Ginsberg at UMass, Lowell – part 1 (Burroughs and Kerouac)

Allen Ginsberg at the UMass (Lowell)

Courtesy the video archives of the Jack and Stella Kerouac Center For Public Humanities (scroll down), Allen Ginsberg speaking on and reading from William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Philip Whalen, Nanao Sakaki, Robert Creeley, Gregory Corso, and John Wieners, recorded at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, 1991

Following a broef introduction by Bill Roberts, the head of the English department (who notes Robert Creeley is in the house) and Hamid Shirvani, Dean of Arts and Sciences, Allen begins speaking

AG: Actually, my understanding is that this is a class, or the core here is a class, in “Beat Literature”?  – Is that right?. So that was what I was aiming at. So what other classes are there here? So there’s the Beat class and then just miscellaneous students from other classes..?…”Modern Poetry” – What else? Anything else?… and of “Writing”

So what I thought I would do.. I’ve been teaching a class in “Beat Literature” also, at Brooklyn College, and also at Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics (and I taught that for years, on and off, and, in the course of that, made a little anthology of Beat, or pseudo-Beat, or Beat-allied, writing). So in the Beat class, did you study any of Gregory Corso‘s work? – John Wieners? – how many here have heard of John Wieners? – one? – Well, John Wieners is going to be reading tonight along with Robert Creeley and myself (and Robert is not exactly a “Beat” writer, but we’ve been friends and allies and is sort of an honorary Beat, or Original Beat, or Post-Beat, or Postmodern Beat, or…).  So all three of us will be reading tonight, so you’re welcome there. And Robert Creeley and I think that John Wieners is one of the major poets of this half of the century [twentieth century] in America, and so those of you who are studying either “Writing”,”American Poetry”, or “Beat Literature” would do well to pick up on him.

So what I thought I would do is read a few poems from various different writers that are connected with the Beat movement and maybe you get acquainted that way (recognizing that) the subject is “Beat and Kerouac” for the Kerouac Convention here [Lowell Celebrates Kerouac]

William Burroughs – Photograph by Allen Ginsberg

So, (to begin with an elder, William Burroughs. How many have read some of Burroughs? – almost everybody, I guess. And I have a favorite passage of Burroughs which was used in that movie of Naked Lunch, called “The Market”, from which.. I don’t know if any of you saw.. what was it? – it was that cafe where Venusians and people from weird planets got together to get drunk? – (Star Wars) – Star Wars, yeah, actually..Star Wars ripped off Burroughs from “The Market” –  Allen begins reading Burroughs] – “Panorama of the City of Interzone . Opening bars of  East St. Louis Toodle-oo “at times loud and clear then faint and intermittent like music down a windy street…The Composite City where all human potentials are spread out in a vast silent market……Gaming tables where the games are played for incredible stakes. From time to time a player leaps up with a despairing cry, having lost his youth to an old man or become Latah to his opponent. But there are higher stakes than youth or Latah, games where only two persons in the world know what the stakes are..” – (just like life!) – “All houses in the City are joined….”

“In the City market is the Meet Café” – (this is where Star Wars comes in) – “In the City Market is the Meet Café. Followers of obsolete, unthinkable trades doodling in Etruscan, addicts of drugs not yet synthesized, pushers of souped-up harmine, junk reduced to pure habit offering precarious vegetable serenity, liquids to induce Latah, Tithonian longevity serums..” – (Tithys was promised eternal life by the Gods, but they didn’t promise him a young ever-youthful boy, so he wound up dust in a bottle, talking and wanting to be annihilated) – “Tithonian longevity serums..” – “…black marketeers of World War III, excusers of telepathic sensitivity, osteopaths of the spirit, investigators of infractions denounced by bland paranoid chess players, servers of fragmentary warrants taken down in hebephrenic shorthand charging unspeakable mutilations of the spirit, bureaucrats of spectral departments, officials of unconstituted police states, a Lesbian dwarf who has perfected operation Bang-utot, the lung erection that strangles a sleeping enemy, sellers of orgone tanks and relaxing machines, brokers of exquisite dreams and memories tested on the sensitized cells of junk sickness and bartered for raw materials of the will, doctors skilled in the treatment of diseases dormant in the black dust of ruined cities, gathering virulence in the white blood of eyeless worms feeling slowly to the surface and the human host, maladies of the ocean floor and the stratosphere, maladies of the laboratory and atomic war… A place where the unknown past and the emergent future meet in a vibrating soundless hum… Larval entities waiting for a Live One…”

