Allan Ginsberg: an interview by Gary Pacernick.
Gary Pacernick: The tape is on now; this is the beginning.
Allen Ginsberg: "This is the forest primeval, the murmuring pines and the hemlocks, bearded with/moss . . ."
GP: Allen, what have you found the hardest thing about being a poet?
Ginsberg: Nothing particular. I mean - nothing particular. No hard part.
Ginsberg: Making a living at it. Making a living.
GP: Well, what about inspiration? Has it always been easy?
Ginsberg: Inspiration comes from the word spiritus. Spiritus means breathing. Inspiration means taking in breath. Expiration means letting breath go out. So inspiration is just a feeling of heightened breath or slightly exalted breath, when the body feels like a hollow reed in the wind of breath. Physical breath comes easily and thoughts come with it. Now that's a state of physical and mental heightening, but it's not absolutely necessary for great poetry. Though you find it's a kind of inspiration, a kind of breathing in Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind" or "Adonais" or Hart Crane's "Atlantis," or perhaps the Moloch section of "Howl." But for subject matter, which is what you mean, for ideas, ordinary mind and thoughts that occur every day are sufficient. It's a question of the quality of your attention to your own mind and your own thoughts.
GP: Where does this breath come from that you find in the second part of "Howl," for example?
Ginsberg: Well, it's a more excited breathing, longer breath, that you find in the examples that I cited which build sequentially as a series of breaths until finally there's a kind of conclusive utterance. "Moloch whose name is the Mind."
GP: You talk in the Paris Review interview and other places about being inspired by Blake reciting "Sunflower."
Ginsberg: An auditory hallucination, hearing it, but that's a different kind of breath, completely. That's a quieter breath from the heart area. Like my voice now rather than the stentorian breath of "Atlantis" or "Howl."
GP: So you're not talking about what we usually talk about in terms of prophesy, in terms of some divine voice.
Ginsberg: Now wait a minute. You're switching your words now. We were using the word inspiration and voice. Now what are you talking about? What's your question, really?
GP: What is a breath unit?
Ginsberg: A breath unit as a measure of the verse line? Why, a breath unit as a measure of the verse line is one breath, and then continuing with the sentence is another breath. Or saying "or" is another breath, and then you take another breath and continue. So you arrange the verse line on the page according to where you have your breath stop, and the number of words within one breath, whether it's long or short, as this long breath has just become.
GP: Okay now, you're talking about great poetry -.
Ginsberg: No, no, I'm talking about how you arrange the verse lines on the page by the breath.
GP: No, I understand, but when we were talking about inspiration you used the word breath again.
Ginsberg: Because the word inspiration comes from the Latin word spiritus, which means breathing. So I was trying to nail down what the word inspiration means rather than have a vague term that we didn't know what we were talking about.
GP: But to me, and obviously I could be totally off, it sounds like you're talking about poetry as a kind of series of breathing exercises.
Ginsberg: Well it is, in a way, or the vocal part, the oral part, is related to the breath, yes.
GP: What inspires the breath?
Ginsberg: The breath is inspiration itself. Breath is itself, breath is breath. Where there is life, there is breath, remember? Breath is spirit, spiritus.
GP: So every once in awhile this spirit breath visits you and other poets?
Ginsberg: No, you're breathing all the time, it's just that you become aware of your breath. Every once in awhile you become aware that you're alive. Every once in awhile you become aware of your breathing. Or of the whole process of being alive, breathing in the universe, being awake, and so you could say that that's the inspiration or the key, that you become aware of what's already going on.
GP: You probably didn't know this when you were sixteen, eighteen, twenty years old and first writing poetry.
Ginsberg: Oh, well, pretty soon. A sort of latent understanding, yeah. That notion of awareness, conscious awareness.
GP: Did Williams or Pound influence this?
Ginsberg: Pound and Williams specialized in this. They broke the ground for this kind of thinking. Williams trying to write in vernacular speech and dividing it up into pieces, and dividing the verse line into pieces of vernacular speech, sometimes by counting syllables, sometimes by the breath stop, sometimes by running counter to the breath stop. Do you know what I mean by the breath stop?
GP: You were in Dayton years ago and I was there with my wife and child, and I said to you, "What is a breath unit?" and you were sort of showing me with your hand as I spoke. Charles Olson talks about it. But Pound and Williams don't talk about breath, do they?
Ginsberg: Well, it's implicit in what they were doing, because they were talking about actual talk.
GP: I understand.
Ginsberg: And measuring the measure - what Williams talks about was an American measure, a measure of actual speech.
Ginsberg: And his disciples like Olson and Creeley drew from that the notion of projective verse or verse by breath or measuring the verse line by where the breath stops.
GP: But we both know that your breaths in "Kaddish" and "Howl" and your other inspired poems are -
Ginsberg: Different from somebody else?
GP: Not only different, but so long.
Ginsberg: Everybody's is different. Everybody's breath is different. Everybody, like Creeley's is short and minimal, in a way.
GP: Well, it's beyond short and minimal. It's like one one-hundreth of what yours is in some of your longer lines.
Ginsberg: Well, sometimes. But on the other hand the poems that are like those, too, like Williams or Pound.
GP: Does that mean, since your line is the longest, that you're the most inspired?
Ginsberg: Well, the deepest inspiration, probably, yes, the deepest breath.
