When Allen Ginsberg first laid admiring eyes on Peter Orlovsky in 1954 in a flat in San Francisco, he was naked in a painting with tousled yellow hair and a beguiling gaze. He asked the artist who it was posing, and Orlovsky was called from the other room, transmogrified into reality, fully clothed. It was not long before they were lovers.
The men were both sons of Russian immigrants, both had violent alcoholic fathers and were both part of the infamous Beat Generation, a cultural and literary movement that staked its claim on America’s consciousness and centred in on the iconoclast artist communities of San Francisco, L.A’s’ Venice Beach and New York City’s Greenwich Village.
The Beatniks believed in the crystallisation of one’s own naked self as pivotal reference point for speaking for the masses. For Ginsberg, Beat it was a state of being, an identity that transcended national barriers and he believed it charged a local scene in every country.
Bill thinks new American generation will be hip & will slowly change things — laws & attitudes, he has hope there — for some redemption of America, finding its soul. . . . — you have to love all life, not just parts, to make the eternal scene, that’s what I think since we’ve made it, more & more I see it isn’t just between us, it’s feeling that can [be] extended to everything. Tho I long for the actual sunlight contact between us I miss you like a home. Shine back honey & think of me.
– Allen to Orlovsky
The Beat Generation was mostly a cacophony of espresso bars; terrorized women, goatee beards, spiritual journeys and spontaneous visions, strange dances, stream of conscious writings and bongo drums. The movement was dominated by men (the women writing were often over-shadowed, confined to domestic spaces whilst the men travelled in search of epiphanies and all-night rhapsodic exchanges of soul and confusion.) It was fuelled by drug experimentations, and urgent, riotous behaviour.
The writing was mostly automatic; it was influenced by progressive Jazz, made more rampant on drugs, paid homage to Eastern religious teachings and rejected traditional forms of academia. It focused on expression and illuminative states instead. It was a welcomed relief to a weary nation, still residually seeped in the disruptions of World War II, a revolutionary counter-cultural shift founded and spurned on by writers such as the (King) Jack Kerouac, the (Godfather and their mentor) William Burroughs, and a bundle of other luminaries that rallied together without spiritual falter.
Ginsberg joined this group of men along with his lover Orlovsky, he undressed his heterosexuality, peeled away his generic office job collar and tie, strip-teased his long-established forms in verse and started writing freely with no push for publication. He wanted to see if there was anything artfully useful from what he called ‘the muck of your own mind‘. It was this change in Ginsberg’s domestic lifestyle, this visibility, which trigged a transition in his poetry, and which caused a tremor of change in the history of American literature as a whole.
Ginsberg was very attached to Orlovsky. While Keroauc was ploughing through the Sutras or on the road choking on Benzedrine, Ginsberg preferred to be shacked up in a love nest in San Francisco. These men had very promiscuous, out-spoken relationships, they all shared beds with other Beat literati and they all wrote separate accounts about their experiments – all emphasis was on creativity – they would even pen poems during intercourse.
In 1954 Ginsberg took Orlovsky to visit Burroughs in Tangiers, there helping their oracle leader with healing in between his heavy heroine addiction, and assisting his scatter of work for publication. Kerouac joined and they all scrutinized the butcher’s shop of Burroughs life and literary career, which of course were the same thing, for as long as it was necessary.
When we parted in Tanger
We said ten years or perhaps a few months
Whatever fate and railroads bring, whatever cities or deserts-
Now I am in the holy land, alone
Reading Cavafy- it’s half past twelve.
My letters haven’t reached you, yet you’re somewhere here, Petra or
Perhaps have entered the gate to this land and are looking for me in
I wrote to all your addresses and to your mother-
Tonite I am reading books & remembering our old nights together
I hope fate brings us together, a letter unanswered, held in the red hand-
or crossing some modern street corner, look joyfully in each other’s eyes.
