DEAD POETS SOCIETY
part 2 of 2
Something has gone awry--
How many poets have hocked their books
for junk money, waiting on
Curse you Burroughs! for being an exception
to rules every junkie/artist'd liketa break
simultaneously reminding us just how ugly
the whole life gig can go down...
Don't haveta be a fag to know the nasties
to suck cock/kiss ass & strangle your arm
If I did nothing else but to push
my dope or my cock
I'd be ashamed to tread the same
dread footpath of countless captors
of a mediocre verse
In some ways, they thought the Beats were selling out. Even posthumously, Kerouac had been made into a cheesy commodity, with bomber jackets named after him at the Banana Republic for seventy bucks. And the Gap began running ads featuring the writer with the caption "Kerouac wore khakis."
In protest, the poets created a flier designed to look like a Gap ad, only this one read "Hitler wore khakis" and pictured the German dictator. Gleefully, they slipped hundreds of copies inside clothing stores around Chicago. They thought of it as performance art.
So proud were they of their prank that they mailed a copy off to Ginsberg. They were still waiting for his reply when another Gap ad announced "Ginsberg wore khakis." The ad noted that all of his fees went to Naropa.
There were times when the energy they created off each other seemed to work magic. Like the night down at the Bop Shop.
A jazz pianist was playing, accompanying the open-mike presentations of aspiring poets. The two friends hadn't really planned on participating that night. But daring each other, they stepped up to the mike during a lull.
They had a poem they had worked on together. Rather than simply read it, though, they used it as a working draft. Using a line here. Repeating another there. Drumming up something entirely spontaneous in between.
Somehow it worked. The pianist picked up on the rhythm and began weaving his patterns in and out as they spoke. The crowd was digging it. "Whooo!" they shouted. "Go, man, go!"
Arms around each other's shoulders, heroin coursing through their blood, they created something they would never be able to do again in a million tries. They bobbed their heads and snapped their fingers, laughed at each rapid-fire contribution. And still the crowd pumped them for more.
Finally, it ended. People slapped them on their backs and left. Chris and Bill stayed behind, singing old Sinatra tunes as the piano man played on. When they left, Chris stole the microphone. He hawked it the next day for ten dollars' worth of smack.
The days rolled by in one long, hazy high. In rare moments of sobriety, Bill knew that they were crazy. Doomed. But then Chris would help him find another vein, and heroin would make it all right. They were poets, man, and crazy and doomed were part of the job.
One afternoon they were standing on a downtown sidewalk. They'd been looking for odd jobs all day. Unsuccessful, they tried panhandling. They were badly in need of a fix and angry at a world that wouldn't give it to them.
Then it was five o'clock. Suddenly, the sidewalks were swarming with businessmen, a sea of gray suits. They were off to their comfortable homes in the suburbs where their comfortable wives and comfortable children lived. They were too comfortable, Chris decided. They needed to be shaken up.
Without warning, Chris jumped on Bill's back and began reciting Ginsberg's Howl at the top of his lungs.
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness...starving hysterical naked
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix
"MOLOCH!" Chris shouted, just as Ginsberg had shouted the word almost forty years ago while Kerouac, a wine jug clutched in his hand, had urged him on: "Go. Go."
Moloch, the devourer of innocents.
Bill staggered beneath his friend, determined to hold him up as long as he could. He loved Chris.
When he finished, Chris slipped to the sidewalk, exhausted and mute. Few of the faces in the crowd had even turned to listen.
The two friends left downtown...starving hysterical naked dragging themselves back to Wicker Park, still looking for an angry fix.
Chris moved into Bill's flat when he got kicked out of his own. Bill came home one day to discover that Chris had sold some of his things and was happily high off the proceeds.
They hadn't seen each other for a few weeks when Chris called Bill on October 15, 1993, and told him to take a look at a story in that day's Chicago Sun-Times titled "The Beat Goes On: A New Generation Finds Voice in Poetry."
While Chris hung on the line, Bill read the opening lines: "It's the Beat Generation all over again. Reminiscent of those finger-snapping, goateed beatniks of the 1950s, a nocturnal army of soul-searchers is turning to poetry to answer life's burning questions."
