Trungpa and Allen and… Gregory! – Naropa Institute 1975
Continuing our project of transcribing the collected talks and lectures of Allen at the then Naropa Institute (now Naropa University), here’s transcription of a lively event that took place at the Karma Dzong meditation center in Boulder, Colorado, July 2nd, 1975. Gregory Corso, as ever, playing the gadfly and the counterpoint. Allen sets the stage:
AG: We’ll continue with the Tibetan poet and yogi, Chogyam Trungpa (Rinpoche). What I thought would be interesting would be to get to the root of the matter in confusion as to the role of the poet – whether it’s a purely egotistical role, or whether it’s a bodhisattva role by its very nature. We have evidence of all those roles being played in America now, where there are poets, or prose-poets, like Kerouac who had a grasp of suffering, of the first Noble Truth, or had an understanding of it, and suffered a great deal, and understood it somewhat in Buddhist terms and spoke of it in Buddhist terms, but suffered to death, or drank himself to death – or.. and drank himself to death – either to prove it, or disprove his vulnerability to it. Gregory (Corso) [who is present] who is, in a sense, all ego, valiantly so.
Gregory Corso: Now I excuse myself again, not to interrupt (but wanting to) be nice today. I just know ego. I know ego like I know all religions, and I put them aside, but I check them out..
AG: Myself, who am a mystery, and a greater mystery, guru Trungpa. I gather from your lectures that you felt that the last few generations in American poetry were much too dominated by aggression and egotism – and my own feeling, actually, was that we, as a group, as a community, were dealing with that problem, and were aware of it, and had been aware of it for a long time, and I felt that some of your impression was taken, not so much from the texts or poetic acts… as their interpretation in…
Chogyam Trungpa: Time magazine, or something?
AG: Time magazine, but no, the larger world consciousness, media consciousness…
Chogyam Trungpa: Yeah
AG: …as we had trouble with, as yogis have had trouble with the misinterpretation of tantra, though our practice has not been so ancient in terms of a specific lineage…our practice as poets in America has not been so ancient and venerable and coherent..
Chogyam Trungpa: Yeah
AG: …over a long period of time. There has been a funny kind of lineage in America, beginning with, at least, (Henry David) Thoreau, and maybe before, going through (Walt) Whitman, through many solitaries, like Emily Dickinson, and (Herman) Melville, (who had a funny kind of bodhisattva national consciousness, and were attempting to introduce another mode of consciousness into America, not exactly a spiritual consciousness, in the sense of spiritual materialist, but in the sense of listening and quiet and attention to the woods, and attention to the land itself, which continues, up through Gary Snyder..)
Chogyam Trungpa: Yeah
AG: ..at its best practice, I think.
Chogyam Trungpa: At its best
AG: Yeah. Well, (but) with all the limitations, without an ancient tradition.. The problem in America was coming over from Europe and making-up a culture, making-up a language, and making-up a poetics, in a land that was, in a sense, a void before us, or, actually, blindly seen as a void, but actually a land stolen, so the poets have had that on their conscience and have had to deal with that. So how does that sound?
Chogyam Trungpa: Well, it sounds similar, in a way, to what I feel. It’s the question of how we.. where did all this come from? In light of history and background and chain reactions, which we can’t actually get out of, such as, like, the political situation in this country, that no great president can change the whole world at once – he has to go along with the system, or pattern, that went on, and try to resume continuity of some kind – and the same thing always happens with any kind of organization, or even an unorganized organization, there is always a problem. But there is a question I would like to get into in the poetry situation, in which.. maybe it is too sacred to discuss? – or maybe it’s not too sacred to discuss? – but there has been a kind of attitude in the poetry – some of them are based on (the) idea of personal conviction and some of them are based on (the) idea of reaction against, or for, it, constantly taking place, and some of them are based on some romantic situations, and there are a lot of situations (where) you want to bring something to the surface by finger-pointing the language. But one of the basic problems seems to be is the.. how the writer of the poetry responds at the time of writing, when you have a line in your head and you pick up your pen and paper and you begin to write down, whether you regard your particular poetry that you are going to write down as your baby, that you are about to give birth, or whether it is just instead of sitting on the toilet seat! And there is usually awareness of audience, generally – that there are no poets who completely write poems for themselves, really, per se. If you really track down the subconscious mind completely, then there is some sense of audience to whom you are addressing this particular situation. You might write haiku, or you might write traditional Western style, or concrete poetry, or whatever you do, but there is awareness of audience. But that awareness of audience seems to be, not so much that you want to address the nation as such, particularly, but it’s part of your mind which acts as audience and says, “oh yes, great!, come along, write more!” and occasionally criticizes (maybe you change this line, put something better, and this line’s weak, and this line has to be more punctuations over here). There is subconscious gossip that continues, along with the original inspiration, which makes poets schizophrenic somewhat, basically, and a lot of great poets with vision have survived from that problem, although they might have started that way, and a lot of people seem to have suffered from that, as well, at the same time. And that gap between you and yourself becomes bigger and bigger and greater, so then you begin to get resentful and angry and you blame (it) on society or whatever you might do. So I think it’s a question of, like.. giving a talk in public is different, because you have people listening to you, reacting to you, but when you are alone by yourself writing poetry, you don’t have the visible audience but you are acting yourself as audience, your version of the audience, your version. And that has created a lot of problems, neurosis, as well as, maybe, a lot of insight, in the traditional poetries of tantra, for instance, written in the language when non-duality was known as non-duality, that is to say there is no “that’ and no “this”- everything is “it” – the statement of it. Then again, that poet had to have some sense of awareness of separateness, of you and yourself. And when you have awareness of separateness, then it can be unified, it could be non-duality. Otherwise, if halting right at the beginning, it’s just one, you can’t even write, there’s no inspiration, there’s no love affair(s) involved. That seems to be the general pattern.
