Illustrations

‘King of May’: An Illustration Revisiting Allen Ginsberg’s Epic Poem

‘King of May’-inspired illustrations © Nathan Gelgud

If you’re feeling grim about the fact that the United States is facing a major image problem in the eyes of, you know, the rest of the entire planet, I hope to offer you some light. There were better moments in our history, and we might hope that there can be better moments in our future. In July of 1965, Richard Kostelanetz wrote in the New York Times that “second to John F. Kennedy, [Allen] Ginsberg would seem to be the most widely acclaimed American cultural ambassador.” Which would have made Ginsberg, at that time, the most widely acclaimed living cultural ambassador.

Kostelanetz was writing about Ginsberg’s recent trip abroad, where the poet had visited Cuba, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Russia. On his trip to Cuba, Ginsberg was sympathetic to Castro’s revolution, but refused to take the party line. Government officials welcomed him as a poet, and encouraged him to speak only of poetry, but he was publicly inquisitive about Cuba’s persecution of young homosexuals, and openly advocated marijuana use. This made him persona non grata and he was escorted to a plane headed to Czechoslovakia.

He discovered a much more tolerant communist state when he got to Prague, where homosexuality was legal and large photographs of Ginsberg and other Beat Generation icons hung on cafe walls. After visiting Russia, Ginsberg came back to Prague in time for the May Day celebration, where a group of students nominated him their king, and he was paraded through the streets in a gold-painted paper crown.

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Authorities had agreed to tolerate the May Day festivities, which had previously been banned, but were peeved that the students had chosen an American poet as the day’s chief celebrant. Shortly thereafter, Ginsberg was attacked by a homophobic assailant whom he suspected of being a police agent, and found that one of his notebooks where he kept records of his dreams and sexual activities had gone missing.

When the police called him in to sign for the missing notebook so that he could claim it, they let him know they’d be keeping it for further review. The next day, he was told to leave the country and put on a plane to London.

And so on May 7, 1965, Allen Ginsberg sat on a plane headed to London writing the poem “Kral Majales,” or “King of May.” On June 3rd we celebrate Ginsberg’s birthday, what would have been his ninety-first, with a reading of “Kral Majales,” one of his most celebratory works, celebrating one of the poet’s favorite subjects, himself. I don’t mean this as a slight–Ginsberg’s work had an intense self-awareness about self-focus, continuing a Whitmanian tradition self-celebration. Brimming over with ego, “Kral Majales” is an autobiographical poem about Ginsberg’s time in Cuba and Prague, and a fine example of autobiography and poetry as political acts.