Think of the irony if Allen Ginsberg - beat poet, anti-establishment darling and national thorn-in-the-side - became America's "Good Gray Poet"; a writer full of wisdom, tolerance and perspective.
Well, it's happening. Apart from the short haircut, the traditional suit and tie and his post as the vice president of PEN, Ginsberg may be a new man on the inside as well.Last Wednesday, after giving a rousing reading to a large crowd at the University of Utah, Ginsberg retired to a quiet reception in a private home. There, he exhibited the kind of large-hearted generosity one expects from Longfellow, not the swashbuckler who wrote "Howl."
On the Ayatollah's ransom for Salman Rushdie, for instance:
"What bothers me most," he said, "is we don't know enough about Iran to know why they're so upset. Perhaps Rushdie should sue for enough money to pay for bodyguards for the rest of his life."
Ginsberg also had some perspective - not bile - for Waldenbooks, B. Dalton and other chains that refused to sell Rushdie's "Satanic Verses."
"It's sad that the large book chains have become so big and international that it only takes one little virus to bring them down."
Those aren't exactly the rantings of a firebrand.
Except for an occasional comment, Ginsberg spent the afternoon asking questions and listening. Ironically, the cadre of young disciples gathered about him were the ones who spent the afternoon pontificating about how the world worked.
Ginsberg didn't patronize any of them. He simply listened. At one point he said he'd driven through Utah twice in 1965, but didn't get a sense of things. What was life like here?
The chorus of impressions he got ranged from jokes about the Angel Moroni to visions of the Great Salt Lake as both a "great, stinking puddle" and "one of the wonders of nature."
Ginsberg listened. He didn't offer cynical asides or make easy jokes. In fact, he seemed to be mentally stripping each answer of politics and prejudice and looking for the kernel of information. He asked about Kennecott Copper. He asked about the LDS Tabernacle, about the genealogical library and the Wasatch Mountain range.
He got 50 versions of each.
And in the end, what he gleaned from it all was the notion that Utah somehow polarized people. That the state drew out people's deepest passions. He'd have to spend much more time here to get any kind of a feel for the place. He'd have to come back.
It was, in the end, a more impressive performance than the pumped-up reading he'd given at the U. Mainly because it wasn't a performance. This wasn't Ginsberg on stage. This was Ginsberg at rest - a candid, aging rebel who now seemed to be finding a place as one of the "wise elders" of the American Nation.