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Eliot Katz: Ginsberg and the NY Times article on the Beats & the Tea Party

Boulder Graffiti: Allen Ginsberg

Image by DanAllison via Flickr

Dear Friends (who were also friends of Allen’s):

In the October 10th New York Times Book Review, there was an article by Lee Siegel comparing the views of Beat Generation writers, including Allen’s, to the right-wing Tea Party movement. I wrote a letter to the Book Review editor in response because I thought it was important to challenge Siegel’s misrepresentations, particularly with the elections coming up and with so many crazy Tea Party candidates running.  Of course, it’s difficult to get letters to the editor published in the NY Times (although I have managed to get in a few in the past) because they receive so many more letters than they can publish. Since I just found out that this one isn’t going to get in there, I thought I would at least send it around to friends who were also friends of Allen’s, in the hope that some of you might appreciate it.

With all best wishes,

Eliot Katz.

[Unpublished letter to the NY Times Book Review Editor by Eliot Katz:]

To the Editor:

As a poet, activist, and longtime friend of the late Allen Ginsberg, I wanted to challenge the characterization of Ginsberg’s political views and work in Lee Siegel’s provocative article, “The Beat Generation and the Tea Party” (Oct. 10).  Introducing his piece with the claim that the Beat Generation writers were driven mainly by a desire for individual freedom, Siegel writes that they were “essentially apolitical” and that “insofar as they had sociopolitical ambitions, their goals…were the stuff of poetry, not organized politics.” After portraying Ginsberg as uninterested in working practically to improve government policies, Siegel then proceeds to link the ideas of Ginsberg and other Beat Generation writers to the right-wing Tea Party’s project of downsizing government’s role in ensuring people’s social and economic needs and rights.

Allen Ginsberg in Anti-War Demonstration  (Col...

Allen Ginsberg in Anti-War Demonstration

Siegel’s portrayal of Ginsberg as uninterested in organized politics could hardly be more misleading. In both his poetry and his life, Ginsberg was one of the most politically engaged writers of his era. Influenced by such literary predecessors as William Blake and Walt Whitman, and raised by his communist mother Naomi, and his Debsian-socialist father Louis, Allen Ginsberg learned how to turn his political ideas and observations into some of the most memorable and widely read poetry of the second half of the 20th century.  And in his personal life, he actively supported and participated in a wide range of organized political movements, beginning with the movement to end the Vietnam War and, in ensuing years, movements for such progressive causes as gay rights, civil rights, environmental protection, nuclear disarmament, and avoidance of the first Gulf War in 1990-91. He served on the advisory board of numerous organizations, including the progressive media watch group, Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), and a national student activist group that I worked with during the late 1980s and early 1990s, Student Action Union. In the years that I knew Ginsberg, from 1980 until his death in 1997, he was constantly writing or calling government offices to advocate for improved social policies and urging younger writers like myself to do the same. Most of the policies for which Ginsberg advocated—such as stronger social safety nets for homeless persons; deep cuts in military spending; and a more active government role in protecting civil rights, human rights, and the environment—do not at all resemble the right-wing policy calls that we have been hearing from Tea Party circles and candidates.

david dellinger

As Siegel notes, Ginsberg certainly believed strongly in individual freedoms, including freedom of expression; and he was a hard-working member of PEN’s Freedom to Write Committee, protesting literary censorship and working for the release of imprisoned writers in both the East and West. But contrary to Siegel’s narrow portrayal, Ginsberg also believed deeply in the importance of solidarity and well understood the reality of human interdependence. In his most well-known poem, note for example the key third section of “Howl” with its repeated assertion to fellow writer, Carl Solomon, who was at the time in a psychiatric hospital, that “I’m with you in Rockland”–an expression of interpersonal solidarity that works in the poem as a tonic to the sense of alienation decried in the poem’s previous and politically charged “Moloch” section, and that, beyond the poem itself, prefigures the kind of collective effort and movement building that is necessary to create meaningful social change. Throughout his life, Ginsberg was a Great Introducer, consistently trying to bring writers and activists together for the benefit of social-justice causes.  For just one interesting example, it was Ginsberg who introduced Abbie Hoffman and Dave Dellinger to each other, an introduction that would help lead to the historic Chicago 1968 protests outside the Democratic Party convention and the subsequent Chicago 8 trial, in which Hoffman and Dellinger were defendants. Ginsberg kept a comprehensive rolodex of writers, political organizers, and journalists working for both the mainstream and the alternative press, a rolodex which was incredibly helpful in the pre-Internet days to those of us who needed difficult-to-find phone numbers or addresses in order to help organize or publicize upcoming meetings, events, and rallies. In recent years, many of Ginsberg’s old friends and colleagues have been working with coalitions like United for Peace & Justice to call—first from the Bush administration and now from the Obama administration—for an end to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and for a renewed respect for civil liberties and human rights. Again, we have not yet heard such calls coming from the Tea Party.

This was shot @ WTO protests Seattle WA 1999.T...

WTO protests Seattle WA 1999

In looking at Ginsberg’s body of poems over five-plus decades, I have written elsewhere that his political philosophy was flexible and pragmatic, not rigidly ideological, but that his political views were always within a broad spectrum of democratic-left traditions—including a consistent belief in values like civic participation, economic fairness, peace and international cooperation, accountable institutions, ecological protection, and civil liberties and other human rights. Right up until the end of his life, Allen Ginsberg never wavered from his dedication to progressive causes, which is why I think it is so important to challenge this article by Lee Siegel, whose work I have previously read and enjoyed. While it is true that not all of the Beat Generation writers shared the same politics, in the case of Ginsberg (and many of the other writers associated with the Beat Generation), Siegel would have been fairer and more accurate if he had shown how Ginsberg’s legacy continues to be seen in the contemporary and international anti-war movement; in recently increased efforts to urge the government to play a stronger role in halting the  questionable bank-driven housing foreclosures that have led to vastly increasing homelessness in America; and in the global justice movement (as seen most visibly in the Seattle 1999 WTO protests and most recently at the September 2010 G-20 protests in Pittsburgh), with this movement’s effective and theatrical demonstrations and its poetically phrased insistence that “another world is possible.”

Eliot Katz

Astoria, NY

Eliot Katz

Eliot Katz

Eliot Katz is the author of six poetry books, including Unlocking the Exits, and, most recently, Love, War, Fire, Wind: Looking Out from North America’s Skull. He has published several essays on Allen Ginsberg’s poetry and is a coeditor, with Ginsberg and Andy Clausen, ofPoems for the Nation, a collection of contemporary political poems that Ginsberg was compiling in the year and a half before his death. Katz currently works as a writer for the Center for Constitutional Rights.

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