Allen Ginsberg – The Song of America


Allen Ginsberg – The Song of America by Michel Bulteau is an exceptional book that resonates far beyond its brief pages and pliable cover (with its shaggy, impressionistic image of the poet wearing a star-spangled topper of red, white and blue). For not only is this work a fascinating visualisation of an important American writer, it’s also a peep into a unique artistic movement that was camp, grotesque, terrible, brilliant, obscene, iconoclastic, explosive, naïve, onanistic and (romantically) sincere. Happily, Bulteau is able to view Ginsberg and his extraordinary cohorts with the freshness and sensitivity of a poet-observer gazing through a lens unfiltered by the distortions imposed on native-born Americans who imbibed soporific milk from their convoluted post-war (m)udders. He is thus able to offer us a cultural exploration that benefits much from his fortuitous position as a European, a poet and, therefore, one who had an educated insight into the long history of social misfits such as Blake, Baudelaire, Rimbaud and other shamanistic visionaries who through their third eye (often chiselled unwillingly into their skull) opened up vistas that reverberated uneasily between Heaven and Hell – serving up truth and beauty reflected in the gutter detritus of piss, puke and fallen platitudes.

Told as an episodic journey through a series of well-crafted vignettes, stories within stories flowing like convergent streams, sometimes sweet, sometimes sour, subtly finessing out a curious friendship between Bulteau, the young Parisian poet recently arrived in New York and the larger-than-life Maitre Ginsberg, charming, boastful, kindly and full of himself. Surrounding the two protagonists are a plethora of epic characters of the New York demimonde – Burroughs, of course, the patriarch; Jack Smith, the ‘Camp and Trash’ director of Flaming Creatures (featured by Senator Strom Thurmond, the Southern Dixiecrat, who used it to lubricate his anti-porn legislation); Brion Gysin, the disciple of Tristan Tzara, who summed up the 70s NY scene with a quote simple and succinct: ‘Nothing is true, everything is permitted’; Peter Orlovsky, Ginsberg’s on again, off again, lover (furious, mad as a hatter and the author of Clean Asshole Poems and Smiling Vegetable Songs); the legendary Harry Smith, whose Anthology of American Folk Music influenced an entire generation of musicians and whose personal life was defined by bad debts and worse drugs; Herbert Huncke the junky friend of Burroughs, Kerouac and Ginsberg who, along with Dexter Gordon, pinched cars and fur coats, resold to Harlem prostitutes.

Bulteau paints a picture of Ginsburg sketched out in brief intervals from their first meeting in New York in 76, through his visits to Paris in the late 80s and early 90s, to the final days prior to his death in 97. We read in fascination as the relationship evolves from Ginsberg’s (mischievous) instigation of Bulteau’s Une Saison en Enfer to a budding friendship through a mutual love of art and literature. (Bulteau delights us with tidbits of conversation on Blake, Auden, Shelly, Wordsworth, Whitman, Neal Cassady, Bob Kaufman, Gary Snyder, Gregory Corso, John Wieners, Philip Whalen, while hanging out in Ginsberg’s pad or bopping around Paris.) The range and depth of knowledge on the arts and artists, as they parry details like baubles to be juggled like cerebral sweeties is fascinating both for the sheer pleasure of being privy to intelligent discourse but also as an insight into Ginsberg’s eclectic persona. He was the last, I fear, of a dying breed – the artist-savant. (At least coming out of America.)

There is the disturbing side, of course, that Bulteau doesn’t shy away from - that aspect of Ginsberg which defined him as much as his kindness, generosity and hell-bent bravado. It was that quest for celebrity, as American as McDonald’s artery constricting triple meat cheeseburgers and as addictive as Burroughs’s super refined smack. Ginsberg was on that roll. Namedropper extraordinaire, he had the world divided into A, B and C list fame as much as any fan magazine would venture. Gossip? Ginsberg makes a point of telling Bulteau he went to see Lennon and they discussed nothing in particular but, by the way, he’s still taking heroin and is still smitten by May Pang. OK. So fame and fortune co-exist outside the Co-existence Bagel Shop. Ginsberg was a showman who would have done Barnum proud. But, as Bulteau insists, he was also a poet who wore several hats – and never both at once. There’s a lovely passage where Bulteau tells of Dylan coming to see him one afternoon (Ginsberg opened the window and threw Dylan down the keys wrapped in a sock). Dylan wants him to listen to some tracks of his new album and help him come up with a good title. He plays the CD but Ginsberg has a hard time making out the words. So Dylan plays the track over and over so Ginsberg can decipher Dylan’s incomprehensible twang. Then, from the back room, comes a shout. ‘‘Turn off the music! I’m trying to sleep!’ Ginsberg tells Dylan that Harry Smith is in the bedroom. When Smith was tossed out of his lodgings, Ginsberg offered to put him up for several weeks. Smith ended by staying eight months as Ginsberg attempted to nurse the cantankerous old goat back from the brink of starvation. Dylan’s impressed, saying he always wanted to meet him, so Ginsberg goes into the bedroom and tells Smith that Bob Dylan is there and wants to talk. But Smith refuses to leave his bed. Not even for the mythical Dylan. No matter how hard Ginsberg pleads, Smith refuses to budge.

Ginsberg had always hoped Dylan would attach himself to the Beat Generation, Bulteau tells us. But Dylan traveled by limousine, stayed in palaces and had loads of money in his bank accounts. Ginsberg said that Dylan once told him that today someone like Edgar Allen Poe wouldn’t have ended in the gutter, he would have been a millionaire. There is a touch of melancholy here. What does art have to do with millions of greenbacks? The difference between Ginsberg and Dylan is that Ginsberg knew the answer to that.

Bulteau writes that when Ginsberg died on the 4th of April, 1997, the veil of the Beat Temple was torn away. ‘His departure was calm and dignified. But what a void he left! In which American writer do we find this frankness, this absolute sincerity, as Burroughs said, this immense culture so accessible?’

Who indeed? Michel Bulteau, in this little book, has written an honest and sincere homage to both the man and the poet who, in a curious way did, indeed, spend a good part of his life chanting America’s song – though not one that would be easily sung by many in Bush’s USA now.

16 November 2006