Throwback Thursday: Disembodied Poetics and Pot with Allen Ginsberg


Allen Ginsberg Et Al

I met Allen Ginsberg in the mid-‘70s, when he was living and teaching in Boulder, Colorado, at the Naropa Institute’s Jack Kerouac School for Disembodied Poetics. Boulder became not only famous for bike racing and mountaineering, but poetry. The beats had invaded, along with their student followers.

I was working in a bookstore on the Hill and he and his followers frequently visited to buy books. I helped him numerous times with special orders and the location of certain books he eventually bought. Often, William S. Burroughs accompanied him. The two made quite the pair, Allen with his secondhand, threadbare sport coat and beads, Burroughs with his fedora and, dressed from what I can remember, a suit, both of whom, smelling like a weed field gone up in smoke, seemed to stir the dusty voices of dead authors ensconced on the shelves lining the three-story bookstore. Disembodied poetics and pot.

Letters to Yesenin

Speak to me, dear poet, from the other side, the written word will never die. All the book burning and banning in this world by those with small minds will not take the dead and their words away. They always find a way back to open minds. Jim Harrison’s “Letters To Yesenin,” written in 1973, amplifies this. Harrison steps into transcendence by writing to the dead Russian poet Sergey Aleksandrovich Yesenin. Harrison is depressed and thinking of committing suicide. In December 1925, Yesenin hung himself and wrote the last lines of his last poem in his own blood. Yet Yesenin is not dead. His spirit and poems are alive. The act of Jim Harrison writing Yesenin helps him go on living. Yesenin is disembodied, speaking to those of us living in this corporeal world, those of us opening one of his books and reading him, listening to his voice lift off from the page. Coming alive from the Beyond.

Garp the Poet Snake

I had a pet boa constrictor (referenced in an earlier blog), a Rainbow Boa from the Amazon that the owner of the store allowed me to keep on the premises in a terrarium on a window ledge on the second floor where we housed the books of Eastern religion and meditation. Often I’d let the snake cuddle with Mon Cul, my big black lab, on a lush oriental rug under the watchful spirit of all those books of philosophy. The owner and I agreed as we tokied a mokie on the roof of the store: the snake was a nice touch.

I named him Garp after John Irving’s “The World According to Garp.” I imagined him a serpent like the one in the Bible, who snookered Adam and Eve with the power of knowledge. Except the apples in the bookstore were weed-filled blunts that gave us another kind of knowledge. I surmised, while I was flying on a good high, that Garp was convening with the dead poets after midnight when the store was closed. Garp always looked smug in the morning when I opened as though he had gained something I could never attain. I liked to imagine, in a flight of marijuanied fancy, that he had met many of the famous poets that had lived down through the ages and somehow he had got to know them intimately. The poet snake talking to Shakespeare, Milton, Elizabeth Bishop, E.E. Cummings or even Ginsberg, though he wasn’t dead at the time.

But, of course, I was stoned and didn’t know any better. That, or I knew too much that was good for me. Garp would look at me, his tongue flicking in and out, and I could hear him speaking to me. That, or he was asking me to be fed. Yeah, that’s the late ‘60s or early ‘70s for you. I rang up customers at the front desk with the snake wrapped around my neck and shoulders. Garp was a handsome addition to the store (I wore him like a scarf), even if he was a little creepy, talking to the dead like he did late at night and, they in turn, responding to him. After midnight.

Clarity Washed Away with a Mind Bath

Allen and his cohorts never flinched (like many customers who refused to approach the front desk) when seeing Garp wrapped around my shoulders. Someone, I forget who it was, said I should have named him Eden. I’d be drinking a glass of Gallo Paisano Red from a jug under the front desk. I always offered wine to certain customers, except when the cops came in, under the pretext to buy books. Of course, I always knew when they’d show up. I had plenty of time to stash the stash. Sometimes, someone in Allen’s party would slip me a joint in return for a glass of the red. Never turn in a high for the sake of clarity. Clarity is overrated. Sometimes, you have to be free, let yourself go, talk to the dead, see where you end up. A nice fat blunt will help you on your way. That or a glass of cheap red to wash the smoke down. Give your mind a bath and let it shine.

I’d often go to parties where Allen and his friends, students and writers, showed up, too. The parties were loud and full of drinking cheap beer or whiskey and smoking all kinds of good and bad weed. Allen and his crowd stood out from the rest of us lowlanders. Allen held court squarely in the center of the festivities. There were always people crowding around him. Allen was good to listen to. I always hung out on the side, never inside the crowd, a lifetime habit. He had ideas, good ones and wild ones, throwing them around like bombshells lighting up the night. He was exciting to listen to and he inspired me. There really was no such thing as small talk, at least in these public, private gatherings. And the more he puffed away the wilder his talk became, until I had to bow out and seek silence. It seemed he was the sole reason for the party in the first place.

Ginsberg the Pot Pioneer

Allen was probably more responsible for the explosion of the psychedelic ‘60s. He advocated for the legalization of marijuana, fighting for it politically and culturally. Being there with these beats gave me comfort that we’d all find a way and that someday we’d see it decriminalized. Still, it would be a matter of time, many, many years later, when pot would be legalized. But if it hadn’t been for Allen and his crew pushing weed into our consciousness, I believe it would have taken longer. Yes, he had an effect on the political climate, good or bad, whichever side you were on, right or left. Still, he was a force for good.

Out of the Grave and into the Light

I remember Allen sitting on the floor in the lotus position in a corner with adoring acolytes seated around him, which I thought, at the time, beneath me. He was passing a joint around and expostulating about politics and poetry, about pot and how it was freeing his mind and how the people would take to the streets and overthrow the status quo. With Gregory Corso sitting beside him and Burroughs kneeling on the other side, they went on and on, their conversation lifting dead poets out of the grave. 

Disembodied Poetics and Pot

If you were to let your imagination run rampant and, if you were stoned out of your mind to become disembodied yourself, you’d be able to join with a host of famous poets, masters like Keats, Bishop, Rilke, E.E. Cummings, Dickinson or Whitman standing against the wall behind Ginsberg. You’d hear their words in their own voices, strung together like illuminated pearls lighting up the dark. Then, as you blinked, they’d vanish, these men and women, their bodies blending with the smoky, weed-infused air, promises still ringing in your ears. Disembodied poetics and pot. What a combination.


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