Allen Ginsberg – Richland College reading – part 1

Another gem from the Stanford Archive – Allen reading at Richland Community College, Dallas, Texas, in 1980. Video technology was in its infancy, and the performance (with student musicians) typically impromptu, so bear with the amateur nature of this tape, but it more than makes up for it, with memorable renditions of  “Sunflower Sutra”, “America” ( with improvised contemporary additions), and the recently-composed “Plutonian Ode”, (not to mention, spirited interpretations of Blake songs (Allen’s settings of William Blake)

It is with Blake that the tape begins – a rather ramshackle version of My Pretty Rose Tree” (from his 1794 collection, Songs of Experience) – “Let’s do the Rose Tree, which is a country ‘n western version of a punk rock S & M song” – Both before and after (and indeed throughout the session) Allen is concerned about (and somewhat bedeviled by) the sound – “Could you hear him (the guitarist)? Could you hear him? Anybody not able to hear their voices? The guitarists, were they audible? – Anybody not able to hear them? – ok- Is the harmonium too loud?  (he is reassured by his student-guitarist – “We haven’t started officially, so we can make all the mistakes we want”,)

Similarly “unofficial” (before the opening introductions), Allen begins with an improvising experiment – “We’ll try and improvise something? Like a blues?” – Beginning, at approximately four-and-a-half minutes in, and continuing until approximately ten-and-a-quarter minutes in (before it is rudely and unceremoniously interrupted by the sharp feedback {“What happened there?”…”a feedback in the mind also”), he spontaneously composes a blues fitting to the location – Dallas, Texas, in 1970 at the Hilton hotel, he recalls, is where he learned to meditate –  “Swami Muktananda came here to Dallas in 1970/He invited me down and so I took a room and sat there in Eternity/I watched the neon signs revolve over Mockingbird Lane/and learned to breathe in and out – quietly/      The method of meditation was sitting up straight in my chair/The method of meditation was breathing in and out Texas air/Being mindful of the vipassana practice, or otherwise known as awareness practice, while breathing in and out and sitting there…”

The blues segues into an introduction – “Well 8.15 is approaching/and it’s time for the universe to begin/So now I’ll end this song/and hope I haven’t come here to no mortal sin/and if you introduce me and my fellow musicians, I guess/the poetry reading can begin”.

At approximately fourteen minutes in, the poetry reading does begin (or somewhat), with an introduction as follows –

“There are people who write poetry and then there are poets There are poets and then there are geniuses (if you’ll excuse the approbation). Some people seem to make poetry much more than just words written on paper, they’re able to make it a matter of expanded consciousness, which is really what it’s all about, in some people’s view (certainly in mine). That is, the words aren’t in themselves, the words are a way to open up the brain of the listener and the reader. The person who knows this better than anyone I’ve ever known in my lifetime, in my opinion, is sitting right here and his name is Allen Ginsberg.

In order to help him do this for you tonight we have some people sitting in, none of whom are musicians (I should make that perfectly clear – [AG: Neither am I! ] – neither is he) – but, that’s what it’s all about.. Breaking down (that) distinction between musicians and audience, poets and non-poets, we’ve got to see (you) all in the same boat and this is one way to do it….. – [Allen’s makeshift musicians are then introduced – “We all met last night when I came up, and practiced a little bit . So home-made music. so we’ll be pursuing…..”  – sound issues continue to be a concern]

[At approximately seventeen-and-a-quarter minutes in]  – AG:  So, ok we’re together. So we’re going to begin with William Blake’s “Spring” – ensemble – You’re welcome to join in and the mantra, or end-line is,  “merrily merrily we welcome in the year” (and I am interpreting that as “The Great Year” or the Great Year of the Ancients, which is the 24,000 year cycle, or you can take it as the Platonic Year, Piscean Age or moving from Piscean Age to Aquarian

Student: How long is it?

AG:  How long is it?, well that’s two thousand years, – two thousand  years in one astrologic sign – and twelve signs, or the solar procession is usually considered to be around, roughly, twenty-four thousand years, meaning the sun rises in a different constellation every thousand years (which is, incidentally, the same as the half-life of the plutonium that’s in the warhead of that titanic missile (the half-life of plutonium is twenty-four thousand years old also, the same as the Great Year of Plato). So.. we’ll get to that later on, The Great Year. So, we’re welcoming The Great Year.

[At approximately eighteen-and-a-half minutes in Allen begins reading Blake’s Spring (“Sound the flute!/Now it’s mute/Birds delight/Day and night…”…”Merrily, merrily, we welcome in the year”)  – Is the sound audible? Is there someone who can communicate with the sound man and tell him what to do?……. “Meanwhile I’ll read a poem that can be heard in the back row without difficulty – At approximately twenty-four-and-a-quarter in Allen reads “Punk Rock Yr My Big Cry Baby“] – So next (we have this back on) – Is there something we’re doing down here that’s causing the problem? – No, it’s up there – ok –  The next thing we had planned to do was Blake’s “Tyger” set to heartbeat, like a homunculus, a heartbeat, which is trochaic meter, classic. and following the breathing suggested by Blake in his early notes, in his actual drawings of the manuscript of “Tyger” with illustrations – (he punctuated it so you can follow the proper breathing). The breathing is not followed in the Oxford edition but it’s followed in the Erdman edition which gives you the original text – I”Tyger, Tyger, burning bright/In the forests of the night…”… “….What immortal hand or eye./Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?”)

AG: And (now) I think we’ll take it easy for a while and I’ll do some reading. So what I’ll do tonight is read for probably three-quarters of an hour with some songs in it, mixed, and, starting with very early work, one sample of early work, twenty, thirty years ago, and then I’ll read poems of the last three years.

[Sunflower Sutra – Illustration by Eric Drooker]

To begin with “Sunflower Sutra”, which is more familiar to students, and then, if you’ll allow me to move on to stronger work from the last few years – “I walked on the banks of..” – this is a poem called “Sunflower Sutra” – A sutra is a Buddhist discourse – “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…”…”.spied on by our own eyes under the shadow of the mad locomotive riverbank sunset Frisco hilly tincan evening sitdown vision”

(Next). Also, maybe, interestingly historically, because, in some  sense, the ‘Fifties return in the ‘Seventies and ‘Eighties –  “America” – “America” – this was written..well, the date is in the poem..

[Beginning at approximately thirty-four minutes in, Allen gives a reading of his poem “America”  with a number of minor changes and topical references*]

“America I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing/America two dollars and twenty-seven cents January 17, 1956./I can’t stand my own mind./America when will we end the human war?…”….”America I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel”.

to be continued

[A video record of this Richland College reading can be found – here – in the first of two tapes digitalized and made available by Stanford University as part of its Allen Ginsberg Archives.  The selections above can be found on the first tape, beginning at the beginning and continuing until approximately forty-one minutes in]

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