The lawyer, the poet

Tony Kushner

IN FEBRUARY, TOM STODDARD, FOUNDER OF LAMBDA LEGAL Defense and Education Fund and the Campaign for Military Service, champion of lesbian and gay and human rights, legal luminary, and now a tutelary divinity of progressive people everywhere, arrived in Paradise: cocktails with James Madison and Ida Lupino, testimonial dinners, epic sex parties, day trips to hell to witness the agonies of slow-roasting homophobes. Two months later a round, bearded bald man, who on wings of gorgeous ecstatic poetry had been a frequent visitor to Paradise, also arrived (after a brief but intense and enlightening purgatorial for having supported the North American Man-Boy Love Association) to take up permanent residence: Allen Ginsberg.

Stoddard’s memorial service was a celebration of the majestic power of reason–in the hands of a brilliant, courageous, indefatigable practitioner–to move mountains. Anyone there who wasn’t as politically engaged as he or she ought to be (and who is?) left feeling chagrined and inspired. The service reflected Stoddard’s impossible energy and his large-spirited politics, which anticipated goodness forthcoming from even the flintiest places, if only one were willing to work for it.

There’s a rumor–and I hope it’s true, but I can’t confirm it–that there was a discussion in the offices of The New York Times the day Allen Ginsberg died: Should his picture be on the front page of the paper? It was on the front page, but I hope the rumor’s true because it demonstrates how spectacularly indigestible a real radical like Ginsberg remains. No laurel-wreathed investiture, no opulently produced anniversary volumes can transform the fundamental dangerousness of a poet like Ginsberg, breaker of vessels, madman. Bertolt Brecht dismissed play wrights who “hate capitalism because it is not harmless as they themselves strive to be.” Ginsberg hated capitalism and strove mightily to be full of harm to the harmful, part of Moloch’s overthrow.

Stoddard and Ginsberg: representing two great polarities (artificial as all such polarities must be), two lodestars beneath which all our contradictions and hopes are feverishly engaged. Stoddard believed in law, in the progressive potential of American constitutional democracy. Ginsberg, a Buddho-anarchist, participated in many political actions but belonged to no movement, including any organized lesbian and gay rights movement. America was for him “the Paranoia Smog Factory,” and he has a point. But Ginsberg was protean. His work made the work of subsequent organizers, activists, writers possible, including Tom Stoddard’s. Think of how much we owe, politically as well as culturally, to our poets! Wilde and Whitman, Ginsberg and Audre Lorde, Robert Duncan and Adrienne Rich! Ginsberg had been outrageously out since the early 1950s, Duncan since the 1940s, far in advance of practically anyone else.

I too believe in the progressive potential of American constitutional democracy–and in laws, affirmative action, and civil rights legislation–and, pace Ginsberg, I believe that child abusers should be put in jail. Anarchism is that absolute freedom from all but affection toward which we aspire; we aren’t there yet, and though we must be hopeful and patient, we mustn’t be too hopeful and especially not too patient. We need our anarchists, and we need them badly. The Stoddards of the world build our sheltering houses; the Ginsbergs of the world, at their best–and when Ginsberg was at his best, there was no one better–the Ginsbergs provide us with far horizons and sublime vistas, with the infinite blue we glimpse through slowly parting thunderclouds. Ours is a politics of sexual preference, of sexual liberation, of sex: Sex and politics is an explosive, a radical combination. One might think of Stoddard’s lucid legal writing and Ginsberg’s deliriously defiant, carnal, beautiful poems as our nitro and glycerin or as demarcating the boundaries that our vast ambitions, our culture, our politics, and our lives must encompass. We must strive to become paradoxical, explosive beings: sexual citizens, lawyer anarchs.

Here’s what Ginsberg keened after hearing of the death of William Carlos Williams in 1963, these lines as funerary tribute to two giants who have left us for Paradise:

Mourn O ye Angels of the Left Wing! That the poet / of the streets is a skeleton under the pavement now / and there’s no other old soul so kind and meek / and feminine-jawed and him eyed can see you / What you wanted to be among the bastards out there.

COPYRIGHT 1997 Liberation Publications, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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