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Gonzo Ginsberg and Moby Dickey: A Memoir


[clock] 21-MINUTE READ ISSUE:  Summer 1998

Last year America lost two of its finest poets: James Dickey died in January, Allen Ginsberg in April. These poets— redneck and rabbi—were opposites in almost every way. The gentle, sweet-tempered Ginsberg spoke rapidly with a New York accent. Born in New Jersey in 1926, he was a Jewish, homosexual, drug-taking Buddhist. Physically unattractive, unathletic and intensely urban, he had been a leading protester against the war in Vietnam. The tough and fiercely competitive Dickey spoke with a Southern drawl. Born in Atlanta in 1923, he was a WASPy, heterosexual, heavy-drinking rationalist. A handsome college athlete and outdoor sportsman, he’d fought in World War II and Korea.

Ginsberg, who looked like Yasser Arafat without the speckled head shawl, had a huge bald dome, blubbery lips, and shaggy beard. Beneath the unkempt appearance, thick horn-rimmed glasses and soft brown eyes was a kindly uncle and holy sage. Dickey, a big bearish man, built like Wallace Stevens and Ted Roethke, had an overwhelming physical presence. About six feet, four inches tall and weighing near 300 pounds, he was a huge whale, beached on the South Carolina coast. On our second meeting his pale blue eyes, broad nose, large, slightly gapped front teeth and jowly face were topped by a strange hair transplant that broke over his skull in a furry wave.

Ginsberg lived in a modest flat in New York’s East Village. Dickey’s flashy suburban spread on a lake outside Columbia, with a big Cadillac in the driveway, was more like an ad executive’s house than a poet’s. Ginsberg was more subtle, Dickey more open. The former shuffled around and chuckled quietly to himself, the latter strutted about and had a convulsive laugh. Allen I associated with incense, Jim with beer. Unlike Yukio Mishima—who said: “I behave normally, but I’m sick inside”—Ginsberg and Dickey were perfectly sound in the head but sometimes carried on like wild men. For these poets, as for Blake, the road to excess led to the palace of wisdom. Ginsberg wrote in the spontaneous, loose, long-lined tradition of Walt Whitman and William Carlos Williams. The more technically skilled Dickey followed the lyrical, meditative line of Emerson and Roethke.

I’d first heard Ginsberg read his poetry, chant mantras, and play the harmonium in Boston in the 1960’s, and I was surprised by how much more dramatic and moving “Howl” and “Kaddish” were when he read them aloud. He was tender on stage with his father, also a poet, in Boulder in the 1970’s. He was still a great performer in Berkeley in the 1990’s; and when I tried to take some English friends up to meet him, I found it impossible to step through the new generation of admirers densely packed on the floor.

I first met Allen in the spring of 1982 when I was teaching English at the University of Colorado (the place where young people go to retire) and he was living in Boulder and teaching poetry at the Buddhist Naropa Institute. The cranes, as they said, “had settled on the lake” and Boulder had become the center of American Buddhism. John Steinbeck’s son was a personal dresser to the Rinpoche (a lesser Dalai Lama), who had recently paralyzed himself by drunkenly driving his car into a store front. The Naropans had also been convulsed by scandal when Bill Merwin’s gorgeous Polynesian girlfriend was molested and nearly raped by the Rinpoche’s followers. Much of this is recounted in Tom Clark’s lively polemical pamphlet The Great Naropa Poetry Wars (1980). When I asked a disciple if, as rumored, the holy man slept with his students, she quickly replied: “He has the smallest prick in Boulder, but makes the most of it.”

Allen himself confided that he did his best teaching while in bed with his students. He came up with the engaging if impractical suggestion that the flakey and free-wheeling Naropa Institute exchange students, courses, and credits with the University of Colorado. It would have been quite amusing to propose this to the strait-laced Board of Regents. Despite his appearance and reputation Ginsberg—Lionel Trilling’s straight-A student at Columbia—was not at all crazy but lucid and intelligent. For all his dabbling in Eastern mysticism, he’d been instinctively right in the 1960’s about the genocidal war in Vietnam and the diabolical machinations of the FBI and CIA. It took Robert McNamara, the secretary of defense, more than 30 years to grasp what Allen knew while the war was raging.

Our first meeting, in May 1982, took place, appropriately enough for two transplanted Easterners, at the New York Delicatessen on Pearl Street in Boulder. Kind, likeable, and easily approachable, Ginsberg did not act like a great man: we both knew who he was. He loved to talk and gave me his full attention. Having published a life of Wyndham Lewis in 1980, I was then pondering a life of Pound—or at least the “good,” early Pound. Since Allen was the only person within 2,000 miles who had ever known Ole Ez, I was eager to talk to him.

