Eyes of a generation: Beat poet Allen Ginsberg’s snapshots of his friends on display at CJM

In 1976, Steve Silberman, then a 19-year-old freshman at Oberlin College, took a bus to New York City to see Allen Ginsberg read.

With Silberman was his first boyfriend. Silberman had been in the closet throughout high school, one of many reasons he drew inspiration from the outspokenly gay Ginsberg.

“I sat in the front row, and Allen comes out, and I had never seen a middle-aged man look so happy and fully present and awake and authentic, and there was just no bullshit about him,” recalls Silberman, 55, now a San Francisco writer and contributing editor for Wired Magazine. “I remember looking at Allen and having one of those profound turning points in my life, and I thought, ‘Wherever that guy’s gonna be next summer, I want to help him. I’ll do whatever he needs — buy his milk, take his mail to the post office.’

“You could say it was almost a classical Buddhist experience of recognizing your guru,” he says. “I just knew that somehow Allen’s life and my life had deep things to say to each other.”

Silberman never imagined that 10 years later, while working for Ginsberg as an assistant, the poet would be barking at him for trying to add salt to a pot of kasha Ginsberg planned on serving — as an entire meal — to a dinner party made up of aging members of the Beat generation. “People have high blood pressure,” Ginsberg explained. An hour later, the younger writer watched as his mentor dumped half a bottle of soy sauce over the dish.

“If you caught him in the right mood, he would be the sweetest, gentlest person … but people think of him as this Buddhist saint, a character who leapt from the pages of Walt Whitman,” says Silberman with a laugh. “He was also an old, crabby, Jewish alter kocker.”

Though widely known as a Beat poet, perhaps most famously for his poem “Howl” — that celebration of radical nonconformity, of free spirits and of madness that became the center of a landmark First Amendment trial in San Francisco — Allen Ginsberg was, in fact, many things to many people. He was a tireless political activist who was arrested at both Democratic and Republican national conventions. He was visibly, vocally queer at a time when homosexuality was still listed as a mental disorder. His writing influenced everyone from Thomas Pynchon to the Beatles to Bob Dylan.

He was also a geeky Jewish guy — a self-described “four-eyed sissy” — from New Jersey, and a guy who really loved his friends. And, over the course of five decades, he documented them the best way he knew how.

“Beat Memories: The Photographs of Allen Ginsberg,” which opens Thursday, May 23 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, showcases more than 80 snapshots Allen took throughout his adult life. The photos are grouped into two periods: the early 1950s through the mid-’60s, as the Beat Generation rose to pop-culture prominence; and the ’80s and ’90s, as a new generation of writers, artists and musicians surrounded the writer.

It’s a side of Ginsberg that few of the poet’s casual fans had seen before 2010, when the collection debuted at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. and subsequently was published in a book.

“Allen Ginsberg, utility man”

Originally organized by the gallery’s curator of photographs, Sarah Greenough, the collection has taken on new life and weight in San Francisco, where curators soon discovered that almost every aspect of local civic culture has been touched in some way by the poet.

“Obviously he was an incredible figure in shaping San Francisco’s history and culture — as a Jewish person, and as an incredible writer, and as a figure in gay history as well,” says Colleen Stockman, the CJM’s assistant curator. She designed the minimalist layout of the exhibit with the idea that the black-and-white photographs, including Ginsberg’s ink-scrawled captions, “should speak for themselves.” Staff at City Lights Books — Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s North Beach bookstore and publishing house, which served as Ginsberg’s literary home for most of his career — helped Stockman conceive the best ways to make the show contemporary.

“It was really important that the exhibit not just become a kind of nostalgic relic of something that happened, so this was about keeping it active and present in terms of [Ginsberg’s] effect on how we see the world today,” she says.

An audio area in which visitors can listen to five different tracks of Ginsberg reading his poetry — including “Kaddish,” the poem he wrote after his mother’s death — incorporates his exhilarated, lyrical performance style into the experience. Stockman says it’s intentional that some of the sound will “bleed out a little” from the headphones into the larger viewing space.

Gravity Goldberg, public programs director at the CJM, worked with Ginsberg’s friends and contemporaries to create a slew of interactive programming that will take place over the next three and a half months, including a four-day “Allen Ginsberg Festival” from July 11 to 14 (http://ginsbergfestival.com). The museum will co-produce that festival with City Lights, San Francisco’s Beat Museum, Lehrhaus Judaica, Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, and the Stanford Humanities Center, among others. Panel discussions and readings will feature Beat poets, close friends of Ginsberg’s and experts on his work, including Silberman, Bill Morgan (Ginsberg’s personal archivist), Alan Kaufman, David Meltzer and Neeli Cherkovski.

“I know the literary community in San Francisco, and I understood how important Ginsberg is to the community, how deeply people feel about him,” says Goldberg of her ongoing effort to get “every living Beat poet in the Bay Area” involved in the programming.

