Online Interviews with Allen Ginsberg
Peter Barry Chowka
Peter Barry Chowka: Allen, since we're in this automobile setting, I want to ask you: much of your poetry, especially in The Fall of America, was composed in cars on your various travels. In so many of the poems which came out of automobiles in the sixties you really captured the essence of the times, the Vietnam war reports on the radio, the lyrics of the rock music happening then. I wonder if, lately, you're writing poetry while on the road in automobiles?
Allen Ginsberg: Not so much. Occasionally, I still write travel poems in airplanes, but not as often. It might be that the times have changed. Also, we were doing a lot of cross country traveling in cars in the early and mid-sixties. More than now.
PBC: A lot of your most recent poetry, especially some that you read last night (Corcoran Gallery, Washington, D.C.) contains very spiritual, and specifically Buddhist, imagery.
AG: Not so spiritual; it's more practical observations during the course of meditation or after.
PBC: "Down-to-earth" spiritual, then. You don't like the word "spiritual?"
AG: Yeah, I'm not even sure if the word is helpful because it gets people all distracted with the idea of voices and ghosts and visions. I used to get distracted that way.
PBC: How do you select which poems you're going to present at a reading? Do you consider what type of audience you feel will be there?
AG: Well, I read there years before with my father in a celebrated moment, for a Washington society lady who invited us. I met Richard Helms, the head of the CIA, at the last reading . . .
PBC: Helms was at the last reading?
AG: Yes. And so this time I was all hyped up, 'cause [William] Burroughs was coming along, too: Burroughs, who's the great destroyer of the CIA, with his prose.
PBC: Were you able to sense any reaction from the audience last night to the kinds of things that were being read?
AG: I don't think there were any CIA people there this time, (laughs) I was a little disappointed: there were only secret agents -- no big fish. I prepared poems that I hadn't read in Washington before, or poems that were extremely solid; I wanted a solid, good reading of high-quality poems rather than just sort-of random poems, daily journal poems. So I picked "pieces" that were complete in themselves. For me the high point was a long, ranting, aggressive, wild poem ("Hadda be Playing on the Juke Box") linking the CIA and the Mafia and the FBI and the NKVD and the KGB and the multinational cash registers.
PBC: One line I especially liked was "Poetry useful if it leaves its own skeleton hanging in the air like Buddha, Shakespeare and Rimbaud." Would it be correct to say, from this line and from some of the other poetry you read, that your sadhana now is the spreading of the dharma through poetry?
AG: Well, I've been working in that direction with Chogyam Trungpa, especially influenced by staying all summer at Naropa Institute at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, which is ideationally modeled on Kerouac's practice of spontaneous utterance and Milarepa's similar, or original, practice.
PBC: It was Kerouac who originally turned you on to Buddhism, wasn't it?
AG: Yeah, he was the first one I heard chanting the "Three Refuges" in Sanskrit, with a voice like Frank Sinatra.
PBC: And he wrote that as-yet unpublished volume Some of the Dharma, which, I think, consisted of letters he wrote to you about Buddhism?
AG: Yeah, and he also, in the mid-fifties, wrote Mexico City Blues, which is a great exposition of Mind -- according to Trungpa. I read aloud to Trungpa halfway through Mexico City Blues on a four-hour trip from Karme-Choling, Vermont, down to New York, and he laughed all the way. And I said, "What do you think of it?" And he answered, "It's a perfect exposition of Mind."
PBC: Trungpa is a recognized poet in his own right. Do you think you've become so close to Trungpa because you're both poets?
AG: Oh, yeah, that's a big influence. He encouraged me originally to abandon dependence on a manuscript and to practice improvisational poetry. He said, "Why don't you do like the great poets do, like Milarepa; trust your own mind."
PBC: Compose it and then forget it; not necessarily write it down?
AG: It's unforgettable in the sense that it gets on tape. The best thing I ever did was a long "Dharma/Chakra Blues" in Chicago last year, but the tape is completely incomprehensible and I can't transcribe it. That is an old tradition, like Li Po writing poems and leaving them on trees, or Milarepa singing to the wind with his right hand at his ear to listen to the sound, shabd.
PBC: How long have you known Trungpa now? He seems to have become a great influence in your life.
AG: An enormous influence. We first met on the street in 1971, in front of Town Hall (New York City). I stole his taxicab; my father was ill and I wanted to get my father off the street.
PBC: It was purely an accidental encounter?
AG: Yeah. I said "Om Ah Hum Vajra Guru Padma Siddhi Hum" and gave him a "Namaste" when he was introduced. I asked him years later what he thought of my pronouncing the Padma Sambhava mantra to salute him, and he said, "Oh, I wondered if you knew what you were talking about." (laughs) He's been pushing me to improvise, to divest myself of ego eventually, kidding me about "Ginsberg resentment" as a national hippie characteristic, and warning me to prepare for death, as I registered in a poem called "What Would You Do If You Lost It?" published by the Lama Foundation.
PBC: As far as the "resentment" aspect, has he influenced you in that direction? For example, many of the poems you read last night seemed more contemplative, meditative.
AG: He has provided a situation in which I do sit, like at the Naropa seminaries or at the intensive sitting meditations where Peter [Orlovsky] and I have gone and sat for a week at a time in retreat cabins in the Rocky Mountains, or where I've sat weeks alone, and he's suggested that I not write during those weeks when I'm in retreat -- which has resulted in a lot of post-sitting, meditative, haiku-like writings. He's also made me more aware of the elements of resentment, aggression, and dead-end anger in my earlier poetry and behavior, which is useful to know and be mindful of. It doesn't necessarily curb it, but I'm able at least to handle it with more grace, maybe, as last night, where I read a whole series of meditative poems and then this outrageous attack on the CIA-Mafia-FBI connection. But it was put in a context where it was like the normal explosion of, maybe even, vajra-resentment, so that it doesn't become a dominant paranoia but is seen within the greater space -- the flow of Mind Consciousness while sitting -- of continuing mindfulness over the years. Trungpa's basic attitude toward that kind of political outrage is that things like gay liberation, women's liberation, peace mobilization, have an element -- a seed -- of value in them; but it depends on the attitude of mind of the participant as to whether it's a negative feedback and a karmic drug or a clear, healthy, wholesome action.
PBC: Often those political movements can become so mutually exclusive that they serve to isolate one from a lot of the potential . . .
AG: Or so filled with resentment that they become dead-ends. More and more, by hindsight, I think all of our activity in the late sixties may have prolonged the Vietnam war. As Jerry Rubin remarked after '68, he was so gleeful he had torpedoed the Democrats. Yet it may have been the refusal of the Left to vote for Humphrey that gave us Nixon. Humphrey and Johnson were trying to end the war to win the election, while Nixon was sending emissaries (Mme. Claire Chennault) to Thieu saying, "Hang on until I get elected and we'll continue the war." Though I voted for Humphrey in '68 I think a lot of people refused to vote, and Nixon squeaked in by just a couple of hundred thousand votes.
PBC: And now, eight years later, we might get Humphrey again anyway.
AG: So that might be the karma of the Left, because of their anger, their excessive hatred of their fathers and the liberals, their pride, their vanity . . .ourvanity, our pride, our excessive hatred. It may be that we have on our karma the continuation of the Vietnam war in its worst form with more killing than before. We may have to endure Humphrey so that we can take the ennui or boredom of examining what we've wrought when we got "exciting" Nixon. In a way it all balanced out; maybe it was better that Nixon got in because then we had Watergate and the destruction of the mythology of authority of a hypocrite government.
PBC: Since this is 1976, a year of inevitable increase in political discussion, I'd like to ask the following question. Your Buddhist practice seems not to have interfered with the acute politic concern, for the CIA and other issues, which you continue to display in recent poems like "Hadda Be Playing on the Jukebox." How, if at all, has your work with Trungpa -- your extensive meditation practice -- changed your outlook on North American or world politics?
AG: It has changed it somewhat from a negative fix on the "fall of America" as a dead-end issue -- the creation of my resentment -- into an appreciation of the fatal karmic flaws in myself and the nation. Also with an attempt to make use of those flaws or work with them -- be aware of them -- without animosity or guilt: and find some basis for reconstruction of a humanly useful society, based mainly on a less attached, less apocalyptic view. In other words, I have to retract or swallow my apocalypse. (laughs)
PBC: That's a lot to swallow. Do you have any specific thoughts on the American political scene in this Presidential election year?
AG: Governor Jerry Brown.
PBC: Is the condition of the Left refusing to support Humphrey in '68 the main thing that comes to mind in talking of the mistakes of the sixties, or are there other things that you've realized, as well?
AG: Well, that's sort of a basic mistake you can refer to that everybody can remember in context, I think, so it's a good, solid thing. What was the point of the Left? It was saying, "End the war." What was the action of the Left? It refused to support Humphrey because he wasn't "pure" enough (laughs), so there was an apocalyptic purity desire which maybe was impractical, or "unskillful means."
PBC: Which seems to go along with what I know about Trungpa and his teachings, in general: that it should be a very down-to-earth, practical sadhana, which doesn't include requirements of stringent vegetarianism or giving up cigarette smoking.
AG: And which is mindful of that quality of resentment which he characterizes as "Ginsberg resentment" or "America Ha-Ha." I was resentful, at first, when he came on with that kind of line. Actually, I voted for Humphrey, so I wasn't dominated that much by resentment, but it seems to be a stereotype, maybe 'cause Trungpa reads too much Time magazine. He's entitled to his opinion, and I'm surely profiting psychologically from him because there's enough insight in that to make me halt in my tracks and think twice, thrice.
PBC: Do you see his movement in contemporary Buddhism as the most vital one in America at this point?
AG: Shakespeare has a very interesting line: "Comparisons are odious." So to say "the most vital" -- well, everybody's doing a different kind of work -- some quiet, some more flashy. I seem to be able to relate to Trungpa best, although I must say that it may be that the looseness and heartiness and charm of his approach is not necessarily the deepest for my case. I notice I'm very slow in getting into my prostration: of 100,000 prostrations, I've done only 10,000 and I'm way behind, maybe the last in the class. But I guess he's gotten a lot of people more deeply into foundation practices, perhaps on more of a mass scale than any other Tibetan lama, if that's any good count. I suppose it's the quality of the student that counts. Trungpa's movement is a very rational and classical approach to Buddhism, in his real serious attention to sitting: "Go sit, weeks and weeks and weeks, ten hours a day."
PBC: It's primarily silent meditation?
AG: His basic approach is to begin with shamatha, a Sanskrit word meaning peaceful mindedness, creating tranquillity of mind. It consists of paying attention to the breath coming out of the nostrils and dissolving in space, the outbreath only, and is a variety of vipassana practice, which begins with concentration on the breath passing in and out just at the tip of the nose, or Zen practice which involves following the breath to the bottom of the belly.
PBC: What is it about the Tibetan style of Buddhism that first attracted you?
AG: Originally it was the iconography: the mandalas, the Wheel of Life, and the Evans-Wentz books, some of which were recommended by Raymond Weaver, who was a professor of English at Columbia University in the '40s. Weaver gave Kerouac a list of books to read after he read an unpublished early novel of Kerouac's titled The Sea Is My Brother -- a list which included the early gnostic writers, The Egyptian Book of the Dead and The Tibetan Book of the Dead. The Herukas -- the many-armed, fierce guardian deities -- reminded me of visions I'd had in 1948 relating to William Blake's poem, "The Sick Rose"; visions of terror -- of the universe devouring me, being conquered and eaten by the universe. I used The Tibetan Book of the Dead while ingesting ayahuasca in New York City in 1960-61. Later on, some contact with Dudjom Rinpoche in India reinforced this interest in Tibetan Buddhism.
PBC: How has your study of Tibetan Buddhism, and your work with Trungpa Rinpoche, altered or expanded your own awareness?
AG: The shamatha meditation which I've practiced for a number of years under Trungpa Rinpoche's auspices leads first to a calming of the mind, to a quieting of the mechanical production of fantasy and thought forms; it leads to sharpened awareness of them and to taking an inventory of them. It also leads to an appreciation of the empty space around into which you breathe, which is associated with dharmakaya. In the tradition of the vipassana practice, this leads to insight into detail in the space around you, which is exemplified in William Carlos Williams' brief poems noting detail in the space around him. I'll paraphrase his poem "Thursday" -- "I've had my dreams, like other men, but it has come to nothing. So that now I stand here feeling the weight of my coat on my shoulders, the weight of my body in my shoes, the breath pushing in and out at my nose -- and resolve to dream no more." In terms of external manifestation rather than just subjective awareness, an observer could see in me some results of that "widening of the area of consciousness," which is a term that I used at the end of Kaddish. For example, since 1971, I've come to improvise poetry or song on the stage, trusting my own mind rather than a manuscript. Also, I do a lot of sitting, which is, in itself, a self-sufficient activity.
PBC: Before you began to study with Trungpa, you'd never associated yourself with a spiritual master?
AG: I had worked with Swami Muktananda -- "Kundalini Swami," as Gary Snyder calls him, and sat for a year and a half with a mantra that he had given me.
PBC: You knew Swami Bhaktivedanta (leader of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness) as well.
AG: Since '66 I had known Swami Bhaktivedanta and was somewhat guided by him, although not formally -- spiritual friend. I practiced the hare krishna chant, practiced it with him, sometimes in mass auditoriums and parks in the Lower East Side of New York.
PBC: You really did a lot to popularize that chant. Probably the first place I heard it was when I saw you read in '68.
AG: Actually, I'd been chanting it since '63, after coming back from India. I began chanting it, in Vancouver at a great poetry conference, for the first time in '63, with Duncan and Olson and everybody around, and then continued. When Bhaktivedanta arrived on the Lower East Side in '66 it was reinforcement for me, like "the reinforcements had arrived" from India.
PBC: You mentioned your trip to India in the early sixties. Do you consider that to be very significant in your orientation afterwards toward your present spiritual goals?
AG: My trip wasn't very spiritual, as anybody can see if they read Indian Journals. Most of it was spent horsing around, sightseeing and trying the local drugs. But I did visit all of the holy men I could find and I did encounter some teachers who gave me little teachings then that were useful then and now. Some of the contacts were prophetic of what I arrived at later here in America, because I met the head of the Kagyu order, Gyalwa Karmapa there, and saw the black crown ceremony in Sikkim in '62 or '63. He subsequently visited the U.S. with Trungpa as host. I went to see Dudjom Rinpoche, the head of the Nyingma sect and got one very beautiful suggestion from him about the bum LSD trips I was having at the time, which I'll quote again: "If you see something horrible, don't cling to it; and if you see something beautiful, don't cling to it."
PBC: Has LSD been less of a factor in your life lately?
AG: Less, though it was a strong influence and I think basically a good influence. I went through a lot of horror scenes with it. Finally, through poetic and meditation practice I found the key to see through the horror and come to a quiet place while tripping.
PBC: Do you ever find it possible to do serious meditation while under the influence of drugs, or do you find the two exclusive?
AG: I haven't tried since I've been more deeply involved in meditation. The last time I took acid, I went up into the Teton Mountains, to the top of Rendezvous Mountain, and made a little sitting place on the rocks, near the snow. Just sat there all day, unmoved, unmoving, watching my breath, while white clouds pushed casting shadows on the stillness of the white snow. It was like sitting up in the corner of a great mandala of the god-worlds thinking of the hells -- bombing Cambodia -- going on down the other side of the mandala, the other side of the round earth; and then breathing, and the thought dissolving, and the physical presence of the place where I was resuming, sitting in a white snowy place in the middle of the whole "empty" vast full universe.
PBC: The reason I asked is that most teachers I've heard of have counseled against using drugs or have said they're an impediment on the path, although many people have reported experiencing profound mystical meditative states while under the influence of certain drugs, and that drugs have opened them to a more expansive consciousness.
AG: I think that even those teachers who disapprove of the use of drugs by their students do credit the LSD wave with opening up people's awareness to the possibility of alternative modes of consciousness, or at least a search for some stable place, or perhaps leaving their imaginations open to understand some of the imagery, such as the wheels of life. Trungpa's position is that "psychedelics" are too trippy, whereas people need to be grounded; everything is uncertain enough as it is. The world, societies, mind are uncertain. What's needed is some non-apocalyptic, non-ambitious, non-spiritually materialistic, grounded sanity, for which he proposes shamatha meditation and discourages grass and acid, which is logically sensible. I think he may have some more ample ideas about that for specific situations.
Peter Barry Chowka: I want to talk a little about the concept of "egolessness," which is something a lot of us have trouble defining and practicing. Last night you mentioned the three marks of existence are "change, suffering and egolessness."
Allen Ginsberg: Trungpa lectured on that at Naropa last year, very beautifully, and I turned it into a stanza:
Born in this world
you got to suffer
you got no soul
representing suffering, change/transiency, and anatma or no permanent essential identity, meaning, in a sense, non-theism, or nonselfism. It's a description of the nature of things, by their very nature. It might knock out Krishna and Joya and God and some notions of Christ and some notions of Buddha. It may not necessarily knock out devotion or the quality of devotion, though.
PBC: How long ago was your poem "Ego Confession" written? I'm curious, because the line in it that I picked up on was the first one: "I want to be known as the most brilliant man in America."
AG: Yeah, it's obviously a great burlesque, a take-off on myself, shameful, shocking. (laughs) I wrote it in October '74, listening to Cecil Taylor play in a nightclub in San Francisco, sitting next to Anne Waldman, who is the co-director of the Kerouac School of Poetics at Naropa. And I was so ashamed of what I wrote down that I wouldn't let her see it, I hid my notebook from her with my hand. Within a month I realized that the poem was funny.
PBC: Do you have any new poems in your notebook that you'd care to read for us while we're on this trip to Baltimore?
AG: I think the text of the "Gospel of Noble Truths" hasn't been printed anywhere. It's a gospel style song, for blues chord changes one/four/one/five/ and next stanza return to one. There's another reflection of that theme in a poem I wrote along on the Rolling Thunder Review.
Lay down Lay down yr Mountain Lay down God
Lay down Lay down yr music Love Lay down
Lay down Lay down yr hatred Lay yrself down
Lay down Lay down yr Nation Lay yr foot on the Rock
Lay down yr whole Creation Lay yr Mind down
Lay down Lay down yr Magic Hey Alchemist Lay it down Clear
Lay down yr Practice precisely Lay down yr Wisdom dear
Lay down Lay down yr Camera Lay down yr Image right
Yea Lay down yr Image Lay down Light.
Nov. 1, 1975
PBC: Is Dylan the "Alchemist" in those lines?
AG: Yeah, the poem is directed to him, because we were considering the nature of the movie we were making, which will be a nice thing, a sort of "dharma movie," hopefully, depending on how it's edited. The movie made along the Rolling Thunder tour (120 hours of film which will have to be reduced to three) has many "dharma" scenes. It was like a Buddhist conspiracy on the part of some of the directors and film cameramen; the director Mel Howard was out at Naropa last year. In every scene that I played I used the Milarepa mantra "Ah" and kept trying to lay it on Dylan or the audience or the film men.
PBC: Much of Dylan's music, even from the middle, electric period of his career, has impressed me as being very Zen-like in a lot of its imagery. Knowing him well as you do, do you think he has been influenced by Zen or Buddhism?
AG: I don't know him because I don't think there is any him, I don't think he's got a self!
PBC: He's ever-changing.
AG: Yeah. He's said some very beautiful, Buddha-like things. One thing, very important, was I asked him whether he was having pleasure on the tour, and he said, "Pleasure, Pleasure, what's that? I never touch the stuff." And then he went on to explain that at one time he had had a lot of pain and sought a lot of pleasure, but found that there was a subtle relationship between pleasure and pain. His words were, "They're in the same framework." So now, as in the Bhagavad Gita, he does what it is necessary to do without consideration of "pleasure," not being a pleasure junkie, which is good advice for anyone coming from the top-most pleasure-possible man in the world. He also said he believed in God. That's why I wrote "Lay down yr Mountain Lay down God." Dylan said that where he was, "on top of the Mountain," he had a choice whether to stay or to come down. He said, God told him, "All right, you've been on the Mountain, I'm busy, go down, you're on your own. Check in later." (laughs) And then Dylan said, "Anybody that's busy making elephants and putting camels through needles' eyes is too busy to answer my questions, so I came down the Mountain."
