Edited by Michael Schumacher

University of Minnesota Press. 264 pages. $19.95. ISBN 978-0-8166-9917-9

Reviewed by Jim Burns

I’m not sure how many interviews Allen Ginsberg gave over the years. Some of them probably never made it into print, or may have appeared in ephemeral publications that no-one now remembers. Michael Schumacher says that: “Ginsberg considered interviews to be a vital part of his work, as one might surmise from the titles of two previously published anthologies of interviews: Composed on the Tongue, a relatively slender collection edited by Don Allen and issued by Grey Fox Press in 1980, and Spontaneous Mind, a hefty volume edited by David Carter and published by HarperCollins three years after Ginsberg’s death in 1997”.

That Ginsberg was a good interviewee, both happily responsive to questions and informative, I can testify to myself. I interviewed him for Beat Scene magazine in 1990 when he was in London for readings. I have a recollection that someone from The Daily Telegraph also interviewed him around the same time. Probably, like other interviews, they’ve disappeared from view unless an earnest researcher finds them. But I did try to give my own encounter with Ginsberg a degree of extra life by including it in my book, Beats, Bohemians and Intellectuals, published by Trent Books in 2000. This wasn’t so much to enhance my own reputation as to give some of Ginsberg’s comments a little more permanency. I had been particularly intrigued by what he’d said about the influence of Ben Maddow’s 1930s poem, The City, on the writing of Howl. If nothing else, my interview with Ginsberg had highlighted that fact.

Michael Schumacher’s selection of interviews uses material that wasn’t in either of the collections referred to earlier. And the first one in his book is particularly interesting. The journalist, Al Aranowitz, had written a series of articles about Beat Generation writers for The New York Post, and expanded one of them into the longer “Portrait of a Beat” that was published in 1960 in Nugget, one of the slick “men’s magazines” then cashing in on the interest in the Beats. Aranowitz, to give him his due, was generally sympathetic towards what Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, and others, were doing, and generally managed to balance journalistic needs to appeal to a broad readership with some intelligent comments about Beat aims and achievements in their writings.

It’s a personal reminiscence that, in order to find copies of Nugget and other similar magazines (Swank, for example, which around 1960 published several sections of Beat-related writing), I had to prowl around various sleazy, back-street bookshops which stocked them. Respectable shops didn’t sell publications like those in early-1960s England. My forays into the nether world of mild titillation on display (Nugget and Swank each had a few fairly innocuous photos scattered around their pages), and pornography under the counter, paid off, and I got to read things like the Aranowitz interview with Ginsberg in Nugget which were probably overlooked by most people.

It was in his conversation with Aranowitz that Ginsberg claimed that the Beats were “prophets howling in the wilderness against a crazy civilisation”. It was a typical Ginsberg statement, and very much in line with his need to propagate a cause and indulge in generous promotions of his fellow writers, such as Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, and Gregory Corso. And it makes one realise that, had it not been for Ginsberg, there may well never have been a Beat Generation, or at least not in a way that, for a time at least, attracted a great deal of attention from journalists, intellectuals, and some parts of the general public. He was the man who, in a sense, sold the idea to other people. Had it not been for him some writers may never have been published, and those that were may have been just passing fancies on the bohemian fringes of the literary scene.

Ginsberg combined the enthusiasms of an old-style radical organiser with those of a talented and skilled poet. He would never have got away with being simply a publicist for the others had he not created some striking poetry himself. Long Poems such as “Howl”, “Kaddish”, and relatively shorter ones like “America” and “A Supermarket in California”, gave him a credibility that allowed him to speak authoritatively about writing generally. Some writers prefer not to talk about writing in any great detail, but Ginsberg wasn’t one of them. There is an interview, conducted by Kenneth Koch, himself a poet, in the 1970s, and it’s useful to read (hear?) Ginsberg explaining about what influences him and how he writes a poem: “On the other hand, I write a little bit every other day. I just write when I have a thought. Sometimes I have big thoughts, sometimes little thoughts. The deal is to accept whatever comes. Or work with whatever comes. Leave yourself open”.

