On hearing Allen Ginsberg

by Bob Schwartz

I listened to Allen Ginsberg reading his poetry the other morning. It was a recording made in 1959, by which time he had become a poster poet for the Beat Generation.

In the middle of the last century, we endured the darkest era in modern history. How darkest? We witnessed human depravity on a scale and of a type thus far unseen and barely imagined. We unleashed a weapon that for the first time assured total destruction.

Polite society tried to respond humanely and politely, acknowledging the worst, but determined to resume life (more or less) as usual. Nothing to see here but good times and progress.

Also in response, some creatives announced “not so fast”. Among them were the beat poets and writers. While not strictly a beat movie, in The Wild One (1953), Marlon Brando is asked “Hey, Johnny, what are you rebelling against?” “What do you got?” he answers. Like that.

Allen Ginsberg was crowned a king of the beats, partly because he reveled in the publicity and attention, also because his poetry captured the sense, as Bob Dylan wrote, that “something is happening here but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?”

Ginsberg’s poem Howl is considered the loudest and longest cry of beat. Very long. So here is something shorter, but still right to the point.

A Supermarket in California

What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for I walked down the sidestreets under the trees with a headache self-conscious looking at the full moon.

In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went into the neon fruit supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations!

What peaches and what penumbras! Whole families shopping at night! Aisles full of husbands! Wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes! —and you, García Lorca, what were you doing down by the watermelons?

I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys.

I heard you asking questions of each: Who killed the pork chops? What price bananas? Are you my Angel?

I wandered in and out of the brilliant stacks of cans following you, and followed in my imagination by the store detective.

We strode down the open corridors together in our solitary fancy tasting artichokes, possessing every frozen delicacy, and never passing the cashier.

Where are we going, Walt Whitman? The doors close in an hour. Which way does your beard point tonight?

(I touch your book and dream of our odyssey in the supermarket and feel absurd.)

Will we walk all night through solitary streets? The trees add shade to shade, lights out in the houses, we’ll both be lonely.

Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of love past blue automobiles in driveways, home to our silent cottage?

Ah, dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher, what America did you have when Charon quit poling his ferry and you got out on a smoking bank and stood watching the boat disappear on the black waters of Lethe?

Berkeley, 1955