In 1965, Bob Dylan gifted Allen Ginsberg with a Uher reel-to-reel tape recorder, which Ginsberg was to use to record his thoughts and observations as he traveled throughout the United States. Ginsberg, already heavily influenced by Jack Kerouac’s methods of spontaneous composition, felt the taping was an ideal way to pursue his own spontaneous work. He began planning a volume of poems, a literary documentary examining contemporary America, not unlike what Kerouac had done in On the Road, or what Robert Frank had accomplished in his photographs in The Americans. He would add one important element: the violence, destruction, and inhumanity of the escalating war in Vietnam—an edgy contrast to what he was witnessing in his travels, particularly his country’s natural beauty. The public’s polarized dialogue over Vietnam—and, earlier in the decade, the civil rights movement—convinced Ginsberg that America was teetering on the precipice of a fall.
He initiated what he called his “auto poesy” recordings that fall, when he and Gary Snyder roamed the Pacific Northwest and the mountain trails there. Ginsberg used recently awarded Guggenheim money to purchase a Volkswagen camper, which he stocked with a desk, a small refrigerator, mattresses, and other items needed for life on the road. The visits to Oregon and Washington presented a good setting for Ginsberg’s observations. “Beginning of a Long Poem of These States,” the official opening of The Fall of America’s auto poesy, offers a sampling of Ginsberg’s most affective writing to that point: descriptive poetry in the objective tradition of William Carlos Williams, one of Ginsberg’s early mentors and influences; spontaneous writing similar to that of Jack Kerouac; and lengthy lines in the style of Walt Whitman (and like that in such early Ginsberg works as “Howl,” “Sunflower Sutra,” and “Kaddish”).
In most cases, Ginsberg transcribed his tapes, shortly after composition, into his notebooks. While doing so, he eliminated extraneous sounds on the tapes (conversations in the vehicle, the sounds of the radio, and so on) and he engaged in light editing. In the transcriptions, he broke down his taped speech into the form he wanted his individual poems to take. In “Beginning of a Long Poem of These States,” for instance, he used long breath- and thought-length lines for structure. In other poems, a line would be broken down and arranged on the page in order to accentuate words or phrases depending on his mood and what he thought was best for the poem. Auto poesy was not bound by form.
On February 7, 1965, a surprise attack by North Vietnamese forces on a military installation in Pleiku, South Vietnam, killing eight and wounding more than a hundred, resulted in an escalation of the war that included heavy bombing of the North. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara visited Pleiku immediately following the attack, and he urged President Johnson to respond with force. The war in Vietnam, it turned out, was heating up.
Ginsberg, never a supporter of the war, seethed. His journal notations reflected his anger, especially toward leaders who sent young men to fight and die. His journal entries varied from lists of casualties to personal reflections about the war, from reactions to news stories he heard on the radio while he was traveling to rants against Johnson, McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, and military advisers. In his best-known antiwar poem, “Wichita Vortex Sutra” (1966), he “undeclares” a war that was never formally declared; in “Taxation without Representation” (later titled “Pentagon Exorcism”) (1967), he submitted a text for a historic march on the Pentagon; in “Hum Bom” (1971), he wrote an angry chant against the bombing of North Vietnam, an action that stood in the way of peace talks. The war was constantly on his mind, and the division within America over the draft and the fighting—a schism that seemed largely generational—fortified his position that the country was headed toward revolution that might bring it down.
His antiwar activism increased exponentially, beginning with his involvement in a demonstration in 1965 in Oakland—a mass protest against the war. The demonstration, largely organized by Jerry Rubin, might have been a violent confrontation had it not been for Ginsberg’s intervention. The Hell’s Angels motorcycle club threatened to disrupt the protest and beat any demonstrator in its path, but Ginsberg and the novelist Ken Kesey invited a group of the bikers to Kesey’s La Honda ranch and, after taking LSD, listening to music, and airing their differences, the Hell’s Angels agreed to back off on their plans. Ginsberg’s poem “First Party at Ken Kesey’s with Hell’s Angels” recalled the gathering; his essay “How to Make a March/Spectacle” became a primer on how to conduct a nonviolent demonstration.
