Allen Ginsberg Reading at Virginia Military Institute 1991

A remarkable document today. Many are intrigued and bemused by this arresting image:

Gordon Ball‘s iconic photo of cadets at the Virginia Military Institute, Lexington, Virginia immersed in their copies of “Howl”.

The occasion was February 1991 and Allen’s three-day visit to the Institute (for more background on that photo – see here). Allen apparently “went all out,” (as quoted in the, local, Rockbridge Weekly. “Poetry that doesn’t go all out isn’t very interesting,” he told a Rat (first-year) English class. “It’s like lovemaking. Either you go all out, or you’re a bore”

and Gordon’s defense of the, perhaps, surprising conjunction (to the Roanoke Times) – “Why not? Education isn’t a matter of what you’re accustomed to being constantly reaffirmed. Education is a matter of challenge of thought, and VMI is an educational institution.”

Illustration by Gary Howland

The visit included a landmark poetry reading at the Institute’s Jackson Memorial Hall (including a full-length reading of “Howl”, delivered for the first time in ten years),
which is what we have featured here.

The video/audio, it should be pointed out, occasionally cuts off a word or two (but, hopefully, nothing especially distracting). Raw footage, unedited footage, so the video document includes, at the beginning, middle and end, a few sequences of panning around the audience. The video begins this way (for first two-and-three-quarter minutes) and then Gordon Ball is shown, giving his introduction.

GB: Good evening, good evening, ladies and gentlemen. I’ll begin with an announcement, or two. Tomorrow night, Wednesday February 20th, Allen Ginsberg will give an informal lecture – “Poetry, Music – The Military End of the Cold War” at seven-thirty, right here in Jackson Memorial Hall. That’s tomorrow night. Thursday night, at seven-thirty, he will lecture informally on “Poetry, Meditation, and Aggression” in Lejeune Hall.  To repeat, tomorrow night in Lejeune Hall, (which, for those of you who are newcomers tonight, (is) directly across from where we are, no, directly across from the parade deck,  in the building with a large glass front of several stories. Thursday night at seven-thirty in Lejeune Hall.  A final announcement – “The Best Minds”, a VMI Museum exhibit, photos by Allen Ginsberg, will be on display downstairs in this building, in the Museum, Monday through Friday. from nine a.m. to five p.m. through April 18th.

Fifty years ago, T.S.Eliot purposed “to purify the language of the tribe” and produced his poem, “The Waste Land” . Three decades later, a young man of Russian-Jewish immigrant parents wrote a long poem, which many poets and scholars believe has done more than any   to change and enrich both the content and form, (the language, the diction and syntax) of American poetry. That poem was of course Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”. Our poet was born in Newark, New Jersey, 1926 and attended  Columbia University where he learned as much as , or more, from young fellow-writers William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac and their black and white friends on Times Square as they did from their Ivy League professors. In his East Harlem apartment, 1948, Ginsberg heard a voice intone “Ah! Sunflower by William Blake, the eighteenth-century English poet. Ginsberg looked out the window and sensed the presence of a Creator in the blue sky and in the placement of every brick in the building  next door. At that time he took that voice as Blake’s. Later, as his own mature voice. Seven years later he wrote “Howl”, and, essentially overnight, with its publication and the publication of Kerouac’s On The Road, the small group of friends the had been writing for a decade but were known only to each other, now became known as “The Beat Generation, a literary and cultural phenomenon (with) an enormous and still-continuing effect. Since the appearance of Howl in 1956, Ginsberg’s activities and work included the following highlights – 1961, “Kaddish“, his long and unflinching elegy on the death of his mother, which Robert Lowell called a “terrible masterpiece” – 1962, Indian Journals, recording a year in India – Ginsberg lived among the Indians (rather than apart or above) meeting Hindu and Buddhist  holy men and lepers, visiting the Dalai Lama – 1965, being crowned “King of May” of Czechoslovakia by one hundred thousand students. Our poet was later kicked out of Czechoslovakia (as he had been out of Cuba) for openly challenging authoritarian government – 1966, he wrote the poem “Wichita Vortex Sutra”, in which he declared an end to the war in Vietnam – 1968, the beginning of his continuing practice of writing music (including several dozen blues, country ‘n western, reggae, rhythm and blues, waltzes, and musical adaptations of all of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. – 1970, after visiting refugee camps in Bangladesh, (he composed a) long musical (number) “September on Jessore Road”, about which John Lennon said, “You can go anywhere with that song” – The next year, Buddhist vows and the founding of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, and a National Book award for poetry. Later, “Plutonian Ode” on nuclear waste, “White Shroud”, an epilogue to “Kaddish” –  1989, his most recent album, (following recordings with jazz musicians, Bob Dylan and The Clash), “The Lion For Real” on Island Records.  His works and generous acts and public statements have stood for individual and political freedom, regardless of race, creed, color, or gender, and for individual awareness. He’s been internationally acclaimed for work, indeed, and is an Honorary Fellow in the Modern Language Association of America, received a Struga Evenings Gold Wreath, is a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and, as Distinguished Professor, holds a chair at Brooklyn CollegeHe’s traveled throughout the US many times and in Western and Eastern Europe, the Arctic Circle, South-East Asia, Australia, Africa, South American, The Soviet Union, and participated in the exchange between America, American writers, and the People’s Republic of China.
Just over a generation after Ginsberg sung the “minds of (his) generation”, many of the major walls dividing the world came tumbling down. Some scholars believe that Ginsberg’s poetry with its (Whitmanic) candor helped inspire and confirm in their view (artists from) behind the Iron Curtain in their hopes and their work for a better world. In 1990, a playwright (Vaclav Havel) was elected President of Czechoslovakia. By the years end, the author of “Masters of War” and “The Times They Are A-Changing”, Bob Dylan (gave a concert at) West Point).. Forty three years ago [sic], the “King of the Beats”, Jack Kerouac, visited Lexington and its Stonewall Jackson Cemetery.  [now- sic – Oak Grove Cemetery].  Tonight Virginia Military Institute welcomes “The King of May”, Allen Ginsberg.

