Allen Ginsberg: The Artist as Mensch

The overwhelming impression from Ginsberg's interviews is his lack of ego. He comes across, again and again, as a fundamentally decent person.

Allen Ginsberg’s uncollected interviews show that he still matters, though not for the reasons he once did.

Allen Ginsberg gave terrific interviews. They possess many of the virtues of his poetry: openness, intensity, humor, visionary flights of fancy, religious explorations, political commentary, and a refusal to look away from the ways that our bountiful modern American life also represses us. However, beyond this, they also offer a compelling mix of gossip, technical expertise, and advice. Here he is, for example, speaking to Tom Clark in The Paris Review in 1967 about the problem of self-censorship:

We all talk among ourselves and we have common understandings, and we say anything we want to say, and we talk about our assholes, and we talk about our cocks, and we talk about who we fucked last night, or who we’re gonna fuck tomorrow, or what kinda love affair we have, or when we got drunk, or when we stuck a broom in our ass in the Hotel Ambassador in Prague — anybody tells one’s friends about that. So then — what happens if you make a distinction between what you tell your friends and what you tell your Muse? The problem is to break down that distinction: When you approach the Muse to talk as frankly as you would talk with yourself or with your friends. (Allen Ginsberg, The Art of Poetry, No. 8)

To break down that distinction between your friends and the Muse, between artifact and organism, between art and life. It was, by Ginsberg’s time, a familiar post-Romantic theme, and it met, initially, with resistance and incomprehension. This resistance persists: Howl survived the obscenity trial against it and went on to change literary culture, but the Beat generation as a whole did not escape the slander, made by Norman Podhoretz, that they were “know-nothing Bohemians”. Ginsberg’s interviews give the lie to this superficial dismissal. They show how erudite and serious he was, and how the whole Beat project (including its interest in the East, in Brahma, in Buddhism, etc.) could be traced, as Ginsberg notes frequently, back to Whitman and Thoreau and the 19th century transcendentalists, who sought to renew an American culture that they thought had fallen from radical promise into narrow, materialist concerns.

All of this is familiar ground for students of Ginsberg and American poetry. In fact, many of Ginsberg’s best and most important interviews were already published back in 2001 in Spontaneous Mind: Selected Interviews, 1958-1996. That book was over 600 pages long. There are more interviews, including many televised ones, available online. Do we need more of Ginsberg in conversation? Michael Schumacher thinks that we do; the author of the definitive biography of the poet, Schumacher has now published First Thought: Conversations with Allen Ginsberg.

The book consists of interviews not collected in previous books, as well as a few newspaper profiles. Schumacher explains in an introduction that his challenge was to include, from the many worthy possibilities, “entries that addressed the biographical and artistic highlights of a career spanning five decades.” Since the highlights are already well-known, this doesn’t seem like a particularly strong justification — unless those highlights have come to seem less high (a point to which I’ll return). But if it does contain much that readers will already know, it also adds to our understanding of Ginsberg’s biography, particularly since his status as a famous counter-cultural figure has obscured some of his life.

It’s the pieces included here that follow Ginsberg on some of his less well-known paths, or that dive deeper into familiar waters, that enrich our sense of that life. We follow Ginsberg to Italy, for example, where he spends time with an elderly Ezra Pound. Ginsberg acknowledges that the older poet’s work gave him “ground to walk on” before eliciting from Pound some regretful remarks about his notorious anti-Semitism. The younger poet doesn’t get angry or apologetic (as some Poundians did), but takes it in stride: “‘Anti-Semitism is your fuck-up, like not liking Buddhists, but it’s part of the model and the great accomplishment was to make a working model of your mind.'” Later he gives Pound his blessing.

A subsequent interview pairs Ginsberg with his father, Louis (also a poet) after one of their father-son poetry readings. The conversation reveals definite tension on matters of politics and aesthetics but also love and respect across the generational divide, a picture that contrasts with the received wisdom of the ’60s as a decade riven by unremitting generational conflict. There are also a number of conversations around or about teaching — after being temporarily expelled from Columbia as a young man, Ginsberg would eventually become a notable player in the institutionalization of creative writing — including a delightful transcript of Norman Mailer and William Burroughs crashing one of Ginsberg’s courses at Naropa and riffing on their approaches to writing.

For readers who are curious about Ginsberg’s poetics, the book includes “Visions of Ordinary Mind” (1948-1955), the lengthiest and most detailed statement of Ginsberg’s visionary experiences in Harlem, as well as a wonderful back and forth with Kenneth Koch, the great New York School poet (their contrapuntal exchange emphasizes the prophetic and the playful sides of the poetic avant-garde):

Q: What do you like best about your own poetry.

A: Cranky music.

Q: Meaning?

A: Vowelic melodiousness, adjusted towards speech syncopation.

Q: Vowelic?

A: Assonance, long mellow mouthings of assonance. Classic example: Moloch Moloch. In “Howl,” “Moloch whose skyscrapers stand in the long streets,” — and so on.

The overwhelming impression in all of Ginsberg’s interviews is his lack of ego. He comes across, again and again, as a fundamentally decent person, the artist as mensch. Many artists, both experimental and traditional, have behaved as if this decency were an obstacle to be overcome. “The intellect of man is forced to choose,” wrote Yeats, “perfection of the life or of the work.” Although he was influenced by Yeats’ visionary stance (inherited, like Ginsberg’s own, from Blake), Ginsberg did not feel compelled to sacrifice his life for his work. If anything, he refused the choice by refusing perfection, accepting that art might be made out of the crooked timber of his own consciousness and that the rest of us might do the same.

Still, the question remains: how much do we really need to be reminded of Ginsberg’s personal qualities? Why should we care whether this poet possessed unusual personal integrity? One reason we might care is that, in this case, the poetry is so bound up with the life. In refusing Yeats’ choice of perfection, Ginsberg also refused traditional criteria used not only in evaluating, but defining, the art. If Ginsberg’s poems are meant, as he indicates, to transmit his consciousness to us in a direct way, whether we pick up on this consciousness will allow us to determine whether the poems are a success. So the interviews offer us more than a context that might help us interpret the poems. They give us another expression of the sensibility that we are supposed to perceive through reading the work. If the interviews are a better means of transmitting that sensibility, then it might be plausibly suggested that they are even more important than the poems.

There is another altogether more problematic reason why we might want to be reminded of Ginsberg’s personal qualities, however. This is because the interviews reveal an important gap between the ’60s counter-cultural stance that promised to liberate the world, the subsequent appropriation of that counter-culture by corporate America (what Thomas Frank called The Conquest of Cool) and the world as it exists in the here and now, convulsed by the failure of that pseudo-liberation to deliver real equality.

Although many argue that counter-cultural ideas have definitively won the culture war against tradition, this victory is superficial. Ginsberg’s investment in poetry as a quasi-religious means of personal transformation shows how superficial it is; he understood that freedom was more than the “free” market. But it also shows how little that project of personal transformation altered the deeper structures of economic exploitation, which exploded during the last three decades of the poet’s lifetime. First Thought reacquaints us with a wonderfully authentic person and poet, but it inadvertently shows us just how much wonder and authenticity can leave the world unchanged.

RATING 8 / 10