Interviews

Allen Ginsberg, The Art of Poetry No. 8

Interviewed by Thomas Clark

Allen Ginsberg was elected King of the May by Czech students in Prague on May Day, 1965. Soon afterward, he was expelled by the Czech government. He had been traveling for several months—in Cuba, Russia, and Poland—and from Prague he flew to London to negotiate the English publication of his poems.  I didn’t know he was in the country, but one night in Bristol before a poetry reading I saw him in a bar.  He read that night; I hadn’t heard him read before and was struck that evening by the way he seemed to enter each of his poems emotionally while reading them, the performance was much a discovery for him as for his audience.

Ginsberg and I left Bristol the day after the reading and hitchhiked to Wells Cathedral and then to Glastonbury, where he picked a flower from King Arthur’s grave to send, he said, to his lifelong companion, Peter Orlovsky.  He carefully studied the exhibit of tools and weapons under the huge conical chimney of the ancient king’s kitchen, as later in Cambridge he was to study the Fitzwilliam Museum’s store of Blake manuscripts; Ginsberg’s idea of a Jerusalemic Britain occurring now in the day of long hair and new music meant equally the fulfillment of Blake’s predictions of Albion. As we came out of a tea shop in Glastonbury (where customers had glanced cautiously at the bearded, prophetic—and unfazed—stranger), Allen spoke of Life’s simulacrum of a report of his Oxford encounter with Dame Edith Sitwell. (“Dope makes me come out all over in spots,” she’s supposed to have said.)

Leaving the town, we were caught in a rainstorm and took a bus to Bath. Then, hitchhiking toward London, we were unsuccessful until Ginsberg tried using Buddhist hand signals instead of thumbing; half a minute later a car stopped. Riding through Somerset he talked about notation, the mode he says he learned from Kerouac and has used in composing his enormous journals; he read from an account he’d made of a recent meeting with the poets Yevtushenko and Voznesensky in Moscow, and then, looking up at a knot in a withered oak by the road, said, “The tree has cancer of the breast . . . that’s what I mean . . .

Two weeks later he was in Cambridge for a reading and I asked him to submit to this interview. He was still busy with Blake, roaming and musing around the university and countryside in his spare moments; it took two days to get him to sit still long enough to turn on the tape recorder. He spoke slowly and thoughtfully, tiring after two hours. We stopped for a meal when guests came—when Ginsberg learned one of them was a biochemist he questioned him about viruses and DNA for an hour—then we returned to record the other half of the tape.

 

INTERVIEWER

I think Diana Trilling, speaking about your reading at Columbia, remarked that your poetry, like all poetry in English when dealing with a serious subject, naturally takes on the iambic pentameter rhythm. Do you agree?

GINSBERG

Well, it really isn’t an accurate thing, I don’t think. I’ve never actually sat down and made a technical analysis of the rhythms that I write. They’re probably more near choriambic—Greek meters, dithyrambic meters—and tending toward de DA de de DA de de . . . what is that? Tending toward dactylic, probably. Williams once remarked that American speech tends toward dactylic. But it’s more complicated than dactyl because dactyl is a three—three units, a foot consisting of three parts—whereas the actual rhythm is probably a rhythm which consists of five, six, or seven, like DA de de DA de de DA de de DA DA. Which is more toward the line of Greek dance rhythms—that’s why they call them choriambic. So actually, probably it’s not really technically correct, what she said. But—and that applies to certain poems, like certain passages of Howl and certain passages of Kaddish—there are definite rhythms that could be analyzed as corresponding to classical rhythms, though not necessarily English classical rhythms; they might correspond to Greek classical rhythms, or Sanskrit prosody. But probably most of the other poetry, like Aether or Laughing Gas or a lot of those poems, they simply don’t fit into that. I think she felt very comfy, to think that that would be so. I really felt quite hurt about that, because it seemed to me that she ignored the main prosodic technical achievements that I had proffered forth to the academy, and they didn’t even recognize it. I mean, not that I want to stick her with being the academy.

INTERVIEWER

 And in Howl and Kaddish you were working with a kind of classical unit? Is that an accurate description?

GINSBERG

Yeah, but it doesn’t do very much good, because I wasn’t really working with a classical unit, I was working with my own neural impulses and writing impulses. See, the difference is between someone sitting down to write a poem in a definite preconceived metrical pattern and filling in that pattern, and someone working with his physiological movements and arriving at a pattern, and perhaps even arriving at a pattern that might even have a name, or might even have a classical usage, but arriving at it organically rather than synthetically. Nobody’s got any objection to even iambic pentameter if it comes from a source deeper than the mind, that is to say if it comes from the breathing and the belly and the lungs.

INTERVIEWER

American poets have been able to break away from a kind of English specified rhythm earlier than English poets have been able to do. Do you think this has anything to do with a peculiarity in English spoken tradition?

GINSBERG

No, I don’t really think so, because the English don’t speak in iambic pentameter either; they don’t speak in the recognizable pattern that they write in. The dimness of their speech and the lack of emotional variation is parallel to the kind of dim diction and literary usage in the poetry now. But you can hear all sorts of Liverpudlian or Gordian—that’s Newcastle—you can hear all sorts of variants aside from an upper-tone accent—a highclass accent—that don’t fit into the tone of poetry being written right now. It’s not being used like in America—I think it’s just that British poets are more cowardly.

INTERVIEWER

Do you find any exception to this?

GINSBERG

It’s pretty general, even the supposedly avant-garde poets. They write, you know, in a very toned-down manner.

INTERVIEWER

How about a poet like Basil Bunting?

GINSBERG

Well, he was working with a whole bunch of wild men from an earlier era, who were all breaking through, I guess. And so he had that experience—also he knew Persian, he knew Persian prosody. He was better educated than most English poets.

INTERVIEWER

The kind of organization you use in Howl, a recurrent kind of syntax—you don’t think this is relevant any longer to what you want to do?

GINSBERG

No, but it was relevant to what I wanted to do then; it wasn’t even a conscious decision.

INTERVIEWER

Was this related in any way to a kind of music or jazz that you were interested in at the time?

GINSBERG

Mmm . . . the myth of Lester Young as described by Kerouac, blowing eighty-nine choruses of Lady Be Good, say, in one night, or my own hearing of Illinois Jacciuet’s Jazz at the Philharmonic, Volume 2; I think Can’t Get Started was the title.

INTERVIEWER

And you’ve also mentioned poets like Christopher Smart, for instance, as providing an analogy—is this something you discovered later on?

GINSBERG

When I looked into it, yeah. Actually, I keep reading, or earlier I kept reading, that I was influenced by Kenneth Fearing and Carl Sandburg, whereas actually I was more conscious of Christopher Smart, and Blake’s Prophetic Books, and Whitman, and some aspects of biblical rhetoric. And a lot of specific prose things like Genet—Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers and the rhetoric in that—and Céline; Kerouac, most of all, was the biggest influence I think—Kerouac’s prose.

INTERVIEWER

When did you come onto Burroughs’s work?

GINSBERG

Let’s see . . . Well, first thing of Burroughs I ever read was in 1946 . . . it was a skit later published and integrated in some other work of his, called So Proudly We Hail, describing the sinking of the Titanic and an orchestra playing, a spade orchestra playing, “The Star-Spangled Banner” while everybody rushed out to the lifeboats and the captain got up in woman’s dress and rushed into the purser’s office and shot the purser and stole all the money, and a spastic paretic jumped into a lifeboat with a machete and began chopping off people’s fingers that were trying to climb into the boat, saying, “Out of the way, you foolth . . . Dirty thunthufbithes.” That was a thing he had written up at Harvard with a friend named Kells Elvins. Which is really the whole key of all his work, like the sinking of America, and everybody like frightened rats trying to get out, or that was his vision of the time.

Then he and Kerouac later in 1945—1945 or 1946—wrote a big detective book together, alternating chapters. I don’t know where that book is now—Kerouac has his chapters and Burroughs’s are somewhere in his papers. So I think in a sense it was Kerouac that encouraged Burroughs to write really, because Kerouac was so enthusiastic about prose, about writing, about lyricism, about the honor of writing . . . the Thomas Wolfe–ian delights of it. So anyway he turned Burroughs on in a sense, because Burroughs found a companion who could write really interestingly, and Burroughs admired Kerouac’s perceptions. Kerouac could imitate Dashiell Hammett as well as Bill, which was Bill’s natural style: dry, bony, factual. At that time Burroughs was reading John O’Hara, simply for facts, not for any sublime stylistic thing, just because he was a hard-nosed reporter.

