Terry Gross Interview, 1994

Terry Gross. 1987 in the studio on NPR’s “Fresh Air”

“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn, looking for an angry fix”

TG: Allen Ginsberg, reading his now classic poem “Howl”. Ginsberg was a cultural hero to several generations. He was one of the leading Beat poets in the (19)50’s, in the (19)60’s he was an icon of the counterculture, through the (19)70’s and (19)80’s, he continued to write and to explore Eastern religions. By the (19)90’s, he was an inspiration to up-and-coming performance poets. Ginsberg died of liver cancer in 1997 at the age of 70. His work has since been revived through documentaries, CDs, biographies and poetry collections. When I spoke with Allen Ginsberg in 1994, we talked about his poem “Howl”. It was partly inspired by his mother who had been in a mental hospital

AG: She had been there for several years and I had put her there after a breakthrough of some very violent behaviour towards her sister and a cousin she was staying with. And then I had gone out to San Francisco but the grief was very much on my mind. I had a friend, Carl Soloman, with whom I had been in a mental hospital six years before, and he was back also in Pilgrim State too. So I addressed a poem ostensibly to him but the emotions were I think were directed towards my mother, both grief and a sense of solidarity.

TG: Yeah, I know, Part 1 begins with one of your most famous lines

AG: Yeah

TG: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness..”

AG: “..starving hysterical naked..”  The original phrase was “starving mystical naked”, but I figured that was a little too simple-minded, because the problem was not all the problem of society, was also the neuroses of the people, so there’s a certain ironic edge to it which I don’t think critics of the time realized. So I said “starving hysterical naked”. So it wasn’t just a one-dimensional protest for the safety of madmen, you know. It was also, like a, like, trying to give a..quick sketches of a series of cases that I drew from real life

TG: I want to move on to another poem, “America”

AG: Yeah

TG: ..which was read the same night as “Howl”, at the same reading..

AG: Yes. And at the very first unveiling of that poem. It’s really funny. The text in the recording differs a little from the text that I wound up with. There are a few extra lines, some very funny lines actually..

TG: It really is very funny. You get a lot of laughs from the audience

AG: Well, it sounds like a stand-up comedy routine. That’s the era, actually, of Lenny Bruce around San Francisco. He was playing, I think, at the Purple Onion, I went down to see him and watch his act, actually. But I hadn’t expected that kind of reaction, and I didn’t think the poem was that good (nor did (Jack) Kerouac), it was just sort of, like, a joke, like, a take-off, a send-up of America, very light-hearted, but it’s done with many different voices in a kind of schizophrenic persona – you know, one minute serious, one minute faggoty, one minute desperate, one minute religious, one minute patriotic, one minute “I’m outting my queer shoulder to the wheel”

TG: Why don’t we hear the beginning of “America”, as you read it in 1956 at Town Hall in Berkeley

“America, I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing/America two dollars and twenty-seven cents January 17, 1956. /I can’t stand my own mind. /America when will we end the human war?/ Go [bleep-sic] yourself with your atom bomb/I don’t feel good don’t bother me./I won’t write my poem till I’m in my right mind./America when will you be angelic? /When will you take off your clothes?/When will you look at yourself through the grave?/When will you be worthy of your million Trotskyites? /America why are your libraries full of tears?/ America when will you send your eggs to India? /I’m sick of your insane demands./ When can I go into the supermarket and buy what I need with my good looks?/America after all it is you and I who are perfect not the next world./ Your machinery is too much for me./ You made me want to be a saint. /There must be some other way to settle this argument. 

TG: Allen Ginsberg recorded in 1956. You must have seen yourself as a provocateur, in a way, at a very young age. I was thinkingthat you were.. you were just coming from a place that was not average, you know, your mother was mentally ill, your mother had been a Communist, you were gay, you were an intellectual, you loved poetry, you know, everything about your life kind of set you apart.

AG: But also you..but you’ve got to realize that by this time I had already known William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac twelve years. This is not some sudden discovery of a community or ideas..

