Gargoyle 10cover image by Borislav O. Milutinovichpublication date 9/20/1978
Allen Ginsberg was born on June 3, 1926, in Paterson, New Jersey and attendedColumbia University. His long poem “Howl” was published in 1956,and seized by U.S. customs making him an overnight success. He is one ofAmerica’s most famous living poets and has spent the past decade examiningU.S. government aggression and laws on obscenity, drugs and sexual behavior.His most recent book is Mind Breaths (City Lights, 1978).
Interviewers:When going over the media of the time it appears to me that Jack Kerouacwas one of the most slandered and libeled writers of recent times.
Ginsberg: It’s very interesting that you say that, I read an essay onthat last night. There are two large books on Kerouac coming out, a biographyby Dennis McNally of Random House, a considerable biography; and a bigbook, from St. Martin’s Press in New York. archived (by Barry Gifford)documents and interviews with everybody who knew Kerouac. The thing thatthe McNally biography is great at is accounting and itemization of allthe reviews that Kerouac got for all the different books, and it’s oneof the most vicious things I’ve ever seen what they did to him.
Interviewers: It really was.
Ginsberg: And some of it, incidentally, by CIA-funded literary magazineslike Encounter, by the way. Not that the CIA had a plug in Kerouac. Theyhad that kind of mentality that would take Kerouac’s open wit, Whitmanicbeauty and honesty of person and find that creepy and subjective and egotisticalor irresponsible. It’s a conservative, stupid party line.
Interviewers: Though countless people have read and like his work, itseems that to this day he is still regarded as a second class writer. Theword “Literature” is rarely applied to Big Sur or DesolationAngels or Scripture of the Golden Eternity. You have consistently defendedhim over the years. Looking back at it now, what kind of place will Kerouactake in literature? Is he still treated unfairly by critics? What shouldhis reputation be?
Ginsberg: There’s a guy, Anatole Broyard, of the N. Y. Times Book Review,who’s still chasing Kerouac’s corpse with a stiletto. Even posthumouslydenouncing Visions of Cody, which I think was Kerouac’s great prose creation.Full of beautiful cadenzas and exquisite sketches of cafeterias and subwaysand els (elevated lines). I still would say that Kerouac was one of themost beautiful composers of vowels and consonants, one of the most mindfullyconscious writers dealing with sounds. As Warren Tallman the essayist pointedout in his great essay in the late fifties, “Kerouac’s Sound,” Kerouachad a fantastic ear and a tremendous appreciation of modern black musicand black tongue and Okie tongue and provincial speech, and his rhythmsand sentences are organized after the models of excited conversation, probablyrhapsody. . . exclamatory delight, you find that built into his prose.He was an athletic prose writer and he was tremendously honest. He gavehimself to his art and I think he was one of the great prose writers inAmerica. Perhaps in America, itself, the single greatest in the twentiethcentury. His breakthrough to a realization of spontaneous mind and theenormous inventive perceptive capacity of raw mind–“first thoughtis best thought-is something so noble that only a few great Buddhist poetshave achieved that. Chogyarn Trungpa, who’s my meditation teacher, a Tibetanlama, thinks that Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues book of poems is “agreat exposition of mind,” spontaeous mind, and good Buddhism, too,as Gary Snyder, the trained Buddhist, thinks.
All of my poetic practice is founded on Kerouac’s notion of non-revising, “spitforth intelligence at the moment.” It’s in the tradition of twentiethcentury thought, actually, Western thought. From Heisenberg who said ifyou stop to observe a wave you impede its function: Einstein who said ifyou want to know the shape of the Universe, you had to examine the measuringinstrument. So what Kerouac was doing was examining his own mind. The thoughtsof the mind as they proceeded, rising “unborn” in the mind. Hewas able to notate on the page and it created a great extraordinary poeticpanoply of what comes up from the naked mind, what the naked mind is capableof when it’s not trying to sneak over an arty, academic, shamed, revisedversion of reality.