Then in Mexico around 1951 he started writing Junkie. I’ve forgotten what relation I had to that—I think I wound up as the agent for it, taking it around New York trying to get it published. I think he sent me portions of it at the time—I’ve forgotten how it worked out now. This was around 1949 or 1950. He was going through a personal crisis, his wife had died. It was in Mexico or South America . . . but it was a very generous thing of him to do, to start writing all of a sudden. Burroughs was always a very tender sort of person, but very dignified and shy and withdrawn, and for him to commit himself to a big autobiographical thing like that was . . . at the time struck me as like a piece of eternity is in love with the . . . what is it, Eternity is in love with the productions of Time? So he was making a production of Time then.

Then I started taking that around. I’ve forgot who I took that to but I think maybe to Louis Simpson, who was then working at Bobbs-Merrill. I’m not sure whether I took it to him—I remember taking it to Jason Epstein, who was then working at Doubleday, I think. Epstein at the time was not as experienced as he is now. And his reaction to it, I remember when I went back to his office to pick it up, was, Well this is all very interesting, but it isn’t really interesting, on account of if it were an autobiography of a junkie written by Winston Churchill then it’d be interesting, but written by somebody he’d never heard of, well then it’s not interesting. And anyway I said what about the prose, the prose is interesting, and he says, Oh, a difference of opinion on that. Finally I wound up taking it to Carl Solomon who was then a reader for A. A. Wyn (Ace Books), who was his uncle, and they finally got it through there. But it was finally published as a cheap paperback. With a whole bunch of frightened footnotes; like Burroughs said that marijuana was non-habit-forming, which is now accepted as a fact, there’d be a footnote by the editor, “Reliable, er, responsible medical opinion does not confirm this.” Then they also had a little introduction . . . literally they were afraid of the book being censored or seized at the time, is what they said. I’ve forgotten what the terms of censorship or seizure were that they were worried about. This was about 1952. They said that they were afraid to publish it straight for fear there would be a congressional investigation or something, I don’t know what. I think there was some noise about narcotics at the time. Newspaper noise . . . I’ve forgotten exactly what the arguments were. But anyway they had to write a preface that hedged on the book a lot.

INTERVIEWER

Has there been a time when fear of censorship or similar trouble has made your own expression difficult?

GINSBERG

This is so complicated a matter. The beginning of the fear with me was, you know, what would my father say to something that I would write. At the time, writing “Howl”—for instance like I assumed when writing it that it was something that could not be published because I wouldn’t want my daddy to see what was in there. About my sex life, being fucked in the ass, imagine your father reading a thing like that, was what I thought. Though that disappeared as soon as the thing was real, or as soon as I manifested my . . . you know, it didn’t make that much importance finally. That was sort of a help for writing, because I assumed that it wouldn’t be published, therefore I could say anything that I wanted. So literally just for myself or anybody that I knew personally well, writers who would be willing to appreciate it with a breadth of tolerance—in a piece of work like Howl. Who wouldn’t be judging from a moralistic viewpoint but looking for evidences of humanity or secret thought or just actual truthfulness.

Then there’s later the problem of publication—we had a lot. The English printer refused at first I think, we were afraid of customs; the first edition we had to print with asterisks on some of the dirty words, and then the Evergreen Review in reprinting it used asterisks, and various people reprinting it later always wanted to use the Evergreen version rather than the corrected legal City Lights version—like I think there’s an anthology of Jewish writers, I forgot who edited that, but a couple of the high-class intellectuals from Columbia. I had written asking them specifically to use the later City Lights version, but they went ahead and printed an asterisked version. I forget what was the name of that—something like New Generation of Jewish Writing, Philip Roth, etc.

INTERVIEWER

Do you take difficulties like these as social problems, problems of communication simply, or do you feel they also block your own ability to express yourself for yourself?

GINSBERG

The problem is, where it gets to literature, is this. We all talk among ourselves and we have common understandings, and we say anything we want to say, and we talk about our assholes, and we talk about our cocks, and we talk about who we fucked last night, or who we’re gonna fuck tomorrow, or what kinda love affair we have, or when we got drunk, or when we stuck a broom in our ass in the Hotel Ambassador in Prague—anybody tells one’s friends about that. So then—what happens if you make a distinction between what you tell your friends and what you tell your Muse? The problem is to break down that distinction: When you approach the Muse to talk as frankly as you would talk with yourself or with your friends. So I began finding, in conversations with Burroughs and Kerouac and Gregory Corso, in conversations with people whom I knew well, whose souls I respected, that the things we were telling each other for real were totally different from what was already in literature. And that was Kerouac’s great discovery in On the Road. The kinds of things that he and Neal Cassady were talking about, he finally discovered were the subject matter for what he wanted to write down. That meant, at that minute, a complete revision of what literature was supposed to be, in his mind, and actually in the minds of the people that first read the book. Certainly in the minds of the critics, who had at first attacked it as not being . . . proper structure, or something. In other words, a gang of friends running around in an automobile. Which obviously is like a great picaresque literary device, and a classical one. And was not recognized, at the time, as suitable literary subject matter.

INTERVIEWER

So it’s not just a matter of themes—sex, or any other one . . .

GINSBERG

It’s the ability to commit to writing, to write, the same way that you . . . are! Anyway! You have many writers who have preconceived ideas about what literature is supposed to be, and their ideas seem to exclude that which makes them most charming in private conversation. Their faggishness, or their campiness, or their neurasthenia, or their solitude, or their goofiness, or their—even—masculinity, at times. Because they think that they’re gonna write something that sounds like something else that they’ve read before, instead of sounds like them. Or comes from their own life. In other words, there’s no distinction, there should be no distinction between what we write down, and what we really know, to begin with. As we know it every day, with each other. And the hypocrisy of literature has been . . . you know like there’s supposed to be formal literature, which is supposed to be different from—in subject, in diction and even in organization, from our quotidian inspired lives.

It’s also like in Whitman, “I find no fat sweeter than that which sticks to my own bones,” that is to say the self-confidence of someone who knows that he’s really alive, and that his existence is just as good as any other subject matter.

INTERVIEWER

 Is physiology a part of this too—like the difference between your long breath line, and William Carlos Williams’s shorter unit?

GINSBERG

Analytically, ex post facto, it all begins with fucking around and intuition and without any idea of what you’re doing, I think. Later, I have a tendency to explain it, “Well, I got a longer breath than Williams, or I’m Jewish, or I study yoga, or I sing long lines . . .” But anyway, what it boils down to is this, it’s my movement, my feeling is for a big long clanky statement—partly that’s something that I share, or maybe that I even got from Kerouac’s long prose line; which is really, like he once remarked, an extended poem. Like one long sentence page of his in Doctor Sax or The Railroad Earth or occasionally On the Road—if you examine them phrase by phrase they usually have the density of poetry, and the beauty of poetry, but most of all the single elastic rhythm running from beginning to end of the line and ending “mop”!

INTERVIEWER

Have you ever wanted to extend this rhythmic feeling as far as say Artaud or now Michael McClure have taken it—to a line that is actually animal noise?

GINSBERG

The rhythm of the long line is also an animal cry.

INTERVIEWER

So you’re following that feeling and not a thought or a visual image?

GINSBERG

It’s simultaneous. The poetry generally is like a rhythmic articulation of feeling. The feeling is like an impulse that rises within—just like sexual impulses, say; it’s almost as definite as that. It’s a feeling that begins somewhere in the pit of the stomach and rises up forward in the breast and then comes out through the mouth and ears, and comes forth a croon or a groan or a sigh. Which, if you put words to it by looking around and seeing and trying to describe what’s making you sigh—and sigh in words—you simply articulate what you’re feeling. As simple as that. Or actually what happens is, at best what happens, is there’s a definite body rhythm that has no definite words, or may have one or two words attached to it, one or two key words attached to it. And then, in writing it down, it’s simply by a process of association that I find what the rest of the statement is—what can be collected around that word, what that word is connected to. Partly by simple association, the first thing that comes to my mind like “Moloch is” or “Moloch who,” and then whatever comes out. But that also goes along with a definite rhythmic impulse, like DA de de DA de de DA de de DA DA. “Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows.” And before I wrote “Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows,” I had the word, “Moloch, Moloch, Moloch,” and I also had the feeling DA de de DA de de DA de de DADA. So it was just a question of looking up and seeing a lot of windows, and saying, oh, windows, of course, but what kind of windows? But not even that—”Moloch whose eyes.” “Moloch whose eyes”—which is beautiful in itself—but what about it, Moloch whose eyes are what? So Moloch whose eyes—then probably the next thing I thought was “thousands.” OK, and then thousands what? “Thousands blind.” And I had to finish it somehow. So I hadda say “windows.” It looked good afterward.

