AE: So I think the camera is rolling….
AG: Yeah, now are you alright as far as the the glare on eye-glasses and everything?. . Let’s start again. The question is what are the lasting themes, or monuments, or achievements, of the Sixties? – and I would say as follows – the interest in the nature of mind itself and the texture of consciousness leading to interest in exploring psychedelic substances, magic mushrooms and peyote and LSD, leading to ecological consciousness, or interest in the mind relating to the world and relating to ecological consciousness, (which was introduced very early), realization that the planet itself is threatened by destruction, by the human virus, (as if) the planet itself has AIDS, with the immune system breaking down and earth and air and fire and water all being tainted at this point, so that there is a serious danger that we have to face, slowly people are beginning to understand that, even governments; (also) interest in Eastern thought, the meeting of East and West, which is implicitly political as well as cultural but certainly eliminates a lot of cultural paranoia – in the past people thought that the East was inscrutable, because “East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet”. Now Eastern mind is open and available to any Westerner who is interested in seeing how empty it is. That’s what it boils down to.
AE: Allen Ginsberg is a symbol of four decades of rebellion, four decades of alternative culture In American society – which has spread to the western world and eventually also to the East. Already in the ‘Forties he joined forces with Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs and began to explore poetry and themselves. They became interested in Eastern religions, they became interested in ecology in the Third World, and eventually also in the political opposition to the American system.. Allen Ginsberg has survived all experiments, all madness, and he has nevertheless taken the time to come to Oslo.
Allen Ginsberg, I would like to return to the beginning, to the ‘Forties. What triggered your curiosity? What triggered your literary activities and your curiosity for Eastern philosophy?
AG: Well, poetry is a family business. My father was a poet and my brother is a poet. So I just assumed I would write poetry, from when I was about seven or eight years old, and reading Edgar Allan Poe , I think, turned me on (as it turned on youngsters around the age of puberty around the world from Prague to Beijing). But my… my being gay.. I fell in love with a younger.. a young student who was going to Columbia University and so I wanted to go there. Through that adventure, instead of going to a provincial college, I met Jack Kerouac when I was seventeen, and William Burroughs, saw that they were serious about writing, and Kerouac particularly, saw his role as a writer as a sacred, or sacramental occupation, so, I took that as my model, or that idea was contagious, or clear. So I would say about 1945, 1946, I realized that that was what I wanted to do as a sort of vocation.
AE: You started from a group of individuals but at some moment you must have started feeling like a group with a common purpose?
AG: No, a group of common friendship. This notion of a common purpose is some ideological semantic problem by sociologists or journalists, but a young group of friends is a young group of friends, and whether it’s a soccer club, or a.. people who go out and drink beer on a Friday night, or people who like to write poetry together or read each others work.. So I think that sense of sacramental devotion to poetry certainly was common between me and Kerouac, and Kerouac was very strongly an influence on William Burroughs to get William Burroughs to write, way back in 1945, 46, 47, (because Burroughs didn’t think of himself as a writer). But we both admired Burroughs as a very intelligent and sort of.. an intelligent man.. and a kind of mentor for us… so.. (and one) who was perhaps too shy to commit himself to paper, so to speak. So Kerouac encouraged him to write prose by collaborating with him with alternative chapters on a novel (and that was back in ‘45)
AE: Now your lives have taken different roads – the three of you. Could you already from the beginning see this difference?
AG: Well we were different from the beginning, What do you mean “taken different roads”? We aren’t occupying the same body! What were we supposed to do – merge and become one clone? – Kerouac was a French-Canadian who lived with his family, I had left my family at sixteen and gone to college, Burroughs was a remittance man from a not-too-well-to-do family who to keep him out of trouble were sending him two-hundred dollars a month (which was a lot of money back in the 1940’s) – and we continued our friendship all through this time and (didn’t) diverge that much. Kerouac died. Burroughs and I see each other, are in contact all the time (well, I mean, every month or so)… along with a lot of other poets. From 1950 on, Gregory Corso, who is a great poetic genius, whom I see in New York all the time, work with, give readings – and Peter Orlovsky, with whom I lived for many years – and Gary Snyder, and Philip Whalen, and Michael McClure. who’s a.. from 1955, a group of other friends having somewhat the same inclination. If I would define..