In Tibetan tradition, particularly, there is no such thing as poetry per se, as a separate entity. There are written forms of songs, and some of the prose that is written also could be taken as poetry, but, however, it still goes with a rhythm, not rhythm in a sense of writing a tune for it, but there is a sense of melody, which is based on inspiration, what the present situation is asking for.
And there is another angle we can approach from, that point, (which) is – the poet that writes about the past over the poet who works on the present. And the present theme has an interesting point, Such as like.. taking an example from Milarepa songs – a lot of his earlier ones are past-oriented – how terrible samsara is, and how it’s been mean to me, and all kind of other things, and.. whereas, in his later writings, he doesn’t seem to care about that particular issue as such, particularly, and he’s begun to be more for present-oriented. I think you might see there is a change taking place. Allen’s writings lately, his recent writings, his improvisational poems and spontaneous thought poem(s), (as) opposed to his earlier writings of needing a reference point – and you see some kind of changes taking part in that situation.
AG: what I was thinking, while you were talking about earlier, who is writing? The way my practice is is am I writing for public? or am I writing for myself? (or is there a “self” anyway? – but am I writing for a public? Originally, I wrote with the idea of pleasing friends or professors, or impressing them. At one point, I turned aside and began writing something that I didn’t think would be published but for friends and just my own thoughts and that turned out to be public. That was “Howl”, but I didn’t think I’d be publishing it, originally, And what it was was just notations of what I actually thought – the thoughts that went through my mind, like “I really like Gregory Corso and dislike certain worldly appearances”. There’s a very basic thread of trust somewhere on a very deep level that is constantly insulted, or insulting to the world, but there is something beyond that that I trust more than I trust my immediate responses of anger or irritation or ego-hurt, or whatever you want to call it. So the writing of “Howl” was an expression of that deeper trust, which was actually trust of my mother, who was in a mad house and who to all worldly appearance and to my own conscious mind was a loss and a drag but I found in my heart that she wasn’t, or there was some heart left there for her. Which was very difficult to reveal to my father or to my family but which I was able to reveal in poetry. So I was talking to myself, in a sense, or talking of myself, talking from myself, or writing out of feeling.
Now in that kind of writing (especially later, since I became famous, so that I knew automatically whatever I wrote would be read by a public) the problem has always been to stick to my first thoughts, or stick to my original heart thoughts, and not revise, to smooth it out, or make it more generalized for the public. So that, in a sense, what I have to do, is to catch myself thinking and then write it down, or catch myself verbalizing, or catch myself reacting, and then realize, “oh, that was authentic”, or “that was myself”, or “that was this being, that was me that was doing it”, and that requires, then, being a different “me” every day – that is, recording that “me”, but without any sense of continuous identity, or without any sense of a fixed identity – a continuous identity that changes (but not one that I would want to subscribe to to being “me” forever). So it finally comes to a phrase I read in Thomas Hardy – “The road to the true philosophy of life…” (he was speaking of the poet)..”The road to the true philosophy of life seems to lie in the recording of the diverse appearances of phenomena as and when they occur” (rather than setting out a specific philosophical background to stick to all the time, or a specific identity to stick to all the time). So it’s actually a question of breaking the rules of your own identity constantly, or finding them broken and registering that in writing, so it’s almost like fishing, and requires that kind of patience.
So that, sort of, for me, resolves the question of what is the role, what am I doing, or what is my responsibility to the public, because after I first started publishing, people came up to me and said, (Marxists or religiosos), “you have a responsibility now”. And I kept saying, “well, I don’t have any responsibility, except to record actually what I was thinking a minute ago” (or what I thought I was thinking). So my sense of responsibility is responsibility to talk to myself, or to remember talking to myself, and not to judge, or not to create a system, in a way, and I always felt safe in that, safe from making the error of picking up an idea and pushing it, aggressively, on myself or others. And I think in America now, since people practice a lot of spontaneous composition, that idea of no fixed identity but registering the actual events of consciousness, is actually understood now more than it ever has been before. Before, one would write a poem about something, set out in advance writing about (say) Old Ironsides, or about the revolution, or about truth, or about beauty, or about virtue, or about no-virtue, or about disappointment in life, taking that as a fixed philosophy.
Chogyam Trungpa: I don’t know
AG [to Trungpa]: You studied aesthetics at Oxford
Chogyam Trungpa: Yeah
AG: You might know. [to Corso] You’re interrupting my thoughts.
Gregory Corso: You paused, you paused. I thought the three of us appeared together.
AG [including the whole audience] : Fifty of us up here together.
Gregory Corso: Alright then, let me get in the audience and really open my mouth! [Corso enters the audience and begins conversing with some of them] Well, how about you three? Now you see, I gave both [sic] the three of you something…
AG: What? What? What?