I first read Allen Ginsberg’s City Lights paperback Howl and Other Poems late one autumn night 1980 with friends at the White Castle at the corner of Bardstown Road and Eastern Parkway. A few months after Mev Puleo died, I read most of Ginsberg’s work over a couple of months. And here it is, 2017, and I recently finished with appreciation the latest publication from the American bard (who died in 1997), interviews selected by Ginsberg biographer Michael Schumacher. This volume, First Thought: Conversations with Allen Ginsberg, is not as large and jewel-saturated as David Carter’s Spontaneous Mind: Selected Interviews 1958-1996, but I still found helpful reminders, avuncular advice, and serene encouragement.
Here are a few of the ways interviewers and others saw Allen Ginsberg: “poet, prophet, teacher”; “surrealist folk-hero”; “lobbyist for tenderness”; a man with a “friendly intermingling of smile and solemnity”; a lifelong learner with “a curiosity without boundaries”; a person “seemingness fearless of the consequences of exposing his mind.” What follows are a few samples of Ginsberg’s candor to his various interviewers over nearly four decades…
Acknowledging his anger fuel in his early years in the public eye, Ginsberg admitted decades later he’d become less combative and not so reactive to those who might press his buttons: “I try and treat them with a kind of Buddhist gentility, gentleness, even if I feel that they’re neurotic or incompetent. I try not to pin them wriggling to the wall, but try and help ‘em get out of that space, or make their situation workable rather than challenging them. Trying to enrich them rather than challenge them.”
In a 1995 interview, he was asked if he had advice for the boomer generation, and he replied, “Don’t get intimidated, read great literature, learn to meditate in order to become conscious of [your] own minds and purify [your] own aggression, realizing that any gesture you take in anger creates more anger. Any gesture you take in equanimity creates equanimity. Make peace with yourself and see what you can do to relieve the sufferings of others. That’s the main compass.”
These days people may ask one another with urgent anxiety, “Do you think there is hope, do you feel hopeful?” Ginsberg’s take on this question: “I don’t think hope or fear are important. I think the main thing is a continuous generous activity, exuberant activity, no matter what’s happening. Even if the ship is sinking, you can relieve suffering in any situation. Death is not—well okay, my meditation teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, visited William Burroughs’s son when he was waiting for a liver transplant. He was not sure he’d survive and he said to the young man, ‘You will live or you will die, both are good.’ That’s my attitude. Both are good. That attitude of a little non-attachment and, at the same time, compassion and affection are sufficient. “
Ginsberg was a lifelong servant of Poetry, with thousands of lines learned by heart, thousands of actions taken to promote unknown poets, thousands of hours spent expounding upon poetry. But what can poetry accomplish in these days? In the mid-1990s, Ginsberg seemed assured, with a Gramscian “optimism of the will,” that “poetry is an individual thing that gets around by word of mouth. It’s an oral tradition, as well as a written, printed tradition, as well as a spoken tradition. So it’ll get around. Anything really good will get around.”
So, share one of your own poems with a friend. Send one of your favorite Szymborska poems to someone who might need a lift. Take the still unread Canto General off your shelf and give it your ardent mindfulness. Recite in public with gusto di Prima’s “Life Chant” for the sake of your soul and the the soul of the USA.
Chris Wallach, may we be the continuation of Allen Ginsberg…