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Ginsberg's Era Should Not Be Forgotten

Column by Stacey E. Blau
Opinion Editor

Since Allen Ginsberg's death on Saturday, I've been thinking a lot about him. I've been going through newspapers to see the obituaries written about Ginsberg and looking at the things his friends and others have to say about him. I leafed through my City Lights copy of Howl and Other Poems, his most famous collection of poems, because I realized on Saturday, much to my surprise, that it had probably been more than a year or two since I had last read the poems of one of my favorite poets.

What I discovered from Ginsberg's poems is that he was an even better poet than I had thought, although probably the new things I saw in his poems were because I see more as I grow older. Even so, what I had always found with Ginsberg's poems remained true. His poems - even with their themes of drugs, insanity, aimless traveling, communism, and sex - have a tremendous appeal that extends quite beyond their specific subject matter.

That said, Ginsberg is still in large part the man who very explicitly opened up these topics as legitimate areas for exploration in poetry and other art. He and the rest of the Beats did so starting in the 1950s, a decade not exactly characterized by its embrace of matters beyond those discussed in polite company. Ginsberg's politics (communist), his sexuality (homosexual), and his drug use (quite substantial) were not exactly topics for conversation - let alone poetry - in the 1950s world of the Cleaver family.

Yet it seemed to me in many of the articles that I read about Ginsberg that people have forgotten about these things or at least don't think they matter much anymore. In particular, the picture many young people paint of the Beats is a rather unfavorable one. One story in The New York Times had a quote from a young woman living in the East Village in New York City - where Ginsberg lived, too - saying that the Beats really didn't speak to her and her generation anymore. Ginsberg's and other Beats' work, she said, characterize the excesses of the 1960s that we'd probably all be better off forgetting.

In a way, she is right. Many of the Beats did a lot of drugs, including Ginsberg. Alcohol killed Jack Kerouac, and certainly by now we would have expected that heroin would have killed William S. Burroughs (who, at over 80, has fortunately been off junk for a while). Ginsberg got away relatively unscathed by drugs, but many of the others he knew did not. The best minds of Ginsberg's generation, "destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked looking at dawn for an angry fix," as he describes them in the first few lines of "Howl," are probably among them.

But dismissing Ginsberg and the Beats as a bad sign of the excesses of the 1960s is a mistake. In fact, one of the Beats' lasting contributions perhaps ironically stems precisely from the apparently outrageous lives young people these days criticize them for. One example is Ginsberg's and other Beats' public avowal of their homosexuality. Some of them were way out of the closet 40 years ago when practically no one else was. There can be no doubt that their public homosexuality made coming out more acceptable for others in a very closeted era. More generally, the "alternative lifestyles" the Beats led (back when parents locked their children away for aberrant behavior that is now considered simply part of being young) helped make acceptable the far more commonplace alternative lives teenagers and twentysomethings live today.

It seems like people forget what life used to be like during the 1960s and 1970s or don't want to believe it. (Of course, for someone 20 years old like me, you have to read or ask your parents about it). But the more I find out about 1960s and 1970s, the more I am amazed at the instability that ran throughout them. Those two decades were characterized heavily by things like war, protests, assassinations, the resignation of a president - and rock music, drugs, and the sexual revolution.

Yes, some of the reaction to the state of world during that period was excess. But it was also a very special time for politics, art, and mainly youth, and it was almost entirely unprecedented for the United States. It seems a shame that people don't want to remember the artists who gave a voice to those times. It is especially irritating to watch young people these days with far more fashionable and substanceless versions of alternative lifestyles that they in many ways owe to the Beat generation.

The other side to those hip, young lives the Beats led is the activism that was a big part of many of their lives. I don't pretend that they were all righteous activists back then or that no one is today. But it doesn't take much to see just how much some urgency-like thing is absent from young people and the world today. And it doesn't seem like shunting aside the memory of people like Ginsberg and of life 30 years ago is doing good much to change it.

Stacey E. Blau is a junior majoring in mathematics with computer science.