So that’s quite a prose-poem actually. It’s a little like MTV.  I think it was actually first published in Black Mountain Review number seven, by Robert Creeley, who, very early, recognized Burroughs’ quaint, precise, clear visual eye. So what you have is, like, a..panorama, (a) fast nightmarish panaroma, maybe more easy to understand these days when you have this sense of cut-up and jump-cut in music video, one image coming after another without explanation but building up a sense of.. well, futuristic-ness, or surreal nightmare intensity and outrageous post-Modern post-Scientific science-fiction end-of-the-planet ominousness. So that was Burroughs, the elder (gentleman) As I’m going along, if you have any particular questions, you’re welcome to…

Jack Kerouac – Photograph by Allen Ginsberg

Next, I thought..  How many here know Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues? _ Not so many. So, I’ll read a couple of those.

(Jack) Kerouac was a very interesting poet, turned on a lot of poets, actually, and had a big influence on American poetry, although, interestingly enough, he’s very rarely represented in any academic poetry anthology (or the regular anthologies that you get here – has anybody seen any Kerouac poems in any of the Norton’s or Macmillan’s or any of the school anthologies?) – So if you were to define academic as being the English professors that make anthologies that are used in high schools and colleges, Kerouac, then, has been totally rejected as a poet by the academy, but, at the same time, he’s a favorite of many of the (living) poets – almost every open-form, avant-garde, poet in America.. digs his Mexico City Blues, including Bob Dylan, and those who have been influenced by Dylan, (the entire folk-rock, later punk-rock and grunge ,world, really, up to Sonic Youth and U2, both directly influenced by Burroughs and by Kerouac indirectly)

“Starspangled Kingdom bedecked/in dewy joint – DON”T IGNORE OTHER PARTS/OF YOUR MIND, I think/And my clever brain sends/ripples of amusement/Through my leg nerve halls?And I remember the Zigzag/Original Mind/ of Babyhood/when you let the faces/crack & mock/& yak and change/& go mad utterly/in your night/ firstmind/ reveries/The endless Not Invisible/Madness Rioting/Everywhere” – (That’s a pretty good description of everybody’s subjective world of thinking and dreams – That was the 17th Chorus)

“All great statements ever made/abide in death/All the magnificent and witty/rewards of French Lettrism /Abide in death/  All the Roman Sculptor/of Heroes, all Picassos/and Micassos and/ Macayos/and/Machados/ and K e r o u a c o’ s – /even Asvaghosha’s Glorious Statement/and Asanga’s and Holy Sayadaw/and all the good and kind saints/and the divine unabstractable ones/the holy and perfect ones/ All Buddhas and Dharmas/All Jesuses and Jerusalems/And Jordans and How are You’s/ – Nil, none, a dream./ A bubble pop, a foam snit/in the immensities of the sea/at midnight in the dark” – ((24th Chorus) That’s pretty vivid – and quite real psychologically)

What else is good? – (49th Chorus) –  “They got nothing on me/ at the university/Them clever poets/of immensity/With charcoal suits/ and charcoal hair/And green armpits/and heaven air/ And cheques to balance/my account/In Rome benighted/by White Russians/Without care who puke/In windows/Everywhere/ They got nothing on me/’Cause I’m dead/They cant surpass me/’Cause I’m dead/And being dead/ I hurt my head/And now I wait /Without hate/For my fate/To estate”  – (So his “fate/To estate”  is now his big monument)….

[Allen continues with the 50th Chorus] –  (“Maybe I’m crazy, and my parts/Are scattered still – didn’t gather/Em when form was passin out…”…”Maybe I’m an Agloon/doomed to be spitted/on the igloo stone/ of Some North mad”) (must’ve been high when he wrote that!) -and the 51st Chorus – (“America is a permissible dream..”) – (So..kind of interesting, for nationalist chauvanists) – “America is a permissible dream/Providing you remember ants/Have Americas and Russians/Like the Possessed have Americas/And little Americas are had/ By baby mules in misty fields…”….”Afternoon, when men/gamble and ramble & fuck/and women watch the wash/with one eye on the grocer boy/and one eye on the loon/and one eye/in the universe/in Tathagata’s /Transcendental/orb of the balloon”

– and the 54th (Chorus) – “One night in 1941 I was a kid/And ran away from college”…”Once I went to a movie/at midnight, 1940..”…”On both occasions I had wild/Face looking into lights/Of Streets where phantoms/Hastened out of sight/Into Memorial Cello Time” –
(I always liked that – “Memorial Cello Time” – it’s like an old home movie).

