Allen Ginsberg & Me

Allen Ginsberg, Kansas, 1966. photographer unknown

I started reading poetry in high school after I heard a senior girl give an oral interpretion from Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mind. I thought his first name was “Ferlin.”

I was stunned. I didn’t know poetry could be like that. My experience with poetry had been Longfellow, Robert Frost, and Carl Sandburg.

After hearing the poems by Ferlinghetti and learning his first name was “Lawrence,” I had to read more. Our local library didn’t have any of his books. Bookstores were nonexistent where I lived, so I convinced my parents to stop at Sam Weller’s Zion Bookstore in Salt Lake City and pick up a list of Ferlinghetti’s books on one of their frequent trips for my mother’s doctor’s appointments.

My mother browsed through the books as they drove back. She was barely literate but so troubled when she saw the word “semen” on one page that she met with my English teacher to see if I should be reading such stuff. I’m forever grateful to Mr. Frost for telling her not to worry.

From Ferlinghetti, I moved on to reading every book by Allen Ginsberg I could get my hands on. He became an idol of mine, someone who personified the hippie spirit I saw all around me, someone who lived a different kind of life and had a different worldview.

Ginsberg introduced me to the rest of the Beats. His work became a cultural guidebook for me. By reading everything I could both by and about him over the years, I learned about poetry and literature and philosophy and Buddhism and Hinduism and drugs and sex and politics and, well, it seemed everything that seemed worth knowing.

I never met Ginsberg but I saw him give poetry readings twice. The second time he recited the poem “Mind Breaths,” and that reading stands as the most brilliant and moving I’ve ever witnessed.

In the spring of 1996, I heard Ginsberg had liver cancer, and then a few days later that he had died: April 5, 1996, the day before my mother’s seventieth birthday. Ginsberg was born the same year as my parents. I could never get over that. How could a guy like Allen Ginsberg, the original hipster, the beatnik angel, the prophetic bard, be the same age as my parents?

Buddha’s Footprint. Hand drawn frontispiece to Indian Journals by Allen Ginsberg

When Allen Ginsberg died, I cried. And cried. I couldn’t stop the tears. I was forty-four years old, married with two small sons, an English teacher, a school administrator living in Rock Springs, Wyoming, and I cried.

I couldn’t stop crying. I can’t recall a death that affected me so strongly. I knew that a part of me had died. Allen Ginsberg would no longer be around to write new poems. He would no longer be around to teach me new things. He was a spiritual guide, a poet who had heard the voice of God, William Blake, “voice of the ancient days.”

William Blake’s engraving in Songs of Experience