- Beat Farm
Life is our dictionary!—Ralph Waldo Emerson
It should provide no surprise that a poet like Allen Ginsberg, whose death was commemorated all over this country, in Europe and Asia, is the subject of another memoir. One danger for anyone writing about Ginsberg is the inability to measure the poet's historical guise as court jester—holy fool!—which is what limits the petty judgments of someone like Sam Kashner in his acerbic, self-serving When I Was Cool (2005).
Gordon Ball's East Hill Farm is much more than an account of two years managing Ginsberg's farm in Cherry Valley, New York, "of separate egos all fighting for their moment in Allen's sun," of a few nascent poets with radical sensibilities trying to redeem an abandoned farmhouse while raising vegetables in depleted soil. While it may not have the resonance of Peter Coyote's Sleeping Where I Fall (1998), it will stand as a prime historical resource and as a fascinating record of late 1960s America, its agitation and aspiration.
A village of eight hundred inhabitants, Cherry Valley is located in upstate New York, near Cooperstown, the town named after the patrician family of James Fenimore Cooper and now home of baseball's Hall of Fame. The seventy acre farm had no amenities: no electricity, no insulation, no heat other than a wood/coal Kalamazoo kitchen stove, and a broken outside hand-powered water pump.
Earlier, in New York City in the summer of 1967, Ball had been part of a group of experimental filmmakers who circled around Jonas Mekas's Cinematheque where, in the boiling crucible of new discovery, he had been introduced to group sex and psychedelics, the initiations of an avant-garde intent on changing consciousness.
Inspired by the natural spectacle of America presented so lyrically in On The Road (1957), Ball hitched cross country with his lover Candy O'Brien, and then down to Mexico, only to be arrested and incarcerated by Mexican federales in an arbitrary sweep of gringo hippies—a story Ball told previously in an earlier memoir called 66 Frames (1999).
The "black sheep son of a dour and distant banker," Ball had been raised in Tokyo, sheltered and socially inept. He was good-looking, passive but curious, caught by the sexual intoxications of youth that were particularly prevalent in that interval of liberation after the birth control pill in 1960 and before the AIDS virus. Both 23 years old, Ball and O'Brien were friends with filmmaker Barbara Rubin who helped Ginsberg find the farm and joined his group of followers.
The best feature of Ball's narrative of the time he spent at East Hill Farm, from 1968 through 1969, is the vibrant portrait of its "lost battalion of pastoral conversationalists": Ginsberg's equanimity despite the unplatonic frustrations of communal living, his dedication to his own work and to the commune he was supporting with poetry readings around the country; his companion, poet Peter Orlovsky, in a sometimes scary amphetamine rush, abrupt, abrasive, often cockeyed with the "operatic absurdity" of his shouting character; Peter's brother, Julius, a catatonic schizophrenic in the care of the communards who could go for days without sleeping or eating, a poignant slouching figure with a protruding belly and lowered chin who was once chastised for brushing his teeth in the dishwater, a brooding Bartleby solemn reminder of potential misfortune; poet Gregory Corso with his perennial propensity for chaos and catastrophe, an idiot-savant mixture of Falstaff and Charlie Chaplin; and Herbert Huncke, "a swan gliding down a limpid stream," his chameleon grace, consideration, and con-man heroin charm and suffering all displayed. Unlike Nathaniel Hawthorne at Brook Farm a century earlier, who mocked the ineptitudes of utopian transcendentalists in The Blithedale Romance (1852), Ball admires his subjects, even as he charts some of their crippling disabilities.
Ball's record is crowded with other visitors, but as concerned with the mundane quotidian of communalism: building a woodshed, cleaning the well, and, later, laying water pipes to the house, winterizing...