The Last Page

The Last Page

“All faults may be forgiven of him who has perfect candor,” Walt Whitman wrote in 1855. Allen Ginsberg, who was candid about his faults and about much else, died a beloved and forgiven poet. To be sure, there are those who neither loved nor forgave him and never will. For these critics (by no means all of them conservatives), Ginsberg was one of the worst cultural vandals of the sixties. But it was interesting to read some unlikely tributes to Ginsberg, not least appreciations in National Review, written by Jeffrey Hart and Richard Brookhiser.

Ginsberg made a point now and then of accosting his spiritual foes in person, with an air of ingenuous reasonableness. Hart and Brookhiser fondly recall his attending a publishing party at the National Review offices in the 1980s—hoping, in vain, to broker a fellowship deal for Peter Orlovsky from Hart, who had ties to the National Endowment for the Humanities. Looking back, Hart and Brookhiser make it clear that they hated Ginsberg’s politics, and apart from “Kaddish” and “White Shroud” (and maybe bits of “Howl”), they find little to commend in his poetry. Yet the tone of both essays is oddly serious and gentle when they get to Ginsberg the man and cultural icon—and Brookhiser’s piece even attempts a sincere if somewhat cockeyed reckoning with Beat writing. The irony of Whitman’s life is that his democratic chants failed to gain, in his own time, either the respect of the literary establishment or a popular American readership. The triumph of Ginsberg’s may be that so many Americans, including adversaries, listened and came away impressed by, if nothing else, his sweetness and his candor.

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Lima