KIRPAL GORDON: So what’s your first take on Gordon Ball’s East Hill Farm: Seasons with Allen Ginsberg just out from Counterpoint Press? As a scholar of Beat and Postbeat literature, you know the many incongruities, biases and distortions this tradition has faced from the mainstream. In that context what do you think Ball’s memoir?
JIM COHN: Ball’s East Hill Farm is a corrective document to mainstream Beat bias or the entire Beat project falling out of favor with young poets today. It is a remarkably open and honest look at the agrarian & communal poetry scene Allen set out to create at the end of the 1960s. Last time I checked, social culture had moved online, so the problems of like-minded people living together collectively may be more abstract than when we were coming up. Being off the grid definitely wasn’t laced with the addictivity to it that it is today, but we had our own addictivities to deal with back then. On that score, society hasn’t changed all that much. But since climate change is our number one global crisis, and one that links generations from Ginsberg’s to Greta Thunberg’s, how we live together and how we use resources to fight our collective and individual carbon footprints still suggests that Allen was on the right track.
Within the context of the human global extinction from man-made over-exploitation of fossil fuels, we now live in a period of hyper-outrage. Partisan amplified outrage. An age of extremist hatred and fear. An age of Domestic Terrorism. The era of the Unite the Right white supremacist, neo-Nazi, neo-Confederate, neo-fascist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia 11-12 August 2017. The age of ongoing massacres of our youth by adults with mental and/or ideological illness with access to NRA-supported obstruction to common sense gun restrictions and laws. The age of preposterous guttings of American environmental law by the Chief Executive of the nation and appointed persons invested in the perpetuation of drilling, mining and fracking of carbon resources from within the Earth at the tipping point in humanity’s collective ability to transform our planet with universal energies derived from sun and wind. Some of that outrage is between youth and their elders––for not doing enough in our own lifetime to switch our coal and oil-based society on alternative and non-polluting energies.
In East Hill Farm, Gordon Ball presents Farmer Ginsberg, a side of Allen’s life that shows him learning and doing new things. Here, we see him in a different kind of performance than he is generally known for. At East Hill Farm, we see him, with friends and family, confronting myriad issues of survival related to living off the land. This is not the usual way Allen is portrayed or thought about. Definitely not the way media tended to portray him. Ball’s presentation of Ginsberg is not that of the towering poetic figure, the transcending spokesperson for equality and justice, the heroic blueprint advocate for gay rights, the resilient voice of freedom connected to the great liberation poets of the West: Blake and Whitman before him. What Gordon presents in this memoir is the Allen Ginsberg who practiced compassion in every aspect of his daily life and the Allen Ginsberg whose family––from his mother to his life-love partner Peter Orlovsky––showed Right Action in the loving, dignified and respectful treatment of people with normate-differing abilities.
KIRPAL GORDON: As for your eye to Ball’s corrective lens to the Beats, you’re taking me all the way back to “Howl” and its prophecy of the technocratic in Western civilization, specifically your remark about the internet and how addictive watching TV, computer and phone screens can be. I recall in Norman Ball’s Introduction (no relation to Gordon) that he speaks of his mind-set prior to writing Between River and Rock: How I Resolved Television in Six Easy Payments: “I began experiencing recurring nightmares of Molochian furnaces, screaming, terrified children and a pervasive sense of dread.” Although Norm includes an assessment of every major contemporary prose and poetry work on the subject of media and mass conformity, Ginsberg’s “Howl” is the watershed he draws deepest from. AG’s inclusion of every margin of humanity, his return to the body, his candid eye to sex, his ayahuasca vision of the Drake Hotel in San Francisco, his incantatory Whitmanic wavelengths of speech: he helped inspire a new level of openness, an ecologically connected all-one world village, a return to nature. AG was surely heeding the zeitgeist he had helped awaken when he bought land upstate for his “haven for comrades in distress” and his own Yeatsian “cabin of clay and wattles made.” Or as Neil Young put it: “Are you ready for the country because it’s time to go.”
