"The first thing is to straighten your spine," says Allen Ginsberg, as he starts his tai chi chuan, the Chinese exercises he recommends for healthful testicles and liver. With arms extended and hands as graceful as cobra heads, he begins the ritual steps, fluidly shifting his weight from one slippered foot to the other. The martial exercise is based on a subtle principle. "The aggressor is off balance," Ginsberg explains. "The person who is nonaggressive is in balance."
This is a fetching idea and one that applies to America's most public poet. Approaching his autumnal years, the man once feared as a weevil in the nation's moral fiber is in a disarming state of equilibrium. Cultural norms have adjusted in Ginsberg's favor since 1956, when he disturbed the peace with Howl. It was a poetic tantrum thrown at the Eisenhower years, at an academic system that rejected his rude unconventionality, at an encompassing conspiracy he imagined had driven his mother and his soul mates crazy. "Moloch! Moloch!" he cried. "Robot apartments! invisible suburbs! skeleton treasuries! blind capitals! demonic industries! spectral nations! invincible madhouses!"
The bearded rebel from Paterson, N.J., also flaunted the subjects of drug use and homosexuality with an explicitness that would have unnerved Walt Whitman, the American bard whose confessional style Ginsberg's most resembles. Yet today, millions of housewives casually tune in to hopheads and gays on The Phil Donahue Show, and Allen Ginsberg is a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters. He is a recipient of fellowships, grants and a National Book Award. He recently returned from a month-long tour of China as guest of the Chinese Writers Association. Once he might have declared the experience groovy. Now he calmly brings the news: "In private the people I spoke with have clear, Mozartian minds. In public they are silent."
Sartorially, Ginsberg meets his fellow citizens halfway: sports jackets, slacks, shirts and ties bought secondhand at the Salvation Army. His $260-a- month apartment in Manhattan's run-down East Village is furnished in Early Struggling Artist: an assortment of old tables and chairs, aging appliances and, for some reason having to do with a previous renovation, a kitchen sink in the living room. The walk-up tenement has no working front bell. To enter, a visitor must call up from the sidewalk and wait for the poet to throw down a key rolled up in a sock.
This charming rite may soon end. Real estate speculators have bought the building, says Ginsberg, and are trying to evict its occupants. The neighborhood, a center for low-income artists, is undergoing gentrification. So, perhaps, is Ginsberg. His earlier works were printed by small presses, notably City Lights Books, Lawrence Ferlinghetti's Beat Generation landmark in San Francisco. Now, for the first time, Ginsberg has an agent and a six-book contract with a major New York publisher.