The Architect of Emotion:

A Tribute to Allen Ginsberg

The Cathedral of St. John the Divine

May 14, 1998 New York City

 

by Livia Sian Llewellyn

 

When I was a child, I used to spend hours drawing architectural fantasies: sprawling cities planned down to the last room, the last closet. Every detail was developed under my patient hand. Even then I understood and respected the power that architecture has to create something out of nothing, to take earth and sky and shape itself around them, celebrating and defying them all at once, a paradox of artificial creation which changed the natural world around it. Later, I switched to words—in poetry, song, and finally acting; but the destination was the same, the act itself was the same: creation from something that did not exist except in the dreamings of the human mind, and a hope that it would last beyond the span of the creator’s life. The word, the architecture of the soul, was forever.

***

At 5pm on Thursday, May 14th, I carefully made my way down slick concrete steps into the subway at Prince Street. A friend and I poked our way through the rush hour crowds onto the N train to 42nd Street, and proceeded to listen to a hundred or more strangers talking about Elaine and Jerry Seinfeld, as if they had just finished speaking with them on their cell phones. I swiveled my head around to look at the ads, and in place of the usual plastic signs for womens' clinics, scotch, and Dr. Zizmor's facial peels, there was one continuous strip for a cereal, with the words "yadda, yadda, yadda" repeating endlessly. I turned away, but the strip continued on the other side of the car. The train stopped and started, more and more people crushed into the tiny space, and I began to think how easy it would be to simply get off at the next stop, and go home. I bit my lips and tried to keep breathing. I heard the rattle of a Jujyfruit box. Finally, at 42nd Street, I forced my way out, and followed the winding ramps and stairs to the express train to the Upper West Side.

I sat down next to a young man, maybe 20, in a cream polyester suit and fishing hat. He had a copy of "Naked Lunch" on his lap, his head bowed over it in concentration. I wondered if he was going to the tribute, but didn't want to disturb him. I've never been able to read on the subway, and couldn't help but be impressed that he had it with him, though I noticed he never seemed to turn the pages. By around 80th Street, I felt a gentle pressing against my shoulder, and turned slightly to confirm that he had indeed fallen asleep on my shoulder. I let him slumber, and looked around the car, wondering who would be going to St. John's, and who would be standing outside Tom's Restaurant with the camera crews and satellite dishes. We were all looking at each other, thinking the same thing.

At 110th, the car emptied. I left the young man behind, hoping that he would wake up before the doors closed. I had a momentary vision of him waking up in the Bronx, alone in the car with his book still on the same page, silence all around him. Then I was swept up by the crowds onto the bright streets; and after a moment of disorientation, started to slowly make my way to the cathedral.

The Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City is unfinished. It lies in a curve of earth at 112th Street in Harlem, deceptively small from the outside. Scaffolding seems to coat it like a layer of netting, so it is impossible to comprehend the true size of the building. I approached the building from its left, walking past a small garden area thick with green trees bushes in full bloom. As I passed the garden gate, I stopped and stared in at a small stone plaza several steps up, with benches in a circle around a sculpture. The sculpture was massive. Green and gray with age. One, perhaps two stories tall. From a thick pedestal a chalice seemed to rise out of the earth, widening out into the form of a huge crab. Out of the back of the crab rose what appeared to be an eye-shaped sun, leering and smiling as it pushed its way out into the world like a Lovecraftian god. On the top of the sun, figures leapt up and out, as if catching an invisible wind to the stars: twisted animal and human-like beings, writhing and curving razor-sharp around and inside each other. The figures lifted themselves up into the air with a brutality and pagan sexual energy that seemed to defy the notion that human hands had ever fashioned this monument. It was so alien and alive to me, it seemed as if perhaps it had been left here, millions of years ago, by some visiting ancient race. As I tore myself away from the frozen movements of the sculpture, I wondered to think how it could have ended up here, in the garden beside a Christian cathedral.

I entered the cathedral with several hundred others, and we surged forward into the nave. And continued walking. And on and on, until it seemed as if I'd been walking for an hour or so. But it was not the expanse of cold gray stone rising up to the vault of heaven, it was not the length of the floor, the broad plane of stone pouring out almost to the horizon and beyond, that took my breath away. It was the immense vast space that the building enclosed, that startled me. To bend the will of space, of nothing, to the will of man, with simple stone and mortar--how could a thousand people, and a few words, beat back this nothingness that the cathedral so resolutely embraced? The stage was tiny, the chairs were laughably small, and I--I raised my head and said my name, and felt it plop down around my feet. Would this night too, be about Nothing? How could a few words and a few memories of a single man compete with the mass and will of this building? I took my place in the third row, and peered forward to the stained glass windows. Even the saints seemed overwhelmed and tired. More people came in, in a steady stream for an hour, until the entire floor was packed with bodies. At 7:00, the program began, and I resigned myself to an evening of slowly drowning in the massive presence of the church.