Usually during the composition, step by step, word by word and adjective by adjective, if it’s at all spontaneous, I don’t know whether it even makes sense sometimes. Sometimes I do know it makes complete sense, and I start crying. Because I realize I’m hitting some area which is absolutely true. And in that sense applicable universally, or understandable universally. In that sense able to survive through time—in that sense to be read by somebody and wept to, maybe, centuries later. In that sense prophecy, because it touches a common key . . . What prophecy actually is is not that you actually know that the bomb will fall in 1942. It’s that you know and feel something that somebody knows and feels in a hundred years. And maybe articulate it in a hint—a concrete way that they can pick up on in a hundred years.

INTERVIEWER

You once mentioned something you had found in Cézanne—a remark about the reconstitution of the petites sensations of experience, in his own painting—and you compared this with the method of your poetry.

GINSBERG

I got all hung up on Cézanne around 1949 in my last year at Columbia, studying with Meyer Schapiro. I don’t know how it led into it—I think it was about the same time that I was having these Blake visions. So. The thing I understood from Blake was that it was possible to transmit a message through time that could reach the enlightened, that poetry had a definite effect, it wasn’t just pretty, or just beautiful, as I had understood pretty beauty before—it was something basic to human existence, or it reached something, it reached the bottom of human existence. But anyway the impression I got was that it was like a kind of time machine through which he could transmit—Blake could transmit—his basic consciousness and communicate it to somebody else after he was dead; in other words build a time machine.

Now just about that time I was looking at Cézanne and I suddenly got a strange shuddering impression looking at his canvases, partly the effect when someone pulls a venetian blind, reverses the venetian—there’s a sudden shift, a flashing that you see in Cézanne canvases. Partly it’s when the canvas opens up into three dimensions and looks like wooden objects, like solid space objects, in three dimensions rather than flat. Partly it’s the enormous spaces that open up in Cézanne’s landscapes. And it’s partly that mysterious quality around his figures, like of his wife or the card players or the postman or whoever, the local Aix characters. They look like great huge 3-d wooden dolls, sometimes. Very uncanny thing, like a very mysterious thing, in other words there’s a strange sensation that one gets, looking at his canvases, which I began to associate with the extraordinary sensation—cosmic sensation, in fact—that I had experienced catalyzed by Blake’s Sunflower and Sick Rose and a few other poems. So I began studiously investigating Cézanne’s intentions and method, and looking at all the canvases of his that I could find in New York, and all the reproductions I could find, and I was writing at the time a paper on him, for Schapiro at Columbia in the Fine Arts course.

And the whole thing opened up, two ways: First, I read a book on Cézanne’s composition by Erle Loran, who showed photographs, analyses, and photographs of the original motifs, side by side with the actual canvases—and years later I actually went to Aix, with all the postcards, and stood in the spots, and tried to find the places where he painted Mont Sainte-Victoire from, and got in his studio and saw some of the motifs he used like his big black hat and his cloak. Well, first of all I began to see that Cézanne had all sorts of literary symbolism in him, on and off. I was preoccupied with Plotinian terminology, of time and eternity, and I saw it in Cézanne paintings, an early painting of a clock on a shelf that I associated with time and eternity, and I began to think he was a big secret mystic. And I saw a photograph of his studio in Loran’s book and it was like an alchemist’s studio, because he had a skull, and he had a long black coat, and he had this big black hat. So I began thinking of him as, you know, like a magic character. Like the original version I had thought of him was like this austere dullard from Aix. So I began getting really interested in him as a hermetic type, and then I symbolically read into his canvases things that probably weren’t there, like there’s a painting of a winding road which turns off, and I saw that as the mystical path: it turns off into a village and the end of the path is hidden. Something he painted I guess when he went out painting with Bernard. Then there was an account of a very fantastic conversation that he had had. It’s quoted in Loran’s book: there’s a long, long, long paragraph where he says, “By means of squares, cubes, triangles, I try to reconstitute the impression that I have from nature: The means that I use to reconstitute the impression of solidity that I think-feel-see when I am looking at a motif like Victoire, is to reduce it to some kind of pictorial language, so I use these squares, cubes, and triangles, but I try to build them together so interknit” [Ginsberg interlocks his fingers] “so that no light gets through.” And I was mystified by that, but it seemed to make sense in terms of the grid of paint strokes that he had on his canvas, so that he produced a solid two-dimensional surface that, when you looked into it, maybe from a slight distance with your eyes either unfocused or your eyelids lowered slightly, you could see a great three-dimensional opening, mysterious, stereoscopic, like going into a stereopticon. And I began discovering in The Card Players all sorts of sinister symbols, like there’s one guy leaning against the wall with a stolid expression on his face, that he doesn’t want to get involved; and then there’s two guys who are peasants, who are looking as if they’ve just been dealt Death cards; and then the dealer you look at and he turns out to be a city slicker with a big blue cloak and almost rouge doll-like cheeks and a fat-faced Kafkian-agent impression about him, like he’s a cardsharp, he’s a cosmic cardsharp dealing out Fate to all these people. This looks like a great big hermetic Rembrandtian portrait in Aix! That’s why it has that funny monumentality—aside from the quote plastic values unquote.

Then, I smoked a lot of marijuana and went to the basement of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and looked at his watercolors and that’s where I began really turning on to space in Cézanne and the way he built it up. Particularly there’s one of rocks, I guess Rocks at Garonne, and you look at them for a while, and after a while they seem like they’re rocks, just the rock parts, you don’t know where they are, whether they’re on the ground or in the air or on top of a cliff, but then they seem to be floating in space like clouds, and then they seem to be also a bit like they’re amorphous, like kneecaps or cockheads or faces without eyes. And it has a very mysterious impression. Well, that may have been the result of the pot. But it’s a definite thing that I got from that. Then he did some very odd studies after classical statues, Renaissance statues, and they’re great gigantesque herculean figures with little tiny pinheads . . . so that apparently was his comment on them!

And then . . . the things were endless to find in Cézanne. Finally I was reading his letters and I discovered this phrase again, mes petites sensations—“I’m an old man and my passions are not, my senses are not coarsened by passions like some other old men I know, and I have worked for years trying to,” I guess it was the phrase, “reconstitute the petites sensations that I get from nature, and I could stand on a hill and merely by moving my head half an inch the composition of the landscape was totally changed.” So apparently he’d refined his optical perception to such a point where it’s a real contemplation of optical phenomena in an almost yogic way, where he’s standing there, from a specific point studying the optical field, the depth in the optical field, looking, actually looking at his own eyeballs in a sense. The attempting to reconstitute the sensation in his own eyeballs. And what does he say finally—in a very weird statement that one would not expect of the austere old workman, he said, “And this petite sensation is nothing other than pater omnipotens aeterna deus.”

So that was, I felt, the key to Cézanne’s hermetic method . . . Everybody knows his workmanlike, artisanlike, prettified-like painting method that is so great, but the really romanticistic motif behind it is absolutely marvelous, so you realize that he’s really a saint! Working on his form of yoga, all that time, in obvious saintly circumstances of retirement in a small village, leading a relatively nonsociable life, going through the motions of going to church or not, but really containing in his skull these supernatural phenomena, and observations. . . You know, and it’s very humble actually, because he didn’t know if he was crazy or not—that is a flash of the physical, miracle dimensions of existence, trying to reduce that to canvas in two dimensions, and then trying to do it in such a way as it would look if the observer looked at it long enough it would look like as much three dimension as the actual world of optical phenomena when one looks through one’s eyes. Actually he’s reconstituted the whole fucking universe in his canvases—it’s like a fantastic thing!—or at least the appearance of the universe.

So. I used a lot of this material in the references in the last part of the first section of Howl: “sensation of Pater Omnipotens Aeterna Deus.” The last part of “Howl” was really an homage to art but also in specific terms an homage to Cézanne’s method, in a sense I adapted what I could to writing; but that’s a very complicated matter to explain. Except, putting it very simply, that just as Cézanne doesn’t use perspective lines to create space, but it’s a juxtaposition of one color against another color (that’s one element of his space), so, I had the idea, perhaps overrefined, that by the unexplainable, unexplained nonperspective line, that is, juxtaposition of one word against another, a gap between the two words—like the space gap in the canvas—there’d be a gap between the two words that the mind would fill in with the sensation of existence. In other words when I say, oh . . . when Shakespeare says, In the dread vast and middle of the night, something happens between “dread vast” and “middle.” That creates like a whole space of—spaciness of black night. How it gets that is very odd, those words put together. Or in the haiku, you have two distinct images, set side by side without drawing a connection, without drawing a logical connection between them: the mind fills in this . . . this space. Like
    O ant 
         crawl up Mount Fujiyama, 
                but slowly, slowly.