Gordon Ball recreates this late Sixties into Seventies moment in history most effectively. His voice––sincere yet tactful, awe struck yet discerning––is clearly the most reliable among that motley crew of woe-be-gone poets and hangers-on. I also applaud its Beat Generation-Objectivist aesthetic, its form/content marriage. Primarily a filmmaker at the time, Ball narrates his chapters in short cinema-verité bits, haiku-esque farm scenes, telling-detail visits from the locals, sight-is-where-the-eye-strikes hikes and adventures, sketches of dinners and parties. Another element of the memoir’s value is that Ball gets off the farm and into downtown Manhattan plenty. His mentor Jonas Mekas and his avant-garde film friends mix most artfully with Ginsberg’s multiple New York worlds. It’s great sociology and Ball is an excellent tour guide.
He’s no patsy or groupie, either. Of all the characters in the book, he seems to get the most from Allen’s insights and ideas––perhaps because the journeyman-apprentice relationship is on a solid footing of mutual benefit, admiration and appreciation. At times, Ball seems the only member happy to work for the common good and grudge-free of Ginsberg, who comes off not as a soft touch or a putz but a deeply thoughtful, complex and moral human being surrounded by troubled people during a troubled chapter of American history, which was also the time of AG’s greatest contribution to American life and letters. Whether on the road reading poetry and raising money for many causes or whether on the farm reasoning with crazy people or convincing his friends to see the bigger picture, Allen is the catcher in the rye 24/7. He doesn’t seem to rest. Saving the world is a full-time gig! Ball’s portrait of him is truer and more complete than the media’s picture of a bearded and stoned wild man in the 1950s. AG’s self-selected family/tribe, on the other hand, seems to do their best to conform to beatnik clichés. Their youthful defiance and exuberant adolescent rebellion now read like a cautionary tale about growing old in the American poetry racket. Ball, by contrast, literally digs in; he learns how to grow an organic garden and orchard.
JIM COHN: I wouldn’t say that AG’s self-selected family/tribe was consciously trying to “conform to beatnik clichés.” Maybe the younger folk visiting the farm were experimenting with what they took as a rural model of Beat bohemianism. Some of Allen’s long-time friends and lovers, already known Beat Generation writers and artists, they weren’t conforming to the beat clichés surrounding addiction. They had adult drug and/or alcoholic problems all their own. As Ball points out, this comes at a time when Allen is at the farm researching his own serious case about the CIA’s involvement in Southeast Asian drug trafficking. Ginsberg was a key researcher of the drug trade and clandestine U.S. involvement in the latter 20th century opioid crises. The one before the opioid crisis of the early 21st century. There was so much disinformation coming from the government related to the war in Vietnam. One of Allen’s many achievements at this point in his life was pointing out the hypocrisy of U.S. foreign policy and that of domestic policies that led to War on Drugs. Ball’s chronicle offers additional proof that verifies to posterity this research Allen brought to light.
As “farm manager,” Gordon provides a remarkable portrait of Allen & his friends over the period of 1969-1971. I was not prepared for the granular detail and overall fine writing that carries you through this 400-page book. While I’d heard talk around the legendary “Cherry Valley Farm” for years, I really knew little of the particulars. There was only so much these settlers knew, and considering most of the original scouting party came from New York City, what drew them to the parcel was more aesthetic than practical.
KIRPAL GORDON: Unfortunately, what drew some of the members to the farm was less about living in the country than living far from certain white powders. Since “needle drugs” were outlawed on the Cherry Hill grounds, inevitable clashes of will arose when people were jonesin’ or scorin’, sweatin’ their way out or divin’ their way deeper down. Indeed, in my experiences with intentional communities, failing to obey ground rules can tear a group apart. It is a maddening scene to master when some work while others don’t work and yet cash their checks all the same from Mama Ginsey’s Committee on Poetry, Inc. In these regards, Ball proves most diplomatic in his descriptions of daily life.
JIM COHN: Having lived and participated on an organic farming commune up in St. Lawrence County, north of the Adirondacks, called Birdsfoot Farm from 1988-1992, I felt a kinship with Ball’s descriptions of making the house habitable, dealing with water and electricity issues, raising crops, and especially dealing with those arctic upstate New York winters. I was familiar with much of the work Gordon describes as well as the neighbors who lived nearby and how there were important relationships to maintain between people at the farm and the community at large.
