Monday, February 28, 2011
MY DINNER WITH ALLEN GINSBERG
"I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by
madness, starving hysterical naked…."
Dylan: John, I want to thank you for sharing your
memories of Allen Ginsberg. I have to honestly fess up
that you are the first person I've ever chatted with that
actually knew such a major American poet. "Howl" is the
first poem I ever memorized. And I find it just as powerful
today, as I did when I was fourteen years old. And that
was almost three decades ago!
John: Okay, I want to say right off the bat that I did
not know Allen all that well. In truth, it was my
lover (Marius Bewley—the very well known literary
critic and writer) that received the call from Allen
inviting us to dinner. Frankly, I was so involved in
my own career as an illustrator of children's books,
that I would not even have remembered the dinner.
Except for the unfortunate fact that Allen served
lobster. And rather raw: mine actually crawled off my
plate, and plopped onto the floor.
Dylan: Oh my god. That is too funny! So what did you
John: Well, since Marius had already asked Allen if he
could have an omelette instead of lobster, I politely
requested an omelette too.
Dylan: And what happened to the lobster that crawled
off the table?
John: Allen simply picked it up off the floor, then
tossed it back in the steaming pot on the stove, and
let it cook for another ten minutes or so. Then he ate
all three lobsters. While Marius and I enjoyed our
omelettes. I remember they were very good. And so was
the wine. Which is perhaps why the scene seemed less
surreal at the time than it actually was.
Dylan: Surreal is such a good word to describe such a
dinner! Had Allen already published HOWL when you met
John: I think he was still writing it. This was in the
very early 1950s. When he was living in the modest
apartment on East 7th Street he occupied for many,
many years. There's a famous photograph of Kerouac on
the fire escape. Also, one of Allen on the roof. It
was a nice apartment. Not enormous. But he kept it
neat. And had an impressive number of books. Burroughs
stayed there for awhile. When he was looking for a
place of his own. It's never been easy finding a
decent apartment in New York. Especially when you're a
starving poet or artist.
Dylan: So how did your lover first meet Allen?
John: Marius liked poets and writers. And so
they liked him. Plus he had published several
well-known books of his own: THE COMPLEX FATE (with
an introduction by F. R. Leavis). THE ECCENTRIC DESIGN.
And MASKS AND MIRRORS (dedicated to Peggy Guggenheim).
Dylan: I've heard of F.R. Leavis. He's one of those
great literary critic legends I've always been so in
awe of. He certainly had some very strong and original
opinions about literature. Which he frequently
John: Yes, he did not agree with what Marius wrote
about Henry James. But that's an enormous part of
being a literary critic. They often battle among their
own. Otherwise, it all would become too predictable
Dylan: I agree. So what's your lasting impression of
Allen Ginsberg? The memory you will never forget. Did
anything about him really stand out? Even before he
John: You know, I always thought Allen should have
been a Rabbi. He had this enormously sweet quality
about him. I was more impressed by his sweetness, than
anything he said about art or literature. But I was so
very young then. And engaged in my own literary
career. Yet I do remember how sweet he was. So humble
and unpretentious. Which is unusual in one so gifted
Interview © 2008 by Dylan Mitchell and John MacKenzie