Now you have the small ant and you have Mount Fujiyama and you have the slowly, slowly, and what happens is that you feel almost like . . . a cock in your mouth! You feel this enormous space—universe, it’s almost a tactile thing. Well anyway, it’s a phenomenon-sensation, phenomenon hyphen sensation, that’s created by this little haiku of Issa, for instance. 

So, I was trying to do similar things with juxtapositions like “hydrogen jukebox.” Or . . . “winter midnight smalltown streetlight rain.” Instead of cubes and squares and triangles. Cézanne is reconstituting by means of triangles, cubes, and colors—I have to reconstitute by means of words, rhythms of course, and all that—but say it’s words, phrasings. So. The problem is then to reach the different parts of the mind, that are existing simultaneously, the different associations which are going on simultaneously, choosing elements from both, like jazz, jukebox, and all that, and we have the jukebox from that; politics, hydrogen bomb, and we have the hydrogen of that—you see “hydrogen jukebox.” And that actually compresses in one instant like a whole series of things. Or the end of Sunflower with “cunts of wheelbarrows,” whatever that all meant, or “rubber dollar bills”—“skin of machinery”; see, and actually in the moment of composition I don’t necessarily know what it means, but it comes to mean something later, after a year or two, I realize that it meant something clear, unconsciously. Which takes on meaning in time, like a photograph developing slowly. Because we’re not really always conscious of the entire depth of our minds, in other words we just know a lot more than we’re able to be aware of, normally—though at moments we’re completely aware, I guess.

There’s some other element of Cézanne that was interesting . . . oh, his patience, of course. In recording the optical phenomena. Has something to do with Blake: with not through the eye—You’re led to believe a lie when you see with not through the eye. He’s seeing through his eye. One can see through his canvas to God, really, is the way it boils down. Or to Pater Omnipotens Aeterna Deus. I could imagine someone not prepared, in a peculiar chemical physiological state, peculiar mental state, psychic state, someone not prepared who had no experience of eternal ecstasy, passing in front of a Cézanne canvas, distracted and without noticing it, his eye traveling in, to, through the canvas into the space and suddenly stopping with his hair standing on end, dead in his tracks seeing a whole universe. And I think that’s what Cézanne really does, to a lot of people.

Where were we now. Yeah, the idea that I had was that gaps in space and time through images juxtaposed, just as in the haiku you get two images that the mind connects in a flash, and so that flash is the petite sensation; or the satori, perhaps, that the Zen haikuists would speak of—if they speak of it like that. So, the poetic experience that Housman talks about, the hair standing on end or the hackles rising whatever it is, visceral thing. The interesting thing would be to know if certain combinations of words and rhythms actually had an electrochemical reaction on the body, which could catalyze specific states of consciousness. I think that’s what probably happened to me with Blake. I’m sure it’s what happens on a perhaps lower level with Poe’s Bells or Raven, or even Vachel Lindsay’s Congo: that there is a hypnotic rhythm there, which when you introduce it into your nervous system, causes all sorts of electronic changes—permanently alters it. There’s a statement by Artaud on that subject, that certain music when introduced into the nervous system changes the molecular composition of the nerve cells or something like that, it permanently alters the being that has experience of this. Well, anyway, this is certainly true. In other words any experience we have is recorded in the brain and goes through neural patterns and whatnot, so I suppose brain recordings are done by means of shifting around of little electrons—so there is actually an electrochemical effect caused by art.

So . . . the problem is what is the maximum electrochemical effect in the desired direction. That is what I was taking Blake as having done to me. And what I take as one of the optimal possibilities of art. But this is all putting it in a kind of bullshit abstract way. But it’s an interesting . . . toy. To play with. That idea.

INTERVIEWER

In the last five or six months you’ve been in Cuba, Czechoslovakia, Russia, and Poland. Has this helped to clarify your sense of the current world situation?

GINSBERG

Yeah, I no longer feel—I didn’t ever feel that there was any answer in dogmatic Leninism-Marxism—but I feel very definitely now that there’s no answer to my desires there. Nor do most of the people in those countries—in Russia or Poland or Cuba—really feel that either. It’s sort of like a religious theory imposed from above and usually used to beat people on the head with. Nobody takes it seriously because it doesn’t mean anything, it means different things in different countries anyway. The general idea of revolution against American idiocy is good, it’s still sympathetic, and I guess it’s a good thing like in Cuba, and obviously Vietnam. But what’s gonna follow—the dogmatism that follows is a big drag. And everybody apologizes for the dogmatism by saying, well, it’s an inevitable consequence of the struggle against American repression. And that may be true too.

But there’s one thing I feel certain of, and that’s that there’s no human answer in communism or capitalism, as it’s practiced outside of the U.S. in any case. In other words, by hindsight the interior of America is not bad, at least for me, though it might be bad for a spade, but not too bad, creepy, but it’s not impossible. But traveling in countries like Cuba and Vietnam I realize that the people that get the real evil side effects of America are there, in other words it really is like imperialism, in that sense. People in the United States all got money, they got cars, and everybody else starves on account of American foreign policy. Or is being bombed out, torn apart, and bleeding on the street, they get all their teeth bashed in, tear-gassed, or hot pokers up their ass, things that would be, you know, considered terrible in the United States. Except for Negroes.

So I don’t know. I don’t see any particular answer, and this month it seemed to me like actually an atomic war was inevitable on account of both sides were so dogmatic and frightened and had nowhere to go and didn’t know what to do with themselves anymore except fight. Everybody too intransigent. Everybody too mean. I don’t suppose it’ll take place, but . . . Somebody has got to sit in the British Museum again like Marx and figure out a new system, a new blueprint. Another century has gone, technology has changed everything completely, so it’s time for a new utopian system. Burroughs is almost working on it.

But one thing that’s impressive is Blake’s idea of Jerusalem, Jerusalemic Britain, which I think is now more and more valid. He, I guess, defined it. I’m still confused about Blake, I still haven’t read him all through enough to understand what direction he was really pointing to. It seems to be the naked human form divine, seems to be Energy, it seems to be sexualization, or sexual liberation, which are the directions we all believe in. He also seems, however, to have some idea of imagination that I don’t fully understand yet. That it’s something outside of the body, with a rejection of the body, and I don’t quite understand that. A life after death even. Which I still haven’t comprehended. There’s a letter in the Fitzwilliam Museum, written several months before he died. He says, “My body is in turmoil and stress and decaying, but my ideas, my power of ideas and my imagination, are stronger than ever.” And I find it hard to conceive of that. I think if I were lying in bed dying, with my body pained, I would just give up. I mean you know, because I don’t think I could exist outside my body. But he apparently was able to. Williams didn’t seem to be able to. In other words Williams’s universe was tied up with his body. Blake’s universe didn’t seem to be tied up with his body. Real mysterious, like far other worlds and other seas, so to speak. Been puzzling over that today.

The Jerusalemic world of Blake seems to be Mercy-Pity-Peace. Which has human form. Mercy has a human face. So that’s
all clear.

INTERVIEWER

How about Blake’s statement about the senses being the chief inlets of the soul in this age—I don’t know what “this age” means; is there another one?

GINSBERG

What he says is interesting because there’s the same thing in Hindu mythology, they speak of This Age as the Kali Yuga, the age of destruction, or an age so sunk in materialism. You’d find a similar formulation in Vico, like what is it, the Age of Gold running on to the Iron and then Stone, again. Well, the Hindus say that this is the Kali Age or Kali Yuga or Kali Cycle, and we are also so sunk in matter, the five senses are matter, sense, that they say there is absolutely no way out by intellect, by thought, by discipline, by practice, by sadhana, by jñana-yoga, nor karma-yoga, that is doing good works, no way out through our own will or our own effort. The only way out that they generally now prescribe, generally in India at the moment, is through bhakti-yoga, which is Faith-Hope-Adoration-Worship, or like probably the equivalent of the Christian Sacred Heart, which I find a very lovely doctrine; that is to say, pure delight, the only way you can be saved is to sing. In other words, the only way to drag up, from the depths of this depression, to drag up your soul to its proper bliss, and understanding, is to give yourself, completely, to your heart’s desire. The image will be determined by the heart’s compass, by the compass of what the heart moves toward and desires. And then you get on your knees or on your lap or on your head and you sing and chant prayers and mantras, till you reach a state of ecstasy and understanding, and the bliss overflows out of your body. They say intellect, like Saint Thomas Aquinas, will never do it, because it’s just like me getting all hung up on whether I could remember what happened before I was born—I mean you could get lost there very easily, and it has no relevance anyway, to the existent flower. Blake says something similar, like Energy, and Excess . . . leads to the palace of wisdom. The Hindu bhakti is like excess of devotion; you just, you know, give yourself all out to devotion.