One tell as to what that relationship was is how well Allen himself was respected around the greater rural Cherry Valley community. Although at first they were an odd lot living in the countryside cut off from the things to which they had habituated in the city, I was also familiar with the desire to live intentionally with others and the power of that desire, especially for young people, as I was when I made a deliberate decision to commit to that communal lifestyle for a period of time in my youth. And I could see Allen’s own attraction to the lifestyle, following Gary Snyder’s lead, as central.
KIRPAL GORDON: Ball’s memoir really makes that point clearly. I read the Gary Snyder-Allen Ginsberg correspondence back between ‘68-‘71, and I wondered why Allen never quite got settled on the land he purchased next to Snyder’s community in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. After reading Ball, I gather that Allen’s predilection to shepherd his East Hill flock suggests that his obligations may have been more to people than to places.
JIM COHN: Along with that, you do see a commitment at East Hill Farm to practices that Gary Snyder wrote about when he introduced his own works on ecology and bioregionalism, based in large part on his anthropologic understanding of The Old Ways in both indigenous cultures and among those who came before us, before our times. I’m thinking of his Earth Household as a key work still relevant today.
We know from the Ginsberg-Snyder correspondence that Allen made a conscious choice between west and east coasts to lay down some roots of his own in the mid-to-late 60s, after a decade of fame and its myriad responsibilities from unleashing "Howl." Ball provides invaluable context as to the reason Allen chose to settle back east. Much of it had to do with Ginsberg’s sense that the monies fame provided him be used to take care of family members and Beat poetry friends who suffered from either communicative disorders, mental illness or addiction. Say what you will about Allen’s family and friends, weighing their artistic output against their self-destructive personalities and conduct, Ginsberg treated people with disabilities with basic sane respect deserving of all human being. Allen, himself, was at the core of one of the key “essential effects” of the Beat Generation; that is, he practiced the demystification and/or decriminalization of cannabis and other drugs. Most people perceive of decriminalization only in reference to how the law treats people disabled by their drug use. Ball’s narrative makes clear, in ways I myself saw firsthand, that Allen also meant decriminalization to mean how society treats people with body-related differences outside the normative.
Ball does a very good job laying out these relationships and their difficulties––better than any able-bodied writer writing about him that I’ve read. And Gordon’s also very clear that Ginsberg was clueless when he was convinced by American filmmaker and performance artist Barbara Rubin, best known for her 1963 underground film Christmas on Earth, to purchase the property. Ball writes a very clear picture, by the way, of Barbara Rubin who is an undersung woman of the Beat Generation. According to Ball, Rubin wanted to marry Allen and have his babies on the farm.
All Ginsberg seemed to know was that he had a fund set up to help poets unable to take care of themselves, and that he wanted the farm to be a place where people could dry out, rehab, and be treated as human beings with their own personhood. Whether it was one of the Orlovsky brothers, Hunke, Corso or Bremser, Ginsberg wanted to extend to those marginalized friends a safe and reasonable place to attempt a healthier lifestyle.
Allen also needed his own personal refuge from the pressures of fame and fortune; a place to which he could retreat.
KIRPAL GORDON: The lifetime struggles of the people you mention––with drug and alcohol addiction as well as mental illness––suggest that Allen Ginsberg was in way over his head. I’m not saying he did not love his friends, only that they may have needed professional help. In twelve-step parlance, one might say he was enabling, to some extent, his friends’ addictions. Viewing through a Buddhist lens, is there a more compassionate way of seeing this challenging and tricky situation?
JIM COHN: I suppose, from a Buddhist perspective, the compassionate way of seeing Allen’s situation is that he needed to be in “way over his head,” don’t you think? That’s what Gordon so successfully conveyed through his narrative. The farm was, as many homes can be, a financial sinkhole. I mean, it took until 2007 for Americans to learn first-hand what a genuine money pit owning a home is. Allen is forever off the farm touring during this late 60s, early 70s period that Ball is describing. Doing readings all across the country.