The article quoted Michael Warr, a poet and director of the Guild Complex at the Hot House, where Chris and Bill often read. "This movement is looking for a means of expression during times of social crisis," Warr had said. "People are looking to connect with other people, and poetry is an effective and inexpensive way to do it.
"But it's at a different level than the one in the 1950s. It's not something emerging off the university grounds. It's an emergence of poets from the street level who want to speak their minds."
Amused, Bill read that "poet Christopher Ide agrees."
"Today's muse isn't dressed all in white with a halo and strategically placed laurel leaves," Chris was quoted as saying. "They come from all walks of life and economic backgrounds."
The article noted that Chris had decided poetry was a great way to express and "free himself from his recent battle with substance abuse." He'd told the reporter, "I wear a mask that says I'm happy, but when it comes to poetry the mask drops."
By the time Bill finished reading, Chris was laughing. He was in a detoxification facility and pleased with the irony of the story coming out just when it did.
"It was my fucking nurse who recognized me in the article," he giggled.
The old poet speaks weakly into the telephone and apologizes. He is in bed with congestive heart failure. "Which sounds worse than it is," he says. "It's mostly fluid around my heart. I take these little pills and it goes away in a few days."
Allen Ginsberg is 68. His friend and fellow Beat writer William Burroughs is 81. Even the old Times Square junkie, Herbert Huncke, is alive at 90. "And we're still working," Ginsberg says. In fact, the Beats are enjoying a revival: a Beat festival in Greenwich Village last year was a big hit, and Francis Ford Coppola's casting call for On the Road drew 5,000 hopefuls. Boulder even has a Beatnik Bagel Shop.
There's a good reason people in their twenties--people like Chris and Bill--find the Beats so appealing, Ginsberg says. His explanation is wrapped up in a long, complex monologue involving the CIA and neo-conservative and Christian-right conspiracies that all contribute to censorship of the media--of television, radio, print.
That, he says, is what turns disaffected youths to the last bastion of free speech--poetry readings.
Today's censorship is similar to that of the late Forties and Fifties that gave rise to the Beats, he adds. And Ginsberg continues to fight censorship, right up to reading Howl outside the U.S. Court of Appeals in October before a hearing on the constitutionality of a Federal Communications Commission policy restricting the airing of indecent material.
And that was before the November elections, with the success of the right and its attack on personal freedoms. "That's why all the interest in my sexuality," Ginsberg says.
Including his connection to the North American Man-Boy Love Association and his brief appearance in last summer's documentary Chickenhawk: Men Who Love Boys. He's involved with NAMBLA not because he practices pedophilia, Ginsberg maintains, but as a civil-rights and free-speech issue.
But in a recent interview with the San Diego Union-Tribune, Ginsberg complained about the 10,000 Maniacs song "Hey Jack Kerouac" that includes the line, "Allen baby--why so jaded? Have the boys all grown up and their beauty faded?" Ginsberg told the reporter that singer-songwriter Natalie Merchant obviously didn't know he still has a lively erotic life, "that there are always young boys around," he said. "If anything, my problem is that I am still so moved by desire and delight in younger people."
Now Ginsberg launches into an argument for legalizing drugs. "All this money is spent on the war on drugs," he says. "And almost nothing on rehabilitation." Legalize marijuana, he urges. Send junkies, like his former protege Chris Ide, to rehabilitation. Turn LSD back over to psychiatrists. And stop the cocaine trade.
Bill was sinking. He had been examining his life--and found it wanting. The 17-year-old who read Blake and set out to discover beauty and truth had succeeded only in becoming a prostitute, a thief, a sometimes mean and angry young man. He had hurt the people who loved him.
He'd decided to kill himself when a call from Chris interrupted his contemplation of the means. Although Chris hadn't talked to his friend for a while, he immediately recognized something was wrong. He started crying, pleading with Bill to get off heroin.
"You can make it. You can kick...I am. Don't die on me, Bill." He kept repeating his pleas. Crying. Begging.
Chris wouldn't let Bill off the telephone until he promised to try kicking.
Hanging up, he gathered all of his drug paraphernalia--the syringes and the dope--and threw it out. Then he sat down, lit a cigarette and began to wait. It didn't take long.
As the poison left his body, Bill's veins felt as though snakes were squirming beneath his skin, looking for a place to escape. His brain screamed for more heroin, and he screamed aloud.