Allen begins his reading at approximately nine-and-a-half minutes in

AG: Good evening. What I’ll do is, for the most part, sing songs and read poems, chronologically, covering a period of, perhaps, forty years, somewhat as the photographic exhibit that we have here also scopes four decades. So I’ll go back a couple of centuries, to begin, (a sort of invocation to the energies of the evening), singing William Blake’s text to “The Tyger” from Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, to music that I made, since Mr. Blake would sing these songs in the parlors of his friends, according to the earliest biography by Alexander Gilchrist,  (but) scholar-professors of his day failed to note melodies. So I’d like to reconstruct, in the model of the hymnals of those times, some of the pitch and tune that the poems might follow in order to be understood. In this, the question (which most.. those of you who have read this text at grammar school or college), is – “Did he who made the Lamb make thee?” – Who made the Tyger? – Who made the wrath? Who made the nuclear bomb? Was that a deus ex machina (outside) of the universe, or..?  Where did it come from?. And Blake’s answer is that it was.. that the forge was the human heart, and human imagination created both the sensitivity of the Lamb and the wrath of the Tyger, (which wrath we’re seeing now, half way round the world, and ourselves involved, entangled with it). So who started (the war)? Ourselves, naturally. We all did, the human race. So that’s the inner secret of “The Tyger” – done to a human heart-beat, trochaic meter. (“Tyger, Tyger, burning bright…”…”dare frame thy fearful symmetry”)

(I’d) like (to continue) in music. So we’ve done something semi-classical.. (so, like I’ll do something (now), relating to one of the many wars we’ve been involved in, as a nation recently. We had war on Grenada, (on) Panama, and we had to have a little “war on drugs’. So this is an account of the “war on drugs”, particularly relations between our former drug czar and his cohorts in the CIA. So it’s called “CIA Dope Calypso” – information taken from television, primarily, the New York Times, and the research, but all public information, so I’m not giving away any military secrets here – (“Now Richard Secord and Oliver North…”..”in 2000 AD read the New York Times“)

Continuing on the war on drugs.. One of our previous wars..  I would like to do..  I’d like to dedicate the next song to Senator Jesse Helms for the next poem, a chant. As you know,  Helms has set himself up as a moral arbiter of the United States. But, when we consider the drug statistics, it’s pretty well-known that the devastation of strychnine heroin or crack or cocaine is a killer – twenty- to thirty-thousand people a year.  Perhaps less well-known, in comparison, in the same mind, given a certain public schizophrenia, there’s another drug, alcohol, a killer drug, for one-hundred-thousand people in America. And the most difficult drug (licit drug, as they call it, licit substance, substance abuse) – cigarettes (as was recently proposed by (the) Surgeon General) killed four-hundred-thousand people a year (heart-attack, cancer, high blood-pressure, stroke), and the leading legislative lobbyist for the licit drug of abuse is Senator Jesse Helms who is representing the North Carolina tobacco (growers) who supply a great deal of money for his lobbying, his campaigns (at present he’s on a campaign with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to force Indo-Chinese (Thailand and other countries) to accept American cigarette advertising and import of American cigarettes. So our chief killer drug pusher – Senator Jesse Helms, who, as I say, has set himself up as a moral arbiter (obviously his morality is a front for his own crimes against nature (contra naturam) . So what will happen  next is a non-smoking non-commercial  – “Put Down Yr Cigarette Rag”. (“Don’t smoke don’t smoke…”..”don’t smoke”)