At this point, poetry is his occupation, his job. He needs all these readings he’s doing across the country. He needs this bread for one thing: the farm. Homesteader Ginsberg perseveres and there are enough people and monies around to settle in. It’s a good story about how if we knew up front what we know about things we dreamt of doing young, we might have never done them. That’s what makes being involved in things way over your own head not a bad thing necessarily. It’s what you make of it that matters.
Ball describes at least two important things that happen to Allen while he was living at East Hill Farm. First, he got his music scene together and wrote music to all of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience. These songs were to become an important aspect of Ginsberg readings in the years that followed. Along with them, he began his recording career; something that in the age of The Beatles, Bob Dylan and Ray Charles, Allen wanted to expand into in order to reach younger people.
The second important thing that happened to him was that East Hill farm is the place where he learned that Jack Kerouac.
KIRPAL GORDON: I despaired at the sinkhole side of Ginsberg’s farm-owning; he’s the only one chipping in with money. But I really enjoyed reading how he grew his musical chops. He learned from anyone who came around who could play. I think part of that impulse toward music may have come from gigging so much, which is to say that I think he took his very successful long-lined prophetic mind-breaths as far as he could. The next level is song! You know, from incantation to manifestation. I think the other draw was that the Beatles, Dylan and Brother Ray used simple musical forms. The payoff came from how all the elements combined. It can be a very liberating feeling for a free verse poet to write in song forms, and getting Blake recorded showed Ginsberg at his best: he threw himself into the project. Yes, he was appealing to a second generation of youth through song. So, in regard to your question––do I think Allen needed to be in over his head––I would answer: maybe. Ah, but had he not had to rescue broken-down people or worry about the heating bill or the impact of the latest antic of his comrades on his farm neighbors, who can say? I get the feeling that East Hill may have failed as a retreat for Ginsberg and his extraordinarily busy life. Ball makes it clear that Allen came there to write, study and make phone calls, but not to work with the team digging the well or trimming the garden or feeding the barn animals or building the new road. The esprit de corps that unites people doing physical labor in a concerted effort is what Whitman celebrates in Leaves of Grass: “The simple, compact, well-join’d scheme, myself disintegrated, every one disintegrated yet part of the scheme.” By contrast, Allen, for all intents and purposes, was by himself at East Hill Farm. He put out fires, talked members off ledges, settled disputes. But being a single parent can get lonely and exhausting. Imagine: had he stayed in town, taken voice lessons, hung with first-call musicians who could show him a few things about chords and composing and melody; had he had more conversations with people as interesting and multi-dimensional as himself, had he spent more time around folks who were not hitting him up for a hand-out, who knows? When the phone call comes that tells him Jack Kerouac is dead, would everything have been different?
JIM COHN: Ball writes his book as if each little chapter is a frame in a movie. This makes total sense since movie making was his primary art form at the time. That said, he’s clearly a very keen-eyed visual writer with a memory for detail. There were sentences in his book that you never see punctuation as formal as that anywhere nowadays. His sentences have a compression to them. The feeling I felt took me back to a Henry James novel at times. I’m thinking about Gordon’s description of Lafcadio Orlovsky, who was basically mute, speaking to his mother on the landline telephone not realizing that she had hung up minutes before. This is a work of long sentence and short but plentiful with oft exquisitely fast chapters.
There’s an amazing energy that comes from Ball’s nonfiction. I can understand why Ferlinghetti raved about it. Gordon’s gift to posterity includes this written record he produced of the experiences he had at the farm. He was really the eyes of that world. I was so impressed by the way he managed to speak kindly, thoughtfully and respectfully of everyone who passed through, even if all some people brought to the farm was chaos, narcissism, selfishness and misery.
I mean Corso gives him a black eye. Often times he’s the lone sane person holding down the fort. The parent in the room. So, he really practiced, really lived a nonviolent life, a truly examined life, which I believe is what drew him to making this work fifty years after the fact. Even when his timeline focuses about him––his loneliness, his sexual relationships with women and men, his work on the farm, his travels to NYC or further south to visit family––he manages to keep the camera’s focus and the reader’s attention on the world itself.