GP: So you are. you're literally equating poetic inspiration with breath.
Ginsberg: That aspect of it. There's two kinds I said. There is the deep breath, but there is also, in the more common use of the word inspiration, i.e., where do you get your ideas, is also just ordinary mind and ordinary breath, and short breath, too. Ordinary mind means what passes through your mind while you're sitting on the toilet.
GP: But in your poem "Kaddish" you're doing more than that.
Ginsberg: But I'm saying there are different kinds of poetry. In "Kaddish" what I'm doing is a longer breath, yes. Then in other poems like in White Shroud the poem to William Carlos Williams, "Written in My Dream by W.C. Williams," it's a short breath.
GP: Let's switch it a little bit, then maybe we can come back to that. In "Howl" you affirm the beat lifestyle.
Ginsberg: You know, one thing is, you're fixated on poems of thirty, forty years ago. I don't mind talking about them, but in context of a whole curve of poetry up to the present. But go on.
GP: Okay, fine. You affirm the beat lifestyle that often leads to madness and/or death.
Ginsberg: I didn't use the word "lifestyle." That's a later sort of media term and I don't like you to use it. I think it's bullshit.
GP: You said "Mad generation! down on the rocks of Time!" A lot of the people, most of the people have died.
Ginsberg: Not so. Just the opposite, sir. Just the opposite. You've got it all wrong, inside out. Burroughs is alive at the age of eighty-three and just had a birthday. Huncke just had his birthday in February also, and he's eighty-one. Gary Snyder is in very good health in California and is a world-renowned influence in poetry. Philip Whalen is a Zen master now. I'm doing quite well at Naropa and Brooklyn College and writing poems. Michael McClure is touring with Ray Manzarek. So Kerouac died, Neal Cassady died, and Lou Welsh died. But on the other hand Gregory Corso is living across town. We're all in touch with each other. Ann Waldman has founded the Kerouac School of Poetics at Naropa and John Ashbery and everybody go there, and I go there between terms. So we have a better actuarial span than most insurance people. But you've got the stereotype I'm trying to get away from.
GP: Let's go to "Howl" itself.
Ginsberg: As I keep saying, you're fixated on images of that. Anyway, go on.
GP: Well, those people are very unhappy, the people you portray in the poem.
Ginsberg: Yes. They were young.
GP: Okay. Let's just say you have survived.
Ginsberg: And so have most of my friends.
GP: Where do you draw your strength?
Ginsberg: Oh, inspiration I keep breathing. Also I never drank.
GP: You never drank?
Ginsberg: No. I never drank. And I was very moderate in my use of drugs. I was more interested in the politics than the drugs themselves.
GP: But you have all those poems that are titled after drugs.
Ginsberg: If you'll notice, it's about one percent of my poetry.
GP: Okay. I'll go back and take a look.
Ginsberg: You'll find a poem called "Nitrous Oxide" and another called "Ether" and another called "LSD," another called "Marijuana Notation," another called "Mescaline." And that's about it. And you have Peyote for the central section of "Howl" -
GP: The religious visions.
Ginsberg: And a couple other things, then you have some stuff from the "Yage" and that's it. Out of about eight hundred pages, you've got about fifty pages of drugs.
GP: All right, that takes care of that.
Ginsberg: You have the media stereotypes you're dealing with.
GP: Well, I don't know you.
Ginsberg: Well, you don't have to. Just look at the texts. I've named all the texts that are on drugs.
GP: In "Kaddish" were you responding to the Hebrew prayer in any particular way, or were you responding in a more general way to your grief over Naomi's death?
Ginsberg: Both. You know, I had never heard the formal rhythms of the Kaddish before, pronounced aloud, or never consciously heard them. They sounded familiar. But all of a sudden I realized it was some kind of interesting, moving, powerful cadence
GP: You must have been to a service.
Ginsberg: Yes. But I never noticed or heard or consciously heard it, as I said.
GP: But you have said it, though.
Ginsberg: No, I've never said it. I don't read Hebrew I wasn't Bar Mitzvahed. And I was kicked out of Hebrew school for asking questions. I don't know.
GP: Were you being sentimental when you named it "Kaddish"?
Ginsberg: No, 'cause I used the basic rhythm of the Kaddish and I quoted the Kaddish.
GP: But you said you didn't know it.
Ginsberg: I heard it that morning. Someone read it to me that morning.
GP: The morning you wrote the poem?
Ginsberg: Yeah, when I started writing it, or that evening. About 3 A.M. And I was impressed by the cadence and the rhythm and the depth of the sound, as it says in the very opening line, "reading the Kaddish aloud . . . the rhythm the rhythm - and your memory in my head three years after." It says exactly what it was. Mixed with "Ray Charles blues shout blind on the phonograph." With a similar rhythm, by the way. "I got a woman, yes indeed."
GP: So -
Ginsberg: A sort of repeated cadence that was right, like Ray Charles or the Kaddish.
GP: So you're inspired bY that prayer, you're inspired by music, by the rhythm of the music What about the image, though?
Ginsberg: What's the image? Which one?
GP: Williams and the emphasis on -
Ginsberg: Minute particular details. Now the phrase that I am thinking of is "minute particulars." Do you know that phrase? Do you know where that's from?
GP: "Minute particulars."