TG: Right

AG:  …We had had a long period of privacy and silence to ripen our art, to know each other and to amuse each other and to understand each others language and intelligence and sort of enlarge our own consciousness with the experience of others. Also I had already had some sort of natural religious experience and we had all by this time tried out some of the psychedelic drugs (in addition, on top of the natural religious experience that was without drugs) and already had traveled a bit, and so we were. I wasn’t a young kid then, I was twenty-eight years old, you know. It was quite a ripe time.

TG: Was it surprising to you to find people like Burroughs and Kerouac, who you felt this kind of friendship and aesthetic closeness with?

AG: No. It was just some sort of natural kinship that we felt, almost felt instantly, on meeting

TG: But did you expect you’d ever find that?

AG: Not exactly. But I hadn’t even conceived of such a thing. I’d conceived of friends, and had had friends at high-school, but I was still in the closet. Kerouac was the first person I was able to come out of the closet to and tell him about it and actually slept with him once or twice (tho’ he was primarily straight – but he was very tender toward me and saw that I was in solitary and in a great deal of confusion and anguish and he took a sort of kindly view. Burroughs was always out front and clear and lucid and intelligent (as he is now, at the age of eighty, he was so at the age of thirty-four, I think he was then). So I was lucky when I was seventeen that I met people whose genius sort of ignited my own talents to..sort of up-graded, I think, my own natural intellgence. But I’m really a student of Kerouac and of Burroughs and in some respects an imitator. I’ve had a steadier life and so I’m perhaps more on the scene (as of now), on the air, going around, giving readings, but I feel myself basically a pupil of Kerouac’s ear and his intelligence in language and his awareness of the pronunciation of consonants

TG: When you talk about being a student of Kerouac’s, I’ve never been able to tell how much your style of reading influenced him and how much his style of reading influenced you

AG: Oh, I think his style influenced me. It was way back in (19)47-48, I heard him read (William) Shakespeare aloud and it was such an interesting intonation that he put into the soliloquy of..Hamlet, I think, where Hamlet is sitting down on the steps saying..”What am I? ..What am I doing? ..I’m nothing but a John O’Dreams? [“ Yet I,/A dull and muddy-mettled rascal, peak/Like John-a-dreams..] – and the way Kerouac said “John O’Dreams”, it was like his mind went off into a little dream n that phrase. So i began seeing that there were intonations, differences of pitch, possible. You know, most poetry was..still is.. pronounced in a montone or duotone..way (it’s like I’m talking now, in a sort of monotone) but there’s possibilities in conversation where you go from, you know, a little high woodlewhen you’re talking to a little baby, down to very serious heart tones, when you’re talking to your grandmother in her last days on earth..

TG: Of course with your readings. I always felt that there was a sort of Hebraic intonation, even though I know that Buddhism was probably an even greater influence on you and you certainly hear that in your voice too, but there is a kind of Hebraic sound

AG: The Hebraic thing is very real. My grandfathers were rabbis and one of the most strong musical influences I ever had was hearing a recording of Sophie Braslau, a great operatic singer, singing Eli Eli (Lama Sabachthani), with a kind of melisma, I guess you would call it,  sort of,  a very beautiful way of bending the notes that’s characteristic of the Hebrew melody.

TG: Now when did that start to enter your reading style?

AG: Well, certainly with “Kaddish” because I was imitating the dovening motion of Kaddish, with, you know, the sound of “Yitgadal v’yitkadash sh’mei raba b’alma di-v’ra khir’utei” –  da-da-da, da da-da, da-da-da – “Magnificent  mourned no more, marred of heart, mind behind, married dreamed, mortal changed”  – That  is.. The whole rhythm of the poem has a kind of combination of  Ray Charles’  “I Got A Woman” – “Yes indeed, yes indeed, yes indeed”  (which I’d been hearing the morning before I wrote the poem) and a rhythm of the original Hebrew Kaddish that was still running through my mind and body. The first time I heard it, actually, a Jewish friend played it to me in dawn-light, the morning I started writing the poem

TG: And the Kaddish is the Hebrew prayer for the dead.

