Allen Ginsberg would’ve turned 91 yesterday, and the flurry of tributes and social media love reminded me of an event I attended over 20 years ago — one of a handful of times I was fortunate enough to meet Ginsberg in person.
On March 25, 1995, there was a book party at the Poetry Project at St. Marks in New York, to celebrate the publication of a slim volume called Making It Up, which had just been published by the (very) small press Catchword Papers.
The book is a transcription of an event that had occurred at the Poetry Project many years before, in 1979 — an evening that featured Ginsberg and his old friend Kenneth Koch collaborating on the spot, making up poems spontaneously, in front of a large audience. Ron Padgett served as moderator, providing some rules and prompts and gently guiding the poets through their antic improv.
Not surprisingly, given the humor and brilliance of these two poets, and the long, close friendship they shared, the results are hilarious, fun, surreal, and silly.
In the preface to Making It Up, Padgett gives some background on the unusual event, noting the surprisingly large crowd the performance drew and the excitement it produced:
Rarely, if ever, had two famous poets made themselves so vulnerable in public. The spontaneity of immediate collaboration cannot be faked: both Allen and Kenneth were on the verge of laying bare not only their compositional patterns, but also, to some degree, their very minds. That night, the audience followed every rise and fall, every twist and turn, every bump and run of this daredevil performance. They also laughed and applauded enormously. Their energy seemed to radiate into the poets, who loosened up and let their generous inventiveness burst forth in brilliant, entertaining, and friendly poetic combat.
Padgett mentions that before the event he came up with a series of assignments to surprise the poets with, including prompts such as “Dramatic dialogue in blank verse,” “A poem with each line contradicting the line before,” and “Ballad” (with suggested topics that include “William Blake and Popeye have a disagreement and fight to the death”).
The poems Ginsberg and Koch spontaneously composed together are charming and strange, and rather dazzling considering the difficulties of composing poetry on the spot in a room full of admirers. They are also intriguing examples of the art of collaboration — a topic of great interest in studies of the New York School. Like most collaborations, beneath the humor and camaraderie, these spontaneously composed poems often tell us a good deal about the poets and their work, the nature of their bond and friendship in general, and the thin line between mutual inspiration and competition and one-upmanship.
Here, for example, is the beginning of a series of couplets in iambic pentameter, with the poets trading off lines:
AG: Today the nuclear bombs arise in mind
KK: Allen sees danger to all human kind
AG: Kenneth delights him, feels but a flower
KK: I only think it, though, at a late hour
AG: But morning comes, and dawn with a ruinous blast
KK: Revives me, and makes me worry very fast
AG: Evening shadows steal with radioactive shadow
Evening shadows steal with radioactive shade
KK: Full many a tune on this machine is played
AG: The hydrogen jukebox repeats the old prophecy
KK: And many’s a poem writ by you and me
There is also a rollicking drama in blank verse featuring Ginsberg in the role of Woody Woodpecker and Koch as The City of Paris, a deliberately bad poem, twenty-nine improvised haiku, several zany sestinas, and much more.
The whole little-known volume, with its lovely Larry Rivers cover collage, is a delight and worth tracking down. Fortunately, you can also hear a recording of “The Ballad of Popeye and William Blake” on this funny clip posted on PennSound.
I’m unsure whether the event I attended in March 1995 was simply a book party or a reading (if anyone who was there recalls, please refresh my memory!), but it did provide me with an artifact I treasure, especially now that two of the trio are no longer with us — all three poets signed my copy of Making It Up:
I recall that just after Ginsberg drew one of his trademark Buddha and skull drawings in my book, Koch cheekily insisted on adding a crudely drawn bunny to his signature (playfully competing and teasing one another to the end). (I don’t know why Koch wrote February, since it was, as Ginsberg noted, definitely on March 25!).
I think it may have been several days later when I discovered that the book’s spine had a glaring typo:
“GINGSBERG, KOCH, PADGETT”! When I showed this to Koch several days later, he was miffed at the error for a moment, but then seemed to think it was fittingly absurd and hilarious. Apparently, no one else had noticed (and I don’t know if anyone else ever has!).
So that’s my treasure: a mostly unknown, very small book with a big typo, and inscriptions from three wonderful writers.
Happy birthday to Allen Gingsberg!