Q&A; WITH ALLEN GINSBERG : ‘Our Goal Was to Save the Planet’
This is a big year for Allen Ginsberg. Arguably America’s best-known living poet, Ginsberg, now 67, is the subject of a documentary film, “The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg,” opening Thursday at the Nuart for a one-week run. Directed by Jerry Aronson, the film chronicles the sparks that flew when Ginsberg met up with Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady and William Burroughs in the early ‘50s. That spontaneous combustion came to be known as the Beat Generation, and from it Ginsberg emerged as a poet of prophetic power, giving eloquent voice to the anxiety of a people witnessing their country devolve into a heavily armed superpower. His approach to poetry has left an irrevocable mark on 20th-Century literature.
Due this June is Ginsberg’s “Holy Soul Jelly Roll: Poems and Songs 1949-1993,” a four-disc box set produced by Hal Wilner on Rhino Records. On May 18, HarperCollins will publish “Cosmopolitan Greetings: 1985-1992,” a new book of poems; later this year, it will publish his “Journals 1954-1958.” He took some time from his schedule during a visit to Los Angeles to offer some perspective on his work and his life.
Question: What’s the most widely held misconception about the Beat Generation?
Answer: That we weren’t literate. We were more educated than most of the academic critics who dismissed our interest in Eastern thought as irrationality simply because it was non-linear. It required cultivation and a good deal more discipline than Western logical simplifications. Still, they dismissed us as unruly beatniks with wiggy hair, bongo drums and cockroaches on the floor.
Q: How do you explain the recent explosion of interest in your work?
A: There’s a reappraisal of the literary value of the Beats in general I think. People are starting to realize that we weren’t just a star that exploded long ago, and that we’ve continued to write all these years--aside from Kerouac and Cassady, very few of us fell by the wayside. We have a good longevity record compared with most of the academic poets who killed themselves by drinking--we just smoked a little grass instead of totally knocking out our livers with booze, and the ones of us who died young were the alcoholics. The notorious dope-fiend business turned out to be a better bet than all-American suicide on alcohol.
Q: Aside from not killing you, what else did drugs do for you?
A: They reinforced certain individualistic and visionary tendencies I had that have been useful to me as a citizen and a poet. I once asked Dr. (Albert) Hoffman, who invented LSD, what philosophic principle he derived from it, and he answered that it showed there are many different universes possible.
Q: As a poet, you use words as the raw material for your art; what is language good for?
A: It unites heaven and earth. The heaven of the mind--the impalpable and the infinite--wants to communicate with the physical body and the earth, and language can be a vehicle for that.
Q: How does language trip us up?
A: It trips us up when we confuse words with things--take “Macedonia,” for instance. The Greeks and the Yugoslavian Macedonians are arguing about who owns the word Macedonia and think Macedonian is a word with an intrinsic essence that must be monopolized by one side or another. Historically, the word god has always functioned in a similar way. People are willing to kill for their word image of god, and use the word as an excuse for mass murder.
Q: What does that word mean to you?
A: Old no-bo daddy on high--nobody’s daddy on high. That’s William Blake’s phrase. He said that for centuries man has been asleep under the guidance of old no-bo daddy, trying to substitute some abstract concept of a god who’s outside everything rather than develop his own awareness. Man refuses responsibility for his own creation of the nuclear bomb, and acts as if it was something given from above. “I didn’t do it, I swear--it crawled into my hand.”
Q: What’s been the great achievement of the American counterculture in the 20th Century?
A: It altered mainstream culture completely and introduced several bodies of thought that have never lost their relevance. Beginning in the ‘40s, Kerouac, Burroughs and myself became interested in the operation of consciousness and began experimenting with psychotherapy, psychedelics, Eastern philosophy, art and ideas about the alchemy of the word that were first introduced by Rimbaud.
We think in terms of montage, collage, discontinuity and jump cut, and the great monuments of writing--Pounds’ “Cantos,” Kerouac’s “Mexico City Blues,” William Carlos Williams’ “Paterson"--have that quality of montage. I remember Bob Dylan telling me that Kerouac’s “Mexico City Blues” inspired him to become a poet, and when I asked him why, he said because it was the first book that spoke to him in his own language--American.
Q: What was the great failure of the counterculture?
A: Once when Kerouac was high on psychedelics with Timothy Leary, he looked out the window and said, “Walking on water wasn’t built in a day.” Our goal was to save the planet and alter human consciousness. That will take a long time, if it happens at all.
Q: Looking back on Kerouac’s life, do you consider it a tragic one?
A: No--he did more in one lifetime than most people do in 10. And remember, he had alcoholism, which is an illness, and that contributed to the sadness that came toward the end of his life. I think everybody gets unhappy in the final 10 years of their life, though, and the unhappiness runs deep because you realize you’re gonna die. I have diabetes and high blood pressure, I can’t eat meat and I can hardly get it up--despite that, erotic desire never fades. Having crushes, seeing some brilliant face in the crowd, your heart melting--that’s always there.
Q: The essential theme of all your poetry has been love. Why does love die?
A: I don’t think love dies--it just gets buried under bad experience and incommunicability, or people go mad, suffer money woes, get caught up in a war. But if you look to your dreams, you’ll find the original love tears, throbs and grief remain completely intact. The emotions remain in the body, the mind and the heart, and they often come out in dreams.
Q: Why can’t we live those dreams more fully?
A: Fear of the rejection that might come if we show our sensitivity, vulnerability and funkiness. Walt Whitman addressed this when he said, “I celebrate myself and sing myself"--that’s a song of self-acceptance, and there aren’t many models of self-acceptance around. As far as the flaws we see in ourselves that we struggle to hide from others, I believe in letting your neurosis be your style, which is a Buddhist notion of turning waste into treasure.
Q: How would you explain the concept of reality?
A: If you stub your foot against the desk, it hurts--that’s reality. At the same time, the hurt is impermanent--in 100 years your body and the desk will be gone and ultimately it’s all a dream, so reality has no hell to pay nor heaven to reward. Therefore you’re completely free, as in a dream.