If you’re interested, I would try to define the common themes, or common interests, among the poets – a reliance on spontaneity, inventiveness, and open form, (rather than a closed form which was being used by the academic poets of that day), and a tendency towards.. oh, let us say individualistic experimentation with the nature of the mind, (as distinct from the development out of T.S.Eliot, (which was what? – “Royalist in politics, Anglican in religion, Conservative in temperament” – [Editorial note – “classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic (sic) in religion” – from the preface to “For Lancelot Andrewes – Essays on Style and Order (1929)] Certainly Burroughs, who comes from T.S.Eliot’s same home town and has a similar voice and background, is radically different as an experimental writer and as an experimental soul than Eliot (tho’ actually somewhat similar in the dissociation of sensibility and the structure of his work – the Eliot of The Waste Land). So I think from the very beginning, 1945, Kerouac and I did talk about.. well, I don’t know what the meaning of it was but – a “New Vision”, or New Consciousness – and it might be, maybe, the new old consciousness – but, certainly, a different consciousness, an awareness different from the social, political, sexual awareness of the “alright-niks” of my college days, of my professors. So we were interested in the texture of consciousness, (particularly Burroughs), and in experimenting with that and exploring that, whether through psychotherapy, or psychoanalysis, or hypno-analysis (which Burroughs was going through in 1945), or through art, (or through experiments at the time with marijuana – and, for Burroughs, with heroin or morphine, and for Kerouac, some experiments with amphetamines, which didn’t do him too much good physically) – and from about 1950 on, particularly through Kerouac, an interest in Eastern thought, particularly Buddhism, and from 1955 on, direct interest in Zen and Buddhist meditation practice through Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen, (and to this day both Snyder and Whalen are meditative Buddhists and …Philip Whalen was one of the San Franciscan Renaissance poets and a friend of Kerouac . At this point (1993) Philip Whalen is the Abbot of a Zen Center in San Francisco so it’s our first, so to speak, Beat, or San Francisco Renaissance poet Zen master). So there’s an interesting… texture of mind, let’s say spiritual liberation, and that led to liberation in literary forms – liberated open literary forms – that led to vernacular idiomatic diction and cadence, influenced by African-American speech and jazz in the poetry and in the prose – and that led to candor, or frankness, or openness, in the subject-matter that we wrote about (for Burroughs and for myself, homosexuality as one of the themes) – that led to liberation of the word – and that led to battle with the State over censorship – so that led to liberation of the word on a social level and liberation in books, and that was followed in the early ‘Sixties (legal battles were between 1958 and 1962) . You could say the spiritual liberation in the ‘Forties, liberated art works or writing or poetry 1950-1957, legal battles for the.. against censorship 1957-1962 – then maybe a spread of that liberation from censorship into film (with the activities of Robert Frank and Jonas Mekas, underground film archives and cooperatives, Andy Warhol and Harry Smith and Stan Brakhage and others, Flaming Creatures by Jack Smith – so that by 1965, film was liberated, so you could have people naked in films and talk about sex). So.. and I think the Gay Liberation and Spiritual Liberation may have been some of the catalysts to Women’s Liberation and Black Liberation. I remember Abbie Hoffman, who was a social activist, Leftist, saying that he had left Massachusetts, his home town, and gone South in 1963 or so to help get the vote for Black people in Alabama, going to Birmingham, carrying a copy of On The Road in his pocket.
So in the… a lot of successive generations (they’ve) used Burroughs’ methods of writing, liberating himself from obsession by using the “cut-up” method, liberating himself from the product of his own stereotypes, you might say, liberating himself from his own obsessions and stereotypes by using chance methods, like John Cage, in his writings – and that’s had quite an affect on generations later in the ‘Sixties and ‘Seventies and ‘Eighties and ‘Nineties, up to you too ( So there’s a… The basic theme is the proposition of regaining our own senses, understanding our own minds, some meeting of Eastern thought with Western mind – and that also led with Gary Snyder and Michael McClure, another poet, (and Kerouac to some extent), with the theme, the preoccupation with, ecological thinking (which Snyder introduced into poetry in America in 1955). So those, I would say are the main themes which developed over the years – plus an interest in spoken poetry (because of the idiomatic nature of the poetry) or even poetry as song (since Kerouac derived a lot of his inspiration from African-American cadences, rhythms and speech-patterns, through bebop music of the ‘Forties – that led to an interest in jazz, of course, and led Kerouac to perform with music and myself to write music). Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues, according to Bob Dylan, was the very book that inspired him to poetry also. So there was a great deal of fall-out from the very openings and liberations we stumbled on.
AE: When you started exploring these fields back in the ‘Forties did you feel like you were working in a previous tradition of rebels and free minds or did you feel like a person discovering the world by himself?
