On February 18, 1965, American poet and leading figure of the Beat Generation Allen Ginsberg landed in Prague for an unplanned visit that would leave a deep mark on Czech counterculture at a time of liberal and reformist euphoria.
World-famous poet, hippy guru, leading figure of American counterculture and gay rights activist Allen Ginsberg is one of the most prolific and important figures of the Beat Generation, alongside Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs. Published in 1956, his poem Howl caused outrage in the United States, where copies of the books were seized and he and his publisher were put on trial for obscenity, before eventually being allowed to go into circulation the following year.
Ginsberg’s month-long stopover in Czechoslovakia
The controversy spilled abroad, including beyond the Iron Curtain into communist Czechoslovakia, where a Czech version of Howl by Jan Zabrana published in the review Svetova Literatura (World Literature), was met with a mixture of awe and outrage due to its sexually-charged content and depiction of homosexuality.
After a visit to Cuba cut short when authorities expelled him from the island, Allen Ginsberg was forcefully put on a plane to Prague, where he landed on February 18, 1965, in what was originally supposed to be a brief stopover to catch a plane back home (due to the blockade, there were no direct flights between Cuba and the US). After deciding to get in touch with his acquaintances in the Czech capital – including translator Jan Zabrana and writer Josef Skvorecky – Ginsberg would eventually stay several weeks in Prague, financially supported by a work grant arranged by the Union of Czechoslovak writers.
His unscheduled arrival came at a momentous time for Czechoslovakia, where voices of discontent and hopes of a political renewal were growing louder and bolder, foreshadowing the period of cultural and political liberalization known as the Prague Spring.
Staying at the Hotel Ambassador on Wenceslas Square and spending most of his evenings at the Viola, Allen Ginsberg met with leading figures of Czech culture and mingled with the vibrant alternative Prague scene of students, writers and artists. In a few weeks time, the Beat poet became a local celebrity and icon in counterculture circles, attracting idolizing crowds to gatherings, poetry readings and discussions.
“He drank a lot and was very dirty”
Czech director Pavel Juracek would describe in these words the evenings spent at the Viola: “Ginsberg was surrounded by a pack of 17-year-old and older Czech beatniks ready to serve and worship him day and night for the entirety of his stay in Prague […] I didn’t like him. He drank a lot and was very dirty.”
Throughout his stay, Ginsberg kept a diary to document his impressions on life in Czechoslovakia, the political situation of the Soviet satellite state, and his social and sexual encounters. An extract of his notes, which would eventually be confiscated by the secret StB police, reads: “Czech communism with its bureaucrats above and its secret trials. Terror like in Cuba, only better masked. All the capitalist myths about Communism are true […] People in Czechoslovakia aren’t afraid to speak openly if they know you. They criticize the government sharply […] The regime is… everybody has to have a stamp saying they’re employed… it’s so incredibly stupid it’s tragic.”
In mid-March, Ginsberg traveled from Prague to Moscow, Warsaw and Krakow before heading back to the Czech capital in late April, with the intention of (finally) boarding a plane back to New York via London. But his Czechoslovak adventure was only just beginning.
Allen Ginsberg elected “King of May” in Prague
For the first time in many years, the communist regime – which usually celebrated the state-sanctioned Labour Day – had in 1965 allowed the population to hold a May Day festive parade to celebrate the arrival of spring with a series of marches and events, which included the election of a “King” to preside over the bacchanal. While this was evidently a sign of the regime’s liberalization, authorities were also motivated by the desire to avoid the embarrassing and costly debacles of previous years, when unofficial gatherings had taken place on the Petrin hill around the statue of poet Karel Hynek Macha, and led to clashes with the police.
On May 1, 1965, a delegation of students knocked on the door of Ginsberg’s room at the Hotel Merkur and asked him to take part in the May Day celebrations as Kral Majalesu, King of May.
Attended by a mass of some 150,000 spectators, the May Day Parade took place in an atmosphere of euphoria, joy and liberation, where music echoed through the streets alongside anti-regime slogans, under the watchful albeit passive eye of communist authorities. His hair filled with colourful beads and wearing a shiny crowns, Ginsberg rode in a vintage car singing Buddhist mantras along the parade route and delivering a speech to the glory of writer Franz Kafka.
“I expected to find a small King of May celebration with a few hundreds or a thousand skinny, badly dressed students at the park. Instead there was a sea of faces,” Ginsberg would later write, enthused by “a society that was slowly thawing and moving in the direction of some kind of open thinking” and an event which he described as “a combination of the political courage to protest and to organize the entire environment with maximum eroticism.”
The joyful celebrations culminated with a rock concert at Vystaviste Holesovice, followed by late-night drinking and discussions at the Hlavkova student dorms, where Ginsberg would eventually stay several days.
“Immoral menace”: Ginsberg kicked out of Prague
Although communist authorities had originally tried to be accommodating with Ginsberg’s visit – as evidenced by cautiously positive reports in state media – his growing popularity among Czech youth and his critical political remarks, on top of what was seen as a revolting and decadent lifestyle and sexuality, was starting to unnerve the regime. As the secret police grew uneasy regarding the American’s prolonged stay, his election as King of May appeared to have been the final straw.
His diary and personal notes were stolen during an evening at the Viola, and StB officers dutifully conducted interviews and gathered testimonies they would use for his public lynching. Communist authorities eventually came to seize him, escorted him back to his hotel and put him on the first plane to London, where he left on May 7. During the flight, Ginsberg wrote the famous “King of May” poem on his stay in Czechoslovakia.
After his expulsion, authorities launched a defamation campaign against the American poet, describing him as a pariah and immoral menace who had corrupted young people in Prague and abused the hospitality of his hosts. Among the crimes he was accused of, influencing young men to grow longer hair appeared to be on top of the list. Quotes from his diary – documenting both his sexual “promiscuity” and undogmatic political beliefs – were used to attack and discredit him in the media.
Czechs, who would go on to experience an era of liberalization of the regime in the following years only to have their hopes crushed by the Soviet-led invasion in the summer of 1968, keep a deep affection for Ginsberg. The iconic figure of the 1960s counterculture would go back to visit Czechoslovakia in 1990, and died on April 5, 1997, at the age of 70.
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