Allen Ginsberg on Jack Kerouac (1982 Workshop at the Kerouac Conference)

Jack Kerouac wandering along East 9th Street after visiting (William) Burroughs at our pad, passing statue of Congressman Samuel “Sunset” Cox, “the letter-carrier’s friend” in Tompkins Square toward Corner of Avenue A, Lower East Side, he’s making a Dostoyevsky-mad face or Russian basso be-bop Om, just walking around the neighborhood, then involved with The Subterraneans, pencils & notebook in wool shirt-pocket, Fall 1953, Manhattan” – (Photograph and Inscription by Allen Ginsberg) – c. Allen Ginsberg Estate.

We’ve been in the past weeks spotlighting Clark Coolidge and Robert Creeley’s remarks at the 1982 symposium on Jack Kerouac at Naropa, (celebrating the 25th , anniversary of the publication of On The Road)
– but what about Allen? – Here follows a transcription of some of his remarks, (delivered as part of an on-going workshop, July 25th, 1982). The primary focus is Kerouac’s  “Belief & Technique for Modern Prose”

Allen goes systematically through this work, annotating each of Kerouac’s pithy statements.For reasons of length, this transcript has been broken up into several sections. Today, the beginning:

AG: Is anybody recording? Is anyone recording? There’s no provision for recording? – Oh..Yeah.. Oh fine..thank you. Can you hear me clearly, or is this too muffled? In other words, with this tone of voice and with this loudness of voice, can you hear?. And if you can’t, if you’re too far back, then you probably should come forward  – and Joe (to Joe Richey), you should probably be in with one of the people that you don’t know, you know the classes with people that you never heard before, have you studied with Ted Berrigan? ..yeah..ok..because you’ve heard me before.. ok..

How many people are from Boulder, can you raise your hands? And how many people are in town for the festival? [show of hands] – Amazing! – ok – and how many people have..been in a workshop with me before? So..yes..the.. one, two.. who else?.. three, then, actually,we’re, in a sense, we’re strangers, in terms of discourse and method. How many are here for the whole ten-day festival? [show of hands] – wow, great, congratulations, we all got here.

I want to do some very definite things. The only thing is I’m a little… because I’ve been helping organize the festival, I’m a little, spaced-out as to what the procedure is. Is this a two-day workshop consecutive? In other words, will everybody be here for two days and has signed up for two consecutive days, so we have two days to work, and the next day is tomorrow?  And the last thing, is it possible to get some water? [water is passed to him]  great! – And the hours are two to three-thirty, is that right? – How many were here last night at the opening? [another show of hands] – What was that like?! – I thought it was great. I mean it really was..traditional…  (Re the films:) I think we’re going to try to arrange another viewing. For one thing, the Steve Allen thing will be, I think, almost continuously on display over at the Museum. We have a Betamax (sic) or a video version of it (which it originally was) over at the Boulder Center For Visual Arts. So you’ll be able to see that (tonight, especially, and then we’re arranging to have it, so it will probably be playing often).  And I think also trying to arrange for another showing of Pull My Daisy, the Steve Allen show, and Cocksucker Blues also. So, later in the week..

Well..  so the traditional way of beginning business is in the local Buddhist circles is a bow and sitting like this (Allen displays). The bow is kind of interesting as a method. The bowing is down like that (so that’s the deliberate part), then, once you’re down, it’s all over, so, lifting yourself up is not part of it, it’s just getting up again. The actual… the sort of haiku of it is the going down, and the coming back up is just relaxed. So I’m told there’s all sorts of interesting techniques for psychic, or mind, tricks, of that kind, that I’ve been picking up on, relating to tea-ceremony, or swordsmanship, or calligraphy, haiku-writing, and poetry-writing, all sorts of mind-tricks that were very..home-made familiar to (Jack) Kerouac and home-made familiar to William Carlos Williams and to Ezra Pound and home American-made to the innovators of the Imagist and Objectivist schools of the  nineteen ten-twenty-thirty-forty period – home-made mind-tricks for augmenting perception, or for sharpening perception, or for locating perception, or for locating the mind, or for locating consciousness, locating awareness, specializing, particularizing perceptions of things, so that you could actually write them down and transfer your little epiphany vision over to the paper and over to the reader. Those were home-made things, and they’re very powerful.. the American tricks, the American mind-tricks, “eyeball kicks”, so to speak (which is a phrase I used in “Howl”). There’s also an ancient classical development of such mind-tricks in Oriental painting and poetry and calligraphy and tea-ceremony, like that little bow (just that one funny idea..that the going down, that the deliberation and mindfulness is in taking a posture and going down, during which time you sort of blank your mind, in other words, you’re not supposed to be reverential or anything, you’re just blank. You see, you get rid of yourself for a second, so to speak. Instead of straining to get to God when you’re going down or to zap a message through the top of your forehead, it’s actually letting everything go and not having to do anything, which is a nice idea, you know, of blanking out, rather than intensifying- dig? In other words..because there might be some mystic heads or psychedelic heads or cosmic-vibration artists, who think that, when you make a gesture like that, that it’s some kind of zap that you’re supposed to be sending through the cosmos, when, actually, it’s just the opposite, you’re, for a change, leaving the cosmos alone, not trying to zap anybody. You know, letting things be, or, in a sense, acknowledging the universe as it is already, without your improving it, without your need to strain aggressively to add some icing on top of the corpse! (or the living body). So, the mind-trick there particularly, and always struck me, is that people went down (as (Chogyam) Trungpa did last night) and when they went down there was, actually, nothing going on in their heads (and because nothing going on in their heads, they were aware of just the ballet of it, so to speak, or the profound emptiness of it, which is what the bow is about). Then, once you’re down, then you come back up and nothing’s happenng so you just come back up normal as if you’re coming back up to your seat. So, you don’t have to worry about your attitude in coming up, in other words, you don’t have to worry if you’re holy enough, as you come back up, you don’t have to worry about if you’re sending the right vibe because you don’t have to send any vibe, you’re  just coming back up.

