Allen Ginsberg and AIDS

Or, the sorts of nerdy obsessions that keep me up at 1 in the morning.

In all of the published poetry Allen Ginsberg wrote between 1978 and 1990, he mentions AIDS only twice. His poetry is weirdly free of the constant allusions to the disease that appear in the work of any gay male writer living in New York in the ’80s, as Ginsberg did. In addition, if his poetry (which is invariably autobiographical) and his journals are any indication, he remained sexually active throughout the period, which boggles the mind somewhat. How did he manage not to die of AIDS (he died of liver cancer in 1997), much less ignore the phenomenon as his friends and fellow writers and neighbors in the East Village died around him?

The first time Ginsberg mentions AIDS, it is in a poem called “Sphincter,” dated March 15, 1986 (very much after the disease’s initial terrifying outbreak). Here, the reference is an entirely self-serving one; Ginsberg stresses that his “good old asshole” must now, due to AIDS, only admit “the condom’d orgasmic friend.” Usually a faithful commentator on current events, here he has managed to go seven years without a peep about the thousands of deaths in his microcosm and now his only remark is that AIDS necessitates that he practice safe sex? This isn’t the poet I’m used to.

The second reference to the syndrome in question comes two years later (February 13, 1988), and the poem is called “Grandma Earth’s Song.” Ginsberg talks about how he encounters a crazy homeless woman who then chants in rhyming couplets a crazy homeless chant about what an awful state the world is in. Many of the observations “Grandma Earth” makes are the ones we’re used to hearing about the Reagan years—the chant references the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians and violence in the Middle East in general, the state of the economy, quite a lot about the state of the environment, and—in one little offhand reference—AIDS. It’s an interesting commentary on the world of 1988, and the gay literary/cultural world in particular. What little exposure I’ve had to the gay literature and popular culture of the period suggests that the gay male community was completely traumatized by AIDS, shut down to the point that it couldn’t think of anything else. And yet Ginsberg, in his treatment of AIDS, chooses to put the concern expressed in a lot of very high-minded literary endeavors into a crazy woman’s ravings—the sentiment couldn’t be farther removed from that of, for example, Angels in America. And yet, if Ginsberg’s intention is to suggest how paranoid all such fears seem—fears about violence and war, money, even the ozone layer and an epidemic—the attitude towards AIDS does make sense, albeit seem a bit of a strange way of confronting such a huge and omnipresent issue in Ginsberg’s world.

I suppose that Ginsberg was never so much a figure of gay liberation; he never placed himself within a thoroughly gay world, the way a great many other 20th-century gay writers did. Perhaps this was a result of his early repression and self-loathing, perhaps it had something to do with the fact that the men he lusted after and fell in love with were invariably heterosexual (Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, and even to an arguable degree Peter Orlovsky), or perhaps it was more to do with the fact that Ginsberg’s Buddhist sensibilities suggested the bridging of subcultural boundaries and the oneness of humanity, just as they did two decades before when he was an avenue of communication between Berkeley student protestors and the adults trying to combat them. And so it seems reasonable that he wouldn’t have seen himself as a spokesperson for the gay trauma in a way that many of his contemporaries did, and that his struggles would have been more cerebral or spiritual and not a question of the daily fight for survival that seems to have characterized much of the rest of the gay community in the ’80s.

There is a poem from March 1990, “Numbers in U.S. File Cabinet (Death Waits to Be Executed),” in which Ginsberg does a sort of by-the-numbers of problems in the world: things like “100,000 alcohol deaths yearly,” “$100,000,000,000 to 200,000,000,000 estimate nuclear weapons complex cleanup costs,” “3,000 citizens disappeared in Government custody Peru 1972-1979.” But whereas my reading suggests that any number of gay writers would have placed (and still place) the thousands of gay men lost to AIDS quite prominently in that list, there is no mention of these deaths in the catalog of what is wrong with the world.

On some level I believe that the always-self-centered poet really just wasn’t interested in the personal struggles of other people; AIDS lacks the high-minded idealism of the radical student movements or even the nascence of the Beat Generation, and I imagine there was less to interest Ginsberg there, particularly in his later years, when he seemed primarily occupied in summoning up the spirits of the friends of his youth or of his poetic influences (usually Blake and Whitman, his particular favorites). Practically, it’s incredible that Ginsberg didn’t contract AIDS himself, and wildly implausible that he wouldn’t have had at least one lover or close friend who died of it—even if he had stayed at Naropa in Boulder or abroad for all of the ’80s, which is not at all the case, as I know that was living in the East Village for at least some of that time, he couldn’t have avoided the reach of AIDS.

But I suppose that, here, Ginsberg provides some much-needed perspective. After immersing myself for quite a while in writers to whom AIDS is critical and life-changing and traumatizing and galvanizing, it’s a reality check to note that it was not quite so central to every literary figure in America, or indeed every gay literary figure. And perhaps that was the point; Ginsberg always stood out, and perhaps he wanted to be the one gay poet in the ’80s who wasn’t writing about AIDS. I guess that if that were the case, I couldn’t really blame him.

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2 thoughts on “Allen Ginsberg and AIDS

  1. CHRISTRAPER

    This is such a strange response. Basically you are saying Ginsberg could of said more about AIDS. Implying that he had a responsibility to say more because he was gay. Also, you express almost a dismay that he didn’t seroconvert, but yet he was so sexually active. How could this be? All the other guys were doing it?

    Anyway, strange. How old were you in 1990, may I ask?

    I cannot find the reference, but I’m pretty sure it was Allen Ginsberg who said “The whole world has AIDS”. I’m gonna jump out on a limb and say that it was in Rosa Von Prunheim’s movie “Silence = Death”. In that (grim) movie he speaks directly about AIDS.

    Also, here’s from an interview around the time of “White Shroud”:
    http://www.stevesilberman.com/ginsberg/wer/index.html

    “SS: AIDS is not mentioned in White Shroud.

    AG: No. I’ve had a couple of tests for myself for AIDS, and apparently have come out negative. Maybe been saved by my preference for straight kids. And I haven’t met too many people that’ve had direct AIDS horrorshow — haven’t avoided it exactly, it’s just that I move in funny circles and I don’t live in the Castro. But it’s affected my sex life a lot.

    I use condoms now and do safe sex, and I’m very hesitant to blow somebody and take their sperm unless I know them real well and know their history, and they’ve been tested. And even then — even friends that I think are safe, I don’t think I would fuck them without a condom or be screwed without a condom — at the moment.

    I’ve somewhat exhausted my aggressive grasping for constantly getting laid. I seem to lay off — relax a little bit more, want a quiet night at home working, more than running around urgent. It’s added another element of — let’s say discouragement of the idea of going out and trying to find new meat. Or more hesitant to try and put the make on students, simply because it’s another barrier to go through — to explain to them that I’ve been tested and I know how to do safe sex — or, you know? Certainly there are a few people who I wanted to make out with who were worried about AIDS — who otherwise, maybe in another generation, might’ve been willing to swing to see what it was like.

    I imagine in the next year I’d want to get into more contact with the actual AIDS clinics and people involve. At the moment I’m having hypertension from stress of doing too many things at once. So it’s like taking on another activity. I’m sort of waiting for it to happen naturally. I’ve raised money for them but haven’t had any real direct contact with people suffering. “

  2. Clare Quilty

    Ginsberg really said he might have been saved from AIDS by his preference for sex with straight kids? Kind of a stupid comment, because there is plenty of straight HIV transmission out there.

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