Recently, my best pal saw the movie Howl. Most of the movie is about the obscenity trial of Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Shigeyoshi Murao. Ferlinghetti co-owned City Lights Booksellers and Publishers in San Francisco. (It’s still there, by the way.) Ferlinghetti was put on trial for obscenity as the publisher of Ginsberg’s poem “Howl.” Murao was the clerk who sold the book to an uncover police officer. The movie is extremely well done, and especially interesting to me because I actually spent a weekend hanging around with Ginsberg and his lover Peter Orlovsky in 1969 when I was 19 years old.
I was attending my first college, St. Francis, and I was president of the student literary society (How did you become president, my father asked one of my classmates, who happened to be president of our dorm. I came late to a meeting, was his response). Anyway, we invited Ginsberg, likely at the behest of my wonderful literature professor, Joe Mahoney. Ginsberg was to read poems of William Blake, notably Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. The performance, which is not a big part of this story, was wonderful, a dancing, chanting rendition accompanied by finger cymbals.
The day before, I had picked up Ginsberg and Orlovsky, his long-time partner, from the bus station. Their relationship was in itself scandalous, especially at a Catholic school. Making conversation as I drove, I told Ginsberg how much I enjoyed his interview in the current Playboy magazine. He became quite excited and said he had not yet seen it, and did I have it? So I dropped them off at the house where they were staying, drove to the campus, retrieved the magazine and drove back to give it to them.
Ginsberg was delighted, invited me in, and for the next two hours, I got to talk poetry with one of the greatest poets of the 20th century. It was an amazing experience. Kids, don’t let anyone tell you that there is no value in a dirty magazine.
My job the next morning was to take Ginsberg to a meeting of the Literary Society, which had been moved to a meeting hall in anticipation of a big crowd. The idea was that students could get to know him, and ask him questions about his literary work. As I recall there were maybe 30-40 people in the room. I seated Allen in the middle of the room and waited for the barrage of questions. And waited. And waited. The silence was deafening as Ginsberg, with his beard and wild hair faced a roomful of clean-cut Catholic boys (not to mention two nuns). As I wondered what noble sentiment Ginsberg might find to break the uncomfortable silence, he leaped to his feet and shouted:
“PANTS DOWN, COLLEGIANS!”
The rest of the weekend sort of went downhill from there.