Beat Literature; wrote fine poems in the present, right up until he died (See White Shroud!) and it was clear that the future was ever present in the forefront of his thinking as Ginsberg worked. He consistently posed such questions as, "How will that McDonald's 'Golden Arches' reference translate into Chinese 50 years from now?" and "Will anyone care?" He complained about the tedium of annotating his own texts to ensure that popular culture references would translate across time and space, and he recommended that poets be mindful of the the fact that the best poems long outlive their makers. Anyone at all familiar with Ginsberg's body of work knows he wrote head-on about the fear that neither his own poems nor those by others would survive the "advances" plutonium made possible. But Ginsberg hedged his bets, too; he insisted on due diligence. Poems should be future-friendly -- just in case nuclear disaster should fail to foreclose upon the efforts of poets to pass the test of time. From Allen's persisting expectation that a future featuring poetry and poetry consumers might lie ahead, I inferred some modicum of hope, and -- maybe it's not a stretch to say -- faith.

My first assignment for a class led by Ginsberg was to write a "Song of Innocence" based on William Blake's "Songs of Innocence." Like every other student, I came to class with a dozen photocopies of my most-likely-to-impress poem, and a half-assed stab at the "Song of Innocence" assignment I hoped I'd somehow weasel out of sharing. Class began and Professor Ginsberg went around the table. Two before me declined to share; I wound up being first up. I read the first two lines of "Song of Tammy Faye and Jim," my take on televangelist Jim Bakker's fall from grace.

"No!" interrupted Allen Ginsberg, sharply.

My face spontaneously combusted as my mind and muscles froze.

Next, nodding in his signature bobble-headed guru-esque way, in his semi-sing-song voice, Allen gently demanded, "Don't read. Sing."

I looked in horror at the author of "Howl" who sat two feet away waiting for me to sing of the made-for-TV wife, the couple's crime of embezzlement, and the preacher's dalliance with a nubile church mouse -- all of it inexpertly crammed into two crappy trochaic pentameter stanzas.

So, I sang. I wasn't great. But it was good. Having to sing was good.

The aim of the lesson was to require 10 or 12 hip New York grad student poets to shift into Bodhisattva mode. The Bodhisattva in Buddhist thought is the one who possesses wisdom. (Ginsberg was Buddhist; his practice was very important to him.) I love the idea, to which Allen alluded often, that the Bodhisattva steps forward, risking ridicule, in order that others may receive enlightenment. Thus, the Bodhisattva derives enlightenment while helping it along. In other words, one's readiness to be a jerk can be a gift. Very often when I read my own poems in public, I kick off with an adaptation of Sappho that I wrote while doing Ginsberg's quantitative Greek meters "homework." (Ginsberg refused to let a little thing like not knowing any Greek stand between him and using Greek elements in his work.) Singing -- especially for people who are, like me, not singers -- summons both the blowhard and the Bodhisattva from within, forcing the duo to come out and play nice. When I sing that Sappho, I remember the guy who read "Howl" in public naked. I remember that it is the job of the poet to recite proud, but be naked.

Ginsberg's lessons in what he called "Expansive Heroic Poetics" (a term he used to describe his own way of writing) were designed to open the poet up, to awake and yank him or her out of Grandmother's dusty intellectual attic. Ginsberg draws a diagram for how to get to there in "Mind Breaths," a poem (literally) about following one's own breath (spirit?) around the world. This bit of advice from Kerouac's "List of Essentials" ("Belief & Technique for Modern Prose") pertains -- as a version of following after of one's own winding spirit: "Blow as deep as you want to blow." One of my favorite Allen Ginsberg recollections is of hearing him recite Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind," which he offered as a model for how commas in poems should read and be read aloud. His recitation was magnificent because Allen himself was all about spirit and wind.