PBC: Several of his albums have shown his interest in God, especially New Morning.
AG: "Father of Night," yeah. I think that is, in a sense, a penultimate stage. It's not his final stage of awareness. I was kidding him on the tour, I said, "I used to believe in God." So he said, "Well, I used to believe in God, too." (laughs) And then he said, "You'd write better poetry if you believed in God."
PBC: You've been fairly close to Dylan for a number of years now . . .
AG: No, I didn't see him for four years. He just called me up at 4 a.m. and said "What are you writing, sing it to me on the telephone." And then said, "O.K., let's go out on the road."
PBC: He was encouraged by a letter you'd written him about your appreciation of his song "Idiot Wind?"
AG: Denise Mercedes, a guitarist whom Dylan admires, was talking to Dylan, and he mentioned to her that he was tickled. I had written a long letter to him demanding $200,000 for Naropa Institute, to sustain the whole Trungpa scene, just a big long kidding letter, hoping that he'd respond. He liked the letter, he just skipped over the part about money. (He doesn't read anything like that, I knew, anyway.) But then I also explained what was going on at Naropa with all the poets. I said also that I had dug the great line in the song "Idiot Wind," which I thought was one of Dylan's great great prophetic national songs, with one rhyme that took in the whole nation, I said it was a "national rhyme."
Blowing like a circle around my skull
From the Grand Coulee Dam to the Capitol
Dylan told Denise that nobody else had noticed it or mentioned it to him; that the line had knocked him out, too. He thought it was an interesting creation, however he had arrived at it. And I thought it was absolutely a height of Hart Crane-type poetics. I was talking earlier about resentment. "Idiot Wind" is like Dylan acknowledging the vast resentments, angers and ill-temper on the Left and the Right all through America during the sixties, calling it an "idiot wind" and saying "it's a wonder we can even breathe" or "it's a wonder we can even eat!"
PBC: Right, and directing it at himself, as well.
AG: Yeah, talking about it within himself, but also declaring his independence from it. There's a great line in which he says, "I've been double-crossed now for the very last time, and now I'm finally free," recognizing and exorcising the monster "on the borderline between you and me."
PBC: You've obviously been impressed by Dylan and his music during the last decade.
AG: He's a great poet.
PBC: Is it possible for you to verbalize what kinds of influence he's had on your own style of poetry?
AG: I've done that at great length in the preface to a new book, First Blues, which has just been published in only 1,500 copies, so it's relatively rare. I wrote a long preface tracing all the musical influences I've had, including Dylan's, because I dedicated the book to him. He taught me three chords so I got down to blues. Right after Trungpa suggested I begin improvising, I began improvising and Dylan heard it, and encouraged it even more. We went into a studio in '71 and improvised a whole album.
PBC: Which has never been released. Do you think it ever will be?
AG: Oh, on Folkways, or something.
PBC: Back to the Rolling Thunder Tour. Perhaps you can place it in the context of the Beat movement of the fifties and the consciousness expansion of the sixties. Something you said while on the tour indicated that you saw it as being perhaps that important; you said that "the Rolling Thunder Revue will be one of the signal gestures characterizing the working cultural community that will make the seventies."
AG: Wishful thinking, probably, but at the same time wishful thinking is also prophesy. It seemed to me like the first bud of spring. I thought that the gesture toward communalism -- almost like a traveling rock-family-commune that Dylan organized, with poets and musicians all traveling together, with the musicians all calling each other "poet" -- "sing me a song, poet" -- was a good sign. The fact that he brought his mother along -- the "mysterious" Dylan had a chicken-soup, Yiddish Mama, who even got on stage at one point . . .
PBC: Not to mention bringing his wife Sara and Joan Baez.
AG: Sara came, and his children came. And Sara met Joan Baez and they all acted in the movie together, and Joan Baez brought her mother and her children, and Ramblin' Jack Elliot had his daughter. So there was a lot of jumping family.
PBC: Sounds like Dylan tying up a lot of loose karmic ends.
AG: Right. As he says in the jacket notes to the Desire album, "We've got a lot of karma to burn." To deal with or get rid of, I think he means.
PBC: It was really a unique tour, bringing you primarily to small towns and colleges in New England . . .
AG: The Beat moment was arriving at Jack Kerouac's natal place, Lowell, Massachusetts, and going to Kerouac's grave.
PBC: Was Dylan moved during that experience?
AG: He was very open and very tender, he gave a lot of himself there. We stood at Kerouac's grave and read a little section on the nature of self-selflessness, from Mexico City Blues. Then we sat down on the grave and Dylan took up my harmonium and made up a little tune. Then he picked up his guitar and started a slow blues, so I improvised into a sort of exalted style, images about Kerouac's empty skull looking down at us over the trees and clouds while we sat there, empty-mouthed, chanting the blues. Suddenly, Dylan interrupted the guitar while I continued singing the verses (making them up as I went along so it was like the triumph of the Milarepa style) and he picked up a Kerouac-ian October-brown autumn leaf from the grass above his grave and stuck it in his breast pocket and then picked up the guitar again and came down at the beat just as I did, too, and we continued for another couple of verses before ending. So it was very detached and surrendered; it didn't even make a difference if he played the guitar or not. It was like the old blues guitarists who sing a cappella for a couple of bars.
PBC: Has Dylan ever acknowledged to you that Kerouac was an influence on him or that he's familiar with his work?
AG: Yes, oddly! I asked him if he had ever read any Kerouac. He answered, "Yeah, when I was young in Minneapolis." Someone had given him Kerouac's Mexico City Blues. He said, "I didn't understand the words then, I understand it better now, but it blew my mind." So apparently Kerouac was more of an influence on him than I had realized. I think it was a nice influence on him.
PBC: Which poem was he reading from Kerouac's Mexico City Blues?
AG: It's one toward the end of the book, which he picked out at random. I had picked out something for him to read and, typical Dylan, he turned the page and read the other one on the opposite side of the page. (laughs)
PBC: Which one did you pick out for him to read?
AG: "The wheel of the quivering meat conception turns in the void," the one that, I think, ends, "Poor! I wish I were out of this slaving meat wheel and safe in heaven, dead." There was another one I picked which lists all the sufferings of existence and ends, "like kissing my kitten in the belly, the softness of our reward."
PBC: Was it your suggestion that Rolling Thunder include Lowell on the tour?
AG: No, Dylan had chosen it himself. We did a lot of beautiful filming in Lowell -- one of the scenes described by Kerouac is a grotto near an orphanage in the center of red brick Catholic Lowell near the Merrimac River. So we went there and spent part of the afternoon. There's a giant statue of Christ described by Kerouac. Dylan got up near where the Christ statue was on top of an artificial hill-mound, and all of a sudden he got into this funny monologue, asking the man on the cross, "How does it feel to be up there?" There's a possibility . . . everyone sees Dylan as a Christ-figure, too, but he doesn't want to get crucified. He's too smart, in a way. Talking to "the star" who made it up and then got crucified Dylan was almost mocking, like a good Jew might be to someone who insisted on being the messiah, against the wisdom of the rabbis, and getting himself nailed up for it. He turned to me and said, "What can you do for somebody in that situation?" I think he quoted Christ, "suffer the little children," and I quoted "and always do for others and let others do for you," which is Dylan's hip, American-ese paraphrase of Christ's "Do unto others . . .," in "Forever Young."
So there was this brilliant, funny situation of Dylan talking to Christ, addressing this life-size statue of Christ, and allowing himself to be photographed with Christ. It was like Dylan humorously playing with the dreadful potential of his own mythological imagery, unafraid and confronting it, trying to deal with it in a sensible way. That seemed to be the characteristic of the tour: that Dylan was willing to shoulder the burden of the myth laid on him, or that he himself created, or the composite creation of himself and the nation, and use it as a workable situation; as Trungpa would say, "alchemize" it.
We had another funny little scene -- I don't know if these will ever be shown in the film, that's why I'm describing them -- with Dylan playing the Alchemist and me playing the Emperor, filmed in a diner outside of Falmouth, Massachusetts. I enter the diner and say, "I'm the emperor, I just woke up this morning and found out I inherited an empire, and it's bankrupt. I hear from the apothecary across the street that you're an alchemist. I need some help to straighten out karmic problems with my empire . . . I just sent for a shipload of tears from Indo-China but it didn't seem to do any good. Can you help, do you have any magic formulae for alchemizing the situation?" Dylan kept denying that he was an alchemist. "I can't help, what're you asking me for? I don't know anything about it." I said, "You've got to, you've got to be a bodhisattva, you've got to take on the responsibility, you're the alchemist, you know the secrets.'' So he asked the counterman, who was a regular counterman at a regular diner, to bring him some graham crackers and some Ritz crackers, ketchup, salt, pepper, sugar, milk, coffee, yogurt, and apple pie. He dumped them all in a big aluminum pot. Earlier, I had come in and lay down my calling card, which was an autumn leaf, just like the one Dylan pocketed in the graveyard -- the leaf which runs through many of the scenes in the movie, representing, like in Kerouac's work, transiency, poignancy, regret, acknowledgement of change, death. So I threw my calling card leaf in the pot and Dylan threw in a piece of cardboard, and then he fished out the leaf, all muddy, and slapped it down on the counter on top of my notebook, where I was taking down all the magical ingredients of his alchemical mixture. Then I said, "Oh, I see the secret of your alchemy: ordinary objects." "Yes," he said, "ordinary mind." So that was the point of that. Next I said, "Come on, look at my kingdom," and he said, "No, I don't want anything to do with it" and he rushed out of the diner. I followed him out, like in a Groucho Marx movie, and stopped: turned to the camera, lifted my finger, and said, "I'll find out the secret." Then we redid the scene and, coyote magician that he is, with no consistency, he suggested towards the end of the scene, "Well, why don't we go look at your kingdom?" So he led the way out and we went to see the "empire." He was completely unpredictable in the way he would improvise scenes. All the scenes were improvised.
PBC: During the Rolling Thunder tour some of the participants expressed the hope that it might continue as some sort of functioning community. Are there any indications now, several months later, that that may come to pass, either through the film or another tour of the Midwest?
AG: I don't think it was intended to be a continuously functioning community in any formal way, like people living together. I don't think the energy would depend on that group of people continuing any more than, say, all the San Francisco poets living together. I think it might be necessary for those people to disperse and de-centralize, and also for Dylan to try something new -- not do just one thing, but continue open-hearted experimenting.
PBC: With (by now) ten years added perspective to your heralding a "new age" in The Fall of America, what are your present views on what the artist and the poet can do to hasten the advent of that "new age?"
AG: To paraphrase the poem: "make laughing Blessing." That particular quotation (which begins this interview), is probably the happiest and most optimistic, and at the same time the most egotistically righteous, lyric in The Fall of America. It invokes the spirit of both Hart Crane, who committed suicide, and Whitman, who didn't commit suicide, in building an American bridge to the future. I don't know, though. I don't have any simple answer to what the poet can do or should do.
PBC: Theodore Roszak's chapter on your work, in The Making of a Counter Culture, quotes Wordsworth:
We poets in our youth begin in gladness;
But thereof in the end come despondency and madness.
As you approach your 50th birthday, your life outwardly seems to be the opposite of Wordsworth's dictum. Would you credit your Buddhist viewpoint and practice with having made the difference?
AG: My own common sense, and my experience of my mother's madness as a kind of preventive antitoxin, as well as the ripening of my own awareness and peaceableness through shamatha meditation.
PBC: Prior to your vision of Blake in 1948, had you ever gone through an agnostic, or questioning, period concerning religion, spirituality, God . . . and, if so, did that vision bring you back to the realization of the imminent transcendence of God within everyday reality?
AG: I had absolutely no interest in religion, God or spirituality before the vision, although Kerouac and I had concocted a search for a "New Vision" back in 1944-45.
PBC: An aspiritual "New Vision?"
AG: Yes. We didn't have any idea what we were looking for.
PBC: Your experience seems to parallel what many young people underwent in the sixties and seventies. First, de-programming themselves from heavy religious conditioning they had undergone as children, and then coming back to a spiritual sensibility, either through drugs or . . .
AG: I never had any religious conditioning and I never came back to any.
PBC: You're fortunate in that case.
AG: Yeah, thank God!
from New Age Journal, April 1976. Copyright © by Peter Barry Chowka. Online Source
Interview with Ginsberg (8/11/96)
INTERVIEWER: Could you tell me how you personally experienced the restrictive Cold War atmosphere that came through the Fifties?
ALLEN GINSBERG: Well, part of that atmosphere was the sort of anti-Communist hysteria of McCarthyism, but culminating in '53 or so, with the execution of the Rosenbergs. It was a little harsh. Whatever they did, it wasn't worth killing people, you know, killing them. I remember sending a wire to Eisenhower and saying: "No, that's the wrong thing." Drawing blood like that is the wrong thing, because it's ambiguous; and especially, there was one commentator on the air, called Fulton Lewis, who said that they smelt bad, and therefore should die. There was an element of anti-Semitism in it. But I remember very clearly on the radio, this guy Fulton Lewis saying they smelt bad. He was a friend of J. Edgar Hoover, who was this homosexual in the closet, who was blackmailing almost everybody.
But that year, '53, I was living with William Burroughs in New York, and he was conceiving the first routines of Naked Lunch, which were parodies of Cold War bureaucracy mentality and police state mentality. And I remember that year very vividly, that Mosaddeq was overthrown in Iran, in Persia, because it was suspected that he might be neutral, or left, though he wasn't, but he really wanted to nationalize the oilfields, which the Shah later did anyway. And I remember the CIA overthrew Mosaddeq, and he wept in court; and we've had karmic troubles and war troubles with Iran ever since. That was the seed of all the Middle Eastern catastrophe we're facing now.
[At the] same time, in 1953, the Arbenz government in Guatemala was overthrown, and I was much aware of that, despite the neutrality of the American papers and the lack of real reporting. The actual event was that Allen Dulles was running the CIA, I believe; John Foster Dulles was Eisenhower's Secretary of State; they both had relations to the... I think it was the Sullivan and Cromwell law firm. The Sullivan and Cromwell law firm were representing United Fruit, and so, for the United Fruit's interests we overthrew a democratically elected leader ... Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala. And that was followed by... well, what is it?... 30 years or 40 years of persecution of the Guatemalan indigenous peoples, with the death of 200,000 of them - at least so the New York Times says - particularly under the later leadership of General Ríos Montt, who turns out also to have been a disciple of Pat Robertson, the right-wing moralist, Bible-thumping Christ announcer, assuming for himself the morality and ethics of Jesus.
So many, many seeds of karmic horror: mass death, mass murder, were planted in those years, including, very consciously for me - I was quite aware of it - the refusal of John Foster Dulles to shake Zhou Enlai's hand at the Geneva Conference which ended the French war in Indochina, or was supposed to end it. Now the Americans had been sending France $40 million a year to pursue that war, and then the Americans cut off the funds, so the French didn't have funds. But as Bernard Fall points out, and many others, General Salan and others maintained the war through the proceeds of the opium sales in Chelon, the Chinese section of Saigon, and the war was funded for a while by them. Then, when the Americans finally took over, with a puppet president, Diem who had been cultivated in the Merinal Academy in the East Coast by Cardinal Spellman... another flaming faggot, who in disguise was a sort of a war dragon and one of the instigators of the Vietnam War... so Diem was a Catholic, and we had installed him as the puppet in a Buddhist country. So, when I arrived in Saigon in 1963, coming after several years in India, I was astounded to find that this Buddhist country was being run by a Catholic American puppet. And, in sitting down with David Halperstam and I think Charles Morer and Peter Arnett and others, who were reporting for the American newspapers, I got a completely different idea in the early Sixties, '63, May 30th '63 to... oh, June 10th or so... completely different idea of what was going on in the war than I'd had reading the papers abroad or in America. They all said that the war could not be won; there was no light at the end of the tunnel; and Ambassador Lodge's reports to the President were false, or hyper-optimistic and misleading; and that they were getting flak and criticism for reporting what they saw on the spot there. But to go back to the Fifties, what was ... it felt like in the Fifties - given all these karmic violent errors that the CIA was making in Iran, in Latin America, the real problem was that none of this was clearly reported in the press. It was reported with apologies or with rationalizations or with the accusation that Arbenz was a communist, or that Mosaddeq was a communist. Mosaddeq was mocked, especially when he wept in court, with tears that were tears, and very tragic, both for America and Iran. And he was considered ... you know, in Time magazine, which was sort of the standard party line, like the Stalinist party line, he was considered the... you know, some kind of jerk.
Of course, in those days Walt Whitman was considered a jerk, and William Carlos Williams was considered a jerk, and any sign of natural man was considered a jerk. The ideal, as you could find it in advertising in the loose organizations, was the man of distinction: actually, a sort of British-looking guy with a brush moustache and a tweed coat, in a club library, drinking - naturally - the favorite drug, the drug of choice of the Establishment. And this was considered and broadcast as... advertised as the American century. Well, you know, Burroughs and I and Kerouak had already been reading Oswald Spengler on the decline in the West and the cycles of civilizations, and found this proclamation of the American century a sort of faint echo of Hitler's insistence on his empire lasting 1,000 years, or the Roman Empire's neglect of the central cities. And we were thinking in terms of the fall of America, and a new vision and a new religiousness, really, a second religiousness, which Kerouak spoke of in the Fifties, and exemplified, say, with his introduction to Eastern thought into the American scene, from the beginning of the 1950s through his book Mexico City Blues, poems which were Buddhist-flavored, through his open portrait of Gary Snyder in The Dharma Bum(s), the book The Dharma Bums - a long-haired rucksack revolution, a rebellion within the cities against the prevailing war culture, and a cultivation of the countryside and the beginning of ecological considerations and ecological reconstruction.
So you had McCarthyism, you had a completely false set of values being presented in terms of morality, ethics and success: the man of distinction. You had to put down the most tender parts of American conscience, Whitman and Williams. You had the aggression of the closet queen J. Edgar Hoover and the alcoholic, intemperate Senator McCarthy working together. You had a stupid Post Master General, Arthur Somerfield, who presented the President, Eisenhower, with Lady Chatterley's Lover on his desk, with dirty words underlined; and it was reported, I think in Time or in Newsweek, that Eisenhower said, "Terrible - we can't have this!" And so there was censorship, particularly censorship of literature towards...it was not... like, unconsciously or inadvertently, the things that were censored were the anti-war, anti-macho, anti-imperial texts, whether the beginnings of Burroughs's Naked Lunch in the Fifties, Kerouak's Visions of Cody, which could not be printed in those days, Lady Chatterley's Lover, Henry Miller. So we had D.H. Lawrence banned, Catullus banned; the Satyricon and Petronius' Arbiter couldn't be printed completely in English, it had to be printed in Latin in the Modern Library editions.