AG: Yes it’s a kind of mass and prayer for the dead in the synagogue. And (for) a minyan, a group of elders, that can get together and moourn for the dead

TG: So I guess you didn’t say the prayer when your mother died

AG: Well, I didn’t know it as well, but I did try and do it actually. I wandered around San Francisco with Jack Kerouac and Philip Whalen and we went into various synagogues bu tthere was no minion so that we couldn’t do it. So this is a way of making up about a year, a couple of years, later

TG: And this is a couple of years after your mother died

AG: Yeah, my mother died in (19)55. Incidentally, you know, I sent her the original.. a copy of the original manuscript of Howl”, which she received about a week before she died, and she wrote me a letter which was postmarked the day she died, which is quoted in “Kaddish”, in which she said (that) she got my poems, she can’t tell whether it’s good or bad – that my father should judgem beacuse he’s a poet, but.. judging from the.. that I should.. she’d read it obviously, and said “get married, Allen, and don’t take drugs”.  And she said,
“I have the key. The key is in the window. The key is in the sunlight in the window”. And then she died of stroke, I think, (within)  perhaps hours, or within twenty-four hours, of writing the letter. So I received that letter after I heard that she died. It was like a message from the Land of the Dead, so to speak

TG: Is there a particular section of Kaddish that you’ve had the most problem with controlling your emotion?

AG: Yeah. There’s a section that begins… When I’m visiting my mother in the mental hospital for the last time and I walk in and I see that she has had a stroke, and then, suddenly, there’s a break in the poem and there’s kind of a lyrical rhapsody –  “Communist beauty, sit here married in the summer among daises promised/ happiness at hand...” – And then the section that ends “O beautiful Garbo of my karma“. It’s really a nice, exquisite, poetic passage, and it’s also full of feeling,  and it’s like a flash-back in the midst of tragedy to a happier day. And so there’s a lot of emotion buried there from childhood.
Also, at the very end, the section, “O mother/what have I left out?/O mother/ what have I forgotten?..“.. “with your eyes/with your eyes/With your Death full of Flowers” – That has a sort of cumulative emotional build-up that’s quite great

TG: I want to play an excerpt of Kaddish and, you wrote this in the late 1950’s, the recording that we’re going to hear was made at Brandeis University in 1964

AG: Yes

“with your eyes running naked out of the apartment, screaming into the hall/with your eyes being led away by policemen to an ambulance/with your eyes strapped down on the operating table/with your eyes with the pancreas removed/with your eayes of appendix operation/with your eyes of abortion/with your eyes of ovaries removed/with your eyes of shock/with your eyes of lobotomy.with your eyes of divorce/with your eyes of stroke/with your eyes alone/with your eyes/with your yes/ with your Death full of flowers”

TG: That’s Allen Ginsberg reading an excerpt of “Kaddish”
Your mother was institutionalized several times.

AG: Many, many times. All during my childhood I had to go out to visit her at Greystone Hospital

TG: Were you frightened by her madness?

AG: Sometimes. Sometimes sorrowed, sometimes frightened, sometimes stuck with the responsibility I  couldn’t carry out as a kid, going out alone to see her alone in a mental hospital when I was twelve, thirteen, fourteen, that I was a..  or having to stay at home and take care of her while my father was at school, teaching,  and getting into crisis situations with her that I couldn’t handle, actually, It kind of broke my brain, broke my spirit, to some extent.

TG: Now when you started doing hallucinogenics, like LSD, did your hallcinations ever scare you because you’d seen you r mother have hallucinations and illusions because of her mental illness?

AG: Well, no, not really. I realized that if everybody began disagreeing with me, I’d better look around twice!,  and think three times, and be pretty sure I knew what I was doing. And so I’ve been able to be in situations where everybody disagreed, but at the same time maintain my sanity, so to speak, by simply following my heart, really . I have as much a tendency to paranoia as anybody in the United States at this point but at least I can see its paranoia, and most people don’t see their own paranoia

TG: That’s interesing. So your mother’s delusions actually helped you figure out what was real and what wasn’t?

AG: Well, yeah, I sort of went through the mill already so I was kind of innoculated

TG: Huh

AG: Yeah, I would say that the experience of having to deal with someone who was a..sort of deluded and hallucinating (and also (hearing) voices and all) helped me deal with my own psychic disturbances and also the psychic disturbances of other people ( I seem to have a kind of tolerance, you know, “in one ear and out the other”, for.. you know..like.. so that I can be with people who are qite disturbed, get disturbed myself but not so much so that I  have to turn my back, until, you know, all hope is lost.

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