Allen Ginsberg: An Encounter

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at 2:50 PM March 10 1955 reached point in time where life was no longer suffering but to live was a pleasure.

Allen Ginsberg, “Journals Mid-Fifties (1954-1958)”

When I interviewed Allen Ginsberg I said something right off that startled him, though what I said was simple and not raunchy in the least, as if raunchy would ever affront a poet who liked saying, “Why don’t we get right down to the cunt of the matter?”

“Allen,” I said, “I want to say something I never say to people I interview.”

I was wearing a sort of newsboy hat. As synchronicity would have it, he had one had just like it in his pocket and put it on.

“Yeah?”

“Allen, I love you.”

I have harbored deep feelings for a lot of the people I interviewed — Doris Lessing, Norman Mailer, Oliver Sacks. And I developed similar feelings for others in the course of the conversation itself — E. O. Wilson, to name one.  When I met Wilson in his Harvard lab with untold numbers of ants from different species fulfilling their colony destinies in environments expressly designed for them, Wilson was so generous with his time that his secretary stomped in more than once to glare at me and try to get him back on schedule. Wilson would not be interrupted. He was too thoroughly engaged in changing my mind for good about some mistakes I’d made with regard to nature and nurture, genes and environment. He schooled me.

But back to Ginsberg, in April 1995 at an outdoor table at what was then the Cafe Paradiso in Harvard Square. This wasn’t my first encounter with him — far from. I’d been running into Ginsberg — known in certain circles as Ginzap — in one context or another ever since as a Brooklyn high school kid wandering the Lower East Side, I happened into a coffeehouse where he was declaiming Howl to a chorus of bearded Beats.

“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked…”

“Stomp the shrinks! Stomp all shrinks!” came from the  crowd, many of whose members, however mad they might have been, did not, therefore, relish their encounters with psychotherapy.

Then there was the time at Columbia College when Ginsberg appeared onstage with his friend/lover Peter Orlovsky, and recited a poem that went into some detail about one or both of them having bent penises. This prompted male faculty members from the English department to rise up in tweedy gentility to escort their female companions, shocked or not, out of the theater.

Here I skip to the movement against the war in Vietnam, where I might be in a throng chanting, “Hell no! We won’t go!” while Ginsberg, bare hairy chest exposed, castanets on his fingers, was dancing nearby to

“Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare

Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare”

Then, too, there was that winter evening in 1977 when Ginsberg was reading in Cambridge, at Passim’s, and Doc Humes, a New York familiar, got himself busted for — believe it — smoking pot. Suddenly, Ginsberg went into the ubiquity mode he kept in reserve. He was outside, dealing with the cops at the same time as he was inside telling us “Genius is no good if you’re nuts!”

Craziness v. sanity, nuts v. not nuts was one of his abiding themes.

There were so many brushes of so many kinds, including conversations. Though I am a strictly secular person, there was a time when I went around saying Ginsberg was my one and only rabbi. It changes nothing that, as you’ll see, Ginsberg was indifferent, at best, to rabbinic Judaism.

And the poetry. I won’t focus on the famous work — “Howl”, “Kaddish” — which, after initial outrage — faculty walkouts — are now part of the curriculum, even part of the canon (pronounced “canyon” by him in our exchange). I’ll stay with the late stuff, much of which took the form of lament, except “lament” is completely the wrong word. We’re not talking Milton, Lycidas, Latinate expressions of grief. We’re talking old guy stuff, bowel movements. We’re talking kvetch.

In a way, all Ginsberg’s poetry was kvetch: in “Howl” on behalf of Carl Solomon et al, in “Kaddish” on behalf of Naomi, his mother, crazed not least of all by history — the Holocaust, paranoid imaginings of the KGB. In his last poems his kvetch is mostly personal, lending a new dimension to the conjunction of poetry and kvetch.  From his Richard III:

Toenail-thickening age on me

. . . weak-kneed. . .

water —

logged liver, gut & lung — up at 4 a.m.

reading Shakespeare.

He doesn’t always get to Shakespeare. Sometimes he can’t get past bowels, despite which he prefers to stick around. One of my favorite lines in all poetry is his “American Sentence” Approaching Seoul by Bus in Heavy Rain (August 1990):

Get used to your body, forget you were born, suddenly you got to get out!

When I told Ginsberg I loved him, he blushed.

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HB: 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.

HB: You use the word a lot.

AG: It’s kind of a buzz word.

HB: 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 for 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.

HB: 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.

HB: 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.

HB: 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.

HB: 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.

HB: 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.

HB: Do you still dream about Eliot?

AG: No. Bob Dylan.

HB: But Dylan likes you.

AG: In the dream.

HB: Doesn’t he like you in reality?

AG: Yeah.

HB: So it’s not a problem.

AG: But it’s more overt in the dream.

HB: He likes you even better.

AG: It’s more demonstrative.

HB: 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.

HB: The same dismissive attitude has been taken up by Harold Bloom.

AG: I don’t read him. Specifically? He actually talks about me?

HB: 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.

HB: He’s a canon-maker.

AG: Not really. In ten years it will be obsolete.

HB: 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.

HB: 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 canyon.

HB: I think he does put him in the canyon.

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.

HB: 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.

HB: 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.

HB: 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.

HB: 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.

HB: 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.

HB: 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.

HB: 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.

HB: You learned something.

AG: How to stay out of the bughouse.

HB: 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.

HB: The effect of jazz on your generation has been much remarked.

AG: We were listening to old blues and new jazz.

HB: 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.

HB: 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.

HB: 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.

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“Allen Ginsberg” by Ryan Origami, All Rights Reserved, Used With Permission

(Portions of this interview first appeared in the Boston Book Review, August 1995, vol.2 #7)

3 COMMENTS

  1. Harvey, the Ginsberg review is fabulous. Fabulous. A treasure. One day he came to my mother’s apartment at the Chelsea with a lady friend who wasn’t feeling so well. He read new poems that he pulled from his nap sack, smoked weed, played his harmonica. We drove him back to his place on the east side. During that drive his friend got sick and he quickly opened his bag of poems and she puked on the new manuscript. What a beautiful real guy.

  2. Harvey, the Ginsberg review is fabulous. Fabulous. A treasure. One day he came to my mother’s apartment at the Chelsea with a lady friend who wasn’t feeling so well. He read new poems that he pulled from his nap sack, smoked weed, played his harmonica. We drove him back to his place on the east side. During that drive his friend got sick and he quickly opened his bag of poems and she puked on the new manuscript. What a beautiful real guy.

  3. Harvey, the Ginsberg review is fabulous. Fabulous. A treasure. One day he came to my mother’s apartment at the Chelsea with a lady friend who wasn’t feeling so well. He read new poems that he pulled from his nap sack, smoked weed, played his harmonica. We drove him back to his place on the east side. During that drive his friend got sick and he quickly opened his bag of poems and she puked on the new manuscript. What a beautiful real guy.

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