Allen Ginsberg interview – continuing from yesterday
VS: When you first visited me in my home in my birthplace, the old city of Dubrovnik, in October of 1980, you were so delighted by its beauty that you decided to stop and stay for a long four weeks! During that time we spent any happy hours together, talking just about everything, making plans for the first book of my translations of your poems. It was there in Dubrovnik that you wrote two of your best later poems – “Birdbrain”. and “Eroica” (“White marble pillars in the Rector’s courtyard”..) – You even recorded “Birdbrain” with a punk group – ((The) Gluons) – and it was quite a big hit for some time – while “Eroica” stands, in my opinon, as (an) equally good poem. Can you tell me something ore about the method of their composition?
AG: Yes, that was a great time! Both poems that you speak of deal with a natural speech rhythm. This is (a) really important point! Because actually the mind-breaks that you go through in composing are the natural speech pauses. The difference between the two said poems is not in the method of composition but in (the) different use of speech pauses. I wrote the entire poem “Birdbrain” in one long run, except the last line, as well as (the) entire “Eroica”
My basic measure s a unit of thought, so to speak. So, in my case, it’s not so much a unit of sound as a unit of thought. The tension that builds in “Birdbrain” is expressionistic, in the sense that it’s oganized along a narrative but very rhythmic line. and in “Eroica”, it’s a line in which you’re trying to tell a logical sequence of events during the concert of Beethoven’s “Eroica”
Yes, they are good poems, although I’m not so sure that many people think so.
VS: How do you see the history of the world now (1986), what parts of that story particularly interest you? Or, more precisely, how do you see (Jack) Kerouac‘s America today?
AG: I don’t really know, it may be an old stereotype, talking that way. When we talk about certain states of history, what are we talking about exactly?
But one thing is for sure, the ecological destruction is so great and the militarization so expensive that it has dug a pit out of which I don’t think Americans can ever get up again
I’ve always been interested in notions of censorship. Because censorship involves thought control. The purpose of it is usually to maintain some sort of militaristic power which becomes tighter and tighter.
I would love to return to the civic consciousness that was present in the early American political mind and try to do projects that are for the benefit of society and the environment rather than sitting back and letting (the) idea of virtually unregulated individual and corporate greed run away with the show. Self-discipline, self-regulation, self-control, are old family values, and values valid in terms of the family, and community, and our children. Why not speak of those in terms of our own society, then? What about better character and better self-discipline on the full-scale social and political level?
VS: In 1951, Kerouac said, I think, (a) very important thing – “The earth is an Indian thing“- I think it perfectly fits in in his vision of America, of America as seen in (the) photographs of Robert Frank, for whose photo book [The Americans} he wrote the introduction, of Mexican fellaheen, as he wrote in Lonesome Traveler, of..not only, life on the road – but of life in small towns, in villages..It is very interesting that Kerouac’s original preoccupation was the town and the city – the town versus the city, so to say, the monstrosity of the big city and the humanity of the town, and the destruction of (the) town by mass production capitalism and hard-hearted exploitation. I’m very curious to hear from you – was late Kerouac disappointed with America?
AG: Well, yes – by the early ‘sixties, Kerouac had suffered so much attack and abuse from all sides, and had become so entangled in personal problems with his mother, and, most of all, had become so ill, physically, with alcoholism, that he was not in a position to go out in the world very much. The problem is that he was very open, totally helpless. On the one hand, his mother was like a French-Canadian peasant, (a) narrow-minded, selfish, naive, hard-hearted, family-oriented lady. She wanted to keep Jack to herself and needed Jack, and he was tied up with her the same way he was tied up with his last wife Stella. So he felt bound to take care of his mother and, having to live with her, and even with his wife Stella, he had to put up with their very narrow opinions. In that sense, Jack was always an “Americanist”, always interested in American archetypes – and, in a funny, but very sad, way, he didn’t have a position, he was just himself, his own character.