Ginsberg: Yes. "Labor well the minute particulars Take care of the lit tie ones." That's from William Blake's "Jerusalem" Little ones, the little details And Kerouac says, "Details are the life of prose." And Pound says, "The natural object is the adequate symbol." And Trungpa says, "Things are symbols of themselves."
GP: Well let me ask you this
Ginsberg: So the image comes from, or the image is related to the following idea. If you want to give a mirror of your consciousness and you become aware of your consciousness, conscious awareness manifests itself sacramentally in the quality of the attention to clear-seeing focus on chance, minute, particular details that present themselves with charismatic vividness to author and to reader.
GP: You do both that and hear music also? Simultaneously?
Ginsberg: No. You have a picture in your mind, as Pound points out, in "Chinese Written Language as a Medium for Poetry," published by City Lights now. The Chinese is interesting as a poetic language because it consists in little pictographs. So you can't be vague and talk about beauty. You have to talk about something concrete and process. At the same time, the language has got a sonorous aspect or sound or vocal sound, so you hear it in your head sometimes. Sometimes you make the language up out of the picture. Sometimes the language itself has its own melodic part that comes up by itself. Like the other day I got up off the toilet, and I said, "That was good, that was great, that was important. And stood up to pull the chain. And I heard myself saying that, and I noticed I had said that, and I said, that's fairly interesting, that's like a haiku. How many syllables was that? "That was good, that was great, that was important!" That's eleven syllables.
GP: Maybe twelve.
Ginsberg: Ending on the twelfth. "That was good, that was great, that was important!" No, that's eleven. "Standing up to pull the chain" adds another six, so that's seventeen all together. So, okay, I noticed the situation, that there was the visual element, standing to pull the chain, the picture there, and there was what ran in my mind, so the picture gave the context for the interior utterance.
GP: Okay, so the picture can sometimes inspire the music.
Ginsberg: Not inspire! No, no, no! I hear you using that word over and over again, abusing it, using it out of its meaning. You're making it into oatmeal.
GP: How would you say it? The picture induces?
Ginsberg: The picture originates the poem or the origin or the flash. You flash on a picture, and you write it down. Or you flash on something you say to yourself, and you write it down.
GP: And sometimes that can have music.
Ginsberg: You can hear a tune. But the words "That was good, that was great, that was important!" have a rhythm. (Demonstration of rhythm.) That has its own cadence, you know what it's saying and the rhythm of the sounds are both the same.
GP: It's not metrical obviously.
Ginsberg: It is metrical. (Demonstration of rhythm.) That's a meter. That's an old classic Greek meter.
GP: Anapest? Short, short long?
Ginsberg: It's an anapest. Ta ta ta ta-ta. One, two, three, four, five. There's a Greek rhythm that is a four beat rhythm or a four syllable rhythm. I don't know what its called, maybe dithyrambic or something.
GP: Do you know Greek?
Ginsberg: No, but I know some of the Greek rhythms.
GP: You're the prototype, I guess it's a stereotype, of the free verse poet, but you're saying you hear meters.
Ginsberg: Yes, sure I hear meters. My father was a poet, it's a family business, and I grew up with a facility for rhyme and stanza from when I was very young, without even trying. I know yards and yards of poetry, like Edgar Allen Poe's "Bells" or Vachel Lindsay's "Congo," poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay and Elinor Wylie.
GP: But didn't you, I mean you've said many times you had to go beyond that in order to write "Howl" and "Kaddish."
Ginsberg: Well, naturally, you know, but the point is those forms are appropriate, they're called lyric poetry or the shorter forms which have short stanzas, they're called lyric poetry. Now, what is the root of the word lyric?
GP: Song, isn't it?
Ginsberg: No, no. Think. What is the root, literally, of the word lyric? What instrument?
Ginsberg: Right, right! And what was a lyre? It was a stringed instrument played by Homer or Sappho or the early poets, the Muse's lyre. So it's just like Bob Dylan or something, a stringed instrument, where you sing to stanza with rhyme and you have a melody that revolves around itself and has a recurrence, right? So because the melody has a recurrence, you therefore have a recurrence, a cadence for the stanza, and you use rhyme. When you stop using the stringed instrument and just write the form without the music, then it begins to degenerate and lose its muscularity and its variety and its syncopation. So when I came in 1950, people were trying to write those lyric stanzas, but without music. And that was the complaint that Pound and Williams had. And so historically - and also Whitman - so they moved away from a fake lyric, that is to say a half-assed lyric that did not have the musical accompaniment, but just spoken language, but arranged as if it were a song. They moved away to the use of living language rather than a dead form and began rewriting the idea of rhythm and measure. And so Williams had the idea of an American measure rather than the old English lyric, which was being imitated in the twenties by Edwin Arlington Robinson and Elinor Wylie and Sara Teasdale and Edna St. Vincent Millay and all the minor poets of that time. He moved out into trying to isolate the rhythms of actual speaking and that led to my own generation of projective verse, writing in the living speech rather than in an imitation of an older English cadence. It didn't mean that there wasn't rhythm, it meant that the rhythms were the rhythms that you heard in speech, like "da dada da da dada dada." It didn't mean that there wasn't rhythm. That's a rhythm.
GP: Frost supposedly hears a meter. There's meter in Frost as well as the rhythm. "Something there is that doesn't love a wall."
