Allen Ginsberg, interviewed on Canadian television by another A.G., pundit Allan Gregg.
[2015 update - the video for this interview is no longer available, the audio, however, may be heard - here]
Allen Gregg: The Beat Generation of avant-garde writers and artists of the '50's and '60's are experiencing a huge resurgence, especially among the young people. As a guy who was there at its generation, who has sustained it all these years, what's your reaction. Are you gratified by all of this? (are you) amused?
Allen Ginsberg: Well, actually, it's been going on all along, with different levels of attention by the media. But there's always been a phalanx of younger people who picked up, as we picked up, on what the older generation did, and picked up from them, and tried to carry a torch, like, let us say, the generation after mine. After all, Bob Dylan, was inspired to poetry by (Jack) Kerouac's Mexico City Blues, according to Dylan. When we were working on the Rolling Thunder tour, even back twenty years ago..
Allen Gregg: With Bob Dylan?
Allen Ginsberg: Yeah, he [Dylan] was the Chief there [Rolling Thunder Tour]. We went to Kerouac's grave, and I had pulled out a copy of this Mexico City Blues book. Dylan picked it up and started reading from it on camera, and I said, "What do you know about that?", and he said, "Oh, this book turned me on to poetry", and I said, "What happened?", and he said, "Someone gave it to me in St Paul, in 1959, and it blew my mind", and I said "Why?", and he said, "Because (it was the) first poetry that spoke to me in my own language", (in other words, a living American language, living idiom, living United States idiom, that a young person immediately could pick up on as someone talking for real, rather than.. oh, making-believe he was writing poetry). I think that's the key, that we were following an opening of verse form that allowed us to talk in a normal idiomatic vernacular.
Allen Gregg: You called it, I think, the cadence of the street.
Allen Ginsberg; Well, not really - cadence of the kitchen, like you talk to your mother, talk to your brother, talk to your best friend - or the street (the street aspect was, I think, laid on, later on, by the idea of street poetry but originally, it's just the real way you talk when you're talking with your friends and you're being emphatic and they're so there are intense moments of ordinary mind and ordinary conversation.
Allen Gregg: You hear people now trying to make a parallel between the conservative leadership of Eisenhower in the '50's and the conservative leadership of fundamentalists and neo-conservatives in the '90's and that and using that parallelism to explain the continuation. Is that too simple?
Allen Ginsberg: There's some element of it. Just some element. In the area of liberation and censorship, there's a parallel. During the Eisenhower administration, the Postmaster General brought a copy of D.H.Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover to Eisenhower's desk and he had underlined what he thought were salacious passages..
Allen Gregg: The dirty parts..
Allen Ginsberg: ...and the President said, "terrible, we can't have that!". And so Summerfield, Postmaster General, went on a crusade, you know - "Report dirty mail to your local postmaster". Secretly, he prevented something like two hundred million.. letters.. two hundred tons of mail from entering the United States from China (without telling anybody, just destroying it), and began persecuting many people who were sending (William) Burroughs, or other (controversial writers), D.H. Lawrence through the mail.
Allen Gregg: Right
Allen Ginsberg: Now you have Senator Jesse Helms, who's preoccupied with sex, himself, and sort of has a distorted view of it and maybe is sexually disturbed because he's so obsessed with it has put in a law directing the Federal Communications Commission in the United States to prevent so-called "indecent language" off the air. And so I've been involved in a legal suit there. In other words, the censorship has shifted and you have the so-called moral.. minority, I guess, or the fundamentalist, Bible-thumping, theo-political, televangelist, fund-raising demagogues, trying to put the kibosh on any literature which they disapprove of, which doesn't follow their particular party line, which is that of biblical inerrancy - that everything in the Bible is inerrant - no errors in the Bible - and they are the interpreters of what the Bible has said and anybody who doesn't follow their idea of what the Western Bible says is some manifestation of Satan! It's sort of like the Ayatollah, you might say. So they have attempted to sort of censor schoolbooks and schoolteaching, all over the country, and also censored radio and television, through Jesse Helms, who works for them - and now are trying to extend that even to (the) internet
Allan Gregg: Sure
Allen Ginsberg: And their excuse was to protect the ears of children. Although what's really interesting is that Helms began his career as a censor with denouncing the National Endowment for the Arts for showing..for funding a display of photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe, and at that time, the New York Times said, "don't pay attention, this is a poor little demagogue thing to raise money for his campaign, it's not serious", and Helms himself said, "this is not censorship, this is just guarding public money, to make sure that citizens' money is not spent on degenerate art" - or "spiritual corruption", or whatever. So he was bringing up defence of public money with the same rhetoric that (Josef) Stalin used - "elitist art" ("degenerate art" was Hitler's, Mao Tse Tung's was "spiritual corruption"). But then, having had this sort of front rationalization, that it's just public money, he then went on to pass a law that censored listener-supported stations that were not supported by the government, that was censorship, after the first rationalization, which people swallowed without question.
