Allen Ginsberg Talks About Coming Out to His Family & Fellow Poets on 1978 Radio Show (NSFW)

Allen_ginsberg_erads howl

Image by Michiel Hendryckx, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

Recent MacArthur Fel­low and poet Ter­rence Hayes appeared on NPR yes­ter­day to read and dis­cuss his work; he was asked if he found “being defined as an African-Amer­i­can poet” to be lim­it­ing in some way. Hayes replied,

I think it’s a bonus. It’s a thing that makes me addi­tion­al­ly inter­est­ing, is what I would say. So, black poet, South­ern poet, male poet — many of those iden­ti­ties I try to fold into the poems and hope that they enrich them.

It seemed to me an odd ques­tion to ask a MacArthur-win­ning Amer­i­can poet. Issues of both per­son­al and nation­al iden­ti­ty have been cen­tral to Amer­i­can poet­ry at least since Walt Whit­man or Langston Hugh­es, but espe­cial­ly since the 1950s with the emer­gence of con­fes­sion­al and beat poets like Allen Gins­berg. With­out the cel­e­bra­tion of per­son­al iden­ti­ty, one might say that it’s hard to imag­ine Amer­i­can poet­ry.

Like Hayes, Gins­berg enfold­ed his var­i­ous identities—Jew, Bud­dhist, gay man—into his poet­ry in enrich­ing ways. Thir­ty-six years ago, he gave a radio inter­view to “Stonewall Nation,” one of a hand­ful of specif­i­cal­ly gay radio pro­grams broad­cast in 1970s West­ern New York. In an occa­sion­al­ly NSFW con­ver­sa­tion, he dis­cussed the expe­ri­ence of com­ing out to his fel­low Beats and to his fam­i­ly.

  1. Intro­duc­tion (5:21): MP3
  2. On being clos­et­ed (2:09): MP3
  3. Excerpts from “Don’t Grow Old” (2:32): MP3
  4. On com­ing out to his fam­i­ly (3:01): MP3
  5. On desire and com­pas­sion (1:41): MP3
  6. On the Brig­gs amend­ment (8:54): MP3
  7. On the Beats and nature (3:24): MP3
  8. On Rocky Flats (2:19): MP3
  9. Gins­berg sings “Every­body Sing” (2:37): MP3

Dur­ing the inter­view Gins­berg talks about being clos­et­ed and hav­ing a crush on Jack Ker­ouac, who was “very tol­er­ant, friend­ly,” after Gins­berg con­fessed it. Above he tells a fun­ny sto­ry about com­ing out to his father, then reads a mov­ing unti­tled poem about his father’s even­tu­al accep­tance after their mutu­al “timid­i­ty and fear.” He also recalls how the rest of his fam­i­ly, par­tic­u­lar­ly his broth­er, react­ed.

The inter­view moves to broad­er top­ics. Gins­berg dis­cuss­es his views on desire and com­pas­sion, defin­ing the lat­ter as “benev­o­lent and indif­fer­ent atten­tive­ness,” rather than “heart-love.” Bud­dhism per­vades Gins­berg’s con­ver­sa­tion as does a rogu­ish vaude­vil­lian sen­si­bil­i­ty mixed with sober reflec­tion. He opens with a long, boozy sing-along whose first four lines con­cise­ly sum up core Bud­dhist doc­trines; he ends with a fun­ny, bawdy song that then becomes a dark explo­ration of homo­pho­bic and misog­y­nis­tic vio­lence.

Gins­berg and host also dis­cuss the Brig­gs Ini­tia­tive (above) a piece of leg­is­la­tion that would have been an effec­tive purge in the Cal­i­for­nia school sys­tem of gay teach­ers, their sup­port­ers, even those who might “take a neu­tral atti­tude which could be inter­pret­ed as approval.” This would pre­clude even the teach­ing of Whitman’s “Song of Myself” (or one par­tic­u­lar sec­tion of it), which, Gins­berg says, “would make the teacher liable for encour­ag­ing homo­sex­u­al activ­i­ty.” The amendment—one that, appar­ent­ly, for­mer gov­er­nor Ronald Rea­gan strong­ly opposed—failed to pass. These days such pro­pos­als tar­get Ginsberg’s poet­ry as well, and we still have con­ver­sa­tions about the val­ue of things like “benev­o­lent and indif­fer­ent atten­tive­ness” in the class­room, or whether poets should feel lim­it­ed by being who they are.

In the pho­to above, tak­en by Her­bert Rusche in 1978, you can see Gins­berg (left) with his long-time part­ner, the poet Peter Orlovsky (right).

via PennSound

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The First Record­ing of Allen Gins­berg Read­ing “Howl” (1956)

Jack Ker­ouac, Allen Gins­berg & Mar­garet Mead Explain the Mean­ing of “Beat” in Rare 1950s Audio Clips

“Expan­sive Poet­ics” by Allen Gins­berg: A Free Course from 1981

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

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