Ping Pong of the Abyss

Gerd Stern, the Beats, and the Psychiatric Institution

by Gabby Kiser

Gerd Stern in 2015
Photo: Dennis Hearne

In the spring of 2020, I began work on my senior honors thesis with a vague idea of wanting to look into how the psychiatric realities of the early 20th century affected the writings of members of the Beat Generation. Thanks to Gerd Stern and the Beat Museum, I was able to refine my focus as I researched this summer and fall.

When I first read Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” during high school, I was mesmerized by its foreboding fascination with the chaos of youth. That’s all it really was at first, this love of rebellion and an appreciation for its historical context that a teenager could appreciate. Though I was already doing some amateur research on the history of psychiatric institutions in the U.S., I didn’t make connections where I should have. My interests in the Beat Generation and psychiatric history were, for a while, separate.

One particular symbol in the lines of “Howl” that has continually stuck with me, though, is the game of ping pong.

I’m with you in Rockland
where you scream in a straightjacket that you’re losing the game of the actual pingpong of the abyss”

The game itself pops up three times in the poem, twice in Part I and once in Part III, specifically in lines that refer to Carl Solomon. While I understood ping pong is widely used as occupational therapy in mental health facilities, that was really the extent of it. In my mind, I could see the ball going back and forth and quickly chalked the symbolism up to chaos in a controlled (or, rather, controlling) environment. It evoked the falcon in Yeats’s “The Second Coming,” fleeing from its handler into a world of chaos and anarchy.

Ping pong table at Lakeview Behavioral Health in Atlanta
Ping pong table at Lakeview Behavioral Health in Atlanta

As I’ve grown and read “Howl” over and over again, ping pong has stood out to me against the rest of the poem’s rabidly mortal imagery. Something about a hollow ball being knocked between the force of two paddles seems, at times, even more human to me.

After a reading of the poem once more during my junior year here at the University of Richmond, I realized how much there was to learn about the effect of psychiatry on some of my favorite literature. I zeroed in on Part III and began to think more critically about the realities of Rockland. What does it say that this setting takes up such a sizable amount of this poem? Does Rockland seep into any of the rest of this poem or, for that matter, any of Ginsberg’s other works? How about the works of other Beat writers?

While I had a fairly strong idea of where I wanted to go with my research, I began my honors project in the spring of 2020 never expecting to get the head start that I did.

Rockland State Hospital, Orangeburg, NY
Rockland State Hospital, Orangeburg, NY

When I contacted The Beat Museum and mentioned my upcoming research, Director Jerry Cimino offered to get me into contact with Gerd Stern, who was in the same ward at the New York State Psychiatric Institute (PI) with Ginsberg and Solomon when the two met.

Stern was more than eager to help with my research and, along with answering my questions, sent along some of his own writing and a link to his interview with New York gallerist Jim Kempner. Before asking any questions, I was presented with a wealth of new information.

Much of my research into the psychiatric realities of the early 20th century has unfortunately not involved first person accounts. Many of the monographs I have read and museums I have visited place a significance on how easily people were admitted into psychiatric institutions in the past. However, patients in these stories often lack agency as the stories highlight the unjust ways in which people were forced into institutions. Women admitted by husbands for talking back, daughters admitted because of their parents’ disapproval… While this wasn’t the case with everyone in the system, obviously, the lack of regulation in institutional admission has always seemed clearly negative. Stern’s story stands out from these.

Carl Solomon and Allen Ginsberg at the West End bar, New York City, 1978, Photo: Michael Uffer
Carl Solomon and Allen Ginsberg at the West End bar, New York City, 1978
Photo: Michael Uffer

In “Three Poets,” a writing that he sent me about this time of his life, Stern elaborates what led him to PI: he was advised by a psychiatrist to “tell them I was a poet, homeless, desperate, and that I’m contemplating suicide. ‘They want interesting patients, so with a good story they’ll take you in, your father will sign for you, they’ll feed you. Now, for sure, you can’t tell anyone I told you to do that.’” This advice came after a diagnosis of Stern being malnourished rather than any psychiatric diagnosis. In his words to Jim Kempner, “I didn’t think I belonged there, but they didn’t mind.” A fascinating origin for a fascinating account.

Electroconvulsive therapy
Electroconvulsive therapy

Stern writes that he, Solomon, and Ginsberg became quick friends because of their poetic ambitions and the fact that they all “lived a somewhat outside of normal life style.” As he told Jim Kempner, “They were considered crazy. I was just kind of stupid.” In “Three Poets” he adds that Solomon and Ginsberg were recommended different treatments than him, such as electric and insulin shock therapy. Ginsberg would go on to write about both electric shock and insulin therapy in “Howl” and “Kaddish,” though about the experiences of Solomon and his mother, Naomi Ginsberg, respectively.

While the three men were all on the same ward, Stern was allowed to go out on the weekends when Solomon and Ginsberg weren’t. This allowed Stern to bring pot back to Ginsberg and Solomon. This ended up leading to Stern’s dismissal from the facility, as Ginsberg told his doctor about the matter with encouragement from Solomon. He writes in “Three Poets” that Ginsberg and Solomon were released soon as well, in that order.

Stern brought up in our conversation that, while Allen did shape his experiences at PI into art, psychiatry was not as big of a deal for other members of the Beat Generation such as Kerouac or Corso. At this point, I hadn’t yet decided if I would specifically focus on Ginsberg or look to other writers, but this comment helped me to decide on just reading Ginsberg for my project due to his unique experiences that have, to my benefit, been documented well both historically and through his own body of work.

