Poet Allen Ginsberg
In the winter of 1966, Allen Tobias, CC'64, was reading an article in the "Village Voice" about the poet Allen Ginsberg, CC'48. Ginsberg noted in the story that he was feeling overwhelmed by his many commitments and needed help maintaining order in his life. Tobias tracked down Ginsberg's phone number through a friend and called the fellow Columbia College graduate to volunteer his services. Ginsberg, who actually lived just four blocks from Tobias in the East Village, was immediately receptive.
"He told me to come on over, and to pick up a quart of milk on the way," says Tobias of the conversation which led to a two year stint for him as Ginsberg's assistant.
More than 35 years later, Tobias is responsible for spearheading the Rare Book and Manuscript Library's current exhibit, "The Lion for Real," which includes correspondence between Ginsberg and legendary Columbia English professors Lionel Trilling and Mark Van Doren. The display, for which Tobias is co-curator and contributed pieces from his own collection, runs through August 2 on the sixth floor east of Butler Library.
The books and papers are presented now at Columbia in formal cases, a world away from the bohemian environment Tobias discovered upon meeting the poet.
When Tobias arrived at Ginsberg's apartment for the first time, he found a "simple" and "immaculate" home despite the cold linoleum floors and bathtub in the kitchen. Of course, books and manuscripts were a prominent part of the decoration. Tobias would come to spend a great deal of time in the space over the next two years and though he says he never quite became part of Ginsberg's inner circle -- which included famous Beat generation writers like Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Neal Cassady and Gregory Corso -- he did become one of the poet's trusted confidants.
"The Lion for Real" is on display in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
"[Allen] was a lovely guy. There was no pretense. No one who met him could ever say a bad thing about him," says Tobias, who is working on a critical biography of the poet, to be called, "Allen Ginsberg: The Triumph of His Early Years." "What's often not understood about Allen is his genius, his intellect. He really captivated people like Trilling, there's no question. He was a very big star in the constellation of students at Columbia."
While at Columbia, Ginsberg slowly developed the colloquial prose style that would eventually make him the most well-known American poet of his generation. He gained national fame with the publication of "Howl!" in 1956, which the "New York Times" called "a manifesto for the sexual revolution and a cause celebre for free speech in the 1950s." He went on to receive the National Book Award, the Robert Frost Medal and the American Book Award. Many consider his poem, "Kaddish," written in 1959 about his deceased mother, Naomi Levy, who spent much of her life in psychiatric institutions, to be his greatest achievement.
Known eventually throughout the world as much for his irrepressible personality as his written work, Ginsberg (1926-1997) was at the forefront of nearly every major social and cultural movement in the second half of the 20th century. He read poetry and played finger cymbals at the Royal Albert Hall in London, sang duets with Bob Dylan, was expelled from Cuba for calling Che Guevara "cute," and chanted "Hare Krishna" on a T.V. show hosted by the famous conservative, William F. Buckley Jr.
Ginsberg's poetic development -- in the context of his interactions with mentors, family and friends -- is the focus of the exhibit, which includes letters with poems submitted for criticism to both Van Doren, Trilling and Ginsberg's father, Louis, who was also a published poet and Columbia graduate.
With Ginsberg's own words, one can hear his growing pains as both a poet and public figure. On display is an undated letter to Van Doren in which he wrote: "I am at a loss to discover what relation I shall be likely to have to the public either for the work which I have already done, or anything that I shall do in the future. . . There is another kind of art which exists merely and greatly for the expression of will, but my concern is first for my soul and then for poesy [poetry], and if they can be made one without a sacrifice of either, then that is what I have been looking for."
Responding to a lengthy, somewhat meandering letter and several verses Ginsberg had sent him not long after graduation, Van Doren wrote on Aug. 3, 1948: "You'd be disappointed, wouldn't you, if I did understand your letters. But write as many as you please. The line I have [marked] is a radical departure metrically, but that's OK. The burden of [poems] one and two I think I understand, and it greatly moves me. You'll get there yet."
However, Ginsberg did not always meet with such enthusiasm for the work he submitted to some of Columbia's most famous critics.
In one of the letters, Trilling wrote his former student on Jan. 3, 1948: "This can't exactly be a response to your letter, for having gone twice through the verse, I find I don't know how to respond. The poems do not reach me on 2 readings, their clue doesn't appear."
Also in the exhibit is a letter Ginsberg wrote to his father concerning the dedication he made to Lionel Trilling before reading the poem, "The Lion for Real," at a Columbia event in 1959. Because of the dedication, Trilling's wife, Diana, wrote an article in the Partisan Review insinuating Ginsberg had written the piece as a love poem to her husband. However, Ginsberg explained to his father on May 12, 1959, "I dedicated it to him as a sort of ironic gesture since he's the Analyst or Professor who sees "no value" in the experiences of the Lion which is supposed to be God, not Lionel Trilling as [Diana] apparently mistook it. Rather ugly mistake, I must say."
Other letters on display offer insight into Ginsberg's lifestyle, like one he wrote to a his longtime companion, Peter Orlovsky, in April 1958 from Paris: "Just took some opium, little black ball, that fellow Barnard the Frenchman from Tangiers was here last week and gave us some, should work in an hour and I'll be writing all night, or dreaming, don't know what . . ."
The impetus for organizing the exhibit came during a dinner when Tobais mentioned the idea to Phil Satow, CC'63, who was very receptive and suggested he contact Provost Jonathan Cole, a classmate of Tobias' at Columbia College. Tobias says Cole was especially supportive and instrumental in providing "context to the appeal" he made to the library staff. Once the proposal was approved, Tobias worked with co-curators Jennifer Lee of Public Services and Programs in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library and John Tofanelli, Anglo-American bibliographer in Butler Library.
Besides using manuscripts, books and pictures from Tobias' collection, Tofanelli poured through Columbia's extensive letters collections for Trilling, Van Doren and Ginsberg. The search required narrowing 178 boxes worth of material down to a specific time period and finding letters that were engaging and which made reference Ginsberg's work. The exhibit focuses on material from Ginsberg's early days at Columbia, including his contributions to the "Columbia Jester" and "Columbia Review" and also features a typescript of the poem "Howl!" that Ginsberg sent to former classmate Lucien Carr and a mimeographed first edition of "Howl!" that he sent to Van Doren.
Tobias was introduced to Ginsberg's poetry while attending high school in Brooklyn in the early 1960s. His friend smuggled a pocket anthology of poems into class one day and the language -- which addressed sexuality and eroticism with a unique candor-had a "tremendous impact" on him. Of course he couldn't discuss the poems in English class, Tobias notes, because one could get in trouble for possessing, let alone talking about such "subversive" material. But American culture evolved, and Tobias would eventually go on to write his master's thesis at S.U.N.Y. Stony Brook on Ginsberg's early works.
"[Ginsberg] never lost this enormous sense of self," says Tobias. "Many people have a complaint about the world and are bitter for one reason or another, but he was able to communicate his feelings. His clearest statements were always in his poetry."