Ginsberg had met the thin, springy, sinewy 82-year-old Pound in Venice in October 1967. He found the poet benevolent yet indifferent, impersonal yet attentive. Having said many evil things, Pound had fallen silent and Ginsberg was impressed by his poignant humanity. During their encounter Pound recanted his anti-Semitism and called it a “stupid suburban prejudice.” By contrast, his companion Olga Rudge was rather grand, cultured, sympathetic, intelligent, and Poundcentric. Ginsberg, Pound and Hemingway had the same Italian translator, Fernanda Pivano; and Pound’s follower Robert Duncan also lived in Venice. Ginsberg traced the school of Ez from Duncan, Basil Bunting, and Louis Zukofsky to George Oppen, Charles Reznikoff, and Carl Rakosi. Ginsberg had also visited Celine in 1958, and thus had met the two most notorious anti-Semites in Europe.

Ginsberg was also illuminating about Pound’s politics and poetry. James Angleton, a counter-intelligence agent in Italy during World War II (who also lived in Boulder), had told him that Pound’s infamous cage in Pisa had protected him against the Partisans. I countered that since Pound had been arrested by the Partisans and closely guarded by the American army, the degrading cage wasn’t strictly necessary. Ginsberg thought there had been a benevolent arrangement on both sides, concocted by Eliot, MacLeish, and Saint-Jean Perse, to declare Pound insane so the government wouldn’t have to try and execute him as a traitor. He mentioned that the St. Elizabeth’s psychiatrist E. Fuller Torrey, who had access to Pound’s medical records, had published an article in the November 1981 issue of Psychology Today arguing that the government had wrongly saved a traitor’s life.

We then got on to Pound’s confession that he could not make the Cantos cohere and to whether that meandering museum of a poem had a structural unity. Ginsberg thought it was a discrete, vivid apparition of thought forms, a model of the mind that conveyed, over half a century, the dramatic development of his states of mental consciousness. He compared it to Wordsworth’s Prelude, but said that it had no real literary parallel as intellectual autobiography. The Cantos did not provide an adequate answer to social problems, like usury, that it pretended to consider, but failed only when compared to Pound’s original, ideal conception.

Our talk then drifted on to Lionel Trilling and Randall Jarrell. Ginsberg denied that he had inspired the brilliant and insane Ferdinand Tertan in Trilling’s fine story “Of This Time, of That Place” (1943). Trilling was not a great teacher, like Raymond Weaver and Mark Van Doren, but he’d been kind to Ginsberg and taken a personal interest in his welfare. Jarrell liked Gregory Corso’s poetry and had invited both Corso and Jack Kerouac to stay with him in Washington in 1956 when he was poetry consultant at the Library of Congress. Kerouac later portrayed Jarrell as Varnum Random in Desolation Angels (1965). That afternoon Ginsberg inscribed my copy of Reality Sandwiches: “Talking about Pound, Libraries, Academia and Buddhist gossip.”

In the spring of 1983, between our two formal meetings, I happened to mention to two French professors of English, teaching in our department that year, that Allen lived in Boulder. When they asked if I could introduce them to the poet, who enjoyed a tremendous reputation in Europe, I invited them all to lunch. Allen put on a bit of a show and the French Cartesians loved his outrageous yet congenial looniness. A hearty, though vegetarian trencherman, Allen appreciated the food. Glancing at his watch, he mentioned that his friend Peter Orlovsky, in and out of confinement, had not been well lately and that he had to hurry home to make sure he was all right. I urged him to stay for dessert. My wife had baked, specially for him, a three-foot apple strudel that looked like a curled up, well-fed boa constrictor. Entering the kitchen to inspect, smell and admire it, he announced: “Peter can wait!”

Before leaving Allen presented me with a signed-on-the-label 78-rpm Alekos record of him singing “Birdbrain” and “Sue Your Parents.” He also signed a copy of Howl, drawing a daisy around the “o,” and inscribed Kaddish: “Best wishes to a fellow fanatic writer.”

Our second formal conversation, also in Boulder, took place two years later, on April 13, 1985, while I was editing a book of essays, The Legacy of D.H. Lawrence, published in 1987. Allen had by then moved from Boulder to New York for some intellectual stimulation (notably absent in that village of frantic exercisers) and for closer contacts with editors and publishers. But he was still loyal to the troubled Naropa, taught during its spring week and summer session, and planned to make a Buddhist retreat in the fall. He had recently signed a six-book contract with Harper & Row, which seemed more lucrative than it actually was. Time had emphasized the marketing rather than literary significance, but he was getting only $25,000 a year. Nevertheless, the Harper deal and, later on, the million-dollar sale of his massive personal archive to Stanford, had aroused jealousy rather than jubilation in the poetical ranks.