Ball is candid about his bisexuality but it doesn’t define him. And he’s candid about sexuality at the farm in general, but neither does it define life at the farm. There is a sexual revolution going on across America at this time. People are more open and feeling more natural about their sexuality. Women and men. Sex is not going to be a taboo subject at the farm or in any context as long as Allen Ginsberg is its primary resident. But it’s not going to be the only subject by which one is defined. It’s obviously not a taboo subject for Gordon Ball either.
It’s neither remarkable nor unremarkable that women pass through the farm. But does the book do justice to the women on the farm? Their sexuality; their feelings about what this farm represents to them personally; their thoughts about bohemia, utopia, community and feminism; their sexual identity and artistic dreams? I’d say Ball reserves that degree of revelation only for himself. By bringing in his sexuality to the text so openly, so matter-of-factly, he provides numerous scenes from the farm suggesting a typically casual approach to sex among those living or visiting there, including Ginsberg’s own open and matter-of-fact approach to his own sexuality that came about at great expense, beginning with traumatizing psychological repression of his gay sexual orientation.
Within the context of these sexual and political progressive views comes the phone call to the farm; the short call Allen takes to hear that Jack Kerouac is dead. To me, this marks a profound moment in the history of the Beat Generation and impacts on the generations of poets that knew these writers in life as well as through their works. It begins the process of evaluating one of the strangest realities of the Beats, and that is Jack Kerouac’s views of sexuality and politics after the mainstream fame he found for On the Road and Dharma Bums. For all the fame Kerouac finds in the publication of Road and Bums, he follows a path of increasing misogyny and political conservativism; be it in regards to Old Boy Old School roles for women in the home or men serving their country in fighting nationalistic wars without ever asking if these wars are morally, ethically or even karmically worth fighting at all.
What happened to Kerouac? There’s this moment you and I have talked about. Snyder rejects Jack’s depiction of him in Bums. By all accounts, Snyder’s rejection is devastating to Kerouac. Gary’s own views on women were changing with the times, growing with the expansiveness of feminist theory, feminist power, and with the manifestation of significant shifts in how men and women viewed one another and themselves. As Snyder’s anthropologic and mythopoetic appreciation of the feminine grew, Jack’s views on women and politics seems to have reached an early and dysfunctional stasis from which the writing just stopped in terms of consciousness, in terms of loving kindness to self and open heartedness toward others. Jack grew more introverted with time. More withdrawn.
Over time, Kerouac and Ginsberg’s correspondence reveals a certain kind of disdain Jack held toward Allen, who learned much from Kerouac regarding not only a sense of poetic spontaneity, but also what Buddhism offers to the West: a way to look at one’s own mind and the root of neuroticism and spiritual liberation. There’s a sense you can’t help but get from their letters that the immense breakthrough Kerouac achieved through the publication of Road became a disabling factor for such a private person as Kerouac was.
I mean, primarily as a writer. The writer’s solitary life dedicated to the writing. Of being around others, but as a witness, an outsider to the lives people who don’t write lead. The lonesome solitude of “October in the Railroad Earth.”
It’s kind of like the old saying, “Be careful what you wish for,” in that what Kerouac appeared to have loved best about being the writer he was was the writing itself. But the Beats had a unique situation going in terms of media and mass suffering. Jack and Allen were media figures. For example, there was William F. Buckley, the conservative intellectual media personality, who challenged the Beat ethos directly, live on television. Jack, who in his prime was one of the greatest spoken word artists of any century, didn’t have the orality moxie to talk past Buckley directly to American youth.
But Allen did. Allen grew up in a family of debaters. It was the family pastime. Debate was second nature to him. He had the mental equipment to challenge authority, social convention and conformity, nationalistic hypocrisy, global injustice. I think Jack ended up projecting blame upon Allen for his own inability to navigate the contemporary culture spotlight that had embraced him. Jack gave rise to a counterculture that he felt no real connection to. The counterculture was Kerouac’s Frankenstein. It was too much responsibility for Jack to bear.