***

I can’t remember with any great accuracy the order of friends and compatriots of Allen who took to the stage to give their individual tributes. As much as everyone tried to fill up the vast space within the ribs of the arches high over our heads, the building seemed to take each person and reduce them in size, diminish their voice, and hold sway over our attention. The rows of televisions dotting the sides of the nave appeared to me like tiny flickers of light, almost inconsequential in comparison to the rough walls that forced my gaze straight up to a whirlpool of terra cotta tiles which formed the dome. In the shadowed light, it seemed to move in slow circles above us, as if gathering strength for a coming storm.

One by one people took to the stage and two high pulpits, all friends and compatriots of Allen. Stephen Smith, Steven Taylor, Bob Rosenthal, Andy Clausen, Ed Sanders, Jayne Cortez and others sang, recited Allen’s and their own poems--shouting, crying, laughing and cajoling the crowd into collective remembrance of Allen as activist and advocate for peace. Pedro Pietri had everyone singing a song about the tribulations of buying and wearing cheap shoes. Anne Waldman chanted and raved her way through a poem and speech honoring Allen’s campaigning against nuclear weapons. And Danny Schechter broke the taboo, and uttered the name that had been in the backs of all our minds. Schechter gave an angry and hilarious speech about the ineptitude of the media, their attention to the Show About Nothing, while doing little more in the way of coverage for the tribute than a small blurb in the Times, which listed the date as May 15, instead of the 14th. He read a Seinfeld/Ginsberg comparison list, noting the differences between the non-realities of a show about New York, filmed in Los Angeles, and a man who spent much of his life living in and writing about this city. Seinfeld was about nothing, he said, Ginsberg was and is about everything.

Natalie Merchant sang during the first hour of the three-hour tribute. She turned her back to the 1000-plus audience and poured out a Latin hymn to the high ceilings, letting her powerful voice dive and soar, unaccompanied, over our rapt faces. I hoped perhaps that this would be the cathartic moment, the moment in which we would come together, breathe the same breath, shout the same shout. But it seemed as if nothing could break the spell of the cathedral. During her third song, she broke down, and quickly but gracefully left the stage, leaving her emotion hanging like an unanswered question in the dusty air.

Person after person, tribute after tribute, all followed by laughter, reflection, applause. I began to wonder if I was the only one who felt as if something vital and alive was missing from the proceedings. That strong connection between audience and stage was missing. There was genuine emotion, powerful emotion. But—I was waiting for something far stronger. I was waiting for transcendence, for fire.

I did not wait in vain. Sometime after 9pm, when the light had bled from the stained glass, the cathedral presses darkness down its somber sides into our faces, when the motes of dust hung heavy in the cold air, someone took to the stage and set us on fire.

***

I was only thirty feet away from her, yet she seemed to have little more substance than the thin white flame on a candle. White face, slender bones, and a sweet smile that belied her years. Accompanied on the piano by Phillip Glass, Patti Smith slipped onto the stage with several sheets of paper. The applause quickly died—her presence pushed it away, and I felt, from my thirty foot distance, as if someone had firmly grabbed my head and said, attention must be paid.

As the soft piano notes rose into the air, Patti stepped up to the mike, and began to read from the sheets. Words by Allen, that I'd never heard before--a list, a litany, of, well, everything. Everything that seemed to strike the eye, if one paid attention while walking through the world. Her voice was deep and dark, it poured up from her gut and rolled out onto our faces like a wave, effortlessly. I felt a riptide pull me into the words, and hundreds of feet back to the entrance, silence and power overcame everyone. The list grew longer, the litany more powerful, and Patti's voice became thicker and deeper with some untamed emotion. It began to well up in her mouth, and she began to push harder and harder against it, and the words came out harder and stronger. The silence grew so strong, so thick. No one breathed. Everything was suspended in the architecture of her emotion, and Allen's words.

