Allen Ginsberg 1974 San Francisco tv Interview – “I Believe”

Continuing our spotlight on some of the video treasures in Stanford University’s recently-digitalized archive – Allen on San Francisco television (KPIX) in 1974, interviewed by Father Mike S Riley on his inter-faith tv show, “I Believe”

[Allen begins reading from “Sad Dust Glories”]  – “When I sit/I see dust motes in my eye/Ponderosa needles trembling/shine green/in blue sky./Wind sound passes thru/ pine tops, distant/windy waves flutter back/oak leaves/and leave thenm still/like my mind/which forgets why the blue jay across the wood’s clearing/squwks, in mid-afternoon.”

MR: Welcome to “I Believe” and Allen Ginsberg. Allen, I suspect that a lot of people have read about you and even read your work and your poetry and don’t really know who the real Allen Ginsberg is. You were born in New Jersey about…

AG: July… June 3 1926…

MR: ..which means you’re 48.

AG: I’m 48 now.

MR: 48 years ago. And your father, (I found this interesting), your Dad was, and still is, a teacher, is that right?, of English Literature..

AG: Well, he had his 79th birthday this month, first of this month, so he quit teaching and gets around a little bit.

MR: Is that right? But he…

AG: He’s a poet.

MR: Exactly. He writes his own poetry. And I wondered what his impression was, how he felt about his famous son?

AG: Oh he loves me – He enjoys the situation (and we go out and give poetry readings together actually)..   We did one here, actually, in San Francisco, a couple of years in a row – at San Francisco State earlier this year, and Berkeley about three years ago.

MR: So Daddy didn’t feel it was an overthrow of parental values?

AG: No, I gave him lots of space, lots of room…

MR: How about your mother…

AG: We fight a lot about politics, but.. basically, there’s a… he changes slowly. Like he’s…he, finally, by 1968 decided that the Vietnam War was like a real rotten thing.

MR: It took..

AG: It took a little while ..a few years..

MR: It took other people longer so he shouldn’t feel bad.   Your dad was a Socialist.

AG: No, he was an English teacher and a Socialist.

MR: But he was a Socialist and your Mom was a Communist?

AG: My mother was a member of the Communist Party in Paterson, New Jersey, during the great years of the silk strikes, [1913] when the Communists were organizing the unions (which wound up backing (Richard) Nixon [ in 1972], so actually, there wasn’t much difference finally!)

MR: What.. I know your mother had a tremendous impact on your life…

AG: Yeah. She had a sort of paranoiac seizure and long years of nervous breakdown and died in a mental hospital in New York State… So I wrote a long poem about that called “Kaddish“…

MR: “Kaddish”, yes

AG: …which is well-known and which is, like, a complete autobiographical account of that.

MR: Yes, terribly powerful. What… I know that there were a number of fears, or were, in your life and that at least some of those were mother-related – that you were afraid of women for a long while, afraid of dying.

AG: Well, everybody’s afraid of dying a little – Afraid of women, in the sense, I think, that, when I was young, she presented so frightening an image of quite the.. Earth Mother.. that I got scared off for quite a long while till I recovered my balance somewhat. But it conditioned me to prefer boys, I think, ultimately, yes, as love-objects. It seemed safer (oddly enough).

MR: Isn’t that funny?. Was this tied in at all… You spent some time in a mental institution, I think something like eight months, early on, back in New York.

AG: 1949 – that was sort of a strange thing. It was something like they do now when somebody gets busted for pot. Instead of sending him to jail they send him to a psychiatrist and the psychiatrist writes an automatic letter after a year saying that he’s perfectly alright now..

MR: He’s better now.

AG: Yes, he’s better now. because He doesn’t smoke pot, publicly! . But that situation was tied up with a religious experience that I had, connected somewhat with poetry..