And last of the somewhat musical numbers, we turn now from the ridiculous to the sublime – the discipline of mind (and the) sitting practice of meditation (not too different from certain disciplines you learn here – you know, controlling your body (or controlling  your mind).  So this is instructions in the (techniques of)  sitting meditation, quite literal, complete instructions in the process of mind and physical process of sitting, in the form of a rock n’ roll song called “Do The Meditation Rock” (“If you want to learn how to meditate..”…”..yeah, generosity!”)

Now, to oral poetry, not song,  (Poetry can be defined in many ways), since Homer sang, (remember), as anything between speech.. between speech and song, and all the gradations therein. So there’s a number of possible voices. There’s a voice of tone, tune, melody, song, there’s (the charm of) rhyme, (and) meter, there’s the oratorical voice that you hear in Ecclesiastes, or in Milton, or in Macbeth soliloquies, or in Walt Whitman and certain texts of my own – in terms of (the oratorical, there’s) a lot of hot air, there’s chant and loud-mouth and energy, and there’s conversational voice (which I’ll be using in other poems) and then there is a heart-tone voice, which comes also in its proper order among the various voices possible to us in our ease, in our affect, in our emotions, and in our spirits (meaning, by the way, spiritus, breathing, (spiritus, breathe – if it was “spiritual”, it had to do with breath).

So I’ll begin with a little poem written in 1949, to go way back in time, and then jump and read one poem (from) every ten years or so, to give us, then, a spectrum of time. It’s an early poem written with Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac, a funny little ditty. It’s called “Pull My Daisy” (“Pull my daisy, tip my cup…”…”let my gap be shut”)

The poem for which I’m best known is a poem from 1956 called “Howl”, a poem written in 1955 rather, and published in 1956_ –  “Howl for Carl Solomon“. And, as Professor Ball, who arranged my visit here and invited me and, requested me to read it, I thought it would be interesting, on this Eve of Destruction, or Eve of Armageddon. to hear what it sounds like as against the temperament of the world times, (particularly here at VMI, where I’m sure many of you are of one mind and I’m of a different mind, so it might be interesting to hear the howl of a different mind, or the beat of a different drummer, as they say in America). So I… Probably what I will have to pronounce in the poem is not very far from your ultimate sympathies. So, with that explanation,  I’ll read the poem “Howl”. It takes a bit of time, about ten to fifteen minutes, I’d say. It’s a good thing but it’s a… and at moments entertaining – and there’s three parts to the poem, a long beginning..

[Prior to reading the poem, Allen, (typically), rehearses the acoustics – “I should check – how are we doing with sound?  Can you hear me in the back?”  (audience answers “Yes”)  Are the words distinct? (audience reassures him – “Oh yes!”) – “And..raise your hand if you cannot hear consonants?  (audience responds) –  (to one audience member) – That’s way way in the back, maybe if you come one row forward. So in the front, how’s the sound in the front, is it audible?” – “Okay, so I’m about, over here, about five inches from the mic, about right do you think?  over here, its too much, too echo-y..” (audience responds) –   “(That’s) better for some?, well, then, maybe a little closer, okay, okay. The dynamics of this poem are varied from loud to.. soft to loud, and when it gets kind of loud, at a certain point, I’ll (pull) back”.]

So, Moloch in the Bible, as you know, is a false God to whom the..  the Canaanite God to whom parents sacrificed their children.  In this poem, representative, somewhat, of modern hyper-industrialization, which destroys the planet, or destroys human souls, and blanks out human spirit. That’s in Part II.  The occasion is a friend of mine from a mental hospital was sent back to the mental hospital (and I feared) he’d be there for good, and as my own mother was at the time living in, (or dying, actually), in a..   (in) Pilgrim State mental hospital, New York, my sympathies went out, not only to my mother but to my close friend. So this is called “Howl for Carl Solomon”  and the word “howl” is an old biblical word  – (Jeremiah, or the prophet, howling in the wilderness, among others) – but I think the title was suggested by (Jack) Kerouac when I sent him the manuscript.  So, Part I is a litany for the friends that were freaked out, so to speak, or died, or came to a bad end, or were failures, or lacked self-empowerment. The second part is attempting to name that aspect of modern civilization which is a destroyer of souls,  and the third part is a rather affirmative extension of sympathy to my friend and an extension of my hand, saying, “I’m with you wherever you are”.

