When it comes to reading poetry, there’s no other way of putting it, Allen Ginsberg changed my life.
Before discovering Ginsberg all those years ago, my level of understanding poetry was that of English curriculum in schools. We studied a rather mundane literature programe you'd expect of a government-funded school. There were gems, however - Shakespeare, Arthur Conan Doyle and, of course, J.K. Rowling had fun cameos in the classroom. Their contributions to literature are outstanding, but I needed something more, a cheeky Saturday cocktail of words. Enter Allen Ginsberg.
I came across Ginsberg in a sad, underfunded local library; painted light grey and made to look cheerful and inviting with kinds finger paintings. I would go every evening after school and use their computers. I would spend hours taking in as much art, history and science as I could whilst on a rather weak child restricted internet connection.
One day I arrived and all the computers were taken, so I took to scavenging amongst a collection of history books. Buried under a stack of beige magazines detailing the ins and outs of the Gulf War was a hidden gem. This book looked no more exciting than all the rest, but the bold black text leapt off the cover. It was Howl and Other Poems by Allen Ginsberg, a name I’d never heard of before. Turning to a random page and scanning over the words I knew I had struck gold…
‘who ate fire in paint hotels or drank turpentine in Paradise Alley, death, or purgatoried their torsos night after night with dreams, with drugs, with waking nightmares, alcohol and cock and endless balls,’
To some, this could be considered a collection of deviant words, but for me they were thrilling. Having been introduced to the work of Walt Whitman before Ginsberg, I was familiar with an odd way of presenting the world and I also had an understanding some literature was once deemed dangerous or too ‘out there’ and I got the feeling Howl was in the same category.
Being twelve years old in the U.K. meant I was automatically restricted from loaning the book until I turned sixteen. At the time I remember it being the most frustrating situation. But this book had to be mine. I knew asking the librarian would have resulted in the book being taken from me and put in that pile behind the desk. The pile we all wanted to look through but never were given the change. Me being me, a rebellious goth kid, I did the only thing I could think of, which was to take it.
Hiding behind a stack of dusty knitting catalogues that you expect to see in the corner of your grandmother's living room, I peeled off the barely stamped issue label and stuffed it away in my school bag and promptly left the library. I’d never taken anything before. I never needed to take anything before, especially not a library book, but I had to have those words.
I remember walking home a longer, more time consuming route, just incase the librarian had realised something was up and she came after me. But It was the most exciting journey home I’d ever experienced. Reading those words gave me life. They were weird and wonderful and blatantly over sexualised and that was what I needed in literature. We’ve all seen those scenes in TV shows or movies where the kids find a porno magazine in the woods - this was my porno magazine.
Growing up, I have never once put Ginsberg to the back of my mind and I would definitely consider him my gay icon. His impact on my life has been so considerable in comparison to other gay or pro-gay personalities. That isn’t to say I cast others into the shadows, however, I do value them greatly, I’ve just not experienced someone who has impacted my sexuality in such a way Ginsberg has.
My sexuality was definitely influenced by Ginsberg’s writing; a door had been opened and on the other side was a plethora of possibilities.I became more comfortable in expressing myself with words as a young teen and my repertoire of queer artists, writers and musicians were expanded into realms I never knew existed before.
Since that day my relationship with Ginsberg and his writing has grown tenfold; his use of phrases, his method, his insanity — all have inspired and stuck with me. I’ve since purchased everything that’s been published and one of my prize possessions is a First Edition copy of my beloved Howl. My love of Howl came full circle when I got my hands on that rare copy. But, my wonderful library copy still lives on my shelf.