By Aram Saroyan, Poetry Media Service
It's been more than a decade since the death of Allen Ginsberg, but in the interim I've found that he's stayed with me as an informing, tempering, guardian-like presence of a stature equaled only by my late father. He looked me up and down and looked me in the face, taking my measure for good or ill, and then informed me, on several critical occasions, where I had gotten it right or wrong.
As a teenager in Manhattan, I turned to poetry because I couldn't understand what life was about and thought I might uncover some clues in such writing. Howl, which I found during high school, was like an encyclopedia of the emotional and psychic life that had been driven under in me, with the result that I felt restless and bored a lot of the time. Life is big, it said. It has a lot of colors. It's serious. It's funny. It's full of suffering that is also like bread, nurture, on a journey of the soul.
Allen called me from Naropa one year, trying to track down a photograph of Kerouac that I'd used in Genesis Angels: The Saga of Lew Welch and the Beat Generation. My father had died recently, and Allen told me a story about his father, the late poet Louis Ginsberg, who had been a high school teacher in New Jersey. When he'd visited his father in the hospital during his last illness, Allen said Louis told him that as a little boy he'd lived near a magnificent building, a great tower with chimneys from which, at certain hours of the day, huge plumes of smoke billowed. Louis had dreamed of this building and wondered what went on inside it.
•Do you know what it was, Allen? That great tower that set me dreaming?"
•It was a glue factory."
During the same call Allen lightened my spirits by telling me how much he liked Genesis Angels, which had received mixed reviews.
During the '60s, in my minimalist phase as a poet, I ran into Allen one afternoon on the corner of Fifth Avenue and Eighth Street in New York. I'd just purchased some bell-bottoms and a hippie shirt, thinking I'd take the plunge into my generation's attire, and Allen looked me over seriously.
"What's going on?" he said.
"Well, I think the clothes are beautiful, so why not wear them?"
He nodded and made no further comment about it, and we got to discussing my one-word poems.
"Are you lazy, or what?" It was the sort of comment that could have come only from Allen or from my father.
"No," I said.
Ten years later, Allen attended a reading I gave. Afterward, he commented to me that a poem I'd read took an "us-and-them" stance that he considered incorrect. This was priceless information, not about the quality of the poem so much as about how it is one continues to write. It was, as I see it today, part of the higher literary physics that he and Kerouac reinstated, so to speak. The moral example of literature wasn't judgment, that is, but empathy, which is why Shakespeare is our greatest exemplar. Allen was telling me, in his way, that I had turned down a cul-de-sac.
* * *
The Paris Review interview with Jack Kerouac was the brainchild of Ted Berrigan at a time when, hard as it is to believe, Kerouac was an almost forgotten man. It was a few months before the fabled Summer of Love, 1967, and Ted invited me to accompany him up to Lowell to interview Kerouac. I accepted the invitation on impulse-at that moment of the '60s I'd very nearly forgotten Kerouac myself.
Ted's impromptu choreography: Jack had loved my dad's work, Ted knew, and he also knew I'd be reluctant to come as the ambassador of William Saroyan, as it were, and made his invitation spontaneously casual-and off we went.
During the interview Jack, perhaps intrigued that the son of one of his first literary influences was now looking to him, asked me to repeat after him, line by line, the words of a poem of his from Mexico City Blues:
KEROUAC: Delicate conceptions of kneecaps. Say that, Saroyan.
SAROYAN: Delicate conceptions of kneecaps.
KEROUAC: Like kissing my kitten in the belly
SAROYAN: Like kissing my kitten in the belly
KEROUAC: The softness of our reward
SAROYAN: The softness of our reward
I stumbled once or twice-there were some complicated lines-but a thick-skinned, hardheaded 23-year-old writer was getting some basic training, not in literature per se, but in repeating the words of a master. That is the correct existential posture in the lineage of mystery-surrendering to it-that the Beats revived. So, my young friend, it was as if Kerouac was saying, Let's appreciate it together; even though I wrote it, it's both of ours now. When I'd completed this exercise, Jack rewarded me with a modest encomium that has traveled with me down the years and that I've tried my best to be worthy of. "You'll do, Saroyan," he said.
Aram Saroyan's Door to the River: Essays and Reviews from the 1960s into the Digital Age will be published in March 2010 by Black Sparrow/Godine. This article first appeared at www.poetryfoundation.org. Distributed by the Poetry Foundation.
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