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Poetic Advice

How Allen Ginsberg messed me up.

by Bert Stratton

From the February, 2016 issue

The party guests talked about climate change, fracking, Syria, and Iran. "I called my representative and senator to thank them for voting against Keystone," a woman told me--then asked me how many more generations humans have left.

"How many more generations on earth?" I asked. "I'd say about 100."

"I think there's [just] one more," she said.

When Allen Ginsberg visited my sophomore poetry class in Ann Arbor in 1969, he said we had five years left. "I'm afraid to read the papers," he said. "There's too much killing. And I just talked to [William] Burroughs, who said there's less than five years."

Ginsberg was a friend of our visiting professor, East Village poet Ted Berrigan. Berrigan was a friend of U-M English professor and poet Donald Hall. That's how Ginsberg found himself prophesying to the young poets taking Introduction to Poetry 231--and how, at age nineteen, I became a fatalist. Why take organic chemistry and physics and go to med school when the world was about to end?


The first Earth Day was April 22, 1970. People began talking less about Vietnam and more about duck down and goose down. Back to the land, kids. I bought a $35 duck-down sleeping bag. The feathers kept coming out the seams and I couldn't turn over in it, but I used it for many years. It was called a mummy bag. At least when the world ended, I'd be in the proper position.

I am now sixty-five and slowly getting over my doom-and-gloom outlook. For instance, I love fracking, because I own apartment buildings and my gas bills are super low. At another recent cocktail party, an acquaintance pontificated, "I don't think we're out of here--humanity. There are six billion of us. So maybe we'll go down to two billion, at worst." A compromise that I could live with.

I never did apply to med school. I was too busy writing poetry about the end of the world. Ginsberg messed me up! The good news: I still have my biology dissection scissors. They're great for cutting fingernails.

Lesson to college kids: don't believe old people who tell you the world is about to end. I coulda been a doctor!


Stratton's klezmer band, Yiddishe Cup, is at the Ark on February 6.     (end of article)

[Originally published in February, 2016.]


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