– Allen Ginsberg, Early Fifties, Early Sixties
In 1957 the two lovers reunited and travelled through Europe stopping in Paris (the promised-land for boy-gang visionaries) and then later resting in romantic Naples, deciding to visit Auden unannounced. They found him in a bar, and Ginsberg dove straight into recitations, poems, confessions, ecstasy and a marathon of monologues. Auden had no time for it, he told him that his work was ‘full of the author feeling sorry for himself’ so Ginsberg called him a ‘spiritual wet-blanket‘ and cursed his crew of poets as he left and exploded back into the streets. To Ginsberg, all this meant was that the literary movement of poetry was in dire need of a full scale revolt and upheaval, an anarchist’s facial up-lift and a total upsetting of traditions. ‘The plague is on!’ Ginsberg announced.
Rude-boy behaviour was now part of the artistic repertoire. Ginsberg and Orlovsky reinvented themselves as the modern day Rimbaud and Verlaine (Ginsberg even had his lover pose for a photograph savage-poet like, and titled it ‘Rimbaud Portrait‘). Together they soared through Paris pissing in sinks, making out with famous surrealist artists at parties asking for blessings, stealing books, taking heroin or peyote or Opium and camping out in monasteries for adventure. On one particular occasion, they stampeded up to the office of Paris Review demanding to see rare material from Ezra Pound, and when the receptionist refused them admission into the archives, Ginsberg and Orlovsky hurled themselves to the floor and started making love in front of her.
From 1957 they moved into the Beat Hotel on the Left Bank, nowhere else produced eccentrics of Bohemian poverty quite like it, and for awhile they experimented with new models of grass-root colony living, shacked up in artist’s garrets with romantic views of mediaeval rooftops, a warm radiator, little running water and some candles.
A rainbow comes pouring into my window, I am electrified.
Songs burst from my breast, all my crying stops, mistory fills
I look for my shues under my bed.
A fat colored woman becomes my mother.
I have no false teeth yet. Suddenly ten children sit on my lap.
I grow a beard in one day.
I drink a hole bottle of wine with my eyes shut.
I draw on paper and I feel I am two again. I want everybody to
talk to me.
– Orlovsky, ‘City Lights’
Olovsky wasn’t educated; the stampede against Puritan ethics was part of the unspoken Beat manifesto, and all his learning of poetry came from the workings of the movement. His spelling was made more deliberately atrocious, a plain-face disobedience for the precision and distinction of academic thought, so instead his volumes follow the way words would sound to his own ear. His vulgarity is a sign of his belief, he was obsessed with the body and moulded the spirit purely animal, wanting only to pursue the pleasure of living as if life itself was an infinite joyride – his poetry shows us that the mind is used for enjoying the body.
All this rebellion swam tolerant with the antics of youth – Paris chanted a San Francisco Renaissance for these strays, fostering a harmonic climate of freedom and creativity that was unfettered by financial obligations. They afforded rent with what Orlovsky called his ‘mad money‘ as he was paid off by the army for being mentally unstable, then Ginsberg’s royalties from Howl started coming in. It was a time that their bodies were now singing Whitman electric. Ginsberg’s poetic virtuosity pushed them forward and provided an income, Olovsky posed as his beautified, beatified muse, and all in all, they made a perfect duo – joyful and in love writing in the Beat Hotel where they stayed on and off for six years.
My life and my room are like two huge bugs following me
around the globe.
Thank god I have an innocent eye for nature.
I was born to remember a song about love – on a hill a butterfly
makes a cup that I drink from, walking over a bridge of
– Orlovsky, 1957, Paris
But they didn’t always all get along as a community. Orlovsky left when Burroughs arrived because his satirical presence made him feel awkward and cramped, he was offended that he thought him ‘dope‘ and that he never bothered to read any of his poetry. Ginsberg wrote to Orlovsky from his impending saddening absence:
I’m making it all right here, but I miss you, your arms & nakedness & holding each other — life seems emptier without you, the soulwarmth isn’t around. . . .
I have been running around with mad mean poets & world-eaters here & was longing for kind words from heaven which you wrote, came as fresh as a summer breeze & “when I think on thee dear friend / all loses are restored & sorrows end,” came over & over in my mind — it’s the end of a Shakespeare Sonnet — he must have been happy in love too. I had never realized that before. . . .
