|[Empty Mirror: Early Poems by Allen Ginsberg]|
AG: I think I’d written my first Williams-esque poem around 1948. See, I have some here. I started imitating Williams around then… ’48, ’49, I was writing in two styles – I was writing in the style that I learned at Columbia College (which was imitations of (Sir Thomas) Wyatt, (Andrew) Marvell, James Shirley, (John) Donne..) and.. So these are “Stanzas Written at Night in Radio City”, probably begun in ’48 and finished in ’49. In ’48, I had a big vision and heard (William) Blake‘s voice and that totally turned me on to poetry as a way of transmitting, through time, a petit sensation, a little sensation, or flash, of vastness of space.
Student: Were you particularly into Blake at that time, or did that just give you a clue (as to where next you were going)?
AG: “Seated one day at the organ,/ I was weary and ill at ease/ and my fingers wandered idly/ over the noisy keys./ I knew not what I was playing..” [Allen quotes the lyrics to “The Lost Chord”]
Student: Then he dashed his harp against the (wall) and…
AG: In other words, I was just idly eating vegetables and didn’t know what was going on, and was reading Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, and had an auditory hallucination of his voice, and, at the same time, a sort of psychedelic experience of the vastness and intelligence of the space above my roof in Harlem, where I was living, which was sort of a pivotal experience that changed my life. But (it) also was a big anchor drag around my neck, or albatross, like in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, because I sort of founded my later development on it, and, though it was inspiring, it was still like trying to live off the memory of a mystic moment and convince people that I’d seen God or something. So I fell into the usual catastrophic bad-mannered habit of going around looking at people as if they hadn’t seen God, and I had to tell them about it. Like any acid head (though this had nothing to do with (drugs), I hadn’t taken any acid at that time.
So I tried to condense the visionary sense into classic rhymed stanzas. So this is “Stanzas Written at Night in Radio City” – [Allen reads “Stanzas Written at Night in Radio City” in its entirety] – “If money made the mind more sane/ or money mellowed in the bowel… I’d go make money and be golden”..”O hollow fame that makes me groan/…Where brightest shades sleep under stone,/ Man runs after his own shadow” – So that was what I was trained to write by previous academies.
I sent a few of these poems of that mode to Williams around 1951, and he wrote back, “In this mode, perfection is basic. And these are not perfect.” So my hopes for being a high poet were dashed. And then, a little later, I was in New York State Psychiatric Institute for eight months for insisting, as per my eternal vision, that the telephones had intelligence. And the psychiatrist didn’t agree with me! Even though I argued that the telephones talked! – But, actually, it was just my stubbornness in trying to make him accept my language, or my interpretation of language, when I could have explained to him what I meant much more simply, and (also) his stupidity, in not seeking out (as Gregory Bateson (might have done)) by questioning, what I meant by saying (that) the telephones talked or were intelligent, were sentient, that telephones were sentient beings.
Student: You must have been (shocked to be suddenly subjected to Freudian analysis)?
AG: Freudian? No.. Yeah..It was just a straight, young guy, with big ears, actually.
So I said to myself, well, if that’s no good, maybe, let’s see… I was keeping journals of the kind that I’m recommending that you keep. So I looked back through my journals and I found a few prose paragraphs that seemed to have the mind clamped down on objects, or that seemed to be more realistic, and I arranged them artfully in lines, just like Williams, so they’d look like a modern poem (or what I thought a modern poem looked like, at the time). And then, actually, what I did was, (to) arrange them according to what the sections of the sentences looked like, where you would break it a little bit for a slight hesitation, where you’d take a breath, or arrange it, balancing according to one line of ten syllables, one line of five syllables, one line of ten syllables, one line of five syllables. In other words, I experimented around with taking my own journals, (which were real informal, natural speech, my own talk, my private thought,
because I wasn’t considering that they were poetry, so I was just writing them down for myself, rather than writing them down with the idea that they’d be “golden gems of literature” – so I didn’t have “anything to live up to”, as (Bob) Dylan says. So, not having anything to live up to there, I was being more direct). So I took a couple (of) poems in.. I’m trying to figure out what year that is – it would be 1949, I guess.. well, from journals from around ’48-’49 – once I had grasped Williams’ idea, and sent him six little samples of it, just little fragments. [Allen begins reading] – “Tonight all is well...what a/ terrible future. I am twenty-three/ year of the iron birthday./ gate of darkness. I am ill,/ I have become physically and/ spiritually impotent in my madness this month./ I suddenly realized that my head/ is severed from my body;/ I realized it a few nights ago/ by myself, lying sleepless on the couch”. (And) this is called “After All, What Else Is There to say?” [Allen reads in its entirety “After All, What Else Is There to say?”] – “When I sit before a paper…”..”..not/ declaiming or celebrating, yet,/ but telling the truth” – (Next), “The Trembling of the Veil” – (sort of a hi-faultin’ title, after Yeats – Yeats talking about the trembling of the veil of culture, and cosmic consciousness) – [Allen reads] – “Today out of the window/the trees look like live/ organisms on the moon…”..”all the arms of the trees/ bending and straining downward/ at once when the wind/pushed them” – I did a few poems after dreams – just writing down dreams in common language – [Allen continues reading] – “A Meaningless Institution”, I was given my bedding, and a bunk in an enormous ward.. “…”After a while, I wandered down empty corridors/ in search of a toilet.” – Another dream – 1947 – “In Society” – I guess I was still in college, hadn’t read Williams, hadn’t recognized Williams, but was just writing down my own nature, which is why I liked Williams, because I found his nature my nature, anybody’s nature, were very similar (except that he had recognized his, and framed it, wrote it out in a poem, whereas I was still writing rhymed verse, except, negligently, when I put down my dreams or little noticings. This is called “In Society” [Allen reads “In Society” in its entirety] – “I walked into the cocktail party/ room and found three or four queers/ talking together in queertalk”…””Why you narcissistic bitch! How/ can you decide when you don’t even/ know me”, I continued in a violent/ and messianic voice, inspired at/ last, dominating the whole room” – I’m looking for the poems (that) I sent Williams. I was feeling.. not suicidal, but, you know, non-suicidal boredom – [Allen reads “A Ghost May Come”] – “Elements on my table -/ the clock/ all life reduced to this -/ its tick./ Dusty’s modern lamp/ all space, shape and curve/ Last attempts at speech./ And the carved/ serpentine knife of Mexico,/ with the childish/ eagle head on the handle.” – “Marijuana Notation” – this is about 1950 – [Allen reads “Marijuana Notation” in its entirety] – “How sick I am!/ that thought/ always comes to me/ with horror…”..”It is December/ almost, they are singing/ Christmas carols/ in front of the department/ stores down the block/ on Fourteenth Street” – So there’s a total shift of attention from my daydream to a grounded place where Williams was..