Very oddly a lady saint Shri Matakrishnaji in Brindaban, whom I consulted about my spiritual problems, told me to take Blake for my guru. There’s all kinds of different gurus, there can be living and nonliving gurus—apparently whoever initiates you, and I apparently was initiated by Blake in terms of at least having an ecstatic experience from him. So that when I got here to Cambridge I had to rush over to the Fitzwilliam Museum to find his misspellings in Songs of Innocence.

INTERVIEWER

What was the Blake experience you speak of?

GINSBERG

About 1945 I got interested in Supreme Reality with a capital S and R, and I wrote big long poems about a last voyage looking for Supreme Reality. Which was like a Dostoevskian or Thomas Wolfe–ian idealization or like Rimbaud—what was Rimbaud’s term, new vision, was that it? Or Kerouac was talking about a new vision, verbally, and intuitively out of longing, but also out of a funny kind of tolerance of this universe. In 1948 in East Harlem in the summer I was living—this is like the Ancient Mariner, I’ve said this so many times: “stoppeth one of three. / ‘By thy long grey beard . . . ’” Hang an albatross around your neck . . . —the one thing I felt at the time was that it would be a terrible horror, that in one or two decades I would be trying to explain to people that one day something like this happened to me! I even wrote a long poem saying, "I will grow old, a grey and groaning man,/ and with each hour the same thought, and with each thought the same denial./ Will I spend my life in praise of the idea of God?/ Time leaves no hope. We creep and wait. We wait and go alone." Psalm II—which I never published. So anyway—there I was in my bed in Harlem . . . jacking off. With my pants open, lying around on a bed by the windowsill, looking out into the cornices of Harlem and the sky above. And I had just come. And had perhaps hardly even wiped the come off my thighs, my trousers or whatever it was. As I often do, I had been jacking off while reading —I think it’s probably a common phenomenon to be noticed among adolescents. Though I was a little older than an adolescent at the time. About twenty-two. There’s a kind of interesting thing about, you know, distracting your attention while you jack off, that is, you know, reading a book or looking out of a window, or doing something else with the conscious mind that kind of makes it sexier.

So anyway, what I had been doing that week—I’d been in a very lonely solitary state, dark night of the soul sort of, reading St. John of the Cross, maybe on account of that everybody’d gone away that I knew, Burroughs was in Mexico, Jack was out in Long Island and relatively isolated, we didn’t see each other, and I had been very close with them for several years. Huncke I think was in jail, or something. Anyway, there was nobody I knew. Mainly the thing was that I’d been making it with N. C., and finally I think I got a letter from him saying it was all off, no more, we shouldn’t consider ourselves lovers any more on account of it just wouldn’t work out. But previously we’d had an understanding that we—Neal Cassady, I said N. C. but I suppose you can use his name—we’d had a big tender lovers’ understanding. But I guess it got too much for him, partly because he was three thousand miles away and he had six thousand girlfriends on the other side of the continent, who were keeping him busy, and then here was my lone cry of despair from New York. So. I got a letter from him saying, Now, Allen, we gotta move on to new territory. So I felt this is like a great mortal blow to all of my tenderest hopes. And I figured I’d never find any sort of psycho-spiritual sexo-cock jewel fulfillment in my existence! So, I went into . . . like I felt cut off from what I’d idealized romantically. And I was also graduating from school and had nowhere to go and the difficulty of getting a job. So finally there was nothing for me to do except to eat vegetables and live in Harlem. In an apartment I’d rented from someone. Sublet.

So, in that state therefore, of hopelessness, or dead end, change of phase you know—growing up—and in an equilibrium in any case, a psychid, a mental equilibrium of a kind, like of having no New Vision and no Supreme Reality and nothing but the world in front of me, and of not knowing what to do with that . . . there was a funny balance of tension, in every direction. And just after I came, on this occasion, with a Blake book on my lap—I wasn’t even reading, my eye was idling over the page of The Sunflower, and it suddenly appeared—the poem I’d read a lot of times before, overfamiliar to the point where it didn’t make any particular meaning except some sweet thing about flowers—and suddenly I realized that the poem was talking about me. "Ah, Sun-flower! weary of time, / Who countest the steps of the Sun; / Seeking after that sweet golden clime / Where the traveller’s journey is done." Now, I began understanding it, the poem while looking at it, and suddenly, simultaneously with understanding it, heard a very deep earth graven voice in the room, which I immediately assumed, I didn’t think twice, was Blake’s voice; it wasn’t any voice that I knew, though I had previously had a conception of a voice of rock, in a poem, some image like that—or maybe that came after this experience.

And my eye on the page, simultaneously the auditory hallucination, or whatever terminology used here, the apparitional voice, in the room, woke in me a further, deeper understanding of the poem, because the voice was so completely tender and beautifully . . . ancient. Like the voice of the Ancient of Days. But the peculiar quality of the voice was something unforgettable because it was like God had a human voice, with all the infinite tenderness and anciency and mortal gravity of a living Creator speaking to his son. "Where the Youth pined away with desire, / And the pale Virgin shrouded in snow / Arise from their graves, and aspire / Where my Sunflower wishes to go." Meaning that there was a place, there was a sweet golden clime, and the sweet golden, what was that . . . and simultaneous to the voice there was also an emotion, risen in my soul in response to the voice, and a sudden visual realization of the same awesome phenomena. That is to say, looking out at the window, through the window at the sky, suddenly it seemed that I saw into the depths of the universe, by looking simply into the ancient sky. The sky suddenly seemed very ancient. And this was the very ancient place that he was talking about, the sweet golden clime, I suddenly realized that this existence was it! And that I was born in order to experience up to this very moment that I was having this experience, to realize what this was all about—in other words that this was the moment that I was born for. This initiation. Or this vision or this consciousness, of being alive unto myself, alive myself unto the Creator. As the son of the Creator—who loved me, I realized, or who responded to my desire, say. It was the same desire both ways.

Anyway my first thought was this was what I was born for, and second thought, never forget—never forget, never renege, never deny. Never deny the voice no, never forget it, don’t get lost mentally wandering in other spirit worlds or American or job worlds or advertising worlds or war worlds or earth worlds. But the spirit of the universe was what I was born to realize. What I was speaking about visually was, immediately, that the cornices in the old tenement building in Harlem across the backyard court had been carved very finely in 1890 or 1910. And were like the solidification of a great deal of intelligence and care and love also. So that I began noticing in every corner where I looked evidence of a living hand, even in the bricks, in the arrangement of each brick. Some hand placed them there—that some hand had placed the whole universe in front of me. That some hand had placed the sky. No, that’s exaggerating—not that some hand had placed the sky but that the sky was the living blue hand itself. Or that God was in front of my eyes—existence itself was God. Well, the formulations are like that—I didn’t formulate it in exactly those terms, what I was seeing was a visionary thing, it was a lightness in my body . . . my body suddenly felt light, and a sense of cosmic consciousness, vibrations, understanding, awe, and wonder and surprise. And it was a sudden awakening into a totally deeper real universe than I’d been existing in. So, I’m trying to avoid generalizations about that sudden deeper real universe and keep it strictly to observations of phenomenal data, or a voice with a certain sound, the appearance of cornices, the appearance of the sky say, of the great blue hand, the living hand—to keep to images.

But anyway—the same . . . petite sensation recurred several minutes later, with the same voice, while reading the poem “The Sick Rose.” This time it was a slightly different sense-depth-mystic impression. Because The Sick Rose—you know I can’t interpret the poem now, but it had a meaning—I mean I can interpret it on a verbal level, the sick rose is myself, or self, or the living body, sick because the mind, which is the worm “That flies in the night, / In the howling storm,” or Urizen, reason; Blake’s character might be the one that’s entered the body and is destroying it, or let us say death, the worm as being death, the natural process of death, some kind of mystical being of its own trying to come in and devour the body, the rose. Blake’s drawing for it is complicated, it’s a big drooping rose, drooping because it’s dying, and there’s a worm in it, and the worm is wrapped around a little sprite that’s trying to get out of the mouth of the rose.

But anyway, I experienced The Sick Rose, with the voice of Blake reading it, as something that applied to the whole universe, like hearing the doom of the whole universe, and at the same time the inevitable beauty of doom. I can’t remember now, except it was very beautiful and very awesome. But a little of it slightly scary, having to do with the knowledge of death—my death and also the death of being itself, and that was the great pain. So, like a prophecy, not only in human terms but a prophecy as if Blake had penetrated the very secret core of the entire universe and had come forth with some little magic formula statement in rhyme and rhythm that, if properly heard in the inner inner ear, would deliver you beyond the universe.

So then, the other poem that brought this on in the same day was The Little Girl Lost, where there was a repeated refrain,

Do father, mother, weep,
Where can Lyca sleep?

How can Lyca sleep
If her mother weep?

