A couple of weeks back we featured a gleaning from the Stanford archives – an interview with Allen on KCRW (Los Angeles radio) conducted by Ruth Seymour (Ruth Hirschman).
Here’s another one, conducted three years later (on the occasion of the publication of Allen’s Collected Poems 1947-1980).
Audio of the interview may be heard – here
RS: This is Ruth Hirschman (sic). My guest this afternoon is Allen Ginsberg and we’re here to talk about his Collected Poems 1947-1980 – Red cover, gold lettering, it has a design I’ll have to ask him about in the middle, (a) mystical design – heavy book, big book, hardback book. Alright, I’m going to ask you about…
AG: Acid-free paper.
RS: Acid-free paper!
AG: Some binding, full cloth cover, fifty pages of notes, profusely illustrated, an index of proper names, an index of first lines and title (with acronyms for the original books that all the titles came from), critical apparatus including, you know, William Carlos Williams’
two prefaces to earlier books, all of my epigraphs and dedicatory pages for earlier books, as well as the back-cover copy writ blurb that I composed for the City Lights books and others, all the dedication pages reproduced, and notes, with illustrations and specially-commissioned drawings by Bob LaVigne and the great filmmaker esoteric hermetic philosopher collector, Harry Smith of New York, who designed the cover and conceived the optics of the dust jacket..
RS: In other words, a proper.. a proper book.
AG: A proper book which will be an artifact which will outlast my flesh
RS: I’d like to ask you something. I know you’ve been asked this before. I can’t resist it though. How does it feel after all these years to go hardback.. the poet.. the pre-eminent poet of the paperback poems, and then, actually.. how many copies did Howl (& Other Poems) sell?…I mean, it was..
AG: I guess it must be getting up to eight hundred thousand or a million or so.
RS: Right, I mean.. you know..
AG: …in paperback
RS: Well, in this country, to sell a million copies of a poem!
AG: Well, maybe six hundred thousand, who knows? I didn’t count. I didn’t count them.
RS: Let’s make it a million. I think it was… Well, certainly it’s..
AG: Countless. So the question is how does it feel to go from paperback? (which is, actually, not very much of a question, not very much of an answer). But what I was interested in was, since I was going to have a large book, I wanted to make it an aesthetic artifact that was worthy of its contents, and so I did a lot of work to.. to commission Robert LaVigne and others to make drawings, and, particularly, to model the appearance of the book on the most authoritative books I could find, at the suggestion of Harry Smith – and those were the Oxford Greek-English lexicon for a typeface for the cover, and, for color and design, the Macmillan Variorum edition of Yeats’ Plays.
RS: Behind every radical revolutionary poet lies the heart of a conservative, in the sense that…
AG; Well it’s like a scholar, certainly, conserving.
RS: Tell me what is the symbol, the gold symbol that’s on the front of the book?
AG: It’s an insignia or emblem that I’ve used on other books, especially on Airplane Dreams, and I’ve reproduced it before – three fish with tails and fins converging in one head, a sign of.. (a) Buddhist emblem that I first saw in Bodhi Gaya, India, incised on the sole of a footprint of Buddha in a large rock sculpture. In the old days, Buddha was not pictured in human form until Alexander the Great came along and conquered India. But before Alexander’s conquest of India, and the Greek statue-influence of pictures of sculptures of Buddha, the figure of Enlightenment, Buddha, Awakened Mind, was symbolized by a parasol for the imperial.. (an) imperial parasol’s protection from the sun – or a wheel, the wheel of dharma, awakened mind teaching.
RS: So.. what’s know as..
AG: …or a footprint for passing through
AG: So that under the bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya there are a number of large ten-foot long stones carved into footprint soles of the feet and on the sole or the heel of one of those I saw this design, really intricate design, of three fish with one head, and I copied it down in my notebook and then I gave a copy to Harry Smith and he drew me the same emblem in Pythagorean proportions so that it can be expanded and symmetrized into a Hebrew star, or golden mean, or all sorts of projected mathematical extensions and extrapolations.
RS: Allen, a book like this, instantly you look at it and instantly it gives you a sense of reflectiveness, so if we could just take a few minutes out to reflect about what has happened between 1947 and 1980 and the journey that this book chronicles. And if I asked you to talk about it in prose terms (the journey is all there in poetic terms, but we’re not going to read all the poems in the book). It.. it was..what? – an apocalyptic time? Well, I guess..
