Allen Ginsberg's Death and Fame

This came from my old LJ. At the time it was posted, it received a series of comments asking why I was so hateful towards my hometown. Since those postings somewhat match a point I was trying to make, I will include a few of them, as well as a few of my replies, at the end.


I have suggest such before, but I will suggest such again. Allen Ginsberg was, in many ways, my first true step away from Evergreen, AL. Lord of the Rings, Chronicles of Narnia, the intimations of Lord Byron, the imitations of Shakespeare, the overly incorporated religious icons of Blake and Milton, the overwhelming push of Harper Lee upon us all, brief glances at the Lord of the Flies and The Scarlet Letter. All these things were stepping stones and garden paths that were instructed to lead us back to the start. Sure, Steinbeck wrote of California. Fitzgerald wrote of New York. But we were not talking of California or of New York when we discussed those books. We were talking about Evergreen. We attempted to take that small, imploding town with its history and welfare checks and we were trying to sum up everything that we read that took place away or far in terms of here.

Ginsberg, though, with his "I have seen the best" "fuck" "of my generation" "with your atom bomb" forced to think outside of my hometown, with its Baptists and its despair and its racists and its homophobes and its two decades behind. I simply could not understand lines like "[America] When will you be worthy of your million Trotskeyites?" with the way I was raised. It was a foreign language to me. It was a sick language. It was the sort of thing that a boy from Evergreen did not repeat. And then he talks about eating a "dirty asshole sandwich" and I was stunned to silence. No one I knew would understand why I would even try to read this. At least the term filth seemed appropriate when someone cornered me about reading Marquis de Sade. It was an explanation convenient and plausible, if not wholly accurate. Ginsberg wasn't filth, though. Neither was William S. Burroughs. But I couldn't say this, not to someone from Evergreen. Because world-weary homosexuals who wrote of communism and being against the drug war were filth in the eyes of my closest. My love of the Beat Generation was a quiet love until I was able to leave Evergreen behind.

Now, some 12 or so years after I left Evergreen behind (but not by far, whether for the best or not) I find myself reading Death and Fame: Last Poems. It is an unfortunate happenstance that I had barely touched upon the legacies of either Ginsberg or Burroughs in 1996 before they were dead a year later. It was also fortunate, because this somehow legitimized my research. If I man from the swamp is to read, lovingly, of the life of two men whose lives would not be tolerated in his hometown, the best time to do so is when they are dead. Only ardent bigots feel truly comfortable in downing someone after their death. Most of Evergreen are bigots by circumstance.

Looking at these final poems, I find myself thinking a number of thoughts (as this entry makes obvious). But, outside of my home town, the thoughts take on a few primary characters. The first is that these are weaker than a lot that he wrote, but still strong and vital in their own way. The second character of thought is that I am more afraid of death now than I have ever been in my life, still not recovering all that well from last summer. The third character of thought, and thankfully the last, is that America has nearly lost all the poets who have truly infused the literary landscape with their vital character. Some remain, some have faded past the days of their glory, some pretend. We could seriously use another shot of personality. Or we could accept our descent into a lull with grace. Both works for me.

Sitting there with a glass of tea and juice, mixed together cranberry juice with a second steeping of a strong Ti Kuan Yen Oolong, and a bowl of McClelland's Tastemaster in my Mastro De Paja 1B Fatta a Mano; I just sort of let the poems flow off of me. Quietly. I did not read them aloud. I did not really stir while reading them. I just sort of absorbed them in over the course of an hour. Most of them have already faded, with only snippets clinging to my mind. He will always be the poet of "Howl" and "America" to me, the poet of Howl and Other Poems. He will never quite be the poet of Death & Fame: Last Poems in much the same way that your father is the man who built the swing for you much more than he is the old man with an old poet sitting on his porch. Both are your father but one is the way that you first knew him and loved him.

The only poem I will quote from, in this not so much a review as a strange reminiscence, is "Things I'll Not Do (Nostalgias)". In his final week he wrote this, knowing the end was upon him. It is a wonderful poem, both in that it mourns life and uplifts it. He notes that he will never again "return to Kashi" or "see Shanghai again". "Nor" will he "go to literary Argentina, accompany Glass to Sao Paolo & live a month in a flat Rio's beaches & favella boys." "Nor more daydreams of Bali". "No more Sunset Boulevard."

"No more sweet summers with lovers, teaching Blake at Naropa."