One moment he would be shivering; the next, burning with fever. For days he couldn't sleep. He prayed to die and thought about killing himself.
The torture went on for a week. Throughout that time, Chris had called to offer support. He wasn't strong enough in his own recovery to visit, but he sent his roommate to look in on Bill and to drive him to Narcotics and Alcoholics Anonymous when he was ready.
Other friends took him to thrift stores to buy clothes. They had to tell him to brush his teeth, to do his laundry. To remember to eat.
Gradually, the fog cleared.
Bill was sitting on his stoop in the sun one morning. The warmth soaked into his muscles. It felt good. There was only one word he could think of to describe the fact that he was still alive. Call it grace. And he owed it to Chris.
Bill got a job with a rent-a-car company just north of Chicago. He was hired for $400 a week and given a company car to drive.
He still craved drugs, so he focused on simple things to get through the day. Getting to his job. Doing his job well. Getting home and going to bed. He allowed nothing else into his life. No partying. No lovers.
Day by day. Week by week. He grew stronger until finally he started writing poetry again.
He also started seeing Chris, who was living at another halfway house. But now it was his turn to hold his friend at arm's length. Chris was using again.
It was devastating to Bill. But there was nothing he could say to his friend that they both hadn't heard a thousand times in a dozen different treatment centers. So once a week or so, he'd pick up Chris and they'd go cruising, talking about poetry and stopping for a beer or two.
They had only known each other for a year. But it often felt as though they were two old men, friends since childhood, talking about the good old days. The long party was over. It had been a dead end, they agreed. Still, it seemed a little sad.
Bill hadn't seen Chris for a while when he got a call at the rental agency one spring day. "Ginsberg's reading downtown tonight," Chris said, his voice slurred from alcohol and smack. "Wanna go?"
Bill thought a moment. He'd heard that Chris was using more than ever. But maybe seeing his old mentor would give him a reason to straighten up. "Sure, let's go," he said.
When he picked up Chris that evening, his friend was drunk, glassy-eyed. He had the junkie's habit of letting his head nod, as if he were falling asleep.
After the reading, the friends stood in line to see Ginsberg. Bill reached him first. There wasn't much time, so he just said hello, adding that he'd see him again that summer at Naropa, which was throwing a big bash in Ginsberg's honor.
Chris was next in line. His breath smelled of liquor and his skin looked sweaty and pale.
Ginsberg frowned. "Chris, call your mother. She's worried about you."
He paused, shook his head, and added, "And get your shit together."
The poet turned away. Chris stood still for a moment, as though he'd been struck.
Bill flew alone to Colorado last summer. He and Chris had planned to go together, but Chris had blown all his money on dope.
The 1994 Naropa summer session, a tribute to the work of Allen Ginsberg, was the institute's biggest ever, featuring some of the country's top poets and writers. Gary Snyder. Ferlinghetti. Anne Waldman. David Cope. Ken Kesey.
As opposed to years past, when those who couldn't afford the admission price could get into some events for free, this year there were security guards. The cost was $250 for the week, and no one was allowed in without a ticket.
Bill didn't have the money, so he borrowed a friend's backstage pass and made a forgery at a local copying shop. But once inside, he wasn't sure it was worth the effort.
Gone was the intimacy of the previous summer's session. The tribute had the feel of an overhyped rock-and-roll show. Everywhere Bill turned were music-industry and Hollywood types or people trying to relive the Sixties. The Dharma Brats were out in force.
Bill didn't begrudge Ginsberg the attention; the poet had labored long without much recognition. Bill saw him wandering around some of the events, chatting, seemingly oblivious to the hype, and wished him well.
He knew that part of the disillusionment was his own funk. He missed Chris. Everywhere he went, people wanted to know why Chris wasn't with him. What, they asked, had become of the best young poet in America?
After one reading, Bill went to a party packed with Naropa faculty, students, show-biz people and the usual Boulder hangers-on. A big plate of drugs--coke and speed, no syringes--was passed around the group Bill was standing with. Bill broke down and snorted a few lines. The rest of the night passed in a blur.
He woke up the next morning with his head pounding. Bill, you can't start this, he told himself. I don't know if you could kick it again.
I don't think you can.
He caught the earliest flight he could back to Chicago. He looked out the window at terrain he'd covered on his motorcycle--God, it seemed like ages ago. He was scared. Because there was nothing he wanted more at that moment than a syringe full of heroin.