So we had electoral censorship, literary censorship. You had a large-scale electoral censorship on a much more subtle, vast wave, with the CIA, bankrolling the Congress for Cultural Freedom and a number of literary magazines, like Encounter, Truth, (We Won in?) Africa, Demonat, and others. Stephen Spender, I remember, used to complain to me that he'd bring in articles critical of the American imperium in Latin America, and somehow Laskey, or whoever was working with him, or Arnold Beichman, I don't know - somehow, when he left their office, they would... it was rejected and nothing but anti-Communist, anti-Russian screeds were there. Very good reporting in that aspect, very good, but on the other hand there was no balance in reporting the horrors of American imperial invasion and overthrow and CIA subversion - all over the world, actually - much less CIA invasion of the intellectual body politic, with the funding of the National Student Association, Congress for Cultural Freedom, all those magazines; even the Pen Club was tainted with that for a while. So there was this invasion of subsidy for a somewhat middle-right-wing party line. And the interesting thing is, most of those people that were working in the CIA, that worked that out, were ex-commies; they had the same Stalinist mentality: they just transferred it over to the right wing, and it prevails to this very day. But it was... ex-radicals, or even Marxists, who, disillusioned by the show trials of 1937 and the anti-Semitism of Stalin, went all the way over to the to the extreme right and began suppressing their understanding of the trouble with the American capitalism and imperialism, and didn't strike a good balance, as did a few intellectuals, like Irving Howe, an American who had explored the World of Our Fathers, Ian McGuint... the first-generation of Slavic, Russian and Jewish geniuses that rose out of the American soil after the great immigrations of 1895, which is part of my family too, because my mother came over from Russia in 1895.
So, to summarize: in the Fifties you had invasion of the intellectual world, subtly and secretly, by the CIA. You had invasion of political worlds in the Middle East, in Central America and Africa, I presume, and in Asia, again with secret police. I believe it was Wesley Fischel, the professor at East Lansing, Wisconsin, the University of Wisconsin, who trained President Diem's secret police and brought them over intact to Saigon, under the auspices of the CIA, back in the early Fifties, when Diem was installed, '56 or so. You had a subversion of student activity and a blanketing of student protest. That's why you had the extreme rise of SDS, and later (Prairie Fire?) in the early Sixties, because normal student investigation and rebellion against the status quo had been suppressed by CIA funding of the National Student Association, with the presidents of the Student Association quite witting.
You had a literary atmosphere where there was censorship, where there was very little vigor, where an Eliotic conservative attitude was dominant in the academies, which excluded then Whitman as canon or Williams as canon or Minna Loy, or Louis Nightecker, or Cobracussi or Charles (unclear), or the whole imagist/objectivists' lineage which came into prominence in America in the Fifties and transformed American poetry to open form. So you had a closed form in poetry, and a closed form of mind, is what it boils down to.INT: So how did it feel for you as an individual, with writing in a very different way about very different subject matters, to be coming through that period?
AG: Well, it was fun. (Laughs) First of all, I was gay, and once I came out of the closet in 1948, all during the Fifties I was astounded at the cowardice or silliness or fear of the rest of the gay literary contingent, although I think one or two writers had been up front, like André Gide or Jean Genet, of course, and Gore Vidal in America, who broke some ice.
But between Burroughs and myself, we were (Laughs) completely out of the closet, and thought it was all funny or, you know, absurd, the repression and the persecution of gays in those days. I remember I got kicked out of Columbia for... I had hosted Kerouac overnight - he slept in my bed, and I was a virgin at the time, and this is back in the Forties, '46 or so... and quite chaste; we slept together because it was too late to go home to his mother on the subway - and somebody found out about that he was staying over, and when I came downstairs there was a note: "The Dean will want to see you." And I went to see Dean Nicholas McKnight of Columbia College, and he looked at me and said, "Mr. Ginsberg, I hope you realize the enormity of what you've done." (Laughs) And I took a look and I realized I was surrounded by madmen (Laughs) - they were completely nuts, you know, and, you know, thinking something horrible was happening.
So that was the atmosphere late Forties, early Fifties, actually. And then I think probably by '55-'56 in the... I'd sort of given up on New York 'cause it was too restricted and too much in the closet, and too academic; there was no way of getting anything as wild as Kerouac's writing or Burrough's routines or Burroughs's novel Queer, which we put together in '53, or In Search of Yahe, 1953, though we had managed to publish his book Junkie, which is a realistic account of the stupidity of the war on drugs, and the troubles of drug(s) too.
But the literature we were producing just for ourselves, without any intention of publishing, just for the pleasure of writing and amusing ourselves and extending our imaginations, and each others' imaginations, you know, I think in the dedication of (.?.) in 1956, I mentioned Kerouac's 13 novels and Burroughs's Naked Lunch and Neal Cassady's First Third, and saying "All these books are published in heaven." I didn't think they'd be published in our lifetime; things seemed so closed. And it's that closed mind, I think, that was responsible for the ineptness of the Cold War. Certainly, a cold war of some kind was necessary, but I think probably rock'n' roll, blues, blue jeans, the counter-culture, did as much, if not more, to undermine the authority of the Marxist bureaucracy, certainly in Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland - probably in Russia, too, and the internal corruption within Russia did as much to undermine it as all the trillions of dollars that we went into debt for military hardware which was never used, or rarely used.INT: What was your assessment of the Russians during this period?
AG: Well, very mixed, you know. My mother was a communist and my father was socialist, so I grew up with knowing the fight. And I never was a communist - I was more apolitical in a sense, until I went to Saigon in '63, and saw the... But that wasn't it, because I did make mockery of some of the McCarthyite Cold War straightness. I think my poem America says: "Them Russians, them Russians and them Russians, and them Chinese and them Russians, they're after us, they want to take our cars from out of our garages." And I said, "OK, America, I'll fight them - I'll put my queer shoulder to the wheel." They still don't let gays in the military in America, so...
I was sort of neutral in the Cold War, since it seemed to me a balance of aggression on both sides; a preponderance of heavy, heavy police state in Russia, and not so heavy in America at all, though a police state for junkies, certainly, and it has grown and grown and grown, where we do have a generic police state for people who are committing the political crime of smoking grass, or the illness ... or involving the illness of addiction. We have more people in jail now than anywhere else. But in those days, the Government was also spreading all sorts of mythological nonsense about marijuana, despite the Guardi report giving it a clean bill of health.
So there was a little element of police state here, and certainly in areas that I was familiar with. There was an enormous element of the American police state in Latin America and in Iran and so forth. So, Americans did not take that in account. It's almost as W.E. Dubois, the great black philosopher, said, that the problem was not merely race, but that people who were prosperous were willing to enjoy their prosperity at the expense of the pain, suffering and labor of other people. Like, I understand that we withdraw, from Africa hundreds of billion of dollars of raw materials every year, and then complain when they want some foreign aid. (Laughs) Or that, as of those days to these very days, we'll lend them money to expand their coffee plantations, but not to make their own coffee factories and sell it abroad. So we've been sucking the blood out of our client and undeveloped nations like vampires, and that's why America has this prosperity; and people are not willing to recognize that - not only America, but Western Europe. I mean, I was quite aware of that and thinking in... thinking in those terms in the late Forties, early Fifties.
But by '65, I'd had several very interesting incidents. I went down to Cuba and, complaining about Castro's treatment of homosexuals, found myself after a month under arrest and expelled from the country, to Prague. In Prague, I found I had quite a bit of money from royalties, and so took a tour of Russia and saw what was going on there in terms of police state and bureaucracy; came back to Prague, was elected the King of May by the students, and immediately expelled by the Minister of Education and the Minister of Culture, as an American homosexual narcotic hippie - a poor role model for Czechoslovakian youth. At that time, I think it was May nineteen-ninety... And in '65 I ran into Havel as a student, an acquaintance which we renewed when he became President, and he reminded me that we'd met. If you ask Havel, or see his interviews with various jazz figures who influenced him, you'll find that the inspiration for the rebellion in Eastern Europe was very much the American counter culture, and the English counter-culture: the Beatles, Dylan, Kerouac, Burroughs, Soft Machine, the Fugs: a very important rock group singing 'Police State Blues' and 'River of Shit' (Laughs) in the early Sixties in America.
So I found I was kicked out by the Prague police and the Havana police. Then, when I got back, I took part in various anti-war manifestations. But I found that the day I'd arrived in Prague, I had been put on the dangerous security list of J. Edgar Hoover, as a crazed, violent, or ... I don't know what he thought I was. And that he should talk, I must say... (Laughs) Maybe he thought my homosexuality was a threat to America or something.
But anyway, on April 26, 1965, the day I arrived in Prague, to be kicked out two weeks later, I was put on the dangerous security list here. Then I found that... in '65-'66, that the Narcotics Bureau was trying to set me up for a bust, partly for my anti-war activity, partly anti-war on drugs, anti-police corruption activity, and so they tried to set me up for a bust, several different people busting people and threatening to throw the book at them unless they went to my apartment and planted marijuana. So I complained to Robert Kennedy and to my various Patterson, New Jersey representatives in Congress, and New York. And years later, when I got my papers from the FBI under the Freedom of Information Act - because you can get your papers after 15-20 years - I found that the FBI had translated a denunciation of me by the Prague youth newspaper (Lada Fronta?), saying that I was a corrupter of youth and alcoholic - which I'm not - and not to be trusted, and had sent it over the Narcotics Bureau to send to my representative, Congressman Jolson, wanting him not to answer my questions and request for protection and complaints about the set-ups, the entrapment procedures of the Narcotics Bureau, because I was irresponsible, as is proved by this communist newspaper (Laughs), and that anything I said might be turned to embarrass him. So I realized that the Western police and in certain areas, the Western police and the communist police, by 1965, were one international mucous membrane network (Laughs) - there was hardly any difference between them.INT: Very good answer. Can we go back to the emergence of the counter-culture? Some of your writings hit a very popular vein and you became very, very popular...
AG; Yeah.INT: Could you describe to me a little bit about why you think that happened, what they were and why that happened, and what the elements of this... what your philosophy was, if you like, that emerged from this period?
AG: Well, the main themes, actually, of a whole group of poets - that would be Gary Snyder, myself, Philip Wayland, Jack Kerouak, William Burroughs, Michael McLure, Philip Lamonti of the surrealists, the San Francisco group, and the New York group, the beat group, as well as to some extent the Black Mountain group - one: spontaneous mind and candor, telling the truth in the public forum, completely difficult during the time of censorship and party-line mass media, moderation and... well, deceptiveness, deceptiveness in terms of the American violence abroad. And...
(Interruption - change tape)INT: So, we were talking about...
AG: Yes, the counter-culture.INT: ... the counter-culture and new revolutionary (Overlap) (.?.).
AG: (Overlap) What were the tenets or themes of the counter-culture, as I know them from the Forties and Fifties, meaning the beat group and some allied friends.INT: Uhum.
AG: First of all, open forum in poetry, rather than a closed forum. It's like when you split the atom, you get energy. So we were following Whitman and William Carlos Williams and the imagists and objectivists in technique, rather than the academic folks who were having a metronomic beat. That happened in painting, poetry, music and all the arts. And that involved candor and spontaneity, spontaneous composition, a classic thing from Tibet, Japan, China, not recognized here as classic because people weren't scholarly enough, so they thought it was some home-made spontaneous prosody, but it was the great tradition of Milarapa, the Tibetan poet.
Candor, arising from that, meaning if you're saying what's really on your mind spontaneously, you might say things that people would object to or censor. Thus Burroughs's Naked Lunch, which couldn't be printed in America until after many, many legal trials.
An interest in ecology and restoration of the planet, particularly on the part of Kerouak, who said "The earth is an Indian thing," or Gary Snyder who's a famous ecological poet, or Michael McLure whose specialty is in biology, or Philip Lamonti as a surrealist, using surrealist means to go back to the indigenous mind, so to speak.
Then there was also an interest in breaking the bonds of censorship, which we did, and being able to speak freely. There was an exuberance in art rather than any sort of a wet blanket, some sense of exuberance that... as Blake said, "exuberance is beauty", and even some visionary element. There was the introduction, along with that, of Eastern thought, Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, from the early Fifties on, through Kerouak and specifically through Gary Snyder, who was studying Chinese and Japanese in the early Fifties, and then went to study in a Zen monastery in Kyoto, where I joined him on that trip from India through Saigon to Kyoto to Vancouver. So meditation practice and exploration of the texture of consciousness was central, meaning exploration of our own aggression, and some way of relating to our own aggression rather than it run wild over the world as the American diplomacy was allowing: American fear, aggression dominance, macho delusion, to destroy other cultures.
We had a real strong interest in African American culture and in the arts of African American culture, which have never been fully recognized as the great American contribution to world culture. So, the entire program of Kerouak's writing is really related to the new sounds and the new rhythms of beebop, with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonius Monk and other musicians whom he visited and heard directly in Harlem during the late Thirties, early Forties.
So there was an interest in both Asiatic culture and African American culture, The Tibetan Book of the Dead... so an expanding of the American horizon of what was canon, what was the canon: not merely the Judeo-Christian but also the Deists, Buddhists, and let us say animists or indigenous, worship of stocks and stones, as the Catholics would say, who came to America and burned all the Mayan goddesses, despising the pagan cultures. So we were actually checking out the pagan cultures, and finding a refinement, both artistic and intellectual, that we didn't have in Western culture, a Western culture based on some kind of either logical Aristotelian... a thing is either A or not A, or there's one single monotheist center, as distinct from the old hermetic tradition of Heraclitus through Blake and the Eastern tradition of no center, or emptiness, or ku, or shrwinyatah, that things are real but simultaneously no inherent permanent nature. That's a big intellectual distinction, and we were beginning to absorb that question through the Highest Perfect Wisdom sutra, which is chanted every morning in Zen and Tibetan rooms.
So there was a complete change of mind, and also a rediscovery of America itself and the indigenous land, people, folk tales, folk music, urban folk arts like beebop and dozens, rather than a looking to Europe for sophisticated models only. This is part of an old American tradition from Whitman through Williams, of trying to find things that were in the American grain - not a nationalism, but an attempt to use the local virtues, and use them artistically and enrich the ground, rather than reject our own ground, to use our own speech, our own speech rhythms, our own diction, rather than an inherited 19th century English diction speech and so forth. And Williams's argument with Eliot was that by going English, Eliot basically set American poetry back 25 years, which I think was quite true, because it took a long time to recover from the elegance and intelligence of Eliot, but to come back to native grounds. So there were books like On Native Grounds or The Bridge, that celebrated the American style, and finally you get something as brilliant as Kerouak's On the Road, Visions of Cody, which actually celebrate American ground, American character, and go back to the tradition of Whitman.INT: This hit a hugely popular vein, though, didn't it? By the time you come into the Sixties, this was taken up...
AG: By the time you come to the... oh, I forgot the Sexual Revolution, gay liberation - yeah, you've got to add that in! So if you have complete change in view of the function and texture of consciousness, complete change in sexual tolerance, complete opening of artistic form, complete acceptance of human nature as is, as the fit subject matter, including the chaos of human nature, as your ground, naturally any young generation finds that exciting, 'cause they can reclaim their own bodies, their own speech and their own minds, they can use their own bodies, they can use their own speech, they can use their own minds, as the basis for their art or for their love-making or for their business. Naturally it caught on, because the whole older thing was censored, stultified, secret, secretive. The whole point of the Cold War, of the nuclear matter, was that it was all done in secrecy. From whatever proclivities they had in bed, through whatever proclivities they had in the war room of the White House or the Pentagon, through the creation of the single greatest political decision of the century: to make the bomb and drop it, you've to got realize it was all done undemocratically and in secret. And people had to hide their emotions sexually, hide their personal feelings, disguise themselves as men of distinction, and create a world-ravaging Frankenstein, the nature of which they could never put back in the bottle, or... to mix my metaphor, a genie that they couldn't put back in the bottle, or a Frankenstein that they couldn't stop, because we still don't know what to do with the wastes, the nuclear waste. So, boasting intelligence, they made a half-assed science that did not take into account its own results, and the complete equation was not resolved, yet they had the pride of billions and billions and billions and trillions of dollars of investment, trillions of dollars of war materials, secrecy, perquisites, pride, an incredible conspiracy of silence surrounding what was supposed to be a democratic nation. We were never consulted on the creation of the bomb; and people are so blind to the horror of that situation, they don't get it, that there was a dozen people in secret that took the decision that shakes the world, in what is supposed to be a democracy. This is Stalinism at its worst, or Hitlerism at its worst. People are not used to thinking of America or the West in these terms, but you really have to realistically look and see how we have poisoned the world.
There is the further problem that, because of conspicuous consumption, we are maybe more responsible for the garbage on the planet than anyone else, and for setting models of garbage ... of disposable planets, so to speak.INT: So what was it like, in that case - come to '67, for example, when you have this huge explosion, expression of personal freedoms, what was it like to be part of the be-in (Overlap)...?
AG: Well, I must say, one other question we haven't covered, which was the introduction of the drugs which alter consciousness very slightly, like marijuana, which had a bad rep from the Government, but which actually, when one tried, one found that they were quite mild, like marijuana certainly. You know, I remember my first experience was that it made my vanilla ice cream with chocolate syrup Sunday delightful to eat, like a totem I'd never... an icon I'd never experienced before. And this was supposed to be the drug that sent Algerian dogs frothing at the mouth, mad. (Laughs) So actually, that was one reason that the US Government lost its authority, all the way up to the levitation of the Pentagon in 1967. (Laughs) It was simply that the authority of the "government" word was deconstructed, the authority of the Pentagon was deconstructed by one good-looking kid putting a flower in the barrel of the gun held by another good-looking kid in uniform. Everybody realized the Pentagon is an arbitrary authority. You know, it's like in Blake "old Nobodaddy". So... much less LSD, of which Blake might say "The eye, altering, alters all" - i.e. a change of consciousness that's experienced for, say, 8-10 hours, and that actually gives some perspective to the entire structure of social consciousness, the social arrangement, that you begin to see... X-ray, a little X-ray view of that; and particularly during a wartime, the realization of... people would get high, and I think that LSD was likely enough that psychedelics may have been a great catalyst to the anti-war movement. That was my guess at the time, and still is. So there's another element.
OK, so what did it feel like? It felt like we were walking around in a large mass hallucination, sustained by all the politicians, but particularly Lyndon Johnson and later by Nixon, extremely, based on lies and secrecy, sustained by the media, who were not able to... or couldn't conceive that the whole structure of the United States mentality could be so wrong and so disastrous and so Earth-destroying, because they participated in primping it up all the time. So, in a sense it was a piece of cake. You know, (Laughs) all these madmen walking around in a dream, and all you had to do is make some common sense. You know, all I had to do is say was... say, "I'm putting my queer shoulder to the wheel," (Laughs) or, you know, "I here declare the end of the war - I here declare the end of the war." Lyndon Johnson never even declared it: he just sent soldiers over. OK, if he's going to have that chutzpah, that brass, OK, I can undeclare it. And not only that: my word is going to outlast his. (Laughs) So it was sort of both a play, and at the same time a serious attempt to communicate to people, to transmit information that came from experience and self-knowledge, from wider travel, from maybe a deeper heart understanding, than was being displayed in the official media party line. And I'm using that word, "party line", with the overshadow echo of the Communist Party line. We definitely had a party line, The Times had a party line, and they've still got it.
I remember doing a lot of research in 1971 on CIA involvement with opium trafficking in Indochina, working with Alfred McCoy, who put out a very great scholarly and reliable book on it, and The Times simply couldn't accept it. I even debriefed Richard Helms, the head of the CIA, and got that story in the newspapers, but The Times really wouldn't... it was too shocking; it would have unseated the reason of the country. And it was not until 1993 or '4 that the The Times finally said in an editorial: "Yes, the CIA was involved with opium trafficking in Indochina," and that was one of the black marks against the CIA. At the time, I was in correspondence with their editors and with C.L. Salzburger, who was a foreign correspondent, of the family... part of the family that owns The Times, and he thought I was just full of beans. But then I got a letter from him in '77 or '8, when he was resigning, saying that in going over old dispatches, he owed me an apology, he felt, 'cause he thought I was full of beans at first, but he'd found out I was quite right. But you still can't get The Times to really do an investigation in 1996 of the Contra-cocaine connection. They make believe they're doing it, and instead they investigate the story, you know, the media treatment of the story, as they did in the previous days.