What does the mind really think? What is the poetry of pure mind? Andhe was the first person to have that great breakthrough of consciousnessin art. Well, not the first, it is a tradition. Gertrude Stein was intothat. It actually was a main tradition in American letters from Whitmanon. When Whitman said, “We don’t have to pay the immensely overpaidaccounts on the Battle of Troy anymore. The muse is here in America. She’shere installed amidst the kitchenware, that’s “ordinary mind.”
Williams relied on ordinary speech in his practice of imagism. GertrudeStein explored the ordinary mind moment by moment in her vast experimentwith The Making of Americans in writing creation and composition. Steinis, in a sense, the innovator.
But Kerouac applied that ordinary mind rhapsody–that is to say, the unimpededflow of intelligence–in prose, to telling a narrative story, and therewas something monumental about that. I would say he created a monumental “artwork,” despitethe hostility of academia, despite sneering journalistic jealousy. Despitethe smog of the secret police which scared him, too, and made him withdrawfrom public front. Despite my own incomprehension and the incomprehensionof his friends who sometimes didn’t understand how far he was goin,. ’causemy first reaction to Visions of Cody was of shock–Where was this? Wherewas this coming from? It wasn’t like a novel I’d ever heard of. Despitehis publisher’s money-grubbing boorishness in not publishing his novelswhen they were written, in not publishing them in the right order and leavingmany to be published posthumously. Despite repression from his family.Despite an attack in the media that was so vast it looks like organizedpsychosis when you look back on it–friends like Kenneth Rexroth sayingthat he couldn’t write poetry; Norman Podhoretz attacking him as a juveniledelinquent, instead of seeing him as an artist. Despite all that, one single,lonely tearful guy created this masterpiece against everything. He hadto follow his heart, and that’s pure art. His intelligence was extraordinarythat way. ‘Cause he read, he was very learned. He had read Shakespeare,a lot of Sir Thomas Browne, read all through Rabelais and Celine, listenedto Bach’s B-Minor Mass night after night, and St. Matthew’s Passion. Theamazing thing is that even in his illness in the sixties when he was drinkingtoo much, he created a body of work at a time when he was supposed to bein “decline,” a phase that people still insult, this fantasticrecord of his own breakdown and degeneration from alcohol in Big Sur in1961. He went on to complete the second part of Desolation Angels, whichwas a great retrospective of his situation with fame and with “theSan Francisco Renaissance” with all the poets (Whalen, Snyder, McClure,Lamantia, Duncan, etc.)
Interviewers: Those books are both out of print here in the U.S.
Ginsberg: They’ll be in print now soon. Actually, almost everything’snow in print, or will be soon. That’s coming out actually, Desolation Angelsand Vanity of Dulouz. Desolation Angels filled in the story in the latefifties as well as The Dharma Bums, that is, the story proceeding fromthe forties up to the late fifties. Then the capstone of all that, thegreat arch, is Big Sur, where he tells of his own breakdown. Then afterBig Sur he wrote Desolation Angels Part II, finished that book. Then hedid a retrospective view of his own romantic idealistic illusory follies,sort of outside the great Dulouz legend, outside the great panorama. Helooked back as in old age, in a book which is so loose and free and funnyin its prose, The Vanity of Dulouz, (The Vanity of Kerouac), that it’sactually a revelation on his early style, and a change, in enormous growth,and new depth. Literarily it’s curious because the tone developed fromHerman Melville’s poems John Marr and Other Sailors, in which Melvillein his old age writing poetry is taking on the persona of John Marr, anold retired sailor sitting with his pipe of bohee tobacco talking to hiswife saying “Well Wifey, let me tell you about Bridegroom Dick whenwe were back there, Bridegroom Dick the Sailor he’ll not come by no more. . .” and they’re beautiful poems, retrospective, love poems to allthe old sailor friends he sailed around the south seas with.
