Allen Ginsberg – Charlie Rose Interview 1994

CR: When Allen Ginsberg belted the raging words and rhythms of his poem “Howl” in 1955, a generation with a new beat took hold. For five decades he’d been the poet-laureate of protest and heir-apparent to William Blake and Walt Whitman (I think, the last time he was on this show was to talk about Walt Whitman), also an essayist and pacifist, Allen Ginsberg continues in the forefront of the American social debate, a Guggenheim Fellow, and recipient of the National Book Award for Poetry, he is at sixty-seven, still performing before sell-out crowds of all ages. A new documentary, The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg, celebrates a poet and the work, and I’m pleased to have him here this evening.
CR: What do you think of this new film?
AG: Well, it’s family-oriented.
CR: What does that mean?
AG: Actually my own family takes part
CR: Your supplementary family is..
AG: My own stepmother is actually the narrator as much as anybody, and she’s pretty intelligent, so I like that part. I think it’s a little over-dependent on ‘Sixties stars like
Joan Baez and Abbie Hoffman, and maybe could use a little more literary background, my life is literary mostly – there isn’t much of Gary Snyder (I wish he were in it more), some of (William) Burroughs, (I’m) glad that’s there, Gregory Corso is in it (that’s a good thing, because he’s very charismatic in any…


CR: Well what’s extraordinary.. I think I mentioned this earlier..the amount of footage that, evidently, was there, the amount of things that were on tape, whether it was from your appearances at different events and television shows during.. I mean, it begins with sort of what Bill Buckley and Dick Cavett did (the appearances on those shows)
AG: Well, going back to the ‘Sixties and ‘Seventies.. Well, when Jerry Aronson proposed..
CR: This is the producer?
AG: Yeah. When he proposed making it back in (1970, no,) 1982 at Naropa Institute, where we have this Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, where there was a (Jack) Kerouac conference. He started filming people, and I said, okay, I’d co-operate if he would get together all the public footage possible (that is all the news footage from Granada Television, England, and NBC or whatever here (in the U.S.) or Channel 13 (Public television), then at least he’d have the basis for a lifetime documentary. So he did that and he interspersed it with a lot of new stuff from Boulder (Naropa) or with interviews with (William) Burroughs.
CR: But it’s your life..
AG: Yeah
CR: And, in the end, when you look at that, what are you.. I mean, are you happy with it? Do you think it’s a reflection of who you are and what you are about?
AG: An aspect, you know. Like, I’m also, like, overtly a homosexual..
CR: Yes.
AG: Or gay
CR: Yes.
AG: That isn’t very much emphasized there.
CR: Now why is that? Because Peter (Orlovsky) (your partner) didn’t want to…
AG: No, no, I think that’s more the timidity of the industry, you might say..
CR: Oh really? There was a worry about the reception of..
AG: No, no, if you get it over-heavy on that, you know, maybe… Then, there’s the aspect of..I spent a lot of time in Europe and there’s very little of that, in Eastern Europe (because I’ve just been in..
CR: Serbia

AG: Serbia..
CR: Right
AG: ..and all over Europe, and giving readings in Belgrade (breaking the cultural blockade – which is a great mistake – You know, there is a cultural blockade as part of the general blockade of Serbia)
CR: Meaning what? – That..
AG: Well, you can’t get information from the outside, because the West, as part of its blockade, has made a cultural blockade so the people there are… There’s one.. The government has a one-channel brainwash propaganda television which keeps everyone in hypnotic thrall and you can’t get outside news, you can’t get the International (Herald) Tribune or the New York Times or Le Monde – it’spart of official policy
CR: Okay, but…
AG: American policy!
CR: American policy?
AG: American-U(nited)N(ations) policy!
CR: You’re saying that Americans do not want the people of Serbia to read ?
AG: It’s part of the blockade! Remember, there’s a big blockade? – and that’s part of it – A huge mistake (which the Americans haven’t even noticed!) – I was there. They kept telling me in Belgrade, in Serbia, “Please, please, ask Bob Dylan to come, ask as many writers and rock bands to come”
CR: These are the literary and intellectuals of Serbia?
AG: The majority of Serbians in the big cities are against the war
CR: And against (Slobodan) Milošević I presume?

