Books: Mainstreaming Allen Ginsberg

Pushing 60, the poet has a six-figure contract

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The initial and most important volume went on sale last month. Collected Poems 1947-1980 (Harper & Row; $27.50) is arranged chronologically, covering the author's days as a Columbia College student, a West Coast beatnik, sexual experimenter, war protester, world traveler and Buddhist. Ginsberg's style harks back to the tradition of popular speech, jazz rhythms and strong imagery. The energy never flags, but the quality is wildly uneven. There are love poems that read like high parodies of rest-room scrawl. Howl, once effective as counterculture manifesto, is now an unconvincing historical oddity: "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness." But Kaddish, about Ginsberg's insane mother, who died in 1956, is a masterpiece of candor and emotional persuasion: "The Charity of her hands stinking with Manhattan, madness, desire to please me, cold undercooked fish--pale red near the bones. Her smells--and oft naked in the room, so that I stare ahead, or turn a book ignoring her."

Collected Poems is only the first step in drawing Ginsberg to mainstream publishing and ratifying his presence between hard covers. His $160,000 contract with Harper calls for five more volumes: journals, future poetry, essays and interviews, and letters. There is also a biography of him in the works and a documentary funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. Ginsberg's own visual contributions are 30 years' worth of snapshots of his literary friends. A selection, including the faces of William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso and Peter Orlovsky, was recently on display in a Manhattan gallery.

The surviving "hideous human angels," as Ginsberg calls them, keep in touch. Orlovsky, a former lover and longtime companion, lives across the hall. The Ginsberg apartment is a popular rest stop for old companions passing through New York: "I like to keep the place clean, and it's hard, because I'm not here for months at a time," he says, explaining a sign on his bedroom door that asks guests to remove their shoes. Since 1974 much of his time has been spent at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colo., a college for Buddhist studies where he teaches poetry and perfects his meditation techniques. He maintains his bank account by giving lectures and readings.

At 58, Ginsberg is confronting one of life's simple truths: one cannot step into the same cash flow twice. His annual income rarely exceeds $40,000, yet for years he has contributed funds to help impoverished friends and artists. "I have some power and money," he says, "but I don't know if I can keep it up much longer. I'm getting too old to run around. I need somewhere I can die in peace." His choice would be a large loft where he could have a Buddhist shrine room and space to organize the books, papers and projects that relentlessly pile up around him. Columbia University receives 20 boxes a year for its Ginsberg archives.

It requires vision and careful work to make a life, let alone leave a literary legacy. This follower in Whitman's footsteps has shown that he is capable of both. One can see it in his eyes: one wide and innocent, gazing at eternity; the other narrowed and scrutinizing, looking for his market share.

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