So people don’t recognize that cultivation. They think it’s just sloppyKerouac talking to his wife or something, not realizing he finally camedown to home nitty-gritty as Melville did; and he read Melville’s “JohnMarr,” we used to talk about it all the time. So then after that heunited both his youths: he had written a short book called Pic. Then hedid Satori in Paris, which was a completely funny, drunken comedy on himself,a brief vignette of going to Paris to find his ancestors’ names and backgrounds.Then he did the last chapter of Pic which was about a little picaninny,a little black boy coming from the south which he’d written before, andhe put on a last chapter which was “hitch-hiking north,” whomdoes he run into on the road but Neal Cassady (Dean Moriarty)! But hismother didn’t like it, or his wife didn’t like it, so he put on anotherlittle ending and it was published with that other ending, but there isin his manuscripts a very funny little thing where he reunites his earlyspringtime youthful Pic book with a retrospective view of the young kidmeeting the Heroes in his youth. In addition, McNally in his biographysays he wrote all the time so he’s got innumerable notebooks, poems, Godknows what, that nobody knows about.
Interviewers: Aren’t legal battles with his heirs holding up publicationof some of his manuscripts?
Ginsberg: No not quite. I’ll explain that. What is really interestingis that on the day he died, 10:30 in the morning, he was looking at televisionwith a notebook open on his lap still writing and he got up, laid the notebookaside, his wife wanted to fix him some tuna fish or some lunch, he saidno. He opened a can of tuna fish, ate it, went into the bathroom, startedvomiting, called “I’m hemorrhaging, I’m hemorrhaging, help!” Hiswife came in and took him to the hospital and he died. So he was writingon the very moment of his death. Kerouac has always been pointed to as ” degenerating, ” ” hefailed, “he “didn’t do anything,” he “wasted his last years.” Buthe produced a body of work in the sixties that rivals anybody’s. He wrote morethan I did. And also work that was seasoned, disillusioned and interesting;you know like his retrospective, puncturing all the balloons and follies ofyouth. So there is still a terrific study to come. And all of the dream booksand notebooks and haikus and poems and journals that he kept, all through thesixties and fifties and forties are still unpublished. We still don’t knowthe extent of his art.
The legal problem is: his wife, Stella, has a lot of manuscripts leftor in the bank, or up in Lowell with the family. She won’t let anybodysee them. What’s known of them is Some of the Dharma, a long series ofessays and haikus and poems he wrote on Buddhist subjects when he was studyingthat which he kept for maybe eight years. You know, writing for Gary Snyder’sear and for mine. The San Francisco Blues (1954), written in a rockingchair from flop house hotel Mission Street, Third Street. There’s a greatnotebook that he kept while writing On The Road which is in the Universityof Texas, a journal of writing On The Road which is in perfect fat print,very legible, and Andy Brown of Gotham Book Mart wants to publish a facsimilecopy but he can’t get permission from the family. Stella, his wife andwidow, her view is “aaah leave something for Ph.D. scholars in anotherten years. He’s got enough out already.” They still haven’t republishedyet all his books that are already in print. What’s coming out now–Viking,I believe is bringing out something, I forget. I got the advance proofsabout a half year ago. Vanity of Dulouz is in reprint, Desolation Angelsin reprint, I think Tristessa and Maggie Cassidy, two other books hardto get are coming out McGraw-Hill or something like that. So I think bythe end of the year every single published work will be back in print.Which is amazing, actually, because it’s about nineteen books. They’llall be available finally again after being in and out. That was his publisher’sstupidity and his agents’. The problem was he wrote On the Road, that wasa big experimental thing after publishing his first book The Town and theCity. It was turned down by everybody, Louis Simpson, John Hall Wheelockwho just died the other day. Malcolm Cowley had to fight for years to getit published by Viking. So it wasn’t published, he wrote it in ’51 andit wasn’t published until ’57 or ’58. Jack was broke all this time. Hehad to work and had to be dependent on his mother. Even after all thesethings were published he didn’t have any money. A $1,000 advance for Onthe Road or something, $2,000. He never got any money. $7,000 for Tristessa.But that’s a high school teacher’s income, half a college instructor’sincome, and he’s supposed to live on that. Finally he was going to signa contract toward the end of his life to deliver a novel and I said “Don’tdo that, don’t indenture yourself like that, sell my letters.” Soinstead of signing a contract for $7 1/2 thousand, he sold my letters toTexas and had a few years of like, a little cash to buy a house for hismother.