Ginsberg: Okay, that's a metronomic meter, where it's recurrent. But you know, the classic meters of Greece were much more varied than the four or five, four usually, used in English. We have lamb, trochee, dactyl, and anapest.
Ginsberg: And that's usually the range. Spondees are used less, but they come in. So now there are the two syllable and three syllable meters. We have mostly the lamb and the trochee, but then there's also molossos, the three syllable meters. "Oh, good God!" Da da da. Or there is the bacchius meter, "Is God love? Believe me." Dada da, dada da. Then there are four syllable meters, like, oh, insistently. Dadadada dadadada dadadada dadadada. Insistently, insistently, insistently. Or the ionic A minor, which is "in the twilight" dadadada dadadada dadadada. Or delightfully, delightfully, delightfully. That's the second ionic. Or the epitritus primus, "your sweet blue eyes," "I hate your guts." So then there's the epitritus secundus, "Bite the big nut," dadadada, or "Give her a dime" dadadada. And then there are the five syllable ones. "I bit off his nose," da da da dada. Or the dulcimaic, which Hart Crane used, "Lo, lord, thou ridest!" Bom bom dadada. "Fall fruits and flowers." That's Ben Jonson. Dom dom dadada. Those were the ones we used as the climax of Greek plays, with the revelation of the moment. Bom bom dadada.
GP: So there's a lot more, you're saying, than the simple two syllable foot.
Ginsberg: So, and they could use these different feet like a Leggo set and could build very various musicality, complex musical things, like Sappho? You know the Sapphic stanza?
GP: No, I don't know much about it.
Ginsberg: You know the the rhythm of it.
Ginsberg: Trochee, trochee, dactyl, trochee, trochee. Trochee, trochee, dactyl, trochee, trochee. Trochee, trochee, dactyl, trochee, trochee. Dactyl, trochee. (Demonstration of rhythm.)
GP: So the first line of "Howl" -
Ginsberg: No, I wasn't thinking of that, but I was so trained and I had all those in my bones. But the one that pointed out to me, many years later, that the Moloch section (demonstration of rhythm), "Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows," was Ed Sanders, who's trained in classical prosody and versification. Then I got interested in what the names of these were.
GP: Let me ask you something else.
Ginsberg: Yes, well that's what you're doing.
GP: Have you ever considered yourself a Jewish poet?
Ginsberg: Yeah, I am a Jewish poet. I'm Jewish.
GP: You are? You surprise me.
Ginsberg: I'm Jewish. My name is Ginsboig. I wrote a book called Kaddish.
GP: No, that's great!
Ginsberg: My last book has a long poem called "Why I'm Jewish.
GP: I'll have to take a look. I've got it.
Ginsberg: It's called "Yiddishe Kopf."
GP: Cosmopolitan Greetings?
Ginsberg: Yeah. "Yiddishe Kopf."
GP: I'll have to look it up. So you're a Jewish poet.
Ginsberg: I'm also a gay poet.
GP: I know that.
Ginsberg: I'm also a New Jersey poet.
GP: You're a Buddhist poet.
Ginsberg: And I'm a Buddhist poet. And also I'm an academic poet, and also I'm a beatnik poet, I'm an international poet, -
GP: What was the Jewish influence? Your mother, essentially?
Ginsberg: No. My mother, my father, my grandparents were all Jewish. My whole family is Jewish and that's just the whole thing in my bones.
GP: What about the Bible? Did that influence you?
Ginsberg: Yeah, I read a lot of the Bible, sure. I read it all through, a number of times. But you know, like I know wherever the golden bow be broken and the silver cord be loosed wheel be broken at the cistern and so forth.
GP: Is there a cadence -
Ginsberg: The cadences of Ecclesiastes and the Psalms. The Song of Songs.
GP: And you probably get some inspiration from the parallelism of the Hebrew prophets.
Ginsberg: Oh, of course. But also, you know, indirectly. One of my great models as a poet, or for me a great model, is Christopher Smart.
GP: Right, "Jubilate Agno."
Ginsberg: Right. And he was a fantastic translator of the Bible, of Hebrew.
GP: Of psalms?
Ginsberg: Of psalms and everything like that. And his "Jubilate Agno" - I don't know if you've seen my annotated "Howl"?
GP: I have, yeah.
Ginsberg: Well, at the end you'll find a selection from Smart.
GP: That's right. I remember that.
Ginsberg: If you'll notice, it's done in the parallelisms of the Bible. And my own verse line in "Howl" and elsewhere is drawn from that. The Bible via Smart, as well as the Bible itself that I'm familiar with. You know, my father was a poet and so all this stuff, the Song of Songs, was part of the family heritage.
GP: Are being Jewish and being gay connected in any way? I mean, being oppressed?
Ginsberg: I've known gay Jews. Who was it, David and Johathan? I mean, that's an old business. What is it, Jesus and young John?
GP: Here's a chance to talk about the present. Because I started out interviewing Stanley Kunitz and Carl Rakosi, who are in their nineties.
Ginsberg: Yeah, marvelous people. Rakosi, I love. I love Rakosi.
GP: Well, I was in Maine and I talked to him a lot. I was in Maine when he did that reading with you.
Ginsberg: And I saw him last summer at Naropa.
GP: And I interviewed him in December in San Francisco, and he's great.
Ginsberg: I think he is our greatest poet, Jewish or non-Jewish.
GP: He told me you like Reznikoff even more.
Ginsberg: No, I like both.
