The last time I saw the performance poet John Giorno, who died on October 11 at the age of 82, he reminded me more than ever of a Roman emperor.
It was surely his “Greco-Roman” good looks, as the Times obituary put it — aquiline nose, strong jaw, soulful eyes — that made Andy Warhol decide that five and a half hours of John sleeping in the nude would make a good movie (Sleep, 1963). Warhol was, for a while, Giorno’s lover, as were Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Watching them at work, sifting through media detritus in search of resonant images, Giorno learned how to dowse for found words. “I said to myself, ‘If they can do that for art, why can’t I do it for poetry?’” he told me when I interviewed him in March of last year.
One of his first found poems, from 1962, was a Village Voice listing for the funeral of a friend, the dancer Freddy Herko, who leapt naked out a fifth-floor window, whacked out of his skull on speed. Giorno simply inserted line breaks, in the spirit of Warhol making a silkscreened print of a newspaper photo of a suicide victim and calling it art (“Suicide: Fallen Body” ). “That everyday image, when it’s made like a poetic line, with line breaks, becomes wisdom,” said Giorno. “It’s no different from lyrical poetry, Walt Whitman or whatever.”
Later, in books with not-ready-for-New Yorker titles like Balling Buddha (1970) and Shit, Piss, Blood & Brains (1977), he took the lessons he’d learned from the Pop artists even further, repeating sentence fragments like incantations or placing two copies of the same found text side by side, in slightly misaligned columns, so the eye ping-pongs between them, creating visual and textual echoes. Still later, he dragged poetry readings into the age of Op art, LSD, and Marshall McLuhan by performing with multitracked recordings that doubled, tripled, quadrupled the lines of his already repetitive texts. Live, in performances like the ones on his record You’re the Guy I Want to Share My Money With (1981), released on his Giorno Poetry Systems label, he weaved his voice around the backing tracks to produce a mind-numbing mandala of sound and meaning.
In 1989, he returned to just reciting his poems, though “reciting” doesn’t half cover it in Giorno’s case: His delivery, somewhere between televangelist and Times Square barker, propelled his poetry like a bullet to the brain. In You Got to Burn to Shine (1994), a collection of poems and prose pieces, he says, “For me, performing poetry is sustained sexual activity in a golden age of promiscuity. You can never be too generous.”
Giorno’s poetry is exuberantly queer, unabashedly pornographic, frequently hilarious, sometimes furious (especially in the AIDS-ravaged ‘80s, when Reagan stood by while nearly 90,000 died), and almost always as compassionate as it is sardonic, perched on a tightrope between the wry cynicism of the streetwise New Yorker and the existential wisdom of the Tibetan Nyingma Buddhism he practiced. In “Thanx 4 Nothing,” written on his 70th birthday in 2006, he offers a prayer that sounds, in retrospect, like a love letter from the dead:
May every drug I ever took
come back and get you high,
may every glass of vodka and wine I’ve drunk
come back and make you feel really good,
numbing your nerve ends
allowing the natural clarity of your mind to flow free,
may all the suicides be songs of aspiration,
thanks that bad news is always true …
thanks for allowing me to be a poet
a noble effort, doomed, but the only choice
The last time we met, Giorno and I spoke in his loft at 222 Bowery, a stately building that in the 1880’s had been New York’s first Y.M.C.A., dedicated to “the improvement of the spiritual condition of young men.” I hadn’t seen him since 1985; then, we had talked downstairs, in the windowless former locker room William S. Burroughs had dubbed “the bunker” when he lived there. Interviewing Giorno for the art magazine High Performance, I was 25, just three years out of college, awed to be sitting in Burroughs’s former lair, the Sistine Chapel of outlaw cool. We talked for hours in a haze of cannabis smoke, our conversation fueled by brimming glasses of straight vodka. When John saw me to the door of the building, we paused to say a wobbly goodbye and he seized the moment, pulling me into a long, passionate kiss.
Though not gay, I’d been aspirationally bi ever since my come-to-Jesus conversion to Bowie mania in the glam-rock ‘70s. Oh, what the hell, I thought, blurry from booze and grass, it’s a benediction from a wise elder, the demigod of punk-as-fuck spoken-word rants. Maybe I’d remember this moment the way Oscar Wilde remembered a similar encounter, years after the fact, when he told a friend, “the kiss of Walt Whitman is still on my lips.” I stepped into the night. John stood there on the threshold, watching me go, in his own way an improver of the spiritual condition of young men.