So you had an establishment party line which, after all, is part of the power structure, and worse and worse from those days to this, as it gets more and more concentrated. But the beginning of that concentration of power in so few hands was back in the Fifties, when the networks and the few newspapers of record - Times, Washington Post - were in a state of what the Alcoholics Anonymous people would call "denial" of both scandal, error, and treason even.INT: This was a tremendous period of explosion...
INT: ... not just in poetry, but in music...
INT: ... so on and so forth. Could you describe for me a little bit about the music that was going on there, the work of Phil Oaks, Joan Baez and so and so forth? A lot of it was anti-war-orientated as well.
AG: Well, I think the major thing was that, first of all, there was this counter-culture in music from the late Thirties, early Forties, the black counter-culture, beebop, which was attaining a music that could not be imitated for white co-optation; it was too complex and exquisite and somewhat intellectual, but emotionally very powerful, as with Charlie Parker. And that influenced almost all American writing, through Kerouak, as Kerouak influenced American writing, and as I did also.
Then, in painting there was a similar new move from the Thirties on, toward abstraction, or abstract expressionism, as they called it. And many of the poets and painters of that time were friends - and musicians - like Morty Feldman, who opened up... or John Cage, who opened up music to many new forms; De Kooning and Klein and Pollock; or at the Seater Bar where I was, was (Miriam Barraca) the great black poet, then Leroy Jones; or you could find John Weaner who's a great gay poet from Boston, or Robert Creely, Frank O'Hara of the Museum of Modern Art and another great New York poet, mixing with John Ashbury and Kenneth Coake; Kerouak coming in from his mother's house at weekends and getting drunk in the Seater and talking to Pollock.
So there was an explosion in almost every direction, including social studies, a reconsideration of what was America's past, relation to the Indians, relation to blacks, relation to women, relation to gays. So a reconsideration of the myths of history that had been established; even a reconsideration of the canon, with the beginning of, let us say, why at Columbia University, a freshmen humanities course, which begins with Herodotus and goes up through St Thomas Aquinas... why is there no King, why is there no Mahabharata, why no Diamond Sutra, why none of the international classics, why no Ramayana, why no (Gassiers Lut?) from Africa? Why are we restricted to the white Protestant or Catholic central macho canon, when actually I got to be more interested in Eastern thought, and more and more into African thought? And with the expansion of the arts, particularly since Picasso and others, African forms and African thought became more and more interesting, with the explosion of jazz, which is after all an African American origined art form, the poly-rhythms and the improvisation and the boasts and the toasts and the warriors, Lut -(Gassiers Lut?) that Pound talked about also, the renunciation of power in favor of art. That had an enormous effect on Western thinking, on the vanguard of Western thinking, and slowly on the general populace, so that now young kids are interested in meditation practice, let us say, or in African shamanism's or American Indian relation to the ground and American Indian relation to the commons, let us say.
I forgot what the question was.
(Laughter)INT: I was asking you as well about later on, about the music of people like Dylan and Baez and so on.
AG: (Overlap) Oh, yes, yes. So... in 1952, a very important time, there was an avant-garde ethno-musicologist, painter and cinema collagiste in Harry Smith, who began to make films of animated collage, using Eastern and American Indian themes, and he collected a great archive of American folk music, which was issued in 1952 on Folkways Records, a three-box set: blues, folk mountain music and what not. That influenced the entire development of folk music in America and indigenous music. Like, I think in Dylan's first album, four of those songs are drawn from Harry Smith's collection. Jerry Garcia said he learned blues from Harry Smith's collection. All of the... Ralph Rinsler, who was in charge of folk music at the Smithsonian and formerly a part of a folk music singing group in the Fifties, credits Harry Smith with having instigated the entire folk revival of the Fifties, through archival restoration of the music that had been lost commercially. That would mean Robert Johnson and Charlie Patton and all the great blues singers, and (unclear name), Elizabeth Cotton and so forth. Then there were groups like New Law City Ramblers in the Fifties, or the Almanac Singers or others, folk singers, that began carrying this message of indigenous folk music, that Dylan heard as well as, at the same time that he was hearing Kerouak's Mexico City Blues, and Dylan seemed to combine the folk radicalism with the literary sophistication of the beat writers, because he always found that Kerouak was a great inspiration, and as he said, the first poet that made him interested in poetry. I remember asking him why, and he said "It was the first poetry that spoke to me in my own American language." So, by 1960... when he came to New York, or '61, where he went was to the Gas Light Café, which is where the poets had been having poetry readings, because he thought of himself as a poet-singer, and immediately began singing at the Gas Light on McDibble Street. The Gas Light has been a gay bar, the McDibble Street Bar, then the Gas Light Coffee Shop, a poetry-folk-singer venue downstairs in the cellar on McDougal, in the middle of Greenwich Village. So Dylan came there, having read about readings that had been held by Leroy Jones, myself, Peter Orlovsky, Gregory Corso, Ray Bremser and others in the Gas Light; Kerouak reading around the Village too. Apparently, that strain of poetic intelligence shot through Dylan into the entire folk music scene, combined with Harry Smith's great research, and that influenced... according to Paul McCartney, that influenced the Beatles also, as well as influencing all the British blues singers, Jagger and everybody else. The revival of classical American blues is the lineage through which you have Eric Clapton and Mick Jagger and... "I went down to the station..." - that's Robert Johnson.
So there was this recovery, like in On the Road, a recovery of the indigenous American intelligence, folk wisdom, folk wisdom and folk energy and folk exuberance and folk suffering, basically.INT: Now I've seen film of you with people Joan Baez and Phil Oaks and so on, going down to the Oakland Draft Center. Can you tell me, in your (Overlap) protest...
AG: (Overlap) The first protests that I knew of were organized by the Living Theatre and the Catholic workers, back in the... probably late Fifties, early Sixties, against a Governor Rockefeller-decreed nuclear alert in which everybody was supposed to go and get of their houses and go down underground into the subways. And they chained themselves to the fence at Union Square and refused to go underground and be intimidated. You know, "To help prepare for a nuclear holocaust?" they said, "No way!" (Laughs) That's the earliest. Then I remember the War Resisters' League invited me and Peter Orlovsky to do a circumambulation around New York, covering the area that would be devastated by a bomb - you know, circumambulate that whole area. Then, by 1963, when I got back to [sic] Saigon, the first big peace protest that I took part in was a visit by Madam Nu, President Diem's wife - who, incidentally, was quite much involved with the opium trafficking - to the... I guess the Century Club or something like that, to give a speech in San Francisco, and we picketed her hotel, and I remember carrying a sign saying "Madam Nu and Mao Tse Tung are in the same boat of meat?" (Laughs) So it was a poetic way of getting at it, rather than anger.
By '65, there were big Berkeley war protests, organized by a group of people - I think Jerry Rubin, and many others... There was one specific guy, whose name I forgot, that was quite moving in Berkeley. So we organized large-scale mass parades which were supposed to go through the black sections of Oakland, and the police blocked our way. They didn't want blacks rising up like that. And the Hell's Angels were sort of like induced to attack the march by some right-wing Birchers.
Around... in the early year, I think Joan Baez, Dylan, Phil Oakes and others, including Abe Hoffman, had gone down South to get the vote for blacks, '63, Birmingham. I remember Hoffman said that he brought a copy of On the Road with him when he went down to Birmingham. So there was this direct action, originally for black voting rights. Then, in '64, there was like a big caravan of folk that went down to the Atlantic City Democratic Convention, for Fanny Lou Hammer and the Mississippi black caucus, who were shot out of representation by the white Missouri or Mississippi - I've forgotten. I remember Peter Orlovsky, the poet, and myself going down and picketing there, as being one of the first actions.
Then there were a series of marches in California and New York. And there were two things that emerged: the idea of a march as a spectacle or theatre, rather than angry violence, but as a way of communicating ideas. After the Hell's Angels attacked the march, we had to figure out a strategy. There were these old-line Marxists, perhaps some agents provocateurs among them, who said we should go down with bicycle chains and beat up the Brown Shirts. I made a manifesto saying: the march is a spectacle and theatre, and we should have masses of flowers, grandmothers, troops of (trained fairies?) to go and take down the Hell's Angels' pants and give them blow jobs (Laughs, floats with Lyndon Johnson and Mao Tse Tung and President Diem and Zhou Enlai and, who was the head of Vietnam? - I've forgotten...
AG: The head of North Vietnam...
(Talk about time left, etc. Cut.)INT: So shall I just start? We're just going to carry straight on here. If you could...
AG: One thing I would like to emphasize is that we had a series of very interesting theatrical marches. In New York, a yellow submarine march, after the Beatles song, instigated by the Vietnam Veterans Organization. And many of those marches, which were peaceful and intelligent, were invaded by counter-double agents, double agents from the FBI under their counter-intelligence program. And the most loud-mouthed, violent people, screaming "Bring the war home!" or waving Viet Cong flags, or creating chaotic conditions on the march, or provoking the police, or screaming "Pigs!" were very often double agents planted by the police to disgrace those marches, and there are many, many, many files in the FBI cabinets which have been released to the public, outlining those specific capers or projects or manipulations. I remember specifically one time: there's a very famous photo of me in an American hat, an Uncle Sam hat; that was for a march that began on Bryant Park, near the Public Library in 42nd Street, and went all the way up to the Band Shell in Central Park. And although it had been organized by Women Strike for Peace and the War Resisters' League and the Vietnam Veterans, it was invaded by a group of what looked to be extreme left radicals waving Viet Cong flags, getting up in front of the march, getting all the publicity, with all the newspapers collaborating, and then, when we got to the bandstand, taking over the microphone and not letting the originators and organizers of the march speak; until after a long, long while, an hour of arguing, the police intervened, or the marchers intervened. So the folks who don't have that historical memory should remember that very important thing: the sabotage of the Government during the political conventions, during the large be-ins, during the anti-war marches, the deliberate sabotage of the left, which was more extensive than just on the street: it was like secret manipulations to discredit and make misinformation campaigns about them.INT: (.?.)
AG: One of the interesting things was... you know, we had a sort of non-political Buddhist be-in in San Francisco in February, I think it was, 1967, organized by the poets McLure, myself, Gary Snyder. Snyder had conceived of the levitation of the Pentagon to begin with, (as a) just traditional Eastern-Western white magic; and we'd had a very successful group of about 20-30,000 people meeting in the park in San Francisco. At the end, we had asked for (unclear), that everybody clean up after them, and we chanted mantras - I think it was (Chants) "Om shree maitre-ea, om shree maitre-ea," as the sun sank, and people cleaned up after themselves. And Suzuki Roshi, the great Zen master, who was sitting on the platform with us, with Snyder and myself and McLure got up and folded his robes and went home, after being with us all afternoon silent. That very night, there was a police sweep down Haight Ashbury, and the police busted everybody that had had any psychedelics or any grass; and within two weeks Haight Ashbury was flooded with amphetamine and heroin. That should be understood. It's not very well known, but you know, ask anybody that was around at the time, or read the newspapers, you'll find that kind of sabotage of the community that had been built, both in the anti-war movement and the be-in. (Clears throat) And the whole point of the be-in was not to protest anything, but just to be there. (Laughs) You know, a be-in, not a sit-in, which is a take-off on the idea of the southern sit-ins or anti-war protests later on, but just a be-in: everybody be together as a sign of - what? - equanimity ... meditation, equanimity and poetry, art.INT: Wonderful. I'm glad you said that. So why did the whole movement go to Chicago in '68, and what was your personal experience of being there?
AG: Well, there was going to be this... what Abe Hoffman called the "Death Convention": they were going to prolong the war, maybe. At that time, Madam Nu... no, let's see... Madam Anna Shenault, a right-wing fundraiser for the Republicans, was telephoning South Vietnam President Thieu to hang on, and if Nixon got elected, he had a secret plan to end the war, but it wouldn't involve compromise with the Viet Cong - we'd destroy the Viet Cong - so he shouldn't accede to the importunities of Johnson and Humphrey and the State Department of that time, to allow Viet Cong to come to the peace table and negotiate an end to the war, as Robert Kennedy had recommended in 1966, February. That fact, that she had made those phone calls at Nixon's behest, came out during Watergate, when defending his own wire-tapping. Nixon said, "Well, President Johnson wire-tapped Madam Nu," so it was official. The secret plan to end the war, according to Daniel Ellsberg, who was working then for Kissinger... was that Nixon was going to nuke North Vietnam; and it was only prevented by the fact that they thought it would tear America apart because of all the protests in the streets that had taken place till then. By 1968, February, the Gallup polls said 52% of the American people always thought the war had been a mistake, or 52% of the American people thought the war had always been a mistake. 1968, February, Gallup poll. We organized... I think Abe Hoffman, Johnny Mitchell, David Dallenger, Jerry Rubin and myself and, most importantly, Ed Sanders of the Fugs, the rock group, intellectual rock group, and a poet, had organized a group of yippies - ay yippie! Good feeling - to have a festival of life in Chicago during the Convention, have a lot of rock 'n' roll people come and overwhelm the Democratic Convention which might support the war, with some kind of exuberance and anti-war glee that would affect the voting or the tone of America. There was a lot of sabotage of that by double agents, there was a lot of unconscious sabotage of that, I think, by some of the organizers, like Jerry Rubin, who did believe in violence but forswore it for that occasion, but it was unconscious, I think, in his mind. Later, Ed Sanders said he would never again work with anybody who believed in any kind of violence, 'cause he found it was disastrous. My role was to introduce some Eastern thought, meditation practice, and to form groups of mantra-chanting innocents, if there were any problems with the police, to, you know, create areas of calm, little islands of calm - which worked, actually; and also to be there, like with William Burroughs and Jean Genet and Terry Southern and some of the editors of Grove Press, like Richard Seeger, and David Dallinger and others, and to give moral support to the younger people. I remember I went... I was a little... I had a little trepidation, fear about it, and I went to an elder in San Francisco, the grandson of President Chester A. Arthur - Gavin Arthur was one of the sort of elders of (the mind?) in the Bay area - and asked him what he thought. And he said, "Well, if I were a young" - because he was an elder, like 65-70 - "if I were a young man, I'd consider it my obligation to go and oppose this infernal war and protest." So that sort of decided the matter - that makes sense: you know, that kind of old British honor, or something like the aristocratic honor, presidential honor. So I went, and that was my function. And the police were quite brutal and just angry... I don't know... you know, and were loosed on the protesters, who were in a relatively orderly scene. The Mayor refused to give permission for camping in the park and for the speech-making that was necessary. The police ... I think it was... The most vivid and dramatic moment to me was one evening: I was standing with Jean Genet and Burroughs, and the police cars at night began bursting on to the scene and going through barriers and pushing people away. And all of
(Interruption - Cut)
INT: So if you could start now.
(Ginsberg sings - not transcribed)
INT: Wonderful. Thank you very much.
Interview with Seth Goddard
SG: Were the philosophies of the Beat Generation picked up or left behind by the baby boom generation?
AG: We didn't have what you could call a philosophy. I would say that there was an ethos, that there were ideas, and there were themes, and there were preoccupations. I would say the primary thing was a move towards spiritual liberation, not merely from Bourgeois, '50s quietism, or Silent Generation, but from the last centuries of mechanization and homogenization of cultures, the mechanical assault on human nature and all nature culminating in the bomb. So it was then either a revival of an old consciousness or the search for a new consciousness.... I don't think we [Ginsberg and Kerouac] had it clearly defined, but we were looking for something, as was Burroughs, as a kind of breakthrough from the sort-of hyper-rationalistic, hyper-scientific, hyper-rationalizing of the post-war era.
Now it was not an assault on reason. That's been much misinterpreted. It was an assault on hyper-rationalizations, you know, this fake science, fake cover-up, quasi-logical reasoning. The best example might be the inadequate science of the nuclear era. Although, like the sorcerer's apprentice, [scientists] were able to conjure up the power of the bomb, they weren't able to take care of the detritus and the waste products of the bomb. They still have not been able to. It's a half-assed science. It's not a real science....
The sciences that we were interested in, or arts, particularly from the mid-'40s, were some breakthroughs of consciousness or new consciousness--let's say a spiritual revolution that took form in changes in the literary method, bringing up the old literary forms and the release of a new energy: the long verse line or the spontaneous prose of Kerouac, or Burroughs's investigation into dreams, hypnosis and drugs, and the prose that arose from that--and then the verging on the illegal, the expressions of sexuality which were forbidden and censored in those days.
All of our work was really done with the idea that it would never be published, that is "Howl," Naked Lunch, On the Road. When I wrote it ["Howl"], I had no intention of publishing it. First of all I didn't think I would want my family to see my personal sex life. So I was writing it for my own fun.... I'm giving you the roots in the '40s and the '50s. I'm giving the conditions of spiritual liberation leading to literary liberation--not revolution, but liberation--leading to liberation of the word. That was from '58 to '62 in a series of legal trials which opened up these books to be published because otherwise they wouldn't have been legal.... At that point, the private liberation of the artists was spread out into the public properly with the actual artifacts that were written words or books. At that point, it begins to have a strong social effect on the next generation, that would be your baby boomers. Just about the time they got into adolescence, if they were born in '45, by 1960 they'd be 15 and 16, and they'd now be ready to be handed copies of "Howl," On the Road, and finally Naked Lunch, particularly Naked Lunch, which had an enormous influence up til now, actually, on rock and roll and everything.
[Bob] Dylan himself said that Kerouac's Mexico City Blues was the book given him in 1959 that opened him up to poetry and inspired and made him want to be a poet.... We were standing over Kerouac's grave in Lowell, [Massachusetts], filming his Renaldo and Clara. He pulled Mexico City Blues from my hand and started reading it and I said, "What do you know about that?" He said, "Somebody handed it to me in '59 in St. Paul and it blew my mind." So I said "Why?" He said, "It was the first poetry that spoke to me in my own language." So those chains of flashing images you get in Dylan, like "the motorcycle black Madonna two-wheeled gypsy queen and her silver studded phantom lover," they're influenced by Kerouac's chains of flashing images and spontaneous writing, and that spreads out into the people. From '64 on people are beginning to look carefully at the texts of the Beatles and Dylan and beginning to develop another literacy. People began turning the text inside out looking for hints.
SG: Did you think then or have you thought since, what type of effect this liberation might have on a culture of adolescents?
AG: In 1959, when LIFE [November 30] magazine came around I said, "If they think that we got something going, they must be scraping the bottom of their own barrel and they must be in a pretty deprived place [laughter]." Actually, after I talked to [LIFE writer, Paul O'Neil], I lay in bed trembling, realizing that we had an enormous responsibility. If the mainstream culture was so vulnerable--'cause he was, he didn't know what he was doing--and so ignorant and so curious about what we were doing, then they must be pretty empty like a paper tiger, and we would have to supply some kind of real culture in America, or real inspiration. That was back in '59. So from then on there was what Pat Buchanan now calls a spiritual war for the soul of America. And in '59 I did write an essay saying exactly that. By 1962 or '63, Cardinal Francis Spellman and J. Edgar Hoover were denouncing the Beatniks along with the eggheads, communists, and others as the greatest threats to America.
SG: Did you take any pride in being considered such a threat to America?
AG: No. It was a dismay that they were so mean-spirited and lacking in humor and enthusiasm in old American values. What would they do with Walt Whitman? What would they do with Thoreau if they were going to do that with us? They were out of sync with basic American values--Emerson, Thoreau and all that. I thought they were sort of un-American.
Kerouac was all-American if anything. Neal Cassady was an all American kid, foot warts and all. But it really was Americana and Americanist, something in an older literary tradition that runs through Whitman and William Carlos Williams and Sherwood Anderson. There was that old Americanist tradition of recognition of the land and the people and the gawky awkward beauty of the individual eccentric citizen. Or as Kerouac said, "the old-time honesty of gamblers and straw hats." His 1959 [Playboy, June] article on "The Origins of the Beat Generation," that's his statement on what he intended, a kind of yea-saying Americana which was interpreted as some kind of negative complaining by the middle class who were themselves complaining. So yes, we were, or I was quite aware of the [cultural] impact. But so was Kerouac in "Origins of the Beat Generation" and in The Dharma Bums. He predicts a generation of long-haired kids with rucksacks. He predicts and asks for it.