GP: It's good that you like him.
Ginsberg: I think Rakosi - you know, his Collected Poems is a great volume. GP: Yeah, I have that. I got it in Maine. I really fell in love with it. Ginsberg: Did you think I liked Reznikoff more?
GP: Well, Rakosi said that. He said that when I saw him in San Francisco.
Ginsberg: I discovered him earlier.
GP: But he hasn't gotten enough attention.
Ginsberg: He got a lot from me.
GP: Most of the attention has gone to the other Objectivists: Zukofsky and Oppen.
Ginsberg: Well, fortunately we pay a lot of attention to him at Naropa.
GP: That's great.
Ginsberg: And in Maine.
GP: Are you going to go to Maine again?
Ginsberg: I won't be able to this summer. It's there when I'm in Naropa.
GP: I was there, I talked to you a lot. I'm going to England this time. Ginsberg: What's your business?
GP: I teach creative writing and I write poetry and criticism.
GP: At Wright State University in Dayton.
GP: Wright State University in Dayton.
Ginsberg: I think I've been there.
GP: Yeah, well, you were at the University of Dayton. You were with a poet named Herb Martin.
Ginsberg: Long ago.
GP: A long time ago.
Ginsberg: Where is he now?
GP: He's still there. He's become famous for his reading of Paul Laurence Dunbar.
Ginsberg: He's doing Dunbar's work.
GP: Right, he's doing a lot of that. Well let me ask you another line of questions. Let's go on. Does maturity give you any kind of new, fresh perspective?
Ginsberg: Look at my new poems. Cosmopolitan Greetings is all about that. There's one particular poem, but you know there are lots of poems about being a senior citizen in there.
GP: Yeah. That's right.
Ginsberg: But there's one particular poem that begins, "At 66 just learning how to take care of my body." Do you know that?
GP: I've got it right in front of me. I'll look at it.
Ginsberg: Hold on. I'll get it.
GP: The one I really like is the one where you've got the photograph.
Ginsberg: "May Days."
GP: And then you've got all the details about the apartment. There's great concentration of imagery, the minute particulars.
Ginsberg: Yeah, that's a good one. That was translated, incidentally, into Hebrew by Natan Zach, a Hebrew poet.
GP: Did you take the picture? "May Days 1988" with the New York Times on the window sill.
Ginsberg: The new book has similar stuff, a thing called "Charnel Ground," which is going out the window and looking around at the neighborhood. Anyway, there's a poem called "Autumn Leaves."
GP: It's also in Cosmopolitan Greetings?
Ginsberg: "Autumn Leaves."
GP: All right. How does one face death? You've written poems about death.
Ginsberg: Every poet does. Shelley did when he was twenty-seven. Keats did when he was twenty-four.
GP: Does poetry help?
Ginsberg: Yes. I think poetry helps because you imagine your death, and you begin to blueprint and plan and realize mortality and then after awhile you become consciously aware of the fact that mortality is limited and then you begin to appreciate living more. As well as appreciate the great adventure of dying and then realize that it is part of the vast process and an occasion for lamentation and rejoicing and everything. The whole thing comes together. It's the great subject. Because, you know, without death there's no life. Without life there's no death.
GP: So, sort of like "death is the mother of beauty."
Ginsberg: I think in "Kaddish" I said, "death is the mother of the universe."
GP: What about love?
Ginsberg: Weft, what about it?
GP: That's not as big? Okay.
Ginsberg: I think above death and above love, I would say, in a poem I did say, awareness encompasses love, death, and everything.
GP: Awareness of mortality?
Ginsberg: No. Awareness itself. Conscious awareness. It leads to, encompasses compassion, love, and awareness of death.
GP: What has poetry taught you about language, words?
Ginsberg: I don't know. What have words taught me about poetry? You could say that's the same thing.
GP: Well, how about it?
Ginsberg: It taught me not to bullshit. It taught me not to indulge in abstract language which is undefined, but to try and nail down any generalization with a "for instance." You know, like "give me a for instance." So it taught me that. "No ideas but in things," as Williams says. Or "The natural object is always the adequate symbol," says Pound. And again, I'll repeat, as Trungpa said, "Things are symbols of themselves."
GP: Okay. I like that.
Ginsberg: That's a great one.
GP: I believe in all that. It's just that it's all being challenged today.
Ginsberg: By whom?
GP: The Language poets.
Ginsberg: Well, they're saying that language is language. A word is a word.
GP: But it doesn't symbolize anything. It's just a nonsense sound.
Ginsberg: No, they're saying that it actually - there are conditions. Their angle on symbolization is something different, that the conditioning, the social conditioning is built into the use of the word. That the social conditioning outweighs the visual or the auditory meaning.
GP: Well, they deconstruct or break down all the syntax and the meaning and you end up with nothing but sound.
Ginsberg: But the purpose of the deconstruction was to break down the social conditioning associated with the sounds.
GP: Right. And then you end up breaking down poetry, I think, as well.
Ginsberg: Ah, I wouldn't worry about poetry. Poetry can take it. And sometimes it's interesting, like Burroughs's cut up aspect was very interesting. A deconditioning to conditioned language. A whole way of inventing new, interesting phrases like "wind hand caught in the door" which is a by-product of Burroughs's cut-ups. "Wind hand caught in the door."
