Selecting today from that remarkable trove that is Allen’s Stanford Archives, over 2,000 audiotapes now digitalized and made available, we thought to present you this one, from 1994, an interview with one David Wood for “International Profile”, a program put out on the BBC’s World Service. Wood turns out to be a somewhat combative interviewer and also a simplifying and occasionally misguided one – “The Beats were famous as much for their hedonistic life-style as for their books and poems and it’s hardly surprising that two of them died young as a result of their excesses” – “Howl” was Allen’s first poem? – huh? – Allen, of course, takes all his questions in stride and posits at all times thoughtful and sensible answers.
The interview may be heard here
A transcription of the conversation follows:
DW: Hello I’m David Wood and you’re listening to the BBC’s International Profile – [plays sound-byte] – “All over Europe, people are saying, “Who knows?” – That’s the sound of Allen Ginsberg, American poet and performer singing “Europe – Who Knows?”, one of hundreds of issue-motivated poems that he’s written during the past forty years. He hit the headlines in 1956 when his first poem (sic) “Howl” was banned on the grounds of obscenity. At the time he was one of a small group which came to be known as “The Beats”, among them Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs. They were famous as much for their hedonistic life-style as for their books and poems and its hardly surprising that two of them died young as a result of their excesses. Though sixty-eight years old, Ginsberg has lost little of the energy that carried him to the forefront of anti-war protests during the “Sixties. I met him in London recently and began by asking him what it was like to be part of the famous Beat movement of the 1950s.
AG: The same as it is for young kids now. Young kids get together and make a band, you know, a garage band of their own, and go on to fame fortune or failure and suicide, whatever. In full collaboration, loves.. you know, we loved each other, we respected each other. I thought that Kerouac was a kind of sacred bard (as he saw himself, the notion of poetry as a sacramental vocation) and Burroughs I thought was such an intelligent funny guy. It was really funny for a seventeen-year-old to get into a conversation with him.
DW: Did you ever mind being called a Beat poet, wouldn’t you have rather been just called a poet?
AG: Well I minded being called “Beatnik”, because that was a diminutive appellation that was intended to be insulting – “Sputnik” – “these guys are out of this woild!” – but, well, you know, Beat is artificial, it’s a media.. media, not invention, a media expansion of a very casual remark by Kerouac meaning to un-name the generation, (but, since it was there as a stereotype, then I figured the best thing to do would be to honor the stereotype and transform it into something really honorific by continuing to create great poetry (and Burroughs was doing that and Kerouac was doing that, so all I had to do was do what I was doing already).
DW: And in 1956 you published your first book Howl, which was banned almost immediately, presumably that had a great effect on your reputation?
AG: Yeah, sure, I got to be known as this angry young wild man whose verse “sounds like the screaming of an hysterical woman in the back of a police car”, (as I seem to remember it was characterized by Life magazine, the sort of, like, media empire of its day). But I think I.. and probably I thought of it (Howl) as a sort of little velvet pamphlet that would, like, circulate, you know, to five-hundred copies or something, and be forgotten, (you know – for connoisseurs and dilettante and cognescenti) . And when they seized it, when the vice-cop’s, child.. children’s vice-cops, seized it and busted Ferlinghetti, (who was quite a legitimate poet), then immediately this poem became quite famous, in fact notorious, and people began buying it, began buying it like hot cakes.
And that happens over and over every time a book is seized.
DW: Your poems seem to be inspired as often by lust as love, do you think perhaps you’re just being a little more honest than other poets and this is what’s got you a reputation?
AG: Well, Walt Whitman recommended candor
DW: And that’s what you do in your work?
AG: Well, I don’t know if I can tell the difference between lust and love at this point. Can anybody anymore? Yes, love has responsibilities, but so does lust. I mean you make love with somebody, you’re karmically stuck with them, you know! You’ve got to answer the phone when they call! – no matter if it’s twenty years later!
DW: Another great influence on your work has been the 19th Century English poet William Blake
DW: How did that come about? What is it about Blake that inspires you?
AG: Well, there’s some kind of visionary psychedelic aspect of Blake, both in his paintings and drawings and in his poetry. And in a period of.. what? absent-mindedness? or depression, or isolation, something in Blake touched off, or catalyzed, the kind of visionary experience (a very natural one), at a time when I was eating vegetarian, living alone, up on the sixth floor of a Harlem tenement, back in the ‘Forties. And it left a permanent imprint of… what? – the vastness of the sky – on my mind – and the depth of the human voice, and it sort of transformed my idea of poetry in that I realized that it was something that could actually alter people’s consciousness (if.. at the right moment, at the right time, the right verses could do that). And many poets that I’ve run into have had some kind of encounter with Blake, either imaginative, or visionary, or literary. or aesthetic – and it certainly changed my life.
DW: Now Blake gave you some kind of natural psychedelia, as you said..
DW: In the ‘Fifties and ‘Sixties, you started experimenting with, perhaps more unnatural, psychedelics…
AG: No, no, it’s just an extension of diet, You know, mushrooms, magic mushrooms.
DW: But LSD is a strong chemical.
AG: Well yes, but then so are the new kinds of tomatoes they’ve got on the market! It’s.. you know, there are variants, there’s synthetic tomatoes, and most of the food in America is synthetic. So..what is canned food? what’s frozen food? – I would say it (psychedelic exploration)’s an extension of diet, particularly cactus, peyote or mushrooms (which are more convenient it seems to me than synthetics) But I was interested in seeing if I could approximate the vast sensation of.. vastation…that I felt with the Blake poems.
DW: You’ve recently published a poem called “Don’t Smoke!”. Presumably, as a believer in the freedom of the individual, this isn’t a health poem. What is it about?
AG: No, it’s a health poem, yeah – “Smoking makes you cough/ You can’t sing straight/ You gargle on your saliva/ and you vomit on your plate/Don’t smoke, don’t smoke, don’t smoke, don’t smoke, don’t smoke don’t smoke the official dope, dope dope, dope dope…” – (“Put Down Your Cigarette Rag”).. So, in this sense, the poem’s a kind of funny health poem and the interesting thing is that the most right-wing American politicians among the theo-political televangelist right are representatives of the tobacco lobby. You know, they pose as ethical arbiters for everybody else but they push the killer weed! So it’s just the paradox of that, but it’s also just personal advice. You know, having smoked myself sometime, I found that I prefer to sing that song and smoke (because it’s such a funny song!)
to be continued