So, that attitude of complete relaxation, nothing to be gained, and nothing to lose, above all, nothing to lose, is a basic aesthetic attitude, which (Jack) Kerouac had – nothing to lose, obviously, no matter what he said, because all he had to do was say what was on his mind . He didn’t have to create a drama, so to speak, he didn’t have to create an artificial metaphor, he didn’t have to make up a poem, the poem was whatever it was going on in his mind (which is mostly twentieth-century art, which is more recollection of mind than an attempt to make up somethin’ pretty, for the purpose of making a “poem” (with a quote around it), with a frame, that you could send to a magazine.) His poetry is not a poetry until after it’s published and people point at it and say that it’s poetry, because, actually, what it is is whatever you scribbled out of your thoughts, in whatever form it takes, according to whatever content it had, or whatever sequence of thinks, sequence of thinks, as they came along, according to whaetver sequence of thinks as the thinks were scribed on the page, but it needn’t necessarily start with the idea you’re going to write a poem. So I used to say I’m just writing writing (when someone’s asking, “What are you writing there?”), because I didn’t know, I wasn’t writing rhyme, and I wasn’t writing short lines like (William Carlos) Williams, and I wasn’t counting syllables. I was just scribing some thoughts that came through. It was easier that way to have the raw material as the method – the method being raw material rather than a finished poem. So I didn’t have to strain. Besides which, I felt ignorant, unsophisticated, and too lazy and so I didn’t think I could measure up to writing a quote “poem”, but I could measure up to  just writing what I was writing, if I wanted to write somethin’. So that saved me, out of some kind of stupid innocence. So I was too dumb to write poetry. I was just going to write whatever I was going to write.

The mind-trick, or, I should say, the dharma Buddhist mind-trick of .. when you bow, emptying your mind (or allowing your mind to be empty, rather than straining) and when you come up just coming up, is a mode, or is a method applicable to poetics also, is a method applicable to writing poetry (the same kind of empty head, where you don’t have to know in advance what you’re doing, just do it). In other words, you do it without knowing what you’re doing, or, do it without knowing what you’re doing in a sense that you do it without planning,  “like a miser counting the herring in his barrels”, (as Kerouac would say), [Editorial note – “Like a Miser Hero of Gold/Cellars/& herring/in barrels” – from Mexico City Blues], without planning rationally in advance, without limiting your mind to the few plans you could make in advance in words or conceptualize, without limiting yourself in advance by insisting that you have this form and this structure and you know what you’re going to say. There’s no need to be that stupid because the mind is much vaster than what you can think of in advance, obviously. Your whole body.. the whole body and the whole mind is smarter than the partial conceptual set, or conceptual scheme, that you might make up. Everybody understands that, that’s just basic New Age Journal teaching, I guess (or just New Age teaching). The application of it, the understanding of it in the body, and the application of it to praxis, to work, to art, is a little more difficult, but the general idea of some holistic sense of a body-mind together, as one, as being smarter and bigger and more ample than just a fast catchy.. conception(s) or thought-forms, I think that’s a common understanding, is it not?  I mean, is this an unfamiliar idea? Did anyone do.. if it’s familiar, raise your hand [show of hands] – okay, so I don’t need to beat a dead horse too much. If.. Is there anybody to whom this notion is unfamiliar? (not that I’ve completely expounded it, but is there anybody who finds this confusing what I’m saying? – because, if it is, if at any point, I am not completely clear to anybody, please interrupt and we go back over the ground that we’re covering. I would like to be able to be clear enough so that everybody could completely understand and.. because I think I’m talking about something that is clear, clarify-able, though I’m talking a little abstractly at the moment. So we’ll get to applications in a minute.

“Jack Kerouac, Avenue A across from Tompkins Park New York, his handsome face looking into barroom door – this is the best profile of his intellgence as I saw it sacred, time of Subterraneans writing”  (Photograph and Inscription by Allen Ginsberg) – c. Allen Ginsberg Estate.