GP: Your poetry always makes sense to me. I mean you don't seem to try to distort -
Ginsberg: Well, I try, and you know, I'm out of Williams. I come from the Williams lineage and Kerouac. Kerouac wrote spontaneously and wrote nonsense, but there was always this basic theme. Burroughs cut up his stuff, but there was always this basic theme. No matter how you cut it up, it's still Burroughs talking about authoritarian hypnosis from the state.
GP: And you can always see that?
Ginsberg: Yeah. It comes through no matter how you cut up his works.
GP: Because when I read these language poets, it's more like Gertrude Stein. I don't know what they're talking about.
Ginsberg: Stein is interesting in her own way, you know what I mean? Have you ever heard her record?
Ginsberg: There's a Caedmon record of Stein, and if you hear her once you really get the idea what she was after. Williams told me that she had one specific simple thing and it was really great and you know, if you get that then you get something. An inimitable voice. Speaking voice. A Yiddish voice, too.
GP: A Yiddish voice. Not Stein! What place do you most identify with, in other words, what physical location, like Jersey or -
Ginsberg: Living Lower East Side, probably.
GP: Have you lived there much of your life, even though you've traveled all over the world?
Ginsberg: Well, I've had this one apartment where I am now for twenty-one years.
GP: I didn't know that.
Ginsberg: And then before that I had - see, my mother, when she came to America, moved to about a mile from here on Orchard and Rivington. That was her first place of residence. Then they moved to Newark. So Orchard-Rivington is about a mile from where I am now.
GP: So it's really your roots.
Ginsberg: So, I'm really back where my mother's family - my father's family came to New York and then Newark. But before I lived here, I moved here in '75, I lived for five years or so on East 10th Street, a couple blocks away. And before that on East 2nd Street in the sixties. And in the fifties, where I took all those photographs, early photographs of Burroughs and Kerouac, that's East 7th Street.
GP: You wrote a powerful poem about being mugged. It must have been down in one of those neighborhoods.
Ginsberg: That was in 1972 on 10th Street, when I was living there. Two blocks from here.
GP: And where are you now?
Ginsberg: East 12th Street.
GP: In the Village?
Ginsberg: East Village. Lower East Side.
GP: If you could do it again, what would you do differently, if anything?
Ginsberg: There's a certain guy I was in love with when I was young who invited me to bed and I was too shy, because I was in the closet. And I've always regretted it. And I wrote a poem about it. I wrote about it in Sapphic verse. In Mindbreaths, something like that. One of the books. It's in my Collected Poems - 1978 or so.
GP: Helen Vendler sort of surprisingly to me wrote very warmly of you, I think, in her anthology.
Ginsberg: Yeah, I was surprised.
GP: Right, I was surprised.
Ginsberg: She likes me and Snyder and she has no reaction at all to Creeley or Corso or Kerouac's poetry or anyone else.
GP: Maybe it was another critic I was reading, and she talks about what must have been the great difficulty for you, especially as a young Jewish man being gay. I thought that was a sensitive remark.
Ginsberg: I didn't think it was that difficult, you know? I was in the closet until I was about seventeen. But then I had such nice company, with Kerouac and Burroughs, who were themselves so far out and Burroughs was gay. Kerouac was very straight, but none the less -
GP: He wasn't gay or bisexual?
Ginsberg: I wouldn't say so.
GP: What about Neal Cassady, whom you're always writing about?
Ginsberg: Cassady was a lady's man, but he was sort of pan-sexual. I made out with him, but I was one of the few people he made out with. Maybe he hustled as a younger kid, as a young orphan.
GP: In a sense, you always had a family.
Ginsberg: Yeah. I had my regular family. I was pretty close. And also an alternative family.
GP: I mean a family of brothers. Because I've thought over the years that poets like Roethke and Berryman and Lowell, they were alone, even though they were straight.
Ginsberg: They did have that community. Berryman, Lowell, they were all part of that southern agrarian second generation, from Ransom and Robert Penn Warren and Allen Tate. But the people who were their elders were such puritanical, such mean people, like Allen Tate was an alcoholic, and he kept putting down Hart Crane for being gay, and drank himself to death. Or drank too much.
GP: I think he smoked too much, too.
Ginsberg: Or smoked. And then I remember when Big Table was going to have a post-Christian issue, they invited him and Burroughs and myself and others to contribute, and he said he wouldn't appear in a magazine with Burroughs. So what kind of model is that for those guys? No wonder they didn't have a sense of family. Sort of intolerant snobs.
GP: Well, I think in certain ways maybe it worked for you to have those people you mentioned.
Ginsberg: Yeah. The funny part was that I had also connections with that Kenyon Review crowd through Lionel Trilling.
GP: Now, when you say Kenyon Review crowd, you don't mean Ransom and -
Ginsberg: Yes, I knew Ransom later, but Trilling was one of the major icons of the Partisan Review.
GP: Were you published in the Kenyon Review?
Ginsberg: No. Yes, later on, yes. It's now under the hands of a lesbian editoress.
GP: I don't think she is editor anymore. I know whom you mean, Marilyn Hacker?
Ginsberg: Yeah. She's a nice girl. Nice woman.
GP: What is the most amazing thing about life?
Ginsberg: Oh, the fact that it's here at all, and that it disappears.
GP: What's the most amazing thing about your life?