“As you start talking to people, you realize … everyone has a story about the time they met Allen.”

Irwin Allen Ginsberg was born on June 3, 1926, in Newark, N.J.; he grew up in nearby Paterson, home of the poet William Carlos Williams, who would later become a mentor. While his father, Louis, was a high school teacher and published poet, Ginsberg was closer to his mother, Naomi, a communist who struggled with mental illness throughout her life. She spent much of his youth in mental hospitals, and when she was home sometimes took him with her  to therapy appointments. Those who knew Ginsberg say she had a profound influence on his life.

“I don’t think people understand the degree to which Allen was impacted by his mother,” says Alan Kaufman, a San Francisco-based poet and novelist who worked with Ginsberg throughout the ’90s, occasionally traveling with him to conferences abroad.

“In ‘Kaddish,’ you have him describing in haunting, neck-hair-bristling detail what it’s like to be with your mother on a Greyhound bus, trying to take her to an insane asylum, and there are all these questions about why he was saddled with that responsibility,” says Kaufman, whose memoir “Drunken Angel” contains a portrait of Ginsberg as a friend and mentor. “But then later in life, he surrounds himself with and embraces people who were crazy, or considered at that time to be crazy. He holds them close, tries to rehabilitate them, encourages them.”

As a student at Columbia University, Ginsberg met some of the writers that would go on to shape the Beat movement with him, people who became lifelong friends, such as Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Neal Cassady and Gregory Corso.

The close bond among this group of friends — and a sense of intimacy inherent in everyday moments, like a 1953 candid of Kerouac as he and Ginsberg traipsed around the Lower East Side, or a 1955 photo of Neal Cassady and his girlfriend Natalie Jackson laughing in front of a San Francisco movie marquis that reads “The Wild One” — is perhaps the only constant in Ginsberg’s photographs.

“It was a mishpocha (family),” says Jonah Raskin, a San Francisco poet and English professor who has written extensively on Ginsberg. “And he kept them together in many ways. These photographs definitely tell that story. You can tell how well he knew people … There are many photographs of Kerouac alone, and I think Ginsberg always recognized what a lonely person he was.”

“Bob Donlon, Neal Cassady and myself” photos/courtesy of the contemporary jewish museum

“He was the hub of the Beat generation,” adds Kaufman,  “and this was his tool for documenting his friends. He didn’t have the tool of prose, he was not a novelist. He references his friends in his poetry constantly, but I think he needed another way to hold them close.”

His friends, in turn, influenced Ginsberg’s life philosophies.

“When Allen was a young man and knew Jack Kerouac at Columbia, there was a moment when Jack was leaving his apartment building, and as he stepped down off each step Jack sort of said goodbye to it, as if each step was sacred,” says Silberman. “And I know that had a huge impact on Allen. I believe both his photography and his Buddhist practice came out of that insight: that ordinary, mundane reality — ordinary things and people — could be appreciated in a sacred way.”

Ginsberg moved to San Francisco in 1954, where he met and fell in love with Peter Orlovsky, a young poet and actor who remained his partner until Ginsberg’s death. In 1955, Ginsberg gave his first public reading of “Howl” at the Six Gallery, at 3119 Fillmore Street. Kerouac would later describe the reading in “The Dharma Bums,” depicting Ginsberg performing feverishly, drunkenly, arms outstretched in passion as he read to an enraptured audience.

After City Lights published “Howl” in 1956, the poem was banned for obscenity; the ensuing trial over the book’s artistic value captured national attention, landing the cover of Time magazine. Less well known: the interior of the apartment on Montgomery Street where Ginsberg wrote the poem, the subject of one photograph in this collection.

The 1960s and early ‘70s saw Ginsberg becoming more involved with Buddhism and the Hare Krishna movement, while bridging gaps between the Beat generation and Summer of Love hippies. He’s credited with coining the term “flower power,” and was heavily involved in a number of political movements, from Vietnam War protests to the plight of Bangladeshi war victims to gay rights and First Amendment issues.

The first time Kaufman met Ginsberg, in the early ‘70s, the younger writer was an undergraduate at City College of New York and heard that the poet would be reading at Columbia.

“I go running up there to see him, and run into the lecture hall, and he was in his Brahmin Hindu phase then, with long, flowing white robes and beads, and he’s not reading,” recalls Kaufman. “He’s just sitting on the floor playing the harmonium and saying these long expressions of ‘Om,’ and the audience is all hippies and everybody else is stoned and thrilled, and I was so upset.” Kaufman approached Ginsberg as people filtered out and asked him why he wouldn’t perform “Howl” or “Kaddish” or “A Supermarket in California.”

Ginsberg’s response: A smile, and the word “Om.”

