Allen Ginsberg gave a reading of Howl in New York recently, the first in more than a decade.
“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night . . .”
It was his first great work, as resonant today as in that famous first reading in 1956, when it vocalized the birth pangs of the beat generation. Howl was a head-long descent into his own pains and fears, a vision of alienation, rising finally and triumphantly with a declaration of the holiness of all things. He wrote the first section in an afternoon, later calling it “a huge sad comedy of wild phrasing, meaningless images.” But it wasn’t really meaningless, for in revealing his own heart, he touched many others. He had found the secret to his art: “Summing up my life for the soul’s own ear, tapping the sources of what was really inside me and expressing these things directly . . . funny wrinkles of my own awareness.”
In his poems, he shares his most private thoughts, visions, and revisions, with a complete and raw honesty. Wounds are left open, his innermost fears laid bare, amidst joyous cheers for love and awareness in all their forms. Like Whitman, his poems are filled with an anarchistic love for the individual and his freedoms.
Ginsberg is often scorchingly political, yet it’s a politics of consciousness. In America he writes: “America, when will you be angelic? When will you take off your clothes? When will you look at yourself through the grave? . . . I’m sick of your insane demands,” and later, “It occurs to me that I am America. I am talking to myself again.” Changing society, he believes, is inseparable from changing yourself. Over the years his changes have been many, but his message has remained very much the same. As Life magazine once put it, “be tender with all meat.”
Ginsberg was born in 1926, and raised in what he calls a “Jewish left-wing atheist Russian background in Paterson, New Jersey.” His father, Louis, was a lyric poet and school teacher, his mother a Russian immigrant prone to schizophrenia. By the time he arrived at Columbia University in 1943, his direction was set. He wanted to be a servant of the masses, “a poet-prophet on the side of the Wild Good.” He worked at odd jobs, as a dish-washer, a porter, a copy boy, and explored the hip community around Times Square with his close companions, writer Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs.
In 1948, he had a vision that affected him deeply. He had always felt a strong connection with the mystical poetry of William Blake. One day, while reading Blake’s poem Sunflower, he heard Blake’s voice reading the poem aloud to him. Simultaneously he felt a great illumination, “very similar,” he said, “to some you get with the psychedelic drugs — except deeper . . . Everything around me seemed completely alive, like a concretized intelligence . . . all became the handiwork of a Creator.”
A year later, Herbert Huncke, who shared his apartment, began to fill it with stolen goods. Allen decided to move. While driving away with his belongings, he was involved in a car crash. Among the chaos of Allen’s manuscripts and clothes, the police found stolen suits and silverware that had been left in the car. He was released with instructions to see a psychiatrist, and wound up in a mental hospital far eight months. There he met Carl Solomon, a Dadaist poet. Their experiences together provided much of the inspiration for Howl. “For me it was like a hotel,” Ginsberg says, “a very convenient monastery.”
When released he worked as a book reviewer and a market research consultant. He traveled and wrote some poetry, but found little satisfaction. In 1955, he began working with a psychotherapist in San Francisco who encouraged him to do what he really wanted to — quit his suit-and-tie job, get a room with his lover Peter Orlovsky, and devote himself to writing and contemplation.
This began a period of intense writing and travel far him, starting with jaunts between New York and San Francisco with Orlovsky, Kerouac and poet Gregory Corso, then on to Peru in search of rare psychedelic drugs, to the Arctic, Guatemala, Tangier, France, Cuba, Czechoslovakia, and finally on a pilgrimage to India with Peter Orlovsky and poet Gary Snyder. His quest was to find a guru. He visited the Himalayas and monks in Tibet, practiced yoga and Buddhist meditations, and sat in Zen monasteries in Japan chanting “Om” for days at a time.
Finally, an illumination came in 1963, on a train ride between Kyoto and Tokyo. He realized one very basic fact — he was alive in a body that would die. The quest for visionary states was no longer for him. He writes about this experience in a poem called The Change:
I am that I am I am the man & the Adam of hair in my loins This is my spirit and physical shape I inhabit this Universe Oh weeping against what is my own nature for now Who would deny his own shape’s loveliness in his dream moment of bed . . . In this dream I am the Dreamer and the Dreamed I am that I am Ah but I have always known . . . In my train seat I renounce my power, so I do live I will die.