“If her heart does ache
 Then let Lyca wake;
If my mother sleep,
Lyca shall not weep."

It’s that hypnotic thing—and I suddenly realized that Lyca was me, or Lyca was the self; father, mother seeking Lyca, was God seeking, Father, the Creator; and “If her heart does ache / Then let Lyca wake”—wake to what? Wake meaning wake to the same awakeness I was just talking about—of existence in the entire universe. The total consciousness then, of the complete universe. Which is what Blake was talking about. In other words a breakthrough from ordinary habitual quotidian consciousness into consciousness that was really seeing all of heaven in a flower. Or what was it, eternity in a flower . . . heaven in a grain of sand. As I was seeing heaven in the cornice of the building. By heaven here I mean this imprint or concretization or living form, of an intelligent hand—the work of an intelligent hand, which still had the intelligence molded into it. The gargoyles on the Harlem cornices. What was interesting about the cornice was that there’s cornices like that on every building, but I never noticed them before. And I never realized that they meant spiritual labor, to anyone—that somebody had labored to make a curve in a piece of tin—to make a cornucopia out of a piece of industrial tin. Not only that man, the workman, the artisan, but the architect had thought of it, the builder had paid for it, the smelter had smelt it, the miner had dug it up out of the earth, the earth had gone through eons preparing it. So the little molecules had slumbered for . . . for kalpas. So out of all of these kalpas it all got together in a great succession of impulses, to be frozen finally in that one form of a cornucopia cornice on the building front. And God knows how many people made the moon. Or what spirits labored . . . to set fire to the sun. As Blake says, “When I look in the sun I don’t see the rising sun I see a band of angels singing holy, holy, holy.” Well, his perception of the field of the sun is different from that of a man who just sees the sun sun, without any emotional relationship to it.

But then, there was a point later in the week when the intermittent flashes of the same . . . bliss—because the experience was quite blissful—came back. In a sense all this is described in The Lion for Real by anecdotes of different experiences—actually it was a very difficult time, which I won’t go into here. Because suddenly I thought, also simultaneously, Ooh, I’m going mad! That’s described in the line in “Howl:” “who thought they were only mad when Baltimore gleamed in supernatural ecstasy”—“who thought they were only mad.” If it were only that easy! In other words it’d be a lot easier if you just were crazy, instead of. . . then you could chalk it up, “Well I’m nutty”—but on the other hand what if it’s all true and you’re born into this great cosmic universe in which you’re a spirit angel—terrible fucking situation to be confronted with. It’s like being woken up one morning by Joseph K’s captors. Actually what I think I did was there was a couple of girls living next door and I crawled out on the fire escape and tapped on their window and said, “I’ve seen God!” and they banged the window shut. Oh, what tales I could have told them if they’d let me in! Because I was in a very exalted state of mind and the consciousness was still with me—I remember I immediately rushed to Plato and read some great image in the Phaedrus about horses flying through the sky, and rushed over to St. John and started reading fragments of con un no saber sabi endo . . . que me quede balbuciendo, and rushed to the other part of the bookshelf and picked up Plotinus about The Alone—the Plotinus I found more difficult to interpret.

But I immediately doubled my thinking process, quadrupled, and I was able to read almost any text and see all sorts of divine significance in it. And I think that week or that month I had to take an examination in John Stuart Mill. And instead of writing about his ideas I got completely hung up on his experience of reading—was it Wordsworth? Apparently the thing that got him back was an experience of nature that he received keyed off by reading Wordsworth, on “sense sublime” or something. That’s a very good description, that sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused, whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, and the round ocean, and the . . . the living air, did he say? The living air—see just that hand again—and in the heart of man. So I think this experience is characteristic of all high poetry. I mean that’s the way I began seeing poetry as the communication of the particular experience—not just any experience but this experience.

INTERVIEWER

Have you had anything like this experience again?

GINSBERG

Yeah I’m not finished with this period. Then, in my room, I didn’t know what to do. But I wanted to bring it up, so I began experimenting with it, without Blake. And I think it was one day in my kitchen—I had an old-fashioned kitchen with a sink with a tub in it with a board over the top—I started moving around and sort of shaking with my body and dancing up and down on the floor and saying, “Dance! Dance! Dance! Dance! Spirit! Spirit! Spirit! Dance!” and suddenly I felt like Faust, calling up the devil. And then it started coming over me, this big . . . creepy feeling, cryptozoid or monozoidal, so I got all scared and quit.

Then I was walking around Columbia and I went in the Columbia bookstore and was reading Blake again, leafing over a book of Blake, I think it was “The Human Abstract”: “Pity would be no more.” And suddenly it came over me in the bookstore again, and I was in the eternal place once more, and I looked around at everybody’s faces, and I saw all these wild animals! Because there was a bookstore clerk there who I hadn’t paid much attention to, he was just a familiar fixture in the bookstore scene and everybody went in the bookstore every day like me, because downstairs there was a café and upstairs there were all these clerks that we were all familiar with—this guy had a very long face, you know some people look like giraffes. So he looked kind of giraffish. He had a kind of a long face with a long nose. I don’t know what kind of sex life he had, but he must have had something. But anyway I looked in his face and I suddenly saw like a great tormented soul—and he had just been somebody whom I’d regarded as perhaps a not particularly beautiful or sexy character, or lovely face, but you know someone familiar, and perhaps a pleading cousin in the universe. But all of a sudden I realized that he knew also, just like I knew. And that everybody in the bookstore knew, and that they were all hiding it! They all had the consciousness, it was like a great unconscious that was running between all of us that everybody was completely conscious, but that the fixed expressions that people have, the habitual expressions, the manners, the mode of talk, are all masks hiding this consciousness. Because almost at that moment it seemed that it would be too terrible if we communicated to each other on a level of total consciousness and awareness each of the other—like it would be too terrible, it would be the end of the bookstore, it would be the end of civ—not civilization, but in other words the position that everybody was in was ridiculous, everybody running around peddling books to each other. Here in the universe! Passing money over the counter, wrapping books in bags and guarding the door, you know, stealing books, and the people sitting up making accountings on the upper floor there, and people worrying about their exams walking through the bookstore, and all the millions of thoughts the people had—you know, that I’m worrying about—whether they’re going to get laid or whether anybody loves them, about their mothers dying of cancer or, you know, the complete death awareness that everybody has continuously with them all the time—all of a sudden revealed to me at once in the faces of the people, and they all looked like horrible grotesque masks, grotesque because hiding the knowledge from each other. Having a habitual conduct and forms to prescribe, forms to fulfill. Roles to play. But the main insight I had at that time was that everybody knew. Everybody knew completely everything. Knew completely everything in the terms that I was talking about.

INTERVIEWER

Do you still think they know?

GINSBERG

I’m more sure of it now. Sure. All you have to do is try and make somebody. You realize that they knew all along you were trying to make them. But until that moment you never break through to communication on the subject.

INTERVIEWER

Why not?

GINSBERG

Well, fear of rejection. The twisted faces of all those people, the faces were twisted by rejection. And hatred of self, finally. The internalization of that rejection. And finally disbelief in that shining self. Disbelief in that infinite self. Partly because the particular . . . partly because the awareness that we all carry is too often painful, because the experience of rejection and lack-love and cold war—I mean the whole cold war is the imposition of a vast mental barrier on everybody, a vast antinatural psyche. A hardening, a shutting off of the perception of desire and tenderness that everybody knows and that is the very structure of . . . the atom! Structure of the human body and organism. That desire built in. Blocked. “Where the Youth pined away with desire, / And the pale Virgin shrouded in snow.” Or as Blake says, “And mark in every face I meet / Marks of weakness, marks of woe.” So what I was thinking in the bookstore was the marks of weakness, marks of woe. Which you can just look around and look at anybody’s face right next to you now always—you can see it in the way the mouth is pursed, you can see it in the way the eyes blink, you can see it in the way the gaze is fixed down at the matches. It’s the self-consciousness that is a substitute for communication with the outside. This consciousness pushed back into the self and thinking of how it will hold its face and eyes and hands in order to make a mask to hide the flow that is going on. Which it’s aware of, which everybody is aware of really! So let’s say, shyness. Fear. Fear of like total feeling, really, total being, is what it is.

So the problem then was, having attained realization, how to safely manifest it and communicate it. Of course there was the old Zen thing, when the sixth patriarch handed down the little symbolic oddments and ornaments and books and bowls, stained bowls too . . . when the fifth patriarch handed them down to the sixth patriarch he told him to hide them and don’t tell anybody you’re patriarch because it’s dangerous, they’ll kill you. So there was that immediate danger. It’s taken me all these years to manifest it and work it out in a way that’s materially communicable to people. Without scaring them or me. Also movements of history and breaking down the civilization. To break down everybody’s masks and roles sufficiently so that everybody has to face the universe and the possibility of the sick rose coming true and the atom bomb. So it was an immediate messianic thing. Which seems to be becoming more and more justified. And more and more reasonable in terms of the existence that we’re living.

