Allen Ginsberg's Secret

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June 5 1997 3:30 AM

Allen Ginsberg's Secret

What he did with Norman Podhoretz at Columbia.

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Allen Ginsberg told me something once and then swore me to secrecy, and I have loyally refrained from publishing anything about it. But he is dead almost two months now, and I consider that his wish on this particular point has met its statute of limitations and I am free to reveal the secret. To be honest, the secret is not especially sensitive. It may not even be a secret by now. A friend to whom I have just now confided the story tells me that some other writer may have heard the same tale and may even have published it somewhere, though about this I am not sure. Still, Ginsberg was the enemy of secrecy, the enemy, even, of discretion, which gives a double allure to any secrets that were his. To become a prophet, he once said, you must tell your secrets. So I am telling his.

The secret concerns his days as a student at Columbia College in the 1940s. Ginsberg worked on the school literary magazine, Columbia Review. This was no minor publication. John Hollander was the student editor and Ginsberg was one of the assistant editors. Herbert Gold was a major contributor. And among the other contributors was still another Columbia student, Norman H. Podhoretz. What Ginsberg confessed to me--it was in the fall of 1986, over lunch at Lanza's Restaurant in New York's East Village, around the corner from Ginsberg's apartment--was this: Podhoretz submitted a poem for publication, and Ginsberg thought it was pretty good. Still, he could see how it could be improved and, without asking Podhoretz's permission, he went ahead and made a few advisable alterations. And Ginsberg published the poem, as improved by himself. In other words, somewhere in the Columbia student literary magazine of the 1940s can be found a poem that, properly speaking, is by Norman Podhoretz and Allen Ginsberg.

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W hy is this of interest? It is because, in the years after college, Ginsberg went on to become the single most influential figure in the making of the counterculture, whereas Podhoretz, as the editor of Commentary, went on to become the single most influential figure in the making of neoconservatism. Never were two men more vastly opposed. They were two mighty generals, each commanding his legions of supporters and allies in America and around the world. And the reason for this terrible split between the two formidable personalities--according to Ginsberg's analysis, conveyed to me under oath of secrecy amid our plates of steaming pasta and the water glasses and the white tablecloths--was Ginsberg's collegiate sin, the never-ending crime: the unforgivable deed of having taken Podhoretz's poem and altered it without permission.

What was the historic poem, then--and what was the portion that was added or changed by Ginsberg? I sent a friend into the bowels of the Columbia library to dig up copies of the Review, which reveal exactly two poems under the name Norman Podhoretz from the period when Ginsberg was an assistant editor. One of the poems is called "Sunday School P.T.A. Meeting," from November 1946 (with a contribution by Hollander on the facing page). Is that the historic poem? One of Podhoretz's lines--"And somewhere the skies/ Are vomiting rain" might just be by Ginsberg. Or is the historic poem "Jeremiah," from February 1947 (with a poem by Ginsberg on the facing page, "A Paradox of Verbal Death," which begins, "If we're alive, then who is dead?")?

Podhoretz's "Jeremiah" goes:

Cry, cryFor your bowels are aching;Cry, cryFor the ground that holdsYour house is shaking--

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T he posturing, the jingles, the occasional lapses of meaning that you would expect from an undergraduate poem--these are all present in Podhoretz's student poems. Still, the poems show promise, which is not always visible in college magazines. But what will strike any reader today is the chest-pounding pomposity in these two poems by Podhoretz. The poems are meant to be declamations by a bearded Old Testament type--"O prophet unto prophet unto prophet unto nations." You can picture an ancient Hebrew shaking his staff or, as Podhoretz puts it in "Jeremiah," screaming "in the face/ Of stones of derision." In future years Ginsberg went on to transform that kind of open-throated declamation into the style of "Kaddish" and "Howl" and his many prophetic imprecations against modern American life. But it's also worth noting that, in a buttoned-down prose version, the same portentous style would emerge as neoconservative tub-thumping--the style of lonely, furious heroes (as they picture themselves) taking on the world in the name of truth, contemptuous of the liberal hordes, screaming in the face of stones of derision.

America's counterculture and America's neoconservatism, you might suppose, have nothing in common, except their war against one another. But they have in common the Columbia Review from the 1940s. They have in common a poem, whichever of the two it is, by the nearly inconceivable collaborative team of Norman Podhoretz and Allen Ginsberg. The counterculture and neoconservatism only seem to be opposites. They are actually variations on the same Columbia College hipster instinct for Old Testament windy curse-hurling, 1940s-style.

For a last anecdote, click.

Paul Berman is a contributor to the anthology On the Poetry of Allen Ginsberg, edited by Lewis Hyde.

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