I remember now it was 1968. I was a young 20 years old, getting on a plane for the first time alone, flying from San Francisco to New York to spend the summer working at a camp in Putman Valley. A man got on the plane and I recognized him from posters in college. Allen Ginsberg. He sat next to me. Very shy, I said, “Are you Allen Ginsberg?” He said yes and I shook his hand, then retreated into whatever book I was reading, too insecure and self-conscious to say another word for the rest of the flight, even though a couple of times he asked me questions about something he was reading in the newspaper, about which I knew nothing. How I regret that day! I was so wrapped up in myself and how I appeared. It never occurred to me to say, “Wow. I know who you are but I don’t know anything about you. What’s your thing, man? What are you all about?” I think he would have dug that, and I would have learned a lot. This is what I want to tell young people today: don’t surround yourself with yourself. Don’t be afraid to admit what you don’t know. Pay attention to others. Ask them questions. Your life will be immeasurably enriched.
But concerning the book, in this case The Essential Ginsberg, edited by Michael Schumacher- well, it was quite a trip, and I’m thinking if I had had the courage to ask Ginsberg those questions on the airplane, it might have been a pretty wild ride. The book is well structured- it begins with selected poems and presents them chronologically from 1947 through 1997, then does the same thing with his songs (II) essays (III) Journals (IV) Interviews (V), Letters (VI) and Photographs (VII). This gives us a good overview of his development as a poet, public figure, mystic, and human being, from the follies of youth to the (relative) wisdom of (relative) old age (he lived to be 71, a lot longer than Kerouac or Cassady who shared his impulsive, self-destructive lifestyle). His interviewers ask him academic questions about the scansion of his poems and he gives them mystical flights of fancy about the natural rhythms of the cosmos that are the source of the rules of haiku and the iambic pentameter of Shakespeare. In his essays, journals and letters he holds nothing back regarding his use of substances, his sexuality, his politics. It’s all just OK, it’s part of being human. Placed in the public spotlight, he uses his notoriety as grist for the mill of spiritual enlightenment. It’s not something all of us can do, but it’s something all of us can learn from. And it gives us a good record of an era that has shaped the thinking of the age in which we live, an era that is receding into the past. All the holy fools should be recognized beside the wise old sages as we find our way through these strange and troubled times.