AG: What 1947?
RS: …if we look at that journey.
AG: In my own head, sure.. I would say in my own head there was a certain apocalyptic sense of things, because I had some kind of visionary experiences around that time,(19)47, (19)48, which are encased in kind of classical verse. Like this little opening thing on page seven, called “The eye altering alters all” which is a quote from (William) Blake – (Allen reads) (“Many seek and never see..”….”This is a great mystery”) – So this is like a little mystical riddle. I had this odd mystical experience and I didn’t know how to express it so I could only put it in forms of riddles or some kind of weird symbolism that didn’t make much sense. But then simultaneously there was the sense that ordinary mind was a better avenue.
RS: Ordinary mind?
AG: Ordinary mind is the better avenue for conversation or saying what I was talking about. And so the very first page of the book starts out with a very clear American-ese in a poem called “In Society” – (I can’t read the whole poem because I think it would be.. I think it’s..
I think there’s enough censorship in American radio that the words in this poem would be troublesome
RS: Probably. Alright, if you’ll read.. right…
AG: But the first, the beginning is – “I walked into the cocktail party room and found three or four queers together talking a queer talk” – (now this is 1947, you realize.. this kind of talk talk – (““I walked into the cocktail party room and found three or four queers together talking a queer talk..”.. (Allen continues reading) -“…and while I was chewing on it I also noticed it had a..”) – and here we have to censor the poem… Anyway, it goes on.
RS: But you know there’s something very journalistic-y even about what you call ordinary speech, I guess that’s.. even Hemingway-esque, I would say, narrative, it’s a narrative line..
AG: Narrative speech. I was just comparing it with the sort of mystical sounding stuff of
“a very Dove will have her love ‘ere the dove has died”, you know, the sort of mystical claptrap.
RS: But there’s always both there. I remember in “Howl”, ‘the rose in the closet”.
AG: Yeah. but it’s.. It’s a rose in a closet on a wire yellow paper hanger. It was “a yellow paper rose twisted on a wire hanger in the closet”. So it’s a realistic paper rose rather than an imaginary rose in a book.
RS: True, but it leads to.. to… in your mind, it becomes a…there’s a kind of Blakean vision that the rose..
AG: Well there’s that reference to it. But on the other hand there’s a sort of a contradiction of that by keeping it down to earth, I think.
RS: Well the part of you that’s down to earth I suppose that side, that side was very awakened, let’s say, by someone like William Carlos Williams, who was a man who believed in that very much, that poetry had to stay close to that.
AG: Yes. That’s why these first poems are funny mixtures of.. that first thing, the one I read about “I walked into the cocktail party room”, I put together out of journal notes to please Doctor Williams’ eye. as a sample of what might be done, what kind of writing I could do if I could put my mind to writing realistically. And he liked these actually. He said “Oh, got any more? – I’ll see that you get a book” So I sent him about six or seven poems.
RS: And is that how it really began? Was he the first poet that really..
AG: No, (Jack) Kerouac, I..
RS: No, I don’t mean..
AG: …three years before, (but) Williams was the first poet whose work I suddenly understood and who suddenly understood mine, or felt something about what I was doing that gave him a gleam of hope.
RS: And what about the visionary aspect? ..when…. did that come to trouble your mind?
AG: That’s (19)47, (19)48 – Well, yeah, quite a bit, I had a kind of nervous breakdown. It’s more or less outlined in the book, in the poems, and I think there is.. there’s some funny poem, but I probably can’t find it in the book (it’s so new this book that I don’t know where everything is)
RS: You have to ramble through it yourself!
AG: Yeah, there is a thing trying to describe a mystical experience – Oh yeah, here! – got it! – “Psalm IV”!
AG: This is written in 1960, recalling something that happened in 1948. – (Allen reads Psalm IV – begins but then starts again) – (“Now I’ll record my secret vision impossible sight of the face of God”…”My father wept and held me in his dead arms”) – I don’t know what that last line means, it’s sort of like turning it off or turning it inside out. But the specific of “red walls of buildings flashed outside,/endless sky sad Eternity/sunlight gazing on the world, apartments of Harlem standing in the/ universe/ – each brick and cornice stained with intelligence like a vast living face” – that’s pretty descriptive – somewhere it mediates in between some visionary apocalyptic vision and a down-to-earth situation in time and space where you look out the window and are suddenly struck with the vastness of the sky above the apartment buildings and the amount of intelligent craftsman-like workmanship that went into the buildings half a century ago.
