Ginsberg Levitates Chestertown
Since the early 1970s,
Chestertown has been host to hundreds of literary
figures from all over the world, including scores of
Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winners, half a
dozen or so Poet Laureates, plus four winners of the
Nobel Prize in Literature: Toni Morrison, Joseph
Brodsky, Derek Walcott and J.M. Coetzee.
Among the other literary greats brought in by Washington
College were the playwrights Edward Albee and Israel
Horowitz; the French author Alain Robbe-Grillet; the
poets William Stafford, Carolyn Forché, Henry Taylor,
James Dickey, James Tate, Billy Collins, Dave Smith and
Lawrence Ferlinghetti; the Woody Allen screenplay writer
Walter Bernstein; novelists Anthony Burgess, George
Garrett, J.R. Salamanca; fiction writers such as William
Gass, Mavis Gallant (of New Yorker fame), Joyce Carol
Oates; plus our own William Warner, Chris Tilghman,
Douglass Wallop and John Barth. And that isn’t the half
it. Just typing the list I realize I left off the poets
Richard Wilbur, Donald Justice, Marvin Bell, Anthony
Hecht and Gwendolyn Brooks—as well as perhaps the finest
American short story writer of the twentieth century:
Katherine Anne Porter.
Not all of these writers
ventured into Chestertown for any length of time, but
many of them did. I remember walking to the White Swan
Tavern one day to pick up Joseph Brodsky (he had come to
Washington College with his translators, Anthony Hecht
and Derek Walcott) and before I got there I found Derek
Walcott browsing through the Compleat Bookseller. As I
was early, I stopped in and Walcott talked a bit about
the books he was buying (a copy of John Barth’s Letters
if I remember correctly, plus William Warner’s Beautiful
Going out of the store, he
asked me to walk him around town, and I did; he wanted
to hear “apocryphal” stories of Chestertown and so I
told him the one about how the local paper once carried
the headline: “Baltimore Woman Dies at 93,” referring to
a woman who had come here when she was three and lived
the rest of her life in town but alas, was never
considered a native, by the natives. I told other tales
as well, some of them irreverent and politically
incorrect, and he seemed to like those best.
When we got back to the
White Swan, Brodsky and Hecht were in a debate about
some translation problem in one of Brodsky’s poems and
asked Walcott to settle it, which Walcott did by first
looking at the Russian text of Brodsky’s poem, then at
Hecht’s translation of the line, then at Brodsky’s
translation of the same line. After a moment Walcott
fished a coin out of his pocket and flipped it: heads
Anthony Hecht, tails Brodsky. Brodsky won. In such ways
are Nobel Prize- winning poems translated by Nobel
Prize-winning poets. On High Street in Chestertown no
Later all four of us walked
around, and the three of them recited various lines of
Brodksy’s poetry, sometimes in Russian, and then in
various translations. When we got to the town dock,
Walcott retold a few of the stories I had previously
told him, and Brodsky recited a poem to the river. As it
was in Russian I had, of course, no notion why the
Chester River should inspire the recitation of a poem,
but it did: I do remember a waterman in his bateau
looked at us, no doubt sure we were from “up to the
There were other writers
who took time off from their duties at the College to
walk into Chestertown. In the early seventies, William
Stafford (the only poet to get an honorary degree from
Washington College) wanted to see the Chester River, and
at the town dock he also recited a few lines of poetry,
this one (in English) being:
“What the river says, that
is what I say,” which is the final line of his famous
poem “Ask Me.”
A few years later Katherine Anne Porter and I were
walking from the College to the home of Norman and Alice
James for dinner when she wanted to know if we could get
a bottle of Virginia Gentleman at the Past Time Bar (now
Andy’s); we could not, as it turned out, so she got it
the next day on our way out of town. She did, however,
stand me for “three fingers” of the “bar’s best” and we
arrived at the Jameses “refreshed,”—to use Miss Porter’s
But the most celebrated walk through Chestertown was
taken by Allen Ginsberg and his lover Peter Orlofsky,
followed by a dozen or so Washington College student
poets: a peripatetic Aristotelian stroll through the
heart of town.