Through the Sixties and Seventies, Ginsberg has been a spokesman for the counter-culture, LSD, sexual freedom, the peace movement, and the religious renaissance. At 56, he still works at an incredible pace, writing, traveling, giving benefit readings, and heading “The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics,” at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado. His latest book of poems, Plutonium Ode, was published last month by City Lights.
I met him at the old apartment, long an open-house for local poets, that he keeps for New York visits. It’s on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, an old Jewish neighborhood, long decayed, with many abandoned apartments. Not surprisingly, he has always lived in relative poverty, giving extra money away, usually to young poets. We arrived and yelled up for him; the buzzer has been broken for years. He let us in and sat at his desk, piled high with papers, in a small office lined with shelves and a closet overflowing with books. He was tired, and a little crabby, having worked non-stop through his week in New York. He delayed his dinner, which Peter Orlovsky was cooking in the kitchen, and between numerous phone calls we spoke. He talked rapidly, mumbling at times, with a slight giggle in his voice. His words were direct and sharply focused. “I think I’m ready to retire,” he said at one point, with a glint in his eye that said differently.
— Howard Jay Rubin
SUN: Many writers have trouble dealing with fame and the power that comes with it. How do you handle these pressures?
GINSBERG: Well, it really isn’t the power. It’s the calls for benefits, interviews, personal appearances, help. The sheer volume of work can drive you up the wall. I have a secretary that helps me answer the letters. I feel an obligation to keep up with them. William Carlos Williams answered my letters when I was a kid, so I feel I should help young writers also. Does that answer your question?
SUN: I wanted to know how you stay productive as a writer and keep the fame from going to your head?
GINSBERG: That’s no problem. In terms of not letting it go to my head and keeping my sense of identity through it, I do meditation practice. Since there is no fixed sense of identity, there is no problem. In meditation you learn not to cling to thoughts, to remain independent of them. You let them rise, flower and disappear. You don’t try to push them away because that would strengthen them. You just let them pass so that there’s no problem of conceptualization. I have the same problems of conceptualizing my identity that everyone has, but I’m learning to let them pass. I don’t feel that I have to be any one way, so fame can’t undermine my identity.
SUN: How would you say that meditation has changed your life?
GINSBERG: It’s made me more patient. It raised my level of alertness in my activities.
SUN: In a Life magazine article years ago you said that you shifted focus in 1963 from yearning for visions to looking for more direct perception.
GINSBERG: I think that’s a slow process that everyone goes through from age 18 on, when they get a fixed ideal of how to find God or change the world, and then slowly learn that it has to be done step by step, in actual particulars, not with ideas but with actual things, on the grass-roots level starting with your own body.
SUN: What was this like for you?
GINSBERG: It was a slow, gradual process with no dramatic high points except for that train ride in Japan that’s registered in a poem.
In 1973, I went through a further deepening of awareness, when I went off to a meditation center and sat for three months, eight hours a day. Then, after about 12 days, I realized that I was still looking for God, and staring at a tree outside the window, hoping that it would reveal itself as God. I finally took off my glasses, and sat up straight, and forgot about any ideas about what I was looking for. That brought me back to my own awareness and allowed me to proceed and deepen.
SUN: You wrote in one poem. “Oh, poor sick junkies all, here’s buddha-opium, sacred emptiness to fix your angry brain.” What’s the comfort that you find in the Buddha’s teachings?
GINSBERG: Well, the clarity. And the realization of existence as being unstable, mutable, in flux. The Buddha talks of three basic characteristics or marks of existence. The first is that existence contains suffering, or pain. To the extent that one resists that fact, he gets stuck in more suffering and more pain. Once you start working with this, instead of resisting, you lose the suffering of suffering. It’s better to work with the suffering directly rather than trying to escape it. Escaping is a false economy. For example, if you don’t like washing dishes, you get somebody else to wash the dishes for you. The reason for suffering is that we are born in a body, and a body is transitory. So, there’s going to be discomfort, decay, cancer, car crash or whatever. And the third is that there is no fixed identity, which is interpretable as no soul. The comfort of that is that you’re not stuck any more. You’re not stuck in a fixed identity. It’s a freedom from fixation, and claustrophobia, rather than a terrible demoralizing abyss. It’s like taking the roof off, once you see that you’re liberated from any fixed idea of who you are supposed to be, how you’re supposed to act. It makes way for a more spontaneous perception, and spontaneous action, unmotivated action, action without egocentric motivation.
It’s like taking the roof off, once you see that you’re liberated from any fixed idea of who you are supposed to be, how you’re supposed to act.
