Footage from Allen’s 1988 visit to Japan – the Q & A following his lecture, given on November 3rd, 1988, at Kyoto Seika University on “What The East Means to Me”. Allen stands in front of a packed lecture-hall and delivers a number of clear and trenchant observations on ecology and on the process of composition. Katagiri Yuzuru provides simultaneous translation. The video is by Ken Rodgers for the Kyoto Journal.
Student: If the East means nothing to you, what does the West mean to you?
AG: Hyper-industrialized aggression. Just as there has been an exchange of nothing from East to West and West to East, there’s also been an exchange of aggression against Nature. In America, as of this year , it is a newspaper-headline – “The Death of the Planet” – the destruction of the Brazilian rain-forest, ((the) Amazon), the biggest forest-fire in the world several years ago in Borneo – the biggest forest-fire in the world’s history (which nobody has heard of!), the poisoning of Earth and Air and Fire and Water, radiation on the Earth, Greenhouse effect and ozone-layer destruction and smog in the air (covering the earth with smog, kicking up the earth inside the atmosphere), the corruption of our energy sources, deriving our fire from nuclear plants and the burning of petro-chemicals, or oil and coal, which creates Greenhouse effect, and the death of the oceans as symbolized by the poetic image of Shiraho Village blue coral reef, by jet airport threatened (a jet airport to be built on the Shiraho lagoon – to bring beautiful tourists to see the dead blue coral reef !)
So that is the karma of Earth, Air, Fire and Water, the basic elements.
I had seen that this year more visibly in Europe, Northern Europe, in June, in Hamburg, Germany, the newspapers had headlines about the death of the North Sea waters. So that’s some aspects of the West but it is also East, and more visible in Japan than anywhere that I have seen, the wasteful destruction, throw-away cans and plastic, throw-away television-sets, throw-away hibachis, throw-away Planet. The Mind is the same, East and West. Greed is the same, Aggression is the same, Passion is the same, but also, simultaneously, Emptiness is the same. There seems to be the opposite of Rudyard Kipling’s “East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet”. They have met in hyper-technology (East and West have now met in hyper-technology). They have met in the attempt to destroy the Planet, and they also meet in the aspect that it doesn’t matter. The Universe doesn’t need us. We might need the Universe, but the Universe doesn’t need us. So East and West seem to meet in the fact that it is up to us to have a New Vision – how to include Emptiness in Technology, or how to work harder to clean up our smog karma, or how to (create) cleaner energy, how to purify the Fire – how to clean the Air, how to clean the Earth, how to clean the Fire, how to clean the Water (there’s a lot of energy work!).
In this case, East and West are identical now, and America and Japan, in some respects, seem like gigantic Pachinko palaces (with all the distractions of that, with the senses entangled, the senses extended and entangled into the light and the noise and the hypnosis). Jumbo jet instead of coral reef.
But that was the original premise, or ethos, of poets, of the literary movement that was called “the Beat Generation”. It was a sort of world-phenomena, actually, youth, a youth revolution in the (19)60’s. It grew into social form, from insights of the (19)40’s, after the creation of the Bomb. The threat to the Planet became visible, say, by 1948, or if that is exaggerated, maybe some new sense of (a) different kind of Planet. I think there was a biological assertion of a desire to live, and a reconsideration of the difference between words and things, words and events, and a cleansing of the senses, a search for a New Vision or a new way of living, less destructive, not so much for the purpose of aesthetics but for the purpose of survival, and I always saw the Youth Revolution or the Beat Generation as some sort of froth on a larger wave – spume, froth, bubble – on a larger wave of perhaps biological will-to-survive. It seems very eccentric for a group of long-haired Japanese at Seibu Kodo to be putting on benefits for a coral reef but, in some strange way, it was almost as if the coral reef were speaking, trying to penetrate through mass-communication consciousness some more basic need for beauty, and even food (preservation of food-source) and it seems very eccentric, Seibu Kodo historically, one of the rare places for free action and free mind and free art in (all) Japan..really amazing..(and) very charming!
One last question – the young man with his hand over there, the bald young man?
Student: Do you think (the) East has made any influence on your writing?
AG: Well, the notion of “First thought, best thought”, the reliance on what rises in the mind during the course of writing a poem or giving a lecture as being the appropriate thing to say. In the 20th Century, this is both Eastern and Western practice. The Western tradition is the old minstrel, bardic, oral tradition, the traveling Minnesingers, Provencal, the black Blues singers and Calypso singers. Those were always oral literary forms for improvisation, as well as, in high literature, Gertrude Stein, and (Jack) Kerouac who wrote novels without revision, spontaneously, and in 20th century painting in the West there’s “Action Painting” (or “Abstract-Expressionism”), Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline, or up to Francesco Clemente today, all of whom depend on the chance, of the gesture, of the brush, for their basic composition. And in music, there is jazz-improvisation, and in classical music, there is the open-form of John Cage – (and) both painting, poetry and music have been influenced by Eastern practices. Gertrude Stein was a student of William James, the psychologist, who examined “Varieties of Religious Experience” (did a survey of, let us say, Visionary Experience), and many of the painters and musicians like John Cage attended lectures by Daisetsu Suzuki in Columbia University in 1948 on Zen.
The school of poetry at Naropa depends on the slogan “First thought, best thought”. In a sense, the subject of poetry is the nature of the mind, or the sequence of thought-forms that arise in the mind during the time of composition. In the Chinese, (and) some Japanese (the teisho?), or in Tibetan, the great yogi-poet, Milarepa of the 11th century, wrote his poems, or, composed on the tongue. I suppose..so, Milarepa’s poems – his “Hundred Thousand Songs” were taken down by his disciples. So both Eastern and Western poetic practices have historically developed into more spontaneous.. spontaneous forms, even in the 20th Century (in the West, especially in the 20th Century, perhaps as a way out of the mechanization and homogenization of consciousness caused by the machine, perhaps as a way of getting away from the mechanical, dialectical thinking of Aristotle). In Aristotle, things are either full or they are empty. In modern scientific terms, they are both. In Aristotelian terms, things are either objective or subjective, and to Wittgenstein, they are both objective and subjective simultaneously. In Buddhist terminology, this is called “Co-emergent Wisdom” [Katagiri Yuzuru is a little stumped on how to translate this specific phrase – AG: Well, how do you say “Form is emptiness, Emptiness is form” in familiar terms?]