I got old and shit in my pants,
shit in my pants, shit in my pants;
I got old and shit in my pants,
and so will you.
I'm pretty sure that's how it goes, but I only ever heard it once, in Allen's Spring '94 Literature of the Beats class at Brooklyn College. Since he died on April 5, 1997, I've seen the first line of Howl quoted in just about every article about him, and, to be fair, Howl was the first of his poems which I read--back in my senior year at Cornell when I was hungry for an antidote to my English major curriculum--but there was a lot more to him than just Howl. And there was more to him than just poetry.
As I said, I was a senior when I first started reading his poems, after I'd already been inspired by the myth of the beats to take a semester off to go hitchhiking cross-country. Had I understood things a bit better, I would have never returned to my so-called studies.
What an awakening after three years of soporific texts (Milton, Spenser, Dryden, &c.) and all those contrived papers written for an audience of one, usually a supercilious grad student who was intellectually paring him/herself down to fit into a superspecialized niche of scholarship. I read Howl once sitting on the couch, then again, aloud, standing up. So, I thought, this is what you can do with poetry! Words can actually say something. This was a concept which ran counter to the deconstrunctionist blight which had infected Academe and twisted every utterance, from teacher and student alike, into an admission of defeat.
Being clueless and afraid to enter what undergrads everywhere refer to as the real world, I tracked Allen down to Brooklyn College, where I enrolled in the MFA Poetry program, which required the quick fabrication of a body of work. This was easy enough as, at the time, despite my studies, I had very little idea of what poetry was supposed to be, and so I wrote uninhibitedly.
Allen's classes, office hours, and parties were great, but I paid a two-fold penalty: 1) I sat through a weekly workshop where eight of us sat unsmiling as we vivisected each other's poetry. 2) I taught four semesters of prerequisite freshman composition, which itself wouldn't have been so bad had the administration not laid so much emphasis on writing assessment tests. (Three misused articles and the Russian student would have to do a semester over, which was absurd, as articles don't exist in Russian, and I'm not sure we need 'em here, either.) The result was an uneasy balance between Allen's example and the continuation of the institutional indoctrination which had begun 17 years earlier in Miss Plug's Ludlum kindergarten.
Unlike the standard shut-up-and-listen model of pedagogy (which, to my shame, I, too, perpetuated), Allen's genius as a teacher lay in his ability to ask questions, a la Socrates. It was, I imagine, what psychoanalysis is like. Rather, it was psychoanalysis; he asked a question, then took notes or doodled absently as I discussed things which I had never admitted consciously, thus initiating a process of self-examination and acceptance which continues today. But, being shy and generally ashamed, and fearing his labeling me a starfucker (his term), I never told him he was the sole reason I had come to Brooklyn.
I got to thinking about it one slow smoky Sunday afternoon alone in my apartment in Baltimore the week before his death. I didn't know he was sick, but I finally wrote to him a postcard which closed, "Mind to mind, I love you."
Five days later, on Friday morning, my friend John told me Allen had inoperable liver cancer. The prognosis: 4 months to a year.
The next morning, my mother, herself battling cancer, called to tell me she'd seen on CNN that he had died, and that the one fact of his life that they harped on was that he had been a homosexual.
I don't think he ever saw my letter. But what does that matter?
As for his being dead, take as consolation this question, which he himself posed one longago Brooklyn afternoon: Would life be better for being eternal?
Cosmopolitan Greetings: Allen's advice to the poetically-minded
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