Allen Ginsberg 1926-1997
The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg (1994)
Profile of the enduring Beat poet Allen Ginsberg -- covering his youth in New Jersey, his college years at Columbia (where he established the Beat literary scene with William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac), his political activism in the 1960s and 1970s, his relationship with poet Peter Orlovsky, and present status as poetry sage and professor. A highlight of the film is Ginsberg reading his masterpieces "Howl" and Kaddish." If you have an interest in American poetry or Beat culture, then The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg might serve a tasteful, if overly deferential, survey of one of the more colorful artists of the last half century.

For all the prose that I've taught over the years, I've never been much for poetry. There are only a handful of poets that I can genuinely say I enjoy, or whose work I would even go out of my way to collect and read. On that short list is Allen Ginsberg. Part of his appeal, for me at least, is the sheer weight of his personality. Ginsberg always gave his poetry readings a passion and energy that brings the work off the page. His work is meant to be performed, as a prophetic call. He is the successor to William Blake, Walt Whitman, and William Carlos Williams—a fusion of the great poet of the spirit, the poet of the body, and the poet of the real.

Ginsberg is a poet whose personal life is crucial to understanding his work. His best poem, the intense Kaddish, works through the dual mental collapses of his mother and himself. He calls it "poetic paranoia," and its toll on his mind has always pushed him beyond mere self-indulgence and into a political consciousness that made him the most important voice of that fragmented and nomadic group once known as the "Beats." He was also the most successful of his contemporaries at imitating that jazz rhythm that drove their work. This is the key to Ginsberg's poetics: it looks improvisational, random. But a quick glance at his notes for the seminal Howl reveals that he was a craftsman with the ability to make his work appear spontaneous.

Documentary filmmaker Jerry Aronson traces The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg in a fast-moving 84 minutes. Aronson's documentary is organized more or less chronologically by decade, but like Ginsberg's work, it seems to ramble, made up as a collage of interview clips, photographs, and poetry readings. The rambling nature of the film makes it somewhat inaccessible for newcomers, and The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg is really less a straightforward biography than a meandering tour through the soul of the poet, much like his own poetry. For instance, there is little context provided to explain, say, the significance of Neal Cassady, the macho muse of the Beat circle. If you have not read On the Road (where Cassady appears as the heroic Dean Moriarty) or a history of the Beats, you might not be able to follow how these strange characters—Cassady, Kerouac, William Burroughs, and the like—drifted into one another's' lives and managed to reshape American postwar literature. Ginsberg calls their art a "united front of pure angelic poetry." Ginsberg's complex relationship with his mother, to provide another example, is explored through fragments the searing Kaddish, but if you haven't read the whole poem, you might find yourself wondering how the pieces—Naomi's madness, her "strange prophecies"—all fit together.

Sixties counterculture icons like Timothy Leary and Ken Kesey trace how their friendship with Ginsberg influenced the best minds of their generation. Ginsberg's vital work shifted its focus toward the psychedelic, toward experiments in altered consciousness (and—you guessed it—hallucinogenic drugs). Ginsberg also became a political force, showing up in Prague in 1965, in Chicago in 1968, and in other places where the action was.

The 1970s saw Ginsberg shift toward spiritualism, inspired perhaps by the gradual decline of his father (as opposed to the fiery insanity of his mother, which inspired the more muscular Kaddish). He also settled into a comfortable role as a canonical figure, recording albums with Philip Glass, playing college professor, publishing respectable poetry collections—a far cry from the protest rallies and obscenity trials of his youth. Just like his pal William Burroughs, Ginsberg seemed to groove on his quirky celebrity, winking through his public appearances and establishment accolades. But by that point, the public's memories of the Beats had blurred into cartoon depictions of beatniks. Aronson offers little in the film about the sexual politics in Ginsberg's poetry (and his role in the gay rights movement), other than a brief tribute to Ginsberg's longtime partner Peter Orlovsky near the end. And the overall tone, while moving and sympathetic, does not really give a critical appraisal of Ginsberg's place in the literary canon. Even as a fan and a defender of the poet, I felt the hagiographic tone got thick.