Allen Ginsberg Levitates Chestertown by Bob Day

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Editor Note: This originally appeared in “Here on the Chester” edited by John Lang in 1992. 

Since the early 1970s, Chestertown has been host to hundreds of literary figures from all over the world, including scores of Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winners, half a dozen or so Poet Laureates, plus four winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature: Toni Morrison, Joseph Brodsky, Derek Walcott and J.M. Coetzee.

Among the other literary greats brought in by Washington College were the playwrights Edward Albee and Israel Horowitz; the French author Alain Robbe-Grillet; the poets William Stafford, Carolyn Forché, Henry Taylor, James Dickey, James Tate, Billy Collins, Dave Smith and Lawrence Ferlinghetti; the Woody Allen screenplay writer Walter Bernstein; novelists Anthony Burgess, George Garrett, J.R. Salamanca; fiction writers such as William Gass, Mavis Gallant (of New Yorker fame), Joyce Carol Oates; plus our own William Warner, Chris Tilghman, Douglass Wallop and John Barth. And that isn’t the half of it. Just typing the list I realize I left off the poets Richard Wilbur, Donald Justice, Marvin Bell, Anthony Hecht and Gwendolyn Brooks—as well as perhaps the finest American short story writer of the 20th century: Katherine Anne Porter.

Not all of these writers ventured into Chestertown for any length of time, but many of them did. I remember walking to the White Swan Tavern one day to pick up Joseph Brodsky (he had come to Washington College with his translators, Anthony Hecht and Derek Walcott) and before I got there I found Derek Walcott browsing through the Compleat Bookseller. As I was early, I stopped in and Walcott talked a bit about the books he was buying (a copy of John Barth’s Letters if I remember correctly, plus William Warner’s Beautiful Swimmers).

Going out of the store, he asked me to walk him around town, and I did; he wanted to hear “apocryphal” stories of Chestertown and so I told him the one about how the local paper once carried the headline: “Baltimore Woman Dies at 92,” referring to a woman who had come here when she was two and lived the rest of her life in town but alas, was never considered a native, by the natives. I told other tales as well, some of them irreverent and politically incorrect, and he seemed to like those best.

When we got back to the White Swan, Brodsky and Hecht were in a debate about some translation problem in one of Brodsky’s poems and asked Walcott to settle it, which Walcott did by first looking at the Russian text of Brodsky’s poem, then at Hecht’s translation of the line, then at Brodsky’s translation of the same line. After a moment Walcott fished a coin out of his pocket and flipped it: heads Anthony Hecht, tails Brodsky. Brodsky won. In such ways are Nobel Prize-winning poems translated by Nobel Prize-winning poets. On High Street in Chestertown no less.

Later all four of us walked around, and the three of them recited various lines of Brodksy’s poetry, sometimes in Russian, and then in various translations. When we got to the town dock, Walcott retold a few of the stories I had previously told him, and Brodsky recited a poem to the river. As it was in Russian I had, of course, no notion why the Chester River should inspire the recitation of a poem, but it did: I do remember a waterman in his bateau looked at us, no doubt sure we were from “up to the College.”

There were other writers who took time off from their duties at the College to walk into Chestertown. In the early seventies, William Stafford (the only poet to get an honorary degree from Washington College) wanted to see the Chester River, and at the town dock he also recited a few lines of poetry, this one (in English) being:

“What the river says, that is what I say,” which is the final line of his famous poem “Ask Me.”

A few years later Katherine Anne Porter and I were walking from the College to the home of Norman and Alice James for dinner when she wanted to know if we could get a bottle of Virginia Gentleman at the Past Time Bar (now Andy’s); we could not, as it turned out, so she got it the next day on our way out of town. She did, however, stand me for “three fingers” of the “bar’s best,” and we arrived at the James’s “refreshed,”—to use Miss Porter’s word.

Gentleman at the Past Time Bar (now Andy’s); we could not, as it turned out, so she got it the next day on our way out of town. She did, however, stand me for “three fingers” of the “bar’s best,” and we arrived at the James’s “refreshed,”—to use Miss Porter’s word.

But the most celebrated walk through Chestertown was taken by Allen Ginsberg and his lover Peter Orlofsky, followed by a dozen or so Washington College student poets: a peripatetic Aristotelian stroll through the heart of town.

The night before, Ginsberg had given a reading in the Norman James Theatre (spelled with the “re” that Norman James preferred). The place was packed, mainly with students and faculty, but with many people from Chestertown as well. At the reading Ginsberg read some of his more famous poems: “Howl” (“the best minds of my generation have gone mad”), “Supermarket in California” (“What thoughts I have of you tonight Walt Whitman”), “America” (“I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel”), but Ginsberg also read for the first time his now celebrated poem “Mind Breath,” a poem that in its story circles the globe, starting that first night at Washington College, Chestertown, Maryland, and traveling through the times zones of the Western United States, then on to Asia and Europe, to return to the podium from where he read. It was an astounding poem.

