Ginsberg & the Flag

By Jeffrey Page

Allen Ginsberg was the greatest American poet. You could argue with me on that.

But if we sat in a room and read aloud from “Howl” about “angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night, who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz,” maybe I could convince you of his greatness.

Or we could read “Kaddish,” Ginsberg’s heartbreaking elegy to his mother: “She’d had a stroke – Too thin, shrunk on her bones – age come to Naomi – now broken into white hair – loose dress on her skeleton – face sunk, old! withered – cheek of crone – One hand stiff – heaviness of forties & menopause reduced by one heart stroke, lame now – wrinkles – a scar on her head, the lobotomy – ruin, the hand dripping downwards to death.” Could I convince you with that?

Recently, after seeing the movie “Howl,” I recalled that in 1989, when the Supreme Court ruled that flag burning was constitutionally protected speech, an editor at The Record in Hackensack, where I was a reporter, asked me to get a comment from Ginsberg. I didn’t get a comment; I got a poem.

I reached him at his apartment on the Lower East Side. He asked me if I could type fast. I said I could. He dictated four stanzas. Citing space limitations, the editors chopped the last three, which included his reference to the Roman poet Juvenal’s observation that great nations often reduce themselves to longing for nothing more than bread and circuses. Also cut was a line in the first stanza because it contained a factual error: Patriotism being the last refuge of scoundrels was not old American wisdom but from Samuel Johnson.

You may have read “Howl” and “Kaddish,” “Mind Breaths” and “Father Death Blues,” but you’ve never read Ginsberg’s furious response in full to the question of the phony politics of the flag-burning issue. Here it is:

“Old American wisdom: Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel. These vicious persons, including President Bush, are attacking the Constitution’s Bill of Rights, attempting to deface the laws of freedom that are America’s pride for the cheapest vulgarest political slobbish un-American motive since the Ku Klux Klan put on white sheets and burned crosses to scare black soul in America.

“Ayatollah went hysterical over blasphemy of his symbols. The president and his Republicans are sharing the degraded mentality of Deng Xiaoping and the mullahs in trying to suppress symbolic dissent by destroying the constitutional foundations of this republic.

“They should all be impeached and be thrown out of congress for their vile chauvinism, which only detracts from their own murderous behavior and narcotics smuggling in Central America. It’s a flag waving distraction from the fact that they’re doing nothing to stop the ecological destruction of the planet. Bread and circuses, indeed. If they taint the Bill of Rights and claim monopoly on the flag, maybe I’ll be the first to burn it because it isn’t theirs. It’s mine.

“My opinions will survive when they’re eating rotten worms in the grave. If they want to protect something, protect the oceans, the air, and the earth.”

He asked me to read it back to him.

“That’s not half bad,” he said and asked that we send him a copy.

Jeffrey can be reached at


4 Responses to “Ginsberg & the Flag”

  1. Bob Gaydos Says:

    Jeffrey: I agree with you. One of my biggest regrets as a grownup is that I misplaced my worn copy of Howl, proudly bought in Greenwich Village when I was a naive college student who didn’t know poetry could be so powerful and relevant. Have to buy my son a copy.

  2. Lois Karlin Says:

    Love this, Jeffrey. Ginsberg is an icon. I would argue about the ‘best’ but certainly one-of, and unforgettable. I’m dying to see Howl.

  3. Jeffrey Says:

    Hi Lois, Thanks for your note. As far as the movie’s concerned, it’s terrific — though much of it is animated, which makes me nervous and impatient. As far Allen is concerned, we could argue and both be right. In fact, we both are.

  4. MichaelKaufman Says:

    Great piece, Jeffrey…and thanks for sharing the poem (and the experience!) with us. I was afraid to see the movie because I didn’t think it would do him justice but I’ll see it now that you’ve said it’s terrific.

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