A few years ago, I brought a group of poetry students to Stanford University’s library to see the archive of Allen Ginsberg’s work. The iconic Beat poet had left a large collection of papers, photographs, and artifacts, and the curator had selected a dozen gems for us. There was one item that my students remembered far more than all the others: a plastic bag containing Ginsberg’s beard. Apparently, in his heyday, when asked for donations, the poet would shear his facial growth, and have it auctioned off by charities, for substantial sums.
In both his life and poetry, Ginsberg thrived on blurring the lines between deeply private and public, often at the edge of exhibitionism. This is, perhaps, at its most striking in the recently published Iron Curtain Journals: January-May 1965, edited and expertly annotated by Michael Schumacher.
“In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could to any person; I create myself,” wrote the American essayist and philosopher Susan Sontag. Allen Ginsberg might have agreed, but with a qualification: In his journals, he doesn’t create an isolated self, but the self at the nexus of poetry, politics, and global history. And because in this diary Ginsberg documents his journeys through Cuba, Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union, and Poland, this self, generated in a supposedly private kind of writing, comes to a scrutiny of totalitarian authority, and eventually turns into the cause of Ginsberg’s expulsion from behind the Iron Curtain.
By 1965, Allen Ginsberg was in his peak moment. Publication and notoriety of his works “Howl” and “Kaddish” had established his reputation as a major American poet and innovator. A very public obscenity trial, which he and his publisher, City Lights, won, broke down the doors of censorship and proposed a new kind of writing and thinking. Yet, even as Ginsberg the narrator of his poems was committed to a wild and celebratory liberation of the mind, psyche, and libido, in reality, the poet was entirely pragmatic in his shrewd attempts to document the rise of the Beat movement. He kept meticulous records of his correspondence, took loads of photos, and tirelessly advocated for the work of his friends. And then there were the journals. At the heart of Beat poetry was a cathartic, improvisational, and confessional soul-baring—and so it is not surprising that Ginsberg’s journals are excitingly readable. They are inflected with the same aesthetic and literary qualities as Ginsberg’s poetry.
Early in his Cuban journals, the poet describes an encounter in a local café, where a waitress, tardy in bringing the soup to one of the patrons, apologizes for the delay. The offended patron blows up: “I didn’t fight for Cuba Libre revolution for this kind of lousy service,” escalating it further to “this is not a revolutionary soup!!” Traveling behind the Iron Curtain, Ginsberg dreams of finding a better world than his own but very quickly discovers not only the absurdly overcooked “revolutionary soup,” but a repressive, totalitarian system.
In Cuba, in interviews and public appearances, he admonishes the government for the mistreatment of gay people and for its strict laws around drug use, going as far as stating “Why not end capital punishment, suggesting Magic Mushrooms and job as elevator men Havana Riviera Hotel as sufficient treatment for bomb throwers.” Perhaps, in his naiveté, Ginsberg imagined himself a sympathetic pro-revolution poet-prophet, coming to speak his mind and help fix a few small issues with Communism. Reality strikes when some of his new Cuban acquaintances are arrested—likely for their involvement with him. At that point, he writes, “Paranoia and reality identical at last,” and in his journals he begins to use initials rather than full names, to protect the identities of his friends and sexual partners.
One can understand the concern: The diary is, at times, not just graphic, but quite meticulous in its descriptions of Ginsberg’s sexual explorations—those performed with other men, but also auto-erotic experiences, and scenes from his dreams. In a particularly memorable entry, the poet describes a dream in which he makes love to Fidel Castro. Before long, Ginsberg is escorted out of the country for violations of Cuban laws. It is thus that he finds himself in Prague.
All through the journals, Ginsberg remains steadfast in his resolve to advocate for the causes that are of utmost importance to him. At one point, he documents a fellow poet, jokingly describing Ginsberg as a cartoon character holding up two banners reading “Marijuana” and “Homosexuality.” To which Ginsberg responds, “I beg your pardon. Consciousness and sexuality.” He continues engaging with both of these issues in Cuba and Eastern Europe, and often broods about negative reception of his activism. It is curious that Ginsberg does not seem to agonize, or even notice Cuba’s institutional racism, or Soviet anti-Semitism. Moreover, later, when he travels through Poland and makes a stop in Auschwitz, his diary is terse and distracted about the subject.
