The New York Critic: Interviews

Steve Capra's Interview with Allen Ginsberg

Allen Ginsberg was one of the foremost American poets of his generation. Not only did he contribute massively to American letters, he also was a leader in the timeless struggle for intellectual and artistic freedom, as a pacifist, a dissident, and a gay rights activist. He was widely seen as the personification of the 'beat generation' of the 1950's, when his ground-breaking poem Howl was published. He remained an extraordinary cultural influence throughout his life.

Mr. Ginsberg's unfortunate death in 1997 occasioned memorials across the country.

SC: I'm interested not only in your poetry itself but in your reading of your poetry. I was very interested in looking at the notes to 'Holy Soul Jelly Roll' [a set of recordings of Mr. Ginsberg's readings from 1949 to 1993]...
AG: We did quite a bit of work on that.

SC: It suggests that you developed a reading style when you were young. Could you say something about that?

AG: I just developed it because I read so much, and, by hindsight, I began to realize what was happening and enjoyed the unfolding of the ability to read - or the expansion of the ability to read. Early readings were more monotone.

The tradition, actually - the classical tradition - is many tones, as in Shakespeare or in the Greek plays, or in minstrelry, where there's many tones and any pitches. In the nineteenth century, when people lost the living voice, and it was more eye-to-page, it was just a voice in the ear, which is more monotone. And then, when people started giving poetry readings, it turned out to be quite monotonous - and it drove people away, around the early part of the century, with a kind of artificial poetic voice, including an artificial diction.

Poetry in America developed into a kind of eye-to-page, voiceless thing. It was Pound, around the turn of the century, who realized that we were just reusing - or recycling - old English forms of recital - including the monotone form, with the overdramatic monotone, which had a dying fall, or a slight upper lilt. So there were two tones, but that was about it - not as many tones as in real conversation, just as in this last sentence. There's no reason why poetry should be less interesting, musically, than actual talk. So Pound began advising poets - by the thirties - to have the vowels following musical expression. And he was interested in the musicality of the language. He went back to the old Greek classical inflections, where the vowels that rise and fall. So, really, I'm returning it to a more old-fashioned awareness of tone.

SC: Is it possible to appreciate poetry fully without hearing it?

AG: I wonder... Poetry always has had the dimension of sound. In fact, it began as sound, and then it got written down later on - say, Homer. And there are whole areas of poetry which are classical - and perhaps the oldest and most classical, including Australian aborigine, are never written down. The classic Australian aborigine epic material takes forty years for a song-man to learn, and it's not written down - it's by memory, as most poetry was over many years. It's only in the last couple of thousand years that it's written down, and it's only in the last thousand years that it's printed - since the Guttenberg printing presses.

This notion of poetry shifting only to the written is actually just a modern pimple - a modern aberration And it may not be a very durable one if we actually destroy the human substrate with our ecological assault on mother nature. Electricity won't last long, and the libraries and print won't last long. Especially if they transfer everything over to computers - somebody'll pull the plug and the only thing that'll be remembered - or rememberable - is the oral tradition of American blues and Bob Dylan and whatever other oral traditions exist.

So, I think people who miss the sound dimension miss one-third of the poetry. Pound defined poetry as melopia, phenopia, and locopia: melopia, the musicality of a language; phenopia, the casting of an image on the mind's eye; and then locopia, the dance of the intellect among words. But primarily, with the imagists in twentieth-century poetry, it's the picture and then the musicality of the vowels, assonance and what-not - and the biting of consonants, so that it's really clear, as Kerouac's recordings show, or Bob Dylan's sometimes. Lous Zukofsky, a follower of Pound, and an interesting poet, spoke of it as sound, sight, and intellect - same triad. So, sounds - or melodiousness - is one of the three features of poetry, and if you don't hear it aloud, then you might hear an echo of it on the mind's ear, but you don't appreciate it in 3-D.

SC: I'm sure your familiar with poetry slams, and the type of poetry that tends to be recited. Could you say something about that?

AG: Well, there's an element of aggression in it I don't particularly dig - just the very notion of a poetry boxing - slam, you know. I took part in some of the earlier ones, back in Taos, New Mexico, where it was in a boxing ring - and even in New York, in the early seventies, in a boxing ring - Fourteenth Street, just kidding around. But the form of the slam, with a lot of rap in it, is a very ancient form. In the white cultural world, it goes back to the poet laureate of the fourteenth century, John Skelton, and his Skeltonics, which were quick triple and quadruple rhymes with short lines like rap. And the boasting, or aggressive aspect, that goes back to African origins, with the toasts and boasts of the griots - griots, they're sort of like holy, or sacred story-tellers and singers. And the boasting, and maybe insult to the enemy is an old, old, old word-battle tradition - slam tradition, you might say. It was taken up in American in the form of sort of double-talk language to evade white people's understandings, to talk about real issues, on the part of the slaves.

And then it went on to the signifying monkey cycle. Do you know about that? "Oh", said the monkey to the tiger, "What a fine, sunny day. Your mother's blank is blanky, and I'll blank her every way." Generally, it consisted of very obscene insults to one's family - mother, father, sister, brother - and as a kind of imaginative lie on the part of animal contestants in the poetry slam: "the monkey to the tiger". It's called the signifying monkey - he's signifying, or, you know, not quite insulting, but making innuendo. And the key is: you rival each other with the most extreme, obscene insults you can, and the one who gets mad first looses the game. So, the white world has lost the game because it got mad at black rapping.

