In 1947 Saul Bellow published a novel called The Victim in which a derelict character named Kirby Allbee haunts another named Asa Leventhal, claiming that Leventhal is responsible for his downfall. Kirby, one of Bellow’s fabled fast talkers–all feverish self-abasement and joking insult–repeatedly baits Leventhal and at one point, when Leventhal murmurs something about Walt Whitman, says to him, “Whitman? You people like Whitman? What does Whitman mean to you people?”
Who could ever have dreamed that less than a decade after the publication of this novel not only would “you people” be announcing out loud that they liked Whitman, but it would appear that they themselves had reincarnated him. The day after Allen Ginsberg’s celebrated 1955 reading of “Howl” in San Francisco, Lawrence Ferlinghetti sent Ginsberg a telegram that read, “I greet you at the beginning of a great career”–the phrase that Emerson had used, writing to Whitman upon the publication, exactly a hundred years earlier, of Leaves of Grass.
Fifty years later, it is safe to say that Allen Ginsberg is the poet who, within living memory, most closely resembles Whitman. He, like Whitman, wrote an emblematic American poem that became world famous; was experienced pre-eminently as a poet of the people, at home among the democratic masses; developed a public persona to match the one in his writing–hugely free-spirited and self-promoting, an open-hearted exhibitionist. And he, again like Whitman, is remembered as a man in possession of an extraordinary sweetness that, throughout his life, welled up repeatedly to astonish the hearts of all who encountered him.
I met Ginsberg only twice, the first time at Jack Kerouac’s funeral in 1969. I was there for The Village Voice. It was my very first assignment as a working journalist. At the head of the viewing room stood the casket with Kerouac, hideously made up, lying in it. In the mourners’ seats sat Kerouac’s middle-class, French Canadian relatives–eyes narrowed, faces florid, arms crossed on their disapproving breasts. Around the casket–dipping, weaving, chanting Om–were Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky and Gregory Corso. Then there was Kerouac’s final, caretaker wife, a woman old enough to be his mother, weeping bitterly and looking strangely isolated. I sat mesmerized, staring in all directions. Suddenly, Ginsberg was sitting beside me. “And who are you?” he asked quietly. I told him who I was. He nodded, and wondered if I was talking to people. Especially the wife. I must be sure to talk to her. “Oh, no,” I said quickly. “I couldn’t do that.” Ginsberg nodded into space for a moment. “You must,” he murmured. Then he looked directly into my eyes. “It’s your job,” he said softly. “You must do your job.”
The second time we met, nearly twenty years later, was at an infamous meeting of the PEN board called to debate a letter (drafted by Ginsberg) that the Freedom-to-Write Committee had sent to Israel’s prime minister, taking his government to task for censoring Palestinian and Israeli journalists. I sat in my seat, listening to Ginsberg read his letter aloud to a packed room. He was now in his 60s, his head bald, his beard trim, wearing an ill-fitting black suit, the voice as gentle as I remembered it and twice as dignified. Although the letter had been signed by Susan Sontag, William Styron and Grace Paley, among others, it was Ginsberg himself who drew fire from the opposition. In a communiqué that had been sent earlier to the committee, Cynthia Ozick had all but accused him of being an agent for the PLO; and now, the essence of the charge coming from the floor seemed to be, It’s people like you who are destroying Israel. I remember Ginsberg standing there, his glasses shining, nodding in all directions, urging people toward compassionate reason. He never raised his voice, never spoke with heat or animosity, never stopped sounding thoughtful and judicious while all about him people were losing their heads. When he stepped from the microphone and was making his way through the crowd, I pressed his hand as he passed me and thanked him for the excellence of the letter’s prose. He stopped, closed his other hand over mine and, looking directly into my eyes, said softly, “I know you. Don’t I know you? I know you.”