SUN: Is it easy for you to keep your actions from being motivated by your ego?
GINSBERG: No, but it’s no harder than for anyone else. As I keep trying there’s the constant washing away of the old, of preconceived ideas, because there are only three constants — suffering, mutability, and lack of fixed identity. It lets me experiment more instead of getting into a fixed role.
SUN: Is this what gives you strength when things seem hopeless?
GINSBERG: Strength isn’t the point. It’s what’s in front of me. I need to see what’s in front of me.
SUN: In the poem “Ego Confessions,” in Mind Breaths, you wrote that you’d like to be known as the one who prepared the way for dharma in America without mentioning dharma. Why is that?
GINSBERG: I want to find American terms for it, as William Carlos Williams suggested. Let us say that transitoriness is the Dharma word, mutability is the English word and flux is the American word. I want to call on our common sense, our common language, and not to introduce words that sound alien.
SUN: What limitations do you find in using language to explain these ideas?
GINSBERG: Not much. Language serves well, you just have to know what words are. Words are not things, they’re words. We can use them as symbolic pointers. If you confuse the word or the concept “table,” with the actual table in front of us, you’ll have trouble. If you confuse the word beauty, good, right, wrong, heaven, hell, God, with something, when it’s not a thing but an event, then you might get in trouble, and end up having arguments about what’s beauty or what’s truth. That’s just playing with the symbols and it’s pretty much a waste of time. Most political and personal arguments are over definitions of concepts. We argue over the concepts rather than the things that the concepts represent.
SUN: Then what is the proper subject for discussion?
GINSBERG: Well, you can use words as long as you realize that they are just words and not to be confused with the things that the words represent. You can’t have an argument over what is truth, because there’s no built-in is to truth. It depends on how you want to define it. You can say that I’d like to define truth as this and I can say that I’d like to define it as something else, and we can then discuss what definition we want to use. There have been wars over the question, “What is truth?” Wars over words.
Language is also a vehicle for tones and affects as well as concepts, for melody, emotions. It serves very well, it’s the vocalization of the breath. So it’s actually living spirit. Spiritus is the Latin word for breath, from the breath and the spirit through the vibration to the word. So words are more than concepts but things in themselves. The word is itself, like the table is itself, and we have to understand the relationship between them, one thing used to represent another thing. Some people have a sophomoric fear that you can’t use words to say anything, but that’s only because they confuse words with things.
SUN: What relation does your own ego have to the service of dharma, or truth, or poetry?
GINSBERG: Well, my ego is at the service of dharma. You never get rid of the ego. I never have and probably never will. I just become aware of it and see through it. It’s the vehicle that I ride. It’s another sophomoric problem that leads people to try to kill their ego. Kids will starve themselves or jump off buildings thinking that they can kill their ego that way. That’s just an assertion of the ego, rather than letting the ego be led. You are not your ego in the sense that you are aware of your ego, or amused by it. Your mind is much more complex, ego is just a part. So, once you become aware of the ego as a part of the furniture, you don’t see it as the whole thing and can work through it. Meditation is conducive to that larger panoramic perspective of the ego within the larger space of mind.
SUN: So the ego shouldn’t be pushed away, but acknowledged instead?
GINSBERG: Certainly, then you’re aware of it. If you try to suppress it you lose your awareness of it. As long as you breathe and think, the mind will produce thoughts and self-centeredness. Which is all right, as long as you know where it’s at and you don’t get dominated by it. Some might say, how can you have relationships with other people if they order you around and want your time? Well, you have relations once you know what’s going on in the relationship. Mind and ego are like that also.
SUN: Can you speak about the relationship between a person’s sexuality and his spiritual growth?
GINSBERG: Well, not very different from the role of food or play. If you’re aware and do things mindfully and non-obsessively then sexuality can serve as a vehicle for spiritual communication, or for love or generosity. If you get selfish or crazed or obsessed you’re going to get hung up and block your own growth. It’s the same with any obsession — gambling, horseback riding. Sexuality in itself is no more of a block than the peace movement or the war movement. It’s how you relate to it that frees you or hangs you up. The all-important factor is the consciousness that you bring to sexuality. Depending upon how you relate to it, it can be good or bad, damaging or helpful. It’s good when you’re mindful and loving, clear and generous, bad when you’re hidden and secretive and frustrated. If you’re in any way laying a bum trip on others it’s certainly harmful.