AG: And against Milošević, Milošević has control of the one-channel television that covers the countryside (but there’s some alternative within the big cities, so there’s opposition, the majority who voted against the government – but we haven’t taken care of that – so what’s needed is a cultural blitzkrieg if anything!)
CR: Does Allen Ginsberg, pacificist as he is, believe that’s what needed is some way to meet military force with military force to stop the Serbs in terms of the massacres that have taken place and in terms of the bombardment of Sarajevo and in terms of the genocide?
AG: I had a conversation with President (Václav) Havel of Czechoslovakia in which I have suggested..
CR: Right, a fellow-poet..
AG: ..whom I’ve known since 1965, and I suggested a cultural blitzkrieg (since everybody else was in a stasis, they didn’t know what to do, they weren’t wanting to do military – and I’m a pacifist anyway)
CR: Right.
AG: But one thing we could do, and could have done all along, and still can do, is a cultural blitzkrieg – information, an information channel open to Serbiancitizens, particularly in the countryside, with whatever technology we can mobilize. Havel’s idea was that it might work, but it might take too long
CR: You mean, people would die in the meantime?
A: It took twenty years, he said, in Czechoslovakia, but it succeeded, but we haven’t even tried that, at least as one step, as a beginning.
CR: it probably succeeded because of external forces too, by eliminating the Soviet will to stay.
AG: Yeah Yeah. Sure,

CR: But does it cause you.. I don’t want you.. You’ve got a poem there, which I want you to read..
AG: Well, why don’t I read it..
CR: Well, one more question about this. Does it cause.. does this sort of.. does the atrocities of genocide cause you to rethink your pacificism at all, or do you still firmly hold to belief of pacifism?
AG: No, it’s not pacificism so much as, you know, I am not going to go there to fight myself so I wouldn’t send anybody else and urge anybody to go there and fight and get killed. I wouldn’t suggest to anybody to do what I myself will not do, am not doing. At least I’m modest enough to know that! Yeah, tell someone, “Yeah, you go over there and get your head blown off. helping them out”! But one thing I can say, I was willing to break the cultural blockade and go in there.
CR: You were willing to go in there yourself to break the cultural blockade and come back.
AG: Yeah

CR: Would you read the poem that you have? This is called “Peace in Bosnia”, or what is it?
AG: “Peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina” I had an idea just in the middle of the night
CR: Recently?
AG: Yeah, yeah.. “General Mother Teresa..” (speaking of pacifism) – “General Mother Teresa, Emperor Dalai Lama XIV/Chief of Staff Thich Nhat Hanh/Army Chaplain John Paul II/followed by the shades of Gandhi/Sakharov, Sartre & his uncle/Albert Schweitzer/ went to the bombed out streets/talked to Moslem Bosnians in/the burnt out grocery stores/ parlayed with Croatian & Serbian Generals & Parliament/ asked them to quit shooting & firing/artillery from the mountainside/ overlooking villages/emptied of grandmothers -/ So now there was quiet – a few fires/smoldered in back alleys/ a few corpses stank in wetfields/- But who owns these houses? – The/ cinematheaterswith broken doors?/ Who owns that grocery store, that City Hall,/ that windowless school with broken/rooftiles?/ Who owns these little apartments, now/all worshippers of Allah/ pray in towns besieged 100miles away/overcrowded in tenements and tents, with/ UN portosans at the crossroads?/ Who owns these abandoned alleys &/drugstores with shattered bottle shards over/the sidewalk and inside the door?/ Who’ll be the judge, attorney, file/ legal briefs/bankruptcy papers, affidavits of ownership, deeds, old tax receipts?/ Who’ll council who lives where in the rubble/who’ll sleep in whatbrokenwalled hut/ in the full moonlight when spring clouds/pass over the face/of the man in the moon at the end of May?”

CR: Good. Tell me the process of this Did you just wake up in the middle of the night, and actually.. ?
AG: I had this funny idea. You know, what if there were peace?
CR: Yeah..
AG: You know, how are they ever going to clean it up? You know, the disorder that’s been created by the Serbians, and by Moslems who have blood on theie hands, and by the Croatians – all of them have blood on their hands – (the greater karmic weight, probably, on the Serbians for starting it). But who’s ever going to disentangle all the confusion rubble that’s been created by the war, you know? They’ve destroyed law – they’ve destroyed families, they’ve destroyed communities. How’s it ever going to get put together again, even if there were peace?

CR: Let me turn and talk about generations, I mean.. You’re sixty-seven now, and…When was… “Howl” was first published in..what? ..was it (19)55) or (19)56 or (19)57?
AG: (1956)
CR: it was (19)56
AG: Written (19)55, published (19)56. Censored by the Customs and local Vice Police -Children’s Vice Police! ..
CR: Yeah why was it?.. why was that?
AG: I don’t know of these..
CR: (Some) judge somewhere got
AG: .. Vice cops, they didn’t haveanything to do, came into City Lights and bought a copy and then busted (Lawrence) Ferlinghetti, the poet-owner of City Lights in San Francisco, the publisher, and the clerk, Shig Murao (who hadn’t read the book) and then put them on trial. And the judge.. said (it’s) ok, it’s not obscene. And the inquisition was interesting, because it heralded the beginning of the end of censorship of literary works, because, in that decision, the judge said that social commentary, (intelligent social commentary, just social commentary) and aesthetic power (or beauty) were legaldefenses aginst the charges ofobscenity (before that, you couldn’t get a book off on that, you know, before that. if it had “dirty words”, that’s it) – just like it is now [1994] on t.v., by the way, you know.