Equally surprising is the minimal attention given to poetics. Poets tend to contemplate the nature of poetry and agonize about its definitions. Ginsberg, however, is almost programmatic, briefly summing up his lectures with the same references to other Beats, Buddhist breathing techniques, and William Carlos Williams. It is as if the search for a poetic self is over: Instead, the journals are filled with detailed descriptions of parties, conversations, anecdotes, gossip, and political opinions. The actual poets and artists seem to interest Ginsberg far more than their poetics and aesthetics. It is as if the poetry he seeks to discover is now in the actual human connection to these artists.
The journals make clear that the trip to the USSR is a lifelong dream for Ginsberg. Both of his parents were Russian Jews. And, as he wrote in various poems, his mother was a communist, whose views influenced the poet’s own politics a great deal. Moreover, some of his cousins, disenchanted by life in the United States, returned to Russia out of ideological considerations. Thus, traveling to Moscow was a homecoming of a sort for Ginsberg. He jots down:
My Slavic Soul, we are coming home again—
Once more on Red Square by Kremlin wall
in the snow to sit and write Prophesy
Prince-Comrades of Russia, I have
come from America to lay my beard
at your beautiful feet!
Entering Russia, Ginsberg is interested in everything he sees—stimulated by beauty as well as ugliness: “Like the worst of New Jersey on a cold winter white day filed with frost and smog.” The more time he spends in Russia, the more he is mystified and puzzled, summing up his confusion with these pithy lines:
Red Square, you powerful,
you robot machine,
Standing still at the gate
of Asia, Doorway into
Flytrap of poets, idiot Bangkok
Fuck you, who the fuck are you?
What was it about the Soviet Union that appealed to Ginsberg? What was it that caused him to contemplate Moscow as “This place that thinks it is in the / center of Eternity”? He does not say. But as any reader of Ginsberg’s work knows, his idea of “Eternity” is inseparable from poetry. And so, perhaps, what made the most intense impression on Ginsberg was the role poetry played in Russia and the status that was allotted to the poets. At one point, he records a conversation with a major young poet of the time, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, who recalls giving a reading to a live audience of 14,000 and being published in a magazine with a circulation of one million. To Ginsberg, as to any American poet, these numbers are unthinkable—such reverence for poetry had never taken root in America. One may recall what Soviet poet Osip Mandelstam wrote, not long before being executed by Stalin’s functionaries: “Poetry is respected only in this country—people kill for it. There’s no place where more people are killed for it.”
Ginsberg struggles to remain empathetic even as he questions censorship and repression. He tries to understand those that buy into the dream of the Communist revolution. For instance, he records being told by one of his friends that Russia is “a country, the biggest in the world, old slavery, they’re used to slavery and the psychology of the people hasn’t changed yet—Lenin never foresaw this, never understood this problem—the Plan was in his head, it was theoretical—it was an idea to begin, to try—meanwhile we suffer for our mistakes,” adding that “Socialism in Russia is only 40 years old, a baby, the first steps, each little step is an experiment.”
Eventually, the poet leaves the Soviet Union and makes his way back to Prague. There, he is briefly crowned as “The King of May” in a traditional folk celebration, and promptly thereafter evicted from the country, after officials find, investigate, and ultimately confiscate his journals. (Schumacher clarifies they may have been stolen. Either way, they are not included in the present edition.)
From the journals’ unfiltered writing there emerges a poet-activist-provocateur. And yet there are quiet, contemplative moments, too. In one such entry, Ginsberg writes: “On this planet, I haven’t got much time—combing my hair in the mirror saw the spreading fields of white in my beard; never noticed so close before. That’s one thing beards are good for.” It takes a poet to imagine the beard, charitable as his was, as the locus of one’s mortality.
Read more of Jake Marmer’s Tablet magazine essays on poetry here.