Ginsberg and Snyder were on the progressive side of history as Kerouac sank into a closed-minded view of people of color, women and politics. I’m saying this as a poet who came through the Kerouac School at Naropa and never regretted that decision for a second. Jack might have worked with his own naked mind through the 12-steps and found a way forward to expand upon the exuberance of best works––I’m thinking of Visions of Gerard, Dr. Sax, Desolation Angels (Part One), Visions of Cody, and The Scripture of the Golden Eternity. I tell myself, to paraphrase Hart Crane, that Jack was the rose that grew out of the mud puddle. He arose from his own French-Canadian American working-class background only to be trampled by his own footsteps.
Kerouac’s retreat from youth culture was complete when he died cut off from his Beat friends in St. Petersburg not long after Allen was establishing Cherry Creek Farm. But not Ginsberg. Allen is engaged at the time in cross-country major anti-war poetry readings, Be-Ins, protests and creative spectacle-theater demonstrations against the war in Vietnam. He’s appearing in court at the trial of the Chicago 7 speaking quite sanely while showing the insanity of the government’s opposition to his political positions.
What’s going on in America during the Vietnam War cannot help but appear in the pages of Ball’s book because Allen was at the center of the anti-Vietnam War Movement that attempted to inform young people not to say yes to war, to resist war non-violently, in an informal appreciation mirroring the political process behind the Civil Rights Movement, of making one’s voice heard, and allowing for other actions to prevail such as joining together with other citizens to mass protest and mass demonstrate against the failure of all wars.
When I read that chapter in East Hill Farm on Kerouac’s death in St. Petersburg, which I’ve visited and gone to the bar where Jack met his fate that precipitated his end, I thought to myself, “He’d be watching FOX news today if he were still alive. He might even be part of Trump’s base!”
|Thanksgiving, 1969: From left, standing: Julius Orlovsky, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gordon Ball, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Creeley. Front, seated: Gregory Corso, Peter Orlovsky|
KIRPAL GORDON: But as Gregory Corso puts it during a conversation with Bob Creeley and Lawrence Ferlinghetti and the East Hill Beats about Kerouac’s death, “We’ve got to have both sides of the story, Jack’s is one” (page 224). That faith and sense of unity the Beats felt toward one another since their Columbia days appeared to be over. Ball also makes clear that AG and company were still reeling from JK’s recent and final published essay “After Me, the Deluge” in the 26 October 1969 Los Angeles Times, five days after he died. The bard from Lowell (and a lover of St. Theresa) delivered some hard and bitter words for his old running buddies. The New York Post was waiting for Allen’s comment on the essay. As Creeley told Ball, “Allen felt it was a no-win situation.” Around the time of that essay, Kerouac was phoning Allen to inform him of the “Great Jewish Conspiracy.” Do you see what I mean?
Take it all the way back to his novel Big Sur, published in 1962. I think it’s sadly obvious that the master of spontaneous bop prosody was suffering from acute and severe alcoholism. It’s a tough way to go out, especially for a lover of freedom and a seeker of Beatitude like Kerouac. At some point, the booze takes over; the booze does the talking, the planning, the denying and the hustling. The spirits of alcohol broke him down, made friends look like enemies, reinforced worst tendencies. He left his life of travel and pilgrimage and returned to the misogyny and MAGA-like politics of his folks and the old hometown. Unlike his Tokay days of old, he now had money, but he was isolated and living with his conservative mother and wife. He seemed quite disconnected from the rucksack revolution, the New American Poetics tradition, the hitch-hiking of highways and the repudiation of Joe McCarthy’s abduction of democracy: the restless, wild, roman candle-bursting version of America he had helped inspire. Perhaps his powers of observation and his love of his friends––his real gift and his real subjects––were gone. Diving into the bottle did not bring back the gift or his friends! Let’s take it back to 1957 with his “overnight success” with On the Road. He was called King of the Beats and interviewed as if he were the spokesperson of a movement. That had to be disconcerting. To my appreciation Kerouac’s real contribution to American letters is right up there with Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Both novelists are under the spell of Charlie Parker, re-vitalizing language through the musical discoveries of the be-bop revolution. Heady stuff! I think his real compatriot in music is John Coltrane. Jack and John were hard working, spiritually driven seekers who translated their baptism into Yardbird’s flow and produced full confessional genre-defying upliftment and Wholly Communion for an audience bigger than just Beat and bop lovers. They celebrated their exodus from square America and their New Jerusalem offered us a perpetual rebirth of wonder. Future generations on the road to freedom will yet benefit. When I consider Kerouac’s oeuvre, I also think of Nelson Algren’s work as well: they give voice to elements of American life misrepresented and misunderstood in the mainstream.