Allan Gregg: Now I know this has been a life-long cause for you but I'm thinking again about..
Allen Ginsberg: Well, it affects my own writing
Allan Gregg: Of course, because much of your work can't be heard on the radio
Allen Ginsberg: Well, much of my work is in high school and college text books, the Oxford Book of English Literature, or Macmillan, or Norton, so young kids are studying it in high school and college during school hours when they're not allowed to hear it on the radio or on television.But my particular contribution to poetry has been the vocalization of poetry,
Allan Gregg: Right
Allen Ginsberg: So that, actually, with all these guys who believe in free-trade or the market (they say!) , they're imposing a censorship on the market and are they're interfering with my free-trade on the market
Allan Gregg: In a format that you're most comfortable with and you would go to great pains to..
Allen Ginsberg: Well, vocalization
Allan Gregg: Sure
Allen Ginsberg: This is my something that I'm quite well-known for
Allan Gregg: The thing that you must sense is that kids can be made to be aware that censorship is insidious. When they're reading "Howl" (I mean you hear more about "Howl" in the 1990s, than I heard about in..) it's striking a real resonance. Is that..have you..are you tapping in to an alienation of youth today?
Allen Ginsberg: No, no, I'm tapping into some sanity on the part of the youth, I think. I think it's the governments and the media are alienated from nature, from human nature and from planetary nature. We punched a hole in the ozone layer. We polluted the oceans and the river courses, we decertified very valuable farmlands, we attacked the lungs of the planet, and the kids are aware that they're going to have to live with that, that..not only that we announce to them that they're going to have diminished expectations because we're too piggish and have made that conspicuous consumption of the world's raw materials, and still do that, and, in addition, have left behind them this great polluted dump of nuclear waste which nobody knows how to deal with, in the name of science ! - well it's not science, it's some kind of half-assed politics.
Allan Gregg: Oh, In fact there's an argument that the youth of today are faced with far more adversarial conditions, far more despair..
Allen Ginsberg: Yes they are
Allan Gregg: The '50's, for all the Beat Generation, was a marvelously prosperous time economically.
Allen Ginsberg: It was a prosperous time but the signals were there, and, you know, when you look back what were the themes that the poets were involved with? Gary Snyder, the Buddhist poet, was interested in Eastern thought, meditation practice and ecology - myself, in the poem "Howl" that you were speaking of, describes the world of conspicuous consumption as a kind of Moloch, to which children were being sacrificed (that has more resonance today than it had then, although the evidences were there, way back). And so, among the other themes we had were Eastern thought, ecology, meditation practice, the decriminalization of some of the drugs
(marijuana - which is obvious at this point), and a sort of a plea for the government to get out of the drugs business, which was.. even known then.
Allan Gregg: In terms of their involvement in the opium wars and so forth.
Allen Ginsberg: Well, even then, cops were beating up junkies in Times Square and stealing their junk and re-selling it. I knew that from Herbert Huncke, who was an old junkie who lived on Times Square in the '40's. I knew about that in the '40s, having tried some marijuana, I realized it doesn't drive you crazy, frothing at the mouth like mad dogs in Algeria which was the official Narcotics Bureau Treasury Department party-line. All I saw was a great big ice-cream sundae with chocolate syrup in front of me and it was like the greatest I'd ever seen! I certainly thought, "my what a marvelous world we're living in!"
Allan Gregg: Well, you were also tremendously associated with everything from gay rights to environmental protection to protesting the war in Vietnam to freedom of speech, how much did your activism kind of form your art and how much did your art form your activism?
Allen Ginsberg: Well, I think the activism came after an assault on my own art, actually.
Allan Gregg: In terms of the obscenity trial with Howl?