RS: Isn’t that really the tension in your work, really, always between the visionary and the rational?
AG: Well, it would be nice to say so.
RS: Okay! – Let’s.. But, you said something at the very end, the last line, when you said “I don’t know what that means”
AG: “My son, my son. My father wept and held me in his dead arms” – Well, I don’t know what could.. I wrote it, but I don’t know what it means.
RS: But Allen, let me ask you this – “I don’t know what it means”
AG: I don’t know what it means, yeah, but it means something, I could interpret it
RS: When you say that, do you mean that the lines are given to you?
AG: It means that I heard the line in my inner ear as, like, a sentence coming up through my head, in the vocal areas of the brain pan and wrote it down because that’s what appeared but on the other hand I wasn’t quite sure what it meant but I trusted that it meant something that was worth keeping. In fact I trusted that it would be something that it would be better not to destroy because it would have some indication later on that would make it rationally alright and as it was aesthetically it was sounding good
AG: Because, of course, obviously it’s a paraphrase of Blake (as there are paraphrases of a lot of poems in here – I don’t know if folk know the poem by Sir Thomas Wyatt,”They flee from me who sometime do me seek/With naked foot, stalking in my chamber./I have seen them gentle, tame, and meek,/That now are wild and do not remember/that sometime they came unto my hand for bread” – or something…(Editorial note – “That sometime they put themself in danger/To take bread at my hand”)
RS: Oh it’s wonderful!
AG: And so at the end it’s “It was no dream, I lay broad waking” – So “it was no dream I lay broad waking” on a fabulous couch in Harlem – so that’s a paraphrase of a slightly mysterious poem of (Sir Thomas) Wyatt – The end is a paraphrase of ..”My son! My son!” “Time howled in anguish in my ear” – (that’s from (William) Blake, probably, I don’t know what, “The Song of Los”? (Editorial note – from The Gates of Paradise)
RS: Right, So it’s as if the poets themselves speak. You’ve not only become the instrument through which something (not I but the wind) speaks but also which through other poets..
AG: In my own head
RS: Well you know, there’s an element..
AG: The meaning of that last line, “My son, My son!, my father wept and held me in his dead arms” – “My father” is the, say, God, to begin, the possible sight of the face of God, but let’s say some Eternity, or some divine presence, or, if not a divine presence, the awareness and wakefulness of waking up in great space and realizing this is the universe and once and for all I’m here, and I’m not going to be here forever but the universe has been here forever. So that’s the “father” – the universe has been here forever. However, my father “wept” – meaning that the universe itself had borne me and taken care of me ( and (of) everybody – the ants, even the sparrow) and “held me in his dead arms” – meaning, like what? – well, my own father is dead and certainly did care for me (so in that sense, “held me in his dead arms”)
RS: And also left you the legacy. He was a poet.
AG: Left me the legacy. But then the universe..like..it was the old feeling that God gives himself and disappears that we live (in the sense that the divine spirit materializes to this universe and disappears, so that this universe is all that’s left of divine spirit and incarnates divine spirt – (but that’s a little bit heavy-handed – or I wouldn’t exactly buy that because it’s made out of funny words, that particular statement)
RS: But that was the other aspect I wanted to talk about. There’s something that always you retain, even in the most tragic work (although there it’s much more covered over) and that is a..a sense of humor.
AG: Uh-huh – I think it may be just an old Jewish characteristic, but on the other hand..
RS: But we’re such tragedians by nature!
AG: And he’s got this rose in his teeth and tears come to his eyes as he watches her, his girlfriend, bringing her sight and wonders how she’ll take to him. How did that wind up anyway? Did she accept him or did he fade away?
RS: Oh, no, it’s a great slow fade – It’s.. and that’s how it ends because he knew, he had the genius to understand that there isn’t.. we don’t know – (or rather we do know, and in our heart of hearts, our heart sinks when we realize what it means. We almost feel that he does too).
to be continued and concluding tomorrow