SG: So as you watched this younger, boomer generation in the 1960s, what was your response? AG: I thought that the spiritual liberation aspect and the artistic purity was being somewhat degraded by the Marxist, SDS, Weatherman strain of politicalization on the basis of rising up angry. Anger was not the answer....
SG: There were a lot of young people calling themselves Beatniks in San Francisco but who did not follow a literary tradition.
AG: I think they were Frankenstein replicas created by the press. Remember, the very word Beatnik is a press invention.
SG: San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen.
AG: He invented it as a denigration. The origin was the time of Sputnik, so it was like, ah, these guys, these Beats are disloyal. Beatnik, that was his intention. He's proud of it, I'm sure, but it really actually added a slightly demeaning element. Also there was a problem that the police were quite malevolent, not only towards the false Beatniks, but also some real poets....
SG: Is America adjusting well to the themes that the Beat Generation brought forth?
AG: The sexual revolution seems to have been accomplished in some way despite AIDS, and despite the reaction of Buchanan and his spiritual war trying to stem the flow of history, and despite the Moral Majority. Literature has been liberated considerably. The poetic form has been changed to inaugurate a new poetic form, an American form working in the tradition of Whitman, Pound, William Carlos Williams, as a continuity, as a lineage, as an Americanist lineage. I think that's established.... Poetry is more popular and more read than anywhere, not only spoken poetry but sung poetry of a high order from the inspiration of Dylan and the Beatles on to Beck today. You know Beck? He's quite good, actually, good words man. The ecological preoccupation that both Kerouac and Snyder introduced is now like mainstream thinking, though the government has not yet reacted to it appropriately. It's still now ingrained in poetry. Before, my father used to kid me saying, "Chicken Little, you think the sky is falling," until a hole opened up in the ozone layer.
SG: You have told New York magazine that you were trying to "save and heal the spirit of America." Is it sicker than it was in the '50s?
AG: Oh, well, in some ways. In the '50s, there was some sense of generosity and hope, generosity in America and generosity among the poets. There was hope that once the problems were clearly announced--like say clean energy, the diminished fossil fuel, less dependence on Middle Eastern oil, more dependence on clean energy sources--that we might be able to solve some of these problems. But once Nixon and others got in the White House, especially Reagan, they bankrupted the country, put it in hock so that there's no money for these major efforts. Let's say mass transit, or clean energy, or large scale medical treatment for addicts or even alcoholics, or to solve the problems that were created by the wars, by the disdaining, the neglect of the infrastructure of the cities, and the neglect of the clean-up of the poison wastes everywhere left by industrial sites and even the neglect of the final disposal of nuclear waste. Science needs toilet-training and it never got that. It would be expensive. Nuclear science needs toilet-training certainly.
Among other problems, when they emptied out the mental hospitals the rationale was to build inner city places for housing the mentally ill so they wouldn't be rotting vegetables in the back wards, but would have some interaction in the society. That money was never appropriated; those places were never built. So you have this gigantic homeless problem because of the interference and neglect of the government, because of the wars and the military expenditures, and the deliberate bankruptcy of the country, and Reagan putting it deliberately in hock to do that! So that by now, many of the problems we saw in the fifties have become almost impossible to deal with.
That's why you have all this apathy among the younger generation or so-called apathy or slacker. I don't think that it's real apathy. I think that the press and the government and the corporations have blockaded the amelioration of the situation that might still take place. I think that this right-wing temporary wave that seems to be already deflated was sort of the last-ditch denial that there was a problem.
I think Clinton means well. He started out on an even keel trying to integrate gays into the military. Then you had old jerks like Sam Nunn in his own Democratic Party betraying him. You've got to give him credit for trying. I don't think he's been given credit for trying. It's sort of like a bad mark that he tried to do something good. I don't think he got much support from the press on that. The press has had that same cynical attitude, especially in the eighties, especially on the drug issue. I keep coming back to the drug issue because politically everybody keeps saying that it's the second largest issue aside from jobs.... The drug issue is resolvable if anybody has the courage to finally do it....
SG: So a lot of the problems you saw in the '50s have...
AG: Persisted. They just never were moved on. The clouds opened up a bit in the sixties--some people got a glimpse of the possibility of the future-- and then closed down with the war and Nixon.
SG: If you could have grabbed the proverbial shirt collars of the those in the sixties who glimpsed this opening, knowing now that it would fade away, what advice would you have offered?
AG: I would have said that it would've been really important for the left to vote for Humphrey, as I did, rather than sit out the vote and let Nixon slip in. Nixon's secret plan to end the war actually was to nuke North Vietnam, according to [Daniel] Ellsberg, who was working for Kissinger. That would have torn the country apart, so he didn't do it, but he did prolong the war and escalated it to unimaginable proportions of cost and pain and ecological destruction.... So I would have said that the left should have followed more the old Beat mode of spiritual wrath and generosity, but not anger, and not to bring the war home.....
SG: What about today, if you could grab the same shirt collars of the boomer generation?
AG: Don't get intimidated, read great literature, learn to meditate in order to become conscious of their own minds, and purify their own aggression realizing that any gesture you take in anger creates more anger. Any gesture you take in equanimity creates equanimity. Make peace with yourself and see what you can do to relieve the sufferings of others. That's the main compass.
SG: Did they have that in the sixties?
AG: Yeah. Well, actually they had that in 400 B.C., that's the basis of Buddhism and Christianity. That's the really wild thing about the Moral Majority--they are claiming to be Christians and they want to persecute the poor. The Bible says you're supposed to take care of the poor. It's incredible.
SG: Do you feel hopeful?
AG: I don't think hope or fear are important. I think the main thing is a continuous generous activity, exuberant activity, no matter what's happening. Even if the ship is sinking, you can relieve suffering in any situation. Death is not--well okay, my meditation teacher, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, visited William Burroughs's son when he was waiting for a liver transplant. He was not sure he'd survive and he said to the young man, "You will live or you will die, both are good." That's my attitude. Both are good. That attitude of a little non-attachment and at the same time compassion and affection are sufficient.
Interview with Steve Silberman
Steve Silberman: Hello. I'm very, very happy to have Allen with us today. It's hard to imagine the last several decades of public life without Allen's work. The publication of "Howl" in the late fifties was a huge gesture towards honesty and openness and sincerity in public discourse, and his poetry has influenced many generations of artists and musicians. Welcome to HotWired, Allen.
Allen Ginsberg: Hi, Steve. As you know, or as you don't know - listeners, lookers - Steve Silberman and I are old friends, going back a decade or longer.
Steve Silberman: I was Allen's student when I was 19, and I'm now 39, so ...
Allen Ginsberg: It was out at Naropa Institute, in Boulder, Colorado - the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. It's still going on. I'll be there this summer.
Steve Silberman: Yeah. A very magical, creative community there. So Allen is in San Francisco, and performed last night at the Live 105 benefit for the Wilderness Society. How was that, Allen?
Allen Ginsberg: Oh, that was a lot of fun. I haven't been in a big pop rock 'n' roll concert here in the United States before, as just another band, so to speak, or another act. I was right in the middle, at a good time, at around 9:08 I went on, so I was right in the middle of the show when everybody was in there, settled, and still not tired, because everybody was waiting for Beck who didn't get on till midnight.
I had a very good band - a pickup band here - Ralph Carney, that I'd worked with before, and one of Beck's guitarists sat in with me, and we had a drummer, and performed a version of "The Ballad of the Skeletons," which is now out on a CD from Mercury. A political poem, with very definite political statements about the far right, and the monotheist theocratic Stalinists. So, it was fun. And there were a lot of young kids there, lined up - there was an autograph thing, where you sit down and give out autographs. Eleven-, twelve-, thirteen-year-olds - it was fun. Some of them knew who I was, some of them just lined up for an autograph of what's supposed to be a star or something.
Steve Silberman: Yeah. It's a great band you have on that recording, Philip Glass, and Paul McCartney, and Mark Ribot, and Lenny Kaye. It's a band that spans a couple of generations of great music.
Allen Ginsberg: Yeah. Well, I've worked with Mark Ribot, and in Musician magazine, I think, he's listed as one of the hundred best guitarists world-wide.
Steve Silberman: He's played with Elvis Costello. I think Carney has too, actually.
Allen Ginsberg: Yeah, he's played with Tom Waits. Carney's played with all sorts of people, including me, and Beck, and I've been seeing McCartney on and off over the last few years, looking at his poetry. We were working on haikus. He's interested in that. Linda, his wife, was working with that.
Steve Silberman: Were you at the original recording session for "All You Need Is Love?"
Allen Ginsberg: No. That's the hotel room thing? I forgot.
Steve Silberman: No, I saw footage of the recording session for "All You Need Is Love," and I thought maybe you were there.
Allen Ginsberg: No. I was there for a very, very interesting one with Lennon and the guy from the Stones - Jagger. In the late '60s, "Butterfly Fly Away," at the Abbey Roads studios - sitting in with Miles, who's a friend, and a friend of theirs.
Steve Silberman: And biographer of you, right?
Allen Ginsberg: Yeah, he's editing my correspondence now. But I hadn't seen too much of McCartney, until he came to New York a couple years ago for Saturday Night Live on his world tour, and he remembered very clearly, because we had spent a few evenings together, and greeted me like a long, lost brother or friend. Invited me down to his place in England, and we got involved. I had written "The Ballad of the Skeletons," and I read it to him, and he had filmed me doing it, his daughter filmed me doing it, on a little 8 millimeter. And I had a concert with Anne Waldman and the British poet Tom Picard, and about 13 other poets, at the Royal Albert Hall a year ago. And I asked McCartney for advice for a young guitarist who's a quick pick-up - a quick study - and he gave me some names. They sounded like older guys, like Jeff Beck. And he said, "But as you're not fixed up with a guitarist, why don't you try me, I love the poem...." and I said, "Sure, it's a date."
So he showed up for the sound check. Actually, we rehearsed one night at his place. He showed up at 5 p.m. for the sound check, and he bought a box for his family. Got all his kids together, four of them, and his wife, and he sat through the whole evening of poetry, and we didn't say who my accompanist was going to be. We introduced him at the end of the evening, and then the roar went up on the floor of the Albert Hall, and we knocked out the song. He said if I ever got around to recording it, let him know. So he volunteered, and we made a basic track, and sent it to him, on 24 tracks, and he added maracas and drums, which it needed. It gave it a skeleton, gave it a shape. And also organ, he was trying to get that effect of Al Kooper on the early Dylan. And guitar, so he put a lot of work in on that. And then we got it back just in time for Philip Glass to fill in his arpeggios on piano.
Steve Silberman: The last arpeggio is amazing.
Allen Ginsberg: So it's a very interesting record. And Mercury put it out with some new verses for "Amazing Grace" that Ed Sanders had ordered up, about the homeless. So we did a clean version, seven minutes. An original version with a few blue words, then a four minute version for radio play, and then three minute "Amazing Grace," and it's out on the CD.
Steve Silberman: And Gus Van Sant directed a video that's getting a lot of play on MTV.
Allen Ginsberg: Yeah, that was amazing. Van Sant and I had been down to Princeton in a limousine together, and when we got to our hotel he opened up the back of the car, and there was his guitar case, and I said, "Oh, do you play?" and he said, "Yeah, I have a band in Portland." And I said, "Well, I need an accompanist." So we ran through it in his room, and he was a little nervous about it, but pulled it off. He had his lecture on film, and I had a poetry reading, and I introduced him because he was staying over anyway, and he did a good performance. So he knew the thing inside out. Then when the MTV people requested a video, which was rare, Danny Goldberg and Mercury put out a little bit of money. I think 10 grand, which is nothing for videos. I don't know what Michael Jackson pays, or any normal band - US$70,000, 60, 50. So we pulled it in, I think, for 14. And they liked it so much on MTV, they started playing it on the Buzz Clips, and now it's going to be playing at that film festival in Utah....
Steve Silberman: Sundance?
Allen Ginsberg: The Sundance Festival. Yeah, I was invited. Because it's really good. Have you seen it at all?
Steve Silberman: No, I haven't.
Allen Ginsberg: It's a great collage. He went back to old Pathe, Satan skeletons, and mixed them up with Rush Limbaugh, and Dole, and the local politicians, Newt Gingrich, and the President. And mixed those up with the atom bomb, when I talk about the electric chair -"Hey, what's cookin?" - you got Satan setting off an atom bomb, and I'm trembling with a USA hat on, the Uncle Sam hat on. So it's quite a production, it's fun.
Steve Silberman: He's a great director. I remember when I saw his first commercial release, Mala Noche, it was the first film I had ever seen where people smoking joints looked really like just people smoking joints, not like actors smoking fake joints. And that first film, Mala Noche, was a very honest portrayal of a gay relationship without being a sort of gay ghetto stereotype.
Allen Ginsberg: Yeah, I like what he did with Burroughs in Drugstore Cowboy, and he used him later. I went up there once for a reading, and I ran into him, and he showed me the town. He showed me his old sites, where boys hang out and what not, and where he filmed things - the old hotel he used for Drugstore Cowboy. But what knocked me out was River Phoenix in My Own Private Idaho. I thought that campfire scene between River Phoenix and Keanu Reaves, where the hustler shows his heart, was really amazing.
Steve Silberman: The dialogue in that scene was improvised by River Phoenix. It was not scripted.
Allen Ginsberg: Apparently yes. So everything went very nicely for the record that we were doing, and then Mercury asked me to prepare a whole album next year, so now I got some work ahead.
Steve Silberman: Great. Well, the great thing about that poem - you mentioned that it was a political poem, which of course it is - but it also reminded me of a traditional Buddhist meditation of visualizing yourself as a skeleton....
Allen Ginsberg: Yeah.
Steve Silberman: So it seemed to address the essential nature - shared nature - of humanity, at the same time that it highlighted the vanity of the Christian Coalition.
Allen Ginsberg: Also the vanity of human wishes to begin with. It's an old trick, to dress up archetypal characters as skeletons: the bishop, the Pope, the President, the police chief. There's a Mexican painter - Posada - who does exactly that....
Steve Silberman: Dia de los muertos.
Allen Ginsberg: Yeah. Very very funny, when you get the bishop all dressed up - or the cardinal with his hat and staff with a skeleton head - or a skeleton president addressing mobs of skeleton heads....
Steve Silberman: Yeah, there's a whole genre. Like little dioramas of whorehouses where both the whore and the john are skeletons.
Allen Ginsberg: Yeah, it's an old, old - but it's also from the medieval days, too. I think probably the Spanish - when they came over to Mexico - brought that tradition with them, so it was an easy, easy ... maybe I should read that poem, I don't know.
Steve Silberman: Go for it.
Allen Ginsberg: Maybe it's just as well read as it is sung, and it has an interesting ending, too. It's called the "Ballad of the Skeletons."
Said the Presidential Skeleton
I won't sign the bill
Said the Speaker skeleton
Yes you will
Said the Representative Skeleton
Said the Supreme Court skeleton
Said the Miltary skeleton
Buy Star Bombs
Said the Upperclass Skeleton
Starve unmarried moms
Said the Yahoo Skeleton
Stop dirty art
Said the Right Wing skeleton
Forget about yr heart
Said the Gnostic Skeleton
The Human Form's divine
Said the Moral Majority skeleton
No it's not it's mine
Said the Buddha Skeleton
Compassion is wealth
Said the Corporate skeleton
It's bad for your health
Said the Old Christ skeleton
Care for the Poor
Said the Son of God skeleton
AIDS needs cure
Said the Homophobe skeleton
Gay folk suck
Said the Heritage Policy skeleton
Blacks're outa luck
Said the Macho skeleton
Women in their place
Said the Fundamentalist skeleton
Increase human race
Said the Right-to-Life skeleton
Foetus has a soul
Said Pro Choice skeleton
Shove it up your hole
Said the Downsized skeleton
Robots got my job
Said the Tough-on-Crime skeleton
Tear gas the mob
Said the Governor skeleton
Cut school lunch
Said the Mayor skeleton
Eat the budget crunch
Said the Neo Conservative skeleton
Homeless off the street!
Said the Free Market skeleton
Use 'em up for meat
Said the Think Tank skeleton
Free Market's the way
Said the Saving & Loan skeleton
Make the State pay
Said the Chrysler skeleton
Pay for you & me
Said the Nuke Power skeleton
& me & me & me
Said the Ecologic skeleton
Keep Skies blue
Said the Multinational skeleton
What's it worth to you?
Said the NAFTA skeleton
Get rich, Free Trade,
Said the Maquiladora skeleton
Sweat shops, low paid
Said the rich GATT skeleton
One world, high tech
Said the Underclass skeleton
Get it in the neck
Said the World Bank skeleton
Cut down your trees
Said the I.M.F. skeleton
Buy American cheese
Said the Underdeveloped skeleton
We want rice
Said Developed Nations' skeleton
Sell your bones for dice
Said the Ayatollah skeleton
Die writer die
Said Joe Stalin's skeleton
That's no lie
Said the Middle Kingdom skeleton
We swallowed Tibet
Said the Dalai Lama skeleton
Indigestion's whatcha get
Said the World Chorus skeleton
That's their fate
Said the U.S.A. skeleton
Gotta save Kuwait
Said the Petrochemical skeleton
Roar Bombers roar!
Said the Psychedelic skeleton
Smoke a dinosaur
Said Nancy's skeleton
Just say No
Said the Rasta skeleton
Blow Nancy Blow
Said Demagogue skeleton
Don't smoke Pot
Said Alcoholic skeleton
Let your liver rot
Said the Junkie skeleton
Can't we get a fix?
Said the Big Brother skeleton
Jail the dirty pricks
Said the Mirror skeleton
Hey good looking
Said the Electric Chair skeleton
Hey what's cooking?
Said the Talkshow skeleton
Fuck you in the face
Said the Family Values skeleton
My family values mace
Said the NY Times skeleton
That's not fit to print
Said the CIA skeleton
Cantcha take a hint?
Said the Network skeleton
Believe my lies
Said the Advertising skeleton
Don't get wise!
Said the Media skeleton
Believe you me
Said the Couch-potato skeleton
What me worry?
Said the TV skeleton
Eat sound bites
Said the Newscast skeleton
That's all Goodnight
Steve Silberman: Thank you, Allen.
Allen Ginsberg: The interesting line there, just in my mind right at the moment, is "Said the CIA skeleton/Cantcha take a hint?" referring back to the San Jose Mercury News revelations about CIA involvement with cocaine traffic, with the Contras selling coke in LA, and the sort of general denial you get in The Washington Post and The New York Times, trying to shift the analysis from what's going on, what went on, with the Contras and the CIA, to what goes on with the San Jose Mercury News and the reporters! Sort of like "Cantcha take a hint?" "You don't have to prove it, you don't have to make such a big deal about it," you know, "Why are you making such a big deal about this when you can't prove it was a CIA decision at the top." Although you can, really.
Steve Silberman: You were chronicling CIA involvement in hard-drug trafficking in the Vietnam era....
