DOWN ON GINSBERG'S FARM
It would be hard to take much of an interest in the poetry of the 20th Century without taking an interest in Allen Ginsberg - and having devoured his Collected Poems, his terrific exchange of letters with his father, and Barry Miles' fine biography, I've now been able to read Gordon Ball's book East Hill Farm: Seasons with Allen Ginsberg (published in US hardback by Counterpoint, and in a Kindle edition).
One of the reader reviews said this: “A fascinating and disturbing time in U.S. history is echoed in Gordon Ball's riveting memoir of a period in Allen Ginsberg's life that was pivotal in Ginsberg's move to a truly serious Buddhist practice. The Cherry Valley farm commune of upstate New York is breezed over even in Ginsberg's own poetry. But here, Ball's training as a filmmaker gives us a slowed down gander at the often hilarious interactions of visitors Gregory Corso, Herbert Huncke, Ray Bremser, Charles Plymell and Andy Clausen with Allen and longtime companion Peter Orlovsky. At the same time, Ginsberg's voluminous correspondence and exhaustive traveling, as well as Ball's own adventures with Harry Smith, Bob Dylan and John Giorno in NYC, serve up a truly satisfying feast of well-documented detail. A book I didn't want to end."
That's a pretty fair summary (except that Bob Dylan barely comes into it). I enjoyed it immensely. Gordon Ball is by no means a great writer, and the parts of the book that deal with his own 1960s-70s sex life never quite shake off an uncomfortable retrospective mix of embarrassment and a slight salacious pride, but all the same his book is invaluable. It places Ginsberg's East Hill Farm commune experiment within both Ginsberg's own life & career and the ferocious anti-longhairs-anti-war-anti-peaceniks turmoil of the American society of the time.
What makes this so useful is the detail. The account we have here, of police violence and political trials, of Ginsberg's non-violent campaigning, of the level of readings he was forced to undertake in order to keep on financing the campaigns and the farm . . . all this puts us right back in the dark days of Nixon and the Vietnam War and the fragmenting forms of the “underground" opposition. But it also gives a virtually day-by-day account of life on the farm (and it was a farm as much as a commune): of neighbours helping with tractors, the struggles against the cold, the seasonal plantings, the daily chores of feeding animals, milking cows, keeping newborn goats warm, digging long channels for waterpipes... and interwoven with this, the dramas of East Hill Farm's often demanding communards and their guests (invited and uninvited.
Peter Orlovsky, a manic speed-freak prone to violence, of whom everyone else was at least a little afraid, comes out of this sustained and intimate portrait very badly: as someone so unpleasant and self-centred that it's hard to comprehend Ginsberg continuing to suffer him. This is not the view Gordon Ball intends to convey: clearly he feels that there is some kind of magnetism about the guy. He never conveys it. But if Orlovsky is at the crazy end of this spartan, hard-working commune's spectrum, Allen Ginsberg is at the other. Far from fitting the media's picture of him as a self-indulgent egomaniac, he emerges from this remarkably close, prolonged inspection as immensely patient, unfailingly courteous to others (often in the face of great crassness and oblivious discourtesy), thoughtful, modest, deeply self-disciplined, hard-working, rigorously conscientious and warmly likeable.
East Hill Farm is a fine vindication of the insistent note-taker and diary-writer and let's-film-everythinger. Such people are often seen as merely writing things down while those around them get on and live - but Gordon Ball worked at least as hard as anyone else on the farm (he was, in effect, its manager but did more than his share of the hoeing planting and weeding and carrying and storing and animal husbandry). And at the same time he was preserving what went down. His book hands it back to us, and without any detectable wish to rewrite history in the telling. It's richly detailed. It illuminates an era in recent American history few people attend to or know much about today. It's essential reading.
(Gordon Ball is the man who proposes Bob Dylan for the Nobel Prize for Literature every year. There is an entry on him in my Bob Dylan Encyclopedia.)