The night before, Ginsberg
had given a reading in the Norman James Theatre (spelled
with the “re” that Norman James preferred). The place
was packed, mainly with students and faculty, but with
many people from Chestertown as well. At the reading
Ginsberg read some of his more famous poems: “Howl”
(“the best minds of my generation have gone mad”),
“Supermarket in California” (“What thoughts I have of
you tonight Walt Whitman”), “America” (“I’m putting my
queer shoulder to the wheel”), but Ginsberg also read
for the first time his now celebrated poem “Mind
Breath,” a poem that in its story circles the globe,
starting that first night at Washington College,
Chestertown, Maryland, and traveling through the times
zones of the Western United States, then on Asia and
Europe, to return to the podium from where he read.
It was an astounding poem.
The next day Ginsberg and
Peter Orlofsky sat on the steps of the Richmond House
(the Literary House of those days) talking about poetry.
I remember Orlofsky had a guitar on which he would strum
now and then in some relationship with whatever Allen
Ginsberg was saying; I suppose it was a kind of
emphasis, but I could never figure out a pattern.
After about an hour of talking with the students,
Ginsberg got up and asked me if we might walk the campus
and then through town. He wanted to levitate some of the
buildings—both on the campus and off. “Sure,” I said.
The dean had recently admonished the faculty to provide
“unique educational experiences” for our students, and I
thought a building levitation might look good on my
annual report. “Engaged learning” we now call it.
“Levitate whatever you
want,” I said.
“Can we watch?” asked one
“I’ll bet you can’t
levitate Reid Hall,” said a woman with red hair.
Off we went, Ginsberg
leading us with Orlofsky among the students strumming
the guitar. Our first stop was the administration
building, Bunting Hall.
With the students gathered
behind them Ginsberg started a chant. “Ohmmmm. Ohmmmm.
Ohmmmmmmmmm.” After a few moments when the building did
not move, Ginsberg took small metal finger cymbals out
of his pocket and, closing his eyes, rattled the cymbals
and chanted with what seemed to me special vigor. “Ohmm!
Still no movement of
“It is a very heavy building,” said Ginsberg. “No doubt
full of bureaucrats.”
“Let’s go downtown,” I
said. “They’ve been talking about moving the old jail
from in front of the court house and maybe you can help
“Lead on,” said Orlofsky.
So off we all went down Mount Vernon Avenue, then took a
right at Kent Street, a left at Calvert past the post
office (Very heavy buildings, said Orlofsky) through the
park then to the jail—which has since been moved to edge
of the town by the railroad tracks.
Ginsberg and Orlofsky
looked at the jail for a moment. They left our group and
went around to the side by Emmanuel Episcopal Church and
looked at the jail from that angle. From where we were
standing we could see they were in earnest conversation,
no doubt discussing the best angle by which to raise the
building—Orlofsky apparently wanting to pry it up from
the side, but Ginsberg holding out for a full frontal
floatation. They returned. By now a number of
townspeople had gathered around our group.
“Where do they want it
moved?” asked Ginsberg.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“But I think they’d be grateful if you just got it off
the ground because that would at least be a start.”
“Jails are very heavy
buildings,” said Ginsberg. And then to Peter Olofsky he
started a spontaneous poetic chant (accompanied by
Orlofsky on his guitar) enumerating the various jails
into which one or the other of them—or both—had been
tossed over the years. It was a splendid chant and I
wondered then if someday I might not see it in print as
a poem. By this time I noticed that some of the men who
were in the jail on the second floor had come to the
windows to see what was going on.
“Maybe Reid Hall would
easier,” said the young lady with the red hair. But by
that time the chanting and finger cymbals and the guitar
were in full swing: “Ohmmmmm! Ohmmmmmm. Ohm! Ohm.
It didn’t work. For half an
hour it didn’t work. No jail moved. Maybe a hundred
“Ohmmmms!” The jail stayed on the ground. The inmates
But in the end it seemed
not to matter that the buildings of Washington College
and Chestertown could not be levitated. There was the
story of them not moving. The story of the chanting. The
story of the walk back through town as Ginsberg recited
Whitman’s poetry and his own, speaking a line of his,
and then a line of Whitman's, weaving an American poem a
hundred years old and twenty years old at once. These
stories were levitation in their own way.
Years later a student wrote
me to claim the jail had in fact been raised by all the
Ohmmmmms. He could see it in his mind’s eye, hovering
above the ground, then easing down Cross Street toward
the train station. The men in the jail were cheering as
they went, as if to be in the air was to be free. I
wondered what my student had been smoking that day.