And it happened: she hiccuped, and gargled, and a thick stream of spit poured out of her mouth. The entire room shivered. I wasn’t sure what had just happened. Was she sick? Every hair stood up on my body, and my heart stopped. The words slowed, and we waited. This was the moment of extreme sorrow, the moment when the human heart would break, would stop, would fold into itself and withdraw. And she took it, she took the moment, she took the sorrow and the rage and our fear and amazement and attention and she pushed through it and fashioned it and forged it like hot metal. She took us to that place we had longed to go all evening, dragging us with her words, now so powerful and strong that they seemed to form a separate cathedral, rising higher and higher, challenging the mute power of St. John's, and our hearts were pounding with fear and joy as we rose higher and higher with her voice and as I looked up I could see the dome spin with the power of Allen's words, with the sound of Patti's voice, and I knew that for this second all threads of life led here, to this spot above us, whirling with the force and energy of his words; and the weight of the moment pressed into my heart, and finally the tears pressed out into the air. The moment collapsed; and the list ended, the notes died into silence, and our applause was nothing more than the cry of our souls flooding out into our hands and into the electric air before us. Patti's band started up, and she stepped up again to the mike, this time to speak "Footnote to Howl", and we surged forwards as once again she pulled us into the dark waters of her voice. Ripples of screams and shouts shot from the length of the nave, and as the pace quickened so did our breath, our hearts, and our hands fluttered before us in anxious synergy. Patti ended the poem, grabbed a clarinet, and let out a scream of notes that seemed to shatter the cold, and send the heavy tapestries shuddering in the arc of the sounds. She let the instrument howl, let it be ugly, angry, loud, obtrusive--and as we howled with it, I marveled to think that in this evening of gentle tribute, it took a moment of absolute loss and fuck-you-anger to galvanize us into that moment of catharsis, when every emotion poured forth unchecked. I thought of Jack Kerouac's words "…I not only accept loss forever, I am made of loss…." and reveled in this most Beat of moments, howling ugly sounds up into the slender arc of the cathedral. She ended the song on her knees, bowed before us and bowed before our city of emotion and memory; and immediately launched into a third and final song, screaming incomprehensible words into the mike, flailing about the stage, spiraling like a dervish, letting the sound carry her and us to some higher, rarer state of being. The audience writhed and screamed like an animal, and the image of the sculpture in the garden came to my mind--all of together now, stone and steel and flesh, moving and traveling in place, letting the universe whip us forth, together, pierced in the hearts by the knowledge that we were held together by something as fragile and mysterious as words on a page, slips of ink written by a man who was travelling far ahead of us now, perhaps creating new cities of word and emotion, always the architect shaping the road before us.

***

I do not remember much after she left the stage. I remember the Fugs singing. I remember Steven Taylor playing Ginsberg's harmonium at the end, singing a sweet, sad song written by Allen to the words of William Blake. I remember the video, shot hours after his death, of his apartment in the Lower East Side, pictures and books and objects left behind, meaningless now and yet still rich with history, still giving off the spark of his life. I remember raising my hand and tracing a circle in the air, feeling the wake of Patti's presence, the glow of our sorrow and joy receding back into the cold evening air. And suddenly, I was outside, hearing the lonely sound of my feet on the marble steps as I descended back into the Manhattan night. I had left the cathedral in silence, though everyone around me was laughing and talking. The city was cool, distant it seemed, lights low and twinkling all around. I walked again past the garden gate, now locked, stared up at the figures still racing and fucking their path to the starry above, while the wind rustled all around. Even in stone they were moving still, creating an architecture of ideas in my mind, a cathedral of images. I added the memories of the night to the structure, the lift of the voices to the arches of St. John, the thundering swirl of the dome above us, and let it pour out into the city around me. And I held onto the emotion for as long as I could, until the moment slipped away into the stream of all things, as all moments finally do.

And it was not nothing. It was something. It still is, as I recite his words now, in the dark of my room, and feel that slender thread of life coil out from me into the world, seeking connection, letting me know that there are others out there, and to them, attention must be paid. It is Allen, alive in us and creating. Always.

***

 

Original drawing by Allen Ginsberg

 

To find out more about the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, visit their official website, at, which has a visual history of the cathedral, and scheduled tours, services, and events.

For more information about the Committee on Poetry, Inc., who sponsored Planet News: A Tribute to Allen Ginsberg, you can write to:

Committee on Poetry, Inc.
P.O. Box 582
Stuyvesant Station, NY 10009-0582

Allen Ginsberg, of course, has numerous sites dedicated to him. Below are a few of the best, all of which will lead you to a wider range of Ginsberg sites:

Literary Kicks: created by Levi Asher, this is one of the oldest and best sites on the internet, with extensive information on all of the major and minor Beats; Asher also has his own excellent fiction, "Queensboro Ballads" on the site

The Naropa Institute: there is an excellent Allen Ginsberg tribute page, with links to other sites, as well as memorial essays and poetry; from this site you can also access the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, which is the creative writing school founded by Ginsberg and Anne Waldman in 1974.

Allen Ginsberg: Shadow Changes into Bone: this site calls itself the "clearinghouse for all things Ginsberg", and it seems to be, with extensive biography, articles, interviews, photos, texts, news, book reviews, and more

City Lights Bookstore: if you want to buy any of Ginsberg’s books, then this is the store to go to. Owned by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, City Lights has an important place in Beat history, as well as stocking one of the most complete selections of Beat literature available

If you want rare and original printings of beat literature, there are three excellent sites, all of which provide a wide range of beat lit, ranging from the rare and expensive to the quite reasonably priced:

Water Row Books

Compendium Books

Dharma Books

 

 

Livia Sian Llewellyn can be reached at Hiraeth@ix.netcom.com