Yet those who knew Ginsberg well say that, while he dabbled in other kinds of religion and spirituality, Judaism was always an integral part of his identity.

“Yiddish certainly never left his vocabulary, and I don’t think he ever left behind his Jewish perspective on the world,” says Raskin, recalling in particular the physical movements Ginsberg would often make while reading — “like davening” — and his notion of the poet’s role as similar to a rabbi’s.

“Which makes sense, if you think about it: who better to have for a rabbi than Allen Ginsberg?” says Raskin. “An unconventional rabbi, to be sure, but a rabbi nonetheless.”

In 1977, making good on his promise to go wherever Ginsberg was, Steve Silberman went to work as the poet’s apprentice in Boulder, Colo., at the Jack Kerouac School summer writing program at the Naropa Institute, which Ginsberg had co-founded in 1974. Thus began a 20-year friendship in which Silberman bore witness to Ginsberg’s passions, demons and idiosyncracies.

Silberman recalls a trip to San Jose when he was about 30 and Ginsberg was nearly 60.

“He had so much more energy than I did,” says Silberman. “He’d go from the bookstore, to the TV studio for an interview, to the reading, and he never got tired. He was just amazingly engaged with the world.”

He could be welcoming and accessible  almost to a fault, says Kaufman. “You couldn’t call up Saul Bellow or Philip Roth, but you could always call up Allen Ginsberg. You could just go over to his place, in fact, and people did, all the time. And I think in part that came from a place of always feeling like an outsider.”

He could also be prickly and particular. On one occasion, he gave an “incredibly articulate” interview to a TV station, recalls Silberman, then went to the restroom and became very upset over the fact that one of his collar buttons had been undone. “He could be really hard on himself over little things … and then he could excuse other, bigger behaviors, like ignoring women in poetry classes.” (A section of the exhibit on women’s role in the Beat movement delves into accusations of misogyny that have been leveled at Ginsberg over the years, with a nod to the women who made an impact: Anne Waldman, Diane di Prima, Carolyn Cassady and others.)

“Jack Kerouac the last time”

The 1980s saw Ginsberg and the Beats attracting a new wave of interest from a new generation, with Ginsberg in particular beginning to work with young musicians like Patti Smith and Bob Dylan. The latter’s interest in Ginsberg grew into a sort of father-son relationship, according to those who knew him.

Ginsberg’s frenetic energy, however, did not weaken  with age. Kaufman recalls traveling to Germany with Ginsberg and fellow writer Kathy Acker for a conference in Berlin a few years before Ginsberg’s death. “Allen was very frail at this time, and he’s wearing a tie and sports jacket, looking very much like the elderly senior poet, and he’s holding the handrail to get up onstage,” says Kaufman. “And then the moment he starts reading, he just turns into a lion. He’s jumping around, his voice is coming from deep within him, and his age just falls from him like an old garment.”

Ginsberg died in 1997 at the age of 70, of liver cancer. A memorial held at San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El drew a who’s-who of the West Coast literary scene. Poets Ferlinghetti, di Prima, Waldman, Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, and Robert Hass read alongside Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan, who led the service and read “Kaddish.”

Those who knew Ginsberg say they still feel his impact — the things he fought for, the principles he stood for — in daily life. He would have been stunned by the strides that have been made toward marriage equality, according to several friends. (He and Orlovsky exchanged vows in a Foster’s Cafeteria in 1955, but the marriage was never formally recognized.)

“I see his influence everywhere,” says Silberman. “There would be no Bob Dylan, there would be no ’60s [as we know them] … He laid the groundwork for the tremendous interest in meditation, he looked at poverty with open eyes, he knew not to depend on waiting until the next world to make things right.”

And more than 15 years later, the perennial interest in the Beat generation — most recently on display in the film adaptations of “On the Road” and the story of the “Howl” trial, with James Franco as a young Ginsberg — can be seen as evidence that Ginsberg’s thirst for life remains compellingly contagious even to those who are too young to have heard him speak.

The same authenticity, intimacy and camaraderie that he inspired and documented among his friends — the feeling captured in a snapshot of Ginsberg, Cassady, Ferlinghetti, painter Robert LaVigne and writer Bob Donlin with their arms around each other in front of City Lights —  will keep Ginsberg’s legacy alive, Kaufman says.

“I think that’s why young people love the Beat generation so much: When you read their books and their poetry, you’re not just acquiring stories or information, you’re acquiring friends. There’s an attitude that just being present in that moment, those friendships, is enough. That’s something you don’t see too much of in art or literature these days.

“Their poems did that, and I think these photographs do that too. They’re saying ‘You belong among us. It doesn’t matter who you are. Come hang out.’ ”

“Beat Memories: The Photographs of Allen Ginsberg,” May 23-Sept. 8 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission St., S.F. Opening evening will feature a “pop-up poetry salon,” zine-making and more. www.thecjm.org

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.