Allen Ginsberg – First Meeting with William Burroughs

“’Tis too starved an argument for my sword” – William S Burroughs at Allen’s East 7th St apartment, New York City, Fall 1953.  Photo by Allen Ginsberg  (c). Allen Ginsberg Estate

Allen Ginsberg’s June 1977 Naropa class on Jack Kerouac’s (focusing on) Vanity of Duluoz continues from here. Here Allen recalls his first meeting with William Burroughs

AG: “Voyage” called “The Last Voyage” [Editorial note – included in The Book of Martyrdom and Artifice]  – that was, I think, five or ten pages of rhymed couplets, my first big long poem (‘cause I thought I was a poet and I was hanging around with Jack). We’d met Burroughs, we’d gone up and seen Burroughs together, but we had met him individually briefly; Lucien Carr had brought me down to Greenwich Village in the summer.. in the Christmas of ’44 – (’43 or ’44)  to Morton Street, where a friend of his, Dave Kammerer, lived, who at the time wasn’t home, but Burroughs (who) lived on Barrow Street, around the corner, was there. So that was my first meeting with Burroughs. And Lucien had gone out the night before and gotten drunk at some lesbian bar. Some bloody fight had erupted, I think there’d been an argument, he wound up on the floor fighting with some gay guy. or a girl, I don’t know who and bitten his/her ear, so there was blood all over the floor, and bitten a piece of the ear off, (I think the ear-lobe), which I thought was pretty shocking and amazing. I’d never heard of anything like that because I was from East Side High School in Paterson, New Jersey, and I’d just arrived at Columbia, and, even though I’d heard Brahms First Trio, I didn’t know people went around getting drunk, biting people’s ears off! – casually!  (maybe it was an exaggeration). So Lucien… It was a small room in a tiny apartment on the first floor of an old brick-front Greenwich Village building, with a garden (in the) rear, French doors into the garden, a fire-place, Burroughs was seated on a low couch near the fireplace and was seated on a.. I think upturned log which served as a coffee table. And Lucien was telling this story and Burroughs said – quote, “In the words of the immortal bard, tis too starved an argument for my sword” – unquote. And that was the first time I heard Burroughs talk, and the first thing he said was, quoting “the immortal Bard” (Shakespeare) –  quote – “’Tis too starved an argument for my sword – unquote – which is the best Shakespeare I’ve ever heard, anyway.   Does anybody know that phrase?  How many have heard that phrase? – “Tis too starved an argument for my sword”

Student:  What?

AG: Sword – S-W-O-R-D. – “Too starved an argument for my sword”  (meaning, like the argument is foolish and stupid so why get into a fight about it,  but  not fir my sword”.It’s out of.. I think it’s out of… probably Romeo and Juliet [Editorial note – it is actually Troilus and Cressida] – some elder or elderly japester doesn’t want to get into a punk fight  – “That’s an argument too starved for my sword”.  That was Burroughs’ laconic judiciousness instantly displayed. Actually, that one quotation made me appreciate Shakespeare for the first time -the wit of Shakespeare and the sort of.. funniness of it, the accuracy of the phrasing, also the archaism, like that  “’Tis” – “Tis” too starved an argument” – A starved argument is a very funny idea – the notion of an argument so starved that you wouldn’t want to even take your sword to it. It’s a mangy cur of a dog, like, slinking down the street, who’d want to attack it? – “Tis too starved an argument”.. But that..Burroughs is quoting Shakespeare for some kind of funny occasion like that. You know, in other words, Lucien had done  that.. been in this extraordinary little scandal ear-biting romantic bohemian scene (at least from my seventeen-year-old viewpoint) and Burroughs) from his thirty three year old viewpoint or whatever) was – Tis too starved an argument for my sword” – “enough of that, Lucien, no more” It was.. So Burroughs was already, like, born middle-aged or middle-aged, laconic, and cooled-out .

I remember also the other thing he said…the other thing I remember he said on that first occasion… (I don’t think Kerouac had met Burroughs, so this is probably the first literary recollection of Burroughs’ nature in conversation) .. was that.. there was a.. Louise, Louise, was a lesbian girl who lived upstairs from that apartment, and Bill said he liked her because she was “straightforward, manly and reliable”. I’d never met a lesbian before, and much less had to deal with conversation about lesbians right out in the open, much less hear anybody say that he liked her because she was “straightforward, manly and reliable” (sic).  And that was.. I think that was, for me, the determining phrase of all that later became in my brain Gay Liberation, or anything, anything relating to that. It was just the ordinariness of that, and the humor. So, judging character really, judging individuals by character, and a funny kind of playfulness and wit in Burroughs there. It’s the earliest thing I remember Burroughs saying. So that when we went to see Burroughs later, it was for that laconic, mellowed-out, cooled-out experience. So we thought he was really experienced because he’d been to Europe. He’d been analyzed by Doctor Federn early, who was one of the people who was directly analyzed by Freud. So, actually, Burroughs is in the lineage or transmission of the actual Freudian..actual Freudian practice. In fact, at that time when we were all living in Joan Burroughs’ apartment, both Jack and I spent a year, an hour a day, free-associating, with Burroughs acting as (a) psychiatrist, sitting in a straight-back chair while we were on a couch  – separately (I think Kerouac, whenever he came to town, would do it, so at least three or four times a week, and I did it five or six days a week.  A regular formal psychoanalysis with Burroughs as our listener, 1945-46. I think I’ve talked about this somewhere or mentioned it so I won’t go into it – it’s written up somewhere – except to conclude that mine came to a sort of conclusion when there was some kind of breakthrough of feeling and I finally burst out in tears and said, “Nobody loves me!” (which I think was what was bothering at the time. I just felt that nobody loved me) . When I finally came out with it and wept and Burroughs sat there sort of impersonally listening, accommodating, welcoming, so it was kind of a breakthrough for me, a realization of my actual feelings , feelings certainly, I didn’t want to admit at that age, eighteen or nineteen, “Nobody loves me” – shameful! (I thought, except that I found out that was what I was actually saying to him). So I guess that was where I was. So this was about. a year later..I had a..(I think a year later?, no, it was a little earlier ‘45). Kerouac, as he describes in this book (Vanity of Duluoz) was going back and forth between his father’s deathbed and mother’s side and then coming into town to the apartment on 115th Street where I was living with Joan and Bill, Hal Chase, and Huncke in and out

to be continued..

Audio for the above can be heard here, beginning at the beginning of the tape and concluding approximately nine minutes in

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