So (74th Chorus) – “”Darling!”/Red hot/That kind of camping/I don’t object to/unless it’s kept/within reason./ “This coffee is delicious”/ This is for Vidal/Didn’t know I was / a Come-Onner, did you?/(Come-on-er)/ I am one of the world’s/Great Bullshitters,/Girls/  Very High Cantos.”

What else? – What else? – oh yes, there’s a very interesting one here from Lowell. His whole point is that (this is) spontaneous writing, (you) let the mind free and what rises you accept and work with and write it down, and if you’re able to do that, actually, you wind up making some kind of sense. So there’s one preliminary (85thh Chorus) – “Do you really need/ the right word/Do you really need/Of course it’s all asinine/Forms of asininity/Once & for all/ Mr William Carlos/Wiliams/ Anyway,/An asinine form/which will end/all asininity/from now on/ That’s a poem/The poem/Will end/Asininity”.

So the poem that ends asininity is the 97th Chorus, describing his father coming home in Lowell, drinking a beer – “Meanwhile there’s my Pa, alone in street,/Coming for supper, under heaven bleak/The trees of March black twigs/Against the red and gory sundown/ That blazed across the River/sinking in the ocean to the East/beyond Salisbury’s latest & last/ grain of sand./ Then all’s wet underneath, to Eclipse/ (Ivan the Heaven Sea-Ice King, Euclid,/Bloody Be Jupiter, Nucleus/Nuclid, What’s  His Name – the sea/ The  sea drang Scholar with mermaids,/Bloody blasted dad flap thorn it/ – N e p p y T u n e -)/All’s wet clear in Neptune’s Seat/Sensing the aura, the news/Of that frost, my father/Hurries in his Woe Street/Conscious he is a man/Doomed to mortal destiny./”And my poor lil Ti Pousse,” –  (“little Jack”, my poor little Jack) – “he thinks of me,/”He’ll get it too”.

That was really interesting. He just improvised whatever came to his mind including the time he got on the tip of his tongue the word “Neptune”, which was on the tip of his tongue, and he couldn’t..  and it sounds like Shakespeare! – “The trees of March black twigs/Against the red and gory sundown/That blazed across the River/sinking in the ocean to the East/beyond Salisbury’s latest & last/grain of sand” – (Salisbury is down around here?  yes? – so it makes sense, that word) – “beyond Salisbury’s latest & last/grain of sand./ Then all’s wet underneath, to Eclipse” – then the parenthesis – “(Ivan the Heaven Sea-Ice King, Euclid,/Bloody Be Jupiter, Nucleus/Nuclid, What’s  His Name” – dash “- the sea/ The  sea drang Scholar with mermaids,/Bloody blasted dad flap thorn it/ – N e p p y T u n e”  – N-e-p-p-y-t-u-n-e! – It’s so much fun, actually. It’s like a jazz musician, you know, skittering around until he gets straight on the tone.

So that’s Kerouac, I don’t want to go on too long (on) just one, except he’s so…so much a part of late twentieth-century American Literature, and, amazingly, not everybody really knows his work that well. I ran into the actor, Johnny Depp (do you know who that is? anybody? – yeah), who is a Kerouac fan, and who was trying to film reading a couple of Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues, which he knew quite well, and liked a lot. The one that he was favored was from (one of the last ones)if I can find it, like a Shakespeare…yes? like a Shakespeare sonnet. So all of Kerouac’s pessimism and Catholic horror of the flesh – “The wheel of the quivering meat/ conception..” (211th Chorus)…..”Poor! I wish I was free/ of that slaving meat wheel/and safe in heaven dead” – (see how it rises to a climax with ”Poor!”, like real rhythm, real interesting rhythm, and American rhythm,.so that (Bob) Dylan thought that Kerouac.. So this book blew Bob Dylan’s mind. We were in the Edson cemetery here (in Lowell) filming, in 1975, and Dylan picked up Mexico City Blues and started to read from it, and I said..I asked him, how come & what he knew about it, and he said that, oh (that), it was his favorite book of poems, that someone had handed it to him in 1959 in St Paul and it blew his mind. And I said, why?,  and he said, it talked to me, the first book to talk to me, in my own language, American language, and that seems to be Kerouac’s power.

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