Allen begins his reading of “Howl” at approximately thirty-five minutes in – (“I saw the best minds of my generation..”)… concluding at approximately fifty-four-and-a-half minutes in    (“…my cottage in the Western night”)

“The band began at eight” –  I’ll read another fifteen minutes or so and then take a break and those of you who are fatigued by your long day’s labors are free to depart and (don’t feel it’s)  obligatory.. and(I”ll) take a ten minute break, and (for) those of you who have the leisure, the literary curiosity, or the socio-historical inquisitiveness, I’ll continue for another half an hour and read up to poems written this year.

So, alternative to the hortatory oratorical exhortation, and exuberance, or exaltation, of the poem “Howl”, another poem, conditioned by meditation practice, is the one-line single declarative sentence flash of perception, usually..  often seventeen syllables, sort of very short poems. So these are one-liners. So they don’t require the same attention that “Howl” did. They’re very simple, little perceptions passing by. The first of these, the first dozen of these.. were written after (a) three-month meditation in Rocky Mountain Dharma Center,[now Shambhala Mountain Center]  a Buddhist meditation center, just sitting, eight hours a day, following your breath, following your mind and your breath –  (Allen reads from “136 Syllables at Rocky Mountain Dharma Center”) – (“Standing on the porch in my underwear shorts/auto lights in the warm rain” – (Each one of these is seventeen syllables, seventeen syllables, a simple declarative sentence and I’ll read each twice – kind of little photographs ) – “Put on my shirt and took it off in the sun/Walking the path to lunch” – “A dandelion seed floats above the marsh grass with the mosquitos” (that would be the cold up-draft of the marsh which would keep the dandelion seed aloft) – “At four a.m. the two middle-aged men sleeping together hold hands” – “In the half-light of dawn two birds warble under the Pleiades” – “Caught shoplifting/ran out of the department store at sunrise and woke up” – “Tompkins Square Lower East Side four skinheads stand in the streetlight rain chatting under an umbrella” – “Visiting the Pythian Oracle at Didyma towards the end of the Second Millennium”   (There was a temple of the Pythian Oracle in Asia Minor,  (the) coast of Turkey, where the (Roman) Empire had its oracle,  (the) Pythian Oracle, where now you’ll find a ruin next door to a muezzin, and when I visited there was a cry of the muezzin – allahu akbah, like a baby bawling  in the night – b-a-w-l) –  “At sunset Apollo’s columns echo with the bawl of the One God” – “The weary ambassador awaits his guests late at the supper table” – “Approaching Seoul by Bus in Heavy Rain”  is the title – (“Get used to your body, forget you were born, suddenly you’ve got to get out”) – “To be sucking your thumb in Rome by the Tiber among fallen leaves” (I saw a little kid in a pram passing by, sucking her thumb) – Last is a science-fiction haiku – “Bearded robots drink from uranium coffee cups on Saturn’s rings”

It’s almost an hour since we began so I think what I’ll do is conclude with one song for this half – a brief song – and a brief verbal poem – and have an intermission. The song – (is by) William Blake.  I’ll begin with (the) poem. I wrote this the last.. well, 1971, during the bombing of Cambodia, (well, a little before then, probably), I continued it a couple of years ago, and then continued this February. Its a sound-poem.  In India, the Shavite sadhus (are) the holy ones, the naked ones, naga sadhus, who smoke grass, ganja, a sacred practice for meditation, and with the chillum, or clay pipes, make an invocation… Hum Bom! – (so) I call this “Hum Bom!” –  (“Hum Bom.. We bomb them..”..”Armageddon does the job”)

I’ll finish – with a very brief song by William Blake – finish this section – but if anybody’s patient I’ll  continue later, but for now, to conclude, an odd strange song of William Blake.

I would say it’s kind of a State of the Nation Address “The Sick Rose” – by the eighteenth-century prophet, William Blake (“O Rose thou art sick”…”Does thy life destroy”) –   thank you .. So, I’ll take a ten-minute break and for those of you who have the patience and the inclination, I’ll continue, if there’s a minyan. (but don’t be afraid to go).