Allen Ginsberg: Since the '70s. Actually I wrote "CIA Dope Calypso" back in 1990, or "NSA Dope Calypso," back in 1990, which covered this story which is now current in the newspapers, but adds some stuff that you didn't find in the Times, and in Walter Pinkus' very restrained, "Cantcha take a hint?"-type of reporting in The Washington Post. So this is from January to February 1990. The information is from a very famous investigation by Senator Kerrey [and the] Subcommittee on Narcotics or International Trade, who nailed the CIA. Because nowadays they say, "Oh, but it was just stringers, you can't prove that the CIA had a deliberate policy." Oh, but you can prove. So this is the story:
Now Richard Secord and Oliver North
Hated Sandinistas whatever they were worth
They peddled for the Contras to ease their pain
They couln't sell Congress so the Contras sold cocaine
The discovered Noriega only yesterday
Nancy Reagan & the CIA
Now coke and grass were exchanged for guns
On a border airfield that John Hull runs
Or used to run till his Costa Rican bust
As a CIA spy trading Contra coke dust
They discovered Noriega only yesterday
Nancy Reagan & the CIA
Ramin Milina Rodriguez of Medellin Cartel
Laundered their dollars & he did it very well
Hundreds of millions through U.S. banks
Till he got busted and sang in the tank
It was buried in the papers only yesterday
When Bush was Drug Czar U.S.A
Milian told Congress $3,000,000 coke bucks
Went to Felix Rodriguez, CIA muck-a-muck
To give to the Contras only Hush Hush Hush
Except for Donald Gregg & his boss George Bush
Buried in the papers only yesterday
With Bush Vice President U.S.A.
Rodriguez met Bush in his office many times
They didn't talk business, they drank lemon & limes
Or maybe they drank coffee or they smoked a cigarette
But cocaine traffic they remembered to forget
Buried in the papers only yesterday
And Bush got in the White House of the U.S.A.
Now when Bush was director of the CIA
Panama traffic in coke was gay
You never used to hear George Bush holler
When Noriega laundered lots of cocaine dollar
Bush paid Noriega, used to work together
They sat on a couch & talked about the weather
Then Noriega doublecrossed his Company pal
With a treaty taking back our Panama Canal
So when he got into the big White House
Bush said Noriega was a cocaine louse
The Cold War ended, East Europe found hope,
The U.S. got hooked in a war on dope
Glasnost came, East Europe got free
So Bush sent his army to Panama City
Bush's guns in Panama did their worst
Like coke fiends fighting on St. Marks & First
Does Noriega know Bush's Company crimes?
In 2000 A.D. read the New York Times.
Allen Ginsberg: And that's actually the prediction of what The New York Times' reaction is going to be when the news comes out in 2000 AD - three or four years.
Steve Silberman: And read it on the Web earlier than that.
Allen Ginsberg: Back in '71 I worked on a book called The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia - Harper & Row - by Al McCoy, which we conceived together actually, on May Day, 1970, at Yale, when Jean Genęt was there. I went to Washington and did a lot of research at the Institute for Policy Studies, and talked to a lot of ex-CIA agents and actually got to challenge, Richard - what's the guy's name who was the head of the CIA then? The 1970 head of the CIA - actually got caught lying and threatened Ted Koppel, yelled at, cursed out Ted Koppel ... Kappel?
Steve Silberman: Koppel.
Allen Ginsberg: So I debriefed the head of the CIA, and made a bet with him, that if I was right - that the C.l.A. was dealing with dope - he'd lose the bet, and he'd have to sit and meditate an hour a day for the rest of his life. And if I was wrong, I'd give him my vajra, my diamond seal - a Tibetan ritual object. And he got to be in the newspapers, Flora Lewis's columns in Newsday, and Jack Anderson's columns - the political columnist that was syndicated. He had to go in front of the American society newspaper headlines and deny it all, and say that they had a clean bill of health from the Treasury Department Narcotics Bureau, which is what the CIA is claiming again!
But I had lunch with a guy named Walter Pinkus, and an old college roommate, Joseph Kraft, who was one of those pundits that wrote columns. Pinkus is the one who wrote the story - the denying story - the elder sort of CIA specialist for The Washington Post. I gave them all the information I had, thinking that this was quite scandalous, that the CIA was involved with dope trafficking from the Tan Son Nhut Airport and the Plain of Jars, and that various - Madame Nhu, and later, Marshall Ky, were involved. And he said, "Well, why are you worried about that? There isn't a matter of killing there? You're just worried about the drugs?" A very cynical attitude. And I said, "Well, I think if people knew what was going on, they would suspect the war even more." And he never did anything about it except make cynical remarks to me. He was the one that was assigned to negate the San Jose Mercury News. I wrote him about it the other day and asked him if he included the Kerrey Subcommittee information that I got to make this little "NSA Dope Calypso," and have not gotten an answer yet.
The Times - I brought the same story to them, '71, about heroin, and they were very lackadaisical. I had lunch with a guy named C. L. Salzburger, who was their foreign correspondent, of the Salzburger family who owned them, and he said that he thought I was full of beans. Then he retired in '78, or so, a few years later, and he sent me a strange letter, saying, "In going over my dispatches, I find that the information you gave me was accurate and real. I thought you were full of beans but I now apologize, and it was really true the story you had about CIA connections and opium trafficking." But the Times never did run a big story about it until, in an editorial about a year and a half ago, they mentioned that the CIA had been nailed for dope trafficking in Indochina, but they've never had a story. It was a casual reference, maybe 25 years later. So I said "In the year 2000 AD read The New York Times," and get the story updated.
Steve Silberman: Now even commentators like William Buckley talk about the legalization of drugs, which you proposed early on. California just passed a medical marijuana initiative so that people with AIDS and glaucoma can smoke marijuana. What do you think is driving the intense response against the use of marijuana, which even Clinton all but admitted to? I remember when I was a kid, I would hear people say, "Well you know, in 20 years, all these lawyers who are in law school now, turning on, will be judges and so marijuana will be legal."
Allen Ginsberg: Well, that's slowly happening, apparently. So, who's against it? Well, there is a vested interest in there being a drug problem. First in the drug bureaucracy. From the street level narc to the highest reaches of government, the C.I.A and even Donald Gregg, who was Vice-President Bush's foreign security advisor, and later, our ambassador to South Korea under Bush. There was corruption, and there has been continually all along from the top level, up to this new CIA-Contra business but back, all the way back, way back before that, it goes back to the '40s, during the war, when the OSS asked Thomas Dewey to let Lucky Luciano out of jail in New York to take over the Mafia in Sicily, in order to fight the partisan Communists in Italy who beat out Hitler and the Fascists. They didn't want the Commies to have an infrastructure in Sicily, so they'd rather have the Mafia. From then on, Luciano was the lord of the drug trade, from Corsicans - the Union Corse - in Indochina, through Marseilles, at a time when 80 percent of the world's illegal opium was coming from Indochina. Although the official story in America was that it was all coming from Turkey, but they only had one Treasury Department narc in Indochina, and about 20 or 30 in Turkey. The World Health Organization reported in 1971 that it was all coming from Indochina.
So, a kind of strange thing going on within the government, down to, as you know, the street narcs who are on the take for their own reasons, corruption. We get that in New York, scandals like that every 20 years. Last one was in '71 when they had the Knapp Commission Report, saying that most of the corruption was endemic in the Narcotics Bureau in New York City, the largest in the world, especially in the Special Intelligence Unit, three heads of which were appointed by the Mafia. So you have at this point a $15 billion budget bureaucracy addicted to having an addiction problem. Simple as that. If the addiction problem was wiped out one way or another, then they all lose their jobs, and like everybody else have to go to work. No side money. There are the tobacco companies that don't want any kind of competition, and the indication of that - rather general theory - was that when there was a unified, single treaty around the world not to legalize marijuana, the head of the UN single Narcotics Committee was the head of the international tobacco trading board, a guy named Goldsmith or something like that. Of course they would have their motives also.
My suggestion, rather than have all this critique, is that marijuana be legalized for a family farm unadvertiseable cash crop, to rehabitate the countryside. I remember when I was living up in Nevada City, there were lots of very intelligent, Harvard-trained people who wanted to rusticate, get back to the country, who were able to support their local activities, school boards, with small cash crops of marijuana. Then, the state helicopters came in, because the local sheriffs didn't care, knew it was all right - so it's a Big Brother thing too.
Steve Silberman: Totally. There was a raid of many gardening supply shops called "Operation Green Merchant," where they took everyone's credit card numbers and names, and raided their households.
Allen Ginsberg: Burroughs says the whole drug thing is an excuse for surveillance, international surveillance. So I think marijuana's a simple matter. Then LSD I would give back to psychiatrists, and take it away from the Army, which has power over LSD at the moment. You can only do experiments in hospitals under Army auspices. Junk I would send back to the doctors, as an illness rather than a crime. Like I have to shoot insulin every day. If somebody took away the insulin, I'd be in convulsions. Junkies can be cured, and if they can't be cured, you can't punish them, you can't torture them - yet that's what's going on.
I think that once you took the cash nexus out of the whole junk problem syndrome, the black market would collapse, the Mafia involvement would collapse, and you'd get it back to a minor medical problem, which, as Burroughs says, was what it was before World War I. So that leaves what? Cocaine. Certainly get the government out of the cocaine business to begin with. Get the drug companies out of the amphetamine business, 'cause they've been dumping amphetamines in Mexico for re-import into the United States. So there would be ways of ameliorating the problem that are sensible, that the neoconservative Big Brother off our back people would agree would be better - that Chicago economist, big Nobel prize winner - the one who advised Chile - I forgot his name. Buckley, Bush ...
Steve Silberman: A lot of the conservatives, actually.
Allen Ginsberg: Yeah, the libertarian conservatives. That's the libertarian understanding. Then there's the right wing Stalinoid conservatives who really want to impose a police state, basically. A monotheistic police state, with just one thought. That edges over to the monotheist Bible-thumping, right-wing-fundamentalist politician fund-raisers, and their various politics, which are quite ratty, when you're lookin' at 'em. You know the history of the massacres in Guatemala? Our CIA-subsidized colonels and military - trained in the US - were responsible for the murder of maybe 200,000 Guatemalan Indians, especially under the reign of a guy named Rios Mont, back in the '80s. And Rios Mont's guru was none other than Pat Robertson. So that Bible-thumper's got a lot of mass murder on his conscience, actually.
And Jesse Helms was always trying to justify Daubisson, the head of the hit squads in Salvador, and bring him to a kind of polite position in Washington, and whoever it was in the CIA or the State Department was trying to rehabilitate Colonel Francois, and get the new presidents of Haiti to employ him, when, in a story in The New York Times in the same day, you read that he had shipped tons of cocaine to America. A Colonel Francois who we're sheltering at this point. And there was a new scandal of the CIA anti-drug military head of Venezuela, who was actually shipping tons of cocaine to America. And you have all this Contra cocaine mess, so it's an old story. If the government would actually get out of it - get out of it in every way - the pushing, stealing, robbing, and sucking off the budget - we might have a chance of calming the city streets, and also emptying out the prisons, and ameliorating all the racist application of the drug laws. So it's a big, big problem. And you might think, "It's just a minor thing the hippies are interested in," but remember - crime in the streets, safety in the streets, drug problems - every time there's an election, that's the second biggest consideration, demagogic talking-point, particularly with the right wing. So it's not just a Ginsberg preoccupation - which it is, definitely, but it's a national issue that people keep jawboning whenever it gets to be time to become demagogues to get votes.
Steve Silberman: One thing that I appreciate in some poems in your last two books is - there's a passage in Kerouac, where he talks about how something that's changed in the behavior of people on the street is that they don't look in each other's eyes anymore, because they're afraid they'll be thought queer...
Allen Ginsberg: Or dope fiends, or muggers.
Steve Silberman: Right. In poems like "The Charnel Ground," and another poem called "May Day," you talk about the particulars of behavior in your neighborhood, being a good citizen of your block. How did "The Charnel Ground" get written?
Allen Ginsberg: I read a little thing about - my ex-, or my late guru, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a Tibetan lama who founded Naropa Institute, that we mentioned before, and he said that the world is a charnel ground. Things die, and out of it flowers grow, animals feed, worms feed, new things arise, old things fall. It's an impermanent condition, like in a charnel ground - and that we should look on it, but not be afraid of it, appreciate the place where we are with all the facts. And I thought, well that's kinda interesting, I never have really written about my neighborhood. You know, what I do when I go out, take a right hand turn out of my front door and walk to First Avenue in New York, what do I see? What's going on with the bus system - tearing up the roadway to put in new pipes - there's a guy that I saw over and over again, with a reddened face, in and out of mental hospitals Peter Orlovsky told me, lived with his mother, he's out there shaking coins in a tin cup to get more money for wine, by a church door, every other day I'd see him there. So, all the icons. There was a dry cleaner's, with the door open, and there'd be a couple of old Puerto Rican winos lying there with the fumes of the dry cleaning place coming out. They were there pretty regularly, looking sick. They'd probably go home sometimes at night. So what were the specifics of my own neighborhood - seeing it as a charnel ground, both good and bad. It's interesting.
I realized it was the basis of an epic poem. I could go throughout New York City, all over, with memories that go back to 1944. But I just kept it to my block - lost the energy after that. Might go back to it. That was in a book called Cosmopolitan Greetings, from Harper and Row, and it's reprinted in this new book, Selected Poems. I was reading "The Ballad of the Skeletons" from Selected Poems. And the "NSA Dope Calypso" from Cosmopolitan Greetings, which covers 1986 to 1992.
Steve Silberman: Going over 50 years of your work to create Selected Poems, were there any surprises that you didn't notice before about the development of your work?
Allen Ginsberg: No, but what I tried to do - there were a couple of big long poems, like a big load, that were too long to include - but I liked a lot of them, so I cut them down to the purple passages.
Steve Silberman: Like "Contest of Bards?" I noticed that poem had some passages that were cut out. I think it's a great poem.
Allen Ginsberg: It has some really pretty passages, and sort of baroque Shakesperian elegancies - well, I just wanted to include some of it, rather than - I think it's 1978. Maybe I can read a passage or two - not the whole thing.
Steve Silberman: You had just written that poem when I was your student in '78.
Allen Ginsberg: I think I performed it - it's a traditional contest of bards, the old bard, and the young poet who's come to displace him and push him off the cliff.
The boy looked in his elder's eyes, which
gazed in his while bare branches on the hillside stood trembling in the sky
blue dawn light. Honeybees woke under heaven inland and sought the lilac, Honeysuckle, rose,
Pale dew dript from day-lily leaf to leaf, green lamps went out on windows on Minneapolis avenues,
Lovers rose to work in subways, buses ground down empty streets in early light, the country
robin lit from the maple leaf whistling, cat scratched on the farmhouse door
bulls groaned in barns, the aluminum pail clanked on cement by wooden stools in steaming flop
& stainless steel mouths sucked milk from millions of cows into shining vats,
Black nannygoats whinnied nubian complaints to the stinking spotted dog
whose clump'd hair hung from his body tangled with thistle, Church organs sang,
Radios Chattered the nasal weather from barn to barn, the last snow patch slipped from the tar paper roof of the tractor lean-to,
Ice melted it in the willow bog, stars vanished from the sky over gravestones stained with water melt,
The White House shined near pillared courts on electric-lit avenues wide roaring with cars...
This is one of the purple passages, so to speak. You go off into cadenza after cadenza of imaginative recollection of detail.
Steve Silberman: It reminded me of that passage of Visions of Cody where Kerouac is talking about the reflection in the fender, where he exfoliates detail after detail until he has a panoramic awareness of ...
Allen Ginsberg: Yeah, that was a big imprint on Robert Duncan. He had read the original manuscript that I brought from New York of Visions of Cody and lent to Kenneth Rexroth here in San Francisco, and he couldn't get over the fact that Kerouac could go on for pages and pages on the reflection of what was in the fender of a car.
Steve Silberman: The more that I live with Kerouac's work, I see the huge influence he had on your poems actually.
Allen Ginsberg: Oh, very much. I'm his student. The interesting thing is, I'm an imitator of Kerouac, really, turned on by him, as many are, like Dylan said Kerouac was his inspiration to be a poet, and I think you mentioned before in your conversations with Beck, Beck was very much taken with Kerouac's writing. He got Burroughs writing. That's a gigantic influence, as well as Dylan's influence on poetry. And yet although all those poets - including Creeley and Michael McClure, and other poets who have been slightly influenced or larger influenced, turned on - all those poets are in the standard academic anthologies, and Kerouac is nowhere to be found. 'Cause they haven't got it yet.
I just finished recording and they just put out the entire Mexico City Blues, 242 poems from Shambhala Press, I guess, in Boston, Shambhala audio. So that's, for the first time, available, complete in audio version - two cassettes. Just came in about a month ago.
Steve Silberman: Yeah, and that poem was very much influenced by Charlie Parker who you knew, or saw.
Allen Ginsberg: I saw him a number of times, yeah. In those days - meaning the early '50s and early '60s - the musicians, though they were barred from playing in the clubs under the cabaret licensing laws, which were quite fascist. Anybody who had been busted couldn't play in a cabaret, and if you couldn't play in a cabaret, you couldn't make money in New York, simple as that. So they had to play wherever they could - in lofts, in scenes. There was a place on Sunday, the Open Door, some impresario - no alcohol. You'd contribute what you could, and Charlie Parker played. I used to go Saturday or Sunday afternoons. Then in the early '60s, Thelonious Monk spent maybe half a year at the Five Spot. I used to go as often as I could. He'd play four or five nights a week and I'd go.
Steve Silberman: I think that was after he wasn't allowed to play because of the cabaret card problem and then once he got back in, he played a lot.
Allen Ginsberg: Yeah, he was great. Then I saw Lester Young play at the Five Spot. I remember, I went in to say hello to him in the kitchen, and I got down on my knees, and recited the really musical language of Hart Crane's "Atlantis," the last poem of The Bridge, his epic. And Lester said, "What was that guy on?" And I asked him what he'd do if an atom bomb blew up and he said, "Well, I'd rush uptown to Fifth Avenue, to Cartier's, and I'd smash into a window and I'd grab all the jewels I could and run away."
Steve Silberman: Allen, I want to ask you, I have some questions from the Net.
Allen Ginsberg: Oh great. There's somebody out there - good for you.
Steve Silberman: "Mr, Ginsberg, what projects are you working on these days?"
Allen Ginsberg: Mercury asked me to do a big album for next year, which might be a double album. Two projects musically. One is a complete recording of all of Blake's Songs of Innocence and of Experience. I have about 30 of them in the can now, ready, and 15 to go to complete it, or 14 more. And, also, several evenings of music at St. Marks Church with 20-30 musicians, including Lee Renaldo, a drummer from Sonic Youth, and Lenny Kaye, and Mark Baron who plays digeridoo and horn, and Lenny Pickett, and a lot of great musicians, Steven Taylor, Ed Sanders.
On two occasions, Hal Wilner has organized these big musical fiestas with "Witchita Vortex Sutra" as the center of one, a 45-minute musical thing. And then when the "Ballad of the Skeletons" came out, and my Selected Poems, we had another big evening, similar personnel. So those only need a couple of days in the studio to fix up and put out. So those two projects, and the possibility of doing an album of all my songs to come out fragmentarily. I have, on my desk, completed selected literary essays - a gigantic manuscript covering 40 years, at least from '59 to '96, huge document. Cause I've written a lot of prefaces, critiques, reviews, expostulations, blurbs, anything.
Steve Silberman: There are great essays in The Poetics of the New American Poetry, edited by Donald Allen.
Allen Ginsberg: Yeah, some of the essays are there. There are also essays on politics, essays on drugs, essays on literature, essays on Buddhism, a lot of essays on Kerouac, lil' prefaces to Burroughs. So that's waiting for me to finish reviewing. It's all edited. And simultaneously, I have also edited and on my desk a quite large book of selected interviews over a long period of time. Interviews with Burroughs to Beck. It's all edited, but I have to go over it, read it. Miles, who I mentioned before, in London, is working on my selected letters. So for written projects, that's that. And also I have a huge mass of poetry I've accumulated since Selected Poems, but I think I'll wait on that and have a big, thick book of poems when I'm finished with the other three projects and the two recording projects.