What they should have done was first published On the Road, and then theyshould have followed that with Visions of Cody, and they should have followedit up with The Subterraneans, and they should have followed it up withMaggie Cassidy, and they should have followed it up with Doctor Sax, andthey should have followed it up with Tristessa, and they should have followedit up with Mexico City Blues . . .
Then he wrote The Dharma Bums after On the Road was published becausethey said, “Why don’t you write something simple to explain what allthese people are about?” So he should have had everything publishedin a readable order just as he wrote them so people could follow the developmentof his mind and not confuse them. There was a publishers’ boorishness,that’s why I said “publishers’ money-grubbing boorishness.” Theydidn’t realize they had a great prose artist on their hands and they werejust looking at him as a social phenomenon or money or something.
Interviewers: What do you think of Ann Charters’ biography?
Ginsberg: The problem with the Charters’ book is: because of a contractthat Aaron Latham the “official biographer” had gotten with RandomHouse which shared the money with the family, Ann Charters’ book was “unofficial” andshe was not given access to his original manuscripts, nor given permissionto quote directly from anything in his estate. She had written the bookwithout knowing this, or without thinking seriously that they could havedared do a thing like that to literary material. So at the last minutethe proofs of the book was in the hands of Straight Arrow Press, she washaving a baby, went to Sweden, and the quotations were made into paraphrasesby secretaries at Straight Arrow Press sort of like with a meat axe. Sothat what was once somewhat delicate in her book was transformed into along narrative basically Kerouac’s own words which were made into paraphrase,and it sounds like she is “kvetching” or coming on superior toKerouac and he sounds depressing, when actually the long narrative passagesare his own humor and wit and intelligence criticizing himself in a ruefulburlesque manner.
For instance, there is a section that begins “Kerouac came up fromBig Sur and all that he could see were nasty American housewives staringat him through the windows of their cars and looking the other way as ifhe were an axe murderer. . .” Well, that’s Kerouac saying “Igot up on the road and all I could see were these nasty American housewiveslooking at me as if I were an axe murderer or something. . .” So itwas Charters without quotation marks saying “all he could see werenasty American housewives. . .” So it makes him seem like a depressingfool instead of a witty fellow. So the phrase I use for that is “he’snot given credit for his own intelligence” in that book. And the biographerseems “superior” to him in moral perception, whereas she’s relyingon his own moral and psychological perceptions of himself, and long passagesin her book are deceptive to the reader because the reader thinks it’sher accounting of him in writing biography, whereas it’s him telling whathappened to himself very truthfully, very honestly. So the whole book’sout of focus. One gets the impression that he’s a depressed case, whereasactually it’s the depressing case of American commercialism getting a textscrewed up.
Interviewers: Do you have any comment on the Jarvis book, Visions of Kerouac?
Ginsberg: Well, Jarvis is kind of funny. It’s a lot of local gossip. Kerouackept patiently answering foolish questions by Jarvis who’s a prurient questioner.So it’s a kind of funny book. It’s useful for you know that phase of Kerouacwhen he talked to local Charlie. Charlie’s very shocked about my sleepingwith Jack; he says he doesn’t believe it or something. It’s kind of naive.But it’s useful source material. The new book by McNally I think is thebest account of his life. That’ll be coming out in a year or so.
Interviewers: Music is fascinating with some of your poems. When I readthings I put on music in the background. Do you write much with music goingon, or are you consciously aware that you’re putting music on at all, nomatter what kind it is?
