Library of Congress reading (ASV #16)

Allen Ginsberg reading for the Library of Congress, NYC, April 28 1988

Our series “Annotated Streaming Videos” continues with these notes on Allen’s April 28 1988 Library of Congress reading (recorded in New York City). Allen, dapper in red shirt (and tie), crossed legs, sitting on a mattress. Steven Taylor, with guitar, immediately off-camera.

Allen: “I had an encounter in my dreams with an old friend, a lady who was dead (Joan Vollmer), who had been married to William Burroughs, the novelist, who was one of my teachers. And she had died in Mexico City and was buried there, and I had never seen her grave so I went to Mexico City in my dream.
So this begins with the scene in bed in San Francisco, goes back to.. Mexico, and then – suprise end!” (he then reads the poem, “Dream Record: June 8, 1955”)
…So it’s like a big jump-cut. One minute she’s sitting and the next minute, when I ask her a question, “what do the dead know?’ – bam! – a tombstone and a branch and rain in Mexico.”
Allen continues and next introduces “A Supermarket in California” – “(An) all-night grocery in Berkeley, on, I guess, University Avenue – (the) parents shopping? – I was alone, full of Walt Whitman, and so I wrote a poem when I got home called “A Supermarket In California” – [reads the poem (last three words – “on the black waters of Lethe?” – are cut off] –

“So, you get this kind of quick juxtaposition of surrealism, quick putting together of opposite things, as, in my poem “Howl”, I have a very interesting phrase, “the roar of doom on the hydrogen juke-box” – “hydrogen jukebox”. William Butler Yeats has an interesting line about his daughter, prayer for his daughter, (you remember the poem?) – “out of the murderous innocence of the sea” (you put “murderous” and “innocence” together – well, who could put that together? – the ocean (naturally, the ocean’s innocent and the ocean drowns ships so it’s murderous) – didn’t mean to, just implacable vastness and silence”.

“We’ll go on to litany then (now) on something more personal. My mother Naomi Ginsberg died in a mental hospital in 1956, and I wrote a long poem several years later, a kind of elegy, using the Hebrew word “Kaddish”, or say ‘a ceremony for the dead’. Were there a minion, that is to say, a group of ten elders you can say a memorial prayer to the dead, the sound of which is, as follows, this forms the rhythmic substrate of the poem”. [Allen then begins to recite the Kaddish prayer in Hebrew]. “So it’s that rolling, dovening, as they ‘d say, back and forth .So that’s like the basic rhythm of the whole poem.
And I’m reading from the section of this narrative poem which describes my last visit to my mother in Pilgrim State Hospital,Long Island, where she died, after lobotomy, many electro-shock(s), a vision here of son and the mother (this would be 1953 or so, the writing, however, 1959-60) [he reads from “Kaddish”and then..] “Part IV of Kaddish, a fugue, going back and forth between the sound of the birds in the graveyard and the prayer of the son seeing the death of the mother”.

“My father, Louis Ginsberg, was a poet and a school-teacher in Paterson, New Jersey, high-school. He got to be real old and was ill, in 1976, and so I helped take care of him, with my friend, Peter Orlovsky, and these are little descriptions of the last month of his life. And then he died, when I was in Boulder, Colorado, at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, at a Buddhist institute, the first Buddhist University in the Western World, “where East meets West in the mind”. So I flew back, and wrote a song about his death, for the funeral. So, beginning with a couple of little, like, notes, or poems, while he was declining. One of his favorite poems that he taught in high-school was a poem by William Wordsworth, which all high-school kids used to know, called “Intimations of Immortality From Early Childhood: An Ode”, which had the line, “The rainbow comes and goes/ and lovely is the rose/ The moon doth with the light look round her when the heavens are bare..and oceans on a starry night..I forgot..are clear?”… Anyway.. It had sort of, like an, old-fashioned-recollection-of-eternity feeling, of childhood vision of the sky and the universe, and it was one of his favorite poems. And while my father was on his sick-bed, he asked me to read it, so this describes that.” [Allen reads “Don’t Grow Old”]. “Then my father died and I flew back to the funeral – “Father Death Blues”, written on an airplane, coming back to New Jersey” [Steven Taylor joins him on this with guitar accompaniment].

“We’re talking about “buddha” there, “dharma” there, “sangha” there, and “guru”. So you better figure what those are. Guru is like teacher, could be the high-school guru, high-school teacher, college teacher, or meditation-teacher or spiritual teacher, breath-teacher, some-one (who) teaches you how to breathe easy. Buddha is from Buddhism, historical character who woke up, and realized he was going to die, and everyone was going to die, so that life was a bit like a there’s Buddha 404 b.c. – also means “wakened mind”, dharma is the sort of historical experience, books about wakened mind, the teachings of many teachers over the centuries about how you wake up, how you breathe properly, and how you breathe easily, while you’re alive. Sangha is the community of fellow meditators, the community of fellow wakened spirits that.. Those were the little key words in one of the stanzas of “Father Death Blues”.”

Allen continues: “This is a little pop song with elegant words giving complete information instructions about how you go about meditating. Its called “Do The Meditation Rock”” [Steven Taylor joins Allen on this one and, with supporting harmonies, sings along] – “Right you get the point? – from the personal calm to the governmental calm to the international calm. So the calm starts in your own breast and calm breath”.

“This is 1958, a recollection of an old aunt that I had who was a great lady in the family who died in 1940, so, 18 years later in Paris, thinking back on my childhood family affairs, a little poem called “To Aunt Rose”. “The way of writing you see, you just write down what you think as you’re thinking it. So the slogan there would be, “First Thought, Best Thought”. William Blake said, “First thought is best in art, second thought in other matters”. (Jack) Kerouac was in favor of spontaneous improvisation, like in jazz, and here it’s a kind of spontaneous improvisation, one thought after another, as it came, thinking about my Aunt Rose, who died 18 years earlier, and here am I on a different continent, a world away and a world away in time too – “To Aunt Rose”” [Allen reads].

