Allen Ginsberg, one of the most famous poets of the 20th century, was also a dedicated mentor and advocate of emerging writers, including me. My experience as Ginsberg’s protégé taught me valuable lessons that I apply to my own careers in freelance writing today. So, I’d like to share some insights into what it was like to work with this legendary writer and learn from his legacy while he was still alive.
Before meeting Ginsberg, I thought the most important component of writing was tight structure and coherent thoughts. I wrote in third person, avoiding first-person to keep things impersonal and consistent. The old adage “show, don’t tell” had been drilled into my head since grade school, so I never tried to share personal feelings in a paper; it simply wasn’t what academics considered to be proper writing style. But, after getting lost in discussions with Ginsberg about the nature of poetry (which encompassed everything from language and rhetoric to the fall of civilization), I saw the value of blending formal rhetoric with raw emotion. Good writing isn’t always logical or structured; it can have randomness or unexpected tangents or metaphors that produce beautiful effects and make a story come alive through prose.
I would craft my academic essays using all of my textbook-taught grammatical tools. I used to write in an academic fashion and not so much for communicating or storytelling. Some of my teachers told me that I should consider writing fiction instead of nonfiction because I had such a knack for storytelling, but it just wasn’t appealing to me. However, now that I am older and can look back on my past work, I can see what they were trying to tell me. These same stories that grabbed people’s attention are now being read by thousands on my blog.
I first met Allen Ginsberg when I was 11 years old; I was introduced to him by my father during a dinner party in Stamford, New York. While I don’t recall much about that particular day, I do remember telling him he was an inspiration to me. And he was.
At his best, Ginsberg was a master of alliteration, assonance and lyrical prose. He wrote beautiful poems about everyday life and made you feel like you were experiencing those things with him. It wasn’t just how he used words or even how he sounded when reading his poetry—it was how engaged and passionate Ginsberg appeared while performing his craft. He lived what he said, which only made it all that much more inspiring as a writer.
Ginsberg, or Allen, as I knew him, believed that the way in which schools teach writing was utter nonsense. He did not believe that spelling and grammar were particularly important. Instead, he encouraged students to express themselves freely, without fear of judgment or criticism. Allen famously said that poetry was the ghost hidden within the letters and wanted students to understand the magic in their language before worrying about proper grammar or spelling rules. Although I know it’s not for everyone, I found Allen’s method liberating.
I was mentored by Allen in high school and learned that he often used stream of consciousness writing to come up with his most genius ideas. This process is not for everyone, but it’s how he did it. I’m in no way claiming that I can pull off his writing style. But, for me personally, it rekindled my passion for writing. Allen also taught me to appreciate a specific type of rhythm when writing poetry that wasn’t always appreciated by my teachers growing up but was crucial to making any poem work. These rhythms he showed me made me realize that you’re never going to be perfect or better than anyone else; your only goal should be to enjoy yourself while trying your best at something new.
I’ll always remember how Allen listened intently to my thoughts, even when I was still a child. He valued my perspective, and I’m sure that he didn’t realize just how much that meant to me. It showed me that someone respected my thoughts, even as a child. It made me want to write poetry just like him. In his own way, he inspired me as a writer.
Allen spent the majority of his last years living with his cousin, Dr. Joel Gaidemak who owned a house on Franklin Street in Delhi, New York. My father would often take me to see him on Friday afternoons after I was finished with school. He would sit me down at the dining room table and teach me his methods, all of which completely unique to him, and far away from the mainstream teachings of academia.
I had once asked Allen why he chose to reside in Delhi, which was a few hours drive away from New York City. He replied simply telling me that living in Upstate New York gave him the freedom to go about his daily life, “without unnecessary interruption”. He explained that whenever he is in New York City, he is a celebrity and sometimes became overwhelmed with all the attention and criticism of his work.
One afternoon, Allen took me to lunch at a seafood restaurant in Delhi, New York. To prove his claim of utter anonymity, when the waitress came to our table, he said, “pardon me, I don’t believe that we have met. My name is Allen Ginsberg, and this is my friend, Thomas.”
The waitress simply replied, “it’s nice to meet you Allen Ginsberg, and you as well, Thomas, may I take your order?”
Allen gave me a trademark wink, followed my a nod of satisfaction, folded his hands and invited me, his guest, to order first.
Following lunch, Allen invited me to join him as we stopped by Stewart’s Department Store on Main Street in Delhi, New York. He had ordered a new pair of pants, and they had arrived. As we walked into the store, the manager simply showed Allen the new pants, and Allen nodded approvingly. The pants were then folded neatly, placed in a white cardboard box, and the box was bundled with some cotton string.
As we were walking back to his cousin’s house, I asked why Allen had requested that his pants, which he would likely wear in the coming days were in a gift box. His reply was simple: he enjoyed the experience of service, which, according to Allen, was something that, “would decline in quality during my lifetime.”
On numerous occasions, Allen suggested that I dedicate my life to writing. He didn’t want me to be a journalist, he told me, but instead, a writer of literature. The words stuck with me, and over time I began to accept his advice as sound. Sure, it’s great to have a writing career that pays the bills, but what good is money if you can’t use your talents to enrich and change lives? Allen certainly changed mine. So, if I can touch even one other person through my work—if I can inspire another young writer—then maybe my life won’t have been in vain after all. It was Allen Ginsberg who inspired me most as a writer; he’ll always be an influence on how I write today.
Allen believed that taking a counterculture viewpoint to modern education, specifically mine, would make me a better writer. The process of being forced to study what my peers did not consider important (or at all) has helped me form unique opinions and unique perspectives on writing. This habit of questioning everything I was told gave Allen a sense of my loyalty and confidence in myself. A good example of how he influenced my writing is from one time we were talking about his work Howl, which is considered by many to be one of the greatest poems ever written. We were discussing its origins as a protest poem against society, as well as its references to drugs and homosexuality.
I was going to write about how he taught me to write, but then I realized that there’s no way that even Allen could teach someone how to write. Writing is not just a craft, it’s also an expression of oneself—but still, it seemed fitting to talk about my own writing and how Allen Ginsberg inspired me and influenced my poetry and prose in a big way. He made me realize that I had my own voice; the combination of poetry and prose is something that few have been able to replicate before. That influence helped develop my voice as a writer; I have never looked back since then.
The image used in this article came from my family photo album, and was taken in the summer of 1994 at Camp Chateaugay.
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