MR: William Blake’s…

AG: …which I depended on for many years as a constant reference point which was an auditory hallucination of William Blake’s voice reciting the poem The Sunflower” and a sort of an enlightening view, for several hours, of the landscape of New York (I was living in an apartment where I could see the roofs, and it suddenly seemed like the roofs were, like, a seashore in eternity – somewhat of a psychedelic experience – without drugs)

MR: But you interpreted it more as a religious ecstasy than an intellectual..,,?

AG: Well yeah – a contact with some long old divine intelligence  That is.. The problem was, however, that I was so impressed by it that I never forgot it, (vowed never to forget it), and I didn’t realize that you can’t step in the same river twice. In other words.. So, finally, in a sense, living for maybe a quarter of a century on the memory of an extraordinary open view of the universe, sort of a cosmic glimpse, and trying to reconstruct that all the time. It wasn’t until the last few years, doing a great deal of Buddhist meditation, that I sort of de-addicted myself of the continued repetitive mental reference to that one experience as the supreme experience

MR: Let me..  I’m anxious to get into both the poetry and the religion, but if I may ask just one more thing. When I was in college, we went through, all of us went through, an Allen Ginsberg-Jack Kerouac period, closely allied often with our Norman Vincent Peale period, or, you know..

AG: Milarepa period?

MR: Yes! – and the thing that I wanted to ask..

AG; Dostoevsky period

MR: Sure. right.. yeah.. between Kerouac and.. but, the thing I wanted to ask was – all of this moving, all of this running, all of this journeying, was it a seeking or a running away?

AG: I think we were… No, it was very definitely a seeking, we were running toward, we were looking for the soul of America, basically, and I don’t think the journey ended until – for me – until I discovered that neither I nor America had a soul.

MR: On that note, we will leave you for just a moment but we’ll be right back with Allen Ginsberg and “I Believe” – and you…

[the first of four two-minute commercial breaks appears here – after two minutes, the interview continues]

MR: Allen, you were talking about the soul…

AG: Yeah

MR: …of the country we all love so dearly..

AG: Yeah

MR: …and you discovered that there was no soul.

AG: Well, yeah I also included myself – that I had no soul.

MR: What does that mean?

AG: ..From the point of view of.. Well, I had been talking about how I was looking, trying to recapture a God-sensation, or an Eternity sensation, and, actually, the original experience was one of a great silent emptiness of the Universe, an extremely open feeling, no pressure, a complete freedom.

MR: This is the Buddhist take.

AG: The Blake.. , No, the Blake experience

MR: Oh the original …

AG: Yeah, except I made the mistake of calling it “God”, or calling it like “Oh I saw the Great Soul of the Universe”,  and that immediately sort of stereotyped my thinking process on it. And, through meditation, I began realizing that there was no central ego in the Universe, in a sense, or in my self, but, say, a collection of thoughts, and gaps between thoughts, like the gaps in our conversation [here] when you have a commercial.  In other words, discontinuity between thoughts.  And probably we get our vastest glimpses of the Great Silence around us without a name like “Soul” or “God”, and it probably isn’t “Soul” or “God” as it’s sentimentalized or thought of, it’s probably a great free open gap or emptiness which we can accommodate to, and enjoy, and feel our own liberty within, and also feel our own emptiness as a blessing.

MR: You’re not denying the reality, you’re just denying some of the nomenclature..

AG: Well I’m just saying.. the reality of the tree is that it is not thinking about you. The reality of your own skull is that, though there may be an illusion of thinking about yourself all the time, an illusion of ego, underneath that, there is a sort of empty open space, of perhaps attention, but no person. In other words, we’re not really ultimately “person”, we’re.. You might say we have the same vastness, and openness, and liberality, as space itself. But that’s something I would say that’s an experience one would have from sitting silently and observing the space in front of you, observing your thoughts trying to obliterate that space.

MR: How does this fit in with two of..  among your lines, that I think are among my favorites, one was..where you said, ’I’ve seen God”, in Harlem (I think it was a Harlem apartment)

AG: Yeah

MR: And the other was the…

AG: But I was all wrong!  I made a mistake folks, pardon me!  –  (If I’d a sword, why not, I could cut it right out) –  I don’t have to be consistent to the neurotic mistakes of my youth, Insisting that I saw God, folks – Terrible! – And just think of Billy Graham and all the rest of the con men, right?, that insist on…. – (Richard) Nixon! – (Gerald) Ford calling on God..