SUN: How hard is it for you to use sex as a vehicle for spiritual growth rather than getting obsessed by it?
GINSBERG: Mixed. Sometimes it flows easily and sometimes it doesn’t. It’s a question of constant reminder and awareness. Once you cross into the territory of working with your awareness, it becomes something you work on, something you become aware of rather than putting any absolute rules around. I don’t say that there are any absolutes except for suffering, transitoriness and lack of fixed identity.
SUN: How aware are you from moment to moment?
GINSBERG: Oh, more than I’ve been. I’m remembering more and more.
SUN: Are there any keys to remembering?
GINSBERG: Stopping. Stopping and checking things out, interrupting the automatic wheel of thought to observe the thought. Getting out of it. It’s like being in a dream and waking up and observing the dream. When you’re in the dream you don’t know that you’re dreaming. When you wake up you notice that it was just a day-dream, just subconscious gossiping, harmless if you’re aware of what you’re doing.
SUN: So are you saying that all things are in a sense dream-like or illusion?
GINSBERG: That depends on what you mean by the word illusion. That’s the typical kind of question that comes from confusing words with things. How could one possibly give an answer without knowing what you meant by illusion?
SUN: I mean is there a level at which you feel this creation to be an illusion?
GINSBERG: Yes, the level of the awareness of the transitoriness of all aspects of creation. Just like waking up from a nightmare, watching the dream dissipate, and then you’re back in it, running around and trying to tell people not to worry so much. Existence is a transitory condition in which people often feel trapped and claustrophobic. The relief that comes from knowing that it’s not a fixed thing that’s going to last forever is in itself a state of grace.
SUN: In the introduction to Howl, William Carlos Williams wrote that your example proved that in spite of the most debasing experiences that life can offer a man, the spirit of love persists. Can you speak about what that spirit of love means to you?
GINSBERG: Nowadays, distinct from those days, I would say that it’s more a spirit of clarity and awareness, almost spontaneous unmotivated sympathy and compassion, rather than erotic love or sentimental love. It could be said that sympathy is our most powerful tool, because nothing stops it, except disaster, but disaster’s impermanent. Hell is impermanent as well as heaven. Therefore there’s nothing to stop sympathy; even in the middle of deepest illusion you can be aware that something else is possible when you see things as outside of yourself and can bear with them.
SUN: What do you think is the relationship between what is called romantic love and what is called spiritual love?
GINSBERG: Well again, it just depends on who you want to define the words. There are forms of romantic love that are definitely based on spirituality and there are forms that are obsessive, greedy, possessive and otherwise pull you away from the spirit. But the line forms based on your definitions of spiritual and romantic. Most questions are just verbal conundrums or knots that are basically obtainable semantically. Once you untangle them they usually become pretty obvious, if you’re not held back by fixed ideas.
SUN: Would you say that you love yourself?
GINSBERG: Well, I’m friends with myself, I like myself. I would say that I love myself, yeah. However, that can include realizing that myself is empty, and sometimes I hate myself. Sometimes I’m ashamed of myself, but I’m not afraid to be ashamed of myself, or hate myself, because I know that it’s a temporary condition and I know it isn’t real. It’s not a closed hell, and when you see that you’re not afraid to work with it. I’d say that I have a good relationship with myself.
Kids will starve themselves or jump off buildings thinking that they can kill their ego that way. That’s just an assertion of the ego, rather than letting the ego be led.
SUN: What do you think of the idea that in a sense all people are bisexual?
GINSBERG: I once wrote a song. (Sings:) “Everybody is just a little bit homosexual, whether they like it or not.” (Laughs.) Actually that’s coming out on a record, a double album, coming out at the beginning of March.
But I wouldn’t insist on the point because I know that there are some people — men especially — who just don’t like the idea of making it with other men physically. They can have spiritual connections or heart feelings. I don’t think that it gets eroticized or emphasized in all cases. I think it does get eroticized about three-quarters of the time. That’s what the Kinsey Report found. But you can’t push it. There are a lot more people who experience that kind of love than talk about it publicly. Sure, there’s a certain set of traits, a certain delicacy, intuition, softness that all of us have, even though they’re called feminine traits. It’s the same with so-called male traits. The only variable is whether it comes out in genital pleasure.
SUN: Is homosexuality becoming more generally accepted in our culture?