So. Next time it happened was about a week later walking along in the evening on a circular path around what’s now, I guess, the garden or field in the middle of Columbia University, by the library. I started invoking the spirit, consciously trying to get another depth perception of cosmos. And suddenly it began occurring again, like a sort of breakthrough again, but this time—this was the last time in that period—it was the same depth of consciousness or the same cosmical awareness but suddenly it was not blissful at all but it was frightening. Some like real serpent-fear entering the sky. The sky was not a blue hand anymore but like a hand of death coming down on me some really scary presence, it was almost as if I saw God again except God was the Devil. The consciousness itself was so vast, much more vast than any idea of it I’d had or any experience I’d had, that it was not even human anymore—and was in a sense a threat, because I was going to die into that inhuman ultimately. I don’t know what the score was there—I was too cowardly to pursue it. To attend and experience completely the Gates of Wrath—there’s a poem of Blake’s that deals with that, “To find the Western Path / Right through the Gates of Wrath.” But I didn’t urge my way there, I shut it all off. And got scared, and thought, I’ve gone too far.

INTERVIEWER

Was your use of drugs an extension of this experience?

GINSBERG

Well, since I took a vow that this was the area of, that this was my existence that I was placed into, drugs were obviously a technique for experimenting with consciousness, to get different areas and different levels and different similarities and different reverberations of the same vision. Marijuana has some of it in it, that awe, the cosmic awe that you get sometimes on pot. There are certain moments under laughing gas and ether that the consciousness does intersect with something similar, for me, to my Blake visions. The gas drugs were apparently interesting too to the Lake poets, because there were a lot of experiments done with Sir Humphry Davy in his Pneumatic Institute. I think Coleridge and Southey and other people used to go, and De Quincey. But serious people. I think there hasn’t been very much written about that period. What went on in the Humphry Davy household on Saturday midnight when Coleridge arrived by foot, through the forest, by the lakes? Then, there are certain states you get into with opium, and heroin, of almost disembodied awareness, looking down back at the Earth from a place after you’re dead. Well, it’s not the same, but it’s an interesting state, and a useful one. It’s a normal state also, I mean it’s a holy state of some sort. At times. Then, mainly, of course, with the hallucinogens, you get some states of consciousness that subjectively seem to be cosmic-ecstatic, or cosmic-demonic. Our version of expanded consciousness is as much as unconscious information—awareness comes up to the surface. Lysergic acid, peyote, mescaline, psilocybin, ayahuasca. But I can’t stand them anymore, because something happened to me with them very similar to the Blake visions. After about thirty times, thirty-five times, I began getting monster vibrations again. So I couldn’t go any further. I may later on again, if I feel more reassurance.

However I did get a lot out of them, mainly like emotional understanding, understanding the female principle in a way—women, more sense of the softness and more desire for women. Desire for children also.

INTERVIEWER

Anything interesting about the actual experience, say with hallucinogens?

GINSBERG

What I do get is, say if I was in an apartment high on mescaline, I felt as if the apartment and myself were not merely on East Fifth Street but were in the middle of all space-time. If I close my eyes on hallucinogens, I get a vision of great scaly dragons in outer space, they’re winding slowly and eating their own tails. Sometimes my skin and all the room seem sparkling with scales, and it’s all made out of serpent stuff. And as if the whole illusion of life were made of reptile dream.

Mandala also. I use the mandala in an LSD poem. The associations I’ve had during times that I was high are usually referred to or built in some image or other to one of the other poems written on drugs. Or after drugs—like in “Magic Psalm” on lysergic acid. Or mescaline. There’s a long passage about a mandala in the LSD poem. There is a good situation since I was high and I was looking at a mandala—before I got high I asked the doctor that was giving it to me at Stanford to prepare me a set of mandalas to look at, to borrow some from Professor Spiegelberg, who was an expert. So we had some Sikkimese elephant mandalas there. I simply describe those in the poem—what they look like while I was high.

So—summing up then—drugs were useful for exploring perception, sense perception, and exploring different possibilities and modes of consciousness, and exploring the different versions of petites sensations and useful then for composing, sometimes, while under the influence. Part II of “Howl” was written under the influence of peyote, composed during peyote vision. In San Francisco “Moloch”; “Kaddish” was written with amphetamine injections. An injection of amphetamine plus a little bit of morphine, plus some dexedrine later on to keep me going, because it was all in one long sitting. From a Saturday morn to a Sunday night. The amphetamine gives a peculiar metaphysical tinge to things also. Space-outs. It doesn’t interfere too much there because I wasn’t habituated to it, I was just taking it that one weekend. It didn’t interfere too much with the emotional charge that comes through.

INTERVIEWER

Was there any relation to this in your trip to Asia?

GINSBERG

Well, the Asian experience kind of got me out of the corner I painted myself in with drugs. That corner being an inhuman corner in the sense that I figured I was expanding my consciousness and I had to go through with it but at the same time I was confronting this serpent monster, so I was getting in a real terrible situation. It finally would get so if I’d take the drugs I’d start vomiting. But I felt that I was duly bound and obliged for the sake of consciousness expansion, and this insight, and breaking down my identity, and seeking more direct contact with primate sensation, nature, to continue. So when I went to India, all the way through India, I was babbling about that to all the holy men I could find. I wanted to find out if they had any suggestions. And they all did, and they were all good ones. First one I saw was Martin Buber, who was interested. In Jerusalem, Peter and I went in to see him—we called him up and made a date and had a long conversation. He had a beautiful white beard and was friendly; his nature was slightly austere but benevolent. Peter asked him what kind of visions he’d had and he described some he’d had in bed when he was younger. But he said he was no longer interested in visions like that. The kind of visions he came up with were more like spiritualistic table rappings. Ghosts coming into the room through his window, rather than big, beautiful seraphic Blake angels hitting him on the head. I was thinking like loss of identity and confrontation with nonhuman universe as the main problem, and in a sense whether or not man had to evolve and change, and perhaps become nonhuman too. Melt into the universe, let us say—to put it awkwardly and inaccurately. Buber said that he was interested in man-to-man relationships, human-to-human—that he thought it was a human universe that we were destined to inhabit. And so therefore human relationships rather than relations between the human and the nonhuman. Which was what I was thinking that I had to go into. And he said, “Mark my word, young man, in two years you will realize that I was right.” He was right—in two years I marked his words. Two years is 1963—I saw him in 1961. I don’t know if he said two years—but he said “in years to come.” This was like a real terrific classical wise man’s “Mark my words young man, in several years you will realize that what I said was true!” Exclamation point.

Then there was Swami Shivananda, in Rishikish in India. He said, “Your own heart is your guru.” Which I thought was very sweet, and very reassuring. That is the sweetness of it I felt—in my heart. And suddenly realized it was the heart that I was seeking. In other words it wasn’t consciousness, it wasn’t petites sensations, sensation defined as expansion of mental consciousness to include more data—as I was pursuing that line of thought, pursuing Burroughs’s cut-up thing—the area that I was seeking was heart rather than mind. In other words, in mind, through mind or imagination—this is where I get confused with Blake now—in mind one can construct all sorts of universes, one can construct model universes in dream and imagination, and with lysergic acid you can enter into alternative universes and with the speed of light; and with nitrous oxide you can experience several million universes in rapid succession. You can experience a whole gamut of possibilities of universes, including the final possibility that there is none. And then you go unconscious—which is exactly what happens with gas when you go unconscious. You see that the universe is going to disappear with your consciousness, that it was all dependent on your consciousness.

Anyway a whole series of India holy men pointed back to the body—getting in the body rather than getting out of the human form. But living in and inhabiting the human form. Which then goes back to Blake again, the human form divine. Is this clear? In other words the psychic problem that I had found myself in was that for various reasons it had seemed to me at one time or another that the best thing to do was to drop dead. Or not be afraid of death but go into death. Go into the nonhuman, go into the cosmic, so to speak; that God was death, and if I wanted to attain God I had to die. Which may still be true. So I thought that what I was put up to was to therefore break out of my body, if I wanted to attain complete consciousness.

