75 at 75: David Kirby on Allen Ginsberg

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A special project for 92Y Unterberg Poetry Center’s 75th anniversary and beyond, 75 at 75 invites authors to listen to recordings from our archive and write a personal response. Here, David Kirby writes about a reading by Allen Ginsberg, which was recorded live at 92Y on February 26, 1973.

Posted on March 6, 2015

DKirby_100x100I first heard Allen Ginsberg read at Johns Hopkins when I was a grad student there in the late sixties. At the time, I was writing a paper on Whitman and didn’t quite understand how he was using the word “electricity,” so I figured if I got the chance I’d ask Mr. Ginsberg. In those days, our teachers didn’t think much of us underlings, but as they tried to hustle him into the car that would take him to a professors-only reception, he looked up and saw a fresh-faced lad with an earnest expression and waved me over. I said, “What’s the deal with electricity in Whitman, Mr. Ginsberg?” and he said, “Simple! It’s a way for one poet to pass the spark to another. I slept with Neal Cassady who slept with Gavin Arthur who slept with Edmund Carpenter who slept with Whitman, so it’s a line of transmission.” He stopped there and smiled in a way that made me think that I could be part of that line if I wanted to, but I had a paper to write.

A couple years later, I took a job at Florida State University, where I once heard Ginsberg begin a reading by riffing on the headlines of that day’s Tallahassee Democrat before going on to “A Supermarket in California” and other greats. A few years later, he read again in Tallahassee—remember, poets were rock stars then. The FSU faculty consisted largely of older gentlemen who wore seersucker suits and taught from battered copies of The Norton Anthology. One of these old darlings was seated in the front row with his wife, and when Ginsberg opened with “Hard-On Blues”—“Blues is like a hard-on / Comes right in your mouth”—they got up and left; later someone told me he’d seen them weeping in the lobby, though that sounds suspiciously like an embellishment.

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Peter Orlovsky, Allen Ginsberg, Louis Ginsberg, Gregory Corso at 92Y on February 26, 1973

This February 26, 1973, reading at the 92nd Street Y’s Poetry Center, at which Ginsberg and his father were heckled by Gregory Corso, contains everything that I remember from the three readings I attended. Spontaneity, variety, improvisation, stupidity: in a word, show-biz. In that sense, the 1973 reading is an essay on poetry, period. Everything—everything!—flows into poetry and poetry is for everyone. You hear François Villon and Shakespeare and Blake and William Carlos Williams and the bards of Hindu scripture in Ginsberg’s lines, and you get the sense of poetry as a public act rather than a private process. Throughout, Ginsberg’s startlingly plummy tones are supported and refuted by his dad’s youse-guys Jerseyspeak and Corso’s drunken catcalls.

Gregory Corso is the ideal heckler: he’s drunk, you’re sober; he isn’t prepared, you are. Poems like to flow smoothly, but they also like elements that are indifferent and even hostile to that flow, and Corso’s outbursts are just such snags and sandbars in Ginsberg’s silvery current.

His lines are smart but they’re funny, too, and there’s nothing sexier than that. Okay, maybe I should have taken him up on the offer he made long ago on that Baltimore sidewalk; it might have upped my voltage a bit. But I can’t imagine enjoying myself any more than I did this morning when I hit “play” and rocked back and forth with joy as Ginsberg laughed at—and with—the world and everything in it.

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Peter Orlovsky, Allen Ginsberg, Louis Ginsberg at 92Y on February 26, 1973

David Kirby’s latest collection of poetry is The Biscuit Joint.