We’ve been featuring, these last few months, video from the Stanford University Archives (a number of intriguing videos of Allen reside there, though curiously, not this one – Allen and Lawrence Ferlinghetti in 1965, from the ground-breaking WNET television series, USA Poetry, directed, as they all were, by the remarkable poet and filmmaker, Richard O Moore).
We’ll be featuring more from USA Poetry in the weeks ahead. But to start off with, Allen (filmed on two occasions, July 18 and December 14, 1965 – the broadcast went out the week of March 7 1966) .
The video begins with Allen chanting: Om Sri Maitreya
Introduction: “This bearded figure is not an Indian holy man but an American poet, who, according to many, has written the most influential poem since T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”. The title of the poem, published in 1957, is “Howl” and the poet is Allen Ginsberg. In the tradition of Vachel Lindsay and Carl Sandburg. he’s a genuinely populist poet and is credited with returning to American poetry the scope and human compassion of Walt Whitman, but within the realities of the increasingly disoriented urban experience of today.”
At approximately a minute-and-a-half in, Allen is glimpsed in City Lights bookstore reading (with, notably, the legendary Neal Cassady in the background, and with Allen, dramatically, emphasizing his poem with a pointed finger). He reads, for several minutes, from his poem dedicated to poet Harry Fainlight, “Who Be Kind To” (“Be kind to your self, it is only one/and perishable..”…”The prayer is to man and girl, the only/gods, the only lords of Kingdoms of/Feeling, Christs of their own/living ribs -“)
At approximately six-and-a-quarter minutes in, the footage now changes to footage of a rare (now long-destroyed) Robert LaVigne mural
“Ginsberg first came to promience in the mid “Fifties, in San Francisco, where he and other poets of the so-called “Beat Generation” gave public readings. A painting by Robert LaVigne provides a visual record of this period.”
Allen explains: “So this is Fosters Cafeteria, a vision of Fosters Cafeteria, around the year 1956, which would be ten years ago, when many of us who were poets and painters were living together, upstairs in what is Hotel.. this is downstairs from what is the hotel that John Weiners wrote The Hotel Wentley Poems. At that time, I had just met Peter Orlovsky, and, without a beard, was working in market research downtown on Mongomery Street. I was wearing a tie, a striped tie. We used to come downstairs and have coffee, many of us, together
Behind my head is Martin Baer who is now dead, who was a painter, and Nata Piaskowski, who was his girlfriend, and this was Shelia Boucher, a girl that I was in love with at that time. Over here, Neal Cassady – this being 1955 or 56, On the Road by (Jack) Kerouac was written already, Neal, at that time, had been the heroic prototype for the hero, Dean Moriarty, had been in love with a girl who had committed suicide that year, so her shadow, or her shade, or her naked ghost, hovered throughout the cafeteria in the painting. He (sic)’s playing a flute and has the horns of Pan on his head.”
“Over here, Michael McClure as a young man in deep earnest conversation with the poet Philip Lamantia. It was about the same time that this painting was conceived that Lamantia, McClure, myself, Philip Whalen, Gary Snyder (with Kenneth Rexroth as a moderator) together gave a reading at the Six Gallery in San Francisco, where I first read “Howl”, and where all of us, as a poetic group, all got together on the same stage, with Kerouac in the audience, with Neal Cassady in the audience, with McClure reading poems by Charles Olson and Robert Creeley (who we had not yet met) and presented here, before the public, for the first time, like, a united front of pure angelic poetry.”
“I look very naive there to myself. Well, I had just arrived here in San Francisco. I must have been here about a year. When I arrived here I had a beard but I shaved it off because I had to get a job down in Montgomery Street.”