The next day Ginsberg and Peter Orlofsky sat on the steps of the Richmond House (the Literary House of those days) talking about poetry. I remember Orlofsky had a guitar on which he would strum now and then in some relationship with whatever Allen Ginsberg was saying; I suppose it was a kind of emphasis, but I could never figure out a pattern.
After about an hour of talking with the students, Ginsberg got up and asked me if we might walk the campus and then through town. He wanted to levitate some of the buildings—both on the campus and off. “Sure,” I said. The dean had recently admonished the faculty to provide “unique educational experiences” for our students, and I thought a building levitation might look good on my annual report. “Engaged learning” we now call it.

“Levitate whatever you want,” I said.

“Can we watch?” asked one student.

“I’ll bet you can’t levitate Reid Hall,” said a woman with red hair.

Off we went, Ginsberg leading us with Orlofsky among the students strumming the guitar. Our first stop was the administration building, Bunting Hall.

With the students gathered behind them Ginsberg started a chant. “Ohmmmm. Ohmmmm. Ohmmmmmmmmm.” After a few moments when the building did not move, Ginsberg took small metal finger cymbals out of his pocket and, closing his eyes, rattled the cymbals and chanted with what seemed to me special vigor. “Ohmm! Ohmm! Ohmm!”

Still no movement of Bunting Hall.

“It is a very heavy building,” said Ginsberg. “No doubt full of bureaucrats.”

“Let’s go downtown,” I said. “They’ve been talking about moving the old jail from in front of the court house and maybe you can help them.”
“Lead on,” said Orlofsky.

So off we all went down Mount Vernon Avenue, then took a right at Kent Street, a left at Calvert past the post office (“Very heavy buildings,” said Orlofsky) through the park then to the jail—which has since been moved to the edge of the town by the railroad tracks.

Ginsberg and Orlofsky looked at the jail for a moment. They left our group and went around to the side by Emmanuel Episcopal Church and looked at the jail from that angle. From where we were standing we could see they were in earnest conversation, no doubt discussing the best angle by which to raise the building—Orlofsky apparently wanting to pry it up from the side, but Ginsberg holding out for a full frontal floatation. They returned. By now a number of townspeople had gathered around our group.

“Where do they want it moved?” asked Ginsberg.

“I don’t know,” I said. “But I think they’d be grateful if you just got it off the ground because that would at least be a start.”

“Jails are very heavy buildings,” said Ginsberg. And then to Peter Olofsky he started a spontaneous poetic chant (accompanied by Orlofsky on his guitar) enumerating the various jails into which one or the other of them—or both—had been tossed over the years. It was a splendid chant, and I wondered then if someday I might not see it in print as a poem. By this time I noticed that some of the men who were in the jail on the second floor had come to the windows to see what was going on.

“Maybe Reid Hall would be easier,” said the young lady with the red hair. But by that time the chanting and finger cymbals and the guitar were in full swing: “Ohmmmmm! Ohmmmmmm. Ohm! Ohm. Ohmmmmmmmmmmmmm!”

It didn’t work. For half an hour it didn’t work. No jail moved. Maybe a hundred “Ohmmmms!” The jail stayed on the ground. The inmates seemed disappointed.
But in the end it seemed not to matter that the buildings of Washington College and Chestertown could not be levitated. There was the story of them not moving. The story of the chanting. The story

of the walk back through town as Ginsberg recited Whitman’s poetry and his own, speaking a line of his, and then a line of Whitman’s, weaving an American poem a hundred years old and twenty years old at once. These stories were levitation in their own way.

Years later a student wrote me to claim the jail had in fact been raised by all the “Ohmmmmms.” He could see it in his mind’s eye, hovering above the ground, then easing down Cross Street toward the train station. The men in the jail were cheering as they went, as if to be in the air was to be free. I wondered what my student had been smoking that day.

Robert Day is the author of seven books, including works of fiction, poetry, and literary non-fiction. Forthcoming in 2015 are: The Billion Dollar Dream and Other Stories (Book Mark–BK/MK) and Chance Encounters of a Literary Kind, autobiographical essays on poets and writers (Serving House Books). He is the founder and first director of the Washington College Literary House Programs (Richmond House and the Rose O’Neill House), as well as founder and director of the Literary House Press.

Letters to Editor

  1. Chuck Engstrom says:

    Another local treasure from Bob Day, with a great illustration! However….

    Allen Ginsburg may not have moved the county jail but he’d be likely to spin right up out of his grave if he could see the misquote of “Howl.” How did this lightning-bolt first line:

    I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by
    madness, starving hysterical naked…

    get reduced to this modest passing cloud?:

    the best minds of my generation have gone mad…

    How has this survived unnoticed since 1992?

    • James Dissette says:

      Really good catch, Chuck:

      I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,
      starving hysterical naked,
      dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking
      for an angry fix,
      angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly
      connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,
      who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking
      in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating
      across the tops of cities contemplating jazz,

      • Bob Day says:

        Not only a good catch but the Literary Umpire of America ruled the dropped syntax in the first place was an error on my part.

        Bob

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