GINSBERG: Homosexual behavior is getting to be more acceptable. People are looser about it and more free in their behavior, and more generous in their reactions to it. This is causing a reaction among the more hard-core conceptualists, the moral minority group — they’re definitely a minority — trying to impose their own psychic limits on others. But I don’t think that the actual rate of homosexual activity has increased. Homosexuality has been a part of almost every culture. Look at ancient Greece and Rome, or San Francisco. (Laughs.)
SUN: What do you see as the relation between working on yourself and working to change society?
GINSBERG: It’s the same thing. Like in the old Taoist notion, straighten your own heart and you straighten your family, straighten your family and you straighten your city, straighten your city and you straighten the village, straighten the village and you straighten the province, straighten the province and you straighten the nation, straighten the nation and you straighten the world, straighten the world and you straighten the universe. You have to begin by clarifying and ordering and becoming friendly with yourself before you can become friendly with the rest of the world. You have to really accept yourself before you can accept the world and begin working to change it.
SUN: Has your opinion about this changed over the years?
GINSBERG: Never. That’s always been very clear to me. Even in my most political days, say 1968 in Chicago, I was standing on stage chanting OM. I’ve tried to make that point over the years. I don’t know if the media has picked up on it, but I’ve tried to make that point. It is rather a chicken and egg thing because you’re doing both at the same time.
SUN: How has your awareness changed in the last year?
GINSBERG: Well I’m more aware that I think too much about meditation and don’t sit enough. I’ve been working with the great meditation teacher Chogyam Trungpa for ten years, and teaching at Naropa Institute in the Jack Kerouac School for Disembodied Poetics. Recently I’ve been learning a lot of administrative skills in my work there. I’ve had to, especially since we’re having this festival July 21st celebrating the 25th anniversary of the publication of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. Basically, I’m learning how to better apply good intentions, grounding myself, rather than developing new theory and new ideas.
SUN: How do you ground yourself?
GINSBERG: Like I said, doing administrative work, and memos and meetings, working with people.
Another thing I’ve learned a lot about recently is music. In the last year I’ve made an album. I’ve made four before but this is the best. I’ve finally gotten into rock and roll. I’m working now with the rock group The Clash. I’m helping them to revise their lyrics and singing a little. I might do a single with them in the spring. I’m learning what the formula is for rock and roll records and the structure of them. I’m having a whole lot of fun with that.
SUN: There have been a lot of criticisms of Trungpa as being arrogant and self-centered. How do you respond to that?
GINSBERG: It’s a complicated thing. He’s one of the most humble people that I know. He’s a great poet, and he’s also a great drinker. He’s very temperamental and often he’s used as a carpet for people to walk over. Somehow, that’s the role of the lama, to be a rug for people to walk over. He does, however, represent a lineage of dharma kings, and there’s an overtone to him of a sort of ceremonial kingship, ceremonies that go back many thousands of years. He’s just working within that tradition. It’s not an American genre, it’s a Tibetan style. I think this is similar to the way some Americans are put off by the discipline used by Zen masters on their students. It’s an austere style and people from our culture can get put off by it without understanding the reasons behind the actions. I think that judgments can get very confused between traditions.
Existence is a transitory condition in which people often feel trapped and claustrophobic. The relief that comes from knowing that it’s not a fixed thing that’s going to last forever is in itself a state of grace.
SUN: What are you holding on to that you’d rather not be?
GINSBERG: My correspondence. The desire to get laid, that seems to be dissolving a bit lately. A lot of busy worldly work that I’m overburdening myself with.
SUN: How do you feel about death? Would you be ready to die today?
GINSBERG: No. I’d probably go kicking and screaming. I’m not really afraid of death. When you’re dead you’re dead. I don’t know anything about transmigration of souls.
SUN: What does make you afraid?
GINSBERG: Not too much. The usual things like getting knifed in the street. Someone just got shot an hour ago across the street. I suppose anything could make me afraid, but I don’t think that I cling to it very often.
SUN: How do you deal with it when you do feel fear?
GINSBERG: I shift over to my breath and become aware of my breath, straighten my back and breathe properly until the physical condition dissipates. When I’m in a tight situation I’m generally clear.
SUN: What kinds of situations make you unclear?
GINSBERG: Chaotic ones where I don’t really know what’s happening. I generally just rest then and wait until it clarifies itself.
SUN: What is your view of the counter-culture at this point?
