Continuing with our on-going feature of videos from the recently-digitalized Stanford Archives – today a tv appearance from 1985, on “New England Today” (on the occasion of the publication of Collected Poems 1947-1980)
Interviewer: My guest right now is Allen Ginsberg and he has written a number of poems and this is a big book if you like poetry, a big book of Collected Poems from 1947 to 1980, and, actually, this is your whole life in these poems, isn’t it Allen?
AG: Yes, everything I’ve written in poetry for thirty-three years, with profuse illustrations, numerous notes at the back, a preface and an index of the proper names of everybody mentioned in the poetry from John Foster Dulles to the CIA.
Interviewer: So you spell their names right and give everybody credit or discredit.
AG: Well, people can look up their names, if they’re poets, or politicians – or gods, you can look up your name in the back of my book.
Interviewer: Okay. Now tell us the different stages that your poetry has gone through since you began. How old were you in 1947?
AG; 1947, I was twenty-one, and the first poem in the book (which has some words that can’t be pronounced on television) is an actual record of a dream – going into a cocktail party room and finding them… talking to them in hip talk and finding them talking back to me in queer talk, and then eating a sandwich of human flesh – a literal dream – and the there follows a sequence of poems that are written in old-fashioned rhymed pure verse style, which is kind of full of manure, in a sense that it’s sort of like repetition of old fashoned literary.. Then I worked with William Carlos Williams, the great old poet, who said “write the way you tawk” (sic). And then I began listening to King Pleasure and Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey and Lead Belly and…
Interviewer: Great inspiration
AG: .. and listening to the way they sing the way they talk, and began changing my language, so that I began writing out of my own mouth instead of some seventeenth-century mouth.
AG: And then I began writing longer lines and talking more and more likely I’m doing now, and just, you know, continuing, like blowing on a saxophone until I get out of the breath. Then I went around the world (a couple of times, went to Europe and wrote a lot of elegant poems about Europe and Asia). Then I came home in the “Sixties and wrote a lot of angry anti-Vietnam War poems. mainly pacifist in nature, pointing out that the government was bamboozling us with funny language, calling everybody “Communists” that they didn’t like (like they’re still doing in Nicaragua)
Interviewer: Sure. Hasn’t changed much has it?
AG: No, hasn’t changed. The Vietnam War and the Nicaraguan War, mirror images of each other, pushing… we might take thirty seconds to explain that the Vietnam War was because we thought that the Vietnamese and the Chinese were the same Communists and didn’t realize they’d been fighting for years. And so we were trying to contain China by getting rid of the Vietnamese..Buddhist..leadership – Communist Buddhist leadership. The Nicaraguan War is – they want to do business with us, they don’t want to be pushed into the arms of the Russians and the Cubans, and, strategically, we’re trying to push them into the Communist camp so that we can attack them is about what it boils down to (or, “Hypocrisy is the key to self-fulfilling prophecy” – a recent poem).
So, getting back to the chronology of the book….
AG: Then, as the war sort of tended to end, I calmed down, and found myself a Tibetan Buddhist lama guru meditation teacher.
Interviewer: All of them!
AG: All at once (who, actually has a branch here, in Newton. a Center, a dharmadattu, as it is called, where people sit and meditate, and check out their anger, and control their impatience, and learn a certain amount of generosity by just sitting still and doing nothing. And so I began writing poems again which were less political and more about what I was thinking about inside, and what I was actually seeing outside – (like “Spring Fashions” (a three-line poem, which is in that book).
Interviewer: Yes. Can you remember?
AG: Oh yes, I remember. because it’s just one photograph – short.
Interviewer: Give it to us.
AG: “Spring Fashions” – “Full moon over the shopping mall/In a display window’s silent light/the naked mannequin observes her fingernails”. – like that.
Interviewer: Ha ha – that’s cute! – that’s true.
AG: And it’s clear so people can understand it
Interviewer: I can think of a couple of shopping malls like that
AG: Yes, well this is midnight, full moon. the silent display window, and the department store and the naked mannequin waiting to be, you know, re-dressed by the designer of the window. But it’s stuck in that funny posture, you know, like, looking down at her fingernails. Sort of… there’s an old tradition, in Japanese three-line poems, of writing poems about scarecrows (because they’re like humans but they’re empty, so it’s actually sort of like the mind itself, like “A scarecrow, fallen knees forward/ on the pond by the railroad track/wearing its straw hat”, which is something I saw a few months ago in China, actually
AG: Shall I read some more from the book?. Have we got any time…?
Interviewer: Well, we’re running out here, but I want to find out where you’re going, Now you’ve turned inward in your poetry..That is..is that..just another stage? You plan to come out again?
AG: No, no, the in and out are pretty much the same., you know,. like “a new world is only a new mind”, “the eye altering alters all” (or, it depends on your iterpretation of the. world as to whether or not it changes to some extent. So, inside and outside are not that different. We project what we interpret of the world. Simply, that I was more interested in checking my own anger, and being more aware of whatever aggression and garbage I lay on the world, as a way of getting.. sort of getting outside ofte United States laying garbage on the world, start with yourself and then extend it outward. If I want to… if I want to control the aggression in the United States, I have to control my own first. So, inside-outside, the same there.
Interviewer: Sure. Now do you feel it is perhaps your responsibility as a poet to make some sense, to make people aware of their surroundings perhaps?
AG: No. I feel it’s my responsibility to make myself awareof my surroundings, and notate that, and make a model of that, then other people can check it out that way. If I try and, you know, preach to them, it’s sort of like yakking. If I clarify it for myself and make a little picture of it so other people can see through my eyes (so I can see through my eyes), then other people can see through my eyes. In other words, if I notice what I notice, then other people can notice what they notice. If I can notate it clearly enough that they can see through my eyes then they’ll understand their own perceptions
Interviewer: Here’s the book. Why don’t you find a short..
AG: Yes, a big thing
Interviewer: …a short.. a short one. We have about a minute and a half left.
AG: Okay. A minute an a half? – was enough for…
Interviewer: I was attracted to “Birdbrain“, but “Birdbrain” is too long. It’s a nice political..
AG: Well, actually, that’s a rock ‘n roll record, it’s a punk record… I would say onelittle brief poem here..yeah… – .”Old One the dog stretches stiff-legged/ soon he’ll be underground. Spring’s first fat bee/buzzes yellow over the new grass and dead leaves/ What’s this little brown insect walking zigzag/across the sunny white page of Su Tung p’o‘s poem?/Fly away, tiny mite, even your life is tender. I lift the book and blow you into the dazzling void/” – That’s like sittig in the… It’s called “Returning to the Country after a Brief Visit“, 1973
Interviewer: Alright Well we have just run out of time but let me show the book once again. I want to take it way from you because.. lots of good stuff in here, I mean, it covers a lot of ground –
Allen Ginsberg – Collected Poems, from 1947 to 1980. Thank you so much, Allen.
AG: Thank you for giving me your eye.
Interviewer: Indeed – and ears. And that’s it for “New England Today”, we’ll see you again tomorrow. Until then, have a pleasant day. I’m Natalie Fisher (sic).