And then he concludes with a line that almost made me cry, but mostly just made me smile: "Not myself except in an urn of ashes."

He wrote this on the morning of March 30, 1997, and was gone from the world 6 days later. I have barely read up on his life outside of his writings. Might have hated him in person. But he helped to find something outside of Evergreen and I miss this. This is what he was to me.

"He gave great head."

The Follow-Up Discussion

After posting that, a friend of mine from Everygreen commented somewhat testily. She still lives in the general area, and felt I was being too harsh on the town. In many ways, I was being too harsh on the town. But, well, Evergreen sort of inspires it from time to time. I have my issues with it, but I also still love it and more memories of it are fair rather than foul. At the same time, there are things really wrong with the area. It just never occurred to me that someone would take offense and defend it.

In the following, her (and she shall remain nameless) sentiments are in italics, mine are in "plaintext". I post them here in the order they showed up, which won't necessarily be in the order they make sense. Not all of them will make it, because some of it got meandering, but I will get most of it in. Those I post will be unedited. No changes will be made to either her text or my own.

The point of posting them here is not to embarrass her. It is to show the sort of mindset that I did take exception to while acknowledging that she has a right to think it. Evergreen is largely made up of people that think this way. She holds, for instance, that having a limited intellectual pursuit gave her the freedom to develop her faith. That is fine, but I felt the right to move away.

To fill in a couple of blanks outright, part of her response to my negativity and fear of death is based on a post I made about how after watching my father die, I realized how death can imbalance a family and everyone inside.

Why do people who believe in something strongly always come out as the bad person? The older I become, the more I am glad that I was raised in a small town...yes, it was sheltered, yes, my independence was challennged by the lack of books to read, acceptance by my peers, and all the politics that go with small town life, but in that same since, I was given the freedom to develop my beliefs about Faith, my relationship with God, and to realize that not everybody is who they seem to be.

You've alway been one to read, and when I picture you in my mind, you have a bookshelf behind you with all sorts of books by all kinds of people I don't know--and you are sitting at a desk, working on some strane mathematical/physics problem and throwing random poetical quotes out as you work. I don't know why I picture you this way, yet I do.

My problem with what you have written about our hometown is that you characterize it in such generalized gloom and doom. I wonder if we met today if we would have much to discuss, if we'd even like conversing with each other.?

I will uphold my Christian values, morals, and faith. I don't dispute that I have those beliefs, and they make me who I am. Because I have my Faith, I'm not afraid of tomorrow, next week, or death. I believe God knows when I will die, hhow it will happen, and that He will comfort me in the process. Death, for me, isn't scary, but more of a homecoming.

I know my subject line said please explain, and this has turned into more of a ramble...but I'm perplexed that you find your hometown so detestable.

As I recall, you could elaborate in English class, or in Humanities, about any author. What our teachers were doing by focusing on the main themes of the books by Stienbeck and Hemmingweigh were to make those themes relevant to us, coming from a small town rather than a large city. It's a technique that education majors are taught to use. See, people generally don't understand what doesn't relate to their worlds.

One last thought...I had to do this myself to get over the past...focus on the positives, and the world seems nicer--so you have more energy to make it through the rough places.

Sorry if this bothers you, but I had to get it off my chest.

My post wasn't really meant to rag on Evergreen overall, at least not quite in the way it seems like I am at first glance. I was, through the first part of it, trying to sum up Evergreen with the same sort of limited understanding and terms that Evergreen might try and sum up Allen Ginsberg, with the point being that the two mindsets really don't go together.

The only way that I could learn to deal with such writers, in any terms besides as to label them and dismiss them as "Jewish" movements or "Fag" movements was to think outside of the confines that Evergreen people usually try to understand things in. The last time I talked to anyone in Evergreen about William S. Burroughs (who, mind you, is not one of my truly favorite writers...neither is Allen Ginsberg, I just think they are important to American letters) the phrase used was "homosexual bullshit" and I think that pretty much sums up the usual reaction I used to get when I would study any little thing outside of the norm while there.