GINSBERG: That’s a big question. Well, it seems to have permeated the entire culture by this point so that it’s no longer a counter-culture in many aspects, like the sexual revolution, drug use, women’s liberation, meditation, disappointment in the government or, more so, the demystification of the government. The main block that has not been overcome is the whole macho, male power trip that we still buy into, like the Russians in Poland, America in El Salvador, Nicaragua. There’s this increasing militarization despite the sensibilities of most of the population. The increasing militarization seems to be irreversible, with the 200 billion dollars they get every year. Who’s going to be able to stop them? Unless more people begin to wake up soon we’re going to find ourselves with a very totalitarian system, a military oligarchy. They’re getting so much money that it’s harder and harder to push it in the other direction.
SUN: What recourse do you think we have?
GINSBERG: As I’ve said, more meditation, poetry, and just generally waking up to what’s going on. More people have to start vocalizing it. More people have to start talking about the hopelessness of the situation because unless they deal with it, there’ll be no chance of averting it. We’ll just sort of slide into it, each one of us thinking that everything’s going to be all right. What’s really amazing is the irrationality of the militarization. If we’re scared of totalitarianism all we have to do is buy off all of these revolutions in Latin America, give them the vote and then let them vote if we’re worried about democracy. We’re just doing the same thing that we did in Vietnam, which is taking a monolithic view of Communism and thinking that everybody is rebelling against our rule. With that view we’re just driving them into the arms of the Communist nations. Like right now in Nicaragua, the people don’t want to be tied up economically and militarily with Cuba and Russia but we’re forcing them to with our terror tactics, which they have no way of resisting except by getting somebody else to protect them.
SUN: What do you feel is the poet’s role, or your role, in all of this?
GINSBERG: There is no fixed role. How could there be a fixed role? Part of that is an idea that was invented by the Communists, that the poet has to be the voice of the proletariat. The whole notion of a role, I think, is some kind of totalitarian effort to control writers. So the role of a writer is really no role, except to register his own sensibilities and to tell the truth. In that way, by hindsight, there is a role — to be the one guy in the middle of confusion who is talking straight. But if he starts off with the conscious intention of having a role, he hampers his real role of telling the truth.
SUN: Can you see many effects from your work over the years?
GINSBERG: Yes, considerable. I get letters from people all the time telling me that they got turned on, or were made aware of something by a poem I wrote. I myself was turned on by William Blake and other poets.
SUN: Can you talk about your connection with William Blake?
GINSBERG: No, I’ve talked about it so much over the years that it’s getting to be bullshit.
SUN: Do you have any advice for young poets?
GINSBERG: Yes, read about the American Indians; write about them. Read William Carlos Williams and Charles Reznikoff. Study Pound’s notion of quantitative measure. Listen to as many rhythms as you can from Africa and Latin America. Learn foreign languages, as many as possible, Greek if possible and you can even extend it to Sanskrit. Work with music. Write your own magazines and print them. Work without attachment to the fruits of your action.
SUN: How do you feel about the state of the media now?
GINSBERG: I think that the media is intended to misinform people, at this point. I had a meeting with a number of reporters recently from Newsweek, The Washington Post, United Press and others. They were all complaining that what they were reporting was being distorted in the media before it reached print. The media gives a very one-sided view of what’s going on. They deliberately confuse people. There was a story in The New York Times about a year ago, actually December 16, 1979, saying that the nuclear industry spent 470 million dollars a year on public relations. That’s compared with 4 million dollars for Ralph Nader and his groups. So a half a billion dollars is being spent a year just for the nuclear industry. That’s in a year when billions are being spent by the military for public relations out of the 200 billion that they get a year, 70 million dollars for brass bands alone, more than the entire federal arts budget. You begin to see that the media are saturated with the unconscious assumptions of the entire weight of the budget. Otherwise there would be banner headlines in The Times announcing it. Stockman said that out of the last budget there was more than 30 billion dollars fat and waste. No one even mentioned it. They just cut the budget for the Paterson, New Jersey, library system from $700,000 to $200,000 a year. My mother told me that last night. Welfare is being cut, the food stamp program is being cut, education budgets are being cut on a large scale, but nobody really talks about it very much. The newspapers don’t make a big deal about it, just cut and dried news stories.
And there was a systematic destruction of the underground newspapers, which I just published a book on with the PEN club here in York.
SUN: What was involved?
