It’s common knowledge that famous beat poet Allen Ginsberg wrote bits and pieces of his insane epic “Howl” in the city of Berkeley. Lesser known are his other poems that twist, rattle and reinvent his experiences in the college town, forever imprinting the poet and his work onto Berkeley’s self-image.
Only Ginsberg would write of “supersonic cock intensity,” weaving “crude night imaginings” and “childhood youthtime age & eternity” into a whimsical book of poetry “Reality Sandwiches.” Revisiting his poetry in 2014 is a nostalgic experience, as the famous poet layers scene after scene of adventure, sadness and ecstasy in a familiar but overwhelming style.
The collection of poems opens in New York and ends in Peru, finding Berkeley and the Bay somewhere in between. Written between 1953 and 1960, Ginsberg’s work spans continents and emotions in a poetic roadmap that showcases his classically chaotic structure and content.
In his piece “A Strange New Cottage in Berkeley,” Ginsberg writes about a cottage he rented in town for $35 per month. It was located six blocks from campus near Shattuck, according to his letters. He also wrote a short poem, “Scribble,” while in Berkeley in 1956.
The beat poet never received a degree from UC Berkeley, but he did spend time on the campus. He wrote in a 1955 letter to Jack Kerouac, “I have been seeing big Berkeley professors but I am anonymous nobody and can impress no one with nothing.”
This anonymity is familiar to any UC Berkeley student, and there’s a certain sadness to most of Ginsberg’s poems from his time in the college town. In his 1954 poem “Over Kansas,” he wrote while en route to the Oakland Airport, “Where shall I fly / not to be sad my dear?” This restlessness and anxiety is reflected in the book’s nomadic poems, which take him from Seattle to Mexico and elsewhere.
One poem chronicles a day Ginsberg spent on the UC Berkeley campus. In “Sather Gate Illuminations” he writes,
“And do you know that all these rubbings of the eyes & painful
gestures to the brow
of suited scholars entering Dwinelle (Hall) are Holy Signs? —
anxiety and fear?”
Maybe it was this sadness that pulled him away from Berkeley’s intellectuals, but Ginsberg also aptly describes something quixotic about the UC Berkeley campus. He writes of the campus,
“Now the silence is broken, students pour onto the square, the doors are crowded, the dog gets up and walks away… we all look up, silence moves, huge changes upon the ground, and in the air thoughts fly all over filling space.”
His poetry itself is much like thoughts flying all over, filling space. And its madness should be required reading for any Berkeley student.