We feature today a reading by Allen, recorded, just a year before his death, on April 11, 1996, at the Evans Auditorium, Southwest Texas State University. A noticeably weakened Allen – “I have bronchitis, so if my voice fails and I start coughing…” (and cough he does, finding it necessary to bum cough drops from the audience).
He is accompanied by Steven Taylor (“We haven’t played together in half a year or so, so.. but we played together for twenty or thirty years.. twenty years..”
The tape begins with an introduction by Steven M Wilson, Associate Professor in the SWT English department (“It is beyond debate that Allen Ginsberg altered our sense of what was poetic, what was American, and what was the character of the poet in this country”. Wilson also recollects his own youthful experience with Ginsberg’s poetry.
The reading itself begins approximately four-and-a-half minutes in. Allen bookends the reading (both beginning and concluding) with William Blake songs.
AG: Good evening, and we’ll begin, (as habitual) with Steven Taylor and myself, both of whom teach at Naropa Institute (I’m there in the summer, and he’s there year round), with music, and, following the lead of Ed Sanders and the rock group The Fugs from the ’60s up through the ’90s, sing an updated version, a musically updated version, of William Blake – “My Pretty Rose Tree”.
This is followed at approximately five-and-three-quarter minutes in by a performance of Blake’s “The Tyger” – [Allen to Steven Taylor: Can you remember it? – We haven’t played together in half a year or so, so.. but we played together for twenty or thirty years, twenty years – ST: Twenty years the next month – AG: Really?..(Is it?)…Twenty or thirty years. So.. I have bronchitis, so, if my voice fails and I start coughing you can continue with the singing]
So, (an) invocation to poetry, invocation to creative mind, to the artist, by William Blake, is the famous rhyme, The Tyger – “Tyger tyger burning bright’ – how many know that poem? and how many have never heard of it? – not so many haven’t heard of it, so those who haven’t heard of it have got a big pleasant surprise. It’s one of the best-known poems in the English language – set to the heart-beat.
[Allen and Steven continue with music] – So now for some twentieth-century punk rock, an old favorite, contribution to the war on drugs – “Put Down Yr Cigarette Rag”. It’s my own “Just Say No” ( (to) “the official habit for Mr Babbitt“!) –
AG: Now that we’ve calmed the atmosphere, (to) go back in time a bit, to earlier times,. I think. Actually, one more song I (would) like to do – “A Western Ballad” – an old, old song, the very first I ever wrote, called “A Western Ballad” . I was making friends, in the last few years, with Jimmie Dale Gilmore, a fellow consciousness-is-a-mind-of-its-own too, and he liked these lyrics, do it’ll be interesting to sing them here [in Texas] – So this is 1948, actually [Allen begins singing ,starting approx 19 minutes in – (“When I died love, when I died”)]
I’m a little worried about singing because it’s such a pleasure to sing with Steven but the more I sing, the more I cough, so I’ll just have to balance it out, and you’ll forgive me if I…if my voice breaks up now and again. So, what I’d like to do for the evening is probably read three-quarters-of-an-hour, take a break, and then continue. So we’ll finish at eight (with intermissions). And I”ll read chronologically, skipping here and there over the decades, beginning in the ’40s (as we did with “When I Died..”), including poetry, from 1949, beginning, (with) some…one poem from (19)55, one from (19)66, and, skipping over the decades, (19)68, (19)69, up through Cosmpolitan Greetings (this is “Collected” and this is recent) from 1992. And then there are new poems in manuscript. So I don’t know how much I’ll be able to get through all that but, anyway, start as a retrospect for those of you who are not so familiar with my poetry and work up to the present.
At approximately twenty-two-and-three-quarter minutes in, Allen reads “Pull My Daisy” – (“written for Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, Spring/Fall, 1949″) – “Pull my daisy/tip my cup..”, following this with a dream, (“This is 1952, April “), A Crazy Spiritual – “A faithful youth with artificial legs..”…”I promise to drive you home through America”
At approximately twenty-six-and-three-quarter minutes in, he begins a reading of “Sunflower Sutra”, (“Berkeley, 1955′) [pauses – ” (It) looks like my bronchial cough is contagious. Has anybody got any more of that (those) sugar-free cough drops? I’d like those (sugar-free, if you’ve got any)?..if you could pass them up around there…] – Sunflower Sutra – ..So this is Berkeley, 1955 – Sutra? You know the word?, like..from Sanskrit, suture, English suture, Sanskrit, sutra, a connection, a joining – “I walked on the banks of the tin can banana dock…”….”tincat sit-down vision..”