Inside the now-abandoned Rockland State Hospital
Photo: AbandonedNYC

One especially interesting part of the interview was learning the way that Stern considers the time at PI being part of such a famous work. In his own words, “Neither Carl or I had any idea of significance, until HOWL appeared!” Stern phrases Howl’s focus on “the psychiatric episode” as “Allen’s decision” rather than as an obvious pick for something to write about.

In our conversation, Stern reflected on the fact that while this time at PI affected both Ginsberg’s writing and Stern’s own, it was not necessarily a defining factor of their poetic styles. In his own case, Stern wrote in an email, “I knew both of them [Ginsberg and Solomon] for the rest of their lives [and] the effect was reflective of those decades of knowing them as well as other poets from Dylan Thomas through Gogo Nesbit, Matanne Moores, Philip Lamantia, Wallace Stevens even Ezra Pound.”

As a student just getting started in research, it was helpful to remember that what I’m writing about is not only specific, but only one thread in a larger fabric of influences. Experience and influence are two different beasts and considering that has allowed me to weigh the experiences I am reading about against the work of writers such as Antonin Artaud that Ginsberg cited as influential to his own poetry. Sometimes, however, even that can blur together: it was allegedly Solomon that introduced Ginsberg to Artaud. As I start writing my thesis, this relationship continues to interest me.

Philip Lamantia

Stern attended the Six Gallery reading that “Howl” was first presented at and mentioned to me that he was caught off guard by its subject matter. Stern actually attended to hear Philip Lamantia and Kenneth Rexroth. In his words, “I did know Allen but did not know he was going to read a big new poem.” In another email he told me, “I was most surprised to know that he had dedicated the poem to Carl Solomon with whom I remained friends for the rest of his life but of course that the subject of our three person stay at P.I. and our pingpong played through that poem.”

Stern also mentioned that “due to the Carl mention,” the experience of hearing “Howl” at the Six Gallery reading was “not altogether positive.” He also brings this up in “Three Poets,” writing that the poem “asserting Carl’s told but untrue incestuous behavior institutionalized Carl for more shocks.” For so much of the poem to discuss and make insinuations about Solomon’s mental health shows a choice on Ginsberg’s part to make the private public. Not only that, but a sensitive private situation that was not necessarily his to build upon in this manner. The consequences of that choice have stuck with Stern.

Poet Kenneth Rexroth reading a book. (Photo by Nat Farbman/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

Stern finally pushed me into the direction of “Kaddish,” mentioning that “Howl” has been written about so much and that it is a less rich experience. While I’ll still be discussing “Howl” in the thesis, much of my focus has indeed shifted to “Kaddish.” I will also be looking into the fact that these two poems’ discussions of psychiatry are in fact focused on people other than Ginsberg himself.

Through my correspondence with Stern, I learned some key facts about what I’m doing research on that I couldn’t get anywhere else. One of my biggest takeaways is actually related to just a few lines of “Three Poets” that I later asked Stern about. On the second page, there’s a mention of ping pong. Specifically, that Stern, Ginsberg, and Solomon would urge a nurse on their ward to play it with them.

We had agreed that when our side was winning, Allen would change it to losing and if Lane [the nurse] was losing he would make Lane winning.”

Something quickly clicked in my head. Ping pong is chaotic and a symbol of the institution they were in, but this anecdote also shows an interesting game being played with power. Stern, Ginsberg, and Solomon lacked power in the patient/nurse dynamic yet gained some through changing the ping pong score. As Stern writes, the nurse would yell at them and end the game when he realized what was happening, showing that the shenanigans were successful in playing with the ward hierarchy. I was quickly reminded of Randle McMurphy ‘watching’ the World Series to spite Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Carl Solomon
Photo by Allen Ginsberg

For Ginsberg to refer to Solomon “losing the game of the actual pingpong of the abyss” in “Howl” shows the higher stakes of psychiatry beyond the ward, as well as that power is harder to come by outside of these controllable games. While rigging the games brought some solace, “actual pingpong” or the chaos of being human is harder to change the score of.

Thinking about the ping pong motif more deeply convinced me that this was exactly what I should be doing research on. The feeling of richness I experienced from being able to understand those few lines of “Howl” even better is one I seek with every page I read. As an English major, I’m very used to reading and making assumptions about lines without a lot of context. That’s the simple nature of analyzing literature; we all ascribe different meanings to different symbols, and we continue to get different meanings out of texts. But I’m also passionate about history. To see my poetic analysis intersect with history in this way is so exciting, and unlocking more meaning behind such powerful lines won’t get old for me any time soon.

Gerd Stern, 1965
Gerd Stern in 1965

Gerd Stern’s experiences are fascinating and make the Beat Generation feel closer than ever. While, in the grand scheme of things, the temporal distance between my research topics and myself isn’t huge, I never imagined getting into contact with someone like Gerd Stern. The experience reintroduced me to the humanity of the literature that I read. I’ve seen the pictures, watched the readings, heard the tapes, and yet hearing personal anecdotes about things like playing ping pong is what has solidified it for me and made my research feel all the more important. It’s not just what the poetry says about its subject matter, but what it exposes about the poet as well.

I’d like to thank Gerd Stern for the help he gave me in my earliest stages of research. Not only did he give me insight into what it’s like to be part of an experience that is turned into a popular work of poetry, but his anecdotes made me rethink various points of “Howl” and encouraged me to widen my scope and consider it alongside other works as well. While I have only just begun the actual writing of my thesis, the idea of seeking power in the face of the psychiatric system has affected my research and will continue to do so.

Gabby Kiser is a student at the University of Richmond.