I agree that Kerouac’s death birthed a profound moment in the Beat Generation. Call him a glutton for (or addict of) celebrity, but Ginsberg just kept staying pertinent throughout the rest of his life. To me, Allen’s counterpart in music is Miles Davis who was born the same year as AG and Trane (1926; Kerouac, 1922). Like Miles, AG stayed on the scene, re-invented himself, defied his own limitations, expanded the power of art to change people’s lives, especially the young at heart. Yes, he spoke to the next generations through music. Like Miles’ Bitches Brew which had just hit, Allen and his harmonium was the next chapter of the oral tradition he had been renewing since the Six Gallery reading (1955). Ginsberg would remain loyal and carry the flock of down-and-outers on his back for a long time yet, but regarding your remark about Allen being in over his head as not necessarily a bad thing, he loved his mother. She was crazy and institutionalized, so why shouldn’t he seek to make the world safe for marginality for his crazy and institutionalized friends?
Regarding your question, does the book do justice to the women of the farm, I would say there is not enough evidence to hazard a guess. It’s kind of out of focus. I don’t get the feeling that the community, at least the men, thought too much about gender roles or women’s rights particularly, though these issues were big time and mainstream back then. As for Ball, he was only a few years out of college and new to the game of love. Yes, it’s great reading of his open-mindedness, but (like all of us) he had trouble de-coding the messages of his partners, which led to more entanglements than enlightenments. Ball is refreshingly matter-of-fact regarding sex, as you point out, and a lot like Allen on that subject. But I find that reading about other people’s sex lives can get tiring.
Where does Gordon Ball excel? I agree with Ann Charters, who calls him a “Beat Boswell,” and Bill Morgan, who calls him “a masterful story teller [who] could turn a depressing tale of poets at rock bottom into a triumph of the human spirit.” That’s the real shot.
JIM COHN: East Hill Farm appears to me to be a work of outstanding personal research and scholarship. Charters’ remark suggests as much; the book is a matter of detective work, investigative nonfiction piecing together of various literary and historical sources. Ball had his own journals, as he reveals throughout the text. He seems to have compared his timelines with Allen’s notes, more likely than not, through research-visits to Stanford where the one thousand linear feet of Ginsberg papers are housed for posterity. It’s a great trick of sorts how he lays passages from his journals with Allen’s again and again. One informs and illuminates the other. Is he reading Allen’s journals in the moments from the past he’s describing? Is he comparing his own journals to those of Allen’s after the passing of decades from within the confines of that reading room at Stanford with its myriad closed-circuit cameras recording visiting scholars every move?
I think the book was written to defy that otherwise “depressing tale of poets at rock bottom” you mention. I remember finally, years later, seeing the awful Alison Ellwood and Alex Gibney 2011 film Magic Trip, made from footage taken by Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters on their 1964 tour of America on a bus named Furthur and thinking to myself, “This looks like a hellava lot less than Tom Wolfe made it out to be.” There are things about rural America that urban America fears. Not the least among those fears is the dread of isolation; feeling cut off from the mass imagination of materialism and winning; the fondness for things to populate America’s servitude to capitalism. I would argue that Kerouac’s art leaned into the past for its sustenance. Allen’s leaned into the future. Gordon Ball, as the writing itself suggests, exhibits the power of the present.