Allen Ginsberg: To begin with, and then later on, Helms' prohibition of my voice on the air. I was just sitting there writing, doing my business, I wasn't trying to get mixed up in public stuff. I thought that "Howl" was just like sort of a private little document that would circulate in the
velvet edition of a thousand or five hundred copies and I hadn't expected it to be made notorious by the cops, by grabbing it, and..or.. I had helped edit the first portion of Naked Lunch and when that was published in (19)59 by Chicago Review, it was burned by the trustees of Chicago Review and we had a big trial and the Postmaster got in on that, he wanted to ban it from the mail, so, we were just doing our normal artistic business and the maw of the government..the government put its paw in our business, so, as they said during the American Revolution, "Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty".
Allan Gregg:But,as a consequence of that..I don't have to tell you this, everyone's heard of Allen Ginsberg, but, sadly, not as many have read "How;" or any of your other works. I mean..has your sort of cultural notoriety eclipsed your literary legacy, do you think?
Allen Ginsberg: I don't think that's a problem because my "literary legacy" will be around when I'm..when I kick the bucket, and it will be around still, it's like a radio broadcast that goes on for centuries, and that's alright, and I feel that the work I've done, or Kerouac, or Burroughs, or Gregory Corso, Snyder, and few others, will all be classic, and will all be around for a long long time as some kind of touchstones of sincerity or candor (if not sincerity, at least candor).
Allan Gregg: Well, I want to talk specifically about two innovations in your poetry that you're really associated with, and I know that you'll tell me that these aren't innovations and that if you go back and see.. but my scholarship and my memory is relatively limited..
Allen Ginsberg. (But I'm a) (Distinguished) Professor of English at Brooklyn College, so I can't help (but be) a scholar!
Allan Gregg: First, unformatted verse.. And I guess the second is coupling words with music. How important, of those those two things then, do you think, in terms of establishing your continued relevance and impact in culture. I mean there's no question that Allen Ginsbrg has impacted popular culture now for five decades..
Allen Ginsberg: Well you're speaking of "unformatting", (you mean) "open form verse.
Allan Gregg: Yeah, getting away..
Allen Ginsberg: Getting away from rhymed lyric. The rhymed verse was originally called "lyric verse" because it was accompanied by a lyre..Sappho
Allan Gregg: Sure
Allen Ginsberg: Homer
Allan Gregg: Homer before him (sic), of course.
Allen Ginsberg: So chanted, or sung verse, or lyric verse, is very ancient, and is the earliest we have, and spoken verse, even without music, or, chanted, goes back, the oldest form we know, all the way back with the Australian aborigines, twelve thousand years, which is what? twice as old as the Biblical idea of "back to the Garden of Eden", if you figure that as 404 BC, (as the Biblical Inerrancy people will tell you), so that's the oldest form, so music and poetry and chant have always gone together. Vocalization has always been part of poetry, until, maybe the invention of the printing press? when you had multiples and duplication and you could take the book home and read it silently to yourself by fire-side or candle-light or electric bulb but the older tradition has been vocalization.
Allan Gregg: ..which you popularized..and are very much associated with...
Allen Ginsberg: No, (Walt) Whitman, and then there's a long tradition of the Bible, which are my models..Christopher Smart, a great poet of Doctor Johnson's time, who used a long verse line in his long 80-page poem "Jubilate Agno", (Rejoice in the Lamb), which is my model..Then there is, later, Whitman, then there is Rimbaud and there's a lot of experimental verse come up with the Dadaists and the French Surrealists, the European Futurists, so there's been a development in painting of an open form, (no longer, you know, just the perspective lines, after Cezanne), there's a development in music (both in bop and, later, Ornette Coleman, toward a free-form music), there's been a development in science (toward..well what chaos theory?, so to speak?)
Allan Gregg; Yes, I guess that's true.
Allen Ginsberg: There's been a development... Because it's nature, this is the nature of things. Things are not regulate-able to, you know, a fixed format. Now, song, lyric song, which rhymes and which has a tune does have that fixed format that comes back to a rhyme with a stanza, and so there's some great practitioners of that now, like Dylan and The Beatles, and they've opened it up a little bit. I write songs like that too, ballads and what-not, because I was trained to by my father. who was a poet and a teacher (it's a family tradition actually). People misunderstood and thought that we didn't rhyme because we didn't know how, but, actually, I can do that sort of with my eyes closed.
Allan Gregg: But when you break away from the formats, all of a sudden you can get into performance. If I'm reading iambic pentameter, I can't do an Allen Ginsberg..
Allen Ginsberg: You could..
Allan Gregg: ..but it'd be pretty awful!
Allen Ginsberg: No, you could, if your.. ballad-meters, say, were informed by vernacular pronunciation and non-distorted syntax, no inversions, and you did it very straightforwardly, then you could get away with it. It's what (Bob) Dylan does and what the Beatles (did)..
