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April 19-25, 2006

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Allen Ginsberg

Talisman: The best mind of his generation touched many more.

First Person Singular

'Howl' turns 50 and helps a writer grow up

By John Freeman


Howl, the famous beat-era poem by Allen Ginsberg, turns 50 this year. The anniversary has already led to the inevitable tribute readings and gassy lionizations. Happily, it has also flushed out a terrific anthology of essays on the poem's legacy edited by Jason Shinder, The Poem that Changed America: 'Howl' Fifty Years Later (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; $14).

The title of the book is something of a misnomer, because all the essays attest to the one thing their authors can lay claim to: how the poem affected them. Rick Moody remembers a friend belting the poem aloud to him and realizing, for the first time, that poetry may not be half bad. Mark Doty stumbled on to it in a library in 1961 and realized, with relief, that homosexual life existed in America.

Because it can be sung from the rooftops and growled from the gutters, Ginsberg's poem is something special. Like Whitman's "Song of Myself," the poem's voice becomes your own as you read. "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed / by madness, starving hysterical naked," goes the first line, and by the third, "angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly / connection," you're reading along with it.

It was that third line that got me. I had smuggled Ginsberg's Collected Poems onto the campus of Swarthmore College, not realizing how necessary it would become. A month after I'd arrived, my parents phoned and told me my younger brother, Tim, had been hospitalized after a psychotic break. It seemed impossible. Just weeks before, he had been fine--his normal, irritating, singular self. Always in his room.

An overnight stay became a one-month in-patient treatment, and by the time we all met for Thanksgiving, the Thorazine had helped him put on 30 pounds. He laughed at jokes untold, spoke to people not sitting next to him. When he was finished eating, Tim left the table and went to his room and giggled. My parents' faces were gray.

I returned to school in shock. My roommate and I walked through the woods in the cold and talked our way through a life lesson I hadn't enrolled in. Fall turned to winter, and I frequently found myself sitting alone, reading poetry. I disappeared. I lost weight. And then I began to steal things.

The first thing I stole was a copy of Howl from the campus bookstore. It was easy because it was small, and it became my hip flask. Whenever life on campus felt too good, too cushy, too far away from what had happe ned in my family, I pulled the book out and read a little and felt better.

All that winter and into the next few years, I carried Ginsberg around like a talisman--I felt somehow tougher and more grizzled than the students on campus. Ginsberg was a secret handshake I had with myself. I went to the library and checked out Kaddish, Ginsberg's book-length poem about his own mentally ill mother, and sat there in the stacks and cried as I read it. I gave it to my girlfriend to read, and she returned it with a look of guilty confusion; she didn't like it.

The one person I could talk to about Ginsberg was my older brother, Andy (my parents briefly blamed him for Tim's illness because they had smoked pot together). I visited Andy in Boston, where he was in the process of dropping out of college, and I congratulated myself all the way there on how I wasn't judging him. I discovered him living in squalor, poems scribbled along the walls, mattresses on the floor. He had notebooks of poetry written in Ginsberg's scatological vein.

Several years later, I had the chance to invite Ginsberg to campus, where he read and played his harmonium and hit on one student who wore a kilt all the time. The students in my Buddhism in American literature class made him a macrobiotic meal, and after the reading, we had coffee in the campus cafe before he caught his train and returned to New York. Before leaving, he hugged each one of us for a long time.

As I watched Ginsberg's train leave that night, I sat on the station bench and wrote a very bad poem about Tim, in which he was a train and I couldn't tell if he was leaving or coming. More than a decade later, he has emerged from the tunnel of his adolescence, a bright, troubled, sensitive, artistic adult. He has survived, in part, by writing poetry, which he sends to me every now and then. It's beautiful and hard-won and always sad. It's the one thing we have in common.


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