GINSBERG: It was an over-the-counter-intelligence program run by the government that involved fire bombings of offices, and the intimidation of writers, advertisers, and printers. People were planted in the offices to confuse matters. There were pot busts, surveillance, phone tapping, spreading misinformation, sending anonymous incriminating letters to boards of trustees of universities and to the parents of activists. It was a thorough ransacking of the entire alternative media. We had a big press conference for the PEN club, which is a very prestigious organization, and the only papers that came were underground newspapers. Not one over-ground newspaper sent anyone. The report we published came primarily from information we got under the Freedom of Information act. They’re closing down the Freedom of Information act, by the way.
Oh, and I had another experience with People and Time magazine recently. They decided that I was interesting again so they interviewed me and ran stories. Whereas in the fifties and sixties the terminology for me was wild-eyed poet, or the voice of an hysterical woman in a police car, now they say, “Howl has turned into a hoot,” and describe me as a cute man who’s mocking himself and mocking the sixties. They gave a lot of misinformation to their readers which was followed by a bunch of letters from their readers saying, “This guy did some good work, why is he putting himself down?” or “Why is he betraying his own causes?”
SUN: Was it just made up?
GINSBERG: It’s their interpretation. I had actually read some very anti-military poems and talked about the work I’ve been doing with The Clash. They ignored any new work and decided that it would be a cute nostalgia piece. They feel that free speech is what they think. That’s only the free speech of an egoist.
SUN: Are psychedelics still important to you?
GINSBERG: Well, I had a nice mescaline trip this summer in Colorado. No, it isn’t important. I think that meditation is more ample. I still smoke grass, though, for specific things like going to the Museum of Modern Art and looking at Cubist paintings. I’ve always used it like that, to organize perceptions, for aesthetic perceptions. I’ve never really liked it as a cocktail party mixer.
I generally sit for an hour a day in the mornings . . . It’s just ordinary mind observing ordinary mind, allowing it to happen without judging it or investigating. There’s no mystique. It’s just ordinary mind.
SUN: Are there any questions you’d like to answer that you’re never asked?
GINSBERG: Well, no one’s ever asked me just what exactly meditation is. They like to talk around it, but never about it.
SUN: What is meditation to you?
GINSBERG: The style I practice is Tibetan. It has the same roots as Zen, from back in the ninth century. It involves sitting with your back straight, and following your breath through your nose until the breath ends, eyes open, mouth slightly open as if you were holding a rice grain between your lips, seated in a chair or on a meditation cushion called a zafu, eyes relaxed and resting in space, not staring at anything, not trying to picture anything, non-aggressive eyes just resting in space, continually observing your breath and when the thoughts come in, discursive thought, subconscious gossip, having a friendly attitude toward it and gently going back to following the breath. I generally sit for an hour a day in the mornings. It doesn’t involve a mantra or any kind of visualization. It’s just ordinary mind observing ordinary mind, allowing it to happen without judging it or investigating. There’s no mystique. It’s just ordinary mind.
A Supermarket In California
What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for I walked down the sidestreets under the trees with a headache self-conscious looking at the full moon.
In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went into the neon fruit supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations!
What peaches and what penumbras! Whole families shopping at night! Aisles full of husbands! Wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes! — and you, Garcia Lorca, what were you doing down by the watermelons?
I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys.
I heard you asking questions of each: Who killed the pork chops? What price bananas? Are you my Angel?
I wandered in and out of the brilliant stacks of cans following you, and followed in my imagination by the store detective.
We strode down the open corridors together in our solitary fancy tasting artichokes, possessing every frozen delicacy, and never passing the cashier.
Where are we going, Walt Whitman? The doors close in an hour. Which way does your beard point tonight?
(I touch your book and dream of our odyssey in the supermarket and feel absurd.)
Will we walk all night through solitary streets? The trees add shade to shade, lights out in the houses, we’ll both be lonely.
Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of love past blue automobiles in driveways, home to our silent cottage?
Ah, dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher, what America did you have when Charon quit poling his ferry and you got out on a smoking bank and stood watching the boat disappear on the black waters of Lethe?
