Krefting On | Ginsberg Vs. Buckley
The autumn is upon us, and I must deal with the annual disappointment that comes with the waning of outdoor cricket season. Luckily, my summer league is filled with cultured fellows, and so when it comes time to take our after-cricket refreshments, the talk often turns somewhat lofty: art, music, poetry. And with the hype surrounding the upcoming film Howl (co-directed by Hampshire alum Rob Epstein 73F) and our natural interest in all things beat and off-beat, the talk turned to Allen Ginsberg.
Now remember, this is a cultured bunch, and one of my fellow enthusiasts recently acquired a DVD copy of Ginsberg’s appearance on conservative stalwart William F. Buckley’s Firing Line program in 1968. And so we made plans to gather later in the week at a secret location and hold a screening. Which we did.
I’d seen a brief clip from this appearance when PBS did their American Masters special on Ginsberg, and it made quite an impression on my rather, well, impressionable young mind, but nothing could have fully prepared me for the extraordinary intellectual and moral tug-o-war that ensues between these two Titans of Lifestyle. Part of Buckley’s bag was that he was, for the most part, able to outwit almost anyone he brought on the program. In addition to being extremely well-read and certainly of above-average intelligence, Buckley liked to employ a series of maneuvers intended to shame and make his guests feel talked-down to. A raised eyebrow here, a lazy pen jabbed against his eye there, he sat perpetually cross-legged and let loose streams of reptilian disdain that could humble the most erudite guest.
For someone whose politics were more or less detestable, he sure was fabulous. I always thought he was great. You’d think he’d have a field day with a long-haired, bearded mystic like Ginsberg. Au contrair, mon frère! Ginsberg shines throughout like the wonderful angelheaded hipster that he was. While Buckley obviously has no shortage of literary respect for Ginsberg, he tries time and time again to paint him as a dangerous patron of drug-addled anarchy. Ginsberg never actively denies these charges, but is always able to dispel the “threats” posed by his views.
And his methods are in no way the kind of subtle shaming employed by Buckley, Ginsberg comes right out and is his gloriously weird self, reading poems, chanting while furiously pumping a sruti box, and talking gentle circles around anything Buckley throws his way. He is also, when he needs to be, better read, more articulate, and more prepared than Buckley (who has a tough time remembering where he read certain things, while Ginsberg brings a notebook full of newspaper clippings to substantiate his political claims). It’s an absolutely riveting hour of television, the likes of which we aren’t likely to see again any time soon.
And what do we learn from this? Why is Ginsberg still relevant 55 years after “Howl” was written? Well, poetically he will always be relevant. He managed to draw from the same undulating pastoral breath as Walt Whitman and exhale through the fog of the mid-20th century in a way that was, when he was “on,” absolutely unmatched by any of his peers. Politically, as we see in this chat with Buckley, he still serves as a reminder that culture and reality as we experience them are simply constructs often weighed down by fear and inability to get outside of one’s own point of view. I’ve also got a deep, abiding affection for Ginsberg’s constant espousal of gentleness and tenderness as models for “revolutionary” (whatever that word means) action without ever becoming overly syrupy or sentimental. He is a giant of American letters, but even more so a shining example of a creatively engaged life.
And why did Rob Epstein 73F decide that now is a good time to make a Howl movie? And why did he cast James Franco? Ask him yourself! On Saturday 10/16, as part of Family, Alumni, and Friends Weekend, Epstein will be screening Howl and answering questions at Amherst Cinema. For more of the Ginsberg V. Ginsberg conversation, hunt around, you’ll find it.
Matt Krefting is a hamp alum and current employee in the alumni relations office who loves you very much.