Music was something that Ginsberg liked to evoke as influential on his work, and in the interview that is headed, “Words, and Music, Music, Music”, he talks about the various forms of music that he heard and found interesting. I have to admit to a personal prejudice in favour of his comments on the jazz of the 1940s, and his introduction to bebop through Jack Kerouac and Seymour Wyse. Ginsberg often said that he was influenced by tenor-saxophonist Lester Young’s playing, and in the interview he also mentions another tenorman, Illinois Jacquet, and claims him as an additional influence.

I’m always intrigued by Ginsberg’s capacity to name people – musicians, writers, philosophers, etc. – as influences, almost at the drop of a hat, and I can’t help wondering whether or not there wasn’t an element of myth-making in what he was doing, and that he was, in a sense, laying the ground for future scholars to carry out research into those he named. And their possible presence in his poems. And, in this case, to pursue the supposed connection between words and music.

As Ginsberg moved on he involved himself more and more with pop music, associating with Bob Dylan, the Beatles, and others. I’ve always been curious about the motives for his activities in that line. Did he genuinely believe that it was a way to draw attention to poetry (not necessarily just his own), and take it to a younger audience, or was there a degree of opportunism in the way he seemed to enjoy mixing with celebrities? I’m probably risking incurring the wrath of those to whom Ginsberg was something of a guru by asking such a question, but if I dare suggest that his poetry mostly declined in quality after his productive days in the 1950s and early 1960s, it may be that he needed to find ways to stay in the limelight.

That Ginsberg liked to ramble around matters that he was concerned about, such as censorship, legalisation of drugs, sexual repression, anti-Vietnam protests, etc., is obvious from this assembly of interviews. And the usefulness of the material may depend very much on what a reader’s interests happen to be. From my own point of view, it’s handy to read him reminiscing about San Francisco in the 1950s, before the Beat boom drew in more people, not all of them necessarily with a deep involvement with poetry. Asked if there were a lot of people who were a part of the scene, he replied: “No, just thirty to forty people. But they all knew each other so that seemed like a lot. They were all poets. Robert Duncan would come out and give a reading, and whenever there was a reading afterwards everybody would go to the same place. ‘The Place’. That’s back in the mid-50s. There was a kind of camaraderie, and then, later, around 1958-59, there were a lot of music, poetry places…..jazz poetry places. But originally it was just straight poetry”.

I find that valuable, more so than Ginsberg pontificating about drugs, and it helps towards an understanding of what was taking place on the West Coast in the 1950s. But I suppose it will be argued that Ginsberg wasn’t just a poet, he was a poet with a wider social and political purpose, hence his need to give numerous interviews and have opinions on just about everything.

To be fair, there is much of interest to be found in the interviews. He talks about his experiences when he was expelled from both Cuba and Czechoslovakia. There is a joint interview with Ginsberg, William Burroughs, and Norman Mailer, that has things to say about writers and writing, and another when Ginsberg was interviewed alongside his father, Louis Ginsberg, himself a poet, though of a very different kind to his son. He was a different sort of personality, too, and was much quieter, both in person and as a writer. But in his day Louis Ginsberg had appeared in anthologies such as May Days: An Anthology of Verse from Masses-Liberator, and Louis Untermeyer’s Modern American Poetry.

There was something about Allen Ginsberg which, whatever one thought of his poetry, was quite appealing. He seemed generous in his appraisals of other poets’ work, and he had the gift of loyalty to his old friends of the Beat Generation. When asked about the “philosophies” of the Beat, he replied: “We didn’t have what you could call a philosophy. I would say that there was an ethos, that there were ideas, and there were themes, and there were preoccupations”. It was a good way of summing up what the Beats were about.

First Thought is a fascinating book in many ways. As I said earlier, what Ginsberg talks about may be of interest according to one’s inclinations towards various subjects. I certainly got a great deal out of it.