Commentary continues: “It is likely that Allen Ginsberg is better known throughout the world than any other American poet. In 1965 he was in Eastern Europe and was crowned King of the student’s May festival, only to be expelled a few days later by the Czech government”
AG: At ten thirty in the morning, I was busted by the Czechoslovakian security police and told that my presence was corrupting Czechoslovakian youth and so my visa was discontinued. and then they put me on a plane, (they arrested me), to London. So I got on the plane, got on a plane and wrote a poem about the situation
At approximately nine-and-three-quarter minutes in, Allen is seen with finger cymbals chanting mantra (from the conclusion of the famous heart sutra – gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha) – and preparing, alongside Peter Orlovsky (and Julius Orlovsky – and Neal Cassady and an unidentified woman) to depart from his San Francisco home (at 1360 Fell Street, near the panhandle district, east of Golden Gate Park), heading out for the evening, (to a gig perhaps? Peter brings along his guitar)
Against this footage – we hear Allen reading (briefly) from “Kral Majales” – “And I am the King of May which is Kral Majales in this Czechoslovakian tongue..”..”And I am the King of May because I touched my finger to my forehead saluting/a luminous heavy girl trembling hands, who said, “one moment Mr Ginsberg”/before a fat young Plainclothesman stepped between our bodies…”
AG….(in 1965, contemplating the future): ” ..I got a little money, so I’ll buy a little Volksvagen microbus, and with Peter Orlovsky, who’s a friend of mine, who I’ve been living with for a while, and his brother, who came out of a bug-house, after being in a bug-house for eleven years… So, we’ll all go in this microbus, and visit Detroit (I’ve not been in Detroit), and Pocatello, and New Orleans, see what’s happening in the United States. It can’t be as bad as it sounds in the newspapers, I mean….
Commentary continues – “Before leaving on the trip across the United States, Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky agree to sit for a portrait by Robert LaVigne. I suppose you could say it was. kind of musical sitting.
“From the notes for a recording of Howl and Other Poems, released in 1959, Allen Ginsberg wrote this about his poetics:
“By 1955 I wrote poetry adapted from prose seeds, journals, scratchings, arranged by phrasings or breath-groups into little short-line patterns according to ideas of measure of American speech I’d picked up from W(illiam) C(arlos) Williams’ imagist preoccupations. I suddenly turned aside in San Francisco, unemployment compensation leisure, to follow my romantic inspiration – Hebraic-Melvillean bardic breath. I thought I wouldn’t write a poem but just write what I wanted to without fear, let my imagination go, open secrecy, and scribble magic lines from my real mind – sum up my life – something I wouldn’t be able to show anybody, write for my own soul’s ear and a few other golden ears…
But how sustain a long line of poetry (lest it lapse into prosaic)? It’s natural inspiration of the moment that keeps it moving, disparate thinks put down together. shorthand notations of visual imagery. juxtapositions of hydrogen jukebox – abstract haikus sustain the mystery & put iron poetry back into the line…
Finally, completely free composition, the long line breaking up within itself into short staccato breath units – notations of one spontaneous phrase after another linked within the line by dashes mostly; the long line now perhaps a variable stanzaic unit, measuring groups of related ideas, marking them – a method of notation. Ending with a hymn in rhythm similar to the synagogue death chant…at least the ear hears itself in Promethean natural measure, not in mechanical count of accent..”
At approximately fifteen-and-a-quarter minutes in, Allen is seen reading in Robert Lavigne’s studio, from his poem, “NY to San Francisco” (on the airplane)” -” And the plane bobs/ back & forth like/ a boat at Kennedy/asphalt Space Station…” …. “The radars revolve in their Solitude..” (he stops, momentarily, to Lavigne – “Are You able to work, Robert? I mean, does that distract. or does that help?….. ok.” – He continues) – “Once more o’er these states…”……. “Pyramus & Thisbe – Up here?/The Lion’s part, “you may do/ it extempore for it is nothing but/ roaring”‘
The reading concludes at approximately nineteen-and-a-half minutes in.
Notes on the second part of the program (focusing on Lawrence Ferlinghetti) will be featured tomorrow
A significant amount of additional footage was shot for this program (and indeed for all of the USA Poetry programs) and was mercifully retrieved (in the early 1970’s) by The Poetry Center at San Francisco State University – a significantly longer segment of Allen reading at City Lights (including conversation with Cassady), a more extensive version of “Kral Majales”, “The Moment’s Return…”.. Jerry Aronson’s “The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg”, the definitive film document on Allen, draws on this/incorporates this material. Indeed, it’s a must-viewing (you should all have that DVD!).