Allan Gregg: (Bob) Dylan, and some of the rappers, Tupac Shakur, are they the inheritors of that tradition? Will we see them, sometime, when we're all dead and gone, as great poets of the last half (century)?
Allen Ginsberg: There are great poets free verse poets and there are stupid free verse poets. Dylan, I'm sure you'll see, because, in fact, Dylan may be the only one left after... because, you know, when they pull all the plugs, if they ever pull all the plugs, or you know, civilization breaks down, more people can remember individual Dylan lines and tunes..
Allan Gregg: Oh yeah.
Allen Ginsberg: ...and songs than any other living poet, so Dylan may prove to be the great poet of this half of the century.
Allan Gregg: But you would hear people, around regular coffee tables, not stupid people, saying that poetry is dead, (that) you never hear poetry. You say, well, listen to music because that is poetry.
Allen Ginsberg: Well, if you listen to Lee Renaldo..or, if you listen to.. especially Beck now, who's a great words man, a great poet, a great interesting, you know, pop poet, but better than that, the lyrics he has on that Stereopathetic Soulmanure album - "Satan Gave Me A Taco" - are very...do you know that? - it's a thing about - he walks into a taco stand and takes a very hot taco which burns him up, and suddenly he finds himself in the fires of Hell in front of a judge, with all sorts of devils around him, and he's being judged, and the judge says "You're condemned to hell", and then he sees fires and noises around him, and lights, and its horrible, and all the appurtances of Hell, and booming noises, and he realizes he's on a rock n roll sound-stage! , so he joins a band, and then he drinks up all the Coca-Cola, sniffs up all the cocaine, and makes love with all the girls back-stage, and the band gets killed in a plane-crash, so he goes on to solo act, and then he becomes very rich, and finally he opens up a string of taco stands. So very funny like the snake that's holds its tail in its mouth, ouroboros, he's got this very funny conception, very beautiful music and words that are very very clear and amusing so that's a very good thing.
Allan Gregg: So you've been recording for a number of years, but here you are, 70 years old, on a "buzz-clip" on MTV, perhaps your most popular recording, The Ballad of the Skeletons, out on a CD, Mercury Records, tell us how that all came about?
Allen Ginsberg: Oh, well there was this sort of right-wing self -righteousness going on with Newt Gingrich and the accusation that liberals were "liberal" (sic) (that liberalness just meant open, you know, open hearted, as if being open-hearted were some sort of crime in a Malthusian universe where dog eats dog under the aegis of Jesus Christ and the Bible (it was so contradictory, and so stupid, nobody seemed to be able to answer them. You know, the Bible and Christ says, "take care of the poor" and these right-wing televangalists were saying "kick the poor in the face", so the Bible says "Let him without stain throw the first stone" and you had all these guys accusing a black girls of having babies and of rejecting human values basically, pedaling unfriendliness, pedaling mean-ness, pedaling disdain, pedaling contempt. It seemed to me somebody's got to make some kind of answer. I was working with Paul McCartney on some poetry (he was interested in haiku and his wife Linda does photography and I do too and she likes Robert Frank who was my mentor, so we got kind of friendly in the last few years. Then I had a concert in the Royal Albert Hall, London, with about 15 other British poets, and I thought that would be an interesting thing to recite, or sing, if I could find a guitarist, so I faxed McCartney and asked him if he could recommend a young kid who was a quick study, and he gave me some names and phone numbers but he said, "But if you're not fixed up with a guitarist why don't you try me, I love the poem", and I said, "Sure, it's a date". So I read about ten minutes and then announced that I was going to sing and that I had an accompanyist and announced Paul McCartney, and he came on stage, everybody was very happy to see..
Allan Gregg: I bet
Allen Ginsberg: ...this funny conjunction of an old geek, me, an old geezer and a slighty-younger geezer collaborating unexpectedly (unexpected for me too, mind-blowing for me, like I felt like a Beatle for two minutes!). So we performed together and that was successful and he enjoyed it, and then it was time to record so we sent him the 24 tracks to England, after we'd made a basic track, and he added maracas, and the drum (which it needed, to give some kind of skeleton to it), and then organ also, the Hammond organ (to sound like the old Al Kooper on Dylan records) and then his own guitar (responding very much to my intonations as a vocalist), and he said he had a lot of fun. And then we got the tape back, and Philip Glass was in town and I'd done a lot of work with him..so he volunteered to add his piano. He did some arpeggios that just fit in perfectly with rock n' roll, so it just fell into place, "with a little help from my friends".
