- A Guru’s Path
The cover of A Life in Words presents a corporeal sensation—two serious, staring, bearded men, Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky, naked and embracing. The photograph, by Richard Avedon, is famous for having been displayed as a poster on lampposts all over San Francisco in the early 1960s, a signal of the gay rights crusade on its cusp. Peter Orlovsky was Allen Ginsberg’s companion for forty years, and the inevitable question (which I never asked) was, “how does it feel to live with America’s most famous poet?”
This rich and valuable collection of diary entries, journal notations, letters, poems and dreams gathered from various archives with copious, careful, and helpful editorial commentary by Bill Morgan answers my unasked question and helps to reveal an unexplained and previously unexplored corner of Beat history.
I first met Peter in the tenement walk up on the lower East Side he shared with Allen Ginsberg in early 1970’s. He was delighted to hear that I taught at Queens College because he had worked as an agricultural laborer on what is now its athletic field. When he was in high school, part of that field had been used as the last working farmland in the borough of Queens. Peter was particularly fond of my wife, Mellon, who photographed him picking a giant stalk of basil, looking like a centaur, or an earthy Mellors in Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928), for the inside back cover of his book, Clean Asshole Poems and Smiling Vegetable Songs (1978).
Peter was a taciturn and rugged man with a gruff exterior and a submerged, explosive intensity. To Ginsberg, he may have represented an opportunity to merge (as Whitman put it) with the “landscape of the common world.” Like Herbert Huncke or Neal Cassady, Peter expressed the Beat notion that writing is not the exclusive province of an aristocratic, university educated elite, that a more vital resource than the library or museum may be the idiom and lessons of the street and ordinary life. The paterfamilias of this view was William Carlos Williams whose suggestion to Ginsberg that an indistinct frontier separated a poet’s own prose journals from the stuff of poetry became a key ingredient in Beat writing and Orlovsky’s where the ideal of spontaneity and the need for emotional release was more of a priority than intellectual calculation and design.
Peter was subject to psychic distress that seemed to have been a shared familial trait: his parents, as well as each of as his four siblings, all spent various periods of time in psychiatric institutions. His father was a Russian immigrant who had difficulty coping with marriage and work who left his family early. His mother was on welfare and deaf, her face paralyzed after a botched mastoid operation. In one of his journal entries, Peter remembers a childhood in Wyandanch, Long Island, living in a bungalow near Pilgrim State Hospital (then the largest mental facility on the planet) with a tar roof, a potbelly stove, and an outside pump for water. In another entry, he recalls being repeatedly raped in a prison-like foster home. Later, he lived in a converted chicken coop without heat or hot water in Flushing, Queens.
The early journal entries form an anguished record of a shy and often inarticulate youth, suffering from loneliness and the inability to connect with women. The prose reflects his awkwardness and a groping for grace in language. Sometimes he could blurt linguistic power out of nowhere with a unique fusion of zaniness and existential depth as when he declared, at the age of twenty, to army psychiatrists who were evaluating him, that “an army with guns is an army against love.” The remark contains an essential Dadaist truth and a Kafkian poignancy that would earn him a small veteran’s disability check for the rest of his life.
He was twenty-two when Ginsberg fell in love with him in San Francisco a few...