After the howling, Ginsberg in repose

November 30, 1992|By William Robertson | William Robertson,Knight-Ridder News Service

It is hard to believe that Allen Ginsberg, who helped create the Beat Generation and lived to tell about it, is 66.

Known more for fast lives than literary endeavor, the socially and culturally rebellious Beat poets and novelists who came of age in the late 1940s and '50s were not supposed to last this long.

Of them, Neal Cassady, the model for Dean Moriarty in the Beat anthem, "On the Road," was found dead at 41 beside a railroad track in Mexico in 1968; alcohol and drug abuse were blamed. Jack Kerouac, author of "On the Road" and the most famous Beat of all, died a year later at 47 from cirrhosis of the liver.

But Mr. Ginsberg is still here, a graying presence who by strength of will, fire of ego and relative longevity has achieved a certain respectability.

No one but the most devoted admirer would have predicted it in 1956 when his long poem, "Howl," was published to general outrage, thrusting its author into an unflattering national spotlight. Scatological and obscene within the context of its time, the poem today seems tame but intelligent.

"Dharma Lion" -- the title refers to Mr. Ginsberg's practice of Buddhism -- is the story of how the poet managed to survive. Michael Schumacher, who specializes in writing about well-known literary figures, tells it fairly, in exhaustive detail and without flair. He shows too much sympathy and not enough empathy. Still, the book is a full version of Mr. Ginsberg's life. It follows him from his birth in New Jersey in 1926 to Jewish -- and Marxist -- parents (a schoolteacher father and an abusive mother who went insane). It tracks him through his global wanderings and his many anxieties and depressions to what finally seems like the inner stillness he has long sought. Along the way Mr. Ginsberg has celebrated the junkies, thieves and other outcasts of his acquaintance as well as his own homosexuality.

If the book offers no genuine critical insight into Mr. Ginsberg's poetry, it is one of the most ample accounts yet of the Beat galaxy, that small group of men and women -- mostly friends and lovers -- who anticipated the social upheavals of the 1960s.

Since the '60s, Mr. Ginsberg's life, by his own design, has been largely a matter of public record. He consorted with hippies and rock stars and was active against the war in Vietnam. He was kicked out of Cuba in 1965 when he publicly complained about the Castro regime's persecution of homosexuals. That same year, Czechoslovakia also expelled him after he was chosen May Day parade king by students in Prague.

Perhaps Mr. Ginsberg has come this far because of a genius that has little relation to literary talent. He has consciously, and self-consciously at that, modeled his verse and his life on Walt Whitman, who sang so eloquently about himself. He may not be Whitman's equal in poetry, but his gift for self-promotion has been just as prodigious.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Dharma Lion: A Critical Biography of Allen Ginsberg."

Author: Michael Schumacher.

Publisher: St. Martin's Press.

Length, price: 769 pages, $35.

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