Next, at approximately thirty-two-and-a-half-minutes in, “..from a long poem, ten years later, “The Fall of America”, the section “Highway Poetry (Los Angeles-Alburquerque-Texas to Wichita) – “Two hitch-hikers.” – “I was travelling across the United States in a Volkswagen bus going from East to West, and West back East, during the middle of the Vietnam War, January, February, 1966, the beginning of the vast escalation of the war, and so this is, like, a collage, or an MTV verbal-vision, montage, collage, jump-cut of things I saw, people I talked to, newspaper headlines, radio broadcasts, whatever came to consciousness, travelling right in the middle of America during that month (including lots of radio news, some of it still probably familiar to you) – “Two hitch-hikers, one Cajun…” –
And, beginning at approximately forty-and-three-quarter minutes in, a few more poems – “A few years later, back in Houston, (19)68 – “Kissass” (“Only pathway to peace and pleasure, Kissass”) and “On Neal Cassady’s Ashes
” The next poem was written on hearing..on going to the funeral of Jack Kerouac a year later – “Flying to Maine..” – This is a portion of a longer poem called “Memory Gardens” which is the name of the cemetery on the way to the airport, out of Albany on the way to New England – “Flying to Maine in a trail of black smoke…”.. Well, while I’m here I’ll do the work….drunken dumb show” ….
Then ten years later, or eight years later, a poem I read at the honors class (or a fragment of that) on the death of my father, Louis Ginsberg – it’s a series of poems that ended with a song, “Father Death Blues“, so I’ll just read one..two..and then [at approx forty-six-and three-quarter-minutes in], the threnody,”Father Death Blues” – This was written on the airplane the night I heard of his death, coming back from Boulder to Newark, New Jersey
At approximately fifty-one-and-a-quarter minutes in, concludimg the first set – “(Now) I’ll get started on the ’80’s, maybe – a couple of little short poems and a song and then we’ll take a break” – “Sphincter “ (“I hope my good old asshole holds out…”hope the old hole stays young till death, relax”) and “Cosmopolitan Greetings“ (which is the title-writing of this book [he points to the book] – a series of one-liners on the art of poetry, sent to the Socialist country, Yugoslavia, way back in (19)86, at the invitation of their Writers Congress, where I’d been invited, they asked me to send some kind of greetings because they were going to give me a prize that year (“for Struga festival golden laureates and international bards, 1986, Cosmopolitan Greetings” – “Stand up against governments. against God.…” “Candor ends paranoia”)
and, concluding, as the last poem of this set – “Proclamation” (“I’m King of the Universe. I’m the Messiah with a new dispensation/ (Excuse me, I stepped on a nail, a mistake..”…”In any case, you can believe every word I say”)
The second set begins at approximately fifty-six-and-a-quarter minutes in –
AG: “Since we both work at this Buddhist college, at Naropa, founded by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, based on meditation practice, what I was (have been) trying to do over the years was formulate instructions in sitting practice of meditation in the form of a song. In this case, rock n roll song. So this Do The Meditation Rock – “If you wanna learn how to meditate..
