“Sociability’s a drag”

That’s Allen Ginsberg quoted in Gordon Ball’s memoir, East Hill Farm. Ginsberg must rank as one of the most generous, sociable poets ever, so his complaint about togetherness makes me feel better: my vague guilt this time is that I’m just not sorry to have missed the fifties and sixties. I do envy the cultural urgency poetry had then. Some of the gatherings sound wonderful. However, I also really like plumbing, goat-free living space, monogamy, and savings accounts. If Dr. Who offered to take me back to the Six Gallery reading I’d jump, but I’d surreptitiously wipe the mouth of Kerouac’s bottle before I tasted his wine, and I’d stash some clean matching socks in the Tardis.

Ginsberg established East Hill Farm in Cherry Valley, New York as a refuge from “needle drugs” for “used poets.” Ball, a professor-scholar-writer-photographer-filmmaker at Virginia Military Institute, has been my neighbor for a long time, but in the late sixties he helped manage this cultural experiment. There he learned how to grow vegetables, use snowshoes, and keep a rotating array of inhabitants warm, fed, watered, reasonably sober, and somewhat cooperative—not easy in any conditions, much less a rickety old farmhouse without electricity. At any given moment Ginsberg might be composing settings for Blake on a harmonium while Peter Orlovsky barreled around deranged by speed and Orlovsky’s nearly-mute brother blew his nose with the dishtowel. Ball’s engaging new book gives detailed descriptions of all the orgiastic craziness, dark and light: beautiful walks among hawkeye flowers, with or without acid’s intensification; days of peaceable hard work in the fields; Gregory Corso taunting children with the steak he refused to share; an ecstatic excursion to a Jewish wedding also attended by Bob Dylan; sex in every human combination; car accidents; broken hearts; and a few women who thanklessly did more than their fair share of the kitchen work.

One of this memoir’s virtues is Ball’s willingness to criticize as well as recount, evoke, and marvel. Those women, not surprisingly, kept leaving. He looks back on his own obliviousness to their feelings with considerable chagrin. (That’s one of the many reasons I wouldn’t dial the clock back; I can see myself resentfully, dutifully trapped at that stove surrounded by loveable men who mean well.) Ball clearly loved Ginsberg, who appears here as far more open-minded than some of his companions; able to talk to anyone; so giving that he often suffered financially, physically, emotionally; brilliant, politically committed, spiritual, and wise. Ball portrays even Ginsberg, though, as a quirky, inconsistent human being—not a saint. Of course, that makes Ginsberg’s example of artistic achievement matched by active kindness all the harder to live up to.

For all Ginsberg’s openness he got the work done, refusing to go to the movies, asking for quiet when he needed it. You can want and need connection and still feel its drag: sociability can be terribly expensive in time and energy. Sometimes I feel my meter running when my kids’ friends parade noisily through my orderly kitchen, or emails rack up while phone messages blink and the cat yowls at the door. This past weekend was like that—I was slammed by unexpected, urgent work while Chris was away. I became short-tempered with the kids, didn’t give them the intervals of full attention they deserved. There’s only so much of me: tick, tick, tick.

Friday night, at least, I had a great visit with an old friend; we talked about all kinds of things over glasses of red and a plate of local figs. I want more hours like that. Impossibly, I also want many more of the kind of hour that followed. One kid was in bed, one at a sleepover, and I was alone, writing in my notebook, listening as tree frogs told their mantra and my well-stocked, ice-dispensing, bourgeois refrigerator answered om.


3 Comments on ““Sociability’s a drag”

  1. Love both your description/review of Ball’s book, AND your sentiments about being a poet whose real life interferes with productive daydreaming. Sigh. Glad you’re just across the hall from me.


  2. A persuasive review of Ball’s book – the Christmas request list is filling up already.
    Om: a lovely, comic yet also sharp-edged ending note … domestic and spiritual in rare harmony – tartly ironic that a machine achieves it! For the parent, worker, and artist, silence and solitude so often seem to be the most elusive, the most highly prized ‘jewels in the crown of the lotus flower’…
    Om mane padme hum…
    I’m a very happy subscriber to this blog!


  3. Everyone knows that the TARDIS has a wardrobe with plenty of already-clean socks… you might want to stick with BYO for the wine, however.


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