Dr. Whitehead, Dean of the English Department in the Colleges of Arts and Sciences at the University of Arkansas swung a pretty big stick in his heyday there. He was able to get important persons of letters to come and give free (well, at least to the public) readings of their material. Notable amongst them were Ken Kesey and Allen Ginsberg. Mrs. Translator and I went to both of those.
The fliers had been distributed around town for a week or two. They were pretty much generic, essentially saying "Famous poet to give reading at the U of A on such and such date at 8:00 PM". Well, Mrs. Translator and I decided to go, as we try to be cultured individuals and I was very familiar with Allen from reading.
For the very few of you youngsters who are not familiar with Ginsberg, he was pretty much by consensus the most important poet of the Beat Generation. He, as a person of letters, was in equal standing with Burroughs and Kerouac in the 1950s and early 1960s. His epic poem Howl is still a classic. It is hard to read, because it is written in stream of consciousness mode.
The English Department promoted his visit very aggressively. There were fliers and paper posts, and also adverts in the student newspaper, and the alternative one, The Grapevine, (any Fayetteville expatriates who remember that one? It had adverts and coupons for the Bull'seye Pub for five game tokens and a beer for one dollar. They also had dollar pitchers of beer during happy hour, from 5:00 to 6:00 PM Monday through Saturday. Mrs. Translator and I were friends with the owner, and he would pull two, dollar pitchers of beer for us during happy hour and keep them cold for us and our friends even if we drank them at 8:00 PM. Unfortunately this bastion of culture was razed and replaced, along with other Dickson Street icons with the Walton Center for the Performing Arts. But I digress).
In any event, the night came when the poet came to read. Because of the fliers promoting a "famous poet" and "free", the venue was very crowded. The fliers did not in any way say who, except for his name, that poet was, or that he was a very prominent member of the counterculture. They did not say either that he was a confirmed and vocal homosexual. Now it gets good.
The venue was the largest auditorium at the University, the Science and Engineering Auditorium. For those of you from Fayetteville who remember your class sheets, it is SEAUD.
Mrs. Translator and I made our way into it, and it was crowded! We finally found two seats together and sat down, ready to hear some readings. As we looked around, there were hundreds of freshmen (we later learnt that they got ten points added to their grade after averaging to raise their gradepoint if they signed up on a sheet, a practice with which I disagree) and many older folks, looking retired and obviously wanting culture.
OK, the lights went up and out came Dr. Whitehead. He introduced Ginsberg and was mercifully short about it. Ginsberg came out next and thanked the University and Dr. Whitehead for inviting him to read. Next, he introduced his friend (actually his lover, but the best lovers are friends) and began to prepare to read. He opened his book, dressed in his tuxedo replete with cummerbund and ruffled shirt. His hair was still sort of long, curly tangle, but he had lost the beard that you usually see in his pictures. He did have quite the mustache, though.
The the words came. At the top of his lungs, he screamed:
"OH, YES, FUCK ME IN THE ASS!"
Then he paused.
The atmosphere of SEAUD sounded like dozens of coveys of quail had just flown away. The freshmen had already signed in, and had gotten their ten points, so they were gone. I suppose that they were ready to find some beer. I have never seen a freshman who did not have a thirst.
The older folks were more interesting. The ones straight in front of us sort of turned purple, gasped, and got up and left rapidly, muttering something unintelligible. After the opening statement, SEAUD was about 70 per cent occupied rather than standing room only.
Mrs. Translator and I went to the now open front row. It was pretty awesome to see a Beat poet deliver his work.
He recited part of Howl, but not all of it because it is so long. He also read a couple of other less well known works.
Then came intermission, and not much happened. The second act was as interesting as the first was, and the two of them sang (not very well, I would say, but they sang).
He and his mate sang about eating jam on biscuits. The jam supposedly had LSD in it. As memory serves, his partner was using a squeezebox for musical accompaniment. With my knowledge of chemistry, I do not think that is possible to cook jam and keep the LSD intact, but poetic license is OK for a poet.
Well, after some more reading, the show was over and Ginsberg invited the audience for free autographs. I am not shy, but Mrs. Translator at the time was. This is not any longer the case.
I got in line, with as I remember about four folks in front, and waited. I took my Norton's Anthology of Literature with me, since it had Howl in it.
After a minute or two, it was my turn. Most folks only wanted to get another autograph for their vanity. He was not a very tall guy, and was, may I say, somewhat portly. Since he was born in 1926, he would have been around 55 years of age, give of take since I do not remember exactly the year that he visited.
I offered my hand to him, and he took and shook it very nicely. I also offered my book to him and asked him to sign the white space next to the title for Howl, and he said, "now who is plagiarizing me?" I showed him the copyright and release, and he just laughed. "I like to make a living doing this, and I do get a royalty."
Then I looked at his wardrobe. It was very warm in SEAUD, and he had taken off his tuxedo jacket. I pointed to his shirt and asked, "What's on your shirt?" He said, "Did I spill mustard on my shirt?"
"No, you have something under it!"
"Oh, yeah" Then he stripped his ruffled shirt off completely and dropped it to the floor. Under it was his tee shirt.
"This is the Bob Dylan Rolling Thunder Review concert Tee Shirt. Here I am!" and he pointed out himself there. I was astonished. Here is the greatest Beat poet stripping off his wardrobe to show me a tee shirt from the 1960s, and talking with me as if we had known each other for years. We traded a little more small talk and he signed my book. I went back to where Mrs. Translator was, and we exited SEAUD and got into our 1967 Camaro (which I still have) and drove home.
I had just spoken with and touched the most important poet of the Beat Generation, and he was joking with me. I still have the autograph.
Here it is:
UPDATE: Folks, I am very gratified that a simple experience of mine would be discussed so much. Thank you very, very much for the attention that you have paid to this poor excuse for a post. I shall be back here, and most probably more often at docuharma since there is a three essay per day limit, and sometimes I have thoughts that would not see the light of day here because of all of the traffic, although I love this site very much.
Simulposted at docudharma.com