We’ll, follow that, maybe, with a little generic dharma – Gospel Noble Truths – sort of like trying to reduce the wheel of law, wheel of nature, wheel of common sense (in some kind of country ‘n western form (“Born in this world, you gottta suffer..”…. “you die when you die”)
So continuing with poetry of the 80’s 90s This was begun.. this is a poem begun during the Vietnam War and continued in the..oh 80’s and concluded in the ’90s. I performed it with Don Cherry and he gave me.. the jazz, late-jazz-genius, Don Cherry and he gave me some really good ideas, transforming the heavy negative of it into some positive energy. And it;s called Hum Bom! – and, in India, when saddhus raise the chillum pipe to their lips to smoke ganja, they say to Shiva, the god of change – “bom-bom maha dev”, or “hum bom” – so this is titled Hum Bom! (Whom bomb?/We bomb them!…”…”Whom bomb?/You bomb you”) – On the same subject, less from the Texas perspective and more from a New York perspective, “After The Big Parade,” July, June 11, 1991, the soldiers returning from Iraq.. “Millions of people…” cause for the next rejoicing” – “Research” – (“Research has shown…. that black people… “.. “both dies and does not exist simultaneously” – 74 “Autumn Leaves” (“we’re up to 1992”) (“At 66 just learnng how to take care of my body..”..”happy not yet to be a corpse”)
(At approximately seventy-five minutes in, Allen continues) –
AG: And from poems that are not yet (1996) printed in books, or poems of the last couple of years, one or two poems and then we’ll conclude with a few songs – What’s of interest? –
[Allen recites four recent poems) – “Like other guys” (“I’m too serious, I should be “feminine, marvelous and tough”, like other guys/I should fall in love with chicks/I should get a tattoo on my ass and raise two kids”….”my bio-degradable books should be printed on hemp paper”… “I would if I could but I can’t so I won’t”) – “Nazi Capiche?” (“..Catholicism capiche?..” “Catholicism abortion capiche capiche capiche”..”Christian sin capiche?”…”Islamic jihad capiche?”..”Zionism capiche?”..”Fundamentalism capiche?”… “Fascisti shit capiche?…) – “Is About “ ( “is about” – “Bob Dylan is about the Individual against the whole creation/Beethoven is about one man’s fist in the lightning clouds..”…”Do you care? What are you about?/ or are you a human being with two eyes and 10 fingers?”), – And, finally, “a recent poem, this year” – a “Northern Bengali Song” (“You’ve been coughing for weeks, still you don’t sit on your cushion and visualize..” … “listen, your days are numbered, why waste the essence of your clock?”… “these jokes won’t be funny when everyone leaves the seven exits”)
And now we’ll conclude with some music – (First), one extended sort of rock ‘n roll nmber – “The Ballad of the Skeletons“ (“Said the Presidential skeleton/I won’t sign the bill/Said the Speaker skeleton/Yes you will”…”Said the TV skeleton/Eat sound bites/Said the Newscast skeleton/That’s all Goodnight.”)
(At approximately eighty-nine minutes in, Allen takes time out to thank the audience member who provided him with cough-drops! – “Certainly, I do owe great thanks to whoever sent up this whole..sugar-free (relief)..thank you, (it) made the second-half a lot easier”)
“Next, the leader of the Fugs, a very great rock group (and Steven Taylor’s their lead guitarist in their new re-incarnation through the ’80s and ’90s), Ed Sanders asked all his poet friends to write new stanzas for the tune of Amazing Grace. And hearing some rumor of a Zen meditation week on the Bowery, where all the homeless were, in the middle of winter, the report I got back was that the cold was painful, (there was) difficulty in getting food, (the) food was awful, but, the worst suffering, real suffering, was being ignored by people on the street, being walked past without anybody looking you in the eye or, (even if they didn’t have any money), not acknowledging your presence, not a smile, nothing, just being outside of the pale of human existence. And that turned me on to my contribution to Ed Sanders’ anthology of Amazing Grace stanzas – “New Stanzas For Amazing Grace” – [Allen begins singing] – “I dreamed I dwelt in a homeless place…”
I’m going to end with Blake, as we began. Only this time, a sing-along. The last verse is like a mantric repetition – “All the hills echo-ed”. Since we’re in the hill country, Texas, it’s about the right place. If you’ll join along… it’s three, four, stanzas, settled into a regular rhythm toward the end. That is, you can join in. If you don’t know how to sing, it’ll sound better! You know harmony? Sing your lungs out. If you don’t, whistle, or clap your hands, have a good time. It’s easier to sing along than it is to sit there stiff and cold, locked in your body, afraid to move, self-conscious.
So, the Nurses Song, by William Blake, It’s a dialog between the nurse and the kids who are out out late at dusk, they want to stay up and play and the nurse wants to go away because it’s getting dark (“When the voices of children are heard on the green,/And laughing is heard on the hill”….. “And all the hills echoèd”.)