So, it's an ancient tradition, and people don't understand that. More limited white middle-class audiences are easily swayed by demagogues, who have very little appreciation of other cultures than their own, and would be horrified by some of the images in Tibetan religious culture, or even early Christian culture, or old pagan cultures, or black African religious cultures - or any tradition which isn't approved by Pat Buchanaan, Jesse Helms, the Moral Majority, Christian Coalition, Christian Action Network, and all the rest of the televangelist demagogues, who are really sort of Stalinists, trying to control everybody's mind and suppress minority cultures. Pity they don't like minority culture.

SC: Do you think they will be successful?

AG: Oh, they've already been, I would say. They've already passed a law banning so-called indecent language from being broadcast from six a.m. to midnight, and that was reaffirmed by an appeals court convened in Washington just a few months ago. So that they won a control of what information - poetic information - people receive. So of course it's made a difference, it's homogenized and limited - homogenized communication and limited it to what the corporate, or political - or even Christian monotheist - mind will accept.

SC: Will it go much further?

AG: Oh, I think so. I think if they could, they'd carry it out to concentration camps. Sure. They say so. I don't think it will lead to labor camps, but it'll lead to repressive legislation. In the area of narcotics, it's already led to the overcrowding of prisons. I think America has more prisoners than any other country in the world, and about a third of them are just for marijuana, and most of them are black. And they'd make sexual relations a crime, between men and women. So where can all that lead except to more police state? Most of those people are like Stalinists - they want one chauvinist version of the American ideology.

SC: Can art help - or, more specifically, has your poetry itself had a political effect?

AG: Oh, yes, it's had a sort of liberating effect, because, after all, I'm not making up anything - I'm just being a stenographer with what passes through my mind naturally. And what passes through my mind naturally is not much different from what passes through anyone's mind. It's just that I'm able to vocalize it and describe it accurately enough for people to recognize their own minds. But I don't make things up. I just notice what I just thought. I notice thoughts that pass by and I write them down after they've occurred to me, without intending to cook up a thought. You never know what you're gonna think next. What I'm doing... whether it's poetry or it's non poetry, whether it's art or it's not art - I'm not interested. I'm just interested in making a mirror of my mind. Now if that's to be called art, that's just fine- if not, not. Quality shmality- I don't know. I'm interested in accuracy and precision.

SC: Sir, if I could ask about your journals... Were they written to be read?

AG: No, I just keep journals - I kept them in high school. Were those written to be read? I don't know. I'd assumed that they would be read in heaven, but on earth - who knows? In those days I don't think necessarily they were intended for other than my own eye. It wasn't that conscious. You see, the whole point is they're written to keep track of my mind. Is there any purpose in keeping track of the mind? I don't know. It was more like an accounting, for myself, so I'd remember what I'd thought.

SC: You just mentioned the conservative reaction against homosexuality...

AG: Well, against anything, not only that. It's against free speech. It's against burning flags. It's against expressions of emotion. It's against sympathy for the poor. It's against any Christian - real Christian compassion that Christ preached. It's a new sort of anti-Christian blasphemy on the part of the right, contradicting everything Christ said.

SC: In a couple of short passages from your journals that say that you were "crazed by homosexuality" and that homosexuality was "a mental cancer". Could you expand on that?

AG: Yeah. I just love to put down worst-cast scenarios in my journals, and see myself in the worst light possible - among many lights. There's a whole spectrum, just like with anybody. Everybody has a whole spectrum of views of himself, from the worst monster to the greatest angel. Except that those guys don't admit it. They think that they just have one image of themselves - they think they've got a self, in fact. I'm not under any delusion about having a permanent self. Those guys think they've got a self that God is gonna cherish and take up to heaven, and damn all the other selves. Whereas I think that the self is a collection of illusions, and vanish on death - a Buddhist or eastern view, rather than the narrow, Christian, Islamic, Judaic view. So, anybody can seize on anything they want, if they want a sound-bite, but - you know - all they get is a sound-bite, which is a mouthful of air.

My job is to represent, or mirror, the operation of my mind accurately. Their job is to hide the operation of the mind and make believe the mind is some kind of homogenized advertisement for American family values. And they're a bunch of liars, because they're misrepresenting their minds and everybody else's mind, and they're trying to suppress any evidence of difference. Like J. Edgar Hoover, who was very anti-homosexual and racist, and at the same time was a transvestite closet queen - and was one of their big heroes. Cardinal Spellman was also gay, and very well-known so among the Catholic hierarchy, but nobody among them wants to admit it, though it's in his biographies - and in J. Edgar Hoover's, and Roy Cohen's biographies, it's quite well established. So, it's like a schizophrenia they're trying to sneak over on people.

SC: About Journals, Mid-fifties [published shortly before this interview]: that life that you led was so full of spirituality and art and eroticism. Now, in retrospect, how does that look?

AG: Looks good... I'm quite satisfied. And my life is still full of spirituality and art and eroticism. I have studied with various Tibetan Buddhist teachers and have a guru, and I've done a lot of work with photography and music and poetry... and had a very good, worthwhile, enjoyable life.