“The Weight of the World is Love”

I have been struggling of late to match pen to paper, fingers to keyboard, mind to reality, amid a political crisis in America that grows ever more surreal by the day. My muteness is exacerbated by challenges on the personal front: a pending move across the country; our beautiful eight-year old son wrestling with emotions too big for his imagination; a persistent ache in my chest that won’t go away. A physical pain, yes — the docs have ruled out anything heart-related –yet the deeper ache feels psychological, a malaise manifesting in my body but shared, I am sure, by many others. It is a hard time to be a human being, a person of feeling for the global “commonwealth,” a vision of shared life that includes not only our suffering body politic but our common home and sustaining Body, who is the suffering Earth.

In the midst of these manifold aches of the heart, I have been haunted and helped by the accidental discovery of a poem by Allen Ginsberg, an evidently much-celebrated 1954 poem, called “Song.” But first, who is Allen Ginsberg?

Depending on who you ask, Allen Ginsberg was a songwriter, a photographer, a political gadfly, a gay rights advocate, or the founding poet of the Beat Generation. He was also one of the most divisive figures of the 1960s, described as either an “ambassador for tolerance” or, as his FBI file reads, a “politically dangerous subversive.” But whether you see him as a force for good or evil, he was unequivocally—a force that changed American literature forever. (1)

Ginsberg.2Coming of age as I did at the tail end of the Boomer generation, Ginsberg was not, for me, a major formative influence, not directly, in any case. Yet his writings indelibly shaped the culture and counterculture that would shape me. I met him once at a party in Boulder, Colorado, in 1989, about 8 years before his death. He was sitting in the corner of the room among a rag-tag group of much younger poets who congregated around the Naropa Institute, where I was enormously blessed to study music for two years, and imbibe by osmosis many more life-lessons about art, poetry, Buddhism, spiritual friendship, and so on, lessons that have stayed with me. Ginsberg and poet Anne Waldeman had founded a center for poetry at the fledgling school of Naropa in 1974, at the urging of their Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rimpoche. My music teacher, composer Bill Douglas, who still teaches there, was also a devotee, and taught me, by his whole manner of being, so much more than music.

Why does this particular Ginsberg poem so move me, and move me now, at this particular moment? Its opening line and central motif — “the weight of the world is love” — cuts straight down to the core of human desire and freedom: the gift, and great burden, which is love. Not love in the abstract, but love as it gifts and bears down upon us in reality: concrete, embodied, torturous, ecstatic. In “Song,” the young (Jewish) Ginsberg seems to be channeling the eros-laden poetry of the Song of Songs, near the top of my favorite biblical texts. (2)

If I could translate this poem for our adopted eight-year old son Henry into terms he could fully grasp, it might help him face the beautiful contradictions of his own story, his identity, his emotions, and maybe even help him embrace them. “Who am I?” he asks me over and again, and urgently, as if caught between multiple worlds, multiple identities, he cannot reconcile. Meanwhile the whole country seems to be asking the same, only, “Who are we?,” in collective form. These two questions, of course, are inseparable for all of us, as they were for Ginsberg, and so also for my son, a kid from Haiti trying to grasp his place in a sometimes frightening, earthquake-racked, bully-infused, and racially inhospitable, world.

I want to tell him it is OK not to have clear answers, so long as you keep close to your heart the most important thing: the yearning for love, which pulses in you, in all things, like an irrepressible prayer from within, and at once an immutable cry from beyond. I want to ask him, would you deny that you have found a home, if nowhere else, in my love, in the encircling arms of your mom, your brother and sisters, your family?

Who can deny, asks Ginsberg, that the most important thing is love? It’s what I want for Henry: to help him “return to the body” where he was born, and at last, if wearily, to “rest in the arms of love.”

The weight of the world
is love.
Under the burden
of solitude,
under the burden
of dissatisfaction

the weight,
the weight we carry
is love.

Who can deny?
In dreams
it touches
the body,
in thought
constructs
a miracle,
in imagination
anguishes
till born
in human–
looks out of the heart
burning with purity–
for the burden of life
is love,

but we carry the weight
wearily,
and so must rest
in the arms of love
at last,
must rest in the arms
of love.

No rest
without love,
no sleep
without dreams
of love–
be mad or chill
obsessed with angels
or machines,
the final wish
is love
–cannot be bitter,
cannot deny,
cannot withhold
if denied:

the weight is too heavy

–must give
for no return
as thought
is given
in solitude
in all the excellence
of its excess.

The warm bodies
shine together
in the darkness,
the hand moves
to the center
of the flesh,
the skin trembles
in happiness
and the soul comes
joyful to the eye–

yes, yes,
that’s what
I wanted,
I always wanted,
I always wanted,
to return
to the body
where I was born.

 “Song,” Allen Ginsberg (1954)

Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997)
Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997)

 

(1) Ransom Riggs, “The Starving, Naked, Hysterical Mind of Allen Ginsberg,” Neatorama (April 25, 2014).

(2) Christopher Pramuk, “Sexuality, Spirituality and the Song of Songs,” America 193 (2005): 8-11. PDF: America.SexualitySongofSongs

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