Seattle!—department stores full of fur coats and camping equipment, mad noontime businessmen in gabardine coats talking on streetcorners to keep up the structure, I float past, birds cry. —“Afternoon Seattle”
ALLEN GINSBERG, POET of scraggly beard and ecstatic mind, one-man bridge between the beatniks and the hippies, arrived in Seattle on February 2, 1956, the year he would also publish his marquee poem “Howl.” He’d hitchhiked here from San Francisco with the poet Gary Snyder to backpack around the Northwest and dig some Asian philosophy. Ginsberg recorded his impressions in a poem that appeared in his 1963 collection Reality Sandwiches. “Afternoon Seattle” reads like a stream of consciousness running across the back of a postcard, a just-passing-through glimpse of the native habitat. Like any good snapshot, it reveals not so much what the city looked like as what it was.
The poem begins with Ginsberg taking a waterfront bus along to “Yessler” Way and the “old red Wobbly Hall” at Fourth Avenue, then crossing Skid Road “weeping” for a “10c. beer.” He hits the Pike Place Market, “Labyrinth wood stairways and Greek movies under Farmers Market second hand city.” He notes the movie Maytime at the Green Parrot theater, then skips down to Alaskan Way, where he sees a “ferryboat coming faraway in mist from Bremerton Island.” A typical tourist’s mistake, this verbal fusing of Bremerton and Bainbridge Island, but the image sticks.
It should surprise no one that Ginsberg trawls Ye Olde Curiosity Shop, where he finds “shells and skulls a whalebone mask.” It’s here amid the weird curios that the poem widens its scope beyond the streets of Seattle and strikes a particularly menacing chord:
The cities rot from the center, the suburbs fall apart a slow apocalypse of rot the spectral trolleys fade / the cities rot the fire escapes hang and rust the brick turns black dust falls uncollected garbage heaps the wall
It’s striking to read these lines while living in the relentless newness of today’s Seattle. Ginsberg’s vision of a decrepit pre–Space Needle port town captures a candid city that does not try to conceal its age. The sites Ginsberg watched succumbing to urban decay were visual reminders that this was once a place where Yukon-bound adventurers stopped to load up on pickaxes and kill a few hours at a brothel.
And yet as the poem saunters into its closing lines, about department stores stocked with fur coats and camping equipment, we glimpse something else about the spirit of this place: an uneasy detente between ostentatious consumption and reverence for the surrounding landscape, a city bent on re-inventing itself via commerce and the conversations of “mad noontime businessmen.”
Does the Seattle of Ginsberg’s poem still exist? Sure, the ferries still arrive and depart in the mist, and the Market and Ye Olde Curiosity Shop still do brisk business, but what remains of the romantic old Seattle feels scrubbed and camera ready, the original, vital rot of it now the stuff of poetry. Not to mention, when was the last time anyone could enjoy a 10c. beer?