by RON SCHEER
The Beat 1950s were over, crowded out by the Beatles, the assassination of JFK, Vietnam, LSD, Flower Power, and Easy Rider. Jack Kerouac had just died at 47 of drink and Catholic bad karma, and so had Neal Cassady at 41, while on the road in Mexico. It was 1969 or 1970. And I, in my first year as a college teacher in northern Pennsylvania, was having dinner with Allen Ginsberg.
Allen had accepted a spot on the college’s speakers series and would fill an auditorium for an hour on the following day. A colleague in the English Department had picked him up at the Elmira airport and was entertaining him for the evening. Would I care to make a fourth for dinner?
I didn’t know what to expect. A diffident soul finishing a doctoral dissertation on English Restoration drama, I had hardly any academic grounding in American Lit, especially the thread of American poetry that happened to connect two controversial collections of it, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and Ginsberg’s Howl. My background in literary studies stopping somewhere short of 1700, I had little to show off and no scholarly agenda to bring to dinner conversation with a living celebrity poet.
Not that Ginsberg was a celebrity in the 15-minutes-of-fame way the word has come to mean today. His having been the subject of a Playboy interview, you could say back then he’d been famous for a whole month. Besides being a recognized poet of some standing, he was also a vocal advocate of the antiwar movement that had filled the streets of Chicago with noise and police batons during the 1968 Democratic convention and continued to rage on after Richard Nixon’s election. After that dinner I would see him again on TV talk shows and at demonstrations protesting the war. He was a recognizable public figure in those turbulent times.
I don’t have a memory of what I expected that particular evening. Knowing me, I was probably hoping to simply speak when spoken to without dripping soup on my chin. What I didn’t expect was the company of a man who was so relaxed and unselfconscious that he put his hosts and me completely at ease. He was like an old friend who happened to be passing through town and stopped in for a hello.
It’s been too many years to remember anything we talked about as we ate. But I recall one thing he said before we sat down together. It involved the front and back covers of a Time magazine that had caught his eye. Holding it out to us so we could see, he observed the contrast between the graphic war coverage on the front and the colorful advertisement on the back, both of them images, I think, of young men, but together picturing a split consciousness between battlefield carnage and commercialism. It was a kind of moment you might have expected to characterize the rest of our talk around the table, but Ginsburg was, I believe, too much a polite guest to dominate dinner conversation that way.
Later that same evening, he did something else I’ve never forgotten. A group of students gathered at the home of another faculty member and, seating being in short supply, many of us we’re sitting on the floor, Allen included. The kids were a little awed and doing their best to be well mannered. Mostly the product of small high schools from small-town Pennsylvania and the foothills of Appalachia, they were also more than a generation removed from what passes for undergraduate behavior today.
One, a young man, began saying something to Allen, who stopped him and asked about some disability of the boy’s. It may have been a stutter. The exact words I no longer remember, only the kindness of his acknowledgment that he had noticed the boy’s difficulty and was not going to worsen it by pretending it didn’t exist. It was one of the most telling moments, for me, of his entire visit. A moment about honesty, consideration, and generosity.
By complete contrast was the highlight of his visit to campus and his reason for being there. He stood at the front of a large auditorium I remember as standing-room-only. After delivering some prepared remarks, he then read to us from his own poetry, accompanied by a small harmonium. And I heard for the first time how his poetry was meant to be heard—not spoken, but chanted. The experience was powerful and moving, and I knew that if I had heard any of Howl that way before that dinner with him, the entire time I spent in his company would have been of a different order.
What remained of his visit was a hurried afternoon goodbye to students and faculty gathered around the car that would take him back to the airport. I cannot explain it, but seeing him go I felt a deep sadness. I didn’t want him to leave. The man had touched me in ways I could not fathom, and still can’t. When I was alone afterward, I remember lying face down in thick, fragrant grass and letting the tears just come.
Ron Scheer reviews frontier fiction and westerns at his blog, Buddies in the Saddle. He’s gathered these reviews in a two-volume set titled How the West Was Written, the first of which was recently published by BEAT to a PULP. A retired teacher, he holds degrees from UCLA and has taught most recently in the Writing Program at the University of Southern California. He and his wife Lynda currently reside in the Coachella Valley near Palm Springs.