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Biography paints Ginsberg more as social catalyst than poet

I Celebrate Myself: The Somewhat Private Life of Allen Ginsberg
By Bill Morgan
Viking, 702 pp., illustrated, $29.95

Allen Ginsberg was 19 and training in the Maritime Service when the nuclear bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. "Surprisingly, there is no contemporaneous mention in Allen's writings about the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan," writes Bill Morgan, and goes on: "Certainly the dropping of the bomb did change almost everything completely and forever, but what Allen thought about it precisely at that time remains unknown."

Morgan's "I Celebrate Myself" is a book deeply concerned with precisely what Ginsberg thought about particular events at particular times, and this moment is striking for several reasons. If anyone knows what Ginsberg was thinking, it would be Morgan. He was a friend of the poet's and worked on a bibliography of his works; he was with Ginsberg when he died; and in his foreword, he states his belief that "I'm the only person to ever have read everything Allen ever wrote." This encyclopedic confidence gives a certain buoyancy to the biography, which is stuffed with every fact imaginable about Ginsberg. Morgan is so thorough that he even feels the need, as here, to mention the details that he does not know.

For the biographer of one of America's most famous and celebrated poets, Morgan is strangely uninterested in the poetry. This work comes guarded with a nervous foreword in which Morgan declares that " trying to tell someone what a poem means is a waste of time." But he also stresses that neither is he writing a study of Ginsberg in his times, "because he had a greater impact on his times than his times had on him."

"I Celebrate Myself" is a rigorous year-by-year account of Ginsberg's life, beginning with his childhood in Paterson, N.J., and ending with his death, in April 1997, in his loft in Manhattan's East Village. Morgan retells the well-known stories of the beats -- Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Lucien Carr -- meeting at Columbia, and the famous first reading of "Howl" at the Six Gallery in San Francisco, when Ginsberg read accompanied by Kerouac, "who kept rhythm by tapping a wine jug." We follow Ginsberg on his travels in America, to Mexico in 1954 , and across the Middle East. He attends be-ins and founds poetry institutes; he teaches and gives endless readings; he appears onstage with Bob Dylan and drops in on John Lennon and Yoko Ono.

There are bizarre and entertaining anecdotes. Ginsberg had a series of deeply odd jobs: as night porter at a department store, worker at a ribbon factory, and yeoman on a commercial freighter. We learn that "he enjoyed listening to Wagner while on mescaline," and when he met Ezra Pound in Venice, he played a Beatles album for the older poet. Everywhere we are given details, prices, and distances .

But we hear strangely little about the poems, which are isolated from the main story by their placement in little boxes on the margins of the page. Of one series, "The Denver Doldrums," Morgan writes, "They were filled with allusions to nightingales, Eros, and death. Some of them were good." One poem is described simply as "one of his important late poems," while the writing of "Kaddish," Ginsberg's haunting funeral elegy for his mother, is covered in a paragraph.

Ultimately, this is a book about Ginsberg's social centrality rather than his literary achievement. "The entire Beat Generation phenomenon could be seen as a group of writers who had little in common stylistically, but who were united by their friendship with Allen Ginsberg," writes Morgan, and he repeatedly reminds us that Ginsberg acted as literary agent for his friends, worried about how Kerouac's works would be published, and lent money to and cooked meals for acquaintances.

This focus leads Morgan to miss not only Ginsberg's poetry, but also his charm. While at a meditation center in Vermont in 1984, Ginsberg wrote a short autobiographical poem. "Poet, but sick of writing about myself ," it begins. "Buddhist agitator, but bad meditator with hi blood pressure. . . . Anti-Bourgeois but want a house and garden and car." Morgan quotes these lines, but does not note the sadness, the self-contradictions, the wry humor. Reading this book, it is impossible to avoid the impression that Ginsberg was a very good man, but he was also flawed and paradoxical precisely because he was real. He tried to quit smoking; he advertised Gap khakis; he furnished his final apartment from the Salvation Army. All the facts are here , but they lack what Ginsberg called "the spiritual information," which might be another way of saying the sense of the man. "I gotta get a rhythm up to cry," Ginsberg once wrote. The rhythms of the poems and the howls of the heart are all parts of this strange, seductive man.

Daniel Swift has written for The New York Times, The Nation, and Bookforum.