I walked on the banks of the tincan banana dock and sat down under the huge shade of a Southern Pacific locomotive to look at the sunset over the box house hills and cry. Jack Kerouac sat beside me on a busted rusty iron pole, companion, we thought the same thoughts of the soul, bleak and blue and sad-eyed, surrounded by the gnarled steel roots of trees of machinery. The oily water on the river mirrored by the red sky, sun sank on top of final Frisco peaks, no fish in that stream, no hermit in those mounts, just ourselves rheumy-eyed and hungover like old bums on the riverbank, tired and wily. Look at the Sunflower, he said, there was a dead gray shadow against the sky, big as a man, sitting dry on top of a pile of ancient sawdust — — I rushed up enchanted — it was my first sunflower, memories of Blake — my visions — Harlem and Hells of the Eastern river, bridges clanking, Joes Greasy Sandwiches, dead baby carriages, black treadless tires forgotten and unretreaded, the poem of the riverbank, condoms & pots, steel knives, nothing stainless, only the dank muck and the razor sharp artifacts passing into the past — and the gray Sunflower poised against the sunset, crackly bleak and dusty with the smut and smog and smoke of olden locomotives in its eye — corolla of bleary spikes pushed down and broken like a battered crown, seeds fallen out of its face, soon-to-be-toothless mouth of sunny air, sunrays obliterated on its hairy head like a dried wire spiderweb, leaves stuck out like arms out of the stem, gestures from the sawdust root, broke pieces of plaster fallen out of the black twigs, a dead fly in its ear, Unholy battered old thing you were, my sunflower O my soul, I loved you then! The grime was no man’s grime but death and human locomotives, all that dress of dust, that veil of darkened railroad skin, that smog of cheek, that eyelid of black mis’ry, that sooty hand or phallus or protuberance of artificial worse-than-dirt — industrial — modern — all that civilization spotting your crazy golden crown — and those blear thoughts of death and dusty loveless eyes and ends and withered roots: below, in the home-pile of sand and sawdust, rubber dollar bills, skin of machinery, the guts and innards of the weeping coughing car, the empty lonely tincans with their rusty tongues alack, what more could I name, the smoked ashes of some cock cigar, the cunts of wheelbarrows and the milky breasts of cars, wornout asses out of chairs & sphincters of dynamos — all these entangled in your mummied roots — and you there standing before me in the sunset, all your glory in your form! A perfect beauty of a sunflower! a perfect excellent lovely sunflower existence! a sweet natural eye to the new hip moon, woke up alive and excited grasping in the sunset shadow sunrise golden monthly breeze! How many flies buzzed round you innocent of your grime, while you cursed the heavens of the railroad and your flower soul? Poor dead flower? when did you forget you were a flower? when did you look at your skin and decide you were an impotent dirty old locomotive? the ghost of a locomotive? the specter and shade of a once powerful mad American locomotive? You were never no locomotive, Sunflower, you were a sunflower! And you Locomotive, you are a locomotive, forget me not! So I grabbed up the skeleton thick sunflower and stuck it at my side like a scepter, and deliver my sermon to my soul, and Jack’s soul too, and anyone who’ll listen, — We’re not our skin of grime, we’re not our dread bleak dusty imageless locomotive, we’re all beautiful golden sunflowers inside, we’re blessed by our own seed & golden hairy naked accomplishment-bodies growing into mad black formal sunflowers in the sunset, spied on by our eyes under the shadow of the mad locomotive riverbank sunset Frisco hilly tincan evening sitdown vision.
Ode To Failure
Many prophets have failed, their voices silent ghost-shouts in basements nobody heard dusty laughter in family attics nor glanced them on park benches weeping with relief under empty sky Walt Whitman viva’d local losers — courage to Fat Ladies in the Freak Show! nervous prisoners whose mustached lips dripped sweat on chow lines — Mayakovsky cried, Then die! my verse, die like the workers’ rank & file fusilladed in Petersburg! Prospero burned his Power books & plummeted his magic wand to the bottom of dragon seas Alexander the Great failed to find more worlds to conquer! O Failure I chant your terrifying name, accept me your 54 year old Prophet epicking Eternal Flop! I join your Pantheon of mortal bards, & hasten this ode with high blood pressure rushing to the top of my skull as if I wouldn’t last another minute, like the Dying Gaul! to You, Lord of blind Monet, deaf Beethoven, armless Venus de Milo, headless Winged Victory! I failed to sleep with every bearded rosy-cheeked boy I jacked off over My tirades destroyed no Intellectual Unions of KGB & CIA in turtlenecks & underpants, their woolen suits & tweeds I never dissolved Plutonium or dismantled the nuclear Bomb before my skull lost hair I have not yet stopped the Armies of entire Mankind in their march toward World War III I never got to Heaven, Nirvana, X, Whatchamacallit, I never left Earth, I never learned to die.
March 7-October 10, 1980
© Copyright Allen Ginsberg