Prologue: In late 1967, an English professor asked me to be Allen Ginsberg’s escort for his February 13 reading at Union College: “I think he’d be more comfortable with a student.” I wrote Ginsberg to ask if he’d add an event in our makeshift café, the North End. I figured I’d get a form letter from an assistant telling me Allen was too busy being Ginsberg.
I was half right. He was too busy being Ginsberg to make plans, but it was Allen himself who replied.
[Dear Mr. Z—I don’t know my schedule as it’s made up by others while I stay home & avoid correspondence & do my work — poesy, solitude as much as I can get. See you I guess there, I’ll keep yr. address & number thanks for good cheer — Allen Ginsberg]
Allen wound up staying at my apartment for three nights, before moving on to Rochester to meet with Norman O. Brown (whose Love’s Body was a hot topic). He visited classes, did radio interviews, and gave a reading at the North End (including “Wichita Vortex Sutra” and “Wales Visitation”).
Here, through the prism of distant memory, are some moments from Allen Ginsberg’s three days in Schenectady.
Fitz Hugh: Allen’s main reference point to Union College is that Fitz Hugh Ludlow went here. All we know about Ludlow is that he wrote Union’s alma mater in 1856.
Ode to Old Union (Alma Mater)
Let the Grecian dream of his sacred stream
And sing of the brave adorning
That Phoebus weaves from his laurel leaves
At the golden gates of morning.
But the brook that bounds thro’ old Union’s grounds
Gleams bright as a Delphic water,
And a prize as fair as a god may wear
Is a dip from our Alma Mater.
Then here’s to thee, thou brave and free,
Old Union smiling o’er us,
And for many a day, as thy walls grow gray,
May they ring with thy children’s chorus!
We have referred to the “brook that bounds” as the “creek that reeks,” and someone once suggested that Ludlow must have been high when he wrote it “gleams bright as a Delphic water.” Allen informs us that this, indeed, may have been the case, that a year after graduating from Union, Ludlow published The Hasheesh Eater. (Many years later, Allen would be on the board of advisors to the Fitz Hugh Ludlow Memorial Library).
Dylan's Scarf: Allen notices the album jacket for Dylan’s John Wesley Harding propped against our stereo speaker, and points to the scarf worn by one of the people standing next to Dylan. “Dylan gave it to me,” Allen says, extending the scarf he is wearing.
Dylan's Poetry: We discuss Dylan as poet: “ ‘The motorcycle black Madonna two-wheeled gypsy queen!’” Allen declaims. “That’s as good as anything I’ve written!”
Uncle Allen: Allen walks by the poster of him wearing an Uncle Sam hat. He stops, backtracks, and signs his name on the ribbon.
Bathtub: I awaken in the middle of the night and step into the bathroom, startled to see Allen Ginsberg in his underwear crouching over the bathtub. He is washing his blue jeans.
Milkshake: Cliff Safane, Steve Radlauer, Rich Balagur, and I are heading to the White Tower (a White Castle knockoff) down the street. We invite Allen to join us, but he declines. As we’re leaving, he calls out, “Can you bring me back a milkshake?” We explain to the young man behind the counter whom the milkshake is for. He smiles wearily at the Union boys having fun with the townie.
Kerouac as Poet: We ask Allen if he thinks we could get Kerouac to come to Union. He says we might, “If you invite him as a poet!”
Pigs and Beards: A local radio reporter asks Allen his reaction to the state government proposal to “put a pig in every pot.” Allen replies he doesn’t understand the question, and the radio guy repeats with "hip" inflection, “You know, a pig in every pot?”
I explain, “I think he means an undercover narcotics officer posted on every college campus.”
Another reporter asks him why he doesn’t shave his beard, and Allen replies, “I’m a traditionalist, my grandfather had a beard.”
Sunflower Tears: Word has gotten around about Allen’s extended stay, and I am fielding requests for his company, including overlapping invitations for dinner at a fraternity house and a visit to Professor Jocelyn Harvey’s Modern Poetry class. (See more about Jocelyn Harvey, one of my most influential teachers here).
We decide he can do both: I’ll signal when it’s time to leave the class and head over to the fraternity. But as the time approaches, Allen is reading “Sunflower Sutra” (“Jack Kerouac sat beside me on a busted rusty iron pole, companion, we thought the same thoughts of the soul…Look at the Sunflower, he said…I rushed up enchanted—it was my first sunflower, memories of Blake—my visions…”) He segues to Blake’s “Ah! Sun-flower”:
Ah Sun-flower! weary of time,
Who countest the steps of the Sun:
Seeking after that sweet golden clime
Where the travellers journey is done.
Where the Youth pined away with desire,
And the pale Virgin shrouded in snow:
Arise from their graves and aspire,
Where my Sun-flower wishes to go.
Tears trickle down Allen Ginsberg’s face. He tells us he is having a vision of Neal Cassidy (“Dean Moriarty” in On the Road and “N.C., secret hero of these poems” in “Howl”), who died ten days ago alone in the cold and rain alongside a railroad track in Mexico.
No way am I getting in the way of this magic moment. I decide to blow off the fraternity.
(Several years later, a high school friend meets a couple of Union College graduates. My friend asks if they knew me, and one replies, “Yeah, he’s a real bastard. He wouldn’t share Allen Ginsberg.”)
Party Talk: At a party at our apartment, Allen is talking to the painter Arnold Bittleman. Bittleman describes how he often paints deep into the night, looks admiringly at his canvas, and goes to bed convinced that he has created a great work of art—only to discover in the morning that someone must have broken in and ruined his painting. Ginsberg replies that he used to feel that way, but now, even as he is writing, he’ll think: “This is the same old bleeeecchhh.”
A little later, Allen talks with two men about having children. Allen says he would like to have a child, but is not sure he could have the kind of relationship with a vagina that would require. A professor wails, “I’ll never know what it’s like to be pregnant!”
Snippets (non-sequential) from a classroom visit, transcribed from a cassette tape that somehow survived being spindled after all these years:
“Our own inventions change our conditions because our inventions are extensions of our senses…what Zen is preaching what everybody is preaching is awareness of the conditions so we don’t get trapped in the conditions and ignorant of what’s moving us around…we can change the conditions.”
“The ecological disturbances caused by the technology have now gotten out of hand.”
“I’m not against technology and science. I’m calling yoga another kind of technology.”
“The whole funeral ceremony the Forest Lawn mythology of America; the way we treat death—unlike other cultures—gets to be that the sight of a corpse can freak somebody out.”
“Gee, it’s hard to know [what Buber is saying]. I haven’t read all through Buber. I went and talked to him…”
“You’re lucky around here at Union College, you’ve got trees.”
“Unlike the Western forms that say, ‘Hell is permanent, heaven is permanent, God is a bearded man and you better behave. Eternal damnation!’ IMAGINE: eternal damnation—a thing that couldn’t exist without language!”