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Spontaneous Mind: Selected Interviews, 1958-1996.

Spontaneous Mind: Selected Interviews, 1958-1996, by Allen Ginsberg. Edited by David Carter. Introduction by Edmund White. HarperCollins, 603 pages, $40.00.

Who could--and would--tell you how author William S. Burroughs ejaculated? Who croaked the verses of William Blake on a thousand campuses and saw in William F. Buckley, Jr., "a future Buddha"? Only Allen Ginsberg, holy and horny, our dear, dirty old poet-celebrity.

From censorship battles over Howl, his first book, in 1956, until his death four decades later, Ginsberg was a busy, public-spirited artist. "It's true I don't want to join the Army or turn lathes in precision parts factories," he confessed in an early poem. "I'm nearsighted and psychopathic anyway." But his address to the nation ended patriotically enough, with a vow: "America, I'm putting my queer shoulder to the wheel."

Ginsberg made that effort look less like laboring than flowering--40 years of opening up to his enthusiasms: poetic improvisation, homosexuality, free love, free speech, psychedelic drugs, teaching, pacifism, ecology, Buddhism. When paradoxes surfaced, he danced among them. Ginsberg died of liver cancer four years ago, but the range of his elastic consciousness has snapped back to life in Spontaneous Mind, a vibrant collection of 35 interviews he gave between 1958 and 1996.

For someone this quick and verbally bounteous, interviews were the perfect medium, halfway between conversation and composition, instant karma for a pedagogue's ego. Ginsberg seems to have been always ON. Never does he fail to reply. Never does he say, "I don't remember," or "Gee, I've just not thought about that" It's as if he'd been waiting for someone to ask every question, and the answers spring out, tender and outrageous. In Gay Sunshine magazine, for example, Ginsberg refuses to glorify homosexuality alone or to draw a righteous line: "The point is that nobody's straight. It's like calling someone a pig." To another questioner's suggestion that Ginsberg and fellow beat poets had recently been "teaching verse-writing skills" at a Canadian university, he retorts: "We didn't teach verse-writing skills. We were all emotionally bankrupt and went around weeping and asking the students for love."

His simultaneous careers as writer, activist, performer, and teacher blossomed just as the interview genre began to pervade American media. The Paris Review published the first of its long interviews with authors in 1953. Playboy magazine started its interview feature in 1962, with Miles Davis. Buckley's televised jousts on Firing Line began in 1966. Spontaneous Mind includes Ginsberg's appearances in all of these forums as well as many more serendipitous and narrowly focused discussions. Editor David Carter provides a brief, illuminating introduction to each interview, with news of the day and, in many cases, recollections of the interviewers themselves.

In a culture more and more mesmerized by celebrity, Ginsberg was a delicious source. Unfailingly, he delivered both his own voluble star-power and an almost adolescent bedazzlement with personal heroes: Jack Kerouac, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams. He had known them all--even William Blake, whom Ginsberg claims to have met in a vision. He befriended most of the leading literary and artistic men of his day: At Columbia in the 1940s he had studied with Mark Van Doren, Jacques Barzun, and the great art historian Meyer Schapiro. His intersecting social circles included--among many others--Langston Hughes, Celine, photographer Robert Frank, Paul McCartney, and the Clash. Long before Jerry Springer or Crossfire, Ginsberg was eager to disclose sexual secrets and froth with worship.

He had been there at most of the tribal turning points of late-twentieth-century bohemia, turning on to LSD with Ken Kesey, taking part in San Francisco's Human Be-in, battling to defend Lenny Bruce, and touring with Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue. In 1965, after defiant students in Prague elected him King of the May, authorities expelled Ginsberg from Czechoslovakia. At the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, he chanted to calm antiwar protesters and later was called as a witness at the Chicago Seven trial. (Carter includes the transcript of his testimony.) To any interviewer, Ginsberg could offer both firsthand accounts of these events and, later, critical reflection.

Looking back on Chicago, for example, he reproached the New Left. "I think all of our activity in the late sixties may have prolonged the Vietnam War," he told New Age Journal in 1976. Ginsberg never would support the movement's violent turn nor what he called its "apocalyptic purity desire," its unwillingness to compromise. "It may have been the refusal of the left to vote for Humphrey that gave us Nixon." Wouldn't some Nader supporter you know enjoy this book?

For this reader, many of the finest passages are Ginsberg's explanations of literary innovation. He describes how, from nineteenth-century verse forms "frozen into the ice of stress count," Walt Whitman "opened up the line entirely. He started thinking in kitchen speech terms." Whitman's long lines were drawn, Ginsberg says, from "an older oral bardic tradition as in the Bible." And as he does so often and so well, Ginsberg recites from memory, this time helping us hear the same balanced phrasing in "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want" and "I celebrate myself and sing myself, and what I assume you shall assume." Ginsberg makes plain how this revolution in prosody was carried forward by Pound, Williams, Marianne Moore, and, ultimately, Kerouac, whose spontaneous style of writing becomes for him the apogee of truth in artistry: a rendering of consciousness with all its burps and flutters.

Even those who don't share Ginsberg's poetic taste will be gratified by the clarity of his explanations and, likely, swayed by his argument: that, as writers broke away from the old math of iambic pentameter, "all these practical emotions that had been piling up for an industrial century suddenly got released into the poetry, ... all the perceptions of pollution and household emotions that never could fit in exactly before"--a new American poetry of steeplejacks and wheelbarrows.

Through the years, Ginsberg's public persona became less messianic. Approached as "a spiritual leader" by one ardent interviewer, he replies: "Anybody who comes along breathing in his belly who doesn't have any particular idea of who he is, just exists, probably is a holy man at this point. It's not very hard to be a holy man in America anymore." In Buddhism, Ginsberg seems to have found an antidote for righteousness, room for his wandering mind, and steady breezes for an overheated ego.

By the mid-1970s, his politics, too, had changed, "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" By 1976, Ginsberg said he was working to "find some basis for the reconstruction of a humanly useful society, based mainly on a less attached, less apocalyptic view." In his last two decades, he poured tremendous energy into founding and sustaining the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, the first Buddhist-sanctioned college in the West. He continued to teach, to write, and to perform, accompanying himself on the harmonium.

Though he supported women's rights and admired "the feminine" in principle, Ginsberg ran from real-life women. "From childhood on" he acknowledged, "I had been mainly shut off from relationships with women, possibly due to the fact that my own mother was, from my early childhood, in a state of great suffering, frightening to me." Naomi Ginsberg was lobotomized and died in a mental institution in 1956; his great poem "Kaddish" is dedicated to her. Ginsberg's other blind spots are more puzzling. His references to African Americans as "spades" come as a shock, and his ceaseless, shameless hustling of young men will offend some readers.

Still, in his curiosity, commitment, and lavishness, Ginsberg can't help but amaze us. He's so different from the pop stars of today, who handle themselves like heroin--life as superdope to be "measured out in coffee spoons" Are we risking overexposure? Do I dare to eat a peach? Ginsberg saw fame as another kind of resource. He could afford to, drawing as he did from an inexhaustible well: "the heart, which must always be followed because there's no other place to go."

JULIE ARDERY, a sociologist, art critic, and poet, lives in Austin, Texas.
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Title Annotation:Review
Publication:The American Prospect
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 2, 2001
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