Jerome Rothenberg Introduces Allen Ginsberg San Diego, 1985

Jerome Rothenberg and Allen Ginsberg at The Poetry Project Symposium, New York, 1977 – photo by Vivien Selbo

More treasures from the Stanford archives.

Jerome Rothenberg  introduces Allen Ginsberg (on November 10, 1985, at San Diego State University).

For the audio (hear Allen reading from “Kaddish”) – see here

JR:  Again to thank Luke Morrison (sic) who set this all in motion to begin with and to welcome Allen Ginsberg here as visiting poet, scholar and teacher, but those last two in a very very special way, and for the poet also in a very special way. It occurs to me that it’s now thirty years to the year to the beginning of the writing of “Howl”before, I would take it, many here in the auditorium were born. As I think back to Allen Ginsberg’s impact then in the 1950s when almost everyone I knew was young, his importance to all of us over the years, since, when I think back to those things, I get a flash of a prayer uttered daily by the seventeenth-century Jewish mystic, heretic and messiah, Shabbetai Ẓevi, , a great prayer, “Blessed art thou,  O Lord, God of the Universe, who permits that which is forbidden”. In 1950, there was much that was forbidden. Blake’s “mind-forged manacles” were everywhere and “Thou shalt not written” (really written) on every door”. At that time and later Allen Ginsberg was a prophet among prophets, the prophet of a new opening of an already-existing underground, a community of kindred spirits soon to be growing and signalling its new emergence. The areas of closure were deep into the culture. Politically, old jingo-isms and post-World War II nationalisms, Cold War and rampant McCarthyism. In culture, chauvinism, class-domination, institutional racism and sexism, institutional morality, a world of trapped bodies where love sweet love was thought a crime, and in all-or-nothing religion, the moral majority in exercise of that control which it is now only hoping to recover. Allen Ginsberg as a young poet spoke out against this to my generation and for my generation and he made himself heard. In word and action he made that great refusal to the claims of state and church at whatever personal risk (and there were many personal risks, as there are now).But his great work, his great work was as a poet, right there as a poet, who proved through his own practice that the bars imposed by an overly-literary and class-orientated poetics were now broken, recalling the further prophecy of Blake that poetry fettered, poetry in chains, “poetry fettered fettered the human race” Ginsberg, more than any poet of my time, revived the bardic and prophetic voice and was one of those who led the struggle to free up the poet’s voice, to let the poet speak and compose in his or her own voice. Like our older contemporary Charles Olson, he showed new and old ways to free the breath, to compose openly in breath-centered and directed lines a poetry of the body that was at the same time a poetry of the spirit, of the mind, of what he was later to call “mind breath”. He helped to break the boundaries between high and low art and utilize the total American idiom, the total contemporary and human idiom in poetry that all language would become (and this time it’s Whitman’s prophecy), that all language would become the language of poetry. In his own work and in league with other poets, he re-connected in all these ways with the traditions of an experimental and visionary modernism and with visionary, spiritual and great popular oral blues traditions, wherever found. He brought an extraordinary sense of self-exposure into poetry, a directness of statement and intention beyond the merely confessional and self-lamenting lyricism of the on-going academic style. He became probably the best-known poet of our time (at least in the Western world) and he did it, until just now, by publishing all his books of poetry through, what he calls, “the delicate small presses” of America, notably Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights in San Francisco, as a token too of the poet’s separation from the hyper-industrialized world of corporate publishing and usurious power. As a teacher, also as a teacher, he has worked over the last dozen years through the Naropa Poetics Institute in Boulder, Colorado, rather than the great state universities and the highly-endowed private ones. His recent Collected Poems (of which there are ample copies), his recent Collected Poems 1947-1980 are from Harper & Row, at this time. It is a precise monument to all of that, a generous and forceful offering to all of us.  It is a work throughout that is at once spontaneous and deeply rooted in the history of poetry and with it a politics of real conscience and morality. Allen Ginsberg emerges there as a great international poet, an American poet, a political and social leader, a religious teacher, an angelic and demonic figure, one of the enduring figures in the heroic visionary innovative and primal poetry and art of our time. It is my great pleasure to say that, to introduce him here and now, Allen Ginsberg, accompanied on guitar by Matthew Rothenberg.

AG:   Well, I’ll try to live up to all that. Quite a job. I’m working with Matthew Rothenberg, who is Jerry Rothenberg’s son, and it’s, like, an august occasion since Jerry is a poet whose work I’ve studied and learned a lot from. Stephen Rodefer is also here teaching, working in the library as a poet (he’s just translated Villon), and  Steve Kowit, who I’d never met before, whose books I had read and liked a lot and had written him, and so it’s very pleasant to be able to come here, and get a nice big crowd.

