The following is an interview with Allen Ginsberg originally published by the University of Tulsa’s student newspaper The Collegian in 1977. It is reprinted here with permission from the Collegian’s publication board and TU’s University Relations office.
GINSBERG WAS HERE. Dharmic Dirty Old Man, gay libber, chronicler of one generation’s nightmares, Allen Ginsberg to some’s delight came Monday, October ten. For,
Monday noon lunch in the diner. Featuring: vegetables, name-swapping, Tulsa gay bar review. Then, Monday afternoon discourse and reading in the Sharp Chapel Lounge. Featuring: questions from the gallery, the death of Hippie idealism, spontaneous snoring, the lineage of American poetry, and much, much more. Then,
Later Monday afternoon interview with cub reporter in the new wing of McFarlin Library (hardhats required). Featuring: interruptions and sidetracks, loaded questions, wind.
And, Monday evening reading and music in the Great Hall. Featuring: Ginsberg, Live!
Banks closed on Columbus Day, except piggy banks which reporter robbed for batteries for recorder for an interview already late. So Ginsberg sat eating vegetables on arrival—spectacles and high bald head between fuzzy locks grey and worn. By self-portrait later a sloppy faggot, Ginsberg shook hands friendly, looked for conversation, navigated bright yams and cucumbers past hairy obstacles to feeding. Tired facial lines and cocked eyes, one of which was often wiped for leakage was Ginsberg, already egoistic with friendly talk of fellow artists and quick to speak of gay bars here and in New York. Lunch was over, with people sneaking by to pay respects and others waiting in small groups for a scene (could it be) across campus in the chapel. Where, the lounge was still in blue with couches, carpet, and the drapery. T.U. Literary heroes and not a few artists as young men alerted from waiting station thoughts to Ginsberg setting up camp in a chair in front while encouraging coffee and cookies from the outset.
Where to begin but at the present was the decision and Ginsberg spoke of recent activities—more than a mouthful in the opener alone: he was Now Announcing the Jack Kerouac School for Disembodied Poetics. Right. At a place called Nropa Institute in Boulder. It’s a home for avant-garde types young and old in collaboration with guru’s and Tibetan lama’s and, in the name of the beat generation’s vision, “nothing promised that was not performed.” (Promise?) And he’s printing a volume of journals from the old days, he said, featuring conversations with William Carlos Williams, Kerouac, Dylan Thomas (whoever he was), and also the fifth book in his poetry series—poems 1972-1977 and entitled Mind Breaths. He’s also been lately writing music, mostly blues, all dirty blues. He just finished an album for Columbia which they won’t touch—too filthy—but maybe Folkways will pick it up and further the Ginsberg cause of sexual freedom through freedom of language, which is a full-time job and Ginsberg’s feeling busy at it.
Then they asked if some of his best friends are still Buddhists and he was saying, yes, most of the scene and Naropa traces a lineage back to a 12th century poet-guru named something that means “Cotten-clad-One,” a guy they always show sitting around with his right hand on his left ear, listening to himself sing. Someone else must have been listening too because it all started an oral tradition that is alive today in Boulder. It’s a lineage in which all the yogi’s must be poets because, says Ginsberg, “In order to be able to explain to people that the entire universe is a brain illusion, they have to have some kind of penetrative tongue.” To say the least. It takes tact, he says, to explain Buddhism’s three “Marks of Existence”: the experience of suffering, mutability, and the always hard-to-take news that the soul allegedly has no permanent identity. A smooth tongue is required. One must be a poet and the suitable poetic form is what Ginsberg calls “spontaneous utterance,” which was cultivated historically in Zen poetrics and a Tibetan form called “spitting forth of intelligence” and also, Ginsberg was saying, stumbled onto American-style by Jack Kerouac while On the Road, the world’s first beatnik become hippie and leader of a generation prone to listening to their own song through the old right hand at the ear, trying to say what’s on the tip of the tongue.
Which was where Ginsberg was after a brief period spent as “a little kid immitating poetry” at which time he met Jack Kerouac, founding father of the beat movement, and discovered “the bebop of human speech, the actual syncopation of the language.” Nobody ever speaks in iambic pentameter he was saying, so Kerouac and William Carlos Williams taught him to write “in actuality instead of in the closet (of poetic form)” and “to abandon poetry and write about reality in such a way that reality becomes poetic.” That’s what Woody Guthrie was up to, says Ginsberg, and that’s not the only Oklahoma hero in the movement according to Ginsberg, who came waving a banner for four Tulsa poets now of too small acclaim in the high places of Esoteria, New York City, USA. Dick Gallup, Ron Padgett, Ted Berrigan and Joe Brainard published in The White Dove Review in Tulsa in the late fifties before flying their bird to a more favorable climate, from where they now enjoy international reputations if still undiscovered in Tulsa. (Today the world, tomorrow Tulsa). There were others too, in what Ginsberg paid homage to in the poetic Wichita Vortex Sutra—a circle of inspiration in the late 50’s in Wichita, Lawrence and Tulsa that gave impetus to the discovery of a “totally American rhythm and poetry.” Guthrie, Berrigan and the others, says Ginsberg, introduced an All-American Boy vernacular into high prose and avant-garde poetry.