Ginsberg: Well following the example of Hart Crane who wrote “TheBridge” with a lot of Bessie Smith records on or jazz or Bach, I usedto do that, but I find it interrupts my own rhythm. I get a lot of influencethrough Kerouac by music, particularly for that long breath saxophone crythat you might get out of Lester Young, solos of Coleman Hawkins, CharlieParker’s long bird-flighted tunes that begin and end finally at the endof a sentence-MAWP! So the long breath, which is derived somewhat fromBlack American speech and which has been the inspiration to poets in Americafor the last fifty years. Lately I’ve been working with musicians. Well,not lately–I’ve been working with Don Cherry since 68-69-70. We recordedtogether. I set Blake’s “Songs of Innocence” to music. And I’mstill working on it. This past month I’ve been working on Blake’s “Tiger” toget that together. It’s a heartbeat. “Ti-ger, Tiger, burn-ing boom-boom,boom-boom. . .” (chants part of the poem). And I’ve been working with Bob Dylanwho’s been teaching me chords. So I’ve been singing blues and I put out a bookcalled First Blues and I worked with John Hammond, Sr., who recorded BillieHoliday and some Bessie Smith and Dylan and I made two records of First Blues.And this last long poem I have (The Rune) has a four chord rhapsody. Mostlywith music I’ve been working on rhymed matter. I don’t know how to handle thelong line with music, as in -Howl-. I could in sort of Hebraic-Indian form “Isaw the best minds of my generation. . . .” (chants first couple of linesfrom “Howl” in C chord). But I don’t know … could get somethinggoing that way, I’d like to.
Lately what I’m into through the influence of Ed Sanders–he being a classicsspecialist–is digging the tremendous dance music rhythms of Greek prosody,where they had feet that went BA-DAM BAM BAH . . . BA-DAM BAM BAH. Ionicmeters, they’re called. Or DUN DA-DUN DA … DUN DA-DUN DA. “Moloch” wasbuilt that way. “Mo-loch whose eyes are a thou-sand blind win-dows.” Thelong feet, which are basically ancient Greek dance rhythms. I didn’t knowthat–I just got my own ear. But Sanders is making me more and more consciousof that. He said that he read “Howl” in Kansas City and he’dbeen studying classics and recognized old Greek dithyrambic rhythms andthat was his specialty. So we’ve been working on that and he may teachthat at Naropa. So I’ve been influenced by both irregular asymmetricalrhythmical run-on bop and the symmetrical meters of the Greeks, as wellas Poe and things like that.
One other thing. We’ve been talking about rhythm. Now tone, notes. Thebig discovery I had in putting Blake together, I realized that when I pronouncemy poetry I try to follow William Carlos Williams, try to use the wholegamut of what does a normal voice talk like. How many different tones dowe use? In his preface to Basil Bunting’s poems back in the fifties, Poundwrote a poet should “follow the tone leading of the vowels.” Onevowel leads to another in different tones and those tones are emotionaltones, for emphasis. We don’t in America have a study of the vowel lengthslike classical prosody. The traditional measure of the line is accent,rather than the length of the vowels which Pound returned to American practice,emphasizing particularly the tone leading of the vowels. So when I beganputting Blake to music I tried to figure out how you’d go about sayingit if you had to say it “Ti-ger, Ti-ger,” high-low, high-low.So actually if you’ve got a really good poem and you pronounce it as youwould speak it, you’ll get the different tones of the vowels and you canactually make melody or you can extrapolate it or project it into melodyor into tunes real easy but you gotta first be able to pronounce it natural,because if you pronounce it like poetry it all runs out to monotone–there’sno variation. If you say “Ti-ger, ti-ger,” you’ll get a differenttone and you’ll be able to get a melody out of it.
Interviewers: Semantic structure, but it’s natural.
Ginsberg: Right, it’s structural and it’s natural as all good structuresare, or enduring structures are.
Interviewers: You are one of the only poets in the U.S., and I would imaginein the history of the world, who has been able to survive financially fromreading and writing poetry. A lot of us would like to know if you haveany advice for anybody else.
Ginsberg: Write good poetry. . .Now wait a minute, I want to put a littleclip into that. First of all, I didn’t anticipate this, I got pushed intothis situation when the customs seized my book and the vice squad descendedon Howl and put it through a trial so notorious that people started buyingit because they thought it was a dirty book. Normally, when Howl was printedin a thousand copies by City Lights like any other book of poetry, that’sall they expected to sell.