Ginsberg felt that Lawrence supplemented and reinforced the Williams lineage from Whitman. Lawrence criticized Whitman and rejected the body, but entered into a non-genital “heart relation” with other men. He was a model for specific detail, minute particulars, vivid facts, colorful images, spurts of perception; for awareness, abundance, profusion, dramatic movement, touches of sharp description, use of subjective facts about his own life. Ginsberg admired his rhythm and experiments with open form, his bold pioneering, his making new rules, especially in the animal and flower poems, in “Bat” and “The Ship of Death.” Lawrence seemed wide open and abandoned, but he was also disciplined. He had strong content and was a major innovator. Ginsberg, who shared Gary Snyder’s sense of a mystical, Lawrencean revelation, described how his friend “suddenly realized “everything is alive”—the entire universe is alive. Every sentient being is alive, like myself.”

When writing my life of Robert Frost, I asked Allen if he could tell me anything about him. On Oct. 12, 1994, on the back of an invitation to Snyder’s reading in New York, he wrote: “I never met Robert Frost (though I did meet Robert Francis); have no news of his response to my poetry tho’ I’ve heard anecdotal rumors I’ve forgotten a decade ago; I liked some of his poetry familiar via my father and Untermeyer’s Anthology since the 1930’s; only know what I’ve read in papers re his response to adulation, no first hand knowledge. Don’t remember any W.C. Williams’ remarks. Sorry it’s a blank except for some familiar (dark, they say) texts.”

Allen often spoke of the difference between his mad public image, created by the media, and his real, serious self. Talking to him reminded me of Blake’s Songs of Innocence, especially the closing quatrain of “Holy Thursday” about the multitudes of children:

Now like a mighty wind they raise to heaven the voice of song, Or like harmonious thunderings the seats of heavens among. Beneath them sit the aged men, wise guardians of the poor; Then cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door.

Allen was at once an innocent child and a pity-filled old man.

II

On June 7, 1981, the year before I first met Allen, I arrived in South Carolina to visit with James Dickey. I’d been investigating the death of Randall Jarrell and had just come from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where he’d died. I’d interviewed the police, coroner, and doctors, found Jarrell’s autopsy report, and concluded that he’d committed suicide. I was eager to talk to Dickey about Jarrell and find out what the inner circle knew about his death.

I’d prepared the way by sending him my life of Katherine Mansfield. On May 22, 1981, in the second of his ten letters to me in the 1980’s, he said: “Though I admire her stories very much, I admire her brittle, bitchy, fiery personality a good deal more. I had much rather read her letters, or, I find, read about her, than read her soi-disant “works of art.”“

I knew Dickey was a good athlete and had suggested we play tennis. In the same letter he replied: “I would certainly be very happy if you did bring your tennis racket, for though I never played with Frost and Pound, I did with Roethke and Jarrell, and I could beat them okay, in the old days.” Eager to plug into the poetic tennis tradition and beat the man who claimed to have beaten the highly touted Roethke and Jarrell, I turned up ready for action. Jim, always intensely competitive, questioned me closely about my game and, sensing that I might beat him, declined the challenge.

Instead, he suggested a dart blowing contest and snake hunt in the swamps. The dart competition took place, to my surprise, right in his living room, with the pine knots in the wood above the fireplace as targets. Inspired by the Amazonian headhunters, I held the long blowpipe, exhaled with cyclonic force and hit the bull’s eye on my first shot. Jim was extremely irritated by my absurd beginner’s luck. We never went after the reptiles, but Jim promised, the following month, “to save the snake hunt for another time. In fact, I did catch one two weeks ago down at our beach place: a six-foot water moccasin. But there are plenty more where he came from, and I’ll save one for you!”

Jim had warned me that his second wife, Deborah, would give birth to their first child just before my arrival. When I got there he showed me a local newspaper announcing the birth of Bronwen with the headline “Deliverance” and a photo of the proud 58-year-old father holding up, as Ben Jonson had said, “his best piece of poetry.” On my second visit the following year Bronwen toddled into the room and he heartily boomed out: “Luv ya, honey!” Startled and terrified, she burst into tears and fled the room. Large, and larger than life, the father of two grown sons seemed remote from his own little girl.

