In this episode, a punk Jonathan Robbins appears to the consternation of Barry Farber, and Allen discusses, among other things, ecology (eco-consciousness) and the apparent difficulty (alleged impossibility) of translation.
BF: (The Beat Generation) ….was every feature-writer’s security blanket tranquillizer and pacifier. (I want to know, technically, how you attracted that much attention?)
AG: I think, mainly, it was we said what we really thought, rather than what we were supposed to think or what we thought would be, you know, palatable for the public, but actually talked spontaneously, and didn’t think in advance what we were going to say. That, it sent a little vibration out that made copy but also sent a little vibration out that turned people on to the fact that..that they had their own Whitmanic selves inside them that had private universes that wasn’t anything like they heard on the air or in Life magazine at the time
.BG: Well, what was the Beatnik battle-cry. What was it that you wanted for yourselves or for America, back in the “Fifties now?
AG: Back to soul.. For America, back to soul. In the ‘Fifties, you see, the ecological situation was already risen in the minds of the poets.
BF: Oh, you didn’t recognize that
AG: Yes, yes, the word “ecology” was used, and, like, at great length, by friend poets, Gary Snyder and Michael McClure. The first big reading we ever gave altogether in San Francisco, McClure read a poem about the murder of the whales, called “For the Death of 100 Whales” about the mass slaughter of whales in the Pacific, and Snyder read a long poem using American Indian mythological themes, and talking about how the forests had been cut down and sacrifices to Jehovah, through the burners in the lumber camps in Oregon and Washington State. So that was, like, very definitely in our minds already, the ecological situation. (William) Burroughs was preoccupied, (as I was, probably), with police state tendencies in America. We were all aware of the difference between public mythology and our private experience of marijuana (which we knew was relatively harmless, compared to the government official myth, that it drove you straight to the mad house – and I’m quoting! – quote: “drives you straight to the mad house” – Harry Anslinger, 1938). So we knew there was .. there was also the Cold War arising then, (which seemed , you know, a lot of clap-trap to us, it seemed like the egotism of power-heads in the government (who) were proposing their own aggression and laying it on the world). There was, in (19)48, as you may remember, the first time that the United States ever had a peace-time draft (which they’re trying to revive again, incidentally – citizens, beware! – the unAmerican tradition of the peace-time draft!)
But what I’m interested in is what is the.. what were the effects of our poetry and our public poetries, so to speak, on other impressionable people of other generations beside us. And we have some here. Jonathan Robbins (his name has been dropped on the air), he’s seventeen and he’s from New Jersey. He’s a poet who both myself and (William) Burroughs admire as a poet. So..
BF: Seventeen years old! – I didn’t know you were allowed to write poetry when you were seventeen years old in New Jersey! – Can you come a little closer and answer Allen’s question. What impact did the poetry of that era have on you?
JR: Well the only.. the only writing of that era which had any effect on me were of course Allen’s writings, and then the works of William Burroughs. The rest of it leaves me cold.
AG: He’s a real punk! – “The rest of it leaves me cold” – great! – Yes – (to Jonathan Robbins), What did you like about Burroughs’ work?
JR: Well, Mr Burroughs is, of course, a master stylist, the greatest prose writer since (Gustave) Flaubert, the justification of the species, in fact. He’s just the perfect magician of American letters.
BF: What kind of poetry do you write?
AG: Don’t forget (Arthur) Rimbaud.
JR: Oh yes, Rimbaud
AG: No putting down Rimbaud. now.
JR: Well, Rimbaud was sort of a flash-in-the-pan, so to speak.
BF: How can you tell how good a poet is when you can’ t read his language? I mean, if I were to translate Allen Ginsberg into Albanian, I bet you a couple of people in the rear of the room would start looking to watches and walking out. I don’t care how well I read it, or Allen read it, or an Albanian read it, because Allen Ginsberg is not an Albanian-language poet, he’s an English-language poet
JR: Hmm. Yes, that’s something I’ve been reproached with on numerous occasions, but, I do the best I can, get several translations of the works and a great deal of it does remain intact. Besides, the poetry of Baudelaire, even in translation, is superior to any poetry in English, since Edgar (Allan) Poe.
BF: I felt like I was on an LSD trip when a Soviet intellectual who I wish were here (make a note – get Lev Navrozov here, the next time Allen Ginsberg and his friends are with us), Lev Navrozov goes charging into nuance, and it is almost as though you become the size of a corpuscle and can course through any brain-tissue of any other person, with a search-light, when he goes to work unpeeling, For.. And he showed me the futility of translation itself, and anything involving anything but grain statistics, really. The.. as just one example, he was showing me how (Aleksandr) Solzhenitsyn really couldn’t be penetrated by a non-Russian mind and how we are a bunch of blithering, yammering idiots in appreciating, he says, the wrong things, you know what I mean? – I can understand his point. Suppose, for instance, I were to write a poem from the point of view of an American Southerner
BF: and I were to throw in a little line like, “I hope to kiss a tadpole”. Now I can see in the University of Moscow, scholars saying, “Ah, yes, he is using that delightful little creature in the filthy creeks there” to make some kind of point – Uh-uh, that is a take-off on a Southerner trying to sound like a non-existent Southerner for the amusement of an out(sider). In other words, it’s a Southerner’s take-off on a Southerner.
AG: Je veux baisser une petite grenouille – “ “I wanna kiss a little frog”
BF: That kind of thing, exactly, that kind of thing
AG: Well, no, you can translate.
BF: You can translate but you can’t implant in the mind of the foreign reader the fact that this is sarcasm, this is a Southerner doing a take-off on himself, you know
AG: It really depends on the genius of the translator and also how much the poet collaborates with the translator.
BF: Have you ever read your poetry in translation?
AG: Yes, I’ve worked on translations of my poetry in Italian and in French, and, right in the last four five years, my poetry has been.. actually, oddly, been the best-selling poetry in Italy (among Russian, American and Italian poets) because so much work was… went into the preparation, like phrase-by-phrase, line-by-line, examining for rhythm, going into the etymological roots of the English to find the equivalent etymological root in Italian – like real work – five years for a single book. So that, like, if you work at it, you can get it, and there are some great translations, like of Proust, the great translations from French of Rimbaud, or of Celine. If you’ve got a writer, who’s primary material is visual, pictorial, (Burroughs, say), you can very often transfer that pictorial matter right into the.. another language, and get some impression, some impression of the force of it, and the eyeball, the mental-eyeball, mind of the writer in the original. Like, (Guillaume) Apollinaire reads well in translation, actually.
But I would like to get back to this.. Well, we’re getting, perhaps, too literal for the dozing audience. I want to get back to some hot subject, like generations, again.
BF; When we reconvene, a little more of your recollection, Allen, please, on what it was you were up to in the ‘Fifties.
(were you up to change the world, or change the economic status of Allen Ginsberg-and-his-friends?)
to be continued