Maybe it's a reach, but this preoccupation with breath always struck me as overtly metaphysical, religious, even. Many, like me, first learned to "to sit" (meditate) while seated in his writing classes. I remember my own first lesson. My eyes were closed, but I could feel Allen circumnavigating the table, stopping to adjust shoulders and spines. Years later I would begin to meditate in the contemplative Roman Catholic tradition favored by the Benedictine monks, and delight in the irony of having learned "to sit" from the Jewish Buddhist poetry teacher I think of as the "Queen of the Beats."

Almost exactly a year ago, I listened to "Kaddish" as part of a (Reform) Yom Kippur observance. Hearing this work as unofficial Day of Atonement liturgy brought to mind Ginsberg's thoughts and words on divinity and poetry -- and the overlap. I was a religion nerd writing conspicuously metaphysical poems and others about being Irish Catholic when I began to study with Ginsberg in 1987. My fellow poets were writing about being junkies in Berlin and dominatrices in Queens, and I was writing Our Lady of Guadalupe in the Bronx. I found myself torn between my fascinations and wanting to be fascinating.

But "vividness," according to Ginsberg, "is self-selecting" ("Cosmopolitan Greetings"). When memory pushes forward, throbbing with sharp color and pulsing resonance, calling the senses to order, a poet can trust in its authenticity. "Mind is shapely. Poems are shapely ("Cosmopolitan Greetings"). I once mentioned to Ginsberg how much I loved the description of Christmas Eve mass in Jack Kerouac's novel The Town and the City, how the author had captured, in its complex entirety, Christmas through a boy's eyes. Ginsberg appeared to believe that Kerouac, whose poetry and prose he admired and extolled, was essentially and vitally Catholic. Kerouac never fully pushed the "sacraments" away. Even his Buddhist experience was sacramental. I was struck by Allen's strangely full grasp of what "sacrament" means to Catholics. But it should not have surprised me. He was a mystical man; he'd seen the ghost of William Blake (many years earlier) on the roof of that very building where our conversation was taking place. My takeaway from this chat -- as well as from his remarks on my copy -- was that he thought religion and mysticism were still fair and fertile ground for poets. This work was still cut out for us. So long as we adhered to the "Vividness" doctrine, good poetry could come of it. Kerouac's directive, "Believe in the holy contour of life,"

When it came to waxing poetic on God, it seems Rabbi Ginsberg's imprimatur was all the poetic license I ever needed.

My stylish 11-year old daughter used the word "hipster" recently. I asked what "hipster" actually means, for her. She couldn't quite say; she knows one when she sees one. Fair enough. I told her about how the word "hipster" came to us through the jargon of African-American jazz culture, and how the "The Beats," and possibly the poem "Howl" in particular, were instrumental in importing this slang into our (white American) contemporary lexicon. For my girl Grace, the word "hipster" relates chiefly to fashion: skinny jeans, geeky spectacles, vintage sneakers. I told her about the day around 25 years ago when Allen Ginsberg came to class showing off his new black leather blazer.

"I'm a Beat poet," he chuckled, "A Beat poet should have a black leather jacket, right?"

I sucked all the air out of the story by mentioning that the author of "Howl" was 60 at the time of the leather jacket preening incident, and reminded myself that the man who signed off on my Master's Thesis was no hipster.

Nor was he a saint. Allen Ginsberg was a Buddhist carnivore. (I once sat with him as he ate, and simultaneously defended the eating of, salami.) He could be ornery and hissy. He was easily bewitched by a good-looking guy. (It's likely that being portrayed by the guy who made out with Sean Penn's Harvey Milk -- the heavenly James Franco! -- would please the maestro more than any poetry accolade ever could.) Women poets complained that Allen wasn't interested enough in women's work. A bit of a bum rap, I thought. He asked his women students for help. "Turn me on to the women poets you dig!" (If ever a near-codger could get away with this use of the verb "to dig," it was he.) I once stuck Carolyn Forché's poem "The Colonel" under his nose. He read this exemplary poem on the spot, for the first time, it seemed; and he appeared duly impressed by its music, gravitas and wallop.

No, Ginsberg was no saint. But he sure was devout. And "angelheaded." After all, "angel" is Greek for "messenger."