The Day W&M was Beat
Posted on March 8, 2021
Written by alumnus and library board member, Tracy Matthew Melton ‘85.
Beatific. Sympathetic. Spiritually illuminated. An ecological, fresh-planet consciousness.
So Beat writers Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac described their work, their art, their lives.
Their pursuits, though, often come to us as mere cultural stereotypes of "Beatniks," hippies, and long-haired, robed, beaded 1960s flower children. In Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020), the Ginsberg character appears very briefly, ineffectually chanting while leading a march with Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in August 1968. He is reduced to a one-liner, a joke.
Yet during the years surrounding the Chicago convention, Allen Ginsberg was among the most influential American poets and activist public intellectuals. He sought how language and image shape our understanding and pursued a heightening of human consciousness. He opposed violence, most emphatically the Vietnam War. He publicly discussed and graphically described his homosexuality when many gay Americans felt constrained and oppressed. He lamented environmental degradation across the American landscape. He advocated for the use of specific drugs like marijuana and LSD as a means of altering consciousness. Ginsberg was not an airy hippie but a searching, serious, purposeful, precise intellectual.
Having driven several times across the continent in years pre-pandemic, listening to the radio and contemplating America today, I am most drawn to Ginsberg’s “Wichita Vortex Sutra,” a kaleidoscopic, penetrating American portrait drawn as he drove across these states (Allen Ginsberg, Planet News 1961-1967 (1968), 110-132).
I love that Ginsberg appeared at Lake Matoaka for the Counter Conference on Peace and Justice on Thursday, March 11, 1971 and poetically captured the moment.
W&M students organized the Counter Conference in response to the National Conference on the Judiciary, which was simultaneously taking place at the Williamsburg Lodge. The National Conference featured speeches by President Richard Nixon and Chief Justice Warren Burger on judicial reform and would spur establishment of the National Center for State Courts (NCSC), eventually located on Newport Avenue in Williamsburg, adjacent to the William & Mary Law School.
Nixon came to town in tumultuous times. Martin Luther King’s assassination, urban riots, Bobby Kennedy’s assassination. The Chicago riots and subsequent Chicago 7 trial. The Kent State shootings, four dead in Ohio. Jackson State. Vietnam War protests.
A Counter Conference student coordinating committee that included Student Association President Winn Legerton, junior Bruce Shatswell, senior Suzanne Bisset (now known as Rev. Selena Suzanne Bisset Carpenter Fox) negotiated with the college’s administration on holding the event and its location, lined up speakers, and made the necessary arrangements. The Sunken Garden and Cary Field (Zable Stadium) were considered as venues before the administration settled on the Common Glory Amphitheatre (Martha Wren Briggs Amphitheatre) on Lake Matoaka. The Counter crowd would be in the woods, out of sight, distanced from Nixon and judicial dignitaries at the Lodge.
Ginsberg, Chicago 7 defendant Rennie Davis, and others spoke. Davis was a nationally prominent anti-war organizer and, at the time, stood convicted by Nixon’s DOJ for the Chicago riots, and contempt of court charges, and was out while appealing his convictions.
Shatswell recounts lining up Ginsberg. He contacted Ginsberg’s father, Louis, and soon heard back from Allen. Shatswell arranged to fly him into Newport News and met him at the airport. Ginsberg flew down with some US Army soldiers. “I was standing with my white afro hair and jeans,” Shatswell recalls, “with a cadre of army drill sergeants waiting for the soldiers. We heard what sounded like a crowd singing coming towards us and Allen and the soldiers emerged together singing a song, which I don't remember—Allen headed to Williamsburg and the soldiers to Vietnam.”
In the woods, along the water, W&M students and community members, together with others—thousands in total—gathered in warm, late winter sunshine. Speakers discussed war and poverty and justice. Davis promoted a spring peace movement, culminating in a Celebration of Peace near the District of Columbia, beginning May 1.
The Flat Hat assigned several reporters to the Counter Conference. Executive editor Bill Sizemore wrote the lead story. He also photographed the event for the newspaper. He still remembers the ardency of Davis’s speech.
Ginsberg chanted and read poetry. Flat Hat reporter Ben McKelway’s account captured the stereotyping already underway, describing “the balding Ginsberg” looking “almost too professional, not like the bohemian artist, ‘original beatnik’ image he has acquired. His attitude included a kind of business-like seriousness rather than spontaneity.” Ginsberg read his poem “Friday the Thirteenth.” “Earth pollution identical with Mind pollution” (Allen Ginsberg, The Fall of America: poems of these states (1972), 141-145).
What struck Sizemore most emphatically was Ginsberg’s charge that the CIA was trafficking opium in Southeast Asia. At the time, the poet was deeply interested in the issue and had only the week before confronted CIA Director Richard Helms about the alleged trafficking. Ginsberg’s interest was natural given his longstanding concern with government drug-related prosecution and harassment of Dr. Timothy Leary, John Sinclair, himself, and many others.
Flat Hat sports reporter Andy Purdy recorded poetic lines composed by Ginsberg at the end of the day:
Hum, Hum, Hum
Relaxing at dusk
In the John D. Rockefeller
Common Glory grass amphitheater
. . . helicopter in the orange sky
over the lagoon.
Nixon and dignitaries traveled to the event in helicopters, flying over Matoaka and landing on the grass at the Golden Horseshoe golf course in Rockefeller Jr.’s historic town. Helicopters in Williamsburg skies, helicopters in Vietnam skies. Orange skies over Matoaka, orange napalm strikes. American lake, exotic lagoon.
By all accounts, the coordinating committee successfully orchestrated a landmark event. Summing up, Bisset, one of the coordinators, said, “In keeping with the spirit of the conference, it was nonviolent and we had an open discussion of issues. It was really beautiful.”
Bruce Nyland, a former W&M philosophy professor, hosted Ginsberg. Shatswell gave him a tour of the campus. He found the poet to be “engaging, full of energy and very full of himself.”
After the Counter Conference, Ginsberg drank at the Wig in the Campus Center with Sizemore and several other students and crashed a sorority dance upstairs with Shatswell. Bisset danced with him at the Black Sabbath show at Blow Gym (Blow Memorial Hall) that same night and remembers the Counter Conference as one of her “favorite memories of my time at W&M.” McKelway, Nyland, and others hung out with him at an off-campus apartment on N. Boundary Street. “Six or seven of us sat in a circle with the poet and passed a joint around.” Beat day, Beat night.
Today, NCSC is a wonderful neighbor—I walk past it frequently—and a significant local and national institution. And hiking around Lake Matoaka in the evening, or driving west on Jamestown Road, the often spectacular orange sky has an additional dimension.
(The Flat Hat, February 23, 26; March 5, 9, 12, 17, 1971. Ginsberg’s poetic lines appear on March 12, 1971, p. 3.) I received great help from Winn Legerton, Bruce Shatswell, Andy Purdy, Ben McKelway, Bill Sizemore, and Rev. Selena Fox.
Tracy’s W&M roommate Michel P. Branch ’85 recently published an outstanding account of the ritual circumambulation of Mount Tamalpais, a ceremony first performed by Beat poets Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, and Philip Whalen in 1965, in National Parks (Winter 2021).