Jesse Helms put in a law directing the FCC to censor all.. what was it?..not “obscene”, but.. all “bad language”on tv, between.. twenty-four-hours-a-day. And that’s been fought down the line..

CR: But hasn’t Howard Stern, the radio (“shock jock”) …
AG: He gets fined.
CR: He gets fined.
AG: But somebody who wants to broadcast “Howl”, which is being read in the afternoon in schools in anthologies..
CR: So if you put in on at certain hours..
AG: If you put it on the same hours on the air,then you could get busted. So Pacifica, which used to broadcast it, no longer can, and it can’t be on television. And once they get this giant Viacom-Paramount merger where one person controls the entire information network, then I’m off of this so-called “free market” of ideas and the “main market” and I’m bricked off the scene between six p.m and eight a.m to defend the ears of minors from “bad language” presumably, (or what Jesse Helms thinks is badlanguage).

CR: What do you think of the (19)90’s? – Does the (19)90’s have any stirrings of the previous decade in the same way that, you know, David Halberstam, in his book about the (19)50’s [The Fifties (1993)], pretty much says that the (19)60’s came about because of forces that were at work in the late (19)50’s?
AG: Well, poetry in (19)50’s, (19)60’s and (19)90’s is a unique..
CR:(19)50’s, (19)60’s and (19)90’s – forget (19)70’s and (19)80’s?
AG: Well, yeah,(19)70’s and (19)80’s were dominated by homogenized mechanical lying all over (both in media and in the government)
CR: Homogenized lying?
AG: Yeah
CR: So what about the poetry of the (19)90’s?
AG: I think that what’s happened is that in the (19)90’s there’s a huge resurgence of poetry readings, and a revival of Beat Generation literature, and I think that’s because there is the unique individual voice (authentic, as distinct from the canned voice of media and the lying voice of government)
CR:The canned voice of media and the lying voice of government.
AG: Well, I mean I can’t read the poem..the poem you’re talking about, I can’t read because…
CR: You can’t read “Howl” because that would be violatingwhatever, whatever, whatever
AG: Well, violating the Neo-Fundamentalists idea of what.. their idea of, you know, like, what’s proper for.. for people to hear.
CR: Yeah. What restrictions would you put on what you could say over the airwaves?
AG: I don’t know, but..
CR: Any?
AG: Restriction that would ban poetry..
CR: Yeah, I know you wouldn’t do this. I understand that…Yeah, Right. But any kind of speech that you would want to…. well, what, suppose it was anti-Semitic (as the accusations against this young aide who…
AG: Well I would just apply the normal law,the normal laws apply – and this new law is abnormal, it’s right-wing and Jesse Helms. It’s actually alcohol and cigarette money which funds the Heritage Foundation
CR: Right.Alcohol and cigarette money funds the Heritage Foundation. Is that the only source of their funds?
AG: Well, Coors beers funds Heritage Foundation, which formed this law and gave the legal language and the apologia which Helms putinto the Congressional Record. And cigarette money is what.. He (Jesse Helms) is the lobbyist for, Senatorial lobbyist for North Carolina, cigarettes gets his money. So it’s alcohol and cigarettes posing as the moral authentic arbiter of what kids in America can hear.
CR; Well let me point out..
AG: Well, I don’t know..
CR: Let me leave North Carolina there for one second, you know, because, you know, that is my home state, It is the same.. I mean that money also funds a lot of people.. that money from the primary economic interest (whether it’s oil in Texas or tobacco in North Carolina – in North Carolina, one of the largest banks in the world is headquartered in North Carolina, that money also funds other political candidates who are far. who have far different views on.. than Jesse Helms does, as you know, former governor and President of Duke (University),Terry Sanford was a Senator and received backing from the same people.
AG: Right. However, the cigarette companies, or tobacco companies, do fund him (Helms). And for him to be posing as a moral arbiter of the state seems to be ridiculous, and that..
CR: I agree. Let me raise one last question with you.
AG: But I don’t know how to answer your question, “What should be censored?”
CR: I don’t know either.
AG: Just as simple as that. I don’t know how to answer that question but I know what they are censoring is wrong.

CR: I’ve got less than thirty seconds. Of the things that you have done in this really wonderful lifethat spanned sixty-seven years, what are you most proud of? Can you tell me in a word? Just being there and being a voice for….?
AG: No! – Writing poetry!
CR: That’s what I mean, giving a voice, being a voice..
AG: Being an artist, being an artist
CR: Being a voice to…
AG: Not a voice to others, but giving a voice to my own private thoughts..
CR: That’s what I mean, yeah
AG: The role of the poet is, I think, to say what he thinks whether it’s right or wrong, if it passes through my head, then that’s what I can represent as truth.
CR: Your truth in your heart
AG: “It is true that I though this” -whether it’s true or not, it’s true that I thought it.
CR: Thank youAllen Ginsberg, thank you very much,
AG: Okay. Toodle-oo.
CR: Great to have you…
AG: Take care…

[see also Allen on Charlie Rose, the following year – here]

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