Allen Ginsberg was a navel-gazing boy genius who became the voice of his (beat) generation.
This collection, put together by one of Ginsberg’s editors, Juanita Lieberman-Plimpton, and his literary archivist, Bill Morgan, will undoubtedly cause a feeding frenzy among the literati. But to readers of a new (I-pod) generation, Ginsberg’s musings may look like just so many words. He came, he saw, he went. But has he really gone?
Undoubtedly he was a prodigy. No ordinary boy could have written in his youthful diary (at age 12, in 1938): “The world is all agog…briefly there’s a war in China; Brazil had a fascist uprising (the government won, thank heavens); there’s a war in Spain, but most important of all (is) Czechoslovakia.” After describing in detail the goings on in Eastern Europe, the boy goes on to talk ingenuously to his unseen reader, in the manner of diarists throughout the ages: “I haven’t told you much about myself. I am the smallest boy in class. Hobbies – stamps, coins, minerals, chemistry and most of all (at present) movies. They afford me great pleasure and they are about the only relief from boredom which seems to hang around me like a shadow.”
It was perhaps that malaise of boredom that drove Ginsberg to poetry and to drugs, to a life of restless wandering and seeking. In 1947, he records: “…I am heading down to Texas again in the middle of August and then on to MY sometime in September. Traveling with me will be one of Denver’s dissolute young bucks (his name is Neal Cassaday) whose education, for the first time, I find myself superintending.” Cassaday, he of the electric Kool-Aid acid bus, was to Ginsberg a lover and “a saint. This was my first vision of him, and remains so.”
Similarly, without the sexual ties, Ginsberg courted and co-mentored Jack Kerouac, in whose fame he rejoiced. Jack’s dharma bum peregrinations undoubtedly fired Ginsberg’s hyperactive imagination: “Jack and I were talking and I said I was sick of working at AP for $30 a week and sick of my home life in New York. He asked me why stay in New York…then and there I decided to go to New Orleans as soon as I could.”
Ginsberg also maintained a lifelong connection to the equally peripatetic writer/addict/bisexual William Burroughs, whom he called his “analyst.” With such analysts, the only therapy can be mental dynamite, and Ginsberg had many explosions.
These early journals reveal Ginsberg’s gradual discovery and acceptance of his homosexuality and his willingness to explore the worst in himself and embrace the worst in others. His companions were killers, romantics, artists, thieves and dopers, and while Ginsberg was of a gentle leaning, often just an onlooker, he wore their stripes with borrowed pride.
Prolific, he wrote of events even as they were unfolding, wrote them into being, described in lurid detail his drug delusions and their aftermaths. Though some of his early efforts at poetry, like his copious lists (“Try: Morphine (M), Opium Poppy-codeine cough medicine-paregoric, Laudanum, Marjiuana (Tea), Cocaine, Heroin, No-doz-caffeine, Phenobarbital, Codeine, Pantopon, Delaudid, Benzedrine, Nembutal”) seem sophomoric at this remove, one of his jottings, circa 1952, gives a glimmer of what was to come:
Who knows I’m a mysticWe look forward to the next installment.
When I walk down the street
I look at other people and
They don’t look like mystics either.