Also, I've been working on a lot of photography. So I have a book of photographs that I think Bulfinch or Aperture has requested for several years. This time I'll take my own time, and arrange it myself, consulting Robert Frank, who's my mentor there. And a series of lithographs I did at the Gemini GEL - a great, very elegant printing establishment in Los Angeles. I was there in residence for about a month and a half this year, and produced six images which they'll make into a portfolio. One of them was an illustrated "Ballad of the Skeletons," which they made a special edition of 100. They cost $1,500 each, on this really good paper, with a signed edition and what not. So those are out, and there are five other images. Some collaboration with George Condo, the painter. He did the cover of the selected poems, and he's a pal, and also helped Hiri Yamagata, a Japanese guy whose skeleton skull, Japanese style, is on the center of the "Ballad of the Skeletons" record. So I've had a lot of good luck, and a lot of work - exhausting, actually. Then recently this work with Eric Drooker came out this year, I think it was.
Steve Silberman: Illuminated Poems.
Allen Ginsberg: Illuminated Poems. A comic - not a comic book exactly - but some of them are arranged as comic strips. Many of them were covers in The New Yorker, or illustrations of poems that were in The Nation, or things that he cooked up as posters for the St. Marks Poetry Project in New York, my neighborhood club.
So there's a great deal of material around, Collected Poems, Selected Poems, Cosmopolitan Greetings, "Ballad of the Skeletons," a four-CD box set - Holy Soul Jelly Roll 1949-1993 - poems and songs from Rhino. There's a new "Howl" this year, with the Kronos Quartet, a really great reading, a new reading, done this last year. All the experience that I've had reading that particular poem was just put into one sort of perfect, triumphant chant, with classical music performed by the Kronos Quartet. There's also an opera, Hydrogen Jukebox, that came out last year or the year before, with Phillip Glass. We just cooked up some new work. I was thinking of doing "White Shroud," a poem, with David Mansfield, who wanted to do some work together.
Steve Silberman: Who's David Mansfield?
Allen Ginsberg: He is on this "Skeletons" record. He was one of the touring steady musicians 20 years ago for the Rolling Thunder. He and I have got together since and have played on stages and he's recorded for me. I like him a lot. He's a really good all around vibraphone, guitar, fiddle, dobro, pedal steel. He knows everything. He can play almost anything - the mandolin - exquisite. He was part of these two big nights at St. Marks that we recorded for Hal Wilner.
Then also, I'd like to do Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind," and his "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty," and Hart Crane's "Atlantis" - which I'd read to Lester Young, I mentioned - with Phillip Glass. Be the vocalist. Because they are great poems, and they're great vocalizations. And it's the kind of an ecstatic thing that gets Phillip going. And me too. So those are what I've got in mind right now.
Steve Silberman: Speaking of getting you going, I wanted to ask you - I know you have a lot of health problems and congestive heart failure -
Allen Ginsberg: Yeah, right now. That's why I'm coughing.
Steve Silberman: Right. What brings you joy right now?
Allen Ginsberg: Making love to younger fellows, and I seem to be able to still - I can't get it up so easily - but certainly heart to heart naked is great. And I seem to have some sort of good karma that way.
Steve Silberman: Well, you're famous. But you're also sweet.
Allen Ginsberg: I'm told that I'm good in bed - a good lover. Also, writing poems, finishing poems and seeing it come to conclusion. Working on new songs. I have a new song, "Gone, Gone, Gone," and I got up in the middle of the night and recorded it. You know, just vocal. And I've got to go back and transcribe now. "Grey hair's all gone, everywhere's all gone." It's like old blues. That gives pleasure.
Finishing an artwork, seeing a new photograph that I've done, well printed. I still have about eight years of contact prints to scour through and refine. I've just skimmed the surface, but I have lots and lots of photos for this next book. I need a couple months of just looking at photos. Those are always a pleasure. That's a lot of fun - it's easy. Just look at something pretty, and decide what's clear, and ask my print maker if that really is clear and sharp enough to print up, 11 by 14 or even 16 by 20. I have a great printmaker. Though photography is a financially losing proposition. It's an expensive hobby, but I love it, as a distraction from other things.
Finishing a new drawing. I have a lot of pleasures. Some physical - I like to cook. Some artistic. Some spiritual. Seeing my present lama advisor who'll be here in San Francisco this Thursday night actually, lecturing - Gelek Rinpoche, who has a center in Ann Arbor. He does some advising for me, meditation advice, and for Phil Glass. Twice a year, Phil and I go off on a retreat with him and another 150 people. Phil and I are roommates, so we cook up more mischief. Last time I think we cooked up music for "The Weight of the World is Love," and for "The Cremation of Chogyam Trungpa," as a pair of things, pretty good.
But I want to get onto that Shelley, because it would be kind of interesting. "Ode to the West Wind." If you folks out there haven't had it in grammar school or high school, try it out. The key thing is to read it aloud, paying attention to the punctuation for your breathing instructions. Every bit of punctuation means a breath, whether it's a parenthesis, a comma, or a period. And you'll find it's easy to do. It's not like you, "Oh, take me away." It's "Oh, take me away." That's not the actual text. But you notice that you have an "Oh," which is a big "Oh, take me away," and you have a breath in between, so you're not losing your breath. Shelley was really sharp on that, measuring the breath itself. Which is what poetry does. Read it aloud, you get a buzz. What do you call it? Hyperventilating? It's amazing. If you do it as a mass thing in a classroom, everybody winds up dazzled and high.
Steve Silberman: That's great. In the Cantos, Pound said, "What thou lov'st well remains, the rest is dross." What has remained for you, now at age 70?
Allen Ginsberg: Well, a big pile of books, a big pile of records, a big pile of photographs, a big pile of drawings, a big pile of memories, of friends, imprints of their spirit on my own, imprints of their breathing and of their minds, like Kerouac. You know, you get an imprint from your family You know what I mean by imprint? You're conditioned by growing up with them, and looking through their eyes at yourself, and at other things. So I had the advantage, from the age of 16, of looking at myself through Burroughs' eyes, and Kerouac's, and soon after Gregory Corso, and soon after Peter Orlovsky, and soon after Gary Snyder, and Phillip Whalen - now a roshi here, a Zen master in San Francisco, at the Hartford Street Zen Center.
So I had the real intellectual and emotional pleasure of having an intimate life with a lot of great artists - and still do - like Phillip Glass or Francesco Clemente, the painter, or Robert Frank, the photographer. I even wound up on stage withYehudi Menuhin the other day. Phillip had assigned me to read the "Sunflower Sutra" to music, to be conducted by Menuhin, and a string orchestra at Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center. It blew my mind, because I had remembered him as an unapproachable titan when I was young. Turned out to be a nice old Jewish guy, very sensitive and very elegant-handed, you know - his gestures. Very sharp and exquisitely gentle. And his manners were very beautiful. He's 80, and he's lost a lot of his hearing, and doesn't play anymore, but he conducted quite a bit.
I had a lot of good encounters with people like Tristan Tzara the Dadaist, Man Ray in Paris, Marcel Duchamp in Paris, Jean Genęt in America. Here in San Francisco, we went to Wooey Gooey Louie's restaurant, and in Chicago, I took him to the Chicago bus terminal to see where all the boys hung out, all the hustlers. And Louis-Ferdinand Céline, the great French novelist, went to visit with Burroughs in 1961 or '60. So, I've had a very good life, especially great luck with teachers - particularly Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and now Gelek Rinpoche. Both have great hearts. So there's a basic security to all that.
Steve Silberman: Allen, I'd like to give you a chance to rest in between this and your next obligation. Do you have a short poem you'd like to read to close?
Allen Ginsberg: Yeah, my next obligation, in case anybody's alive and livin', is a booksigning up at the Booksmith.
Steve Silberman: The Booksmith on Haight Street in San Francisco.
Allen Ginsberg: Yes, I do have one short, short poem. A kind of interesting one, but I've got to find it. Here it is, called "Autumn Leaves." This is four years ago.
At 66, just learning how to take care of my
Wake cheerful 8 a.m. & write in a notebook
rising from my bed side naked leaving a naked boy asleep by the wall
mix miso mushroom leeks & winter squash breakfast,
Check bloodsugar, clean teeth exactly, brush, toothpick, floss, mouthwash
oil my feet, put on white shirt white pants white sox
sit solitary by the sink
a moment before brushing my hair, happy not yet
to be a corpse.
Steve Silberman: Thank you very much Allen, and thank you all for listening. It's been our pleasure to have poet Allen Ginsberg on the HotWired network today. Be well. Thanks.
Allen Ginsberg: Ah.
Mystical, profound, prophetic, obscene, humane--these words describe both Allen Ginsberg and his work. Widely acknowledged as one of America's greatest living poets, Ginsberg was born in Newark in 1926, and raised in Paterson, New Jersey. It was there that Ginsberg met and soon became the literary protege of William Carlos Williams, a leading Modernist poet and author of Paterson. As a college student at Columbia University, Ginsberg forged another momentous literary alliance when he was befriended by novelist William Burroughs, author of Naked Lunch.
In the 1960s, Ginsberg became a chief figure of the Beat Generation, a profligate and restless group whose luminaries include Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Gregory Corso. Favoring spontaneity and frank language over metered verse and measured speech, Beat poetry fuses anti- establishmentarian political rhetoric with drug-inspired visions, hedonistic sex, and Eastern religion. In the process of re- inventing themselves, the Beats invented a new and distinctly American poetic diction.
Borrowing his broad narrative style from Walt Whitman, his improvisational technique from Rimbaud, and mystically connected to the living spirit of William Blake, Ginsberg has, like these earlier greats, made himself both subject and object of his verse. Ginsberg's work is a poetry without intellectual boundaries, where internal landscape and worldly concerns are metaphysically united. His spiritual quests, his socio-political convictions, and his homoerotic passions are candidly and exuberantly explored.
Ginsberg's expansive, free-verse style has generated as much controversy among academics as his profanity has outraged police authorities. But, like Ginsberg himself, the work has endured the dark side of American politics. Though his masterpiece, "Howl," has been widely censored and banned from radio broadcast, it has become required reading on campuses throughout the United States. And despite persistent harassment by Federal authorities, Ginsberg remains unapologetic and unashamed, as visionary now in his 60th year as he was in his youth.
In this interview, Ginsberg discusses his rage and disappointment with the injustices of American government, the hypocrisy of its war on drugs, the dishonesty of its foreign policies, and the unconstitutionality of its censorship efforts. He sees poetry as a source of hope for the future. -- GGB
GGB: You've always been so controversial, one has to wonder: have you been controversial because you crave controversy, or is it your poetic vision that has made you controversial?
AG: I don't know. I'm nowhere near as smart as someone like Sakharov, but if you asked him that question...well, it's like asking, "Are you neurotic or not?" Was he neurotic?
GGB: You're asking me? I'm just the interviewer!
AG: I'm sorry. There is no objective interviewer around anymore in the world. As Einstein says, the appearance of the phenomenally odd is attributable to the observer. The scientific notion is that it takes three to make scientific observation. It takes the, uh, one molecule clinging against the other, then an observer. And the subjective observer is part of the transaction. As the interviewer is.
GGB: I would say that we're all neurotic. But perhaps some people can still perceive truth.
AG: I don't think there is any truth. I think there are only points of view. I have a point of view which seems to me to be practical: I'm not looking for trouble. I avoid it. But the government actually...both communist governments and capitalist governments alike, have given me trouble by stepping on my toes illegally. I can enumerate the specifics of American and socialist abuses of my liberties and citizenry prerogatives. Namely, that I was put on a dangerous security list by J. Edgar Hoover from 1965 on, and for a number of years, I was strip searched every time I came back into the country.
There were also several attempts to set me up for a dope bust by the narcotics bureau. That was because, in 1960, I went on television with Norman Mailer and said I thought we ought to decriminalize grass. From that moment on the narcotics bureau began making a file on me.
GGB: I once heard you give a speech at Hofstra in which you said that people today do not look at the world with clarity, or see that it is headed for doom.
AG: I think we face an unworkable world, speaking in terms of survival. I think there are a lot of people who've got the Bomb and bacteriological warfare they will unleash if they feel they've been pushed too far politically. Or some nut might do it.
GGB: What about the general clamp-down we're seeing on the arts in America? The censorship issues, the new laws.
AG: It's all part of the same thing. There are a lot of laws you don't know about that were put in place by the sleazy Meese Commission. Plus the Helms attack on the NEA is having a fallout far beyond the intended repression of sexual material. It has entered into the cultural arena as a critique of the culture and of free political expression.
My work is consistently censored. If it's happening to me, imagine what's happening to a lot of others. I'm supposed to be, you know, classic. I'm a member of the American Academy of Poets and the Institute of Arts and Letters. I'm a distinguished professor at Brooklyn College, I'm world-famous as a poet, and I'm supposedly invulnerable to the depredations of snoopy censors and jerks like Helms. But it affects the environment I have to work in, and I think it affects every artist.
Once you look carefully at those specters, like Helms, you realize the reason they're so loudmouthed is they're feeling guilty about their own activities, which are much more dangerous and death-dealing than anything the people who they criticize are doing. Namely, Helms is peddling tobacco. He complains about artists, but is not above using government funds to subsidize tobacco agriculture to obtain money from the tobacco lobby.
GGB: Can you tell me about some of your experiences with censorship?
AG: In 1988, I brought suit in Federal court with the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of PEN Club and myself to contest an FCC regulation that "indecent" language not be broadcast on the air from 6:00 AM to midnight. The court ruled in our favor, saying that if the FCC wanted to channel such language away from children's ears they had to have some sort of scientific evidence as to which hours were okay and which were not, because you couldn't reduce the entire adult population to the level of minors for the bulk of the listening time. But Senator Helms introduced a bill in October that same year directing the FCC to ban "indecency" 24 hours a day. There was hardly anybody in the Senate so it went through. Reagan signed it, and it became the law.
Pacifica Radio had been broadcasting my poetry, anthology pieces like "Howl," "Kaddish," "Sunflowers," which have words that can be contested. After the law went into effect, Pacifica wrote me to say that they couldn't broadcast them anymore. They thought they would win a court case, but the law had a chilling effect, because the court case would cost too much money. They might lose $100,000 in legal fees, and they just couldn't afford it. They stopped broadcasting my work the same year that the annotated "Howl"--the big book--came out.
Now, these poems are all in anthologies studied in school. And by "indecency," of course, they mean obscenity. But obscenity, if it has aesthetic beauty or significance as social critique, cannot be banned according to the free speech tenets of the Constitution. For the FCC to set a standard of artistic and literary social implications is outside of their prerogative. It makes them into censors. If something really criminal is being broadcast, it should be for the Justice Department, not the FCC, to decide.
GGB: Is it the right to use obscenity you wish to preserve?
AG: I'm simply trying to write according to the directions of Walt Whitman, who said he hoped the poets of the future would specialize in CANDOR. I'm trying to record my experiences candidly, and that right must be protected, because my experiences are more or less parallel with other people's.
GGB:Who do you think are the heroes in the struggle against censorship... aside from Allen Ginsberg?
AG: I'm a hero? I'm working hard! I would say a lot of lawyers, like the ACLU and the Emergency Civil Liberties people. The PEN Club has been doing good with its anti-censorship committee. I would say also the artists themselves who are unselfconsciously producing controversial work-- as Robert Mapplethorpe did, or like Vonnegut, or any number of people. Vonnegut is endlessly censored.
GGB: What other authors are regularly censored?
AG: I have a whole list of works containing indecent language compiled by the Stanford Pan-American Center. There's Aristophane's "Lysistrata," Brautigan's "Hawkline Monster," Burroughs' "Naked Lunch," Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales," Cleaver's "Soul on Ice, Doctorow's "Ragtime," Dickey's "Deliverance" (because it has a rape scene), James Joyce's "Ulysses," Erskine Caldwell's "Tobacco Road," Milan Kundera's "The Unbearable Lightness of Being," Jerzy Kosinski's "The Painted Bird," Lawrence's "Lady Chatterly's Lover," Marquez's "One Hundred Years of Solitude," Mark Twain's "Letters From the Earth." Many of those were celebrated censorship cases, some of them before you were born.
GGB:What inflammatory ideas did the censors cite?
AG: Just sex. In those days, that was enough. It sounds like a list of decadent works that Hitler burned. It really IS book burning. The American Library Association has been pretty heroic in compiling information on banned books. They have a list of about a hundred books that go everywhere from Adam Bede to "Huckleberry Finn." The moral of this story is that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.
I've always been interested in notions of censorship and the question, "How do you liberate a society from people who want to maintain thought control? Censorship involves thought control. The purpose of it is usually to maintain some sort of militaristic status quo which becomes tighter and tighter.
GGB:Do you feel it's getting tighter and tighter in the United States?
AG: Very much so! Under Reagan--who was supposed to get the government off my our backs--the government got on peoples' backs more than ever. It's a severe contradiction. In many areas, there was an administrative decision forbidding government employees to write books about their experiences with the government without submitting the books and writings to their bosses. That was totally new in American history.
GGB:Do you see other areas where the government is violating our Constitutional rights?
AG: Yes, of course. The government invades your body. "The bladder police," as Abbie Hoffman once called it. And they can go into your veins, as well as your DNA, if they want to see if you smoke a little pot. The war on drugs extended surveillance by the CIA which never before had gone into the civilian sector. The CIA was forbidden by law to do any domestic spying until the war on drugs. There has been a mobilization of the entire secret police apparatus.
The more you build up the anti-drug bureaucracy, the more corruption there is within because it's so lucrative. The kind of people who would be drug agents would just as well be drug peddlers. They're mirror images.
GGB:I gather you don't care for the "just say no" campaign which Republicans are now trying to revive?
AG: I'll say it very straightforwardly: yes, absolutely, I think the war on drugs is a fake, it's a hype, I think it's intended to increase the number of druggies, I think it's intended to increase police presence in America, and I think its purpose is a cynical political manipulation. It's not intended to solve any problems with drugs particularly, it's only intended to increase control over the lower classes who are becoming increasingly restive with inflation, housing problems, and the decline of American industrial jobs and power.
If they wanted to solve the drug problem, they would have to use a solution which "will not fly politically"--to LEGALIZE. You assign marijuana as a small cash crop to save family farms from omnipotent agribusiness farming. Addicts would be sent to doctors, as they are in most countries.
GGB:You mean that drug addiction should be treated as a disease, like alcoholism?
AG: Yes, like an illness, rather than hounding and accusing addicts of being fiends--which is already a trespass on human dignity, the notion of the dope fiend. By definition, the addict is viewed as psychopathic. I think that is a vicious semiotic trick to reduce people to things. Junkies in America are treated like Jews in Nazi Germany, chased with guns and dogs. Put into camps and made to suffer withdrawal without medical help. If they can be cured, let's cure them. Other drugs, such as LSD, have already been legalized elsewhere--in Switzerland, for example, so doctors can experiment with it. Scientific research shouldn't be suppressed.
GGB:Who should have access to such drugs as LSD?
AG: Doctors, psychiatrists, physicians, whoever medicines are available to. Why not? I would make it available to rabbis or swamis too!
GGB:Are you suggesting that pot should be something all of us could have access while the harder drugs remain controlled substances?
AG: I don't like the term controlled substances, because it's a euphemism for police control. I would say ease up on the controls completely and give it into responsible hands. Or maybe even a total free market, as Milton Friedman says. We're shortsighted about drugs, as William Buckley says. Once you remove that substrata which was the basis of the drug problem all along, and the basis of the drug bureaucracies, then you might be able to look more straightforwardly at speed, coke, and crack, and figure out what to do with them.
But don't confuse all the drugs, because they're all totally different. You've got to separate them, just as you remove nicotine and alcohol, you could remove marijuana, and could remove junk, heroin, and opiates, and you could remove psychedelics from the whole confused realm...then you could isolate the problem, then you could look at it and figure out what to do with coke. But nobody's willing to do that, and the reason they're not willing is NOT that it won't solve the problem, but because "there's no popular push towards that" or that "it won't fly politically."
