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ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And now, remembering the poet, Allen Ginsberg, who died Saturday of liver cancer.
ALLEN GINSBERG: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving, hysterical, naked…”
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Those are the opening lines of Allen Ginsberg’s 1956 poem “Howl,” a work of anger, politics, irony, humor, and passion that shocked people at the time but also served as a kind of warning bell that something new–a “counterculture”–was being born.
Ginsberg had joined with Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, and others in New York in the ’40’s to form the nucleus of a group that later became known as the Beatniks. The movement flowered in San Francisco in the 1950’s, and by the end of the decade, Ginsberg had established himself as a leading voice of both the new poetry and a new brand of anti-establishment cultural politics.
ALLEN GINSBERG: I’m not going to march formally as a Yippie. I’m going on the mobilization march as an individual.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: He was openly homosexual, brazenly public about his attraction to drugs, and a leading advocate of what he termed “flower power”–leftist, anti-war politics. And through all his public activities he kept writing, winning the National Book Award in 1973, among other honors.
His fans, including fellow poet J.D. McClatchey, compared him favorable to Walt Whitman. His detractors, including Norman Podhoretz, writing in the magazine “Commentary,” blamed Ginsberg for glorifying drugs and madness and for helping bring on the wild youth culture of the 1960’s.
A convert to Buddhism, Ginsberg helped start a Buddhist Institute in Colorado in the 1970’s. He managed to stay in the public limelight through five decades, writing and reading up to the time of his death. Here he is in 1977 reading “Khaddish,” the elegy for his mother considered by many to be Ginsberg’s finest poem.
ALLEN GINSBERG: “What came is gone forever, every time.
That leaves it open for no regret,
No fear, radiators, lack love, torture, palsied cheek, or toothache in the end.
Though while it comes, it’s a lion that eats the soul and the lamb,
The soul in us, alas, offering itself in sacrifice to changes,
Fierce hunger, hair, and teeth, and the roar of bone pain, skull bare, break rib, rock skin, brain tricked, implacability, I, I, we did worse.
We are in a fix, and you’re out.
Death let you out.
Death had the mercy.
You’re done with your century, done with God, done with the path through it.
Done with yourself at last–pure, back to the babe dark before your father, before us all, before the world.
No more suffering for you.
I know where you’ve gone.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Allen Ginsberg was 70 years old.