There’s a certain magic in maintaining one’s presence and farm life is an ideal way to formalize that. In an idealized American literary sense, there’s Brook Farm and the Transcendentalists. But Hawthorne didn’t stay there all that long and he was a founder. Poets and writers do not make for the best farm laborers; not in America, generally speaking. Hawthorne thought better of his Customs House work after feeling his soul buried under cow shit. Emerson never joined the community though he was invited several times. Thoreau seemed to feel his individualism would be thwarted living there. Solitude was far easier for him to making a writer’s life from than working a community farm.
But Gordon had the wherewithal at this period in his life, regardless of the sense that he had of not knowing if this was the right path for him, to make something out of the materials and beings before him. It seems to me that Ball saw a form of activism by simply keeping record of the Great and Small changes within and around him. In collecting enough data, he exhibited a trust that it would lead to its own trends, much like the study of the weather. You take the temperature of a place daily, note the amount of precipitation and wind speed, the humidity in the air, barometric pressure, and pretty soon you’re mapping out climate change, and hopefully, a way through our man-made changes to our planet.
There was one detail that I thought Ball would discuss that he never did and I’m curious what your take on it was. I’m talking about the coal-burning stove in the kitchen. Here’s Allen setting up East Hill Farm and there’s Gordon and friends tilling the fields, growing crops, moving in the direction of organic farming methods, and never does he talk about the coal burning at the center of their existence. Today, we accept that coal, as we have used it as a resource, is a major source of pollution. Was he trying to make a point about the limitations of our idealism? I don’t really know.
KIRPAL GORDON: You bring up interesting issues about Ball’s method of scholarship, data collection and access to Ginsberg’s archives at Stanford. There is something thorough and thoughtful and detective-like going on in East Hill Farm, just like Ball’s earlier work as editor of Allen Verbatim: Lectures on Poetry, Politics and Consciousness (1974).
As for coal, as for gender roles: I don’t think it was on the minds of the East Hill community much. From my own experience of living upstate (mid-Hudson Valley), I would say that avoiding freezing to death often takes on the phrase: by any means necessary. As you note early on, Allen and krewe made it up as they went along. So many of the “improvements” of the farm seem born of the moment, not exactly the result of planning. On the other hand, spontaneity served them well. They kept finding people who knew what they didn’t know, whether it was about water or roads or cars or heaters or ditches or musical chords. The memoir pays tribute to the kindness of these country folks who come to the aid of the city folks often and in good spirits. Indeed, it is the opposite of the rural/urban split dividing the nation at that time.
As for idealism and its limitations, I can say for sure that Ball exposed the limits of my own idealism throughout his memoir! I wanted to dive into the tale on any number of occasions and confront Peter Orlovsky, Herbert Hunke, Ray Bremser and Corso on their intent (conscious or unconscious) to sabotage the community. Total props to Ball for his patience and equipoise!
The strength of Ball’s position––and the strength of the story––is his trust and insight into what Allen was doing globally/locally. Each page brings you deeper into his apprenticeship not with Allen but with the behavior AG is modeling as a poet, artist, citizen, communard. As you say, Ginsberg’s having fun with the locals, but he’s also marching against the war, raising money for incarcerated comrades, researching the CIA’s drug involvement in Southeast Asia, testifying at trials, speaking truth to Nixon’s war-mad power play, reading and writing poetry from this insider’s point of view. His sacks of mail alone are keeping the town’s post office from closing! As you noted on Kerouac, he knew the loneliness of the long-distance runner but couldn’t enter the cultural revolution he had helped instigate. Ball demonstrates how Ginsberg skillfully joined with a number of progressive forces to stop the war and widen our lens to view a rainbow coalition, the latest iteration of Whitman’s Democratic Vista. To whip that old contrarian phrase, it was the counter-culture’s finest hour. Bodies were dropping. In 1970 law enforcement killed white and black students at Kent State and Jackson State. It was no time to be aloof or ironic. Just like now. The country is so divided down the middle that no one seems to be listening to the other side much. I think that’s the value of Ball’s memoir; it’s a corrective not just to the Beats but to a form of openness, a way of being, that the nation is in danger of losing.
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