Write me soon baby, I’ll write you big long poem I feel as if you were god that I pray to —
However, after the publication of Howl and the traumatic experience of the death of his mother, Ginsberg collected all his sheaves of poetry and carted them back to New York, shutting himself in a room with Orlovsky to write on a cocktail of heroin and methedrine for days of confinement.
The finished long poem Kaddish was a cut-up of composed fragments of speech, riddled with thoughts and perplexities of death and remnants of memory of his mother, and his born religion Judaism, altogether forging the feel of a prose memoir. It was a process, Ginsberg told his psychiatrist, he had to go through to side-step the asylum – and indeed a space he could not have found so comfortably without the commitment of his lover to keep him in check and on track. And it was also Ginsberg who encouraged Olovsky’s path into poetry, having no real agenda for writing or deliberate attempts at poetics himself, until he hooked up with his radical, rebellious twin.
Towards the end of the movement, Burroughs settled to write in a saintly state of seclusion. Keroauc wrote many books and moved in with his mother, and Ginsberg and Orlovsky sponged themselves in LSD and trailed off to the Far East on a pilgrimage. As they were living New York harbour, Orlovsky said to Ginsberg ‘I hope America is still here when we get back‘ and in some ways it wasn’t. But their awareness of the transient state of culture just kept compelling them to write, to continue to seek spiritual awakenings in transit and guidance, so that sitting together in foreign rooms reading and scribbling was all they needed to make them feel complete.
Last shot of junk bought from Paris film festival, blue bar, sitting at
To have to leave life
my nose against Peter’s arm
the dawn over- out the window
the tall white apartment
by the curve of Golfe-Juan
– and the stars, never again-
and the mvie people vanished into the box office
and eaten by ticket machines-
– Ginsberg’s Journals, Cannes, 1961
It is astounding that this literary couple met in 1954 and were lovers right up to Ginsberg’s death in 1997. They took road trips together: lived in Paris, travelled to North Africa, wondered the blue north of Athens and spent two years living in India where they inherited teachings of Eastern Philosophy that blossomed in Ginsberg’s poems and encouraged Orlovsky to become a Buddhist for the rest of his life. They experimented with drugs and a new language, and other men, yet always remained close to, and in love with each other in an everlasting and indissoluble relationship. The madness seemed to follow them wherever they went, but they were brave and daring writers, enduring and stand guard lovers. The Beat lifestyle was perfect for them as it was set aside for outsiders, for those on the margins – the junkies, vagabonds, thieves and mischiefs who were heralded into angels and saints. Those ‘angelheaded hipsters‘ Ginsberg worshipped and adored.
One evening in Marrakech sitting on a woven mat, in between the rubbing of drums, the drinking of mint tea, surrounded by a blue mist of meteorites Ginsberg wrote:
While Peter was visiting the whore house for half an hour, I wept, thinking of all the happy and passed years we had lived together- how with his departure the sense of assurance and unity I enjoyed would be gone- and the sense of purpose to seek for love-for what to seek now? As I am 35 and half my life now past, I have no sure road ahead, but many to choose from, and seem inevitable.
Ginsberg never really slowed down on his schedule of mad awakenings, intense mantras, and incredible heights of surging creativity. He was a life-long smoker and suffered a long list of stress-related illnesses including strokes, heart failures and even speculated hepatitis from the sixties that later caused complications. He continued to teach and give talks, write and win prizes, travel and party despite all this, right up until when he died in 1997 aged 70 years old from liver cancer, wrapped under blankets in his loft apartment in the East Village surrounded by his friends (including the singer Patti Smith who was a friend and fan) whilst Buddhist monks chanted and loved ones came to spill legacies and offer baited condolences.
Orlovsky died much later in 2010 from breathing complications soon after being diagnosed with lung cancer, the epitaph on his grave reads “Train will tug my grave, my breathe hueing gentil vapor between weel & track”. Ginsberg’s and Orlovsky’s life together was one constant journey set in motion, tugged forward with revolutionary sparks and chugging rebellion, and fuelled on the supple vapour of their mutual love. Ginsberg said when walking around the Acropolis in Athens, echoing Rexroth’s verse: ‘When death comes it will be no further surprise‘.