Saturday, June 29, 2013

Allen Ginsberg’s Life and Times

By David Luhrssen
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Oscar-nominated director Jerry Aronson’s 1993 documentary, The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg, is out in a DVD set with six additional hours of bonus material. The chronicle runs deep into his last years as Ginsberg, clad in suit-and-tie, gigged around the country with alternative rock bands (he performed with the Black Holes in Milwaukee) and held forth on Buddhism and poetry—and the importance of mindfulness and language—at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

But Ginsberg’s impact was most felt in the 1960s, when the outsider ethos of the Beats, the cultural underground of which he was a charter member, erupted in new and sometimes off-Beat forms throughout the hippie Counterculture. In the late ‘40s Ginsberg fell in with a clique at Columbia University whose members included such then-unknown writers as Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs. It was an odd trio: the working class Kerouac was a picture of blue-collar machismo; with his patrician enunciation and old school ties, Burroughs was the upper class renegade; the rabbinical-looking Ginsberg was the Jewish kid from New Jersey whose father was a lyric poet and whose mother died in a madhouse.

Ginsberg’s ancestors fled to the U.S. from persecution in Eastern Europe, and he never lost his sympathy for people in trouble. He sometimes played the role of activist; often he was the one living poet the activists had memorized. Touched on but not explored in the documentary is Ginsberg’s influence on Bob Dylan, whose songwriting changed the direction of rock music in the ‘60s and was integral to that decade’s kaleidoscopic culture.

Along with original interviews with Ginsberg and his associates, Aronson drew from archival footage, including the poet’s memorable encounter with William F. Buckley on “Firing Line.” Grinning like a mischievous sunbeam, the intellectual dean of American conservatism seemed to savor the LSD poem Ginsberg read for him. “I kind of like that,” Buckley exclaimed. And moments later he remarked—almost ruefully—that the poet’s politics were “naïve.”

Looking back from the perspective of the ‘90s, Ginsberg might almost have agreed. At the mayhem outside the Democratic National Convention (1968), Ginsberg established a small island of calm as he chanted “Om” in a Chicago park (even the cops seemed mesmerized), but a few hundred yards away, the poorly thought-through tactics of the New Left pushed history in the direction opposite of their intentions. Ginsberg chided the militants for their puerile revolt against the Establishment father figure, Hubert Humphrey, and blamed their behavior not only for the election of Richard Nixon but—as a result of Nixon’s ascendence—the death of many thousands more in the prolonged endgame of the Vietnam War. It was, in his memorable phrase, a “drunken dumbshow.”

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