I was delighted when Jim offered to read in Colorado for a modest stipend as a special favor to me and looked forward to seeing him again. But when I suggested this to my colleagues in the English Department, they threw up their hands in horror. His previous visit (before my time) had been a complete disaster. Living up to his reputation as a wild poet, he’d been drunk, lecherous, and out of control—breaking up furniture, parties, and marriages.

At home and now married again (to a much younger wife), Jim was sober and fully in command, kind, and extremely hospitable. He’d come up to Vanderbilt (he said) when Jarrell was still the prototype of the brilliant, promising poet. When he first met Jarrell in 1961, he was taken aback by his appearance, which did not match his high hopes. Looking much older than 47, he was fragile and unathletic, with parchmenty eyelids. The writer Peter Taylor, a close friend of Jarrell, had told Dickey that Jarrell, just before killing himself, had slashed his wrists and was being treated as an out-patient at a Chapel Hill hospital to rehabilitate the movement of his hands. Dickey believed that Jarrell’s suicide was not caused by a failure of poetic power, but by his inability to achieve his impossible goals. He felt Jarrell had been a pampered literary genius, coddled by the top Southern literary establishment—Ransom, Tate, and Warren—who acknowledged his great gifts very early in his career. Jarrell’s ambition was to recreate the human sensibility. Tormented in middle age by his sense of failure, he became depressed and killed himself.

In September 1982, after I’d published my essay “The Death of Randall Jarrell” in the summer issue of The Virginia Quarterly Review, Dickey, who’d confirmed my discoveries, wrote: “I’m not sure how all this makes me feel, because Randall’s example is so strong in my thinking and responding to things that it is a shock to me—this late, even—to find that, yes, it is true: he did throw all that away—all that sensibility, all that intelligence, all that responsiveness. Even at this late date it is too dreadful to believe.” Though Dickey praised Jarrell, he ran down the rest of the manic poets: “Believe me, Randall was the best of them, except at the thing they all wanted so desperately to do, which was to write memorable and “significant” poetry. I don’t think there is really much of this in all of them put together. Berryman is almost completely ersatz, so deliberately mannered and affected that one feels one is encountering some tasteless and self-deluding put-on. I don’t think Delmore ever said one single phrase of real poetry, and Lowell seems less and less good the more books of his later period that show up. And of course Elizabeth Bishop is no good. She was part of that clique, and when Randall, her great champion, died, and then Lowell after him, she evaporated very quickly.” Dickey was right about Schwartz and saw the weaknesses in Berryman. Though Lowell’s late books show a decline from his earlier work, his reputation, like Bishop’s, is now stronger than ever.

On Dec. 29, 1982, on the way to Key West to do research for a life of Hemingway, I stopped again to see Jim in South Carolina. At our second meeting he was very different and much less appealing. Strangely preoccupied and distracted, he exclaimed how glad he was to see me while remaining curiously disengaged from our conversation. I was struck by the contrast between his affable, generous, even courtly self in letters and on the phone and, when the veneer of Southern politeness was stripped off, his aggressive boastfulness in person.

Dickey was highly critical of Hemingway and the mad poets, like Roethke and Jarrell, who had exposed their weakness by losing self-discipline, and by succumbing to physical and mental illness. He blamed Hemingway for needing his harmful shock treatments and said he killed himself because he couldn’t write any more. Dickey disliked Roethke and Jarrell for demanding special consideration, delicate handling and sensitive care—for making excuses, in other words, for faults in their art.

On this occasion, like a cornered buccaneer, Jim angrily cut and slashed his way through the literary world. He said Pound was a swamp that one could sink in, and strongly disagreed when I praised Ginsberg’s intellect. He scorned and pitied Mailer, dismissing him as a pathetic exhibitionist. He disliked poets in groups and sneered at politically biased poetry about the death of President Kennedy or the liberation of El Salvador. He didn’t read contemporary poetry and knew of no younger poets he could praise. Ungenerous that day about everyone but himself, he seemed overcome by egotism.

He rather defensively remarked that he taught courses at the University of South Carolina in modern poetry and the teaching of poetry to give the bumpkins some sense of the poets he liked. One of his former students had made the film Southern Comfort (1981), a blatant rip-off of Deliverance, another had worked on movies with Bruce Lee and about aliens. He also mentioned his recent work: Jericho (1974), a coffee table book about the old South for a Birmingham publisher; Night Hurdling (out in 1983), a book of essays; and reprints of the Anchor paperback editions of his poetry by Wesleyan University Press.

