Peter Orlovsky obituary

Member of the beat generation, poet and lover of Allen Ginsberg

The writer Peter Orlovsky, who has died aged 76 of lung cancer, spent more than four decades as the companion of Allen Ginsberg, arguably the highest profile US poet of the postwar years. Orlovsky's own literary legacy was modest in scale – his best-known collection was Clean Asshole Poems and Smiling Vegetable Songs, published in 1978 – and inevitably overshadowed by his lover's lofty stature and prolific output. But he still carved out a reputation that allowed him to be regarded as an active member of the beat generation, that community of experimental novelists and artists which emerged from Greenwich Village, New York, and North Beach, San Francisco, in the 1950s, to leave their creative influence on the counterculture of the psychedelic 1960s.

Orlovsky had experienced his own youthful dramas even before he encountered Ginsberg for the first time in San Francisco in 1954. He was born in New York's Lower East Side, to a Russian immigrant father, as the tentacles of the depression squeezed the life from industrial America. His father's printing business failed, then his parents' marriage, and Peter, his mother, three brothers and a sister, moved to Queens, enduring several years of poverty.

When he was 17, his mother insisted he leave school and find work; she could no longer support him. His occupation as an orderly in a mental health institution was physically taxing and emotionally harrowing. The experience was a maturing one for this late adolescent but it would pre-empt a powerful and affecting strain in his future life: his brother Julius suffered psychological instability and Orlovsky would play a role in supporting his younger sibling long into adulthood.

Drafted in 1953, at the time of the Korean war, Orlovsky was marked out as a potential subversive by his communist-inclined reading matter. He was sent to California to work in an army hospital, where he was befriended by a rising Bay Area artist, Robert LaVigne, who seduced him. When Ginsberg visited LaVigne's studio and saw a painting of a Pan-like boy, the artist told him that it was Orlovsky. Their relationship blossomed shortly afterwards and would last until Ginsberg's death in 1997.

But the association was far from straightforward. Ginsberg had, by now, abandoned any heterosexual pretence and, with his long poem Howl in 1955, made an explicit attack on American values while also celebrating his own homosexuality. Orlovsky continued to express his attraction to women throughout their decades together. This tension would leave a mark on their friendship and there would be times when the two would separate, later to reunite.

In the early 1960s, with Ginsberg at the height of his powers and creative reputation, Orlovsky joined him on journeys to India, north Africa and Europe. As the US counterculture took shape, Ginsberg was a guru, guiding these forces for racial, political and sexual change. Orlovsky was usually by his side, writing, giving readings, and mixing with the movers and shakers of the day: Timothy Leary, Andy Warhol, Bob Dylan, John Lennon and Paul McCartney.

In 1969, Orlovsky collaborated with the photographer Robert Frank on a film entitled Me and My Brother, documenting Julius's mental illness. He contributed, too, to activities at Ginsberg's farm project at Cherry Valley in upstate New York (bought in part to wean Orlovsky off a methedrine addiction). Orlovsky later taught at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, and joined Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue concert tour. As the 1970s drew to a close, Orlovsky published his key verse collection, issued, suitably, by Lawrence Ferlinghetti's City Lights publishers, which had put out Howl and Other Poems more than two decades previously. In 1980 he produced a book with Ginsberg, Straight Hearts' Delight: Love Poems and Selected Letters.

After Ginsberg's death, Orlovsky's health gradually deteriorated. Chuck Lief, in latter years his guardian, says that: "Peter was devoted to Allen for decades, but continued to struggle with his own demons. When Allen died, the removal of that anchor and reference point led Peter to become somewhat groundless."

• Peter Orlovsky, poet, born 8 July 1933; died 30 May 2010

Simon Warner

The GuardianTramp

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