Which, says Ginsberg, is just what Bob Dylan stepped into in his early days. Kerouac and the other poets of the late 50’s along with the Woody Guthrie influence made a way for Dylan to move into poetry for the kinds of expression he needed. And Ginsberg now is reaping the benefits from early gifts to Dylan: in his excursions into music and in a type of poetry he calls oratories, Ginsberg now considers his younger friend Dylan his teacher instead of the reverse.
But, while everything is groovin’ on in the realms of avant-garde art, Ginsberg sees a horrifying state in the model he strangely enjoys drawing from—names, the world: “Everything the 60s complained about now has come true and everybody knows it. It’s come to the point where there is no sense protesting—one might almost say there is no point in trying to reform any longer because it’s irreversible.” No one knows better than Ginsberg—alive and dangerously aware for so long in New York City—the basics of the predicament and the sentence hanging over it. He says, “The build-up of passion, aggression, and ignorance is so vast that to attempt to reverse it all to construct an ecologically sound society is almost a piece of egotism. It’s a lost cause.”…But, Allen, the hope of the 60’s? “A piece of idiot sentimentality idealism.” You could hear the Hippies screaming in the fading background of the peace-love past. But Ginsberg claims it doesn’t have to be a bad thing. He sees a new element of realism that the 60’s generation was badly lacking. And, “Perhaps there might be room to move if someone started from a position of hopelessness…At least you can begin there. It’s like pronouncing a dark night of the soul and then you can actually get to terms with life and death rather than saying ‘well we’re going to make it, folks, so keep the faith,’ (laughing)…At least they’re not saying keep the faith baby.” Which is a relief, reporter was thinking, this quietus on the charade that our generation could somehow save the world, even with the wonder of drugs.
Speaking of which, someone of course got around to asking if Ginsberg was still eating those drugs he campaigned for in the 60’s. He said he still smoked grass and that he occasionally got hold of psychedelic mushrooms but that he hadn’t taken any LSD since 1972, though he quickly added he would like to soon—as preparation for a scheduled get together with Dr.Hoffman (who discovered LSD) and Dr. Timothy Leary and Richard Albert now Rams Das (who ate LSD) later this year.
But the drug experience, says Ginsberg, is no longer a serious part of his spiritual discipline. He explains, “The problem with drugs or any visionary experience is that you’re thinking of the aesthetics of being there rather than just being there.” There was also the problem, it seems, of getting wrapped up in what Ken Kesey called “The Cops and Robbers Game”, the civil liberties side-track that drained so much of the inspiration from the psychedelic movement.
But the question of drugs still somehow marks an important part of the spiritual walk Ginsberg has taken, a walk watched with interest, even hope, by those from such distant sectors as the woodwork poetry’s high Esoteria, realms of drug Disorienta, and the ever-growing gay world. His path begins with a childhood experience that, until 1973, he described as an encounter with a personal God. He origianlly hoped LSD could catalyze a similar experience but says that it “never happened satisfactorily, completely.” He then, however, turned to an interest in Buddhism as a means to instead “annihilate the whole problem of saying the experience was of no importance, no more than any other experience.”
And so Ginsberg’s metaphysics, once a bizarre brand of Theism somehow hopeful nonetheless, have taken a turn towards the Non-being end of the rainbow. The existence of God is—since 1973— “an egoism that must be cut through by the application of intelligence.” His ultimate hope has become an aspiration for what he calls “the impleccable bleak ecstasy.” And even this bleak ecstasy is only realized through a long and tedious destruction of every “egoism,” a word stretched to cover any sense of personal existence—no easy feat and perhaps particularly so in Ginsberg’s position as Artist.
And the contradictions in theory are tiny compared to the huge gulf separating this outlook and any true application of it. A true-life dramatization of that gulf and easily the most poignant moment in Ginsberg’s discourse was his account of Jack Kerouac’s last months of life. Ginsberg said that the lack of a single suitable Eastern Master in the West in 1967 made it impossible for Kerouac to “get the Theistic monkey off his back.” As a life of beat and hippie adventures carried on within a Buddhist world-view began to draw to an alcoholic close, Kerouac underwent a radical change. The man who had done more than any other individual to inspire the beat generation and its offspring in the 60’s, the much-loved Kerouac whose vision and expression led culture into at least two new era’s, entered into yet another dimension. Says Ginsberg, “He took more and more refuge in a tearful, forgiving Jesus.”
Kerouac found the Lord?
“He thought he did,” says Ginsberg and on the lawns and sidewalks of academia everything else seems like just so many words. The interview, much advertised to delve into the deeper spiritual things, never got out of the squirrel cage of man’s mind.—Taken outdoors in the winds of this autumn’s first cold front, the wisdom of Ginsberg and interjections by reporter appeared on the tape edited by Whoever it was that wrote the acoustical laws of this universe: there was nothing but wind.
But then, according to Ginsberg’s best loved protege, that’s just where the answer’s blowin’ anyway.