All the moralistic, pompous trumpeting from the police agencies and the politicians that it's immoral to allow people to have drugs has nothing to do with their real reasons: they're addicts to their political power. Their behavior is totally irresponsible, immoral, and unconstitutional. It's a hoax at the expense of people's suffering, and it's a hoax that perpetuates crime in the streets. I'm just amazed that the American public and the media haven't seen through it. The real sad thing is that over half the people who could vote here don't even vote, they're so alienated by the obvious irrelevance of the political system toward any real problem solving.
There's more serious political discussion now in the socialist countries than we have here in America. Here in America, the parties are Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum. If drugs are such an important problem, why is there no real debate about it?
GGB: The vision of America that you present, a land of book burning and political brainwashing, widespread corruption and increased police control....
AG: Don't forget the invasion of other countries, in violation of international law, and the flouting of the World Court.
GGB: And the disruption of privacy, even within our own homes...it's a rather dark view of our country.
AG: America is going through a dark period as our industrial might and power founders. We entered it with Reagan, the impotent. Rather than apologizing for Vietnam, as the Russians did about Afghanistan, we tried to make a fake movie history out of it and showed it in the White House...that John Wayne movie, "True Grit," or "Rambo"! Everybody thought Rambo was a real smart thing, cool and realistic! But it was blatant dishonesty. Denial with a capital D. You know the notion of Denial in Alcoholics Anonymous? The alcoholic denies that he's an alcoholic. And he reasons that since he's not, he can stop anytime he wants.
GGB:If you were twenty in this dark age in America, would you be writing poetry? If so what would you be writing?
AG: I'd write another Howl. I wish I could write a Howl II, covering the present. Still, there may be some good out of this whole situation in that America's power to screw up the world may be curbed just as Russian power to screw up the world is now curbed. Maybe that'll leave it for some other European culture to screw up the world, but maybe another culture will do a little bit better. As Europe gets itself back together, maybe the center of power will shift back to Europe.
GGB: Going back to poetry--will you write another "Howl"?
AG: Well, it would be impossible. But I'd like to write something that addressed the increasing strangulation of liberty in America, and the corruptions of the government in violating the soul.
GGB:By violating individual rights?
AG: There's the national soul, the national spirit. It has been violated by our government's actions. I think we, as a nation, need to apologize. One of the things we would have to apologize for, which would be included in such a poem, would be the overthrow in Iran, which led to the Shah and then the Ayatollah. That's CIA business. Or the destabilization of Prince Sihanouk of Cambodia, which led to the killing fields. There's the destabilization of Chile, in the early Seventies. We have to apologize for not signing the Geneva Treaty ending the French Indochina War. We have to apologize for maintaining the death squads military in Salvador. We have to apologize for violating international law in mining the harbors of Nicaragua, which was judged by the World Court to be in violation of law. We have to apologize for loosing hyper-industrialization on the world, which is destroying the environment. We have to apologize for the murder of the Native Americans. We have to apologize for maintaining slavery for several hundred years, then denying African-Americans the vote until my lifetime, a hundred years after the Civil War, and for still maintaining a racist outlook and laws. There is a lot we have to apologize for.
GGB: You wish to make those apologies in your poem?
AG: That's a good way of beginning it. "I, America, hereby apologize for..." You gave me a great idea! It would have to be a poem that was full of grief, because I think that's the heart of America at the moment. Not the bravado, and the chauvinism, and the violence--these things are the mask of grief for what we've done to ourselves and to the world.
GGB:Which younger poets do you believe are doing the most promising work? Are there any with whom you feel a strong literary kinship?
AG: There are quite a few whom I like and with whom I feel a great deal of empathy. All of these poets at one time or another passed through Naropa. Since I'm 69 now, I'll list them, ranging in descending order of age. First Antler, who is in his 40s. He has published FACTORY (City Lights) and LAST WORDS (Available Press/Ballantine). Antler lives in Milwaukee. His specialty is ecology and nature, and he goes up into the Wisconsin woods alone for weeks at a time.
There's a working man poet named Andy Clausen who has a couple of pamphlets from Zeitgeist Press (Berkeley). He met Neal Cassidy before he died and has some of his energy. Clausen's a Kerouac fan and has that same love of language. I've read with him a number of times. He worked as a hod carrier for a construction company: he was injured and rather than pay his compensation purposely went bankrupt. Now he's living with relatives and trying to deal with medical bills. He writes from a working man's point of view, with realism about the disempowerment of the underclass.
There's a poet called Eliot Katz who lives in New Brunswick, NJ. He is a social worker and also has a lot of experience with the disempowerment of the working class. His family comes from Germany and most of them were wiped out in the concentration camps. He's working on a long poem about that now, and making parallels between that and the impoverishment of his clients. A young student of his, David Greenberg, who's done illustrations for Katz's pamphlet and has a rock and roll band called Penpals, is also promising.
Then there's a 19 year old poet from Chapel Hill, NC, named Geoffrey Manough. He sent me a couple of pamphlets of his and turns out to be really brilliant. I sent him out to various poets, including Snyder and Ferlinghetti--and Ferlinghetti asked him for a manuscript.
Beck--a young blues singer, just 23 years old--has a great command of blues rhyme, the best I've heard since Dylan. Sapphire, a young student of mine at Brooklyn college, just received half a million dollars for a novel in progress. She's a black lesbian. Paul Beatty is another former student of mine: he is a rapper with a literary, be-bop sound. He was a winner of the Nuyorican Poetry slam and got a book out of it. And, finally, Anne Waldman, Ed Sanders, Eileen Myles are more established poets with whom I feel an affinity.
GGB:What do you think about the new directions of aspiring young poets--poetry slams, poetry in cyberspace, and so on? Are we witnessing a democratization of poetry?
AG: One thing that's obvious is that since the government's going into a tailspin, morally and economically, with the elimination of the safety net for the poor in health, money and housing, the majority of people are restless and their restlessness isn't lucidly communicated through the government or media; but it is lucidly communicated through the poetry. Poets are presenting their restlessness, their sense of justice and injustice, their sense of beauty and their sense of environmental ugliness. And that ugly environment includes mass media and the government.
Poetry is the one medium for the democratic individual to express himself because every other medium is blocked up with plastic or legally censored by Senator Helms' law directing the FCC to forbid all so-called indecent language on the air between 6 a.m. and midnight. It was originally 24 hours a day until the courts opened up six hours of "safe harbor." Now they're trying to extend this censorship to the Internet.
We have a constitutional case questioning this censorship which has wound through the courts for the last 6 years. It is just now approaching the Supreme Court on behalf of PEN club. The petitioners are the Pacifica Foundation, the National Federation of Community Broadcasters, Public Radio International, the National Association of College Broadcasters, the Intercollegiate Broadcast system, PEN American Center and Allen Ginsberg vs. FCC and USA.
Basically, the argument is whether the censorship of radio and TV is constitutional using the key word "indecency" (which has never been defined). Although people have noticed the censorship case on the Internet much more than this one, the outcome here will have an enormous impact on the Internet and its possible censorship. So it's quite important.
The decency regulation is supposed to protect minors, now defined under 18 years old. "Howl," "Kaddish," "Sunflower Sutra"--many of my earlier poems are in high school anthologies even though these works are banned from broadcast on the air. But I notice when giving readings, about a fifth the audience are high school students, 15, 16 years old.
GGB: Do you have a vision for what the future of poetry will be?
AG: To the extent that there is government failure and media plastic, there's a failure of reality on many subjects--particularly sex, which is not being death with properly, and violence. There is no beautiful sex on tv, but there is lots of ugly violence.
Government is manipulative and full of hypocrites who are avoiding the real issues of ecology, overpopulation, underclass suffering, medical bankruptcy, homelessness, malnutrition, race divisions, the issue of drugs. With all the demagoguery (from Bill Clinton and particularly Janet Reno) and confusion, poetry can stand out as the one beacon of sanity: a beacon of individual clarity, and lucidity in every direction--whether on the Internet or in coffee houses or university forums or classrooms. Poetry, along with its old companion, music, becomes one mean of communication that is not controlled by the establishment.
from An Interview with Poet Allen Ginsberg. Online Source
Interview with Harvey Blume
at 2:50 PM March 10 1955
reached point in time where life was no longer suffering but to live was a pleasure.
-- From Journals Mid-Fifties (1954-1958)
H: What struck me most reading the Journals Mid-Fifties is the theme of love. You discuss it on a cosmic spiritual level, but also in terms of a masochism and submissiveness you wrestle with constantly.
AG: I hadn't thought of it as masochism but I guess it's so.
H: You use the word a lot.
AG: It's kind of a buzz word.
H: You write: "Love is complete...It never lacks because it is All. It comes on the mind in visions. Watch for it coming! It enters the house of the body without your seeking." You say that on the one hand. On the other, you say, "That kind of love of mine is a sickness...Am I nuts?"
AG: Almost anybody, from Shakespeare on, who talks about love, talks about the pains of love, the thorns of love - the bed of love is a rose with thorns. It's par for the course, in a sense. Very often, I'm presenting worst case scenarios, too, you know, the worst fantasies.
In the situation with Neal Cassady, we were friends, very close friends, until his death, and in and out of bed together over 20 years. With Peter Orlovsky, though there was a lot of struggle in connecting with him, we were together from 1954 to the present, more or less. So they're the birth pangs.
H: This passage stays with me: "I have held on to self-pity so long as a primary source of emotion in love, I hardly know what would replace it in my feelings if it went."
AG: The awareness of self-pity is the medicine for self-pity.
H: The desire for total surrender to someone - or total union with someone - runs through your work.
AG: Or total mastery, one or the other, it's the reverse side of the coin.
H: It also comes across as tenderness.
AG: I wonder if the masochist aspect cancels out the genuineness of the tenderness. That would be the logical question.
Probably I always felt kind of stupid and inferior and ugly and fell in love with people I felt were beautiful and more true than myself. Probably the quality of devotion and desire, or the intensity of devotion or desire, were the strongest and the most permanent elements in the relationship. So that which was considered, say, inferior or weaker was, because it gave rise to devotion and intense adoration, the cause of a stronger durable passion.
Nowadays a lot of that devotion is transferred over to Buddhist dharma and the relation to the teacher, the master, the meditation instructor.
H: You still practice meditation.
AG: I'm very much involved, and have been for many years, with the Naropa Institute and activity related to the spread of dharma through education. With Gelek Rinpoche, a teacher from Ann Arbor, a Tibetan teacher. Philip Glass and I are students of his. We've done a lot of benefits for the Jewel Heart Meditation Center in Ann Arbor, and I see Rinpoche a lot, visit Ann Arbor and seek advice, go on retreats with him.
It's student learning, setting other people before myself and trying to listen to them and pay attention to them rather than trying to dominate them.
H: A theme that runs through the dreams you record in the Journals - and you pay a lot of attention to your dreams - is that of acceptance. You have recurrent anxiety dreams about being outside the academy, outside a career path. There's a dream in which T.S. Eliot is reading your poetry. You're in tears; T.S. Eliot's reading your poetry!
AG: That was a very funny dream, particularly the idea of Eliot putting me to bed in his digs in Chelsea, getting me an English hot toddy, whatever that is, a hot water bottle you take to bed with you to keep your feet warm.
H: Do you still dream about Eliot?
AG: No. Bob Dylan.
H: But Dylan likes you.
AG: In the dream.
H: Doesn't he like you in reality?
H: So it's not a problem.
AG: But it's more overt in the dream.
H: He likes you even better.
AG: It's more demonstrative.
H: There's a good deal of discussion of canons now, canon-making, canon-breaking. Howl set off similar kinds of debates in the 1950s. Someone like Trilling didn't want to discuss your work as poetry at all.
AG: Oddly enough, Trilling changed his mind, and in his monumental anthology of world literature, he included me with Shakespeare and Sophocles. The poem "Aunt Rose" is what he chose. The Jewish family sense in that poem, and the emotion, finally got to him and he realized what I was doing was grounded; it wasn't hippy-dippy and it wasn't crazy.
H: The same dismissive attitude has been taken up by Harold Bloom.
AG: I don't read him. Specifically? He actually talks about me?
H: Bloom's always been concerned with constructing canon; who's saved, who isn't. You're not saved.
AG: He may be good on Blake and earlier things but I've looked at the choices of contemporary materials and they're not very inspiring.
H: He's a canon-maker.
AG: Not really. In ten years it will be obsolete.
H: A would-be canon maker.
AG: Everybody's a would-be canon maker. He just advertises himself as a canon maker but he doesn't make the canon. Readers make the canon.
And much of that has changed. As of this last year, Kerouac is becoming more recognized as a monumental writer of the late-20th century who knew what he was doing, better than Truman Capote in terms of writing. There have been several reviews that point out Kerouac accomplished a work with vast scope, as distinct from the Updike, Joyce Carol Oates, middlebrow view that he had one interesting book, On The Road, and the rest was not readable.
But among poets, Kerouac is known to be a seminal influence not only on me but on Bob Dylan as well Gary Snyder and Robert Creely. It's obvious that Kerouac and Ma Rainey and Robert Johnson will be in anthologies sooner or later. To the extent that someone like Bloom doesn't get it - it never occurred to him that American Black blues, early century up to the '30s, might be part of the canon like the Scottish border ballads or the anonymous 14th-century lyrics are in the Oxford Book of English poetry - to that extent he's missing the mark.
Burroughs was understood all the way through. Everybody from Mary McCarthy on paid homage to Burroughs as a great writer, even Samuel Beckett. Nobody has disputed that except a lunatic fringe. You could call Bloom part of the lunatic fringe in that sense.
H: I'd love to call him part of the lunatic fringe.
AG: It's at such a disparity with intelligent opinion. I don't think he puts Burroughs in the canon.
H: I think he does put him in the canon.
AG: Burroughs has an enormous influence on high culture, low culture, an all-pervading influence. Probably get a Nobel Prize if it weren't for the disrepute of his personal life. But that's no different than Francois Villon or Christopher Marlowe or any number of Nobel types.
Gregory Corso is another in my personal canon. I would also point out John Weiners here in Boston, a great tragic poet. Creely is a great poet, a great academic poet, too.
H: What was it about William Carlos Williams that led him, it seems alone of his generation, to see the virtue in your early work?
AG: He wasn't alone; there were any number of others.
I had known Williams in Paterson. I had written him some letters which were, for him, a welcome response from the streets of Paterson. Then I sent him some poems that were imitations of his. He wrote me a little note saying, do you have more of these?
Years later I sent him Howl, which he didn't quite get because of the long line. He was interested in measuring the short breath but he read Howl to some younger people who were knocked out by it. He saw there was real emotion and wrote me a letter saying so. I asked him for a preface and he did it, understanding that I was dealing with new verse. When I got to Kaddish he balked, afraid that the use of the paragraph abandoned the search for an American measure. But he changed his mind and realized I was doing something valuable emotionally or artistically, and he wrote a little poem about it.
It wasn't just Williams. Many of his contemporaries, like Carl Rakosi, Louis Zukofsky, George Oppen, Charles Reznikoff, responded. Even Pound liked it. According to his daughter, he said, this is Ginsberg's hell; I'd be interested in seeing his paradise.
H: Williams would be open to you because he was listening for an American voice.
AG: There was one time we visited him. Me and Peter Orlovsky and Gregory Corso and Kerouac came to visit him in Rutherford. While Kerouac went in the kitchen with his wife and charmed her - she said he was very handsome and very sweet - we sat around and talked poetry. Gregory read him some new poems, and he liked them. At the end we said, well Dr. Williams, here we are ready to go, do you have any wise words for us? And he pointed out the window, out on Ridge Road Rutherford, and said, "There's a lot of bastards out there."
He was scared of the fame and publicity that came and wasn't sure we could handle it. Because what happened with the Beat writers was pretty astonishing for someone of the older Modernist school whose editions were limited to one or two thousand. And it was actually surprising to me that Howl went into more than that. We originally printed 500, thinking of it as an esoteric book to be appreciated by connoisseurs.
I don't think people realized that I grew up in a poetry atmosphere.
H: Your father was a poet.
AG: It was a family business. I knew rhyme and meter and stanza from my eighth year and memorized endless Yeats, Vachel Lindsay, Edward Arlington Robinson, Edna Millay and knew what was necessary to know as a basic rhythmic specialist. There was the idea of Beat writers splashing their stuff spontaneously which spread like a Frankenstein image among younger poets so everybody thought they could just get away with writing anything they want.
H: You did say, first pass best pass.
AG: No. First thought best thought. Actually I didn't say it; a venerable Tibetan lama said it: first thought is best in art, second thought in other matters, meaning you have to rely on your ur-thought, your intuition, your organic understanding, your flash, your primordial mind.
Journals Mid-Fifties is one out of three of my journal volumes published now. There's potentially another 40 volumes. That's a lot of writing, a lot of fidelity to the idea of art for art's sake, catching your mind, catching yourself thinking.
H: Do you dream as intensely as you did?
AG: Yeah. I had a great dream the other day of Carl Solomon who died several years ago. I meet him in the afterlife and say, "How is it there?"
He says, "Oh, just like the mental hospital. You get along if you know the rules."
I say, "Well, what are the rules?"
He says, "There are two rules. First, remember you're dead. Second rule, act like you're dead."
I woke up laughing.
H: I reread Kaddish yesterday and was moved again by the story of your mother's madness. Did she know in her blood what was happening in Europe? Was that part of what drove her mad?
AG: I think very much. She had a hyper-sensitivity; she just saw it in a mirror image and didn't realize that exactly what she was complaining about in America was going on with all the Jews in Russia. She thought there were wires and secret police and they were out to get her. Well, it was happening in Russia and in Germany. In an attempt to rationalize an unconscious awareness of that, she projected it on her own scene in America.
That wasn't the only thing. There were family troubles, genetic things. Remember, my mother came over from Russia at the age of twelve or so and had already seen Cossacks coming down.
H: After the experience of her madness it might seem you were especially foolhardy to spend your time out on a limb seeking visions.
AG: But I also had been inoculated by the notion that once everybody in the world disagreed with me, I should check back on my perceptions and not insist, moderate the violence of my insistence.
H: You learned something.
AG: How to stay out of the bughouse.
H: At the same time you were seeking visions by all means possible.
AG: No no no, they came on their own. Then I was checking them out with psychedelics to see what approximation psychedelics would bring to the natural experience. And I was reading William James's Varieties of Religious Experience and various other books that dealt with out of the ordinary mind states.
There's always been a visionary aspect to America, from Whitman, Thoreau, Emerson, the Transcendentalists on. That's one of the mainstreams in America's melting pot. There's a lot of mainstreams, unless you want to say the homogenized Time-Life television consciousness is the mainstream.
H: The effect of jazz on your generation has been much remarked.
AG: We were listening to old blues and new jazz.
H: How did the music affect your work?
AG: There was the myth Kerouac had about Lester Young blowing 69 successive choruses of "Lady Be Good." The idea was the increasing excitement - building chorus after chorus until you hit an ecstatic orgasmic rhetorical rhapsody. The stream of verses, "Who, Who, Who, Who," in Howl, was an imitation of that chorus after chorus as was the plateau of rhythmic ecstasy in the Moloch section.
H: Is it significant to you that today is the last day of Passover?
AG: Well, I had a couple of seders. I went with my brother and his whole family and I will be going tomorrow to another gathering.
H: Are they meaningful affairs for you?
AG: I've been going to seders for years, not so much as a monotheist recollection but as a historical cultural recollection. Monotheism - the Judeo-Christian-Islamic monotheist tradition - I think, as Blake thought, is one of the curses of mankind, the idea of a single authority in the universe. Blake said, "Six thousand years of sleep since the Garden of Eden." Unconsciousness, sleepwalking, depending on a creator.
The Buddhist theme is, "Daddy, is there a God?"
Daddy says, "No."
The kid says, "Whew."
Taking the roof off the box. Getting out of the claustrophobic box of monotheist dictatorship.
Copyright © 1995 by The Boston Book Review. Online Source
Return to Allen Ginsberg