So now the next step was that the gurus one after another said, Live in the body: this is the form that you’re born for. That’s too long a narration to go into. Too many holy men and too many different conversations and they all have a little key thing going. But it all winds up in the train in Japan, then a year later, the poem The Change, where all of a sudden I renounce drugs, I don’t renounce drugs but I suddenly didn’t want to be dominated by that nonhuman anymore, or even be dominated by the moral obligation to enlarge my consciousness anymore. Or do anything anymore except be my heart—which just desired to be and be alive now. I had a very strange ecstatic experience then and there, once I had sort of gotten that burden off my back, because I was suddenly free to love myself again, and therefore love the people around me, in the form that they already were. And love myself in my own form as I am. And look around at the other people and so it was again the same thing like in the bookstore. Except this time I was completely in my body and had no more mysterious obligations. And nothing more to fulfill, except to be willing to die when I am dying, whenever that be. And be willing to live as a human in this form now. So I started weeping, it was such a happy moment. Fortunately I was able to write then, too, “So that I do live I will die”—rather than be cosmic consciousness, immortality, Ancient of Days, perpetual consciousness existing forever.

Then when I got to Vancouver, Olson was saying “I am one with my skin.” It seemed to me at the time when I got back to Vancouver that everybody had been precipitated back into their bodies at the same time. It seemed that’s what Creeley had been talking about all along. The place—the terminology he used, the place we are. Meaning this place, here. And trying to like, be real in the real place . . . to be aware of the place where he is. Because I’d always thought that that meant that he was cutting off from divine imagination. But what that meant for him was that this place would be everything that one would refer to as divine, if one were really here. So that Vancouver seems a very odd moment, at least for me—because I came back in a sense completely bankrupt. My energies of the last . . . oh, 1948 to 1963, all completely washed up. On the train in Kyoto having renounced Blake, renounced visions—renounced Blake!—too. There was a cycle that began with the Blake vision which ended on the train in Kyoto when I realized that to attain the depth of consciousness that I was seeking when I was talking about the Blake vision, that in order to attain it I had to cut myself off from the Blake vision and renounce it. Otherwise I’d be hung up on a memory of an experience. Which is not the actual awareness of now, now. In order to get back to now, in order to get back to the total awareness of now and contact, sense perception contact with what was going on around me, or direct vision of the moment, now I’d have to give up this continual churning thought process of yearning back to a visionary state. It’s all very complicated. And idiotic.

INTERVIEWER

I think you said earlier that Howl being a lyric poem, and Kaddish basically a narrative, that you now have a sense of wanting to do an epic. . . Do you have a plan like this?

GINSBERG

Yeah, but it’s just . . . ideas that I’ve been carrying around for a long time. One thing which I’d like to do sooner or later is write a long poem that is a narrative and description of all the visions I’ve ever had, sort of like the Vita Nuova. And travels, now. And another idea I had was to write a big long poem about everybody I ever fucked or slept with. Like sex . . . a love poem. A long love poem, involving all the innumerable lays of a lifetime. The epic is not that, though. The epic would be a poem including history, as it’s defined. So that would be one about present-day politics, using the methods of the Blake French Revolution. I got a lot written. Narrative was Kaddish. Epic—there has to be totally different organization, it might be simple free association on political themes—in fact I think an epic poem including history, at this stage. I’ve got a lot of it written, but it would have to be Burroughs’s sort of epic, in other words it would have to be dis-sociated thought stream that includes politics and history. I don’t think you could do it in narrative form, I mean what would you be narrating, the history of the Korean War or something?

INTERVIEWER

Something like Pound’s epic?

GINSBERG

No, because Pound seems to me to be over a course of years fabricating out of his reading and out of the museum of literature; whereas the thing would be to take all of contemporary history, newspaper headlines and all the pop art of Stalinism and Hitler and Johnson and Kennedy and Vietnam and Congo and Lumumba and the South and Sacco and Vanzetti—whatever floated into one’s personal field of consciousness and contact. And then to compose like a basket—like weave a basket, basketweaving out of those materials. Since obviously nobody has any idea where it’s all going or how it’s going to end unless you have some vision to deal with. It would have to be done by a process of association, I guess.

INTERVIEWER

What’s happening in poetry now?

GINSBERG

I don’t know yet. Despite all confusion to the contrary, now that time’s passed, I think the best poet in the United States is Kerouac still. Given twenty years to settle through. The main reason is that he’s the most free and the most spontaneous. Has the greatest range of association and imagery in his poetry. Also in Mexico City Blues the sublime as subject matter. And in other words the greatest facility at what might be called projective verse. If you want to give it a name. I think that he’s stupidly underrated by almost everybody except for a few people who are aware how beautiful his composition is—like Snyder or Creeley or people who have a taste for his tongue, for his line. But it takes one to know one.

INTERVIEWER

You don’t mean Kerouac’s prose?

GINSBERG

No, I’m talking about just a pure poet. The verse poetry, the Mexico City Blues and a lot of other manuscripts I’ve seen. In addition he has the one sign of being a great poet, which is he’s the only one in the United States who knows how to write haiku. The only one who’s written any good haiku. And everybody’s been writing haiku. There are all these dreary haikus written by people who think for weeks trying to write a haiku, and finally come up with some dull little thing or something. Whereas Kerouac thinks in haiku, every time he writes anything—talks that way and thinks that way. So it’s just natural for him. It’s something Snyder noticed. Snyder has to labor for years in a Zen monastery to produce one haiku about shitting off a log! And actually does get one or two good ones. Snyder was always astounded by Kerouac’s facility . . . at noticing winter flies dying of old age in his medicine chest. Medicine cabinet. “In my medicine cabinet / the winter flies / died of old age.” He’s never published them actually—he’s published them on a record, with Zoot Sims and Al Cohn, it’s a very beautiful collection of them. Those are, as far as I can see, the only real American haiku.

So the haiku is the most difficult test. He’s the only master of the haiku. Aside from a longer style. Of course the distinctions between prose and poetry are broken down anyway. So much that I was saying like a long page of oceanic Kerouac is sometimes as sublime as epic line. It’s there that also I think he went further into the existential thing of writing conceived of as an irreversible action or statement, that’s unrevisable and unchangeable once it’s made. I remember I was thinking, yesterday in fact, there was a time that I was absolutely astounded because Kerouac told me that in the future literature would consist of what people actually wrote rather than what they tried to deceive other people into thinking they wrote, when they revised it later on. And I saw opening up this whole universe where people wouldn’t be able to lie anymore! They wouldn’t be able to correct themselves any longer. They wouldn’t be able to hide what they said. And he was willing to go all the way into that, the first pilgrim into that newfound land.

INTERVIEWER

What about other poets?

GINSBERG

I think Corso has a great inventive genius. And also among the greatest shrewdness—like Keats or something. I like Lamantia’s nervous wildness. Almost anything he writes I find interesting—for one thing he’s always registering the forward march of the soul, in exploration; spiritual exploration is always there. And also chronologically following his work is always exciting. Whalen and Snyder are both very wise and very reliable. Whalen I don’t understand so well. I did, though, earlier—but I have to sit down and study his work, again. Sometimes he seems sloppy—but then later on it always seems right.

McClure has tremendous energy, and seems like some sort of a . . . seraph is not the word . . . not herald either but a . . . not demon either. Seraph, I guess it is. He’s always moving—see when I came around to say getting in my skin, there I found McClure sitting around talking about being a mammal! So I suddenly realized he was way ahead of me. And Wieners . . . I always weep with him. Luminous, luminous. They’re all old poets, everybody knows about those poets. Burroughs is a poet too, really. In the sense that a page of his prose is as dense with imagery as anything in St. Perse or Rimbaud, now. And it has also great repeated rhythms. Recurrent, recurrent rhythms, even rhyme occasionally! What else . . . Creeley’s very stable, solid. I get more and more to like certain poems of his that I didn’t understand at first. Like The Door, which completely baffled me because I didn’t understand that he was talking about the same heterosexual problem that I was worried about. Olson, since he said, “I feel one with my skin.” First thing of Olson’s that I liked was The Death of Europe and then some of his later Maximus material is nice. And Dorn has a kind of long, real spare, manly, political thing—but his great quality inside also is tenderness—“Oh the graves not yet cut.” I also like that whole line of what’s happening with Ashbery and O’Hara and Koch, the area that they’re going for, too. Ashbery—I was listening to him read The Skaters, and it sounded as inventive and exquisite, in all its parts, as The Rape of the Lock.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel you’re in command when you’re writing?

GINSBERG

Sometimes I feel in command when I’m writing. When I’m in the heat of some truthful tears, yes. Then, complete command. Other times—most of the time not. Just diddling away, woodcarving, getting a pretty shape; like most of my poetry. There’s only a few times when I reach a state of complete command. Probably a piece of Howl, a piece of Kaddish, and a piece of The Change. And one or two moments of other poems.

INTERVIEWER

By command do you mean a sense of the whole poem as it’s going, rather than parts?

GINSBERG

No—a sense of being self-prophetic master of the universe.


Author photograph by Gerard Malanga.