I Have a Conversation with Allen Ginsberg

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Memoir  |  House: Booksie Classic
It's an account of a conversation I had with Allen Ginsberg about poet William Everson.

Submitted: July 22, 2014

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Submitted: July 22, 2014

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The poet William Everson was a close friend of mine and a mentor for about 20 years, dating from the first time I dropped into his office hours at UC Santa Cruz, after having taken his course "Birth of a Poet"...

 

I used to visit him at his cabin in Kingfisher Flat, just north of Santa Cruz, California, where he would counsel me on how to navigate whatever the personal difficulty I was having at the time was. He was the best counselor I have ever had, having been steeped in Jungian thought during his seventeen years as a Dominican monk, and due to the 40 or so years of difference in our ages.

 

As you might imagine, coping with his death was a difficult hurdle for me, as he had been a real source of wisdom and comfort that I had relied on for some time. What is more, he was a kind of benign father figure... He performed the function for me of what Robert Bly calls the “male mother” - an older man who nurtures and supports the growth of a younger man.

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About two years after Bill's death I attended a poetry reading at the Gaia Bookstore in Berkeley given by Allen Ginsberg.

During the question-and-answer period I steeled my nerves and asked the poet, "I wonder what your estimation of William Everson is, since I have heard that he is considered to have been one of the Beat poets."

I was amazed at the vigorous and enthusiastic response this drew from Allen, who asked around to see who had heard of Bill. Virtually no one had.

Allen went on to give the people assembled there a quick rundown of Bill's career as a California poet and his seminal role as one of the founding members of the San Francisco Renaissance. His admiration was obvious, which was very gratifying to me indeed!

He said words to the effect that, "Without the ground-breaking work done by Bill and Kenneth Rexroth here in the Bay Area, we, who were just visitors really, could never have accomplished what we did... He was a kind of father to us at the time."

I was elated, because the risk I had taken had paid off. In my wildest dreams I wouldn't have expected the paean my question had produced. After all, Ginsberg could have just dismissed my question with a curt “Oh yes, I remember him. Much too Catholic for my taste”. But there was no disapproval or dismissal of either Bill or of my question; on the contrary, he seemed pleasantly surprised to be reminded of someone he had held dear, and launched into his mini-lecture with all the verve he customarily injects into his poetry and the reading thereof.

Sometimes I chide myself for just dropping names to talk to the famous. On the other hand, there was no other way I would ever have been able to find out what Allen Ginsberg's impression and estimate of Bill was, and that is an important datum in my world-view and sense of the way our culture is unfolding... so I’m glad I asked that question, because I know something I otherwise wouldn’t know - that Allen Ginsberg, whom many consider the supreme American poet of the latter half of the 20th century, shared my esteem for my friend. Which confirms my sense that Bill Everson is an overlooked diamond in the rough, a secret treasure, and his work may yet blossom.

I like to think that in the course of time, Bill’s fame will increase, as his work is gradually discovered to have timeless value, like that of other artists who were underappreciated in their own lifetimes. I hope, too, that in time Carl Jung’s psychology will gain ascendancy over others whose fame was more immediate and sensational, and for the same reason... But I am straying from my account, my account of that momentous encounter...

 

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At the time of Ginsberg’s reading I was planning to visit Bill's grave, which is at the Dominican cemetery in Benicia, for the first time.

When my turn to speak personally with Allen came (having stood in line as others spoke with him and got his autograph, with - to add a somewhat bizarre element to the moment - the hippie clown Wavy Gravy standing behind Allen, presiding silently as one admirer after another had his personal moment with Allen Ginsberg. What the purpose of his presence was is a mystery to me), I told the author of Howl about how important Bill had been to me as a friend and mentor, and that I was planning to visit Bill's grave.

As I stood there I heard my inner commentator say, “I’m talking to Allen Ginsberg! How cool is this! Wow!! (and what the hell is Wavy Gravy doing here?)”, and, from the face I was looking into, gentle eyes looked inquiringly and compassionately into mine as the poet very sincerely asked me to "Say a prayer for me too when you're at his graveside."

Some days later I did go on my pilgrimage to say a final farewell to my friend, and carried out in my own way the task Allen Ginsberg had charged me with.

The synchronistic and in a way amazing denouement of this story came only a few weeks later, when I heard that Allen Ginsberg himself had passed away...


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