Anne Waldman perches on the edge of her seat in her tiny office, located up the narrow stairs of an old wood-frame bungalow that houses the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. She and Allen Ginsberg were asked to create the writing school in the summer of 1974 by the Naropa Institute's Buddhist founder, Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche. As she speaks, her hands fly as though interpreting for her, part of the "body poetics" for which she is known.
"We settled on the name in part because of Allen's emotional ties to Jack," she says. "And in part because Jack knew that noble Buddhist truth that life is suffering--not that you accept suffering, but so that you understand the incredible fragility of life and the bravery it takes to deal with it. And, of course, the `disembodied' part reflects the sad fact of Jack's death."
She laughs at the notion of Naropa as the establishment of the anti-establishment. Kerouac, she acknowledges, would probably have been more comfortable around his old Denver haunts than elitist Boulder.
She attributes revived interest in the Beats as this next generation's revolt against commercialization and exploitation. But she apparently misses the irony a few minutes later when defending Ginsberg's ad for khakis and Burroughs's ad for Nikes. Ginsberg used the money, she says, to cover a Native American speaker's fees at Naropa and to pay for a decorative walkway on campus. "He doesn't make the money of a sports figure or movie star, and yet he was accused of selling out for accepting $1 million from Stanford University for his personal papers," she adds.
Waldman has her own slick brochure noting her accomplishments, her connections to Beat writers Gary Snyder, Ginsberg and Burroughs, and her availability "for readings, solo and collaborative performances, lectures, writing workshops, and literary conferences." It includes photographs of her with Burroughs and Ginsberg.
Ginsberg is a gentle man who has gone out of his way to help others, including Chris Ide, she says. "The Beat idea of not trusting anything unless you've experienced it yourself appeals to young people...always has," Waldman adds. "But anyone who reads Allen or Jack or Burroughs and sees validation for being a junkie or a self-destructive artist is reading them very superficially. It's like reading Dickens and assuming that he was trying to glorify all that dark bitterness of his times."
"Chris knew better," she continues. "He saw that Allen and Burroughs are still engaged and contributing. He had talent, but he gave it up. It's sad, but he was not a victim. He knew Allen cared for him and that there was a place for him here. He made his choice."
Four days later Bill was driving home in the rain, searching for the reason it had to end so horribly.
And suddenly he realized that he and Chris had been living a lie, one that equated self-destruction with creativity. The Beats might have provided the language of self-annihilation--the sex, the drugs, the live-for-the-moment craziness--but they had never given their story a happy ending. Chris and Bill had imagined that.
In the end, everyone made their own choices. Burroughs and Ginsberg chose one road and lived to work and write. Kerouac and Cassady had chosen another. They did not live happily ever after, he thought. They did not live.
And then he hit the stalled Jeep Cherokee.
Somehow, Bill walked away from the accident. No one else was hurt, either. The company car was totaled, an $18,000 loss, and the Jeep suffered another $5,000 in damages.
Bill lost his job. But that didn't matter. He was lucky to have survived the lie, just as he was lucky to survive the wreck. He had chosen to live.
Chris had turned in another direction. And now he was gone.
Last November Bill returned to Colorado as part of his long road to self-recovery. In Boulder he tracked down friends and lovers he had wronged and asked for their forgiveness.
In some cases, they slammed the door in his face. Others opened their arms and their homes and invited him inside. But either way, the important thing was to try. Because what Bill really was attempting to do was forgive himself.
Maybe that way, he thought, someday I'll be able to forgive myself for not being there when Chris died.
"I loved Chris," Bill had said at Chris's wake. "He saved me from heroin, and I wouldn't be here without him. I'd like to share a poem he wrote."
If you are a poet
there will be days when you'll move to sing
& your lungs will fill with mud,
If you are a shoemaker
there will be times when you will sit
you're a mortician
there'll be periods when you're certain
that every damn man will live
& you will be
One day you'll awaken
napping, in the very middle of the moon--
one day, you'll awaken
quite not at all.
You'll awaken quite not at all.
Friends were gathering Chris's work--including the manuscript he'd given Bill in Boulder--to send to a publisher. So at least there would be a book to mark that Chris Ide, the best young poet in America, had lived.
