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When poetry was king

May Day was never the same after Allen Ginsberg's 1965 visit to Prague

Posted: May 07, 2008

By Darrell Jónsson

May Day may have been relatively quiet in Prague this year, but during the Cold War it was a political flash point. In 1947, the U.S. Congress decreed May 1 Loyalty Day, hoping to stave off its growing international communist overtones. This did nothing to stop the celebration of the Marxist revolution in communist countries, where over the next couple of decades the date threatened to become as big as Christmas.

This set the stage for one of the most memorable May Days ever in Prague. In 1965, when American beatnik poet Allen Ginsberg was crowned King of May and paraded through the streets, it was clear to the Czechoslovak secret police that the celebration had drifted way off-message and far out of state control.

Yet, for a generation of Czechs who took inspiration from the beats, including Václav Klaus and Václav Havel, the day became a key link in the chain of events leading to the Velvet Revolution. Its symbolism in modern Czech culture ranks with Louis Armstrong’s performance a few months earlier at Lucerna, the 1968 Soviet invasion and Charter 77.

According to cultural archivist and Jazz Section founder Karel Srp, Prague’s literary connection with Ginsberg and the beats started in the mid-’50s with Světová literatura, a journal that translated and presented postwar American writing in the best possible light.

“It greatly enlarged people’s knowledge of contemporary literature and thought,” Srp says. “It dealt with the existentialism of Sartre and Camus, but also with the new movement called the beat generation. The editors were the first to publish Ginsberg’s Howl in Czechoslovakia, as well as stories by Kerouac and Ferlinghetti. As these authors sometimes illustrated the dark side of the United States, communist censorship tolerated them.”

The communists were always looking for high-profile sympathizers — Srp cites actor Paul Robeson, activist Angela Davis and musician Dean Read as examples. Ginsberg was no fan of the U.S. government, but his acerbic wit hardly qualified him to be a propaganda puppet. As he wrote on the airplane that removed him from Prague in the poem “Král Majáles” (King of May), “And the Communists have nothing to offer but fat cheeks and eyeglasses and lying policemen / and the Capitalists proffer Napalm and money in green suitcases to the Naked.”

Corrupter of youth

As Srp describes 1965, the country was opening up a bit, with the communists allowing a jazz festival (on the premise that jazz was the music of the oppressed) featuring Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald, and exhibits of abstract art. Ginsberg arrived in this atmosphere after being kicked out of Cuba, where he had been protesting the treatment of homosexuals. After a brief stay, he headed off for a quick tour of Russia, returning to Prague on the evening of April 30.

On May 1, Ginsberg was taken to Výstaviště and crowned King of May before an enthusiastic crowd. The ensuing parade was aborted when six bulky men (presumably undercover police) grabbed the float and declared Ginsberg uncrowned. Shaken, he spent the next few days with students and musicians, trying to keep a low profile and stay out of trouble.

“I assumed that since 100,000 people saw me as the King of May, there wasn’t any problem no matter what the government wanted to do,” Ginsberg said in an interview years later. “But I also realized I was now in a very dangerous position. … I’d already had the experience of being grabbed and isolated in Havana, so I was really quite apprehensive and knew what was possible.”

The situation became complicated when Ginsberg’s diary somehow “got lost” and allegedly recovered by a loyal worker who turned it over to the police. They were horrified by the political anecdotes and jokes that Ginsberg had collected, and also by a list of his male lovers. After being followed and grilled by the police, Ginsberg was declared a corrupter of youth and put on a plane for London.

Aftershocks

Years later, in the catalog of Prague’s 1998 Beat Generation Festival, Srp would publish the shocking police files documenting Ginsberg’s stay. By then, the poet had had a shock of his own, when in the early ’90s he used a Freedom of Information Act request to retrieve his FBI files.  

According to those documents, word of Ginsberg’s May Day romp in Prague had reached the FBI, further inflaming the agency’s desire to nail him on a marijuana charge and get him off the map. As Ginsberg said in a 1996 interview, “I found that the FBI had translated a denunciation of me by Prague’s Mladá fronta, saying that I was a corrupter of youth and alcoholic — which I’m not — and not to be trusted. They sent it to the Narcotics Bureau and to my congressman. … So I realized that in certain areas, the Western police and the communist police, by 1965, were one international mucous membrane network. There was hardly any difference between them.”

In Prague, there were also some rumored negative consequences. The suicide of one young poet was attributed to the aftershock of Ginsberg’s visit, perhaps by parents who did not take well to this scruffy 39-year-old Pied Piper keeping their kids out all night. For the most part, though, the event served as a positive reminder of Czechoslovakia’s longing for freedom.

Michael March, editor of Child of Europe: The Penguin Anthology of East European Poetry and president of the annual Prague Writers Festival, finds analogous calls for freedom in the work of Bohumil Hrabal and Vladimír Holan. The history of the region, he notes, includes “vast disappointments of going through cycles of being liberated and then disappointed again. The Czechs are cautious, and this is a caution that goes back 300 years via the domination and insolence of the Habsburg monarchy, and even in a religious sense the position of Catholicism here. So historically, freedom is subtly modified, sometimes suppressed and sometimes flowing.

“Poetry,” he adds, “is a way of resisting, of saying no to the demons of society and a great yes to freedom of life and thought. Ginsberg symbolized that in 1965.”

Ginsberg’s memory lingers on, though perhaps less in May Day activities than in the Jazz Section’s Internet radio station, RadioHortus.cz, which mixes the poetry of Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg with vintage jazz daily, and cultural activists like March carrying on the country’s proud literary tradition.

They help maintain the lasting hope that the magic and freedom of the beat era will continue to be part of the rhythm of Prague.

By Darrell Jónsson

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