Allen Ginsberg, who passed away in April 1997, once wrote a defiant poem entitled, “Capitol Air,” which begins: “I don’t like the government where I live.”
I met him in 1981 in Buffalo, New York, where he read ― actually performed ― the poem to music on stage. The celebrated poet, who heralded the Beat Generation with his monumental poem “Howl” in 1956, fascinated the audience by reading his newly written poem: “I don’t like Communist censorship of my books/ I don’t like Marxists complaining about my looks/ I don’t like Capitalists selling me gasoline/ Coke multinational burning Amazon trees/ to smoke Big Corporation takeover media mind.”
Listening to his poetry reading, I became fond of Ginsberg, for he was obviously a great man who had the capacity to criticize both extremes. He was a well-known critic of industrial capitalism, and yet he was equally critical of communism: “(I don’t like) paranoiac (Soviet) tanks sit in Prague and Hungary/ But I don’t like counterrevolution paid for by the C.I.A./ Tyranny in Turkey or Korea Nineteen Eighty.” But he was not for anarchism either: “I don’t like Anarchists screaming Love is Free.”
Indeed, Ginsberg was a defiant poet, radically different from conforming Korean intellectuals and writers. For example, unlike Korean leftists who are curiously silent about the tyranny, concentration camps and nuclear weapons in North Korea, Ginsberg was courageous enough to speak out: “I don’t like K.G.B. Gulag concentration camps/ I don’t like the Maoists’ Cambodian Death Dance/ 15 Million were killed by Stalin, Secretary of Terror/ He has killed our old Red Revolution for ever.” If Ginsberg were still alive, he would have definitely added: “I don’t like the human rights violations in North Korea/ I don’t like the nukes in the Korean Peninsula either.”
Unlike Korean intellectuals who are either leftist or rightist, Ginsberg was caught in the crossfire of two antagonizing ideologies: capitalism and communism, both of which he vehemently denounced in his poem, writing: “No hope Communism, no hope Capitalism.” I was also deeply moved to hear the Jewish-American poet chanting, “I don’t like Zionist acting Nazi Storm Troop.” After all, he was the man who had been expelled from Columbia University after scribbling a joke about Jews on a restroom door.
Thirty years have passed, and yet Ginsberg’s husky voice and the defiant atmosphere of his poem still linger in my ears. I often wonder why we do not have such a great poet in Korea. Why do our famous poets, caught in a territorial dispute, have to rush to Dokdo and chant anti-Japanese poems there, claiming, “Dokdo is our territory,” whenever our politicians and media instigate patriotism? Poets are supposed to be aloof from politics and ultra-nationalism. Why then did our poets have to publish a book of poems celebrating the victory of the Korean soccer teams in the 2002 World Cup held in Seoul? Why do our poets hurriedly come up with a poem charged with patriotic fervor, when asked to write in celebration of the foundation day of our country?
When America celebrated her bicentennial, Donald Hall wrote a poem, “On Reaching the Age of Two Hundred.” The poem begins rather calmly, “When I awoke on the morning/ of my two hundredth birthday/ I expected to be consulted/ by supplicants/ like the Sibyl of Cumae/ I could tell them something./ Instead, it was the usual thing/ dried grapefruit for breakfast/ Mozart all morning, interrupted/ by bee’s wings.” It was a serene poem in which there was no fanfare, no patriotic fervor and no excitement. And there is absolutely no glorifying the nation. Instead, the poet contemplates the problems of the American Dream: “At my birthday party/ I blew out two hundred candles/ ... and slept and dreamed/ of a house ... with two hundred rooms in it.” In contrast, few Korean poets would attempt to question the validity of the Korean Dream when writing a poem commemorating the anniversary of their country.
Unlike Ginsberg, Korean intellectuals almost always take the side of one ideology and stubbornly adhere to it, passionately praise it and even preach it as a gospel. As a result, we have two antagonizing, uncompromising ideological camps permeating in our society, which stubbornly refuse to negotiate with others. It is inscrutable that in a divided country like Korea, Leftist intellectuals, not “border intellectuals,” become fashionable celebrities.
Before his death, Ginsberg wrote to President Clinton, demanding a medal of honor for what he did for America. Of course, it was a sarcastic joke from the author of the poem, “America,” which begins with, “America I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing.” When Ginsberg died, I buried him in my heart. Every April, the true “border intellectual” comes back to life, whispering to me: “Why should you categorize yourself either as a progressive or a conservative? Instead of choosing one of the two, why not stand in between? No great man confines himself to a faction, a clan, or a political ideology.”
By Kim Seong-kon
Kim Seong-kon, a professor of English at Seoul National University, is editor of the literary quarterly “21st Century Literature.” ― Ed.