In the meantime, Bill and a friend had started a graphic-arts business in Chicago, where they dealt with the area's up-and-coming artists. He also worked at a coffeeshop, in the company of poets who were sober. And he wrote.
One night in Boulder, he went down to Penny Lane. It was good to see old friends, read a poem, remember when he and Chris read there together.
But it nearly tore his heart out when he recognized a few kids from a couple years ago. They were only fifteen, maybe sixteen. And they were strung out. One of the girls could barely stand up; he wondered if she was selling herself yet to supply herself and her boyfriend. Sooner or later, he thought--there weren't a lot of other ways to pay for $100-a-day habits.
He walked over and tried talking to them. They reminded him so much of Chris. But they brushed him off. Junkies prefer the company of other junkies, and he wasn't one of them...not anymore. He shrugged; everyone has to make his own choice.
Call it "grace," but he was grateful for the chance. Grateful for a lot of things. That his parents still loved him. That despite hundreds of sexual partners and God knows how many needles, he didn't have AIDS. That he was alive, writing and reading his poetry to receptive audiences.
One of his poems, Poetry Slam?, had just been published in Tri-Quarterly, one of the best poetry reviews, printed by Northwestern University Press. Publication had been accompanied by a check for $200. It was nice getting the money, but he suffered no illusions about ever making a living as a poet.
I got the poems baby!
they're not real poems...
I got poems about spacemen
that young cliche that turns tricks
up on top of the Harold Washington
I got poems on gun control
on fisting a black man for coke money
on South Miami Beach
I got raped poems
I got away poems
they didn't bust me when I was holdin' poems
I got dreams of opium poems
I got dirty AIDS
death of a junkie-poet poems
I got up and wrote one down
when we found it on my futon
with Coltrane and all that LSD
but you burned that one
so I wrote it back to life-poems?
I got my poems
I got you poems
I got French existential dementia
let's all whine till the end of time poems
poems about famine
poems about hieroglyphs
poems without purpose
ones that rhyme
ones that make you wretch
ones that make you scratch
your head-lice metaphor
poems about people that barely exist
I sometimes read poems
not for the sake of poetry poems
but to fill us all up narcissistic poems
need to be heard poems
need to be loved poems
need to get off poems
need to quit writing poems
need to get a real job poems
that could actually change things poems
about giving up all the things that are
if I could just write the one
that hasn't been written yet poems
fuck this poem
fuck you poems
I know you like it when I make you do it poems
blame it all on me poems
escape from your problems poems
I told your mother I'd be writing all about it
or your dominant father made you do it
you better wipe that idea off your page
and don't tell a soul poems
cuz I saw it all poems
I know it all poems
I got the poems baby, every one
close your eyes baby
it only takes ten minutes to write one
trust me, who's next?
Six months later, Ginsberg reflects on Chris Ide's death. He'd liked the young poet and had tried to make him realize his potential. The boy was gifted, and his death was a loss for everyone who loved poetry.
It seems that there are always a few of these genius kids who get it wrong. "And then the stupid ones glorify them as martyrs," Ginsberg says.
Kurt Cobain was another one. The lead singer of the band Nirvana had wrapped his creativity around drugs and blown his brains out last April. One of Cobain's final acts was to cut a single with Burroughs from one of the old man's passages, "The Priest They Called Him." Ginsberg thought he should have learned how to survive by just being that close to Burroughs...should have learned that no one writes poetry from the grave.
It was sad what had happened to Chris. Ginsberg would miss him. Like he still misses Kerouac. Still dreams about him--twice, recently.
In one dream, Jack was seated. He looked like he did in his thirties, still handsome, not bloated and blurred by the booze. Jack didn't say anything, just sat there while Allen tried to convince him to slow down. Write maybe one book a year. Live to be eighty or ninety.
In the second, Allen was walking up to his house when he looked back and saw Jack walking down a road in the other direction. Jack was saying that he had been misunderstood. That he would have to take to the road again to straighten it all out.
Yes, he'd continue to miss Jack and Chris and the others who went too soon. Then again, there was that new kid he'd met at Naropa last summer. Geoffrey Manaugh. The kid had made a brochure of his work and showed it to him. It was really quite good.
Ginsberg sighs. It seems that poets, like hope, spring eternal from the ground.
end of part 2
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Westword's biggest stories.