MR: Allen, Allen, some of my best friends!

AG: Some of my best friends, like, sure, all of our best friends, insisting on God when they were just parading their own egotism, trying to lay on God for their justification. It’s the worst!  Better that we be groundless.

MR: Well, let’s take a step down..

AG: Better think like St John of the Cross that we be groundless -(y quedéme no sabiendo)  -this knowing that we know nothing, rather than this hip knowledge that “me, I saw God”.

MR? How about.. was it Indian Journals where you talked about wanting to be a saint?

AG: Yeah.

MR: Now that’s not God. It might be still true, but it’s…

AG: No..but..what I would say, what I would put as a value, (rather than “Soul”, “God”, “Love”, all the old reliable pillars of authority), I would say, I think awareness, that is an increased awareness, or a widening of the area of awareness or consciousness, is a value. And I think one’s awareness can widen to the point that… well, to the point that it’s as wide as space itself, (which does not blink when somebody dies).

MR; But Allen, if that awareness itself isn’t leading to a God, to an Eternity, what profit in it?

AG: Well, there would be no time in that awareness. What profit is there to be addicted to a God? – and what great profit it would be not to have some CIA up in heaven constantly observing us, but to be the observer ourselves. And to find that the observer had no person and no permanent identity but was a.. a..transient..

MR: A force? Are we talking about a life-force, Are you, like..?

AG No, just what we’re experiencing, which is the fact that we are pieces of meat with thoughts, and behind those thoughts are (an) enormous.. you could say holy, silence (if holiness were not so much connected with the perfuming  (of) God and sentimentality)

MR: And at the same time, I know, you’re very conscious of death, even of growing old which seems strange..

AG: Yeah, I was really worried about death, until I realized, in a sense, there was no death. Once you’re dead you don’t worry about it, so.. But there is the protection of the meat and the ego right now, (which is like trying to protect a sandcastle, or a snowman).

MR: But isn’t there a drive in you to go on, to do more. You know, there’s a drive…?

AG: There’s a drive in me to be as wise as a snowman, and as empty as a snowman, and as detatched as a snowman, and as unaggressive as a snowman, and as practicing the same non-attachment as a sandcastle or a snowman. And I think that’s the better part of wisdom, because nobody’s going to be able to hang on forever anyway and keep doing it.

MR: Allen, I have to admit that your snowman leaves me cold..and it doesn’t…

AG: Well, it wasn’t a snow-job, I’m telling you! That was a real snowman that disappeared..

MR: Thanks for saving me from….!

AG: That was a real snowman that disappeared or meat-man. Why be more attached to being a meat-man than a snowman? – It’s ridiculous – They’re both going to rot in the ice-box!

MR:   Are you not a lover. Is not love tremendously important (drive) in your life?

AG: That kind of attachment… Erotic love, yes, very much, very much.It’s like a (glue)

MR: Is that a personal commitment not an involvement?

AG: Well, I’ve been with Peter Orlovsky for twenty years and that’s about as good a marriage-record as they have around in America nowadays. So there is… sort of a mutual awareness, and trust, and openness, based more on non-grasping than on grasping

MR: Was that hard for you to come to grips with – your own homosexuality?

AG: It was socially difficult, because my parents were worried and it was considered wrong or something, or anti-natural, or God would disapprove, but then, you know, it just sort of’s a conditioning, it’s a condition, like any other thing – liking doggies or liking hot dogs or liking girls or liking.. rugs..

MR: One of the.. I want to ask about drugs and the connection. While we’re on the whole subject of…

AG: Rugs! not drugs!

MR: Rugs?

AG: Yeah, like right here (points to the rug)

MR: Rugs. Oh, I’m sorry!

transcript to be continued tomorrow


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