AG: Both – because when I first started smoking grass, for instance (later, took some peyote, some psychedelics), it was like exploring a new world. I think I was the only student at Columbia who smoked marijuana at the time, in 1946, (but I’d heard that there was one up in Harvard – that turned out to be Robert Creeley! – and I met Robert Creeley about 1948, the first time – but, ten years later, we had a much closer literary relationship) – But, on the other hand, there was a very old tradition of bohemian poets (I don’t know about rebels, that’s a more modern stereotype) but there was the old bohemian tradition, remember Baudelaire experimented with hashish, as did Rimbaud, Havelock Ellis, another Englishman, experimented with… or William James..were familiar with nitrous oxide and (something) called “the anaesthetic revelation” (from laughing gas), Havelock Ellis had explored peyote back in the 1890’s. There was an old tradition in France – Le Club de Hashichins – going all the way back to Baudelaire, Delacroix, and the writers who were born 1840, 1850, Theophile Gautier and others , who were familiar with laudanum, I think (De Quincey and Coleridge took laudanum, that’s a form of opium – Burroughs has quoted Coleridge and De Quincy quite often on the subject). There are the old gay poems of Catullus, Sappho, even Homer – or Plato – up to Walt Whitman, So, the old tradition of gay literature and sexual liberation. It keeps getting suppressed, but… I remember in 1945 reading translations of Catullus in the American edition (and) the more salacious, or sexy, passages were only printed in Latin – it was illegal to print them in English!. Same for The Satyricon of Petronius Arbiter. The Modern Library Edition had the homosexual passages printed in Latin, in the regular standard New York edition from Random House’s Modern Library. (So there’s an old tradition that way, going all the way back to the Bible, David and Jonathan, much less, the Gilgamesh epic, the love of Endiku and Gilgamesh). So that’s a very old tradition in terms of sexual candor, or honesty, or traditional gay behavior and sentiment and romance, literature). So both in sexual matters and drugs, and in attitudes towards the State (the defense against the omni-present Big Brother, that isn’t always the State), there’s a long history of resistance to oppression. I think we were…
As far as the expansive liberation sense, the sense of expansiveness and openness, and friendliness and adhesiveness that I think was a feature of our relation, was an affection between men – Burroughs, Kerouac, myself, Corso and others, working together -you do have many many groups from old times but up to the example of Walt Whitman and his exhortation that poets and artists of the future be comrades and that affection and adhesiveness was the one quality that could make democracy work – if the citizens really liked each other and felt.. rather than at each other’s throats. So there’s an older tradition that comes up in the 20th century through Ezra Pound of affection between writers as he championed Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, James Joyce, T.S.Eliot, you know helped them to get work published – and directly into our own lives with William Carlos Williams, who Kerouac met and I met (he wrote the preface to my first book – and second book too) and who also encountered Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen and the poet Lew Welch in 1952 in the North West of America, at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, on a national reading tour that William Carlos Williams took. And his reading was the opening up of the word, opening up of the stanza, open form of poetry and spontaneous mind. Then later there’s an older tradition that we tapped into, from 1950 on, to the ‘Nineties, now, joining efforts with Tibetan Buddhist lamas and Zen masters and their old practice of spontaneous mind, spontaneous discourse, spontaneous poetry, is a tradition in Tibetan poetry, Chinese, and Japanese, discourse. The teacher I studied with, the Tibetan lama, Chogyum Trungpa – I had been interested in the Tibetan Book of the Dead and that kind of writing since the ‘Fifties, but finally met Chogyum Trungpa, briefly, on a pilgrimage through India with Gary Snyder to go to Buddhist holy places, but really encountered, locked eyebrows with him, so to speak, in early ‘Seventies and he became my teacher. And he is of a lineage of what’s called “crazy wisdom” (which is very similar to the Beat humor mode, that is to say wild wisdom, not restricted by convention, conventional wisdom and based on discipline, but then once you’ve had the discipline then you have to be spontaneous. So that in that lineage, all the teachers have to be poets, and the great celebrated tenth-century, eleventh-century poet, Milarepa, the cotton-clad, illiterate, guru, the Kagyu section, the Kagyu sect of the Tibetan Buddhist meditation practice. Trungpa is directly in that lineage as were a number of teachers that I met later. They take as their inspiration Milarepa, who did what Kerouac did, simply spoke into the air, composed on the tongue, people wrote it dow , didn’t revise, as Kerouac practiced. I remember in 1972 meeting Chogyam Trungpa, saying I was a little tired going around and giving poetry readings. He said, “Oh, that’s probably because you don’t like your poetry”. I said , “What do you mean?” and he said, ‘Well, why don’t you do like the ancient poets, the great poets of old, Milarepa. Why do you need a piece of paper, why don’t you just get up on stage and make it up?” – And that’s exactly what Kerouac used to say. So the summary slogan for all that is (that Trungpa announced and that Kerouac practiced).. is “First Thought(s) Best Thought(s)”. And on that basis we founded twenty years ago, the Naropa Insitute [later, Naropa University] in Boulder, Colorado, and under that, the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. (“disembodied”, because Kerouac was by then dead, but we wanted to do something to join Eastern thought and Western thought, Western bohemian thought and Eastern crazy wisdom together – and the big common basis is spontaneous mind, i.e. the characteristics of that would be, according to, like, the Shambhala teachings of Trungpa – meekness (that you actually don’t know what you’re doing), perkiness ,or sparkiness, or liveliness (because it’s all coming on the spot, at the moment), inscrutability (because you don’t know what you’re going to think next or say next, so that nobody can figure it out in advance, including yourself) and outrageousness (because the mind itself goes beyond all bounds in its imaginations)
to be continued (tomorrow)