There were several incidents. Some by some of my best friends. I won't go into any specific detail but time and time again, for reading about things that other people did not know about or did not like, I would be called a number of names from Atheist to Satanist to faggot or whatever. People would shake their head and say they were praying for me or that I was going to hell. And I was just a sixteen year old kid trying to read about the world at large, not even saying that it was better or that I had any less faith. I just thought it was interesting. My only choice was to to think about these things with long walks every night and to read about them in books checked out from the library. You ask why is it that people of strong faith are made out to be evil? Why is what I was doing treated as a dangerous path? Whose soul was saved by me NOT reading about the Catholic Church or finding out what Buddhism was really about?

I had good times in Evergreen. Most of my times were good in some way or another. But a fair percentage of my childhood was me choosing to be an outsider because I wanted to understand things and hopefully you can understand why that would leave a bad taste in my mouth. In my mind, Evergreen equates to something of a willful act against intellectualism. And maybe it is a matter of their strong faith that leads them to think it, but it seems to me that strong faith bolstered by angry and willful ignorance is something that does not sit well with me and is something I will never condone.

I don't know if you and I would ever have long and peaceful conversations anymore. You know more about this than I do, because the things I put into my journal are the sort of things that I think about regularly (some of the things while some of the things are me just finding links funny or making ironic statements about the world). I still regularly talk about the Bible with my mom and various others but I also talk about things to do with so-called free thinker movements and the like. And I talk about other religions from time to time. And I talk about philosophy. I still spend hours each day researching various topics and honing my skills in those topics.

Often, when I come back to a subject, I realize how bits of it could have been learned some of it should have been taught on a high school level...but there was no real way, at that time, in the late 80s and early 90s, for me to quite learn about it in Evergreen without working even harder at studying.

And I honest feel that if I went down to Evergreen and spent any length of time talking about the things that I normally talk about, that most people would have an odd view of me. That most would not want to discuss the sort of things I discuss on a regular basis. I feel, perhaps wrongly, that I would once again have to narrow my focus down to what Evergreen wants it to be or spend most of time talking about things with a very narrow group of people.

I don't know...remember that the atheist who had the movement on against Roy Moore came from Evergreen. If you think that Evergreen was close minded, you should visit Georgiana.

I don't think people would have thought you so odd if you had approached discussions more of "I read this book, and I'd like to talk about it..." rather than "If you had to die, and it couldn't be natural or uick, how would you die?" I think, too, that you have to remember that outsiders are always treated differently. The popular crowd dictates the culture of a high school, what's thought of as normal and how others are treated. Anybody who does not conform, or who is not liked by the popular people suffers. It's funny how graduation solves so many of those problems.

I think that it is important to sort out what you hold as core beliefs, what you hold in your heart as absolute truth, and then define that. After this, it's fine to discuss other beliefs--religions, and such. You have to make a distinction, though, in a discussion versus a persuasion.

One of the problems I had in high school conversing with you at times was that I couldn't keep up with vocabulary or concepts. Your brain flies so far ahead of your thoughts, that I don't know if you realized how i faltered here. I think some of us just felt that we couldn't keep up with you in conversations, rather than we didn't care. Of course, I can't speak for everybody here...nor do I try.

I just don't want readers of your blog to think the place was totally terrible!

As for us conversing now, I'd like to think we could--although unless we tried, I don't know.

I thought of another way of summing up my issues with Evergreen, and this is probably a good way of summing up an issue I have with a lot of people. I know I am smart but I refuse to believe that others are not smart as well. Maybe not geniuses, but smart enough to deal with advanced concepts at least some of the time. I admit that I can ramble on from topic to topic at a pace that is probably not healthy. And I know that I will sometimes use really non-standard vocabulary and the like. It just been the way I have expressed myself. My love of learning usually shows up. As you have said, you have heard me go off on tangents and no how passionate I can get about things. I once had a good friend who joked that after three years of knowing me, he still wasn't sure what I was talking about most of the time. But, as I said, he was smart and applied himself and has done a lot with himself in the relatively short time since our graduation.

Evergreen, I know, had just as many geniuses as anywhere else...but so many of them use their genius to play better videogames or to find loopholes in welfare systems or to keep a gossip mill running. And those that actually put it towards learning can find themselves either chided or somewhat ignored. I have heard at least one smarter friend get informed that his smart ways meant he was closer to the devil. And I guess that's one thing that angers me. Honestly angers me as opposed to the sort of general tiredness I feel for the place. I am not saying that Evergreen should be completely open to gays and drugs and liberal concepts and atheism and whatnot, I fully believe that as a people they have the right to decide their beliefs, but there seems to be a movement overall to push away from learning more and accepting what seems to be acceptable levels of difference despite a good amount of people being perfectly able to be smart enough to study other concepts and ideas and put them in perspective.