And so we have quite a bit of time and we’ll begin with music  –  “Gospel Noble Truths”.  (Buddha dharma in country (‘n) western form) –  (“Born in this world..”… “Die when you die”)
(Allen typically expresses concern about the acoustics) – How is the balance of sound?  Can you hear the words clearly?  Anybody not? Raise your hand.  Well, that’s one person way in the back, maybe y could come a little forward?  It’s a little muffled? – ok – and so I should stay about.. like this maybe?  ..And you can hear the guitar clearly? – not too loud, not too soft? – and the harmonium you can hear? Is that too loud and drowns out the voice? okay – It’s too loud?  Not loud enough – okay – I can play it noisier..  So, next…

I was….  I’ll have to make it up as I go along. I can’t find the text…I went down to Nicaragua a couple of years ago and wrote a little rap song based on a Zen koan – the little fish…  The little fish eats the big fish.    So that’s A-minor. We didn’t rehearse this, so what we doing now will have to be improvised. It was done in the International.. International Continental Hotel Bar, Managua, Nicaragua..  (discovers the text) – I got it!  ..It’s just A minor, so no problem..Adventure!  – (“When the troops get their poop…”…“Hypocrisy is the key to self-fulfilling prophecy”).

and the last of the music – a blues – “Airplane Blues”

Is it less muffled or was I still too close? Was I still too close?

I don’t know, someone asked me what I meant by “Hypocrisy is the key to self-fulfilling prophecy”. I was in Nicaragua and the Nicaraguan newspapers, echoing the American newspapers, reported that General Haig had said that we were not ruling out an invasion. and, simultaneously, (I) received a copy of Time magazine in Managua saying that Nicaragua had too big an army and obviously was intent on invading its neighboring states. And it seemed obvious that we were forcing them to mobilize and militarize and, as if now, with,  I think the CIA-supplemented Leftist strikes, turn into a paramilitary government with marshall law. And it seemed to me then, in 1982, that the purpose of the American government was to drive them up the wall until they really began to act badly and look badly and then we’d have an excuse to invade, which seems to be the precise  lay-out and that’s why I say “hypocrisy” –  our hypocrisy is the key to our own self-fulfilling prophecy. They will be driven into the Russian-Cuban orbit, although they have.. like Ho Chi Minh before in the Vietnam War, wanted to have economic relations with the United States rather than the Russian Duma very early.  I think the breaking point was the United States insisted that they re-employ the old Somoza National Guard as part of the government and included them in the government and I think that’s where Carter drifted off. I’m not sure. It’s buried in the mists of newspaper history

Allen sings “Airport Blues” (“I drove out to the airport.”..”will outlast my old age”)

So now, turning to spoken poetry for a while. What I’ll do is read from early poems first, take a break after a while, and then go on and read poems up to the last few months.  And so, working chronologically, and beginning with poems that are, or maybe for some students, relatively well-known from anthologies, just to make contact with what you already know. Later poems are not so well-known because anthologies have not had time to catch up. So, I’ll read on through poetry of the late ‘70s, and then last year  from a… some material from a trip to China, and songs also

“Sunflower Sutra” (I walked on the banks of…”..”tincan evening sit-down vision”) – America, America (that was 1955 and the date of the next is in the poem – (“America, I’ve given you..” … “America I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel”)

A longer poem, several years later, “Kaddish”, which, at one time, was perhaps better-known. How many here have read any of that poem, Kaddish?  and how many have not?  will you please raise your hand? so it’s the majority so I think I’ll read some of that.

My mother, Naomi Ginsberg, died in 1956, having come over from Russia in 1905, settled near where I live now on the Lower East Side and had a number of nervous breakdowns and was in mental hospitals most of my youth and I had to take care of her. And after she died (several years, in 1956), I thought, for my own record, to write down a record of what I remember of my childhood and my relation with her. And then did write it and thought it was too difficult, difficult to scribble, difficult a scribble, so I didn’t get around to typing it for several years, and then thought, “well it’s actually a poem, of a kind” so published it.  So I’ll read the opening Proem, preliminary section, (which is sort of Surrealist juxtaposition of images from the rest of the poem) and the lyrical parts at the end of the poem. It’s written more or less with the rhythm of the traditional Kaddish ceremony, the Hebrew ceremony for the dead (which is quoted in the poem actually, but maybe just to make it a little clearer I could read that) ..let’s see..Yitgadal v’yitkadash sh’mei raba b’alma di-v’ra/chirutei, v’yamlich malchutei b’chayeichon…”. (Allen searches but is frustrated)..I can’t find it here. I have a new edition of Collected Poems and I can’t find things that…oh..Yitbarach v’yishtabach….. (Allen recites) – So that’s like the classical rhythmical pulsation of the original Hebrew Kaddish (Allen then reads from the poem, “Kaddish”)  (“Strange now.. death stay thy phantoms….”…. “Blessed be He”… “with your eyes”   “…caw caw caw Lord”)

I think I’ll maybe alternate with a little music since it’s… just to break the spell – “Do The Meditation Rock” – literal instructions for samathavipassana, that’s mind-settling,mind-quietning, and perception-sharpening samathavipassana meditation practice. (If you want to learn to meditate..”…”it’s never too late”..)

rest of the concert appears unrecorded  – audiotape ends here 

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