VS: Who are the biggest literary influences from the Old Continent [Europe]? I mean, not only on you but on the entire Beat Generation? – If I see it correctly, it seems to me that, for example, William Blake had (a) great impact on you, Michael McClure and Gary Snyder; (John) Milton on you and Snyder; Percy Bysshe Shelley on you, McClure, and especially on Gregory Corso, and so on..
AG: Yes, you have it right. Very definitely all our work is built on a very firm base of knowledge of nineteenth and twentieth century writing, from Balzac and Baudelaire through the French Surrealists, with much of their knowledge appreciated and genuflected to and then developed further in an American context fr an American tongue, slightly later in the second half of the twentieth century when there was a slightly more obvious opening of a new consciousness.
Probably the biggest sole influence on all of us was Rimbaud. Great prose writers like Jean Cocteau, Antonin Artaud, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, Jean Genet.. Of course, old Greek poetry, Sappho, Anacreon.… Frank O”Hara and Philip Lamantia and even (Lawrence) Ferlinghetti were all deeply influenced by French Surrealists. In our early years, Dostoyevsky was (the) biggest influence for all of us – myself, Kerouac, Neal Cassady, Bill Burroughs..
VS: I also want to ask you about the great French poet Guillaume Apollinaire and his influence on you, especially his long line, for example in his poetry book (poem) “Zone”.. You also dedicated one of your poems from Paris to Apollinaire.It’s titled “On Apollinaire’s Grave” [included in Kaddish & Other Poems] Did you ever read it in public readings?
AG: Peter Orlovsky and myself were at Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris to visit Apollinaire’s grave in 1957. The poem you are speaking of is a kind of .my poetic description of our visit there. The entire poem is very focused, and everything is tied together by the same emotional feeling. Even in this case, we are speaking of the breath as the control and measure of the line. But the main line of poetry is the breath, not the page, or how the page may look.
VS: At this point, which seems very appropriate to me, I want to ask you (a) very specific question. You see, it’s quite strange, but I know a lot of European poets who generally think that a long line in poetry means bad poetry, or (a) bad poet. On the other hand, we can say that in American poetry the long line has been a sort of major poetic… Here is a string of American poets of (a) long line that I can remember at the moment – Melville, Whitman, Charles Reznikoff, Delmore Schwartz, William Carlos Williams (in Paterson) – even Ezra Pound (in the biggest part of The Pisan Cantos), you, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch (whom I find very interesting.), etc…
AG: One important reminder here is, as T.S,Eliot says in one of his essays [“Tradition and the Individual Talent”] , is that “art never improves”. There is no progress in art. It is either good or it isn’t . Art that moves us today can be from anywhere, from any time, just like Apollinaire’s work in his great book of poems titled Alcools. Hart Crane did a really interesting poem which you should look up, “Havana Rose”, which was like a drunken suicide note to himself, it was one of the things that turned me on to raw thought as poetry.
VS: I also wanted to ask you about the ever-growing popularity of William Burroughs. It seems to me that readers who love Bill Burroughs’ works are becoming more and more self-aware, like persons who are able to recognize the main themes of his novels as (the) main problems of our society today…
AG: The moral of this part of the story is that “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty“. The purpose of it [censorship] is, usually, to maintain some sort of militaristic status quo which becomes tighter and tighter. Now I speak like Bill Burroughs – [long laughter] – But he has it right. As he pointed out, even in his early works like Junkie and Naked Lunch, the war on drugs is a fake, it’s a hype. It has become a problem here in Yugoslavia (sic) , in Italy, in Hungary, in England, in Cuba, in Australia, in South America, in the States – just everywhere. All the moralistic pompous trumpeting from the police agencies and the politicians that it’s immoral to allow people to have drugs has nothing to do with their real reasons – they are addicts to their personal power. Their behavior is totally irresponsible, immoral, and even unconstitutional/
VS: For the end, what may be your message to the readers all over the world?
AG: Every morning I wake up realizing that there’s no victory.