I only froze for about half an hour today. That was the length of time it took to walk to Zuccotti Park from the Rector Street “R” stop, read two Allen Ginsberg poems–“A Supermarket in California” and “America”–have a brief conversation with the Library Comrade, walk back to the subway, and thaw out in the heated train, where the pain in my exposed right hand (the one that had been gloveless, holding the book) suggested that another few minutes would have meant dealing with some serious frostbite. Cold rain was pelting down, and the park was wall-to-wall tents, making me think of camping trips of yesteryear (from which I know that the best-pitched tents are subject to leaks). I couldn’t really imagine how the full-time Occupiers were going to withstand this onslaught.
I may have looked a little crazy standing on Broadway, trying to keep control of my umbrella, and voicing Ginsberg’s lavish visions of the sacred surfacing within the mundanities of consumer culture. It delighted me that the poet chose to invoke Whitman and Lorca, two poets previously featured in my readings to the lower Manhattan flux. I had in hand a paperback volume entitled, simply, Penguin Modern Poets 5 Gregory Corso Lawrence Ferlinghetti Allen Ginsberg (Penguin Books, 1963). Like several other books I’ve read from in strenuous weather since beginning the OWS poetry experiment, this one sustained some damage from rain and from the way I had to manhandle the yellowing pages to read into the driving wind while positioning my umbrella as a kind of shield: “Ah, dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher, what America did you have when Charon quit poling his ferry and you got out on a smoking bank and stood watching the boat disappear on the black waters of Lethe?” (p. 80).
Understandably, given the weather, there weren’t a lot of passersby dallying along the eastern edge of the park, but in the midst of my reading of “Supermarket,” an older man with a companion or two who’d evidently come to check out the Occupation paused long enough to tell me, “Allen Ginsberg is my favorite poet,” and listen to a few lines. Quite incredibly, when I got a little ways into “America,” I realized that a tall young man with a reddish beard, standing a few paces away and wearing what looked like state-of-the-art rain pants, was reciting the words of the poem right along with me. He wasn’t mimicking me; he actually seemed to know the poem! I grew more and more enthused, realizing as never before my freedom to shout or whisper the words, to act as crazy/inspired as I wished. Nobody could stop me as I assumed the voice of the poet’s daemon: “America I feel sentimental about the Wobblies./America I used to be a communist when I was a kid I’m not sorry./I smoke marijuana every chance I get./…I have mystical visions and cosmic vibrations./America I still haven’t told you what you did to Uncle Max after he came over from Russia” (85). It was incredibly uncomfortable there with my feet soaking wet but it was liberating to ignore the discomfort…for a few minutes more. I didn’t have to be afraid of the rain. Once I’d read the famous concluding line (“America I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.”) and thanked the kind bystander who suggested that the restrooms at the McDonald’s a couple of blocks away had blowdriers that could serve as pretty good hand warmers, I went inside the park to look for the man who knows Allen Ginsberg poems by heart. I found him talking to a couple of visitors, and learned from listening to the conversation that he appeared to have major responsibility for the OWS library. “Do you really know that whole poem by heart?” I asked, when I could get a word in. “Yes. That’s a beautiful edition,” he said, looking at my battered paperback. “We have an entire Allen Ginsberg section in the library here.”
I thanked him. He thanked me back. I made a beeline for the subway. By the time I got to Brooklyn, snow was already sticking.