My dinner with Allen Ginsberg

by RON SCHEER

Allen Ginsberg

Photo of Allen Ginsberg from Revista de Cultura.

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.

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27 thoughts on “My dinner with Allen Ginsberg

  1. Meta L. Knapp says:

    What an awesome encounter.

  2. Patti Abbott says:

    Wow. You have changed my ideas about Ginsberg completely. Thanks!

  3. That’s really cool. I love his poetry.

  4. nicciattfield says:

    Beautiful!

  5. jethag says:

    Priceless. I really enjoyed your piece. Ginsberg is my favorite poet; I feel privileged to glimpse into your experience with him.

  6. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed.

  7. gregdblog says:

    I saw Allen read poetry at my college in 1968. Afterwards , I stood next to him. He had the strongest BO I ever encountered. I wish I could add something more scholarly and enlightening .

  8. That sounds like a fantastic experience. Thanks for sharing!

  9. suchled says:

    OK. I’m 70 and a retired teacher. And Ginsberg and Kerouac were my heroes along with Steinbeck. I had many hours in faculty meetings pleading to use The first two in class. But to no avail, so I started a private lending library in my room and they came and borrowed them. I would have killed to have dinner with each of them. Thank you so much for the insight.

  10. youarenormal says:

    Thank you for this. It was an interesting read. As an English major myself, I can understand where hoping literary knowledge might be of a lot of value, but I believe that this encounter need not have been prepared for and made “literary”. That literaryness is already found within your encounter and within your piece.

  11. kathleenmc1953 says:

    What a wonderful recounting. It is interesting how some things stick with us while the others fall away. I guess his compassion and depth of character were powerful forces. It’s too bad that that kind of authenticity is so hard to find today….

  12. oroplatamata says:

    Awesome story! I’d love to hear him speak in person. Will settle for youtube :]

  13. kalki says:

    I remember I came across Howl back in school when a character in Gilmore Girls made a reference to it. It is strange how the man Allen Ginsberg and authorial presence Allen Ginsberg are so similar. while i would belong to the current generation of undergraduate students, my first encounter with Ginsberg was through Howl and I remember it only as a moment of honesty and empathy.
    Thank you for sharing this encounter.

  14. That’s a great memory. I seriously connected with his poem Wichita Vortex-Sutra my senior year of high school, the compassion and rawness of it, the soul of a nation torn apart by a distant war. He felt deeply for America for all its people.

  15. Janet Young says:

    Very moving essay. Back in the 60s we had the honor of having Allen Ginsburg come to Jersey City State College for a poetry reading. Two of us, members of our Poetry Club, met him at the school and went with him to a local place for something to eat. I was in awe of him, but like this story, he totally put us at ease, as he poured some sugar on the counter to taste it to see if it was really sugar or salt. His reading was amazing, but I remember most his relaxed and gentle spirit in that small restaurant with no one else around.

  16. You put my imagination right there. Nicely done.

  17. I can almost feel the rarefied, exquisite, painful encountering of art and beauty in the truth of your experience. You have shared this so well… True beauty always brings those kind of fresh raw tears for me…

  18. pamkirst2014 says:

    I love this essay, Ron–I saw/heard Allen Ginsburg at SUNY Fredonia early in the ’70’s and he scared me with his intensity and ferocious honesty! It’s nice to balance the memory of that performance with the image of the kind and thoughtful man you had the great good fortune to encounter.

  19. What an incredible experience.

  20. Therese Lu says:

    A very good read, indeed! Thanks for sharing.

  21. mike on bike says:

    Best read of the day. I’m so glad you took time to share your memories of Mr. Ginsberg.

  22. iamsera says:

    That’s great encounter!

  23. tessaco says:

    Favorite quote of mine is actually from Ginsberg. “Follow your inner moonlight; don’t hide the madness.”
    Dude is rad.

  24. Oscar Case says:

    Can;t add anything to this, except I enjoyed reading the post.

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