For me, finding the poetry of Allen Ginsberg was like the ecstatic conversion experience of Saul/Paul on the road to Damascus.
My senior year of high school was a confusing time. Looking back, it was one of the most miserable and the most formative times in my life. A girl I was best friends with and had all kinds of romantic interest in started dating one of my best guy friends, and immediately after finding out, I went on a summer trip to Europe with my history teacher. While I wanted to just crawl in a hole and sleep forever, I was seeing the Colosseum, the Louvre, the Mona Lisa, and La Pietà in the heart of the continent that my family originally hailed from. Many of my best friends were in the year ahead of me, and they went off to college, leaving me alone with thoughts and feelings I wasn't sure how to process.
In my graduating class, a great many of us were eligible for dual enrollment wherein we could take some college courses and have them count for both high school graduation and our future degree programs at university. There were so many of us that the community college thirty or forty miles away actually taught our courses on-site at my high school. For my composition and literature courses, I was especially happy that Mrs. Klepper, my literature teacher from the previous year and genuinely one of my favorite teachers ever, would be teaching. Mrs. Klepper had introduced me to both Emerson and Thoreau, two authors that you might consider prophets in my personal theology. She understood that I was more than a little strange, and she let me sit at a table away from the other students rather than at a desk. In one instance, she even let me type out my essay exam answers on her computer rather than write them out longhand. Basically, Mrs. Klepper was very adept at bringing out the best in antisocial and painfully shy non-conformists who happened to have extremely strong opinions and the very well-developed verbal skills to make them dangerous.
As is the case with many introductory survey courses, we didn't have a chance to cover everything. I remember sitting with my literature textbook in my room, listening to old REM records and just reading all the short stories, essays, and poems we weren't covering in class. With imagery burned into my mind, I remember the first time I read "Howl" by Allen Ginsberg. I remember "Pilgrimage" by REM playing on my record player. I remember the red gym shorts I was wearing and my "Someday A Woman Will Be President" t-shirt. I remember the darkness outside my window and the soft clicking of my ceiling fan. It's all burned into my mind because I knew that there was something there, something very important to me and the universe itself.
When it came time to write my next term paper, I knew that I needed to write about Allen Ginsberg. However, Ginsberg was one of the beat poets and an openly queer guy. There wasn't much of anything about him at either my school library or my county library. I called the library at the community college and made sure I was able to come there to do research, and I made plans to drive over to Madison, several towns over. I wasn't able to actually check out any materials, so instead I used all the cash I had making Xerox copies of everything I could—scholarly articles, historical accounts, and every scrap of poetry I could find.
While I was looking through stacks of journals and books, I came across a poem called simply "Footnote to Howl," and the whole world dropped away while I read.
Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy!
The world is holy! The soul is holy! The skin is holy! The nose is holy! The tongue and cock and hand and asshole holy!
Everything is holy! everybody’s holy! everywhere is holy! everyday is in eternity! Everyman’s an angel!
The bum’s as holy as the seraphim! the madman is holy as you my soul are holy!
The typewriter is holy the poem is holy the voice is holy the hearers are holy the ecstasy is holy!
In philosophy, starting with Longinus and continuing on through Edmund Burke, we have a concept that we refer to as "the sublime". The sublime is an aesthetic quality that is distinct from beauty (and, Burke would argue, mutually exclusive to beauty though I'm not sure I concur). Rather than aesthetics that provoke joy and pleasure, the sublime inspires reverence and awe. Put simply, I experienced the sublime there in that library, and I actually physically trembled while I read. To borrow the poetics of my Christian upbringing, in that moment, I had encountered the word of God.
I write about this experience not simply as woman progressing toward middle age and looking back over my life like Proust (though I'm sure that those urges are mixed in here somewhere). Rather, I'm writing about this because, in my religion project, I'm realizing just how formative encountering Ginsberg, Blake, Whitman, Burroughs, Emerson, Thoreau, Rimbaud, Levinas, and both of the Shelleys actually was. I wish I could go back to that scared little queer kid and tell her that it's okay to find your religion in poetry and literature. That those distinctions between theology and liteature, prophets and poetry, were all made up and arbitrary. In some cases, they were even worse than arbitrary because they were set up to enshrine a dominant belief system and marginalize everything that belief system considered to be "other".
My religion is in the quiet of Walden Pond. It's in the pre-linguistic morality of Levinas. It's in Emerson's immanent view of deity in Nature. It's in the seeming contradiction of Levinas's concept of existence in the eyes of the Other when viewed through the lens of Rimbaud's poetic assertion that "Je est un autre." (I is an Other.) It's in Percy Shelley's understanding that "nought may endure but mutability." And, yes, it's in the ecstatic visions of Allen Ginsberg's poetry.
In my religion, there is no original sin. There is nothing inherently wrong with you, me, or anyone else. We are one of uncountable billions of current end products from a cycle of death and birth with tiny changes that has been going on for more years than we could enumerate in our singular lifetime, and we don't need to be saved from anything. All of us are related, interconnected, and interdependent, and that means when you hurt someone else, you hurt yourself. We are all beautiful works of art with no sculptor or designer, molded and shaped by molecules and processes too tiny to see, completely unique from anyone or anything that has been, is now, or ever will be...and—yes, Allen Ginsberg—if that isn't holy, I don't know what the fuck the word "holy" even means anymore.
When I first started the religion project, I expected to be making a blended religion assembled from bits and pieces of religions and philosophies that only interrelate insofar as they felt important to me. Instead what I'm finding is a very discernible line of belief that has been constant throughout my life but which I have sometimes been made to feel ashamed of because "that's not a 'real' religion". With apologies to Emma Goldman for adapting her apocryphal quote about dancing and revolution, if literature and poetry aren't part of a religion—if it can't accommodate Allen Ginsberg, a reverence for the universe, and a celebration of sexuality without shame—then I don't want to be a part of your religion.