The reading pauses here, at approximately sixty-six-and-a-half-minutes in, and for approximately three minutes there is footage of the assembled audience. At approximately sixty-nine-and-a-half minutes in, Allen returns to the stage, and at seventy-and-a-half minutes, rings finger cymbals to signify the reading’s recommencement

So, thank you for your patience, a lot of you stayed, I thought we’d have a pretty empty hall but I’m flattered that you stayed.. for curiosity, or inquisitiveness, or tolerance, or amusement. So I’ll begin with a Buddhist country ‘n western (song), outlining the three marks of existence according to Buddhist theory which is – (that) Existence contains Suffering, all the constituents of Being are transitory (transitoriness or mutability) and or, as Heraclitus says you can’t step in the same river twice”,  the flux).  And the third is, no permanent Self-hood, no permanent Ego, or, anatman, no permanent..nothing to cling to so.. “Allen Ginsberg” – no permanent Allen Ginsberg – So, this is “Gospel Noble Truths”, beginning with the Three Marks of Existence, going on to the traditional categories of The Four Noble Truths – (Suffering, Suffering (is) caused by Ignorance, there is an end to Suffering, the Eightfold Path (which is the Fourth Truth) – Right Views, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Labor, Right Mindfulness, Right Meditation..  and with a stanza of Instructions on Sitting Practice of Meditation, and a review of the Six Senses (sight, smell, sound, taste, touch, and mind), and some general sign-off – (“Born in this world you’ve got to suffer…”…”Die when you die”)

Here’s a song that I wrote in the airport in Warsaw, 1986, after traveling through Eastern Europe and hearing gossip about the nuclear situation in Eastern Europe, especially from some long-haired communard farmers in Eastern Poland who were living near the Russian border and told me about what they experienced during that summer.  So this is called “Europe – Who Knows?” – (“All over Europe, people are saying “Who knows?”…”Everyone knows”)

That was the gossip of Poland. And now what I think I will read is a series of poems written in 1976 (which was where we left off (and, chronologically, “Howl” was 1956)). Time has passed, so there’s not that much time for review.  So what I’ll read is a series of poems I wrote on the death of my father – short poems – Louis Ginsberg, a poet, he was quite old, he was declining, and so I spent a half-year at home in Paterson, New Jersey, taking care of him, left to go teach in a Buddhist school in Boulder, Naropa Institute in July. And a week later he died. So I flew back to the funeral and wrote a song, a blues, “Father Death Blues”. These are anecdotes, or little short brief notes, from the last half-year. Its called “Don’t Grow Old” – (“Old poet, Poetry’s final subject glimmers months ahead..”..”My heart is still as time will tell”).

So I’ll finish up with a couple of very brief poems.  So – general instructions, mind instructions, or pith instructions. This was written in 1986. A series of one-one slogans .
I got a thing called the Golden Wreath at the Socialist Iron Curtain Poetry Festival, 1986, Struga, Macedonia, on the shores of the Lake Ohrid, (the lake borders Macedonia, Yugoslavia and Albania and they have a tradition of international poetry evenings once every year or so, or two years, and every year they give a Golden Wreath to some poet who they’ve read, and this was my year, and they asked me to send some readings for their yearbook in advance). So I thought, what would make sense in the Iron Curtain (because at that time Solidarnosc  and Poland, the Pope visiting, general restiveness before the glasnost.) So this was my poetics, (ars poetica) art of poetry – It’s called “Cosmopolitan Greetings..”   (“Stand up against governments, against God..”…”Candor ends paranoia”) –

Allen concludes with two short poems – “Proclamation” – (“I am King of the Universe…: ..”In any case, you can believe every word I say”)  – So, finally, last poem – “Maturity” – (Young I drank beer and vomited green bile/older drank wine vomited blood red/Now I vomit air”).

Thank you. You’ve been here quite a while. I’m happy so many of you had the leisure to stay and I know you have to get up at six, six-thirty a.m. s o I don’t want to hold you further but I do want tp thank Virginia Military Institute for it’s sense of humor in inviting me here, and generosity, and thank Professor Ball for arranging everything so accurately, and thank you Sarah (sic) for attending and staying to the very end. Thank you. Good night

The video concludes with more brief, unedited, audience footage  

One comment

  1. One correction. Ginsberg spent an entire week at VMI, not just three days. When my friend, Gordon Ball first came to the English faculty, I went to him with the idea of bringing his long-time friend, Allen Ginsberg, to VMI, perhaps as part of a Beat reunion with Burroughs, Corso, and Baraka, but the more we discussed it, the more it became clear that, for the same money, we could have Ginsberg not just for one event but for three (the reading, a lecture, and a TM workshop), as well as have him teach several courses for us over seven full days. Gordon persuaded Ginsberg to give so generously of his time (I think he was intrigued, so didn’t require any arm-twisting). Many alumni from that time were profoundly changed by that week.

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