Ginsberg: I'm pretty dumb, quite stupid in a way. Even backward. I don't know how I got where I am now, to be like a kind of great poet of some kind. And I don't understand how it happened.
GP: Well, from what you told me at the beginning, it had to do with breath.
Ginsberg: Breath, but also the other quality was because I ran into Kerouac and Burroughs when I was sixteen and seventeen. I suddenly realized how provincial and dumb I was, and I resolved, rather than asserting myself constantly and arguing and being argumentative, which would have been my normal nature, I should shut up and listen and learn something. So I always took a kind of back seat and listened to my elders. I always had teachers and gurus, you know, from the very beginning. So actually I learned a lot from other people and had the quality of attention, to listen to Burroughs and serve him, in a way. You know, like work with him and be his amanuensis or his agent or work with him and encourage him and listen to him and do what I could to make his life workable, and I learned a lot that way. And I have relations, had relations like that with Chogyam Trungpa, the Tibetan lama, and Gelek Rinpoche right now, since Trungpa died, a Tibetan lama. And so I've always had teachers and I've always listened to them. And I think that's really delivered me to some kind of workable, practical self-confidence.
GP: But you wrote "Howl," no one else did. I think that's what made you famous.
Ginsberg: Yeah, but you know, I was trying to imitate Kerouac.
GP: That's interesting.
Ginsberg: I was a student of Kerouac's, Kerouac broke ground, and I moved in on that territory. And he said, "You guys," me and Gary Snyder, "you guys call yourselves poets. I'm a poet, too, except that my verse line is longer than yours. I write verses that are two pages long!" Like the opening sentences in The Subterranians. Which are beautiful, poetic sentences, you know.
GP: He was the key influence, then.
Ginsberg: Yeah. I would say him and Burroughs. He was the key vocal influence or verbal, and Burroughs the key intellectual.
GP: And then, of course, as everyone's written about, also Blake and Pound and Whitman and Williams.
Ginsberg: Well, I had a good education, I had a regular Columbia education, but I also had the advantage of an education through Kerouac and Burroughs and the books they suggested, but also through my father, who was very well cultivated in poetry.
GP: And wrote in a very, very traditional lyric style.
Ginsberg: Yeah, well, you know, he would stomp around the house, not stomp, walk around the house reciting Milton and Shakespeare and Poe, "The Bells," "The Raven," "Annabell Lee." I memorized those when I was a kid. When I was eight years old I could recite a lot of "The Bells."
GP: Your parents are in the poem "Kaddish," which to me is probably the most powerful one. Did Naomi actually speak about the key in the window?
Ginsberg: Yes, she did speak. No. After she died, a day or so after I got a telegram saying she was dead, I got a letter from her that had been posted just before she died of a stroke. And I'm quoting that letter, yeah.
GP: And then that wonderful talk in there, that Yiddish talk, where she's talking about soup. That's pretty much what she sounded like?
Ginsberg: She likes lentil soup. That's literal. Now that I look back, I said, how come she said that? How come I didn't ask her what she meant? That I wasn't more persistent. It was so vivid but I was a little shy of pursuing the subject. For fear that she was completely nuts rather than discovering that she had a good sense of humor.
GP: You put more of the personal into that poem than just about anyone I can think of. I mean of that kind of material. And your father comes off, to me, as a very sad man.
Ginsberg: In that poem.
GP: But he wasn't that sad?
Ginsberg: Then, but a little later on he and I read a lot together and we got closer and closer. We went to Europe together, and he blessed me on his deathbed, and I blessed him.
GP: He remarried, I gather, at some point.
Ginsberg: He remarried a very nice woman who was a very good influence on him, and brought us together quite well, and just had her ninetieth birthday this week.
GP: A Jewish woman?
Ginsberg: Yeah, yeah, Edith Ginsberg. She just survived, at the age of eighty-nine, two valve transplants. A pig valve and a sheep valve, so she says, joking, she's no longer kosher.
GP: Let me ask you one -
Ginsberg: I don't know if you know this, about a little film, The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg?
GP: I saw it.
Ginsberg: She's in there. Very nice.
GP: I'd have to see it again. I saw it in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Have you ever been to Yellow Springs, Antioch College?
Ginsberg: Yeah, sure. Long ago, though.
GP: I saw it there. It was too short, almost.
Ginsberg: Well, enough for me. But mainly family oriented, in a way.
GP: How do you see your place in American poetry?
Ginsberg: Well, I have a poem called "Ego Confessions," which is sort of like a grandiose vision. Take a look at that. Because I want to be known as the most intelligent man in America. Worst case scenario of megalomania. But the whole point of poetry is not to be afraid of worst case neurosis, but to reveal it, go right into the wind rather than being afraid of admitting it.
GP: Well, you certainly showed us that.
Ginsberg: So I'd like to be remembered as someone who advanced, actually advanced the notion of compassion in open heart, open form poetry, continuing the tradition of Whitman and Williams. And part of the honorific aspect of the whole beat generation.
GP: You seem to have accomplished a lot of that.
Ginsberg: Well, not really, because you know my major poems that we're talking about are banned from the air, from radio and television now, with a law suggested by Jesse Helms. He directed the FCC to ban all so-called indecent language off the air, I think it's between 6 A.M. and 10 P.M. And the Supreme Court just affirmed that by refusing to hear our appeal. And that's just been extended to Internet. So it may be that the text of "Howl" or "Please Master" or "Kaddish" or "Sunflower Sutra" will be soon inadmissible on Internet because of foul language that might offend the ears of minors. So the right wing is reimposing the same kind of censorship on the electronic media that we overthrew in the written, printed media '58 to '62.