Student: You kind of had that kind of shift in “In Society” too.
AG: Well that was a dream.
AG: My recognition of it as poetry was the shift. I had a dream and I wrote it down, and then I looked at that dream when I was preparing a few lines for Williams, and said, “Well, that’s pretty funny, and it’s real, and it’s a weird way of ending such a Kafka-esque nighmare of being in a meaningless institution where old crippled dumb people were bent over sewing and I didn’t know what I was doing there, like in a dream – so I went off in search of a toilet.
Student: That wasn’t an attempt to tie together similar natures at all?
AG: Well, I wasn’t thinking so much of attempting anything. I was just trying to follow my thoughts, rather than attempting to create an effect. Like that thing “Marijuana Notation”, which has all this sort of high-class literary self-regardant day-dream – like I was high on grass and all of a sudden shifted and (I) realized it was Christmas and they were singing Christmas carols. Just like on grass. That’s why I called it “Marijuana Notation”, because it was so typical. I thought it was a perfect example of vast consciousness, of vast shifts of mind, suddenly, that you get when you’re high, which seemed to exemplify the way we think anyway, anyhoo – (and so) I sent it to Williams because I realized, “he thinks the way we think” (or, he knows how we think). And so I selected a few things that were just like “real thinks” (rather than attempt to write “poetry”). See, all the attempts to write poetry were [Allen quotes his own “Western Ballad”] – “When I died love, when I died/ my heart was broken in your care/ I never suffered love so fair/ as now I suffer and abide/ when I died, when I died”. It was all way out. Pretty, really pretty (and good preparation, because it developed an ear, and now that I’m writing blues (1975), I’m glad that I wrote those early rhymed poems). (But) Empty Mirror is like a good first book, like scratchings, little notations, trying to get some little active line. Not trying to get, but trying to collect out of the things I’d actually written already, sort of skimming off my journals, just a few pieces that were active, a few little realistic notes. The earliest is Denver, 1947 – maybe the best, and the nearest to Williams in a way – called “The Bricklayer’s Lunch Hour”. This is (from) a 200-page notebook, filled with big long complaints that Neal Cassady wasn’t coming home to sleep with me, and that I wasn’t making out like I wanted, and did he love me or did I love him?, and what kind of fate did we have together? and theoretical, theosophical, philosophical notions about what was wrong with our relationship, and relationships, and what is relationship, and.. unreadable, totally unreadable!
And one day I looked out the window… [Allen then reads “The Bricklayer’s Lunch Hour” in its entirety] – “Two bricklayers are setting the walls/ of a cellar in a new dug out patch of dirt behind an old house of wood/ with brown gables grown over with ivy..”…”Meanwhile it is darkening as if to rain/ and the wind on top of the trees in the/ street comes through almost harshly” – So that was the one moment I got out of myself and looked out, registered what I saw, and the whole homosexual romance that I was going through, anyway, philosophically, comes through underneath. You can feel the slightly erotic sense. And so, by means of the sense of the things I described outside myself, I was able to represent the feelings, as well as clamp the mind down on objects – (precisely) because I wasn’t trying that. It was just that I was sick of myself, actually, “allergic to myself” (as was said last night in the giant lecture hall by the bodhisattva [Trungpa]), I was allergic to myself, so I finally just looked outside of the window to see outside of my skull.
Actually, for me, that’s sort of a crucial poem, in a sense, that I didn’t know then, but, the way I found out was (that) that year I went off in the Merchant Marine, and wrote another big, long, rhapsodic, rhymed poem, “Dakar Doldrums”, and then came back to New York and didn’t have any place to live and left all my notebooks and clothes at the house of an elegant theological student, (who was also a poet, who had been reading a lot of (Robert) Herrick), and he sneaked a look at my notebooks, the rat, and read all my secrets! – and when I came back, he mentioned to me (the fact) that he (had) read it (my notebook), and I was scared, because I thought now he’ll know all about my cowardly private life – but he said there was only one page worth reading! (out of hundreds of pages that I’d been laboring over and weeping, (there was only one page)) that he could read, which was this one page that looked outside). So, actually, I got a teaching from that – simply that, by that response – that he simply told me that everything (I’d written so far) was unreadable except that one thing.
The same thing from Williams. So I sent him these six or seven little fragments, and he wrote back, “These are it!” – or “This is it. How many more of these do you have?. I shall see that you get a book as soon as possible. I’ll write an introduction for it”. Just total response. Because it apparently hit the nail right on the head.
[to be continued…]
[to be continued…]