We then talked about Deliverance (1970). He first wrote the hill climbing scene, then saw the possibility of a novel and worked out the rest from about 1962 to 1969, writing hard to finish during the last three months. He loved the richly detailed novels of Dickens and Tolstoy, and was now working on a big World War II novel, part of which was published as “Cahill is Blind” in the February 1976 issue of Esquire.(When the dreadfully titled Alnilam finally appeared in 1987, it was a complete flop.)

He conceded that Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” was the best short story ever written, but felt that Hemingway was limited by a single style which he had mastered and never could surpass. He claimed that Deliverance was not influenced by Conrad, Faulkner, or Hemingway and, in another burst of hubris, insisted that it was better than Heart of Darkness or anything that Hemingway ever did.

Dickey wrote the screenplay of his novel, acted the sheriff, and played the banjo in the film version, but he didn’t get credit for playing because he wasn’t in the musicians’ union. Inscribing his books with a graceful, loopy handwriting and a long, snakelike final “y” in Jeffrey and Dickey, he wrote in Deliverance: “these feathers, arrows and waters.” In the screenplay of the novel (sent to me as promised), he emphasized the difference between what he originally wrote and what came out in the movie: “these rivers and arrows, in the real film.”

Mentioning a fee of half a million dollars for his television film script of Jack London’s The Call of the Wild (completed in 1976), Dickey said the movie people paid well, but wanted control and unreasonable changes. Except for the screenplay of his forthcoming war novel, he’d never write for films again. In March 1989, two years after the novel appeared, he wrote me: “I have just finished the screenplay for the film version of my novel Alnilam, and we will start shooting next fall, if my director, John Guillermin, gets the cast he wants by that time.” This movie, like so many Hollywood projects, has not yet been made.

Always encouraging about my own work, Jim seemed to like and admire biographies. He praised A Fever at the Core and my life of Wyndham Lewis, and offered to help me get jobs and grants. Keeping his word, in September 1982 he successfully recommended me for an American Council of Learned Societies award. He generously provided a blurb for my life of Hemingway and when my biography of Edgar Poe appeared in 1992, he said: “Poe haunts the upper mind as an exalted and radiant justification of logic; and the unconscious as an obsession. Jeffrey Meyers shows us how, why and where these things go, and are going. God help us. But for Poe, we would never have known.”

Our conversation had ranged over biography and its purpose, and as I was leaving he sweetly called me “an investigative reporter of the spirit.” Then, realizing it was a bright phrase, warned “Don’t let that one get away!” and urged me to write it down at once. The last, deeply moving line in his last letter to me was: “Please understand that you have my sincerest admiration and friendship. Keep in touch.” Though gratified by Jim’s friendship and good opinion, I was troubled by what seemed a descent into blustering megalomania. His bravado appeared to mask, at least in the 1980’s, a deep-rooted insecurity, which recalled a crucial passage in his appreciative essay on Roethke: “Why all this insistence on being the best, the acknowledged best, the written-up best?. . . And why the really appalling pettiness about other writers, like Lowell, who were not poets to him, but rivals merely? . . . His broad, boyish face had an expression of constant bewilderment and betrayal, a continuing agony of doubt.”

Since I didn’t return to South Carolina and Jim was banned in Boulder, we didn’t meet again. But we kept in touch by mail and phone. Creating a Roethkean persona of a poet who hung around with tough guys and was pretty tough himself, he described putting down Helen Vendler, that book-burning Savonarola of criticism, when they both had received honorary degrees at Kenyon College. He wrote that she’d knocked on his hotel room door and asked: “”Is this your academic hood?” Rising, unshaven and very sweaty, but, I hope, grave, gracious and relaxed, I replied, “Madam, I am the academic hood.”“

In September 1993, after an appallingly obtuse review of his last, marvelous novel, To the White Sea, had appeared in the New York Times Book Review, Jim phoned to ask if I’d sharpen my pen and reply to it. I wrote, in a letter too severe to be published, that “the obscure reviewer admitted he neither understood the meaning of Dickey’s lyrical, witty and dramatic novel nor how the hero achieved transcendence through a mystical identification with nature. The protagonist is not meant to be a pleasant fellow or virtuous man. He’s an expertly trained, self-reliant and necessarily ruthless survivor— like the heroes of Heart of Darkness and The Call of the Wild.

If Allen recalled Blake’s holy innocents, the broad and boyish-faced Jim seemed like Hopkins’ boisterous, conflicted Felix Randall:

Who have watched his mould of man, big-boned and hardy-handsome

Pining, pining, till time when reason rambled in it and some Fatal four disorders, fleshed there, all contended?

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