GP: That was the famous Berkeley trial?
Ginsberg: Yeah. Well, that, and also the trials of Henry Miller, D. H. Lawrence, Jean Genet, up to Naked Lunch in 1962, which liberated literature.
GP: So, we're back there.
Ginsberg: No, on a more grand, international scale, we're back with censorship in the electronic world, but not in the written book world.
GP: Are we at the end of the long journey of poetry, then?
Ginsberg: What do you mean?
GP: I mean - let's put it this way. What can a late twentieth-century poet, given what you've just told me about Jesse Helms and all that, what can a late twentieth-century poet hope to accomplish?
Ginsberg: Oh, the poetry doesn't depend on electronic media. You could pull all those plugs and it wouldn't affect poetry. Or plug them all in. Poetry is an individual thing that gets around by word of mouth. It's an oral tradition, as well as a written, printed tradition, as well as a spoken tradition. So it'll get around. Anything really good will get around.
GP: You have that faith.
Ginsberg: Well, it's experience. I mean, when "Howl" was on trial, I didn't care one way or the other. Well, I mean, I cared, but I realized if I lose the trial, I'll be a big hero and everybody will want to read my book. If I win, I'll be a big hero and everybody will want to read my book. All the police did was do me a big favor by publicizing my poetry. They always do that. They're so dumb. Like, do you think Mapplethorpe would be so famous if it weren't for Jesse Helms trying to quash him or something. It's amazing!
GP: Well, they made you famous.
Ginsberg: They made Mapplethorpe famous. They're going to make Michelangelo famous when they start censoring his statues of Bacchus or the Slaves. They're already censoring his David.
GP: Oh, you're kidding me.
Ginsberg: Yeah, you can't put that on the Internet, because its got a big dick that minors might see. Frontal nudity. (Laughter.) So they just make people more conscious of the censorship and of the restrictions and of the mentality and mindset and then they'll cause a counter-reaction.
GP: One base we haven't touched: How has Buddhism helped you?
Ginsberg: Oh, it's made me more aware of the fact that everything can be done 'twixt earnest and joke. Things are completely real and simultaneously and without any contradiction, they are also completely empty and unreal. Just like a dream.
Ginsberg: Both at once. Without contradiction, i.e., a dream is real while you're dreaming but when you wake up it vanishes. There's no inherent permanence. Life is real while you're alive, but then when you die, it vanishes. It has no inherent permanence. So it's like - so it's real, but it also simultaneously has that aspect. One aspect is the reality, the other aspect is the transitoriness or mutability, as Shelley said.
GP: And you see both?
Ginsberg: Well, everybody sees both. So it's the ability to see both simultaneously that gives life its sort of charisma and glamour and workability. You're never stuck. There's no permanent Hell. There's no permanent Heaven.
GP: So that liberates you.
Ginsberg: Sure! It liberates you from the nightmare of thinking, "Oh god, I'm stuck, I'm gonna die, blah, blab, blah."
GP: You're not afraid?
Ginsberg: What's there to be afraid of? It's like being in a dream and realizing it's a dream, so then you're not afraid anymore.
GP: And where do you end up? In the dream, just an extension of the dream?
Ginsberg: Well, you end up waking up somewhere else. I guess. Or maybe you don't wake up. Maybe you just go to sleep and that's the end of it.
GP: Maybe that wouldn't be so bad.
Ginsberg: Well, have you ever been in a dentist's chair with nitrous oxide?
Ginsberg: Have you ever been put out? Okay, so what's the last thing you hear? Or what's the last sense that disappears? To me, it was sound. The music, the Muzak. So what if the last thing to go is the end of the symphony? Like, the pain is gone, physical feeling is gone, sight is gone, taste is gone, smell is gone, the only thing left is sound. The sound is the music, then you hear the last note of the symphony and -
GP: Well that's a nice one. But then there's all the folks during the Holocaust who were butchered every second by the Nazis.
Ginsberg: Yeah, but on the other hand, the last thing they heard was the sound of a scream and then the scream ended. And there was nice, peaceful -
GP: Let's hope.
Ginsberg: Well, unless they were reborn. Do you think they went to hell or something?
GP: I don't believe that.
Ginsberg: They wouldn't have gone to hell. Do you think they went to heaven?
GP: I don't think so.
Ginsberg: I don't think there's a heaven. So therefore where did they go? They certainly went to a peaceful place.
GP: I hope so.
Ginsberg: Well, where else?
GP: I think you're right!
Ginsberg: Can you imagine anywhere else? Can you even imagine someplace that wasn't peaceful?
GP: I'm Jewish. I'll have to go with that.
Ginsberg: The Sheol, or maybe Sheol.
GP: Sheol. Okay.
Ginsberg: The Buddhists might give the worst case, that they get reborn to go through it all over again. Reborn as Nazis. Reborn in Israel and persecuting the Palestinians.
GP: That would be hell.
Ginsberg: Okay. I gotta stop.
Gary Pacernick has published several poetry volumes and critical texts and edited David Ignatow's letters. From 1976 to 1990, he edited Images. He is professsor of English at Wright State University.