With the death of the poet Peter Orlovsky in late May a chapter in America’s cultural life came to a discreet end. The long-term partner of Allen Ginsberg, Orlovsky was the last surviving connection to the movement of writers that emerged from Greenwich Village, New York, in the 1950s and which became known collectively as the beat generation.
In contrast to Orlovsky’s quiet demise from lung cancer, the beats arrived on the American art scene with an explosion of amphetamine-fueled creativity. Their frank explorations of the twin taboos of sexuality and drugs helped to usher in the counterculture of the 1960s and, though their wild antics were the stuff of legend, they paid a heavy price.
Jack Kerouac killed himself with alcohol, while William Burroughs killed his own wife in a drunken parlor game gone awry.
Ginsberg’s most famous poem “Howl” begins with the famous line “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness.” With its graphic descriptions of homosexuality, it flayed the sensibilities of conservative America.
So much so, that the poem became the subject of a landmark obscenity trial brought by the San Francisco police department against a city bookstore for stocking the poem.
The 1957 court battle is the centerpiece of a film about Ginsberg due for release in September. Also called “Howl” the film stars James Franco as the poet and Aaron Tveit as Peter Orlovsky.
In the meantime, Washington’s National Gallery of Art is showing a selection of Ginsberg’s photography, called “Beat Memories.”
The fascination this iconoclastic group of young artists still inspire is evident in the exhibition, which features intimate portraits of Ginsberg and his circle taken from the 1950s up until his death in 1997.
The photos in the exhibition are spontaneous and expressive, many of them taken before the beats had achieved literary fame.
One snapshot shows Kerouac in downtown Manhattan, wide-eyed and mouthing something to the camera, a model of youthful exuberance. In a handwritten note to accompany it, Ginsberg wrote that the author of “On the Road,” — the most well-known of the beat novels — was mugging a “Dostoyevsky mad-face” for the occasion.
A later photograph of “Naked Lunch” author William Burroughs by contrast shows the ageing writer gazing skyward as he reclines on a beaten up old chair at his home in Kansas.
Ginsberg appears in some of the photos too: In a group shot taken by Orlovsky outside City Lights, the bookstore prosecuted in the obscenity trial. In it the young poet looks fresh-faced and nerdy in his trademark dark-rimmed glasses.
Not exactly the image you might conjure up for the man who wrote of “angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night” and who would resurface in the 1960s as a bearded guru of acid and free love.
The photo was dated a year before the trial. In spite of the district attorney’s contention at the time that the poem was “filthy, vulgar, obscene and disgusting” “Howl” evaded the censors and is now recognized as one of the seminal works of American poetry, no doubt helped by the oxygen of publicity generated by the original trial.
The poem presents a series of nightmarish images of young men pushed to the brink of sanity through their own excess and by the absurdity of modern life.
It is dedicated to Carl Solomon who Ginsberg met in a mental institution in New York State. Like the other beat writers, Ginsberg stayed close to Solomon for the remainder of his life.
As much as anything else the photos in the exhibition are a celebration of these enduring relationships formed by the poet over the years. With this in mind, one of the most moving photographs shows Orlovsky leaning over a snow-covered bust of James Joyce at the Irish writer’s graveside in Zurich in 1980.
Nearly two decades later the same man was at the New York bedside of one of the best minds of his own generation, when Ginsberg breathed his last.
This article was first published on CNN.com on 26 July, 2010