So it’s just an accident that I got pushed by the government into thissituation. Before that, I made my living washing dishes in Bickford’s ormopping the floor of the May Company or vacuum cleaning, or working asa welder in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, or I had a year’s time on the oceanas a merchant seaman. I have several years’ time in market research. SoI had whole different kinds of careers as a day laborer, night laborer,blue collar worker, white collar worker, and I always figured that I’dhave to make my living some other way beside teaching or writing poetry.I think people should figure on that because there aren’t so many poetsthat can make it. And I don’t make enough money writing poetry and publishingit to support myself really–if I live real cheap, which I do, I live inpenury, not poverty. Like the suit I’m wearing which is beautiful is SalvationArmy, $12, including the alterations to make it look distinguished so Ican wear my National Institute medal with it. But it’s all Salvation Army.I live on the lower East Side of New York in a real terrible slum rat streetwhere the garbage is all over the street and I’ve been mugged and shotat with B.B. guns. So I’m not exactly living the life of luxury. But allI get from City Lights (which is my main publisher) is probably $7,000a year. See I don’t make a lot of money. For years I used to read free.From 1955-65 I made it a business of reading for free and supporting myselfby sailing in merchant ships up under the DEW line. Cause I didn’t thinkpoetry and gold should mix. Particularly in that kind of America, whereeverybody was competing for gold, things would get too mixed up, I thoughtpoetry should be something outside the system. I read now for money andI try to recycle the money to other poetic projects like this reading I’mdoing in Washington. I get some money for reading when I’m broke and strappedand I have to pay off my debts. Cause I get extravagant like $200 phonebills and call Ann Arbor, call Ira Lowe* in Washington, call Ed Sanders,call Marty Lee of the Assassination Information Bureau here. You know toget it all together, call Princeton and get FBI Cointel-Program, Xeroxesfrom The Princetonian, call back to Ann Arbor to the Daily Michigan. “Haveyou got your story out, can you send me a copy so I can send it to theAssassination Information Bureau?” So I’ve got phone bills, and taxibills and plane bills. My actual living expenses are pretty cheap. So Iwouldn’t suggest anybody anticipate making money on poetry. Your collegeprof makes anywhere between $15,000 and $25,000-$30,000, and the supercollege prof, $35,000 . . .Vonnegut or Schlesinger . . . special chairat CCNY. I could do that if I wanted but I’d rather be at Naropa Institutewhere I get $1,000 for the whole summer. Because there’s a live scene therewith student meditators and great teachers and Zen masters and Tibetanlamas. Kerouac didn’t make any money. In his biography I saw some yearshe had nothing. A thousand dollar check from his agent, two thousand. Hehad to sell my letters to move to Florida. William Burroughs doesn’t haveany money, now, for instance. Burroughs, with all his books. He has moneyyou know like a high school teacher, he doesn’t have a lot.
Interviewers: Didn’t he get anything for the film rights to Junky?
Ginsberg: He got I think twenty grand, which stretched over a two-yearperiod, which is about $10,000 a year, which is what? A grant from theNEA gets that, Guggenheim, or something. Gregory Corso has no money andhe’s a productive poet. He’s a world figure, sort of, but he gets what?I think his royalties from New Directions are a couple thousand, if that.From City Lights maybe $500, $400, $300 a year. He has to live by his wits.So I would suggest poets learn to live by their wits. Or best like GarySnyder, get some kind of honest labor job, carpentry, something plantingtrees, something involving reforestation. Or applying for grants, maybethat’s the way to do it.
Interviewed in 1978 by Eric Baizer, Reywas Divad, and Richard Peabody.
*Ira Lowe, a lawyer engaged in extracting the author’s dossiers from FBI,CIA and Secret Service files.
Editors Note: Dennis McNally’s biography is entitled Desolate Angel. TheWarren Tallman essay on “Kerouac’s Sound” is available in OpenLetter, Third Series, No, 6, Coach House Press, 401 (rear) Huron St., Toronto,Ontario.