“Who Be Kind To” by Allen Ginsberg: a meditation on the importance of kindness, and what it means to be kind.
Kindness is important because every individual is “one and perishable”. Vulnerable. To recognise yourself as one and perishable is to be aware of death, aware of the world as “this place, which is your present habitation” – you won’t be here forever. Be kind in the world while you are here.
Your body will one day perish, and so “be kind to the poor soul that cries in a crack of the pavement because he has no body” is a call for us to recognise that the body is valuable and transient. One day you too will be without a body and will no longer know the touch of another human being, and will no longer be capable of kindness. “Unkindness comes when the body explodes.” Now is the time to be kind, while you are alive in this body.
The neighbour on the “television sofa” is like the soul without a body. “He has no other home”, and eventually the “inspired melodrama” he was watching ends, leaving him to go to bed alone. The home he found in the “click, buzz” of television was an illusion, a disembodied warm distraction.
In his poem Ginsberg starts with the self, “one and perishable”, and then looks out at the world, even looks through your “last eye” as you lie dying, to see what kind of world you find yourself in. A world where you can easily glimpse anger, destruction, unkindness. A world of sad, lost souls “weeping” even “in the galleries of Whitehall, Kremlin, White House . . .”
And then Ginsberg turns from this glimpse of the world and back to you, to “your self”, but now the self “weeps” at the sadness of the world, and turns inward, into itself in its sadness, like the artist “lost in space . . . and hearing himself” playing jazz chords or crying in auditoriums.
But a “universe of Self” is born out of that reflective sadness. The self sees what the world must be if it is to be happy in it. “A dream! a Dream! I don’t want to be alone! I want to know that I am loved!” With this knowledge of what is lacking in the world and what a body most needs – love, human kindness – the new self can seek to make the world better, even to create a new world. You see the actions of the “statue destroyers & tank captains, unhappy murderers” for what they are – acts of unkindness instigated and perpetrated by unhappy men. Men who are lost and weep like the rest of us. And you see that kindness is what the world needs.
Who be kind to? Be kind to all the lost souls, including your own.