Again, and I will state this for other readers, I am mostly talking about an Evergreen of 10-15 years ago (and it might be different now) and I am talking from the point of view of a person who got really frustrated about trying to learn things in High School and finding himself having to work extra hard in some subjects just because people who are smart enough to learn them took the stance that they were "above their head".

I have a lot of family that still lives down there and I love them, and do not think of them as lesser people, not in the least. I may get so mad at them at times I can barely think straight, but I do not think they are unworthy or anything. I just feel that ultimately I have a different concept of what learning and self-expression means.

I'll close the subject with one thought. For me, biology and anatomy are always more interesting than poetry and physics. I don't discount that poetry and physics are both important, and somewhat interesting. I think, though, when we choose to discuss something obscure...say the function of membranes and inflamation in healing, not everybody will be interested. I think sometimes, people appear narrow minded or set in their ways because concepts don't interest them. They don't want to know more, so they don't attempt to "broaden their horrizons".

I've also been giving this some thought. I think people sometimes come off as intollerant because they don't want those whom they love to get off a path which they feel is best for them. Think of it this way--say somebody who is homosexual did move in town (something that happened about 5 years ago). People may seem unaccepting or intollerant because they do not agree with the lifestyle. They also may try to avoid the person/people because they don't want to have to explain to their children certain activities. While I don't think it's as easy to avoid these things now, especially with the Disney channel, Nickalodian, or cartoon network. I just think that there are all sorts of reasons why people tried to discourage such talk.

I hope all of this makes some sense and you don't think I'm launching some sort of offensive. Just remember that Evergreen, just like you, changes, evolves, and yet has some traits that we come to think of as timeless. I'm not sure I'm making sense, so I'm going to stop now.

As one last aside, I agree that teachers must bring the subject to mind in the students by focusing on how it relates, but they must also teach it in such a way that it shows that there are other ways to approach a problem. Nietzsche wrote, once, that moderns don't truly understand Greek art because in Greece it was the male body that was considered the truth of Beauty and we just do not think of it like that any more.

If we fail to note that Greeks found men more attractive than women, if we fail to teach our children that others start from a different basis, we do them a disservice. It is one thing to compare Greek art to modern art in a general sense, but at the same time we must approach the idea of the other because it does wonders to reinforce the idea of the self.

You mention Hemmingway and Steinbeck. Two immense writers that changed, along with Faulkner and Melville and Hawthorne, the way that the world thought of America, yet two people that were considered problematic by most Americans. A suicidally depressed expat and a socialist investigated by the American government. By leaving out those details, we also fail to point out why they choose different ways to approach the telling of the American soul (the same might be said of Toni Morrison and William Faulkner). These things can help us to understand a lot about how things change and how ideas develop on a global level. But, at least 15 years ago, this is not the sort of thing that teachers in Evergreen really liked to discuss. Maybe your experience was different, I don't know.

People not in education, on what I call the "grown up side of the desk" don't realize how little teaching is actually done. It's even worse now than when we were in school. This is coming from somebody who is in the middle of the process. It's really hard to cover all the objectives prescribed by the Alabama Course of Study, teach appropriate class behavior, study skills, and to teach thinking outside the box. I'm lucky when I give an open-ended question if I don't get complaints about it, and I feel like I've had an excellent day if more than 5 students write in complete sentences. As it is, to fail a student, I have to bend over backwards, give him/her time in class to make up the work, try behavioral contracts, and go through all sorts of paperwork. It's insanity, although it's controlled insanity. I really would love to teach my students to debate theories scientifically, to explore the world around them...but when none of them show interest, it's kind of hard to teach inside the box, much less opening the box.

Frankly, none of the books we read in school interested me enough to make me think outside the box. I recall bits and pieces of the backgrounds of the authors we read...but it's so hard to remember those classes. I think that it's also important to keep in mind that one person can only truly teach what he/she is interested in--and although teacheers are English teachers, science teachers, etc., they can't be expected to know all on such generalized subjects. Teachers are also expected to maintain some symblance of order in the classroom, sometimes, that order comes in the form of a rough comment to a student. The teacher doesn't really mean it as a bad it's just a major balancing act. You do the best you can, and yet, you know you'll never get it quite right.

Written by W Doug Bolden

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