Poetry in the Photos of Allen Ginsberg

Ransom Riggs

Beat icon Allen Ginsberg wasn't just a poet -- he was a photographer, too, who took his camera on trips abroad and on trips around his own neighborhood in order to "fix the passing hands of time" once in a while. In doing so he created a whole portfolio of portraits of the now-famous members of his nakedhysterical generation, many of which have never been seen before and are featured in a new show at the National Gallery called "Beat Memories." Here are some of my favorites, with Ginsberg's handwritten captions transcribed into legible type:

Jack Kerouac wandering along East 7th Street after visiting Burroughs at our pad, passing statue of Congressman Samuel "Sunset" Cox, "The Letter-Carrier's Friend" in Tompkins Square toward corner of Avenue A, Lower East Side; he's making a Dostoyevsky mad-face or Russian basso be-bop Om, first walking around the neighborhood, then involved with The Subterraneans, pencils & notebook in wool shirt-pockets, Fall 1953, Manhattan.

Gregory Corso, his attic room 9 Rue Gît-le-Coeur, wooden angel hung from wall right, window looked on courtyard and across Seine halfblock away to spires of St. Chapelle on Ile St. Louis. Gregory's Gasoline was ready at City Lights, in attic he prepared "Marriage," "Power," "Army," "Police," "Hair" and "Bomb" for Happy Birthday of Death book. Henri Michaux visited, liked Corso's "mad children of soda-caps" phrasing. Burroughs came from Tangier to live one flight below, shaping Naked Lunch manuscript, Peter Orlovsky and I had window on street two flights downstairs, room with two-burner gas stove, we ate together often, rent $30 a month. I'd begun Kaddish litany, Peter his "Frist Poem."

Peter Orlovsky at James Joyce's grave, Zurich Switzerland December 1980, we climbed up the cemetery and found Joyce's statue snowcovered, brushed it off his head.

W. S. Burroughs at rest in the sideyard of his house looking at the sky, empty timeless Lawrence Kansas May 28, 1991. But "the car dates it" he noticed when he saw this snapshot.

I sat for decades at morning breakfast tea looking out my kitchen window, one day recognized my own world the familiar background, a giant wet brick-walled undersea Atlantis garden, waving ailanthus ("stinkweed") "Trees of Heaven," with chimney pots along Avenue A topped by Stuyvesant Town apartments' upper floors two blocks distant on 14th Street, I focus'd on the raindrops along the clothesline. "Things are symbols of themselves," said Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. New York City August 18, 1984