'Howl' Revisited: The Poet as Jew

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Author: Alicia Ostriker
Editors: Jeffrey W. Hunter and Deborah A. Schmitt
Date: 1999
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 7,056 words

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[(essay date July/August 1997) In the following essay, Ostriker argues that while Ginsberg rejected elements of his Jewish heritage, it still influenced his writing.]

I have reverenced Allen Ginsberg--man and poet--for three decades and see no reason to stop now. The first time I met Allen I was amazed, as this essay suggests, by his voice: the power and sweetness and humor of it. His breath, I thought, was the breath of the spirit. The last time was the same but more so. We were at the Dodge Poetry Festival in Waterloo, N.J., in the soft weather of early fall, 1996. At dinner I told him I had written an essay about him as a Jew, that he would probably disapprove of, and he shrugged this off and talked about his new apartment. He was looking ailing and frail. He was ailing and frail, until he went on stage, seated with his harmonium, and then--what can one say except that Allen's voice was channeling huge quantities of spiritual energy, joy, pain, love, hope, laughter, from the Great Beyond, or wherever that stuff comes from, and spraying it like a cosmic fire hydrant into the big tent and out into the warm night. For forty-five minutes he hosed us up and down, and we all rode the billows of delight. I imagine he is having a fine time now, in the holy company of Whitman, Blake, Williams , and the Prophet Jeremiah.

i ginsberg the Yid

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. It was 1966. We were in Vietnam but thought in our antiwar innocence that we might be out soon. Medgar Evers and Malcolm X were dead but Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were still alive. The Chicago riots, the invasion of Cambodia, the killing of four students at Kent State hadn't happened yet. Allen Ginsberg was giving a reading at Princeton University with Gary Snyder. In Princeton I lived at that time disguised as a young faculty wife and mother of two. Simultaneously at Rutgers University I went to work disguised as a promising young scholar of late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century poetry and prosody. Officially I was a Blakean. My own poetry remained in the closet during the years of my assistant professorship; had my colleagues known of my folly I would probably not have gotten the job, since most of them considered creative writing the equivalent of basket weaving, an activity for the retarded. Also in the closet were my two daughters in diapers. One did not discuss family in my department, where my senior colleagues were witty and charming men who all looked and behaved as if they had never in their lives laid eyes on a diaper.

I had already heard Allen once, at Rutgers, where he took off the top of my head in the standing room only vault of Voorhees Chapel by introducing as his opening act, of all people, his father Louis Ginsberg. Louis, with...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100003405