As the decade continued, the demonstrations grew violent, culminating in the bloody altercations between police and protesters at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968 and the murder of four at the antiwar rally at Kent State University in 1970. Ginsberg was present during the mayhem in Chicago. He wrote very little about the violence while it was occurring, but two journal poems (“Going to Chicago” and “Grant Park: August 28, 1968”) precisely expressed his thoughts about the debacle. One day, he applied his nonviolent methods of demonstrating when he and the poet and musician Ed Sanders, seeing a confrontation between young protesters and Chicago police escalating, chanted “OM” and led demonstrators out of Lincoln Park and out of danger. He was not at Kent State, but when members of the National Guard opened fire on antiwar demonstrators, he knew that The Fall of America would have to conclude before the war ended. The protests, once so effective in drawing attention to the growing number of dissidents against the fighting in Vietnam, were being met with brute force, and the peace talks were going nowhere. Ginsberg already had more than enough new poetry to fill a substantial volume of new work, and he would conclude it at the end of 1971.
Ginsberg’s travel writings ranked among his finest journal writings. Long descriptive passages were rendered in detail, suggesting intentions for future use. This, of course, is one reason why writers keep journals. Most are not intended for publication, but when they are they provide enlightenment into the creative process. Windblown World, journals that Jack Kerouac kept while working on The Town and the City and On the Road but published posthumously, were powerful sketches by a young writer in search of a way to create or improve a developing narrative. On occasion, the journal writing was as breathtaking as anything he published.
The travel journals of Allen Ginsberg followed suit. His descriptions of the Russian countryside and Red Square, published in Iron Curtain Journals, or of the impoverished streets or burning ghats in India, published in Indian Journals (1970), were almost photographic in detail. The Fall of America journals added spin to the process: the auto poesy, unlike earlier notebook scribblings, were earmarked for publication and, as such, were the result of heightened awareness.
Not that other journal writings during this period were inferior. “Wales Visitation,” written when Ginsberg was overseas in 1967, was composed while, tripping on LSD, he sat alone in the Wales countryside and wrote, in minute detail, of what he saw. “After Wales Visitacione July 29, 1967,” written in Wales and London a short time later, continued this type of writing.
When Allen Ginsberg won the 1974 National Book Award for The Fall of America, the largest volume of poems he would ever publish (aside from his Collected Poems and Selected Poems), he gained a measure of formal acceptance long denied him by the literati. The Fall of America was nothing less than a staggering magnum opus, Ginsberg’s autobiographical journey through the United States as the country experienced one of the most turbulent periods in its history. As a very public figure—arguably, America’s best-known poet—Ginsberg seemed to be everywhere at once: zigzagging across the country for poetry readings, turning up at protests and rallies, appearing on television news broadcasts, contributing work to every imaginable type of publication, touring Europe, and doing occasional teaching gigs.
He had always been at his best when he was on the road, open to anything, aware of history, and diligent about noticing political and social customs. Recording his thoughts on tape added a new, significant wrinkle to his writing: he no longer required a quiet place to sit and write, relying on his memory for detail and context; instead he was instantly recording his thoughts, even in the front seat of a van speeding down the highway.
The Fall of America journals contain some of the finest of Ginsberg’s spontaneous writing, accomplished as he pondered the best and worst that his country had to offer. The descriptive writing is breathtaking at times, and the journals offer nothing less than the essential backstory to the works published in The Fall of America.
Read Allen Ginsberg’s “Denver to Montana Beginning 27 May 72,” which appears in the Summer issue.
Michael Schumacher is the author of the acclaimed Ginsberg biography Dharma Lion. Along with Conversations with Allen Ginsberg and Ginsberg’s Iron Curtain Journals and South American Journals, he has edited Family Business, selected correspondence between Allen and Louis Ginsberg, and The Essential Ginsberg, a reader of Ginsberg’s best work.
From The Fall of America Journals, 1965–1971, by Allen Ginsberg, edited by Michael Schumacher, forthcoming from University of Minnesota Press this November.