How many here know Kerouac’s short writings on.. “How to Write”, I think it’s called, “Belief & Technique for Modern Prose” ? – How many here know that? Raise your hand if you do. [show of hands] –  And how many do not? – Okay, so, since this is a Kerouac conference, and since I learned my own writing, a great deal, from him (mostly from.., directly from him, and from William Carlos Williams and William Burroughs and a few other people), I’d like, then, to run over some basic ground that Kerouac wrote about, since most people don’t know it.  He wrote a little tiny essay of thirty points, thirty slogans, to cover how to write, called  “Belief & Technique for Modern Prose” (so he was talking about prose, but it could’ve been poetry anyway because his prose and poetry were intermingled, they were like.. he wrote prose-poetry. So it’s thirty one-liners. (Allen begins reading from “Belief & Technique for Modern Prose“)- “one” – (these will be available in the Naropa Library, if anybody wants to get ahold of it, maybe I’ll..I hadn’t realized it was that unknown, but.. ) –  “1. Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for yr own joy” – (In other words, not to write poems, but for your own joy. So, always keep a notebook around somewhere – “Scribbled secret notebooks” – [Allen shows his] – I keep this. Do you all have big notebooks or little notebooks ? How many here carry a pen? – always – How many don’t? – Well, if you want to write, first thing you do is get your axe ready – (there’s two that don’t, or maybe four?) – get your axe ready means you always have a pen. and also, part of that is always have a notebook of some kind. In this case, I just have a new one I bought the other day because I used up my old one in which, well, generally I just write poems in it but here I wrote notes for introducing (Chogyam) Trungpa – “Fellow, poet lover, drinking and admired Kerouac..heard his voice, heard K voice influence US poetry American-style, artist, calligrapher, photographer, meditation-teacher, equestrian. Welcome.” Well, so, like one..funny little speech-poem, but Kerouac wrote his book Mexico City Blues poem-by-poem in a little notebook like this (which is the cheapest around) and each poem is about the size of one of these pages, If you ever get to look at the poems in the book Mexico City Blues. I don’t know how many of you know this. Each one of those is a poem, written one page, one a day, each morning. Got up, took a cup of black coffee, smoked a joint, on the roof in Mexico City, wrote down fast first things that came to his mind as he.. you know, in the morning, the morning vision-thoughts, left over from last night going to bed, in bed, dreaming, and then just wrote it, and then went on to the next day, or maybe did two in a row. How many know this book? How many don’t? – Well, for those who don’t, I would recommend it as a seminal book. How many agree (that) this is a major book of American poetry for the century?  [show of hands] – Well, that’s a pretty good number for this.. So I’ll take all of our advice, those of you who don’t know it, it’s two-hundred-and-forty-two choruses called Mexico City Blues. He had his axe, he had a little notebook. So I was recommending, for carrying around, for fast spontaneous immediate notation, always have a book and always have a pen. I generally have three because they run out easily and I try to carry a pencil and I usually try and use an ink pen, fountain pen, actually, real old-fashioned fountain pen, and then a subsidiary ball-point (pen) just in case I run out of ink. At home I have a great big notebook, maybe something, maybe.. bigger than this, that I keep by my bed table for dreams and for serious writing in bed or for writing at my desk. And I keep everything together in a notebook, being a poet, not being a prose-writer much, because the thoughts as they come out of my head.. I don’t write that much but I write five minutes a day, say, but if you write five minutes a day, by the end of a year you have more than anybody could ever read, you know, four or five hundred, six hundred, pages. So you write two pages a day and it’s three-hundred-and-sixty-five days in the year, that’s seven hundred pages, and who can read all that? – who’d want to?. So maybe thirty pages of that is truly your poetry, you know, you hit on something once a month, two pages each. So it’s doing, really, what comes naturally, like rolling off a log, rather than trying to write poetry, dig?, rather than straining to write something. This is the external method, let us say. I’m not talking about the mind-trick, I’m talking about the material trick is.. you always have.. always have a great big notebook by your bed, always have a light handy that you can get at (Jack had a breakman’s lantern by his bed, so he could always switch on and write, in the middle of the night, waking from a dream). If you have a night-table lamp, that’s great, if you have a night-table, that’s good to have there, a notebook there. He also.. also I write.. he also wrote straight on typewriter too – but this is to fill in all the spaces. So you’re always ready. So you’re always ready and you always have your axe ready. So he thought.. and his attitude.. his belief (it’s not a technique, it’s a belief.. the attitude – “secret notebooks and wild typewritten pages” – “wild” and “secret” – wild-secret – everybody has “wild secrets” – I have wild secrets – so it’s for your wild secrets, the things that you wouldn’t tell your mother or your best friend, things that you’d be ashamed, all that you know about, whatever you’re most interested in and most ashamed of at the same time. The most difficult thing about writing is that you think you’re supposed to write about things that other people can read, or that are suitable for other people to read, rather than things that are suitable for you to read in your old age when you want to check back what you were really thinking about when you were..eighty-seven, or twelve, or nineteen.

[Audio for the above can be heard here, beginning at the start and concluding at approximately nineteen-and-three-quarter minutes in]

This posting will continue tomorrow

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *