Howls with Allen Ginsberg: A Weird Campus Encounter

Allen Ginsberg, one of the few remaining Beat Generation legends, visited Butler University in Indianapolis during October as part of the university’s Visiting Writer Series. Various festivities were scheduled around his arrival, and fans of his in the area — many of them in the university’s English Department — were in a near-frenzy for weeks before the blessed event.

The last time Ginsberg — whose followers call him a modern prophet — came to Indiana, he was literally run out of town. He managed to get across the state line before local authorities could arrest him on obscenity charges stemming from reading his poems in public. Add to that history the fact that Indiana schools and libraries fought a losing battle to get Ginsberg’s books banned from their shelves. This visit, then, was supposed to be the triumphant return of Ginsberg, a victory over the “sleepwalking neoconservatives” he hates so much.

I was fascinated with Beat writers when I was around 15 and then again when I came to college, mostly focusing on Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso, and Robert Creeley. I could never stomach other writers of that same genre such as Ginsberg or William S. Burroughs, particularly because their explicit homosexuality — and insistence upon writing about little else — sickened me. Ginsberg was last on the list because of his drug use, Marxist tendencies, and generally bad poetry. He has always enjoyed shocking people, mainly “bourgeois Americans,” but beyond shock value, his poems have little to no literary value, unless one likes to read about his gruesome sexual adventures with “saintly motorcyclists” and 19-year-old boys. Because Americans have become progressively harder to shock, his poems have become more and more grotesque. Kerouac, at the very least, was straight and Catholic.

When Ginsberg came to town, I was taking a modern poetry class taught by a deconstructionist feminist “fire the canon” professor who was constantly haunted by the fact that she had been born too late to be a hippie or a beat. She had only received her Ph.D. a few months before, and mine was the first class she had ever taught. “Helen” (as I’ll call her) soon became baffled by the literary conservatism of the five students in the class. The class discussions often degenerated into debates over whether rock lyrics were poetry, with her taking the side that they were. She even went so far as to assign us Bob Dylan lyrics at the end of the semester. We students took the opposite side and denied that rock lyrics were poetry. In fact, we were fairly amused by the whole idea, thinking mainly of the current Top Forty and the troglodyte barbarians who put out videos — a strange role reversal from 25 years ago.

Helen’s class was my very first one on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings, and I skipped it probably more often than was good for me; the thought, however, of having to face relativist anti-Western deconstructionism first thing in the morning was often too much to handle. When Ginsberg came to town, Helen offered extra-credit points to anyone who could be in the studio audience for a local television interview he was scheduled to give. Like a mercenary, I agreed.

Ginsberg was a sore spot between Helen and me. None of the students in that class really cared for Ginsberg’s work. I had read it before and so knew what it was like. One of the other students was shocked and revolted by it, but somehow thought there was something wrong with him for not liking it.

“I just can’t get past all the gay stuff,” he said. He went to Helen and several other members of the English Department for help in getting over his dislike of Ginsberg and his dreaded “homophobia.” Helen, who once threw a student out of another class for saying “faggot,” was attempting to counsel him on it during class one day when I said simply, “Look, John, it doesn’t matter if you hate Ginsberg. He is gross. What you feel is just a healthy disgust.” Helen was horrified and didn’t want me to go to the television interview because she considered Ginsberg a friend of hers and was convinced I would embarrass her.

I had to give an oral report on Beat subculture around the same time. Helen interrupted my discussion of the importance of drugs in the Beat way of life by snarling, “I think you’re exaggerating the drug part and not spending enough time on the literary aspect.” I opened my Norton Anthology to the first part of “Howl” and began listing the references to drugs: marijuana, LSD, Benzedrine, heroin, etc., and the references to prominent members of the Beat Generation who were arrested for possession of any of the above. Helen became even more infuriated when one of the other students commented after my report, “So, basically he did one good thing back in 1953 and has been kind of a has-been ever since, right?”

When Ginsberg finally arrived at the TV studio, Helen was a nervous wreck. She was convinced I was going to do or say something terrible to upset him. The other students had placed bets as to whether I could ask Ginsberg a question that would offend him to the point where he walked off camera. Actually, I had no intention of brutally offending him. I wanted to meet him because I had read so much about him, and I wanted to see what an aging bohemian legend looked like in person. I prepared for the meeting by wading through his collected works, which is something like watching MTV for several hours: you keep hoping it will get better, and it never does. The least horrible of his poems were from the early ’50s and they got consistently worse thereafter. His latest work was so bad even Helen had to admit that it was “really dreadful.”

Ginsberg looked like a typical liberal professor in a brown corduroy suit, beige shirt, and brown striped tie. I had half-expected him to show up in sandals with long hair and a standard hippie uniform, but he looked quite normal. The studio was full of pseudo-intellectuals and avant-garde alternative students, academics, and hippies ranging in ages from 16 to 50. They clutched their Ginsberg books and waited eagerly for him to come out after the show and sign them.

The talk show consisted of an arts symposium that included Helen, Ginsberg, and a few weird and incoherent professors from other Indiana universities. Ginsberg essentially ignored all of the questions put to him, which was partially understandable as many of them were unclear, and instead blathered on at length about whatever he chose. He conducted diatribes against William J. Bennett, the war on drugs, William F. Buckley, the Heritage Foundation, George Bush, Jesse Helms and the tobacco industry (who were responsible for “subsidizing cancer”), conservatives, Republicans, and the Religious Right. By the end of the interview, he had succeeded in offending almost every group or faction in the U.S. When he wasn’t blasting the “sleepwalking fascists” who obviously controlled the minds of all unsuspecting Americans via television, he was reminiscing about his lust for Neal Cassady, upon whom Kerouac’s hero Dean Moriarty was based, and babbling about a Buddhist monk’s advice on how to meditate when one is dying.

The interviewer and the professors repeatedly told Ginsberg what a prophet he was, a lone voice inspired by God, shrieking against the vices of American society. Ginsberg was also convinced of this idea of prophecy. He thinks of himself and his literary associates — including urban punk rockers who are also foretelling the doom of society — as prophets in the tradition of the Old Testament and William Blake. It is doubtful, however, that Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah attempted to seduce teenage boys and smoked marijuana in between rounds of berating society for its decadence. Future literary anthologies would include modern rock lyrics, he said, backing up Helen’s estimate of poetry, especially the Clash, British Marxists who occasionally ask Ginsberg for help with their lyrics.

After the interview, the studio employees scurried around to prepare an extensive refreshments table. Ginsberg was extremely put out — we could hear over the microphone he forgot to remove — by the lack of New York danishes in Indianapolis. When he emerged from the set and stepped in to where the audience was, there was utter silence. The 15 or so Ginsberg devotees hung back, staring at him in awe. He went to the refreshment table where I was loading up on what was my makeshift breakfast. Although there were several different kinds of soft drinks on the table, he demanded a Diet Coke. No one approached him at first. They simply watched him. A studio employee ran up to him with the coveted Diet Coke. He poured half of it into a cup and then turned to me and asked if I wanted the rest of it. I shook my head and told him that I hated Diet Coke. Two teenagers ran forward and threw themselves on the pop can as if it were a holy relic and jealously guarded it between them.

To break the silence I deviously asked him if he had read Carolyn Cassady’s new book on the Beats, Off the Road, which detailed her marriage to Neal Cassady and did not treat Ginsberg very kindly at all.

“No, I haven’t had a chance to read it yet,” he said. “I helped her promote it in London, though. Is it good?”

“Oh, yes,” I smiled. “You should read it. It’s incredible.” One by one the groupies lurched up to him, sheepishly asking him to sign his books. Helen appeared and watched the proceedings nervously. I sat down next to Ginsberg and waved to her. She winced.

I’d rather talk to people than sign my name,” he complained. “I know my own name.” He signed another book and accidentally handed it to me. I looked at the doodle he had scribbled inside the cover and then handed it back.

“This isn’t yours?”

“No,” I said.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes. I don’t even own any of your books.”

He laughed uproariously. He invited me to go along with a few of the professors to a bar in the mock-bohemian part of the city. One of the professors took me aside and asked me to drive Ginsberg to the bar. I refused. I didn’t relish the idea of having to drive around downtown, where the TV station was, in the usual hellish traffic with the added stress of having Ginsberg in my car. I could see the morning headlines if anything went wrong: BUTLER COED KILLS POET ALLEN GINSBERG IN CAR ACCIDENT.

Five groupies came along and stood restlessly around the bar until Ginsberg arrived and sat down; then they positioned themselves around him accordingly. I simply sat at the first empty chair I found at Ginsberg’s table. The poet sat down and everyone began yapping at his heels like puppies and ordered a multitude of drinks and food. One woman yammered on endlessly about how beautifully Ginsberg described the male body. I almost laughed at that comment. Ginsberg had said that he wrote mainly for homosexual men and did not consider women as part of his targeted audience because he had never had much use for them. A neo-hippie asked him questions about his life, as if he (the hippie) knew a lot about it, which he obviously didn’t. To interrupt the groupies’ simpering, I asked him what authors he had read recently.

“Oh, Kerouac, Burroughs, Corso … ” he said.

“I would think you’ve read all of them by now. Haven’t you read anything new?” I asked.

Helen was sitting next to me. She looked aghast. How dare I not bow down to the idol! How dare I treat him like a regular human being! So much for getting an A from her, I thought.

“New? Well, I’ve read a lot of surrealists recently….” He started rattling off names I had never heard of. I asked to borrow his pen so I could write down a few. The others stared at me, speechless and a little disapproving. Borrow Ginsberg’s pen?

“I work in a used bookstore,” I tried to explain. “I have to keep up with these things.”

“Can you get a hold of two Kerouac books for me?” he asked eagerly. “I’ll give you my address.”

“We don’t have any of Kerouac’s stuff in at the moment,” I said. “We don’t do special orders.”

The neo-hippie almost jumped across the table in his zeal, swearing that he would locate whatever books Ginsberg wanted. He made some sort of in-joke about Kerouac, but Ginsberg did not laugh.

When the food was served, Ginsberg was in the middle of a venomous monologue about Jesse Helms. He maintained that the evil tobacco growers were killing millions of Americans, but readily admitted that he smoked marijuana every chance he got. Jesse Helms was an evil fascist for supporting tobacco growers, and disliking homosexuals, drugs, and the NEA, he said. He turned to me with a we’re-all-liberals-here look and said, “Don’t you agree?”

I felt mischievous, since the other people at the table seemed to agree with everything he said, and so I told him I disagreed. In fact, I said, I liked Jesse Helms. I even worked on his last campaign, I lied — just to see what Ginsberg’s reaction would be. He looked confused. His conversation veered off toward the National Endowment for the Arts. His homosexuality pervades his taste for visual art as well as poetry. He said that every human being found Michelangelo’s David sexually arousing, and that that made it erotic art, just like the art the NEA has gotten into trouble for funding, so what’s the difference between Michelangelo and Robert Mapplethorpe? I neglected to point out that Michelangelo’s famous sculpture doesn’t have a bullwhip protruding from the subject’s posterior.

I noticed that Ginsberg had leaned over and begun taking stuffed mushrooms off my plate. Being a college student, my food budget is rather limited, so this situation was not merely a matter of honor, but also one of caloric survival. I told him that he had indeed been eating my food all this time and I wasn’t happy about it. Helen clutched her head in her hands and looked as if she were praying for the earth to open up and swallow her. At this point I figured I would be lucky if I got out of her class with a C.

Ginsberg offered to pay for the food, but I compromised and asked him to tip the waiter for me. (He agreed, but actually left without leaving any money at all. One of the professors paid for Ginsberg’s food, and I had to tip the waiter anyway.)

The next topic was Buddhism. Ginsberg said that he had been meditating a lot recently by “watching his breath.”

“You watch your breath?” I repeated.

“Yes, you watch the breath go in as you inhale and out as you exhale.”

“That’s pretty much the only way you can breathe, isn’t it?”

“No, that’s not true,” the neo-hippie said to me rather angrily. “There are other ways.”

“Sounds enlightening. Can you breathe in-in-in or out-out-out?”

He scowled at me and dropped the subject.

Finally, I had to leave the bar. As we got up to leave, Ginsberg asked me my name and whether I was coming to his poetry reading.

“Are you going to sing?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Then, I’m not coming.” Ginsberg sounds worse than a wounded moose when he tries to sing.

He laughed. “There’s a party for me afterwards. Are you coming to that?”

“You’re not going to get naked and chant, are you?” I asked.

“No, I’m too old for that.”

“All right, then, I’ll come.” One of the professors slipped me an invitation.

I had too much to do that night to go to the banquet, although I did show up long enough to get two of my bohemian-wanna-be friends in. College students and bohemians have a lot in common, such as keeping strange hours, listening to the same kinds of unusual music, never having any money, and drinking too much coffee and alcohol; but my friends still didn’t fit in very well. The party was at an English professor’s house in a nice suburban neighborhood. It seemed ironic that all sorts of freaks came out of the woodwork to descend upon the house. Actually, the entire bohemian population of Indianapolis would have fit in that house.

Helen, who likes to think of herself as quite hip, turned her nose up at my friends and whispered worriedly to me, “Neither one of those guys is your boyfriend, is he?”

“No, my fiancé hates most poetry, especially Ginsberg. He only likes Robert Burns. Maybe Martial and Homer.” She looked relieved.

I led the two young men in to where Ginsberg was being ranted at by a woman with no teeth who insisted that she was a poet. Ginsberg was trying to be polite to everyone, but it was obvious that he was tired and his patience was flagging.

“Oh, hi, Kim,” he said, turning to the young men and me as an excuse to get away from the toothless woman, “aren’t you going to introduce me to this cute couple?”

The look on my friends’ faces was worth the entire day of watching people worship Ginsberg. After savoring their horror, I left the cute couple to their fate.


  • Kimberly J. Gustin

    At the time this article was published, Kimberly J. Gustin was a student at Butler University.

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