Allan Gregg: And Gus Van Sant directed the video
Allen Ginsberg: I knew him through (William) Burroughs, and we'd lectured together at Princeton, and when we'd arrived in the limo (well, he had a lecture and I had a reading), he took a guitar out of its case, in the car, and I said, "Can you play?", and he said, "Yeah, I got a band in Portland", so I asked him if he'd accompany me on it, the (Ballad of the) Skeletons, and he did so. He knew the thing quite intimately, the text, and when it came time for a music video (which MTV asked for, and (for) which Danny Goldberg, the head of Mercury, appropriated a little bit of, you know, a shoe-string of money, Van Sant volunteered to do it - and did it on a
Allan Gregg: Now, you are, without question.. somebody even said that you may be the last famous poet. You are recognized everywhere you go popularly, yet you haven't been recognized with Pulitzer prizes or MacArthur Awards. What is it about the literary establishment? Do you scare them still, you think?
Allen Ginsberg: I don't know. I'm actually an academic. I'm a Distinguished Professor of Literature at Brooklyn College, I'm an honorary member of the Modern Language Association, I'm a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, which is a very exclusive club (I think there's about 240 0f us, I've been there for 20 years or so), and I have enough, more than enough, reward and fame, so somebody else might need a Pulitzer (as far as I'm concerned)! - I could use a MacArthur! - that's money! , that's real money! (Pulitzer's 500 bucks, or a thousand dollars, I can do that with a.. give a poetry reading at a local club).
Allan Gregg: Has the homoerotic imagery in your poetry and your open sexuality, has that hurt you, (do) you think, in terms of that recognition?
Allen Ginsberg: I don't think so. I don't think so, because.. It's really amazing that this generation, particularly, are undaunted by that, there'll be straight young kids, who are quite beautiful and quite attractive, who come up and say they love me (but are absolutely straight).
Allan Gregg: Sure.
Allen Ginsberg: So it's a question of being transparent. Since the whole cast of government and media is not transparent but opaque, built on secrecy and manipulative-ness, the area of poetry, therefore, becomes a free area, where people can not be paranoid, or (can) understand that what is being said is being said for real (unless it's bad poetry, or it's manipulative poetry), so I think younger people appreciate that.
Allan Gregg: Now, at the risk of sounding overly-fawning, I mean, I have to ask you, it's clear that here are a lot of things that bug Allen Ginsberg, but (that) throughout your entire career you've been so vital, and completely un-jaded. I mean, you always seemed to be having fun (even when you're being arrested). What is it that keeps you this way? You'd think you'd say "(To) hell with this!"
Allen Ginsberg: When I was young, I realized I was gay, and, once, Kerouac - in 1945 it was, so it went back, I was (what?) twenty years old? - Kerouac came over to my room, at Columbia - and Burroughs had warned him about hanging around with those mothers who forever are tying their apron strings, and it really struck him - and I had a new poem and I read it to him, and then it was too late to go home, so he stayed in my room. And we had our underwear on, and I was a virgin - nothing happened! - and we slept together. And, somehow, someone came to visit. The Dean of Student-Faculty Relations burst into the room and found us in bed together, and assumed - what for them would be - the worst (for me, would have been the best!), for them would have been the worst, because they were so homophobic in those days. So I was called down to the Dean's Office. And he said to me. "Mr Ginsberg, I hope you realize the enormity of what you've done", and I looked at him, and realized that he was completely mad! - and he was running Columbia College! - So, (I thought), this was going to be a funny scene. So I said, "Oh, yes sir, I'm completely ashamed of myself, what can I do to get (ahead)?, but I realized that..he was nuts! - and, to a great extent, the entire society was nuts! And I felt kind of liberated, like a man who was in the land of the sleepwalkers who can see, or the land of the blind, who can see. But not only on that, but on many many subjects. Like I smoked a grass..a little bit of grass, and I realized that the government party-line was stupid. Like somebody, some kid in Russia, who knew that the Stalinist party-line was fair fraud, much of the American party-line, the official New York Times even, to the CIA and the State Department, the Narcotics Bureau, the whole police agency, is actually racist and prejudiced and corrupt. So then it becomes fun, because, you know, I don't feel guilty, I don't feel that I'm trespassing on anything, I'm trying to wake these people up!, they're sleep-walking!
Allan Gregg: Well, I want to thank you very much for joining me in this conversation. Thank you.
Allen Ginsberg: Thank you for your hospitality.