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Here Was One of America's Greatest Poets

Sign of a Poet: Allen Ginsberg signed and illustrated David Cohen's copy of "Howl" during a visit to Metro's San Jose office in 1992.

Return to the Country for a Brief Visit

By David Cohen

Annotations to Amitendranath Tagore's Sung Poetry

"In later days, remembering this I shall certainly go mad."

Reading Sung poems, I think of my poems to Neal
dead few years now Jack underground
invisible--their faces rise in my mind.
Did I write truthfully of them? In later times
I saw them little, not much difference they're dead.
They live in books and memory, strong as on earth.

Cherry Valley, April 20, 1973
Allen Ginsberg, Collected Poems

Allen Ginsberg died this past week, and if you've read his poems, it seems he had been preparing for this all his life. I have a lot of his books, which he signed and drew pictures in. Flowers and faces, mandalas and mantras, and all inscribed to me. He took his time, so diligently, to make these special inscriptions. He was back in San Jose on the occasion of his appearance for the Center for Literary Arts' Major Authors Series in September 1992. Metro, a sponsor of the series, hosted a reception in his honor at our downtown San Jose headquarters. During a tour of our offices, we shared stories about people we knew in common and how each of them had touched our lives. Here was one of America's greatest poets. The leader of the Beat Generation, the coiner of the term "flower power" in the '60s, a cultural legend in his own time, swapping stories and sharing his personal anecdotes as easily and as naturally as if we had known each other for years. He was a wise man who was easy to care about.

At a small dinner party at Emile's Restaurant, before his talk at San Jose State University, I was asked to give the blessing before we ate. Allen Ginsberg inspired that kind of thing. I remembered a special invocation a wise teacher use to say before our meals:

    All life is one, and everything that lives is holy.
    Plants, animals and people all must eat to live and nourish one another.
    We bless the lives that have died to give us this food,
    let us eat consciously, resolving by our work,
    to pay the debt of our existence.

It was an invocation I thought appropriate for this Jewish man turned Buddhist. He smiled when I concluded and later told me how much he liked the prayer. He knew it meant a lot to me. I later found this poem he had written:

    Rolling Thunder Stones
    We give thanks for the food, deer meat & indian-corn soup
    Which is a product of the labor of your people
    and the suffering of other forms of life
    and which we promise to transform into friendly song and dancing
    To all the ten directions of the Earth.

    Nov. 18, 1975

No wonder he liked the simple words I said.

Later, after his talk, a few of us visited with him in the Presidential Suite at the Fairmont Hotel. He seemed out of place in such luxury yet so at home in his black Chinese cloth slippers, eating his requisite macrobiotic vegetables, holding court, talking of the Persian Gulf War, General Schwartzkopf, and how the General was so perfectly suited to lead this war. He told us how Schwartzkopf's father had been the key adviser to the Shah of Iran and his hated Savak Secret Police. It was this understanding of the Middle East in the General's upbringing that made him the choice of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Particles of information, details and observations like these made Ginsberg fascinating to listen to and converse with.

His entire life had been one of the outsider looking into a world he saw as unjust, unloving and filled with greed and hatred. His poems and songs share this Holy vision, yet the man celebrated life in a loving and gentle manner. Allen Ginsberg was a man of the Universe who knew his role was to create commentary and insight for the rest of us. The vision he wrote of and spoke about was his strength and the cause of his pain. I sensed that about him when he spoke. Maybe that's why he wrote and drew such heartfelt words and pictures in my books of his poetry. Maybe he did that for everyone. Even better. Allen Ginsberg was the greatest American poet of his generation, and our conversations will always be remembered.

    Adapted from Neruda's
    "que dispierte el lenador"

    ... And here I say farewell, I return
    to my house, in my dreams
    I go back to Patagonia where
    the wind beats at barns
    and the Ocean spits ice.
    I'm nothing more than a poet:
    I want love for you all

    I didn't come here to solve anything.

    I came here to sing
    And for you to sing with me.

    Boulder, 1978-1981
    Collected Poems

David Cohen is the publisher of the Los Gatos Weekly-Times.

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