“Then we go on to 1957 or so, ’58, in Paris… (but) lets jump ahead to the psychedelic era of the ’60s, a poem called “Wales Visitation”. That’s a kind of (an) odd one, because it was actually written as a kind of psychedelic intensity experience, but trying to make it an intermediary between ordinary mind and visionary mind, so there’s a lot of minute particular details, common objects, that the reader’s eye can see and my eye picked out. The site is Wales, in Great Britain. The valley, Llanthony Valley, in (a) rainy day, green, green declivity, farm-houses along the sides of the valley, “Lord Hereford’s Knob”, a big mountain; on the right hand side, Capel-Y-Fin, an old ruined chapel, where artists used to have a bohemian printig house in the 20s , a commune-like place. I was visiting my editor-publisher. I call it a “Visitation” because, in the old days, the bards, the Welsh bards, or travelling poets, used to go on what they called Visitations, from town to town, rhyming the gossip. So this is, like, the gossip of my own mind, on a foggy day, high in a valley in Wales. [Allen reads “Wales Visitation”] So that’s an account of a visionary experience, composed of natural objects seen through the natural eye and describable, palpable, sensory – “lamb hair hung gossamer rain beaded in the grass” -“sheep speckle the mountain-side with empty eyes” – Those are, like, sort of focused, focused eye, focusing on detail, because what William Blake says is that the key to poetry is in the detail. He says “Labor well the minute particulars”, take care of the little ones, “generalization and abstraction are a plea of the hypocrite, knave and scoundrel” (like presidential candidates, generalization and abstraction, that’s all you hear out of them – out of poets you might get “lamb hair hung gossamer rain beaded in the grass” – you’ve actually seen it, you’ve been there)”.

Allen concludes with three poems not by him (well, the second, he confesses, is!) – Schwitters, Williams, Shelley – ”

“First I’d like to begin with a 2oth century poem, pure sound poem, by Kurt Schwitters, born in 1887, a Dadaist, Futurist, famous collage artist (if you go to the museums of the world like the Museum of Modern Art in New York (probably in Philadelphia you’ll find collages by Schwitters. Some of the best and prettiest and brightest and most spacious little tiny collages that anybody ever made. This is a little sound collage called “Priimiititiii”” [recording of Allen reading Schwitters not included in the broadcast]

“So that little pyramidal litany, little pyramid litany, it gets bigger and bigger, is very similar to… I used it basically as the form for certain sections of “Howl” and “Kaddish”, like “O Mother what have I forgotten? O mother what have I left out..” Oh, I have an interesting poem that’s half-song-half-poem – “Hum Bom!”. I’ll do that and then we’ll figure a song – Hum Bomb” [Allen performs “Hum Bom!“].

“My old poetry mentor-teacher-acquaintance was William Carlos Williams, one of the great American poets of this century who taught us all to write the way we talk. Idiomatic diction, idiomatic rhythms, vernacular pronunciaton, using tones of voice just like when you’re talking with your grandmother or yourself or with a classroom of pupils, from high school, do you sound? You sound like you’re talking – so, he said, write the way you’re talking, from the living language. And I was in China, in 1984, and went to sleep in a little town of Baoding, Baoding – B-A-O-D-I-N-G, on November 23rd, and slept, and saw Williams, as he started writing me a poem, actually giving me instructions, (on) how to continue as a poet. So this is called therefore, put in quotation-marks, (but the whole text is in quotation marks because it’s what he said in the dream), “Written In My Dreams by William Carlos Williams”. Obviously, it’s a joke, I wrote it because I dreamed it up, but, on the other hand, that’s part of the dream, he said it, so..”

Allen concludes, speaking of Shelley and the “Ode to The West Wind”:

“…a great formal terza rima, a three-lined rhymed verse that Dante used, (and) that Percy Bysshe Shelley used, for one of the greatest Romantic poems in the English language, the “Ode To The West Wind”. My father used to recite that in high-school. He would go around the house reciting it, and so I learned a lot of it when I was a kid. The theme is the West Wind , you know, Winter’s coming, the West Wind comes with its chill, blows everything apart, the decline of civilizations, perhaps, the fall of America, or the fall of Rome, creation and destruction at once, but also it’s the wind through the world, like the wind through our mouths, like in (Bob) Dylan’s “Idiot Wind” – the wind blowing through the buttons of our wonder we can even breathe” – the breath, the wind of our own breath. And Shelley is identifying the breath of his own poetry with the breath of the great world’s wind, the Western wind . It’s interesting to know that the word “spiritual” (because this is a really spiritual poem) comes from the Latin “spiritus” or “breathing”, so when you speak of “spiritual”, you’re talking of unobstructed breath, big breath – and this is the poem of big breath, inward and outward, inspiration (taking in the breath), exhalation (exhaling the breath). So he’s really talking about his own spirit, his own breath, identifying his breath with the grand breath of the world – because everybody has that big ambition to be the king of the universe, to possess the universe, sacred world, and to make his own talk the sacred pronouncements of the majesty of cosmos. So this is how Shelley actually went ahead and did it. And if you yourselves pick up a copy of this poem, “Ode To The West Wind” by Shelley, and recite it aloud, taking a breath whenever you see he has a punctuation mark or period or parenthesis, you too can get as high as (him) Shelley on the majesty of the breath of the West Wind.. So, (Percy Bysshe) Shelley’s “Ode To The West Wind”.”

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